- "This is Gil's party, not mine," said Dave Okumu, musical director of Pieces Of A Man: The Gil Scott-Heron Project. Okumu's vision was this: to celebrate the music of the iconic American soul artist and activist by assembling a band of crack musicians and vocalists from across the UK's pop, soul and R&B scenes. Across two hours on Sunday, March 13th, the likes of Floating Points, Jamie Woon and Andreya Triana performed diverse takes on Scott-Heron's catalogue to a packed audience at Camden's Roundhouse. The show formed part of Convergence, the roaming London event series that's now in its third year.
One question hung over the celebration: how best to honour such a singular talent? Do you remain faithful to the original music, giving the audience what they came for? Or do you reinterpret the songs, breathing new life and relevance into his work? Both approaches come with risks. Veer too far from the source material and you're in danger of alienating the audience, but if you stick by it too closely then there's potential for disappointment—no matter how good the artist, they're no Scott-Heron. Okumu opted for the best of both worlds, presenting a mix of traditional covers and more modern updates.
Of the faithful versions, the singers with the biggest personalities stood out the most. Pop star Kwabs pumped great energy into "The Bottle" and "Home Is Where The Hatred Is," while American vocalist Joan As Police Woman gave "Peace Go With You Brother" a melancholy bent. Long instrumental sections showcased virtuosic turns from Sam Shepherd (AKA Floating Points) on keys and Jason Yarde on saxophone. Occasionally, though, the volume of the band overpowered the singer, as with performances from Jamie Woon and Andreya Triana.
The night's most incendiary moments came when the vocalists made the songs their own. Art-pop guitarist Anna Calvi delivered a menacing rock-opera take on "Me And The Devil," before Joan transformed the cavernous dub of "Running" into an affecting piano ballad. The evening's highlight was Nadine Shah's soaring rework of "I'll Take Care Of You," transporting the audience to a smoky New York jazz bar with her commanding vocal performance.
But not all of the reinterpretations were quite so successful. The slick R&B arrangement of "Lady Day" was imaginative, but Gwilym Gold's understated vocals were drowned by the backing. UK rapper Loyle Carner proved that Scott-Heron's spoken word sounds great when rapped, but his radio-friendly hip-hop cover of "Whitey On The Moon" leeched the original of all its humour and restrained anger. And south London poet Kate Tempest, the night's special guest, stoked the crowd with "Europe Is Lost," even though I felt she hadn't learnt one of Scott-Heron's essential lessons—angry words hit hardest when spoken in measured tones.
Part tribute concert, part musical reimagining, Pieces Of A Man was a loving homage to a soul legend, even if musically it was a mixed bag. I kept wishing that more of the artists had put their own spin on the original material, something Scott-Heron himself would have likely encouraged. As the man himself remarked in one of his final interviews: "All the dreams you show up in are not your own."
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