Ever since he first went solo in 1984 with Brilliant Trees the erstwhile Japan founder David Sylvian has continually evolved. From mainstream (if always credible) pop, through collaborations with serious luminaries like Harold Budd, Holger Czukay and Robert Fripp, more recently he has pushed the patience of even hardcore fans with his forays into minimalist experimentalism. Throughout all of this, the ever present thread of jazz has always been discernable, its role increasingly coming to the fore with every new release. This was, basically, an evening of jazz.
Looking resolutely cool with a hint of grey discernable in a still trademark flowing head of hair, Sylvian sat atop a stool at the front of a large and largely empty Festival Hall stage. Flanked only by a grand pianist, one wind instrumentalist, double bassist and with founder Japan member (and brother) Steve Jansen on drums and keyboards, clad in suitably cool black, the remarkably slim singer songwriter's only visible nod to his formative years was his bright white shoes.
That isn't to say he has abandoned his early work, or even Japan, as the first of the older works was a fairly prompt rolling out of Ghosts - albeit in a significantly reworked format that saw it sit more easily with his current fixation on all things jazz. It was slightly surprising and good to hear it but some of its simple beauty was lost amid the busier instrumentation that typifies much of Sylvian's mid to later career. The same was largely true of songs taken from his first two (superb) albums, the aforementioned Brilliant Trees and its follow-up Secrets of the Beehive. These included Ink in the Well, Nostalgia, Brilliant Trees, and Let The Happiness In. Only Waterfront genuinely came through the process with a sense of its original sounds, thrilling vocal line and melody intact.
Not having kept up with Sylvian's releases in any detail since those early years the remainder definitely had the potential to be too samey and, dare I suggest it, dull. There were moments when I could comfortably sit back in my chair and let the music just waft around the lofty space around us. However, they were brief. Whilst it is clear that many in the audience were still fan boys from the 80s - occasionally hollering out unsubtleties between songs - there were many others who tut, tutted loudly in disgust, proving that as many in attendance were just as, if not more, appreciative of Sylvian's more recent output. A spellbinding performance of Playground Martyrs, a new song taken from Steve Jansen's latest album, momentarily threatened to overshadow Sylvian's own work. With its glitch electronica backing, emotive (Sylvian) vocals and haunting themes this ten minute excursion into fragmented jazz would have made for a compelling alternative soundtrack to Soderberg's contemplative Solaris remake.
Whatever the fluctuations of the sound may have been, there was one captivating constant and that was David Sylvian's distinctive voice. The years have been more than just kind to him, richer, more stable and with more depth than ever - Sylvian's voice has only improved with age. He's now capable of effortlessly pulling off the vocal tricks he always valiantly (if usually over emotively) attempted in his youth. There's no reason why he shouldn't perform the older material in a form closer to its origins. It was always more complex than his peers at the time and therefore would stand quite comfortably alongside his more overtly jazz influenced recent offerings. The two styles would complement each other and the combination could be glorious. As it is, the man has nothing to unduly concern himself with. His persistence and steady flow of evolutionary releases down the decades has earned him the respect of the wider and discerning jazz circle - both credibility enhanced and fanbase intact. Few manage to achieve such a trick. So far, David Sylvian has made a fine career of it. 7/10