Rock & Jazz: It seems like only yesterday - a legend returns after 33 years

World famous nearly 40 years ago, when his Live at the Pershing album topped the US charts for 108 weeks, the American pianist Ahmad Jamal has managed to winnow away at a once sizeable public profile to the point where he is now impeccably obscure. He is reluctant to enter a recording studio, and charges fees so high that he is rarely booked to perform. All most people know about him is that he was a formidable influence on Miles Davis. His South Bank concert on Wednesday was his first London appearance since 1963 and it more than lived up to the status of an event.

Jamal - who looks like a benign African-American tourist in immaculate leisure-wear - began the show at breakneck speed with 10 minutes of sustained attack that left the audience spellbound - which was, of course, the wily old bird's intention. He then relaxed a little (later he relaxed rather a lot), rising from his seat to perambulate around the four musicians of the band as if surveying his estate. The musicians looked scared stiff rather than, as Jamal told me later, excited.

Jamal's main contribution lies, he says, in bringing an orchestral approach to small-group jazz. This means that he conducts from the keyboard with the absolute authority of a Karajan, constantly nodding his head, pointing his finger and calling out guttural instructions to extract every last ounce of obedience from the band, who exist only as an extension of his inevitably triumphant will. When the guitarist failed to respond as Jamal wished, he was given a very public finger-wagging and denied the treat of his solo. You felt he would have been dispatched to a dunce's stool in the corner if he hadn't been sitting there already.

Part genius, part incorrigible old fusspot: with each quality indivisible from the other, Jamal's monomania grew as the concert went on. By the end, you began to imagine Gauleiter epaulettes sprouting from his shoulders. But despite the controlling-parent attitude, he's a killer pianist. When he nonchalantly stroked the keys for "Poinciana", his big hit of the Fifties, later disinterred by Clint Eastwood for the soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County, it was such an effective blend of high art and sentimental kitsch that even the sorry guitarist looked blissful.

With a name like The Divine Comedy, a band has to be either really good or really funny. Falling between the two stools does Dante a disservice, and while The Divine Comedy are, well, quite good and quite funny, their get-out clause is that they at least have an authentic touch of the divine about them, courtesy of their theme-tune for Father Ted. Advance reports suggested two things. One was that The Divine Comedy play music for bank clerks; the other that some of the band's fans wear clerical collars to their gigs. Sadly, there were no Father Jacks at the group's performance at Bristol University, enlivening the between-songs chat with shouts of "Drink!", but there were an awful lot of freshers, many of whom knew the words to half the songs. The bank-clerk jibe chimed mainly with the appearance of the group's leader, Neil Hannon, who looked like a cross between Jarvis Cocker and a Burton's shop-window dummy circa 1966, complete with a knot in his tie as thick as a fist. With his grey two-piece suit and foppish mod haircut, the Irish Hannon - who basically is The Divine Comedy in the same way that Jarvis is Pulp - undeniably has clearing-house chic, which means that for most of us he has no chic at all.

He also has a Scott Walker fixation as big as the Ritz. On the band's album Casanova (Setanta), Hannon writes songs that are both about the Sixties ("Something for the Weekend", "Becoming More Like Alfie" - the single which took the powerful fancy of Chris Evans) and, due to cheesy trumpet-lines and strings, curiously of them. If it wasn't for post-modernism, the band could be trapped into a career of Sixties pastiche on the Northern club circuit, where they could survive quite happily because they can play and know how to put on a good show. Their version of the Walker Brothers' pomp-classic "Make It Easy on Yourself" was good enough for Stars In Their Eyes.

But where Scott Walker went on to Jacques Brel chanson and, eventually, silence, Hannon is stuck in the run-off groove of a Paul and Barry Ryan record. Will he progress to the psychedelia of 1967 like Kula Shaker, or become a wizened lounge-lizard before his time, like Marc Almond (a fate his trembly baritone makes possible)?

The two new songs he premiered suggested that there is life in the old mod yet, with gorgeous power-pop choruses and lyrics less arch than those on the too-clever-by-half Casanova. And Hannon is a genuinely impressive frontman, able to sing and drink his pint of Guinness during the encore with ease. Which is just as well, because it's iron in the soul, rather than irony, that The Divine Comedy require.

Happily, Zion Train (seen at the Riverside in Newcastle) are an irony- free zone, which allows them to sing slogans like "Love your fellow man" with total confidence. I once got stuck inside their CD-Rom, and, unable to find the code to get out, found myself trapped in a virtual hell of rotating cannabis leaves and grainy pictures of road protesters in trees. Live, they are much more user-friendly, a dub sound system for the New Age, digital twiddlings on hard disk mixed with live vocals and a horn section of trombone, trumpet and melodica. They play so loudly that the reggae pulse becomes internalised, the body's surfaces reverberating like the cloth covering on speaker cabinets. Unlike The Divine Comedy, there's hardly a text, never mind a subtext, and the mind can therefore go into neutral and leave the body to get on with it. True, there's little of Lee Perry's subtlety or wit, but no one mentions Alfie or abuses the musicians. With your plastic glass of lager expanding and contracting in time to the beat, it's a remarkably consoling experience.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

    £16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world