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Music Review A joyful reimagining of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece

DAN NOLAN thoroughly enjoys a flawed but heartfelt rendition of the politically charged song cycle, performed by an exciting jazz orchestra that’s bursting with talent

Nu Civilisation Orchestra: What’s Going On
Royal Festival Hall, London


THERE has been plenty of focus on the politics of What’s Going On this year, as Marvin Gaye’s crowning achievement turns 50. Soaked in the blood of war, of racial hatred, poverty, struggle, and a crumbling ecology, there’s likely no better expression of our current predicament than the one he put on record in Detroit and West Hollywood five decades ago.

As with so much great political art, its relevance is sustained more by the questions it asks than any concrete answer it gives; the album never really finds the solution to its title’s query except to reaffirm it as a statement — on telling harsh truths, and offering solidarity to those suffering through them.

It is in this spirit that Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s ambitious reimagining of What’s Going On was presented within the cosy concrete of the Southbank Centre.

Surrounding the performance itself was a celebration of the incredible talent within this group, developed by the centre’s resident Tomorrow’s Warriors — a programme that nurtures young musicians, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, completely free of charge, sometimes for more than a decade.

The orchestra’s conductor, Peter Edwards, joined them as an intern in 2004, and has since become one of the most celebrated young talents in British jazz — leading an ensemble that is proudly diverse and more than willing to break with musical convention.

The opening half is a curious take on Trouble Man, Gaye’s foray into film scoring, which was released a year after What’s Going On. Honouring the artist’s wish to have it turned into a symphony someday, the audience are ably guided through the narrative by actor Colin Salmon, though questions remain as to whether the cinematic strains completely justify their place here — the movie’s iconic theme aside.

The sweeping scope of What’s Going On is equally fit for the screen, and the stark footage projected behind the second-half performance – the deprived New York of the 1970s mixed in with modern foodbanks, Black Lives Matter protests and Extinction Rebellion actions – drives home the relevance of its politics, albeit with far less subtlety than the record itself.

What really makes this performance sing is not only the artful way in which Edwards reimagines the album to showcase the talent he and artistic director Gary Crosby have at their disposal – solos from viola, conga and electric bass are all welcome here – but the joy with which the performers go about it.

Energetically headed by Noel McKoy, a vocal match for Gaye without verging into impression, there’s slaps of the hand, smiles on faces, and even a bout of knowing laughter between the two tireless saxophonists as they get a single song off duty.

What’s Going on is political and permeated with pain, but it also recognises what holds us together: community, friends, family and solidarity. It’s not perfect, but Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s performance is as fitting a tribute to that sentiment as you’ll find.

Nu Civilisation Orchestra’s What’s Going On was a London Jazz Festival performance. The group are on tour until November 26. For info, visit: Tomorrow's Warriors Present A Great Day in London – billed as the greatest London jazz happening in a generation – at the Southbank Centre on December 4:


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