Photography: Nick Brickland / @cecil_chubb


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  • Super Group
Stepping Tiger @ Alexander's, Chester 18/4/19

A pilgrimage to Chester is becoming increasingly necessary. As the city’s Stepping Tiger DJ collective continues to host a steady stream of exciting, eclectic artists at their monthly live music events, it presents a serious challenge to the monopoly cultivated by Liverpool and Manchester when it comes to soul, jazz and reggae parties.

Tonight’s headline act is STEAM DOWN, a jazz collective from Deptford, South London, co-ordinated by multi-instrumentalist, producer, and composer Ahnansé. SUPER GROUP, an ensemble led by drummer Emanuel J. Burton, completes the line-up.

With the sun beginning to set on a balmy April evening, there is always the possibility that the crowd will skip the opening act to grab one last bite of backyard BBQ or a beer garden beverage. However this fear – which lurks in the dark recesses of every promoter’s paranoid mind – is unrealised, and as the DJs warm up the speakers with classic soul 45s like Baby Huey’s Hard Times or the Detroit Emeralds’ Baby Let Me Take You In My Arms, devoted regulars begin to fill the cosy club, enthusiastically rushing to find their places as Super Group hit the stage.

Burton and co strike a balance sought by many, but one very difficult to achieve: to deliver spontaneity and raw experimentalism without sacrificing a soulful feeling, and avoiding the common jazz pitfall of aiming a little too hard for accessibility and ending up boring. They achieve this stylistic harmony with serenity, presenting an exciting sound steeped in shades of soul, gospel and funk. Josh Robinson establishes a warm, jazzy mood on his keys as lone bass groove from Joel Robinson leads into the first tune. The lead interplay of saxophonist Matt Hines and trumpeter Aaron Hines immediately signifies the band’s explorative intent as the hornsmen trade licks like a latter-day Eddie Harris and Donald Byrd.

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Indeed, the 1970s fusion sounds of CTI/Kudu, Atlantic and Blue Note spring to mind – artists like Grover Washington Jr, Freddie Hubbard, Idris Muhammad, Bob James, Ron Carter, etc – and Super Group’s line-up demonstrate that another jazz generation is already coming into full swing. Burton’s powerful funk anchors the sound as the material shifts from smooth, spiritual meditations to genuine dancefloor material – the musicians keenly aware that these folks in here have the day off work tomorrow and ready to get loose.

The sun’s only just set. It’s not even 9pm. Yet the crowd are already whooping and cheering with abandon, well and truly amped by this assortment of young Leeds and Manchester-based musicians.

The patrons have barely had a chance to cool out before a saxophone-wielding Ahnansé leads off with a long, wandering solo, and Steam Down slowly reveal their individual talents. Naima Adams chimes in with a soaring vocal. Dominic Canning offers a carefully chosen succession of chords from his keys. Wonky Logic roots down with a synth bassline. Drummer Benjamin Appiah gives his signal, they take off into an insistent funk groove. This is the blueprint that forms the foundation of their performance – a collaborative exercise which appears to be completely improvised, each chord, hook or lyric seemingly plucked from the air to be thrown in the mix.

The charismatic Ahnansé, sporting some strong dungarees, interjects after this small musical introduction: “the thing about Steam Down is that… people think we’re a band, but we’re more of an event”. Anyone in the audience who mistakes this for mere boastfulness is instantly rebuffed by a compelling dancefloor-ready fusion, where elements of jazz, funk, afrobeat, garage and grime are mashed up before our eyes into a brave new Afro-futurist creation.

Brother Portrait’s captivating sing-song spoken word, through a contemporary British lens, faintly invokes the flows of Jamaican soundsystem toasters and New York street poets. Ahnansé’s bold sax blowing owes something to the swagger of heavy afro-funksters like Fela Kuti or Maceo Parker – always able to arrive at a strong, undeniable riff for folks to groove too. With his driving style, Canning sets the energy of each tune, in tandem with Appiah, who deconstructs and reconstructs rhythms at will, deftly juggling drum patterns to fit the ever-changing needs of the improvised pieces. Mid-show, a particularly enthralling vocal performance from Adams nearly completely overwhelms the audience and band alike. An ecstatic Canning falls back into his seat in disbelief. Ahnansé admits after the lengthy applause, “Yo… I don’t even know what to do after that!”

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The results are euphoric for all. But beyond this unquestionable musicianship, what’s unique about Steam Down is they are so clearly having fun together. It’s a refreshing sight in a jazz scene that is frequently very competitive and prone to showboating. No artist ever completely hogs the limelight, with each regularly enthusiastically gesturing to another to step in, to offer an extra ingredient, a new riff, rhythm, or refrain, without the slightest suggestion of an ego trip from anybody. This onstage camaraderie is infectious and, before long, the audience are co-collaborators in the evening’s show, trading off vocals and dance moves with delight, chanting “one more tune!” as their new heroes get ready to retire for the night.

A deafening and nearly infinite ovation takes hold as Steam Down finally finish up. No more encores. The DJ drops the needle on Dawn Penn’s No, No, No, and the celebration continues. Any remaining Scousers have long missed the return train home, but you can’t cut short a party like this – another bona fide shindig from Stepping Tiger. At this point the promoters may as well change their logo to a giant procession of fire emojis.

Go and get another drink. We’ll sort the taxi out later.

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