Paolo Conte, Barbican, Friday 16th October

PconteWith most of the near capacity crowd in the Barbican on their feet whooping, cheering and singing along with Paolo Conte as he reprised Wonderful for his second encore, the  veteran Italian crooner’s conquest was complete.  This audience were probably a push-over however. From the rapturous reception as he arrived on stage, through the spontaneous cheers and ripples of applause that greeted the opening bars of another jaunty theme, it was clear that his UK fan-base was out in force. He purrs and growls rather than sings.  The band, consisting of multiple guitars, rotating pianists, percussionists, saxophonists, now accordion, now second keyboard by turns evoked swing era dance bands, Italian cafe music, muted Hot Club swing, playful western-style country or sentimental ballads. Lest the latter appeared too saccharine, Conte was apt to rasp his lyric through a kazoo – like device.  The crescendos and swell  of understated latin grooves accumulated exquisitely judged intensity before, with a flap of his arms, Conte brought them to a halt. To have resisted the charm and force of this bravura performance would have taken a stonier heart than mine.

London Jazz Festival Recollections Part 1 – Charles Lloyd, The Barbican

CharlesLloydI’ve been dipping in and out of a Charles Lloyd induced trance all week. The closing gig of London’s 10 day  multidimensional jazz takeover (festival hardly seems to do it justice) saw the newly endowed NEA Jazz Master weave his spell over a packed Barbican that had just been transfixed by Soundprints, the Dave Douglas/ Joe Lovano led quintet.  A double bill of these two bands  seemed like impossible riches, but I confess it’s the strange magic that Lloyd weaves that has had me re-entering the spell he cast. It was  a near continuous set of textures, melodies, insidious rhythms and occasionally, startlingly, spasms of loose driving swing.  The tenor sound, that seems to rise out of the stage like a vapour, is reedy, sometimes acerbic and can sound like an incantation, a quiet prayer-like chant, the most heart stopping gorgeous melody and then with a twitch of a knee or a nod of the head it gains weight and energy and bluesy inflections.  The extraordinary band swirl around the master, rustles and clicks from Eric Harland on drums, little rippling runs from Gerald Clayton on piano.  Harland was a marvel to watch. The transitions from absract floating textures to insistently grooving pulse just seemed to emerge, Joe Sanders‘ bass suddenly locking in just when the meditative vibe might have been too much to stay with. This project is called The Wild Man Suite and incorporates Greek and Hungarian musicians.  Whatever image that conjures up, rest assured: its a Charles Lloyd band. It was amazing how the Socratis Sinopoulos‘ lyra ( a lute like bowed instrument) and Miklos Lukacs‘ cimbalom (what looked like the strung frame of a piano laid flat and played with vibes mallets) blended with the Lloyd sound. The lyra sound was weirdly like Lloyd’s sax as it etched out haunting melodies. Lukacs provided some furious solos sounding like an edgy, prepared piano over a storm whipped up by Harland.  Wild it wasn’t. Intense; taking us beyond the moment; entrancing it was.

Mehliana/ Sons of Kemet, Barbican, London Jazz Festival, Thursday, November 21st

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.

ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lynn Carrington, Esperanza Spalding) , Barbican, London Jazz Festival, Sunday 17th November

As the last cymbal crash and thundered chord of ACS’s reading of ‘Infant Eyes’ still hung in the air, the capacity crowd in the hall exhaled and let out a roar of appreciation. It was Wayne Shorter day at the Barbican. The octogenarian icon ACS_Barbicanhimself and his quartet had the evening slot, a film was showing in the afternoon, Ruben Fox and Mark Kavuma were on the freestage playing some of his early music and ACS, the trio of Geri Allen, Terri Lyn Carrington and Esperanza Spalding who have been touring with him were in the main hall late afternoon.  This had been no tribute set however.  Over an intense, nearly two hours, they celebrated the man by applying his fearless approach to playing compositions and improvising. Nothing less than deconstruction and re-invention would do.

Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards and the beautiful ballad ‘Infant Eyes’ is a treasure. Terri Lynn Carrington introduced it as a favourite before whipping up a storm with beaters and cymbals and a rolling, splashy rubato statement of the first part of the familiar theme emerged. A seething, regular pulse settled and Geri Allen spun off, all percussive dissonant chords, darting runs and rippling arpeggios. A loose funky groove  with a strong reggae like back beat underpinned an emerging fragment of the middle section of the theme paving the way for a fluid and rythmically driving bass solo.  An insistent pulse built into a melee of rocky crashing chords that etched out the final section of the melody to reach that thunderous climax. No genuflecting at the altar of classic recordings here.

Every piece was worked through with familiar sections of melody appearing and dissolving into an intense, often abstract exploration before reappearing momentarily. Each had its own character. ‘Virgo’s’ theme was whistled jauntily by Spalding; Nefertiti appeared as a dense abstract funky shuffle; ‘Beautiful friendship’, a standard Allen has been playing and recording for over twenty years kept threatening to burst into swing but Terri Lynn Carrington and Esperanza Spalding kept fractured, anticipatory rhythmic figures churning so it never quite resolved. Only Allen’s own composition ‘Unconditional Love’ provided a slightly more relaxed reading with vocal acrobatics from Spalding embellishing and entrancing by turns.

In an interview with Jazzwise Magazine shortly before the festival, the trio talked about seeking to emulate Shorter in an approach to performing that meant being prepared to follow ideas and inspirations live without knowing where it will lead. There’s a risk of it going wrong of course – playing ‘Without a  Net’ to borrow the title of Shorter’s album. To do that and for the results for the trio to be powerful requires, in Spalding’s words ‘a very deep level of playing’.  The concentration on stage was palpable. Eyes were locked fiercely, grins and smiles exchanged. They were listening hard, stretching and having fun. This demanded a lot of the audience too. There were times where the breath was held “Will they fall off the high wire?”  But in embracing the spirit of Shorter’s music making, this trio are creating some quite extraordinary moments. It was a privilege to go along for the ride.

London Jazz Fest last post.. but mainly about Chick Corea, Barbican, Saturday 17th November

Saturday was my last day at the London Jazz Festival and it finished with Chick Corea’s trio at the Barbican. A lovely day, dodging showers, drinking coffee, a bit of blogging and then absorbing buzz and energy with the crowds at the South Bank, listening to Jazz Line up live and getting three bands in just over an hour of wildly varying and unfailingly interesting and enjoyable British jazz (Sam Crowe, Trish Clowes, Larry Stabbins; you can hear it here). Then it was off to the Barbican, arriving slightly sweaty palmed having got snarled up in tube chaos.

This trio are longstanding collaborators, Corea, Christian McBride and Brian Blade but have never recorded to my knowledge in this stripped down line – up (yet!).  Seeing Keith Jarrett last year I was taken aback how by how familiar the sound of that trio and his playing were, to some extent the sound track of my jazz listening life. Corea I was thinking perhaps less so, but he has a way of playing that is utterly distinctive – perhaps I’ve listened more than I think. Another thought is that things he does have found their way into so many pianists playing that there’s a sound that everyone makes that you can track back to him to a degree, making him sound really familiar.

Here’s a few of the things he does with a band that just make hairs on my neck rise.  When they drift into a swing feel they seem to be floating along.  No-one is playing  much even at fast tempos. A few chords or scattered phrases from the piano, long notes and skips on the bass and complementary skittering from the drums – they just glide. It gives me butterflies. Sure the showers of notes follow but its hang onto your hats then!  Then there’s what he does with harmony. There are a lot of notes at times, but there’s something very sparse and open and stripped down about the phrases and lines he plays – its almost like they are only just attached to the harmonies until a crunchy rich chord appears and shifts everything sideways – it gives me goose bumps. All this was in the room on Saturday.  Halfway through I was reminded of a set list for Iain Ballamy’s Anorak when I first saw them. Instead of giving tunes ordinary titles, he call them the ‘the opener’, ‘the latin number’, ‘the ballad’, ‘the burner’, ‘the blues’ – somewhat self mocking taken with the band’s name!  I have no idea what the tunes were called on Saturday and didn’t recognise them but we had abstract noodle morphing into that floaty swing for the opener, a pretty waltz sounding thing, a latin/ samba number, splashy intro going into swing thing, the blues… i think.. (actually he told us that was Work by Monk) . They really revved up in the Samba and by the time of the closing blues they were just jamming weren’t they? Sidling up to the tune, trading phrases, having a great time – and so were we.  Then on came special guest Jacqui Dankworth to sing But Beautiful and 500 Miles High (they gave every sign of not having planned the latter ) and then when the capacity crowd refused to go until they played a bit more, came back and played All Blues.
Chick Corea is just turning 70.  He is unquestionably a hugely influential pianist. I’ll confess at times I’ve found his recorded output a bit cold or abstract for my taste – a very personal response – but live on saturday they just glowed and it all made sense.

Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard; London Jazz Festival, Barbican, Sunday 14th November

A cold November night, the the Barbican main hall is packed and on the menu some of the hottest names in the jazz of now from over the Atlantic – it must be the London Jazz Festival. This gig has been much reviewed enthusiastically and insightfully by London Jazz and John Fordham in the Guardian to name but two; the stylistic and influence references are well flagged there. So here’s a focus on my thoughts and impressions. As the skittering broken rhythms from the drums of Mark Colenburg and bass of Derrick Hodge locked and danced around the vamp that emerged from Robert Glasper’s opening flurry of notes, it was clear this was going to be a bit special. There was plenty of abstraction and challenge in this set; it was no easy listening jazz meets street groove fest (although that would have been fun). The first half of the set passed through various episodes as different melodies emerged and dissolved. A vamp led into an extended piano improvisation and then a bass solo; another strong theme and this time the rhythmic interplay built up to a drum solo (first applause of the evening) and then it all ended as it begun with a softly stated chordal vamp from the piano this time becoming Nirvana’s ‘smells like teen spirit’. Yes all the hip hop beats, skids and rattles were there, but then so were gospelly riffs and more flowing Jarrett like lines. Dissecting the building blocks like this somehow loses the overall effect though – this felt like a journey we were taking with surprising turns for the musicians as well as us. It all went up a gear when Terence Blanchard joined for a number with Mark Day taking over on drums – the sound of burning 21st century Jazz on the Barbican stage.

Terence Blanchard’s Quintet certainly had some of the same rhythmic elements, but there were definitely a few swung quavers I spotted and some exquisite small band compostions (two versions of Choice) and music with a message, interspersed with readings from writer Cornell West (present in recorded message only!) Blanchard is a fabulous trumpet player. He can sustain that fragile thoughtful tone even when blazing away on a post-post- bop burner. What an evening.

Should I go on about how this was only the first weekend of the Festival and they’d already had Herbie the night before over at South Bank and Brad Meheldau at the Barbican the night before? What an extraordinary festival it’s become with community participation events, dozens of venues with an incredible programme of local and international talent from the most adventurous music to the the good-est of good times. Sadly can only cast envious eyes down the Motorway from the West – but delighted its happening.

Rollins Week Part 2b: Sonny Rollins, Barbican, Saturday 14th November

sonny_rollinsMy abiding recollection of Saturday’s gig is the feeling of warmth that seemed to emanate from the the stiff legged, white haired, near octogenarian bundle of energy that  fronted the band . He was clad in a  baggy, silky shirt of more or less the same orange as all the signs around the Barbican, and it was tempting to assume that they had refurbished their look in his honour. That I’m recalling what it felt like to be there more than the musical content seems appropriate. I can’t better the description in the programme notes: muscular hard-bop, lilting ballads and cheeky calypsos. It was the first cheeky calypso about half way through that sent the energy levels through the roof. He stood at the footlights, honking, swaying, conducting himself and generally firing everyone up. My other pair of ears summed it up. “He’s getting down” she whispered. She also commented on the musical conversations that seemed to go on. After the theme of a lilting ballad say, Sonny honks and nudges, playing fragments of melody and long notes as one of the sidemen gets going on their moment in the spotlight – a bit of one to one on stage coaching. And all to soon it was the blues to jam out. We couldn’t believe how the time had flown. The encore? Don’t stop the Carnival of course.  This is what he does. Compare the review of yesterday with that from three years ago by John Fordham here and here. Not quite the same set but not far off. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Somehow he manages the trick of making it feel he’s communicating directly so the instrument and the material are a bit secondary.