YOLANDA BROWN reminds Soho that she’s one of the greats

How many saxophonists can you name without having to google them? I’ve got Johnny Dankworth, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Courtney Pine, Branford Marsalis, Clarence Clemons, Tim Cappello and… Kenny G (*shivers*). These days, saxophonists are not exactly household names – I only know some of the more obscure players because they play with other artists I admire.

So what do they all have in common? They are all male, except for Kenny G, who we all know as a space alien sent here to ruin music for all of humanity. The point I’m trying to make is that the sax is still perceived as a very male-centric instrument and – Kenny G aside – jazz is the archetypal music of Cool, and because it tends to be performed with more than a little flair or showmanship, it has traditionally been treated by the industry as a man’s realm – an outdated prejudice that London’s YOLANDA BROWN has comfortably shattered. And, in an industry where jazz is sadly neglected these days, that is no easy feat.

Tonight finds me at the Jazz Club in the basement of Soho’s Pizza Express, which for me is more than a little odd as it blurs the line between one of my favourite food groups and the much-maligned music genre. This evening is also the first time I think that my mother has ever been a bit jealous of me getting in to see an act.

Given how successful she has already been, it may seem a little unexpected for YolanDa to be a dinner and caberet act for the night. For sure, there is something nice about the whole experience, with more than a nod to Bohemian nights of yore, but does that really give any artist the respect they deserve, having to share the bill with pizzas and chocolate brownies? On the other hand, I’m hoping that this provides a welcome opportunity for fans to get up close and personal with the musician.

This evening is the second of Yolanda Brown’s two-night debut at the club, and also a bit of an anniversary, since it is almost a year to the day since she released her debut album “April Showers May Flowers.”

Most of tonight’s performance is split across two sets and includes tracks from both her debut album and her 2009 E.P. “A Step Closer,” as well as a few covers. Standout tracks are “Story,” “Heartbeat,” “Waiting in vain / Is This Love,” “Summertime” and “Festac Town.” For me, the best of the night is “Tokyo Sunset” – the ideal theme music to the best 70s or 80s cop/crime drama that never was.  YolanDa has a nicely understated rapport with the audience – friendly and familiar, but stopping short of the cliché patter you might hear from other performers.

Jazz may have a reputation for being bland or easy listening, but it’s only when you get to see an artist such as YolanDa play, that you understand how diverse a genre it actually is. It does at times require effort to see past its more challenging aspects and probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, but if you want a good place to start, you should give her a listen.

I would like to see YolanDa play again, in a more suitable setting, as I’m left with a feeling that the set list was a taster menu of how diverse a performer she can be. I can now also add her name to my list, knowing that the other saxophonists are in good company.