When Cross the Tracks Festival first came across Gigwise’s radar, it promised to be ‘Brixton’s Soul, Funk and Jazz Feast’. It certainly did not disappoint, with a line-up that formed a ‘who’s who’ of the London jazz scene and beyond, the musical tendrils oscillating through Brockwell Park reached far and wide across the genre.
Each stage, ranging from the principal Cross The Tracks Mainline to the petite Cross The Tracks Junction, was at the centre of its own party. The Ghost Notes Rail Yard stage hosted some of London’s greatest homegrown talent including Poppy Ajudha, Nubya Garcia and Steamdown, whereas the Mainline was reserved for international stars such as Masego, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and of course the inimitable Chaka Khan. For a festival’s debut, the food and craft stalls were as well curated as the lineup with everything from Jollof rice to brightly patterned headscarves.
Children of Zeus, a collaboration between Manchester artists Tyler Daley and Konny Kon, kick things off to a crowd nursing feverish anticipation in their bellies. Daley’s soulful voice and Kon’s impassioned rapping intertwine and pulsate like soft beams of light, creating a beautifully textured sound. The lulling ‘Yeah, yeah yeah’ refrain of ‘Still Standing’, a bluesy, keyboard heavy number, are echoed by an entranced crowd.
Over at the Mainline, The Blackbyrds provide some old school staccato funk, peppering the crowd with cheeky basslines and buckets of attitude. We’re treated to the best guitar face we’ve ever seen and ear splitting trumpet breakdowns, as well as massive, beaming smiles. A trend that continues throughout the day, each and every act looks very happy to be there. Back at Ghost Notes, Poppy Ajudha is busy mesmerising the crowd with glistening melodies and that signature soulful voice. It’s clear she’s gathered a devout following, the audience murmuring the words alongside her. “I’m very happy to be here,” Ajudha announces to her home crowd, “who’s from South London?” A blend of nostalgic style and political content imbues her set, from the swaying ‘When You Watch Me’ to the charged ‘The Man You Aim To Be’, which explores toxic masculinity.
Martha Reeves accompanied by her Vandellas brings a tremendous amount of energy for a 77 year old, belting out joyous hits with a voice that just won’t quit. Her interludes addressing the crowd are legendary, “I want a birthday card from everybody on July 18th” she demands, going onto explain that each of her accompanying singers are her ‘original soul sisters’. Celebrating 60 years of the unforgettable Motown label, it’s a fitting commemoration as the outfit sing like they haven’t aged a day. “We travelled all the way from Detroit, Michigan to make love to you!” are words that echo in our ears as we scramble back across the park to catch Steamdown.
The outfit does not disappoint. Arguably the best performance of the whole day, we’re treated to an explosive, experimental set that takes the best parts of jazz, soul, funk, R&B and beyond, using them as building blocks for their exploratory infusion of sound. Led by saxophonist Ahnansé, we’re privy to eclectic spoken word by Nadeem Din-Gabisi and the transcendent voices of And Is Phi and Naima Adams. Some would argue that three vocalists are too much, but the combination of keys, drums, saxophone and trumpet proves that Steamdown have stumbled across a compositional sweet spot. It’s earth shatteringly, spine tingly, incandescently good, and the intimacy of the stage feeds their connection with the audience, who seem to be established Steamdown stans. A far cry from the ‘stiff upper lip’ appreciation of many established jazz clubs, the collective exploring ‘Afro-infinitism in all its forms’ have tapped into what the genre is meant to be about; the experience. The crowd are caught in an seismic frenzy of pleasure towards the end, as the outfit lead them in joint dance moves. The best part is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, despite how seriously good they are. Layering voices on top of each other in gentle waves and sharp staccato, then stirring in mesmerising tides of keys and adding a legato saxophone melody on top and you’ve got jazz heaven.
Thinking we can’t see better today, the grooves get down and dirty with Joel Culpepper at the Junction. With impulsive, gyrating energy that flows through his whole body, the singer is unstoppable, bringing the small but feisty crowd to its knees with excitement. The undercurrent of the music knocks us for a six, sweeping us away in a bewildered heap; we can’t help but love his wayward spirit.
Admittedly upon Gigwise’s first listen to The Comet is Coming album… we didn’t get it. Live, they are nothing short of astounding. It’s weird space music that teenage boys make in their bedroom (a la Ross’s keyboard tricks from Friends) but really, really good. The dubstep style beats could easily fill an arena, and they have the crowd head banging as if they’re in a nightclub. It’s an epic, anthem worthy sound, and as usual Shabaka Hutchings’ saxophonic skills lift the whole outfit up off the stage and fling them into space.
Pop ups of bands appear throughout the day, with small crowds vortexing around them. We discover Brastermind, who charm punters with bombastic brass, cheeky dancing and tambourine shaking. These are ‘anything goes’ spaces, where audience members join in, grabbing the tambourine and pulling shapes. Later on, we’re met by not just music but acrobatics by the South London Samba Club (decked out in matching green hoodies no less). Carefully lining up crowd members and making them crouch down, a bandmember, hyped up by the accompanying breakdown of his band, takes a run, jump and a leap over the astonished heads of the audience. The onlookers go wild, and at once throng together as one euphoric dance. It’s this kind of attitude that makes the day so incredibly memorable. Whilst there’s a family vibe, there’s not too many screaming children, and the music isn’t overpowered by people off their faces on MD. Everyone is genuinely there for the music, and the acts, who seem to be having even more fun than the audience, happily mingle amongst the food stalls and jewellery sellers.
Nubya Garcia continues the excellence over at the Ghost Notes stage. We watch with bated breath as her saxophone screams into the ether, hips moving in time to the beat. Her band move as one, Joe Armon Jones moving his frenzied fingers across the keys, holding direct eye contact with other members of the band as they are locked in a musical trance. It’s a privilege to witness such brilliance, and as Nubya is engulfed in a cloud of red smoke, the visuals onstage reflect the drama of the music.
Over at the Mainline, the crowd’s excitement is building as the crew set up for Masego. Instruments are tuned, a DJ set is played and suddenly his name appears onscreen. The tension builds, the crowd cheer and Masego strides onstage…. in a long black parka? Clearly the American is unused to the English drizzle. Thankfully once the sun makes an appearance he sheepishly removes his coat, launching into crowd favourite ‘Ta-dah!’. Charmer that he is, there’s already a bucket of roses onstage ready for the set, which he hurls into the mass of admirers that have come to worship him. Known for his mix of rap-jazz, his set goes down a treat, despite it perhaps not being the most technically accomplished or genre-bending music we’ve seen today.
With bated breath, we wait for Chaka Khan, who enters main-stage to raucous applause at nine o’ clock. With a brilliant smile, she cautions that “some of you might not know these songs, they’re from the 70s!” Her voice retains the same youthful, soaring force we remember from her recordings, and the atmosphere which was a little damp at the beginning, peaks during ‘I’m Every Woman’ mid-set. It’s wonderful to hear this legend perform with such vocal perfection, but it doesn’t feel as exhilarating as witnessing the smaller acts earlier in the day. It makes you wonder if the recent jazz renaissance has brought to the fore something more accomplished than what the 70s wonders provided, or if this genre in particular is better heard in an intimate, sweaty setting.
Cross The Tracks is a dissertation on jazz, citing the greats that have come before, whilst analysing what made them so successful and producing an evolved iteration based on previous theory. The festival gives the genre its due, which is satisfying to see after witnessing the sidelining of this ilk of music for so long. Next year is sure to be an absolute humdinger.