Reviewed by Lynton Guest, Author, Journalist
Think of Ascot, nestling deep in the wooded prosperity of Berkshire. Chances are the first thing that comes to mind will be the racecourse and its world-famous June meeting. You know, ladies day, those hats, Pimms and the royal soubriquet attached to its most prestigious equine competition. If music disturbs this vision of traditional England at all it will probably be felt by older readers, who will remember that John Lennon resided in the vicinity for some years, playing his white piano, singing Imagine, while Yoko looked on adoringly. Well, times have changed. Perhaps the best kept secret in all the Home Counties is that the small, semi-rural town is home to one of the most exciting music venues in the land. But before I review the sensational band that was playing the night I was there, let me first of all set the scene.
The 150 year-old building rises majestically next to Ascot railway station. For much of its existence it was known as the Station public house but over the last twenty years, under the watchful ownership of John Gripton, it has been transformed into Jagz, a complex comprising a live jazz room with restaurant, a DJ-led night club and the cleverly configured remnants of the old pub. For the last two years the jazz venue’s events have been organised by Graham Steel, who made his reputation running the Windsor Arts Centre. It can’t be easy keeping a jazz venue going for so long but somehow Gripton and Steel have pulled it off, in the process providing major support for an international array of musical talent. The acoustics of the live room are a revelation and they are complemented by an excellent sound system patrolled by a team consisting of the two Dave’s, whose expertise is matched only by their enthusiasm. Sound, though, is only as good as the artist who uses it. One of Steel’s great strengths is his ability to spot interesting jazz artists and give them a showcase. He certainly did that when I turned up. I watched Shifty Little Sister, a five piece band fronted by the multi-talented Christina Al-Wakil, who sings like an angel and plays trumpet, flugelhorn and flute. As if that wasn’t enough, the band is driven along by world-class virtuoso guitarist Neil Sadler, whose solos and rhythm expertise surpass anything I have heard in years. None of the electrifying sound could be produced, though without a solid bass and drum section, and this is provided by David Knowles and Alex Abadzis, who are the perfect foils for Sadler’s exploits on the frets and Al-Wakil’s soaring vocals. Last, but by no means least, is the exotically named Count Dominic bon de Sousa Pernes on various saxes. When Pernes (he really is from a Portuguese aristocratic background) lets go he gives us the icing on the cake, his wild licks punctuating the already lavish and multi-layered sounds produced by the rest of the band. Shifty Little Sister serve up an intriguing mixture of self-penned songs and unique arrangements of the work of other artists. They aim high from the word go, with Sadler on acoustic guitar and Al-Wakil on trumpet giving the audience an understated and sensitive rendition of the Miles Davis classic, Concerto de Arunjuez (Adagio), from the master’s Sketches of Spain album. This is immediately followed by a haunting version of Bang Bang, during which Al-Wakil’s vocals perfectly capture the meaning of the lyrics. It is when the full band hits the stage, however, that the night really starts to rock. Some amazing standouts are the Christina Agulera hit, Save Me From Myself, the beautiful Missing, originally recorded by Everything But The Girl, and a real outlier, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, which is powered brilliantly by Knowles’s bass riff and Abadzis’s driving drumbeats. Interspersed with these are the band’s own numbers, the best of which is Crimson Red, in which a rhythm and blues feel mingles with tragi-ecstatic lyrics and melody to amazing effect. Mention should also be made of another of their tunes, Yo Te Quiero, which features stupendous guitar and sax lines around the Spanish I-want-you lyrics. The audience lapped it up, no more so than the grand finale, which was a rousing version of the great Ray Charles tribute to a woman’s right to choose, Hit The Road Jack. I don’t think I’ve heard a better finish to a gig in many a long year. All in all, I couldn’t find anything to carp at during the whole experience. Great venue, great band. Even the food was fantastic, which is more than you can say for Ronnie Scott’s.