Along with J S Bach and John Coltrane, my favourite music is soul. I remember as a kid seeing Otis Redding live on ‘Ready Steady Go!’, and I bought the 70s albums of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin – for me the two greatest singers ever, in any genre – as they came out. I’ve seen my personal soul hero, Bobby Womack, in concert twice (with a thirty year gap in between), and the four volumes of Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures are probably my most cherished compact discs. An enormously important propagandist for soul in the UK, Godin invented the term “Northern Soul” and his story says a lot about what black American music meant for pale white boys and post-war English culture. You can read my obituary for him here. So, all in all, I’m very excited about St George’s new series, Soul Global, which begins this week with concerts by Bassekou Kouyate and Gregory Porter, and continues until the visit of Ruby Turner, the UK’s own Queen of Soul, in June.
Despite loving soul music, it proved hard finding good soul acts to programme at St George’s, although were it possible I’d be happy to have Raphael Saadiq playing every night. A combination of the restrictions imposed by an all-seated venue with challenging acoustics, and the patchy nature of soul promotion generally, with few names available outside London at the best of times let alone sufficiently in advance to comply with the six months or so lead-in time required for our brochure, defeated me for a decade. I came up with the idea of Soul Global to provide an aesthetic bridge between soul, jazz and world music in order to float a series at all, and it was ready to debut last year until a planned tour by Gregory Porter – my banker bet! – failed to happen for a second time. We even had Leon Ware – the blessed Marvin’s collaborator on ‘I Want You’ – all lined up to follow – but without Gregory I feared he might sink without trace. In truth, I refused to believe Gregory was actually coming this time until the final confirmation, when I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket for Thursday, you’re in for a massive treat, for Gregory Porter is awesome, as any number of TV clips will prove. But even if you’ve seen him on Jools Holland, it doesn’t come close to the majesty of a live performance, when Porter’s seemingly effortless star quality hits you like a thunderbolt. You can call him a jazz singer if you like, but there’s an awful lot of soul in jazz, and vice versa: the gospel-trained melismatic swoops (his mother was a minister in Bakersfield, California, which is normally country music-territory) of his big, baritone voice will come close to knocking you off your feet, I’ll guarantee; and by the end of the show everyone will be on their feet, no contest.
And once Porter was in the bag, the series really started to come together, with soulful latin (Salsa Celtica) and soulful jazz (Matthew Halsall) set to follow Porter before a triple-whammy of late bookings upped the ante, with soulful desert blues stars (Tinariwen, May 5), Gypsy soul-kings (Taraf de Haidouks, May 25), and the gloriously soulful meditations of the world’s greatest kora player (Toumani Diabate, appearing with his son, Sidiki on May 26) providing a partial historical and geographical survey of what the elusive term “soul” might mean across different cultures. After that comes Ruby Turner (June 1) and while Soul Global will go into hibernation for the autumn, it will hopefully be back in early 2015, when we might even get Leon Ware at last.