It’s well understood that in Monteverdi’s day, music was often played with a great deal of improvisation, much as music is played by today’s jazz musicians, and that indeed, jazz constructions like the walking bass go back to those days and before. Many early music groups allow themselves a freedom to improvise that’s foreign to classical musicians of later periods, but it’s rare to see early music practitioners and jazz musicians making music together on a concert platform. That made Kings Place’s latest “Sound Unwrapped” concert an interesting prospect, bringing together jazzmen Julian Joseph and Mark Hodgson with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, to play us a sampler from Monteverdi’s anthology Selva Morale e Spirituale.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

Monteverdi’s collection is a bottomless treasure trove. The texts may be a lot of religious Latin (the one number in Italian vernacular, Chi voi che m’innamori, is a moralistic meditation on the brevity of life), but the music is anything but churchy, filled with tripping dances and aching laments. And the quality of both sets of musicians was irreproachable. The vocal line-up consisted of  two sopranos, two tenors and one bass, all of whom were a delight to listen to. Katy Hill and Alexandra Kidgell gave us angelic purity in the slower passages, with expertly turned phrases as they soared above their colleagues. Mark Dobell was particularly cogent in Chi voi che m’innamori and provided plenty of backbone with his tenor colleague Steven Harrold. Bass Stuart Young was given less to sing, but came through strongly on the militaristic Deus tuorum militum. Balance was perfect in the ensemble pieces and diction generally good.

Julian Joseph, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

The Sixteen’s six instrumentalists provided able support, with harpist Joy Smith and theorbist Eligio Luis Quinterio making many telling interventions as well as acting as continuo. Joseph is a very fine jazz pianist, picking up on Monteverdi’s melodies and giving them back to us with enough excursions into the jazz world to satisfy our ears’ curiosity, but never seeking the spectacular and never attempting to blast through The Sixteen with raw power. Hodgson was the picture of solidity whether dissolving himself into the ensemble or playing sideman to Joseph.

The Sixteen
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

For all this fine musicianship, the concert did not deliver on its promise. It was advertised as “a continuous fusion of the styles, mostly in conversation with each other but occasionally coming together as one”. The reality was that the two styles played mostly alternately and rarely together; the “conversation” turned out to be very one-sided. Joseph was certainly listening to the Monteverdi and providing interesting jazz-styled reactions to it, but  The Sixteen did not seem to be reacting in any way to the presence of jazz musicians on the stage, other than to leave them time in which to play.

Capped by Beatus vir, one of the collection’s greatest hits, performed with no little verve, this was pleasant music to while away a winter’s evening. But given what can be achieved with Monteverdi by upping the improvisatory ante, this concert must count as a wasted opportunity.