Boreal Sun, Ronnie Scott’s, London

The new London-based band brought virtuosity and invention to a set reminding of the power of 70s jazz-funk and 90s acid jazz

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Boreal Sun at Ronnie Scott's, 17 May 2024. Photo by Leon Barker

“Boreal”, says Norwegian singer Liselotte Östblom, means northern. “Sun” adds the idea of dawn and by metaphorical extension, new beginning. Stretching the imagination a bit further she interprets the band’s name as conveying hope for a world of peace, harmony and no borders – all very Scandinavian. But this music had none of the nebulous dreaming so often – given the discography of the past 30 or 40 years – associated with the north. The band’s mission is largely to revive and extend the more substantial jazz-funk of the 70s and the acid-jazz of 90s London. Its several strongly written originals sound modern, adding contemporary touches, but the covers of 70s Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard still sound like today too, perhaps because so much in jazz has looked backwards since then.

This, their first gig and the launch of their first recording, the EP Dawn, began with the mid-tempo funk of Horizon. It’s smooth, but not smooth jazz by any means, guitarist Billy Adamson’s fills and solo adding plenty of harmonic meat. It’s a solidly efficient, tight band. Here, the sound hasn’t quite the polish and punch of the recording (or is that Ronnie’s compression?) but the musicality always shines through. Horizon is followed by a brief tribute to Robert Glasper, another 70s fan who presumably inspires the band, perhaps in particular its mastermind, the producer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Roberts.

New Beginning, which seems to invest mostly pentatonic melodies with a mystical complexity, is the standout track on the EP, and it sounds good here. The record has sublime flute from Gareth Lockrane. Tonight the woodwind player was the gifted young virtuoso Emma Rawicz, who soloed compellingly on tenor along the Trane-Brecker axis. But the tune had an intro absent from the record, using birdcalls and Rawicz’s flute to evoke the dawn chorus of London’s Wanstead Park, which Roberts says inspired this piece.

The EP material isn’t enough to fill a 75-minute set so we get the welcome bonus of some standards of the genre. The first is Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, from the 1974 Thrust. It begins with a nicely oblique a cappella from Liselotte, fragments of the theme surfacing, before the band comes into focus and she sings the whole thing, her voice penetrating well on a spacey arrangement. Being a pianist’s tune, it gets a piano solo from Jay Verma, who thoughtfully develops typical Herbie lines but adds a slightly more abstract and individual chordal sequence.

Next comes Can We Take A Moment, “featuring our wonderful tenor Emma Rawicz”. No arguments with that, as her command and musicality at such a young age again surprise, this time over some broken-beat funk with dreamy suspended chords. Then it’s Naima, sung by Östblom, very exposed but unfazed over just solo piano. At first I didn’t recognise the tune but it seemed completely consonant with the band’s 70s tilt, showing perhaps how prescient Coltrane was, or more likely, how musically contiguous are the early 60s and 70s, separated more by rhythm and instrumentation than form and harmony.

Boreal Sun probably like the idea of dancing, and as the sharp funk of <html> Code kicked off, Östblom invited the audience to clap along. They had a go, but this music, pulsing as it is, probably has a touch too much abstraction to fill a dance floor. It’s no problem though to dance in the head, tap the fingers and marvel at the compositional ingenuity.

The second 70s fusion standard is Red Clay, given a contemporary edge with some rap from a guest MC. In the 1980s Max Roach hailed rap as a worthy descendant of bebop, but Max’s drums were musically tuned; here, leaving aside the poetry, musically speaking it’s strictly rhythm, but Rawicz fills in the bebop spaces. Oddly, bandleader Roberts, though evidently a strong ensemble player on flugelhorn, doesn’t take any solos.

After a comprehensive roll-call from Roberts, who throughout the set has made welcome, informative announcements, it’s the last tune, Gold, a warming, mid-tempo soul-funk piece embellished with Adamson’s creamy, Larry Carlton style guitar fills. The band close with a reprise of New Beginning, a tune that makes a perfect ending too. Boreal Sun stands for hope. They ought to get their share of that. Here’s hoping they get good exposure and recognition for their high-quality writing and execution.

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Boreal Sun, Ronnie Scott’s, London, 17 May 2024: Matt Roberts (flh); Liselotte Östblom (v); Emma Rawicz (ts, f); Billy Adamson (elg); Jay Verma (p); Christopher Hargreaves (b); Joshua Blackmore (d); Felix Higginbottom (pc).