‘Jazz is cool’ must have been the mantra that the London Jazz Festival organisers offered up many times over the past few turbulent months as they tried maintain calm and keep the 2020 event afloat. In September they announced an ambitious mixed programme of live gigs and streamed events in a determined effort to retain the communal feel of the annual jazz celebration…then along came Lockdown Two. Undaunted everything moved online including one of the much anticipated highlights of the opening weekend, SEED Ensemble’s celebration of Pharoah Sanders’ music to mark the master saxophonist and composer’s 80th year.

Having emerged from London’s interwoven nu-jazz community, 2020 has proved to be a year of shifting fortunes for the Ensemble, from the Mercury nomination for their debut ‘Driftglass’ to the inevitable cancellation of their whole UK and European tours in March. This meant that Saturday night’s show at the Barbican was actually their first gig of the year, if gig adequately describes being streamed worldwide from the dark caverns of an empty main hall. Still, under the assured leadership of Cassie Kinoshi, SEED took on this surreal challenge confidently, beaming their energy and exuberance from the distanced stage out to their virtual audience.

The ambitious opening number ‘Upper and Lower Egypt’ from 1967’s ‘Tauhid’ made it clear that the band’s approach was to go way beyond faithfully covering tunes from Sander’s weighty back catalogue. In place of the cascading prolonged multi-instrument drone that introduces the Sander’s track, SEED’s double bassist Rio Kai kicked off the evening with an intense booming distorted solo before leading the band into the breezily funky re-imagining of the original’s upbeat second half. From there on the opener highlighted Cassie Kinoshi’s talents as an arranger and the vibrant strengths of SEED Ensemble’s collective delivery, all tight harmonic brass section up front and solo contributions integral to the whole sound.

As drummer Patrick Boyle’s sensitive fills wound down the first of the evening’s tunes it was time for one of the promised special guests Yaheal Camara- Onono to slip behind the conga’s and add a shimmering percussive depth to SEED’s interpretation of ‘Elevation’ the title track from Pharoah Sanders’ 1974 album. Here, as the brass section warmed Sander’s melody line with a calypso flavoured swing and Shirley Tetteh’s agile guitar funk variations pinned things down, solos from Sheila Maurice- Grey (trumpet) and Joe Bristow (trombone) echoed the yin and yang of Pharoah’s own approach, from pure, gliding tunefulness to explosive jabbing and riffing.

As on Sander’s album, SEED Ensemble followed ‘Elevation’ with ‘Greeting to Saud (Brother McCoy Tyner)’ and brought Ashley Henry, who was taking on keys duties for the night, into the spotlight. Henry’s clear rhythmic focus and mindful expansion of Greeting to Saud’s regal melody brought a natural tumbling interlude for band and listener to gather breath. It was a reminder of the contemplative and reflective power that Saunders nurtured in his sixties partnership with John Coltrane.

During the filmed post- gig interview Cassie Kinoshi explained that it was this dimension, the beauty, simplicity and honesty of Sander’s message that had drawn her to his music. You can sense the same genuine awareness rooted in SEED Ensemble’s approach, it drives their musical energy. So playing a composition of their own, ‘Come Home’, as part of the set seemed like a natural acknowledgement of that connection. Introducing the tune as ‘being about the feeling of being between your heritage and where your family’s from and being Black British’, Kinoshi opened the number with a yearning hymnal alto call. As ‘Come Home’ unfolded it felt like a pivotal point in the set with the band reaching that high point of overdrive behind Jack Banjo Courtney’s daringly instinctive trumpet blast before winding down to a funeral sway in step with Hanna Mbuya’s resonant tuba.

From there on the highlights crackled so frequently it was hard to keep up. Shabaka Hutchings joined for ‘Astral Travelling’, the Lonnie Liston Smith composition from 1971’s enduring ‘Thembi’, picking out the tune’s opening phrases on his clarinet with a butterfly lightness. By the end, as the Ensemble cascaded around him, Shabaka was almost hopping on the spot, coaxing more and more improbable runs as the intensity grew. ‘You’ve got the freedom’ kept up the pace after a great cranked up sax intro from Chelsea Carmichael before Richie Seivwright joined to add her rich emotive vocals to a peerless version of the Sanders anthem ‘Love is Everywhere’.

Emphasising the song’s samba/calypso undertones, SEED Ensemble captured the striking simplicity and sheer joy of this classic for their final push. Involving all thirteen musicians who had taken part, they took chances with the switches between improv and rich orchestration before bringing it rightfully back to that heartfelt chant, ‘Love is Everywhere’. With the aisles empty of dancing people it was a poignant end to the show which had enthralled, excited and energised this lonely armchair punter. That SEED Ensemble could achieve this speaks volumes for their deep respect and love for the music and their ongoing dedication to sharing it with all of us, wherever and however they can.

photos: Mark Allen