REVIEW: ‘Bach and the Organist’s Daughter’: Respectable Groove at Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton

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David Gordon (harpsichord, keyboard), Evelyn Nallen (recorders), Oly Hayhurst (double bass), Tom Hooper (drums, percussion). Early Music Festival 2015, theme: Women – creators, enquirers, muses, enchanters).

BREMF slipped its audience their Sunday afternoon jazz without saying so in the festival brochure. Those unfamiliar with Respectable Groove since their previous BREMF appearances four years ago will have been in the know, and expecting JS Bach to be inspiring the music rather than writing it.

We others got a pleasant and intriguing surprise. Last season, we had ‘Bach’s Secret Addiction’, shich proved to be the coffee house. Now ‘Bach and the Organist’s Daughter’ was billed as asking, and hopefully answering, questions about Bach’s 500-mile round walking trip from Leipzig to Lübeck to hear his hero Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ, which would have included acquainting himself with Buxtehude’s daughter Anna Margareta.

Those who enjoy getting their saliva into the kind of attractively themed concerts, or even their teeth into the full-scale musico-documentaries BREMF has made part of its parcel, were thinking this could be a lighter slant on Bach’s life, when he was a prancing 20 years old, with the suggestion of some possible Barochial romance. The group portrait in the festival brochure of the Respectable Groove ensemble, with recorder player Evelyn Nallen grinning cheekily out from under a stylish mop of bi-dyed hair, added to the expectation.

The sight on entry to Sallis Benney was of beguiling chaos.

On the left, a very plain harpsichord facing diagonally upstage. An array of recorders with all except the bass lying on a table and on an electric blanket keeping warm (for be-dressed Evelyn no tucking them racily inside trousers like the piratical Piers Adams of Red Priest).

A full-size double-bass lying on its side like a basking baby elephant. And on the right, a litter of colourful hand percussion instruments and beaters on the floor, around and below others on stands, plus cymbals, Bodran, tambourine and the plywood seat that kit-less drummers beat in groups you see in pub open mic or concert unplugged sessions (Tom Hooper told me it’s called a cajon – pronounced with a Spanish ‘j’).

David Gordon’s legs are so long he has to sit half sideways at the harpsichord but that’s a handy cross-stage orientation to be able see and engage with the other musicians. Evelyn is trying out some strikingly original black high-backed heels, and she walks elegantly carefully. Oly Hayhurst wields 10 honest fingers and a bow, and joins grooving force with Tom Hooper, a percussionist of the coolly subtle acoustic breed, and who smiles and grins as often as he paradiddles.

We found mainstream Baroque-inspired jazz, invented pre-Beatles by Jacques Loussier, is still developing a life of its own. And to drop Respectable Groove back into Bach’s and Telemann’s Leipzig coffee bar would be a wonderful wacky time-experiment.

Their first half on Sunday, after a couple of opening harpsichord voluntaries, had a Telemann Sonata cast on alto recorder and bongos, pizzicato bass and continuo. Then four numbers from the group’s album take on Purcell’s Dido and Aneneas; Borodin’s Stranger in Paradise episode from Polovtsian Dances, arranged by Gordon and re-constituted as ‘Strange Bird of Paradise’ with recorders suitably warbling. Gordon’s own original, hugely amiable Mister Sam − witty, playful, mischievous, Baroque content unspecific − was the big hit of the set. Then four Celtic different dances as folk-jazz, including a waltz by Kathryn Tickell.

Two selections there were not early music as BREMF knows it, but Sunday afternoon jazz takes liberties and any part of the audience taken aback by this programme were by now stretching out their legs, tapping their feet, and looking around for a tipple to pour. Indeed, soon the University cafe queue was enormous and the interval long.

The second half would tackle JSB’s pilgrimage to Buxtehude. Not Handel on the Strand, but Bach on the Hoof. Was this where the afternoon at last brought some serious story-telling? Yes. But no. “We’ve made it all up,’ confessed Evelyn. Bach was the music source but these four brains were his new vehicle and the less serious or factual it was the more the audience enjoyed it.

Bach sets out to a promising blues-jazzy groove (that word again), he meets buskers (spoons) but gets homesick but arrives by the sea (his debut beside it), samples rustic neighbouring Danish-style music making (including a wry keyboard banjo), and hears the Lübeck bells (some lovely sonorous effects with bass and triangle).

Bach tunes continually pop out and disappear again. The audience are asked to set rhythmical tasks for Bach’s audition for the vacancy as Buxtehude’s assistant. Gordon has to oblige by playing Tannenbaum as sarabande, jig, tango, and dovestep, and then the group poke musical derision at the Daughter. She appears not to meet BREMF 2015 criteria. She’s not much of a creator, enquirer, muse, or enchanter.

Worse still, as customary, she literally comes with the job. She’s not his cup of tea, and Bach has to reconsider his ambitions. A set of Buxtehude tunes and grounds (keyboard organ) in homage, then Bach, in fluctuating spirits, is on his long way home. The by-product, like Mendelssohn in Scotland or Dvorak in the States, Bach brings home some surprise influences and inflections for his new church music as a result of his expedition. From Respectable Groove, cue for more stretching of the Bach we thought we knew.

What you can do with familiar music on a Sunday afternoon, when the week is at its slackest! The result? Lovely light entertainment, not a moment too much of it, and in future years Respectable Groove’s forthcoming ideas of fun will be a welcome dimension to this now gorgeously versatile Brighton Early Music Festival.

Richard Amey

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