Photography: Glyn Akroyd / @glynakroyd

Natacha Atlas

Capstone Theatre 14/11/19

The Capstone Theatre continues to champion the promotion of a culturally and artistically diverse programme of events, this particular season having seen dance, music, poetry and theatre, performed by artists from around the globe, including Morocco, Luxembourg, Denmark and Australia.

Tonight sees the multi-talented NATACHA ATLAS in town; singer, instrumentalist, composer of film scores, and collaborator with a list of artists as long as your arm, including Peter Gabriel, Nitin Sawney and Jean-Michel Jarre. Anyone expecting the dance grooves and beats of her Transglobal Underground or Invaders Of The Heart days may be in for a disappointment. However, the direction of her new album Strange Days was signposted by her previous outing, 2015’s Myriad Roads, her first foray into the  waters of modern jazz. Like its predecessor, Strange Days features songs sung in both English and Arabic, with Atlas backed by a fine array of musicians, and continues her tradition of blending Western and Arabic stlyes.

Support comes from singer RANDOLPH MATTHEWS, whose striking presence and easy manner get the crowd on board from the start. He exhibits a tremendous vocal range, scaling smokey-esque heights and diving towards Robesonesque depths, and makes full use of looped and pre-recorded vocal effects. In fact, there is no instrumentation involved his set, which, although extremely well sung and engaging, eventually left me pining for some live music to accompany Matthews’ fine voice (more of which later).

Enter Atlas’ band, to play a short intro before Atlas herself takes the stage. Immediately her dark, resonant tones mix with a brooding bass and piano motif, courtesy of Andy Hamill and Ian Noble respectively, on Estranged.

As the title of the new album suggests, the songs tackle the subject of our current malaise, weaving the political and the personal into laments for our times; tales of longing, regret, and loss woven around the loose fabric of modern jazz structures – the fluid mystery of the Arabic language allowing the vocal to flow in and around the grooves. Just as that old jazz standby scat singing makes no literal sense to the untrained ear, relying on vocal inflections and demeanour to impart meaning, so it seems with music sung in a language unknown to most of the audience, as Atlas’ ululating voice delivers big time on an emotional level.

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Out Of Time begins with a more standard jazz intro but is soon mixing North African flavours into the stew. It is embellished by a lovely, mournful trumpet solo by Shanti Paul Jayasinha. Atlas sings in both English and Arabic: “The darkened haze in these strange days…we’re drivers running out of time.”

On Maktoub, a bluesy piano and horn motif presages Asaf Sirkis’s funky drum pattern that scatters away throughout, underpinning searching trumpet and piano solos while Atlas pushes her vocal cords to the limit.

Inherent Rhythm sees Atlas seated, hand gestures embellishing the musical inflections of a song that invokes Cassandra Wilson in terms of its smokey vocal phrasing and tone, and features yet another exquisite violin solo by Sami Bishai who effortlessly conjures up East European gypsy flavours and glimpses of avant-garde Jean-Luc Ponty. Words Of A King is dedicated to American Civil Rights activists and sees Matthews return to the stage to prove what a tremendous singer he is in a classic jazz/soul duet. His voice and Atlas’ blend together and play off each other beautifully in a moment that they both clearly enjoy.

From Atlas’ comments between songs it is clear that they have spent a lifetime negotiating the M6 and their late start sadly leaves no time for an encore and so, after a fitting finale of All The Madness, they slip away.

Atlas once again has brought genres and peoples together in an evening that has mixed passages of eyes-closed reverie with foot-tappin’, finger-poppin’ grooves.


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