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Grand Union at the Hackney Empire

Duncan Heining By

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Grand Union Orchestra
Hackney Empire
Undream'd Shores
November 2, 2014

A while ago, I started to suggest to Tony Haynes -Grand Union's artistic director -that he write an opera. I stopped mid-sentence, suddenly realising that he's been doing just that for years. Undream'd Shores is less an opera, more a song cycle but those familiar, recurring GUO themes of migration, exile, loss and ultimate transcendence were all present at this their most recent and elaborate show to date at East London's Hackney Empire.

Not that the denizens of West End jazz at the Barbican, Ronnie's or the South Bank would know it but GUO have been bringing together world jazz and theatre for thirty years in London's East End. On a drizzly November night, this stellar orchestra brought along their new Grand Union World Choir, the Grand Union Youth Orchestra String Ensemble and members of GUO's 2nd Generation project to create another unique and radical entertainment.

At times, it's hard not to laugh—from sheer delight. A female Bulgarian Latin percussionist, Lilia Iontcheva, teamed with Chilean Carlos Fuentes on congas and Yousuf Ali Khan from Bangladesh on tabla. Australian saxophonist and flautist Louise Elliott duetting with Chinese flautist Ruijun Hu. An English folk song sung beautifully by Chris Harrison and Akash Sultan with sitar drone accompaniment. It could only be Grand Union and the fertile imaginings of Tony Haynes.

There's so much going on that one is swept away in the moment and recall after the event is just a kaleidoscope of memories, brightly coloured but fleeting as the next one cuts in. But where else would you hear Claude Deppa on trumpet, Chris Biscoe on soprano and Tony Kofi on alto trading eights over big band, bebop chords following a heavy metal power trio section with blistering guitar from Gerry Hunt over a rock solid rhythm section? Or listen to echoes of the English brass band tradition give way to the Afro-Cuban celebration on "If You Should Fall."

But this night also marked the coming of age of GUO's youth section. The strings, none of them out of the teens were truly professional. These young musicians have, in the last two years, grown in confidence and skill quite remarkably. Mak Murtic on tenor from Croatia and British Caribbean bassist Josh Brandler were particularly impressive but saying that should take nothing away from their peers whose chance to shine will no doubt come.

And the way the band uses voices is just so inspiring and what voices! Gunes Cerit's plangent tones on an Anatolian folk tune lead inevitably—or so it seems—to Croatian Maya Riviç's gorgeous contralto on an Eastern European dance tune. Great dancing too! And as for Jonathan André's dramatic "Mr. Never Smile"—dedicated to immigration officers everywhere—and Congolese singer Jacqueline Lwanzo righteous along with other members of the choir—including another fine contralto in Noga Ritter—on the uplifting West African rhythms of "Twimbe Sana," this was surely the finest GUO show ever. Not that the denizens of West End jazz will notice.

East End jazz refreshes the parts West End jazz cannot reach!


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