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grand union orchestra - the call of paradise - symphony hall, 11/11/2002

simon gray - 2002-11-11, 00:48:13

n a nutshell, far too many people missed what was definitely one of the best jazz-world concerts the city has seen for a good few years. 

since those first experiments in the 60s, a number of people have worked on the fusion of different musical cultures in the small band setting, mostly with some success even if often a little derivative. the grand union orchestra have succeeded in doing so as a big band with a flair which in a just world would earn them at least a page in any half-decent history book on the development of contemporary music ! 

the work they are currently touring is 'the call of paradise' (by leader tony haynes), taking much of its vocal texts from various diverse religious sources. it describes itself as 'a kind of musical journey - but through emotions rather than a literal one', & as well as showing us how religion is linked to much of the world history's misery & violence also reminds us of its inspiration of so much beauty, using texts which speak of love & devotion as well as of warfare & hate - opening with a passage from the old testament's 'song of solomon' (or 'song of songs'); if you thought the bible had a bit of a downer on love & sex, think again & go & read that passage ! 

the music well knew when to do the 'fusion bit', & also when not to - the big band sound worked well, & in moving into the quieter, more straight-ahead sections the tabla was integral & essential - & if you didn't know otherwise, you could be forgiven for thinking that a saxophone is just as much a traditional indian instrument as the sitar, it blended so eloquently.

the second part of the concert was what a cynic might describe as 'the community music bit', with grand union being joined on stage by the birmingham conservatoire jazz orchestra, the vocal ensemble aa'shiq al-rasul performing qawali inspired by sufi mysticism, basil gabbidon & friends, & the babatunde live african drumming group.

throw your cynicism in the bin, because every one of these groups were worth a concert in their own right. each one of the groups showed us what they could do on their own, as well as the whole stage being united in performing together for a couple of pieces - which was remarkable enough even if you didn't stop to think about how little opportunity for full rehearsal together they must have all had. i was disappointed to not see any birmingham conservatoire staff in the audience - not only would it have been nice for them to have been supporting their students give an outstanding performance, but they might have learned something themselves from the experience... 

the only niggles i had about the show was a sense of unbalance - the first half was much longer than the second half (indeed, the length of a full concert in itself); my feeling was 10 minutes could have been shaved off the main work & it would have still have said what it needed to say & made the programme more balanced. also, the end of the first half was a bit of an anticlimactic "oh, has it finished then ?" - the closing contemplative sitar could have been a few minutes longer to wind us down better, i thought, & maybe actually having the two halves of the show swapped around. but these really are niggles on an otherwise outstanding performance ! 

there were far too many empty seats in symphony hall for this concert - make sure you're there next time they tour, & in the meanwhile, go & buy the cd's from the website !

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