Friday 24 January 2020
Words: Michael J Edwards
Photos: Courtesy of Michael Antoniou Photography
Lonnie Liston-Smith & Norman Connors
As the years elapse, one appreciates a concert with the prefix “Legends of…” more and more, as the artists responsible for some of the signature tunes many of us grew up with enter their later years. And so it was in January 2020 at the London O2 Arena – the indigo to be precise – that the ‘Legends of Jazz Funk’ took place before a legion of loyal and knowledgeable jazz-funk fans. The event was advertised as Norman Connors and the Starship Orchestra featuring Lonnie Liston Smith, Ronnie Laws and Marva King. Alas, as we were to find out later in the show, Mr Ronnie Laws did not make the trip. According to doctors orders, he was too ill to fly.
Proof, if any was needed that these legends are not getting any younger. But as the expression goes, “The show must go on”. And so it was that Lonnie Liston Smith at 79, Norman Connors, aged 72 and the relative baby of the bunch Marva King at 45 years of age proceeded to entertain their mature but slightly younger audience. On scanning the arena I would say the average age of the attendees was approximately 50 years old. Following a brief introduction from our compere, Lonnie Liston Smith, dressed in a patterned open neck red shirt and dark blue chino slacks was the first to take to the stage; and once stood behind his familiar two-tier keyboard setup he wasted no time in gliding into his first tune, the infectiously incessant and upbeat ‘Divine Warrior’.
The master keyboard player, backed by the New Starship Orchestra (doubling up as the in-house band for all the acts) then slowed the pace down. However, the quality of the tunes and musicianship remained high as we were treated to a trilogy of mellow vibes. The connoisseurs favourite ‘Quiet Moments’ from Lonnie’s 1978 set ‘Exotic Mysteries ‘ segued smoothly into ‘Goddess of Love’ which can be found on the 1976 album ‘Reflections of the Golden Dream’, and the aforementioned trilogy was rounded out with ‘A Garden of Peace’ lifted from the 1983 long-player album, ‘Dreams of Tomorrow’, evoking mental images of peaceful Nordic fjords and flowing crystal clear waterfalls.
L-R: Lonnie Liston Smith (keys), Anthony (TC) Toliver (drums), Mike Eley (keys) and Greg Ritchie (piano/keys/vocals)
Once the audience had expressed their appreciation and after a mini pregnant pause the familiar strains of the intro to the timeless ‘Expansions’ seeped out from the myriad of speakers positioned around the Indigo Arena. And yes that was the cue for a plethora of mobile phones to be whipped out in order to capture this rare moment of live music history.
Greg Ritchie (piano/keys/vocals)
All those present however were taken aback when the signature #Expand Your Mind# strapline was delivered effortlessly by the frail/elderly looking piano player/vocalist Greg Ritchie, who has become an integral member of the New Starship Orchestra over the years. Any preconceptions one had when earlier Greg had gingerly walked across the stage to his piano seat were completely laid to rest as his energy levels, keyboard skills and vocal dexterity justified his inclusion to the band line up.
His tag team keyboard playing with his world-renowned keyboard counterpart Lonnie Liston Smith was a wonder to behold with Anthony (TC) Toliver on drums and Mike Eley on bass maintaining that unique ‘Expansions’ rhythm and backbeat, which over the years has fully engrained itself into the psyche of the masses. It was great to see Lonnie giving his all as he rounded out his set.
Next on stage during this night of Legends and carrying the torch for the ladies was the demure, sassy and top tier vocalist Marva King. During the first of her two stints on stage, Miss King had the audience eating out the palm of her hand from the get-go. Dipping into her 1981 back catalogue, Marva first dropped the supersensual and sultry slow jam ‘I Just Can’t’ followed by the power, perkiness and purposefulness of the funk-driven ‘Feels Right’. Both tunes showcased Marva Kings supreme vocal control and range across a range of octaves. This married with a magnetic stage presence made her an instant hit with the audience.
Little did we know that that was just a teaser for what was to follow later in the evening. Her 30-minute stint on stage seemed to evaporate in a nanosecond, but fortunately, we would see a lot more of her later in the evening. It was at this juncture that it is believed that the one and only Ronnie Laws was due to grace the stage. However, we were pleasantly surprised when the main protagonist Norman Connors strode onto the stage, addressed the audience and casually announced the disappointing news that Ronnie Laws would not be performing on the night due to ill-health and consequently his doctor had forbidden him to fly.
Michael Eley (bass)
Anthony (TC) Toliver (drums)
Sensing the tangible disappointment from numerous Ronnie Laws devotees, who had made the journey specifically to hear him play, Mr Connors stated that in Ronnie’s absence his band would play a tribute tune by way of compensation. So as Norman exited stage left, the New Starship Orchestra pumped out an impassioned instrumental version of Mr Laws’ most recognisable tune ‘Always There’. With the audience appeased Norman took up his position behind the drum kit, smoothly interchanging with fellow drummer Anthony Toliver, who along with bass player Michael Eley had been keeping the backbeat and rhythm for the songs performed thus far.
Norman Connors (drums & vocals)
It was then off to the races as Norman and the New Starship Orchestra wasted no time in reeling off ‘World Is a Ghetto’ and the sublime ‘Butterfly’ from his 1977 album ‘This Is Your Life’. Norman’s faithful audience didn’t have to wait long before the opening bars of ‘You Are My Starship’ emanated from the stage and out into the audience. This was also where keyboard/vocalist player Greg Ritchie came into his own once more, with a vocal that did full and proper justice to the original singer of the song Michael Henderson.
Norman Connors’ latest songstress/front lady Marva King then returned to the stage continuing the distinguished/daunting legacy of headline singers such Jean Carne, Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofil before her. Well Ms King did not disappoint, belting out with pure emotion stand-alone tunes ‘Living All Alone,’ No One Loves You More and ‘You Know How To Love Me’. Her interpretation of the three songs was absolutely phenomenal, especially her soul-stirring, emotional rendition of ‘Living All Alone’.
Septuagenarian Norman Connors then sauntered to the front of the stage and immediately put on his best yodelling voice as he and the New Starship Orchestra performed an alternative freestyle live version of ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan.’ Norman continued yodelling whilst pacing back and forth on stage between his fellow band members, drumsticks in hand. He then joined fellow drummer Anthony Toliver at the drum kit as both beat masters shared a fun moment whist still maintaining the groove and rhythm of “…Master Plan”.
And then all too soon an evening with the Legends of Jazz Funk came to its conclusion. Both Lonnie Liston Smith and Marva King were summoned back on stage by the legendary sticks and skin man to participate in the latter half of the song, to the immense delight of the concert-goers.
L-R: Lonnie Liston-Smith, Norman Connors & Marva King
Motioning for Lonnie to join him front and centre on the stage Norman Connors then addressed the audience – “I was a teenager working with Pharoah Sanders when I met Lonnie Liston-Smith. He’s been doing great music ever since; he was doing great music then. He helped Pharoah; we all helped Pharoah, and I’m glad to have him with us tonight. The great Lonnie Liston-Smith.” The crowd exclaimed their appreciation once more for Lonnie as he reciprocated with a prayer gesture before thanking Norman.
The Legends of Jazz Funk definitely put on an evening that will live long in the consciousnesses of all who attended. The performing artists may grow old but the quality of their musicianship and back catalogue never grows old. Obviously, the one blot on the copy paper was the fact that the missing legend Ronnie Laws could not make the trip. However, the remaining legends more than adequately filled the void and we departed the venue with our musical bellies fully sated.