Gig review: Tony Allen at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Tony Allen at Howard Assembly Room. Picture: Opera North
Tony Allen at Howard Assembly Room. Picture: Opera North
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“I don’t talk too much,” Tony Allen states half an hour into tonight’s concise 80-minute set. “My speaking is here,” the septuagenarian legend adds, administering a stern crack to the snare drum.

Allen’s percussive discourse has rang loud and clear throughout the world since the Nigerian-born drummer emerged as the unstoppable engine of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat orchestra Africa 70 in the late 1960s.

Tony Allen at Howard Assembly Room. Picture: Opera North

Tony Allen at Howard Assembly Room. Picture: Opera North

It’s hard to think of many drummers with a reputation formidable enough to warrant top billing in front of a sizable capacity crowd. Allen certainly fits the bill.

As plaudits go, Kuti’s acknowledgment that his hugely influential, enduringly resonant vision of mixing James Brown’s hypnotic funk with limber Nigerian beats would not have been remotely possible without Allen’s seemingly superhuman, polyrhythmic dexterity is hard to beat.

However, Allen isn’t about to coast on past glories tonight. As he goes on to explain during his soft-spoken and hugely charming on-stage address, gig-goers will get whichever version of the drummer’s music happens to be in circulation.

Having played in not one but two of Damon Albarn’s “supergroups” (The Good, The Bad and The Queen; Rocket Juice & The Moon) and collaborated with artists as diverse as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sebastian Tellier and Moritz Von Oswald Trio since settling in Paris, Allen last revisited Afrobeat on 2014’s Film of Life. Currently, including tonight’s performance, the focus is on jazz.

Tonight’s material is drawn from The Source, a new album of original jazz-influenced compositions, the title of which Allen – tongue probably drilling a hole through his cheek – chants a dozen times or so to help those present memorise the name of the new product. But the infectious sounds that emerge from the six musicians onstage once Allen has ceremoniously put on his sunglasses at the start of the set are far from standard-issue jazz.

Keeping with jazz traditions, there are solo spots for all the musicians. Yet the emphasis – aided and abetted by strong riffs and melodies – is on the collective task of maintaining a hypnotic pulse that succeeds in drawing parallels between what we now recognise as jazz and its roots in the vivid rhythms of African music that influenced Allen’s idiosyncratic style and, by extension, Afrobeat.

At the core is Allen’s rumbling and rolling approach to drumming. Although we’re undoubtedly witnessing a virtuoso at work, this is far from a hollow display of individual technical excellence.

As the robust but winningly loose beat keeps shifting and evolving, the earlier comment about not being a big speaker starts to make lucid sense: Allen really does know how to make the drum set talk. He makes it look remarkably effortless too, although it must take a fair deal of concentration and stamina.

This might explain the brevity of tonight’s set, which really is the only downside of a set that ends with an entirely deserved standing ovation.

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