Long before hearing of Abdul Wadud’s death in August at the age of 75, Tom Skinner had been preparing his homage to the great cellist. Last night’s Church of Sound concert at St James the Great in Lower Clapton was a wonderful tribute from one musician to another, transmuting elements of Wadud’s solo album, By Myself, into a framework for a six-piece band called Voices of Bishara.
Taking their name from that chosen by Wadud for the label on which his album was released in 1977, the musicians were Chelsea Carmichael (tenor saxophone and flute), Robert Stillman (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet), Kareem Dayes (cello), Tom Herbert (bass), Paul Camo (samples) and Skinner himself (drums). Church of Sound is a terrific gig: the place was packed for the debut of a project led by a man known from his work with Sons of Kemet and more recently with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. Not many among the audience would have known of Wadud before last night, although there were a few whoops when Skinner mentioned the name of Julius Hemphill, with whom the cellist worked so memorably in the 1970s and ’80s, but they certainly responded to the music created in his honour.
Even at its most sophisticated there was something elemental about Wadud’s playing, something steeped in African ancestry, to which the name Bishara — ”gospel” or “good news” in a variety of languages, including Arabic and Swahili — made reference. Skinner’s arrangements enhanced this core sensibility, using the two stringed instruments and Camo’s samples to create a kind of desert blues atmosphere, floating on the drummer’s own loose-jointed propulsion and providing the setting for the two horn soloists. (At times it recalled the use of Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s oud and the basses of Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on Coltrane’s 1961 Village Vanguard recordings). Dayes made fine contributions with his scrabbled pizzicato figures and keening arco, while Herbert raised the temperature in the second half with a majestic solo, setting up a two-tenor juxtaposition of Stillman’s asymmetrical agility and Carmichael’s confident power.
At St James the Great the musicians play in the round, and the church’s architecture means that the quality of the sound depends on where you’re sitting or standing. I moved after the interval and found that what had previously been swimming in echo now came into proper focus. The activities of two camera operators, filming the musicians at close quarters, was unhelpful and at times a distraction, but there’s an album of this music out soon, and on the evidence of the concert I’m looking forward to it very much. Rather than just settle for saluting the source of his inspiration, Skinner has found a way of going beyond it to discover something of his own.
* Here’s my Guardian obit of Abdul Wadud. As Tom Skinner told the audience, Wadud’s By Myself can now be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mff74JJKD40&ab_channel=HeathZiebell. The Voices of Bishara album is out in November.