September 30, 2022
"This is the biggest show we've ever done," announced Amber Navran
, singer with neo-soul band Moonchild
. She was talking to the audience at the O2 Forum, a 2,000-capacity former movie theatre, and the venue for this London date promoting their Starfruit
(Tru Thoughts, 2022) album (read our 2022 interview
It was one of the most extraordinary live shows this reviewer has witnessed in 50 years of attending gigs.
Before we get into why and how this could possibly be, let's recall where Moonchild are coming from. Neo-soul, yes. But by now we also know that they have deep jazz roots: it's jazz you can dance to. They made their intentions plain from the start, when they came on stage brandishing a trumpet (Andris Mattson
), tenor saxophone (Navran) and alto saxophone (Max Bryk
)and played them in the first number. Behind them was drummer Efajemue Enenajor Jr Etoroma
whose job was to approximate with a real kit the electronic beats we hear on record.
Questions posed themselves at the start: first, how would Navran's famous breathy whisper come across in a noisy, crowded chasm like the Forum? Second, how would an electronica-loving audience respond to the presence of real instruments? After all, so many bands rely on backing tracks these days, to the point where some "live" gigs are more like extended karaoke sessions.
But Moonchild are different: they have the chops to play this complex, delicate music for real. And they have thought long and hard about keeping it visually interesting. Mattson and Bryk spent most of their time behind a pair of keyboards, flanking Navran in the middle of the stage. It could have been a recipe for boredom. But Navran is constantly on the move, darting around the stage, often picking up tenor or flute to play a passage here and there. And after a somewhat muddy start, her distinctive voice did somehow cut through the mix. All three Moonchildren are multi-instrumentalists, and virtuosi on them all: their ensemble playing was flawless, Mattson on trumpet or acoustic guitar (often playing keyboard at the same time), Bryk on flute and clarinet as well as alto. On songs like "Too Good," Navran's mini-duets on flute with Bryk on clarinet added variety and sophistication to the set.
They were helped by a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, who were familiar with many of the tunes, particularly "Tell Him," which has enjoyed UK airplay. Most jazz musicians would kill for the applause that greeted Moonchild's solos. There were even whoops and cheers for one of Bryk's nifty keyboard bass riffs.
They ended the night with Anita Baker
's "Caught Up in the Rapture of Love," during which Mattson left the stage to take a trumpet solo while threading his way through the packed crowd at the front. The very last tune was one that is becoming something of a modern jazz standard, "The List," the stand-out track from their Voyager
(Tru Thoughts, 2017) album.
Rarely have there been such original and accomplished musicians in any genre. Truly there is no band like them.
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