Natacha Atlas, Randolph Matthews: Capstone Theatre, Liverpool

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Natacha Atlas (Credit: Artists Facebook page)

Natacha Atlas brought her unique style of Arabic jazz to the Capstone, Getintothis’ Rogério Simões was totally sold.

Christmas lights are taking over Liverpool, which means it’s that time of the year when many of us make lists – for real or in our heads – of the best albums of the year.

So what a privilege it is to have the chance to see one of them being performed live on stage, almost in its entirety.

Natacha Atlas, the Belgian-British-Arab singer who has enchanted audiences and musicians all over the world for three decades, brings her new and excellent album Strange Days to the Capstone Theatre. A delightful evening is on the cards.

To warm things up, a true one-man show. British singer Randolph Matthews creates what he describes as “musical experiences”, and when he stands on stage we immediately know what he means.

He uses his deep voice and consecutive live looping effects to turn himself into a sort of a jazz choir. His versatile singing, combining tunes, words and rhythm, reminds us of Bobby McFerrin’s technique: a playful and adventurous way of singing.

Matthews mixes his own creations with classics, such as Nat King Cole’s hit Nature Boy and Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, in an overall impressive performance.

His short set eventually makes everyone in the room smile – and even laugh – when he jokes, plays with them and makes music out of the names of two people in the audience, looping over the sounds of their pronunciation. We see brand new music being created in front of our eyes, and it’s a real joy.

After the break, those responsible for taking the evening to another level soon arrive on stage.

Natacha Atlas’ band come in first and eventually welcome the singer with their playing.

Tonight’s concert is dedicated to Strange Days, a record that stuns the listener from the very first notes of its opening track, Out of Time.

Performed live, the song is solid proof of how comfortable Atlas is with the piano, double bass and trumpet of American jazz, having put aside the percussions, flute and belly dance of years ago. “We’re riders running out of time”, she sings, giving her words a well-placed and seductive melancholy, just as the greatest American jazz singers would.

In her 30-year career, Atlas has explored new paths in music, especially through partnerships with other big names – the list is huge and includes the likes of Peter Gabriel, Jean Michel Jarre and the Egyptian master Hossam Ramsy, who sadly passed away in September.

In all those works she’s shown the versatility of a singer who isn’t afraid of new rhythms and styles and whose main goal is to constantly challenge herself.

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Strange Days is her second album of jazz music, after 2015’s Myriad Road – a sign that her venture into jazz might be here to stay.

All original material in the record has been written by Natacha Atlas and her most constant musical partner of recent years, the Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai, who is by her side tonight.

Having been educated with classical music, but also influenced by jazz at his family home in Alexandria, Bishai is equally accomplished as a composer and a performer. Being the main musical reference in Atlas’ band, he knows exactly when to give the other musicians in the piano and trumpet the necessary space to shine and when it’s time for him to test the limits of his violin – finding notes as high as the Everest, in breathtaking solos.

Many call their music Arabic jazz. It therefore makes a lot of sense that one of its best examples, the track Maktoub, is much influenced by their origins in Arabic music. With a very distinguishable piano riff, Maktoub is already pretty exciting stuff in its studio version. On stage, it provides the opportunity for Atlas’ superb band to excel in both individual talent and cohesion.

We thought we’d seen everything from Randolph Matthews, and we were wrong!

Natacha Atlas invites her friend back on stage to sing on Words of a King, a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr and others who have changed the world – in the studio the song was shared with Joss Stone. The two perform a lovely duet, and Matthews’ vocal prowess and similarities with Marvin Gaye are now even more clear.

Lost Revolutions brings back the melancholy in Atlas’ singing, this time expressed in Arabic and supported by a gorgeous partnership between violin and cello. An exquisite tune, it allows her to explore her voice in different ways, high, low and deeply sad. She sings as if she were weeping.

As expected, Atlas and her band leave the best to the very end: the powerful All the Madness, the track where all forces in Strange Days come together as one.

From the riff played by the bass to the daring moves by drums, piano and trumpet, it’s a thrilling piece of music through which the singer navigates brilliantly. Hats off to everyone involved.

After years consolidating her position amongst the greats of Arabic music, as a 21st century Fairuz or Warda, Natacha Atlas has reinvented herself as a creative and brave jazz artist. It is not pure jazz, and it’s not simply Arabic jazz.

It’s Natacha Atlas’ jazz, and we loved every bit of it.

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