It's amazing to think that in the 20 years I have been going to gigs I have never ventured into the hallowed halls of the Jazz Cafe. An intimate venue with a regular roster of jazz, funk and soul artists passing through its doors, its style somewhat at odds with the usual scuzzy Camden ambience of drunks and druggies that float about outside.
It is a testament to Bilal that the gig is sold out despite his not having released an album in 10 years. Record company politics and an online leak meant second album Love For Sale was bootlegged and never saw the light of day. Whilst a personal pity for Bilal he admits that word of mouth recommendations sustained his career and gave him an added boost during this wilderness period.
Educated in Mannes College of Music in New York by none other then a protege of John Coltrane, Bilal is about as far removed from the Ushers, Ne-Yos and Chris Browns of this world as it is possible to be. Whilst you will probably find him pigeonholed in the moribund R n B category his work regularly dips a toe in the waters of rock, electronica, jazz and funk. You wouldn't expect anyone who cites Zappa and Mingus as his biggest influences to wow the audience with choreographed dance routines. In fact when he appears on stage he looks and sounds like a man who is quite drunk and would probably fall over attempting the running man.
Wearing a leather jacket and a black beanie hat and despite the social lubrication Bilal's performance is impassioned and beguiling. If he is not pulling odd faces at the audience he is shrieking and top of his lungs (think of Prince at his most experimental)and raising his tattooed arms skyward. Bilal's voice is a thing of beauty, versatile enough to sing a variety of styles at the drop of a hat. On tracks like Gotsto Be Cool his voice is a smooth as George Clooney covered in cooking oil and on All For Love his falsetto is smoking. When he sings Bilal means business.
The crowd are treated to a laid back version of Sometimes from the 1st Born Second album which is about a close as Bilal comes to a straight up R 'n B hit albeit with trademark jazzy interludes and off beat lyrics.
"Sometimes, hey Slim, you should be nicer than you are
Sometimes, you take that complaining shit way too far
I mean, I thought it was cute in the beginning but now
I think you only do it 'cuz you know I hate it"
Another cut from 1st Born Second, Reminicse is sung in respect to J Dilla the uber-producer who worked on the first album and who tragically passed away in the prime of his life. Its loping bassline and jazzy piano tinklings are perfectly suited to a late night session.
Restart is an urgent upbeat track from new album Airtight's Revenge that marries the dancefloor to Bilal's soul stylings. It sounds very similar to the style on Miike Snow's latest album which achieved critical acclaim. Sounding very contemporary it could easily be remixed to become a massive floorfiller.
The marriage of modern and vintage continues with Cake & Eat It Too's blend of woozy electronica and George Clintonesque experimental vocals which is a little too laid back for a live rendition.
Think it Over as near as he gets to a simple old school track that starts off sounding like a distant cousin to Sam Cooke's Wonderful World with its guitar motif and plaintive vocals.
White Turns To Gray parping bass and soporific funk is perhaps an example of where Bilal's jazz tendencies sometimes get the better of him. In interviews he admits to going off in tangents when recording and needs the steady hand of a fellow producer to riegn him in. Tonight a couple of the extended jams went on for just that bit too long. Even some his band weren't sure what direction he was going next (at one point he wandered off to lie on the stairs whilst his bandmates carried on). But that is jazz I guess.
For me the hightlight of the night is the stomper All Matter, Bilal's musings on the universe and beyond.
"We're all the same
And allso very different
Divine by design
It all intertwines"
It is off the hook. Propelled to such a crescendo by the talented band even the too-cool-for-school people can't help but dance. At one point Bilal jumps into audience to remonstrate with a woman dressed in suit and glasses who he accuses of looking like a librarian and gets annoyed when she doesn't join in. She joins in. Some people just need a bit of encouragement.
For the encore we get Soul Sista
"...the only hit we got, mutherfucker. We play that last."
and a funked up verison of Gloria Jones' Tainted Love that sadly due to the vagaries of of London's 19th century public transport system I had to forgoe or risk having to sleep in a shop doorway with Camden's resident hobos.
If you like your R n B delivered with a little more thought and panache I recommend you grab a copy of Airtight's Revenge... Or maybe you just want to stick to your four chords.