John Legend gives all of himself to performance at Dubai Jazz Festival

After his Oscar win, there has never been a more pertinent time to see John Legend - and he more than lived up to the promise.

John Legend performs at the Dubai Jazz Fest in Media City, Dubai February 27, 2015. Jeff Topping / For The National
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There has never been a more pertinent time to see John Legend. On Sunday (Feb 22) he won an Oscar, for Selma theme Glory, and used his acceptance speech to make an impassioned political plea which put him in headlines across the globe.

And just five days later, on Friday (Feb 27), Legend took to the stage to close the Dubai Jazz Festival, for his first live gig since the win. Fate? Luck? A smart booking? We’re just glad he showed up.

If Legend had other things on his mind – awards, politics, or the swimwear model wife he seems inseparable from, Chrissy Teigen – he kept them well hidden on the night, in a 90-minute set which can only be defined by its sophisticated professionalism.

Before Legend took to the stage soul legends such as Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder were piped through the speakers. Perhaps the intention was to highlight his influences, but it felt like Legend was setting himself a high-bar challenge. He did take the stage name Legend, after all, because he sounds like one of them.

And he looked like one, too, striding onstage in a hip blue suit and buttoned-up flower shirt to launch into single Made to Love. Next he took a seat effortlessly behind the keys for a roaring attack on Curtis Mayfield's Hard Times, a tune he recorded alongside The Roots in 2010.

Legend stayed at the piano for a chilled ballad take of Tonight (Best You Ever Had), originally recorded as a mid-tempo R&B groove with Ludacris, before 2008 anthem Let's Get Lifted.

“Love is in the air tonight,” screams Legend. It’s certainly his main (sole?) source of lyrical inspiration.

In an era where cheap sleaze dominates in music, Legend makes seduction sound romantic and respectful. A charming ladies man with twinkly, and perhaps occasionally roving, eyes. So while he cheekily preaches discreet encounters in a park in PDA (We Just Don't Care), by The Beginning he's sticking round to build a family ("Pick some names, boy or girl").

His band were phenomenal, a socking seven-piece, packing punchy brass, plus an additional two backing singers, who set the space on fire with the disco-flavoured Green Light and Save the Night, which climaxed in an soul-rock outro during which Legend disappeared from the stage for some minutes.

But for all the show-stealing chops, the biggest audience reaction came when Legend sat solo behind the keys of his grand piano, for the affecting radio ballad Ordinary People, and a soulful cover of Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Not everything worked. The finger-clicking Bossa groove of Maxine was cute, but flimsy and artificial. And while it seems almost obligatory for big artists to pay tribute to Michael Jackson these days (check Prince's Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough at Pacha), Legend's mellow recast of Rock With You had a tinge of afternoon Vegas cabaret about it.

But this guy is so suave he can pull anything off. Throughout Legend presides with a cool charm, working the crowd like a master entertainer, sharing warm-heartened anecdotes with an up-front honestly like he hadn’t told them dozens of times before.

The smouldering R&B of Who Do We Think We Are and You and I (Nobody in the World) are transformed into intimate, jazz bar ballads. "It's important to make time for date night," Legend grins at the crowd. "I know some of you are on date night tonight." Looking back at the swelling sea of happy faces, he wasn't wrong.

Closing with a Caught Up sing-along and a rousing So High, Legend left the stage utterly convincing in his powers as a performer, singer, songwriter, bandleader, sharp-dresser, storyteller and talent. In an era where appropriation of the past is so wanton and commonplace – from Daft Punk's disco to Bruno Mars' soul and Mark Ronson's funk – Legend stands head and shoulders above the competition. Stuck in an air-tight locker, immune to trend, doing what he does – writing and singing classic-sounding soul and R&B – because that's what he knows how to best.

Of course, there was one song he hadn't played yet. Legend returned to the stage to sing the song everyone – those grinning couples especially – were there to see. But this wasn't just any All of Me. Legend premiered a brand new, Arabic-flavoured arrangement alongside its creator, Lebanese producer Jean-Marie Riachi. It was a nice touch, littered with oud flourishes, but felt like a slightly rushed arrangement which was too reliant on a backing track.

There might be a trumpet on the Dubai Jazz Festival’s logo, but it was day three before we saw one on stage, backing Miss Esperanza Spalding.

Flitting between upright and fretless electric bass, jazz-crossover star Spalding showcased an astounding dexterity, leading a phenomenal seven-piece band through her knotty, inventive, funk-flavoured arrangements. Mid-set Mr Legend tweeted a picture from the side of the stage, saying Spalding “sounded so lovely”.

Better than lovely, Spalding was brilliant. Playing almost exclusively from 2012's Radio Music Society – the very concept of which was to get jazz back on the radio – the 30-year-old talent dazzled with Cinnamon Tree, Crowned & Kissed and Black Gold.

But leaving the stage after just 45 minutes, and with the house lights left on and the single Radio Song unplayed, there was some speculation she was unhappy with the audience reaction. She performs with jazz legend Wayne Shorter tonight in Poland.

rgarratt@thenational.ae