OUJO playing John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme"

Gig review: OUJO, “A Love Supreme”

The story of jazz saxophonist John “Trane” Coltrane, is one of musical innovation and exploration. He is remembered today as one of the most influential jazz players of all time. But, as was unfortunately the case with so many of his fellow jazz musicians of the 1950s and 60s, it was one marred by addiction and personal turmoil. Trane’s battle with heroin brought his career to an all-time low in 1957, when he was kicked out of the band run by Miles Davis, a long-time collaborator.

In this same year, Trane recalls having an overwhelming religious experience which would allow him to overcome his crippling affliction and lead him to create “A Love Supreme”. This work was the musical communication of what Coltrane believed to be the most important spiritual experience of his life. In the liner notes to this album, he says, with no hint of understatement, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

Such was the intensity of the experience which OUJO wished to share with us on 16th February in the suitably monumental surroundings of the Sheldonian theatre. Many other bands would have been daunted by this not inconsiderable challenge. Not OUJO, who triumphed. Remarkably, this was also the first ever performance of “A Love Supreme” in Europe, for which the band were joined by OUJO alumnus and current musical director of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Mark Armstrong.

Before treating us to Coltrane’s master work, OUJO performed an electrifying set of jazz standards and rearrangements of contemporary material. We had a chance to get familiar with the band’s bread and butter, before the feature presentation.  Jack Gee was on usual excellent form, channelling his inner Sinatra with ‘Pennies from Heaven’, and giving Robbie Williams a real run for his money with ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’.

OUJO’s technical skill dazzled and was only enhanced by Mark Armstrong and Ozzy O’Sullivan’s masterful solos.

Olivia Williams delivered a stand-out performance with a brilliant cover of Snarky Puppy’s bossa-inspired ‘Amour T’es Là’. To quote the rather vocal audience member in the row behind us, ‘she did a great French accent for an English girl’. Indeed, she did. Readers are reminded that Olivia is a final-year French and Portuguese student, so was ideally placed for this particular number. Olivia’s fantastic performance captured all the energy of Magda Giannikou’s original version, and was clearly a hit with the audience, judging by the sea of bobbing heads around us. There was plenty of variety, and more sultry tones came from a technically impressive rendition of Thelonious Monk’s ‘’Round Midnight’, with Mark Armstrong taking stage on the flugelhorn.

In the second half, band leader and consummate master of ceremonies Joseph Bradley announced he would ‘let the music do the talking’. OUJO did exactly that, allowing their outstanding musicianship to do great justice to Coltrane’s journey of redemption. ‘A Love Supreme’ begins with ‘Acknowledgement’, a low-key, mid-tempo movement whose shimmering hints of dissonance announce Coltrane’s distinctive style. Notably, Coltrane’s preferred horns, the soprano and tenor saxophone, feature heavily in this musical conversation. Coltrane also pays homage to the inherently religious origins of this piece via the introduction of call-and-response not only between instruments, but also through the voices of the musicians themselves.

The movement then ends, leading us into ‘Resolution’, where the tempo picks up and the virtuosic spirit of the ensemble comes alive. The next movement, ‘Pursuance’ is a catalyst for the piece’s remaining upward trajectory. Starting the movement off was Matt Venvell’s stupendous exercise in percussive experimentation, who nearly brought down the Sheldonian as he brought his drum kit to life. This also marked the build-up to the most intense part of the performance, as the band exploded into a flurry of riotous rhythms and complex melodic lines.

Few other ensembles would have managed such a charismatic, technically impressive performance…

OUJO’s technical skill dazzled and was only enhanced by Mark Armstrong and Ozzy O’Sullivan’s masterful solos. The final movement, ‘Psalm’ offers a chance for reflection after the frenetic previous movement, and OUJO’s thoughtful blend of sax and horn allowed Coltrane’s journey to reach a reverential conclusion. Despite the slower tempo and quieter dynamic, there was no sense that the band’s energy had been lost with the close of ‘A Love Supreme’.

OUJO’s performance skilfully combined their flair for electrifying big band classics and introspective, meditative jazz. This felt like a very special performance for the band given the prestige of the surroundings and the importance of the material, and the audience certainly got to share in that excitement.  Few other ensembles would have managed such a charismatic, technically impressive performance, and we can’t wait to see where they’ll go next.

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