Thursday, 10 May 2018

Sam Lee Singing with Nightingales – Phoenix Theatre, Exeter, 9th May, 2018

New Ode to the Nightingale

It is just over three years since I saw Sam Lee performing, again at the Phoenix, and that genuinely outstanding gig was one of the more memorable I have ever attended, reviewed here [and within that, references to other reviews of his music].

I expected more of the same last night, but I was in for a shock surprise – I hadn’t really paid attention to what was on offer, though I did know about his nightingale project – yet what an extraordinary, pleasing shock it was.

Instead of the musical ensemble I was expecting, in that ignorance, there were just two other musicians with Lee: Adrian Freedman playing the shakuhachi, a bamboo Zen flute of Japan, and Chartwell Dutrio playing the mbira which is an ancient instrument consisting of at least 22 metal keys mounted on a wooden soundboard, in this case like a gourd. 

These three had never played together before, and the night was in every sense an improvisation, especially the extraordinary event after the interval. Before this, and throughout the night, there was much talk about the nightingale and the wider project, based on a farm at Knepp in Sussex where the resident ecologist, Penny Green, works and records the singing of this melodic bird. Lee rang her on his mobile at the beginning of the gig to talk about the chances of hearing the singing that night, to be played later into the theatre live.

It was already in full voice.

But more of this in a moment. Lee opened the evening’s music by singing solo Spencer the Rover, a beautiful resonant delivery as one expects from him, and a treat for me, loving the version that John Martyn sang. Both Adrian and Chartwell had solo spots, explaining their instruments, and it was a fascinating learning about and experiencing of their respective superlative playing: and with Chartwell also singing – at one point later performing throat singing.

All wonderful. In the metaphor of a camp-fire setting – so lights dimmed and an informal presentation throughout, including sing-alongs for those inclined – Lee talked more about the ecological realities of the nightingales’ reducing springtime habitats in England – no longer in Cornwall, probably not in Devon, a few in Dorset and Somerset, but mostly, when here now, in the south east of England – and he told the story of how the nightingale was given its voice by the She-god of his telling it. There was also a recollection of the BBC’s first ever live outside broadcast of cellist Beatrice Harrison playing along to the singing of the nightingale in her garden in 1924 – an event, we are told, that was set up and recorded on the 18th May when the nightingale didn’t appear, and then again on the 19th when it also didn’t appear, so an American, Charles Kellogg, a vaudeville performer who imitated bird songs, was brought in to mimic the singing of the nightingale – and it struck me that this may well be one of the first ever and genuine Fake News stories/events!

To the extraordinary musical event of the night – after the interval, Lee rang Green back in Sussex and to cut to the chase, the nightingale was singing, singing in glorious variety and volume and this was transferred into the theatre through the PA system. It was genuinely beautiful to hear, the darkened setting of our sitting, and all that had preceded, preparing us for the experience in as ‘natural’ a way as one could – the paradox of this technology making just such an event possible being one of the most perfect imaginable. if we were

In terms of music, Lee began with his shruti box and a low hum/murmur to merge with its sonorous sound and accompany the nightingale’s virtuoso melodies. Freedman and Dutrio played their own solo accompaniments and it is impossible to fully embrace that improvised and empathetic playing with words, but it was, as I have said, genuinely extraordinary. Freedman’s shakuhachi – and he had a range to play – obviously had the most inherent ‘match’ to the birdsong, but it was on their last ensemble jam that this trio fully communed with the nightingale and the audience, some again who sang along to the mantra Dutrio devised which was a beautiful descending melody. 

A unique gig and I am so pleased to have attended.

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