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