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Speakers Corner Quartet At Barbican Hall

Speakers Corner Quartet At Barbican Hall

Courtesy Marc Sethi


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Speakers Corner Quartet + Guests
Barbican Hall
Travels Over Feeling: The Music Of Arthur Russell
May 25, 2024

Introducing Travels Over Feeling: The Music Of Arthur Russell from the stage, Tom Lee, Arthur Russell's surviving partner, said, "There are probably more people here tonight than ever saw Arthur perform during his lifetime." There were, to be precise, 1,943 people in the audience, a sold-out house. All of them were on their feet by the time the fast moving, utterly compelling show finished two hours later.

Composer, producer, cellist and singer Russell, whose infrequent gigs in the 1970s and '80s were in small clubs in New York's pregentrified Greenwich Village, passed in relative poverty and obscurity in 1992, aged 40. His work defied critically imposed divisions between so-called high art and low art, and between New York's avant-garde (he worked with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass) and dance music scenes. Maybe its wider acceptance had to wait until the age of streaming, where tracks by Bartok, John Coltrane and Patsy Cline engage in sonic frottage with each other. Maybe it is simply confirmation that talent will out (eventually). Whatever the reason, Russell is in 2024 no longer obscure. Among other evidence of his growing profile, Richard King's 360-page biography, Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, was published in April by Faber & Faber.

King is one of the people who conceived the Barbican show, along with Chris Sharp, the venue's contemporary music programmer, and South London's Speakers Corner Quartet (SPQ), whose music, like Russell's, defies codification and categorisation. The band—flautist Biscuit, drummer Kwake Bass, violinist Raven Bush and bassist Peter Bennie—came together in 2006 as the house band for the Brixton-based spoken-word session Speakers Corner.

Since then, SPQ have rubbed shoulders with everyone who counts on London's underground jazz and performance poetry scenes. But it took until 2023 for the group to release their own album, Further Out Than The Edge (OTIH), which included guest appearances from, among others, Joe Armon Jones and Shabaka Hutchings, and poets Kae Tempest and James Massiah. Along the way, individually, they have contributed to several significant albums, perhaps most notably Zara McFarlane's intrepid Songs Of An Unknown Tongue (Brownswood, 2020), which Kwake Bass played on and co-produced, and London Brew's London Brew (Concord, 2023), which featured Raven Bush.

At the Barbican, SPQ were joined by guitarist and singer Oscar Jerome, pianist Sarah Tandy, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, tubaist Oren Marshall and beyond-category cellist Lucinda Chua, among other London luminaries. Also featured were half-a-dozen singers including Nabihah Iqbal (pictured above with Lucinda Chua), Cate Le Bon and Christine And The Queens. The band were onstage throughout the show, other than for Christine And The Queens' performance of "That's Us"/"Wild Combination," which she sang (dramatically and thrillingly) to a pre-recorded, beat-laden, electronic backing track.

A particular star of the evening was Oscar Jerome, who was featured on three of the fifteen pieces: "I Couldn't Say It To Your Face," "Get Around To It" and the dancefloor filler "#5 (Go Bang)." Himself a gifted songwriter, Jerome wrote "Abusey Junction" (check the YouTube below), which notched up 23 million clicks for Sheila Maurice-Grey's Kokoroko in 2018, and put the jazz-meets-Afrobeat ensemble on the map. Jerome's The Spoon (Jeromeo, 2022), his third album, is highly recommended. The evening's other highlights included the opening "Ballad Of The Lights," featuring Maurice-Grey and singer Coby Sey, "A Little Lost," featuring Cate Le Bon and Lucinda Chua, and "Tree House," featuring Nabihah Iqbal.

There was not a dud in the programme. It was a memorable event, beautifully lit and including, between most of the pieces, telling extracts from spoken word tapes in Tom Lee's archive. The world is fortunate to have Arthur Russell's legacy, and London is lucky to have such a strikingly singular band as Speakers Corner Quartet. It is also lucky in having Barbican Centre. It is hard to think of another venue in the city which would present an evening such as Travels Over Feeling: The Music Of Arthur Russell.



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