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It's an unseasonably warm Saturday evening and I'm in the centre of Leeds, sipping coffee at the San Co Co, the most convenient coffee house along New Briggate, just a few doors from the Grand Theatre. The waitress and I are almost on first name terms, so often have I been here. This area of the city is the Leeds equivalent of the West End; Theatre Land with an Emmerdale vernacular. I love it. I feel at home here, notably as I watch people passing by with less than an hour to go before show time. Saturday night is beginning to liven up, not least as an orderly queue forms on the Grand Theatre's steps, a performance of Art, Yasmina Reza's critically acclaimed play, shortly to start, starring three well known thesps, Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson, judging by the array of posters displayed outside. One flight of stairs further and Tony Allen is relaxing backstage with his band.
The only mention of 'art' in Tony Allen's set tonight was a passing reference to one of his musical heroes Art Blakey. Artistry though, is indeed very much part of Tony Allen's overall package and tonight we witnessed some of that highly informed and ever-evolving musicianship throughout his set.
With the obligatory dry ice machine switched to a suitable 'Ronnie Scott's' setting, the band emerged from the backstage area, followed by the Nigerian-born drummer and co-architect of what we now know as 'Afrobeat', looking suitably cool and relaxed as he peered out at his audience from beneath a brown felt fedora, his wise old eyes soon to be obscured by designer shades for the duration of the performance.
Each number was delivered with no need for introductions, no titles to worry ourselves about, although most of tonight's programme centred around Allen's current project THE SOURCE. Generous as a band leader, each of his musicians were given plenty of room for improvised solos with a casual nod of the head; Nicolas Giraud on trumpet, Yann Jankielewicz on tenor sax, Jean-Phi Dary on keys, Mathias Allamane on double bass and Indy Dibongue on rhythm guitar.
It was almost 45 minutes into the set before we heard a single word from Allen, who confessed to being not much of a talker and like Charlie Parker before him, prefers to let the music speak for itself. Almost by way of an apology, Allen pointed out that his music was constantly evolving, using food consumption as a metaphor. "You could have the same meal three times a day but it would be boring."
With a sprinkling of Afro rhythms, together with a pinch of reggae in places, the set was by and large a homage to some of the coolest jazz we are likely to hear, the source of everything Tony Allen continues to explore in his prolific output both live and on record. Kudos to the Howard Assembly Room and Leeds, for having the good taste to play host to this remarkable musician and his wonderful band.
Words: Allan Wilkinson
Pictures: Simon Godley