By Sam Bleazard
On May 14th 2014 I found myself sitting stage-side in Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London’s Soho while an effervescent Chaka Khan, in extremely rude health (due to a self-confessed diet of soups and blended goodness) smouldered and pouted as only a goddess of popular music can. She was backed onstage that night by the UKs very own jazz-funk combo Incognito (and their passionate leader Bluey Maunick). None of this happened by accident however, so first a brief history lesson…
In 1974 two things happened that would go on to have a significant impact in my life – one is that I was born (sic) and the other is that Chaka Khan and Rufus released an album called Rufusized, on a label called ABC Dunhill (no longer in existence). I want to go on record now to thank my mother for buying this album. The album cover has particularly strong memories for me, and I think it also informed my younger male psyche about the attractiveness of the female species! The music was also born out of a special period of optimism, possibility and consciousness that we may never see the like of again. The glue bringing all of this disparate information together in a kind of romantic serendipity is the fact that earlier this year I (some would say foolishly) forgot to mark Valentine’s Day. And it was the first time in the long, productive and harmonious relationship I’ve had with my (now wife) that I’d done this. I put this down as a school-boy error and certainly the second half of February was penance for this, until I happened to be in the right place at the right time to buy 2 tickets (in secret of course) for a very intimate performance by the first lady of funk, soul, jazz and any other genre you’d care to mention. To add to the excitement of my surprise – it was all about my wife I can assure you – there was going to be a Q&A with the star, not to mention dinner and champagne for the lady in my life.
And so it came to pass that as the great and good were being turned away from one of London’s most iconic music venues, due to good forward planning (and a membership card) I found myself face to face with an idol. Chaka (real name Yvette Stevens…’I think we call that my slave name now’) had gamely allowed herself to be interviewed prior to the performance. And while the interview covered more about her personal life than her music (and certainly more than anyone was expecting) it held the attention of a capacity crowd, with the more eagled-eyed music aficionados no doubt spotting DJ Gilles Peterson and Laura Mvula amongst the expectant throng.
Coming across as honest to a fault the American superstar was candid about her spirituality and the many different faiths she had invested her time in over the years (she’s now a Christian), her family dysfunction, her teenage rebellion (in part fuelled by not being allowed to go and see a Jimi Hendrix gig by her mother before he died), her challenges as a mother being on the road, her battles with drugs as a young girl on an all-male tour bus and also her relationship with food. While all this is deeply personal, it’s the reminiscing about her close friendship with Miles Davis that really entertain. “I love people who don’t have filters” she said in describing the jazz great…and a number of the stories she tells would suggest why! Even if it’s not entirely comfortable viewing for the whole half hour, the crowd are hanging on her every word…and her counsel on the ills of modern life “now that all the crap like phones and the internet have ruined everything”, is hard to argue against. However it’s when she comes to the stage that she proves beyond doubt that (a) this was the setting she was born to perform in, and (b) the clarity and power of her voice is still there, and is genuinely moving. She can still shake it too.
Incognito create a thunderous noise to tee up her arrival, with their keyboardist throwing the cues and contorting to his funky face in between solos, while leader Bluey sits Buddha-like onstage after sharing with the audience his dream as a schoolboy to work with greats such as Chaka, Stevie Wonder, George Benson (which he then went on to do). It all adds up to a sense of excitement that is palpable and we’re treated to a great set-list. Tell Me Somethin’ Good, Sweet Thing, I Feel For You, Ain’t Nobody, I’m Every Woman, You Got The Love and I Know You, I Live You. Where it really crackles in the intimacy of this low lit, low-ceiling setting however is when Chaka surprises, firstly by singing a song called ‘Love Me Still’, written by Bruce Hornsby (of “The Way It Is” fame), which is a beautiful ballad about the exposing power of true love. This is then equalled if not bettered by band-leader Bluey asking Chaka to treat the audience to an accapella version of the jazz standard ‘My Funny Valentine’, which really was a moment that gave you shivers… The band switched back to funk mode for the close of the evening, and one lucky member of the audience even got a personal happy birthday serenade at his table. In the end I never got to hear anything from Rufusized the album, the songs that kick-started my love of great music, but I realised that a musical crush that can start in your youth can turn into true love in your adulthood.
“We love you Chaka…x”