Jarrod Lawson & Tahirah Memory at Pizza Express, The Strand review – intimate and wonderfully understated

Piz­za Express, The Strand, Lon­don on June 16, 2017

It was a heat­wave-heavy sum­mer evening. Lovers of classy fusion jazz were holed up in the hot base­ment of London’s Piz­za Express on the Strand. The din­ner hour chat­ter mer­ci­ful­ly fell to a respect­ful hush when Port­land, Ore­gon natives Jar­rod Law­son and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor, Tahi­rah Mem­o­ry, stepped on stage for an inti­mate acoustic set.

Mem­o­ry seemed to embody the sea­son in a slinky white dress which showed off her extra toasty, gold­en brown glow. The duo opened with one of their most recent col­lab­o­ra­tions ‘In Love with Love’ before smooth­ly segu­ing into Bri­an McKnight’s late 90s R&B clas­sic ‘Any­time’. Lawson’s dul­cet tones are impres­sive enough on wax, but the live expe­ri­ence takes it to anoth­er level.

His vocals were flaw­less, not to speak of his envi­ably dex­ter­ous piano skills. He’s found his artis­tic soul­mate in Mem­o­ry. It’s not just a mat­ter of com­ple­men­tary voic­es and close har­monies. Theirs is a strong cre­ative syn­er­gy built on years of friend­ship. Mem­o­ry explains how they first came into each other’s orbit, when Jar­rod man­aged to amaze her oth­er­wise fas­tid­i­ous musi­cian father dur­ing an audi­tion for his band. The rest is history.

Mem­o­ry observed how qui­et the audi­ence were. Good. There’s noth­ing more irri­tat­ing than an unap­pre­cia­tive crowd, rude­ly chomp­ing and chat­ting away dur­ing per­for­mances. The venue lends itself to a cer­tain atten­tive­ness and is per­fect­ly suit­ed for the duo’s min­i­mal­ist set. That night Lawson’s vocals were sedate. The octave strad­dling ad-libs were in good sup­ply, but not over­ly indulged. Instru­men­tal inter­ludes were occa­sion­al­ly punc­tu­at­ed with solos from a Chica­go-based gui­tarist the duo picked up on their trav­els. (He looks more Essex than Chi-town.)

The evening’s reper­toire was com­prised of adap­ta­tions of each artists’ solo mate­r­i­al – the more melo­di­ous of Lawson’s back cat­a­logue, such as the out­stand­ing ‘Need­ed’ – and choice cov­ers. One such was an espe­cial­ly ten­der inter­pre­ta­tion of Prince & NPG’s ‘Dia­monds & Pearls’. Mem­o­ry ambi­tious­ly chased the late Pur­ple One’s bass notes to the end of each phrase. Lat­er she made yet anoth­er judi­cious song selec­tion: Lizz Wright’s ‘Blue Rose’. Its poignan­cy was all the more stark fol­low­ing an impromp­tu mono­logue from Mem­o­ry about the resilience of the British peo­ple in light of recent events. It trails off into twee sound­bite ter­ri­to­ry but the sen­ti­ment was appreciated.

Memory’s most inspired and heart­felt vocals were reserved for the song she ded­i­cat­ed to her lit­tle girl, bring­ing this evening of won­der­ful­ly under­stat­ed per­for­mances to a fit­ting conclusion.

Image: cour­tesy of Jar­rod Lawson