Whether it was the spectacle of Shabaka Hutchings and Oren Marshall spitting streams of repeated notes at each other across the stage against a toms heavy two-drum kit storm of African drumming, or layer upon layer of howling keyboards and wah wah pedal distortion locked with a whirlwind of broken beats and clubby grooves, this double bill of Mehliana (drums and keyboards) and Sons of Kemet (two drummers with tuba and reeds) made for a thunderous and ultimately exhilarating evening.
Brad Mehldau has been a creative force on the world scene for twenty years. If the acoustic trio is his most familiar setting, a singular and poetic sound, he has been a frequent adventurer, writing and performing for strings, singers, and collaborating with other composers, musicians and producers. On his 2001 album of mainly original music Largo, he made frequent use of heavy rocky drums, foreshadowing this new collaboration with drummer Mark Guilinana in his interest in pitting the piano and keyboards against a heavy rhythmic foil. In Mehliana, as well as piano, he’s added a battery of synthesisers, foot pedals and a fender Rhodes, all of which looked like they have been in regular use since the 1970s.
Their set began and ended with the same simple elements; gently pulsing, repeated chords on piano with a subtly shifting note in the blend adding movement, instantly evoking the fusion of jazz and classical neo-romantic that is pure Mehldau. In between, broken fragments of melody, honking bassy riffs, washes of electronic orchestral sound were layered on, Mark Guiliana, face knotted in concentration battering out snappy ryhthms with such ferocity that constant kit repair and adjustment were needed and attrition of drumsticks was high. Occasionally the intensity eased, and then a more stirring anthemic vibe settled in. This was an intense absorbing set with a clamorous insistent pulse and electronic squall that could somehow only have emerged from a city.
Sons of Kemet, barely visible through the mist of an exuberant smoke machine as they began, were more earthy but no less exuberant and tumultuous. Seb Roachford and Tom Skinner were seamless as the double drum attack laying down a carpet of rhythm that borrowed variously from African and Caribbean calypso like lilts. The exchanges between Hutchings mainly on tenor and occasionally clarinet and Oren Marshall’s unique tuba were electrifying. At times a duel of locked phrases, at others complementing and raising the energy still further. There was real drama and theatre in their performance and the roars of approval from the avid Barbican crowd a just response.
The London Jazz Festival pulled another masterstroke in combining these two acts. They shared the attention grabbing primacy of rhythm in the one to one ratio of drummers to other musicians, but took us on very different journeys. Thunderous and exhilarating.