BBC Proms #47 – Sheléa, Vula’s Chorale, Jules Buckley Orchestra / Jules Buckley – Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Prom 47 – Sheléa (vocals), Vula’s Chorale, Jules Buckley Orchestra / Jules Buckley

Royal Albert Hall, London

Monday 22 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photos (c) Mark Allan

The year during which she would have celebrated her 80th birthday made this celebration of Aretha Franklin a shoo-in for the Proms. Jules Buckley was on hand with his newly formed eponymous orchestra for an evening that surveyed the Queen of Soul’s considerable stylistic range, as surely as it introduced a much-heralded American singer, songwriter, and pianist to the wider UK public. After her performance tonight, indeed, it would be more then surprising were Sheléa (Frazier) not to have found an appreciably higher profile this side of the Atlantic.

If not strictly chronological, the programme began with an obvious homage to Aretha’s roots in John Wright’s Precious Memories and gospel as its most soulful – astutely balanced by the Broadnax/Paul/Wonder Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) and soul at its most pop. The pathos of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark was enhanced with a flute-drenched arrangement, then Sheléa took to the piano for the emotional build-up of the Nelson/Ertegun Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) with the sax section bracingly to the fore. Next came two co-writes from Franklin and her one-time husband Ted White – the smouldering blues of Dr Feelgood (no pub-rock connotations here) followed by the up-tempo Think with its rousing call-and-response between Sheléa and Vula Malinga’s gospel choir. Expressively mannered though her take on Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere might have been, the evocative quality of the arrangement by Quincy Jones could hardly be doubted. The raunchy r&b of Dan Covay’s Chain of Fools, keyboards much in evidence, saw this first half through to its full-on close.

An interval costume-change and Sheléa got the insouciance of Burt Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer down to a tee, thanks in part to an atmospheric orchestral introduction, as she did the plaintive soul-pop of Curtis Mayfield’s Sparkle. A member of the choir audibly enjoyed his ‘George Michael’ cameo with the Climie/Morgan duet I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), complemented by the punchy afro-beat of Franklin’s own Rock Steady. The choir came into its own first via the Leiber/Spector Spanish Harlem with its effective interplay of solos and ensemble, followed by Franklin’s Day Dreaming with its sensuous contribution from flutes and vibes. A second costume-change – and Sheléa returned for a suitably though sincerely histrionic rendition of John Newton’s Amazing Grace, before launching into a take on the Goffin/King (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman that oozed pulsating energy. This, in turn, segued into the inevitable closing number – Otis Redding’s Respect, its incitement   to the attaining then maintaining of freedom surely as relevant today as it was 57 years ago.

Throughout this programme, Sheléa’s commitment to the Aretha cause was underpinned in no uncertain terms by Buckley, who rightly took a moment to pay tribute to those arrangers – two of whom, tenor saxophonist Tom Richards and the trumpeter Tom Walsh, were active members of his orchestra – whose input had made this evening the success it proved to be. Singer and conductor met the applause from a capacity Albert Hall with a version of Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water finding Sheléa and her piano in intimate communion.

Click on the artist names for more information on Sheléa, Vula Malinga and Jules Buckley – and for a site dedicated to Aretha Franklin, click here

BBC Proms 2017 – The Songs of Scott Walker

John Grant, Jarvis Cocker, Susanne Sundfør and Richard Hawley (all above), London Contemporary VoicesHeritage Orchestra / Jules Buckley

Walker, arr. Jules Buckley, Stefan Behrisch, Peter Riley and Tom Trapp Titles from Scott (1967), Scott 2 (1968), Scott 3, Scott 4 (1969) & Till the Band Comes In (1970)

Dick Hovenga and Simon Raymonde, creative directors

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 25 July 2017 (late night)

You can watch this Prom here

This late-night Prom highlighted the song-writing talent of Scott Walker from his late 1960s heyday. Less challenging while no less provocative than the music he has released this past two decades, it is a token of their composer’s fleeting stardom that few, if any, of these songs were played live when they were written; only to be consigned to vinyl limbo once Walker’s star waned and he abandoned live performance in 1978. Tonight’s programme saw a notable line-up of singers assembled to honour this legacy and maybe even give it a new lease of life.

The songs themselves were drawn from the four ‘numbered’ albums released during 1967-69, along with three tracks from Till the Band Comes In – the 1970 offering that Walker himself disowned but which he now seemingly recognizes as a worthy successor to what went before.

Although he has known Walker well since their collaboration on Pulp’s final album We Love Life in 2001, as a vocalist Jarvis Cocker is not best suited to the interpreting of songs whose technical demands brook no compromise. After the plangent orchestral strains of Prologue had died away, he struggled with the ethereal Boy Child (its fusing of music and expression the most perfect of Walker’s song in this period), then under-projected the surreal and ominous imagery of Plastic Palace People. Nor was he a natural choice for the bittersweet poise of The War is Over (probably the most obscure of all these hidden gems), despite rendering it with telling sotto voce understatement, though the breezy litany of chaos and disaster which informs Little Things That Keep Us Together allowed his innately ironic delivery free rein.

There could be no doubt, even so, that John Grant is infinitely more attuned to this music, and so it proved as he brought out the wrenching pathos of Rosemary, then the pert confessional of The World’s Strongest Man. No less telling was the capricious whimsy of Copenhagen or propulsive drama of the Ingmar Bergman-inspired The Seventh Seal; this latter number benefiting from a starkly fatalistic tone such as the 24-year-old Walker could not summon back in the day. A whole album of these ‘covers’ from Grant would be more then welcome.

As also would be one from Icelandic singer Susanne Sundfør (above), whose often brittle yet always focussed delivery teased out the deadpan humour from On Your Own Again then stripped Angels of Ashes of undue preciousness. Best of all was the edgy irony she brought to The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, another highpoint of Walker’s song-writing, while Hero of the War aligned anger and compassion to a telling degree. A slight pity that Long About Now, Walker’s one number intended for a female vocalist, was not featured. Maybe another time?

A fine guitarist and distinctive crooner, Richard Hawley proved as attentive to the tangible atmospherics of It’s Raining Today as to the warm evocation (so easy to sentimentalize) of Two Ragged Soldiers. Neither was there any dilution of that yearning for domestic bliss in Montague Terrace (in Blue) or sardonic humour in The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime) – a song which underlines Walker’s awareness of the political realities during this period, as has surfaced more obliquely in much of his more recent music.

Throughout this 90-minute sequence, Jules Buckley secured vivid and attentive playing from the Heritage Orchestra, while London Contemporary Voices made the most of some brief yet pertinent contributions. They, together with all four of tonight’s singers, united for a rousing Get Behind Me – a surprisingly funky number in context – to end this impressive showcase. Hawley remarked to the audience that such an event might never happen again, though one cannot help feeling Walker’s 1960s output could now be up and running – not before time!

Richard Whitehouse (photos (c) Mark Allan)

BBC Proms 2016 – Kamasi Washington and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Kamasi Washington (c) Mark Allan

Prom 61; Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2016

You can listen to this Prom from its BBC broadcast here

Late night Proms at the Royal Albert Hall are usually special – and this one even more so. Kamasi Washington arrived to a great fanfare in 2015, firstly for his work as orchestrator and band leader on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, then latterly for his extraordinary triple album Epic, released to great acclaim on Ninja Tune.

Washington, while perhaps not earmarked as the future of jazz, is definitely a figure to whom audiences are turning. Some approach him from the hip hop direction, from Lamar or Snoop Dogg, while others with jazz more embedded in their listening recognise the influences of Sun Ra and John Coltrane. But how would all these elements blend with a 32-voice choir and the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?

Extremely well, as it turned out. It helps that Washington has a wonderful, almost beatific stage presence. He is a mixture of assertion and modesty, which suits his music too, for there were long, ecstatic phrases where the Royal Albert Hall itself seemed to be lifted from its foundations on a tide of good feeling. As the long phrases swelled from the ground up, supported by cellos, basses, the bass of Miles Mosley and the drums of Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin, the treble instruments and assembled chorus were swept along on the good vibes.

That was certainly the case in Change of the Guard and The Next Step, while in The Magnificent 7 there was more of a soloistic approach, Washington’s band each invited to present their extraordinary virtuosity. Top of the pile were Mosley and pianist Brandon Coleman, both placed centre stage and forming a supple rhythmic base as well as a source of boundless musical enthusiasm.

However the praise for the effectiveness of the arrangements should also be directed at Jules Buckley, for whom this was a third appearance at this year’s Proms. Buckley is a master arranger, responsible for a lot of last year’s Ibiza Proms arranging but also this year taking on Quincy Jones and Jamie Cullum – each foils for the music of Washington, where he conducted the strings.

It also helps that Washington’s music is so well orchestrated, for although he allows his band solo time, in the quieter music things stripped back to allow the string orchestra room to be heard. Although they were swamped in the opener Change of the Guard there was plenty of room for the bittersweet cello lines of Henrietta, Our Hero to make a strong impact.

This was one of many high points in the concert, Washington introducing his father Rickey as they both paid homage to Kamasi’s grandmother in a song beautifully intoned by Patrice Quinn. There was a new piece, too, The Space Traveller’s Lullaby, which formed an effective mid-set interlude, stripping back to saxophone, trombone, voices and strings. Washington’s moving solo was backed by twinkling stars projected onto the backboard.

The music lingered long into the night. Some extraordinary phrases, both loud and quiet, issued from Washington’s saxophone, played with the utmost of care. His music has the power to move from tiny, quiet moments or through the massive, surging crests of the wave where all 80 performers were involved. Its wholly positive outlook won the day.

Ben Hogwood

Radio 1 Ibiza Prom with Pete Tong

Prom 16: Late Night With … BBC Radio 1: The Ibiza Prom with Pete Tong


Pete Tong

The choice of Pete Tong to present an Ibiza-themed Prom created a fair bit of controversy in the last few weeks, but the decision paid off handsomely in what was effectively a Proms Essential Mix, with almost all the parts played by live instruments.

[Watch here:]

Keen listeners to dance and classical music – and there are a number! – will know the gap between the two is not as great as it might seem. A tune like Derrick May’s Strings of Life, for instance, could comfortably sit alongside a piece of Steve Reich – while Moby’s Porcelain would not be out of place if followed by a piece by Erik Satie.

Both songs were part of this set, a cleverly designed montage of 23 tracks that majored on arrangements made by Jules Buckley for the Heritage Orchestra. These were not ordinary arrangements either, including a sousaphone and a bass flute in the mix! They were not wholly successful in the hall itself, either, but have a lot more detail when heard on the radio – the Royal Albert Hall not being built for club music! Naturally the bass dominated – as it probably should in dance music – and some of the mid-range detail, on which Buckley had clearly laboured – was difficult to pick up.

Jules Buckley at the Ibiza Prom. Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

This was not a deal breaker, mind, for a high spirited beginning with Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now was perfectly judged, and set the tone. The only problem – for me at any rate – was trying to tell my brain that this was a Prom where dancing was not only permitted but actively encouraged, as the below picture shows!

The Royal Albert Hall in the Ibiza Prom Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

The set moved between orchestra-dominated action and guest appearances from Ella Eyre and John Newman, who both acquitted themselves admirably. Eyre has a terrific voice, which she lent to Inner City’s Good Life and her own hit with Rudimental, Waiting All Night. Newman also has past with Rudimental, and his Feel The Love was warmly felt, before a closing cover of The Source feat. Candi Staton’s You Got The Love.

My only two personal regrets were that someone had not tried to arrange Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness – a true Ibiza classic – or, from the blissful end of the spectrum, Groove Armada’s At The River. Those are quibbles, though, for the night was a roaring success, climaxing with the brilliant Café del Mar by Energy 52.

Over the next few days I will publish some links to songs played in the course of the Prom, linking them to classical music – so that you can hopefully see how connections can be drawn between the forms. Safe to say, though, that this particular Prom crossed a few bridges and opened several doors!