Ayanna Witter-Johnson & LSO Percussion Ensemble

The Hub, Edinburgh

Since Ben Tindall created a home for the Edinburgh International Festival in an abandoned Church of Scotland building on Castlehill in 1999, the architectural confection lumbered with the prosaic name of The Hub has presented a challenge for successive directors of the event. Although there have been successful one-off concerts and productions there over the years, it possibly achieved maximum usefulness as a studio for filmed chamber music during the restrictions of the Covid pandemic.

Nicola Benedetti’s solution to the use of the place during the three weeks is an eclectic series of recitals reflecting the range of the wider programme, which she hopes will make it a venue for the conversation she wants to have with the audience about the future direction of the Festival.

Few of the musicians performing there will encapsulate that range more individually than songwriter and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson. She last appeared in Scotland as a member of Peter Gabriel’s touring band and at EIF as a composer, her specially-commissioned work, Blush, paired with Judith Weir’s woman.life.song, performed by Chineke! and Andrea Baker during those Covid years. That piece, which plundered the archives of 70s jazz orchestration and Blaxploitation movie soundtracks, suggested a restless musical mind which her cheerful engaging combination of soulful performance and virtuosity here quickly confirmed.

Her collaborators were jazz pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock and the long-serving Principal Percussionist of the London Symphony Orchestra Neil Percy with three of his LSO colleagues from the section. The Hub stage was filled with their instruments, tuned and simpler, but the metronomic beat of much of the music came from a foot-pedal and woodblock operated by Witter-Johnson herself, as, standing, she also played riffs and improvised on her long spiked cello, both bowed and pizzicato, and sang quite beautifully. As her solo encore of Sting’s Roxanne, complete with Bach-like introduction, demonstrated, she developed that startling one-woman-band technique to perfection before success brought her the luxury of these musical partners.

Her relationship with the LSO goes back more than a decade to her youthful involvement with the orchestra’s composers’ hub (every arts organisation has to have one) initiative, but it has reached a new level with the release in October of an album by this ensemble, Ocean Floor, on the LSO Live label. This concert was a showcase for that recording, built around her suite that gives it its title.

There are tragic stories, historical and personal, behind the music Witter-Johnson has composed for the project, but you might not guess that on an initial listen. She has a gift for joyful melody, both instrumental and vocal, and the complexity of her own writing teamed beautifully with Neil Percy’s improvising and Simcock’s arranging of her earlier tune, Chariot, in a distinctly Steve Reich style.

Simcock’s own composition for the album, Holding, although expansively introduced by the pianist, was less successful, probably because the short theme which it explores is less interesting in itself, but it did give each of the other players – David Jackson, Tom Edwards and Sam Walton (also a member of Colin Currie’s quartet) – their own moment in the spotlight.

Keith Bruce