Perhaps the most engaging act at this year’s Isle of Arts festival came courtesy of one of least assuming of all the venues utilised.
Charming and buzzing with bright-eyed vitality, 28 year-old cellist, pianist and singer, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, was an unlikely fit for the Ventnor Arts Club, with its dim lighting and lounge session ambience.
Paradoxically the two unlikely worlds meshed exquisitely, like shiny new shoes gracing worn out feet, with the artist making her second Isle of Wight stopover within 9 months, following an appearance last August at Ventnor Fringe.
Opening her 70-minute set with a serene translation of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” was a bold move that instantly presented an unaffected vocal capacity, with the eager cello, named ‘Reuben’ for reasons never divulged, gathering vigour as the melody progressed.
‘Flowers’ yielded a leisurely, comfortable composition that insinuated deep-rooted compassion, without ever threatening to trigger much emotion from listeners.
The issue here was a disconnect between entertainer and audience, caused by the piano’s situation necessitating a Miles Davis-esque cold shoulder, with Ayanna now facing away from her admirers.
The calibre of the music on offer remained indisputably excellent despite that minor blip, with the moving ‘Ain’t I a woman’ suggesting shades of a post-Fugees, pre-exile Lauren Hill. The tender grazing of Reuben’s strings created a captivating contrast with the potent verbal delivery.
The highest spots were reserved for the second stanza, with a positively haunting take on The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ and the seductive ‘Unconditional’.
The former’s inaugural sequence was so unapologetically melancholic, that it was easy to temporarily forget the original existed at all. It soon matured into a goose bump inducing, chilling ride that needs to be heard live in these reverberating acoustics to be fully appreciated.
Concluding with the finger plucked, soul tweaking ‘Black Panther,’ Ayanna assuredly stated: “My strength will be your anchor, like a black panther I’m free to roam without a keeper.”
Expect grand things from a young musician who graduated with honours from the Manhattan School of Music, subsequently winning the illustrious Amateur Night Live at Harlem’s esteemed Apollo Theatre, to follow in the footsteps of luminaries such as Michael Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald.
Comfortable in Ventnor’s diminutive venue, Ayanna will undoubtedly continue to blossom on the exalted stages she’s destined to grace.