My little slice of London Jazz Festival

London Jazz Festival – oof! The producers Serious had a neat little strap line this year that ran ‘2,000+ artists. 300+ gigs. 50+ venues. 23 years. 1 city’.  There was even a ‘pop-up’ radio station, a first and a joint enterprise between the Beeb and JazzFM. No traffic was stopped or streets closed (to my knowledge), but the festival was surely hard to miss if you’ve even a passing interest in jazz or the very large umbrella that embraces ‘jazz inspired’ or ‘jazz related’.   My own little skirmish with the gargantuan proportions of the programme seems extremely modest, but the afterglow is still there a week later, so here’s a quick sum up together with links (I reviewed them for London Jazz News).

My nearly-a- weekend (Thursday to Saturday) was bookended by ‘An Evocation of the music of Kenny Wheeler (review here) in the august surroundings of Cadogan Hall and  ‘A tribute to Bill Evans’ in the more louche, authentic jazz club of the 606 Club (review here).  In between was the even sweatier, literally underground, scene of the Con Cellar Bar with a double header of today’s rising stars George Crowley‘s Can of Worms and Kit Downes’ The Enemy (review here).

The Kenny Wheeler had a dazzling line-up. Check the website but did they really have Ralph Towner on for just three numbers and twenty minutes?  Gwilym Simcock (poignantly, effectively a dep for John Taylor) and Chris Laurence similarly in a short ‘last quintet’ set? Well yes they did.  Somehow they hit their stride instantly.  Moments of pure ‘hairs standing on the back of the neck’ magic for me were  Norma Winstone and Ralph Towner doing Celeste. The uncanny blend of Norma’s voice and Towner’s guitar made time pause for a moment. The London Vocal Project were remarkable. Never mind their rhythm section of Dave Holland, Nikki Iles and Martin France(!), they were simply thrilling as they leapt around the melody of Humpty Dumpty their voices another exquisite blend such that I kept checking it wasn’t just one person singing.

The Bill Evans tribute had its own share of thrills. The sound an repertoire is so familiar, but the glow in the memory is from the quality of the band and the performances. Nikki Iles led the core trio and B minor Waltz, as well as starting the evening, set the bar high. From sketchy phrases, long notes and rustles from the drums, the energy and intensity seemed to grow and flower rather than self-consciously build. Magical stuff.

Con Cellar Bar’s menu was altogether more frenetic,dense but no less thrilling.  London Jazz Fest seems to hoover up some regular London gigs into its programme to everyone’s benefit. This was a home match for these players, in many cases now with big reputations,  with perhaps an audience from further afield than the regular crowd at this particular venue. Its one whose reputation has spread as so many of our current maturing talents have cut their teeth there.  There’s nervousness about its longevity as the pub is due for a re-furb. Let’s hope it continues.

Mine was a wafer thin slice through this huge, wide ranging festival. London Jazz News awesomely reviewed over 60 in total (so just 20% or so!) including this short summary of 35 or so.  Just scanning it is a little bit tiring, but inspiring that there’s so much great music being created, live, and people still going to see it.   Oof!



London Jazz Festival Recollections – Part 2: Pianists, Blue Notes and all-star bands

Musical stimulation overload is an occupational hazard if you choose to dive into a festival as all encompassing as the London Jazz epic. Just hanging out at the South Bank Centre or Barbican guarantees exposure to jaw slackening variety and quality. And that’s without parting with a penny for tickets. Find some cash and even more possibilities are opened up. There’s a guide to be written there (Working title: Festival for a fiver a day?).  Now the dust has settled, a couple of threads are still glowing in my memory. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper‘sIMG_1289 two piano work out in the first half of the The Blue Note 75th anniversary celebration was a slightly unanticipated stand-out.  Two pianos can make a lot of noise and fill up a lot of space but these two modern masters were out to make music, not indulge in a four fisted cutting contest.  In an unbroken hour’s music they started with a gritty blues, accompanying each other and leaving plenty of space,  moved through all sorts of  moods, an electrifying percussive episode with all manner of junk thrown in the pianos to create rattles and crashes and solos spots that accentuated their different muscial identities. Glasper veered more to expressive touches, rich harmony and soulful grooves, Moran was more acerbic, with jagged lines, spiralling boppish lines and dissonant abstractions. It was a magical hour.

The next day,  in the middle of the Chaos Collective’s takeover of the Barbican free stage, Elliot Galvin‘s trio showed why they won a European prize earlier this year – the connected thread with the previous evening was that he was matching Moran and Glasper in the amount of junk hurled into the piano to whip up more percussive storms. The trio’s set was a standout of the weekend  veering between wild reveries and furious storms of notes and moments of exquisite tenderness.

The Blue Note celebrations were ubiquitous and having seen the all-star band with Glasper, Marcus Strickland, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lionel Loueke, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott on Saturday followed by Soundprints, the Dave IMG_1292Douglas, Joe Lovano Quintet with Linda Oh, Joey Barron and Lawrence Fields it was hard not to feel we should have seen the best of modern jazz.  There’s a heavy weight of expectation however. The Blue Note all-stars delivered a roaring set starting with a comprehensive deconstruction of Witchunt and plenty of of catch the breath moments.  Akinmusire’s Henya was pure distilled beauty although Loueke conspired to disrupt with some oddly jarring guitar synth sounds. He redeemed himself with an astonishing solo display sounding like two guitarists, drums and vocal chorus all in one. Soundprints’ music is Shorter inspired and their already electric set really took off with two Shorter originals written for the band.  It might have been showstopping except Charles Lloyd was still to come.

The annual ten day festival is now bewildering in its variety and scope but its almost impossible not to be uplifted, enriched and caught unawares by moments of magic. Ticket price is a poor guide, open ears and heart an essential.   London Jazz News managed to co-ordinate reviewing 34 of the 250+ gigs a with a round up of another 20 or so a perusal of those offers a good insight into some of what went on.

Essentially Ellington: SNJO/ Ellington in Anticipation, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23rd November

Duke Ellington is said to have avoided the word jazz, saying there was only good and bad music and referred to his own work as American and ‘beyond category’. It ‘s impossible however to make sense of all the music we celebrates as jazz and jazz inspired without acknowledging the musical language and legacy of the great composer, bandleader and pianist. This gig was the centrepiece of a series of events doing just that as part of London Jazz Festival.

Two contrasting sets first by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, re-creating the sound, look and experience of the Ellington Orchestra and then Ellington in Anticipation, reinterpreting and re-working the repertoire, made for a fascinating, entertaining and moving evening.

The attention to detail of saxophonist, leader Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra goes far beyond playing the exact arrangements with the stylistic quirks of the great band. The layout of the stage, style of the music stands and dress sense of the band were all in keeping (barring the odd fulsome beard).  The effect was enchanting. As well as now universally known standards like ‘Mood Indigo’ we were treated to lesser-known material from the Queen’s Suite ; ‘Le Sucrier Velours’, ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ – a sumptuous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock on piano.  There were pieces written by Ellington for individual virtuosos in his band; Jack the Bear for bass player Jimmy Blanton, Concerto for Cootie for pyrotechnic trumpeter Cootie Williams, Calum Gourlay and Tom Walsh respectively stepping up to fill the shoes on the night.  If this couldn’t help but be drenched in a sense of nostalgia, the seriousness and artistry with which it was done made the music pulse with life.

The one exception to the pattern of re-creation, that duet between Smith and Kellock, made the contrast between the constraints of the big band and the very short pieces of the early 1930s repertoire all the more striking. Smith’s warm tenor swooped and embellished the melody as Kellock responded giving a very contemporary, interpretive take on the beautiful melody.

Ellington in Anticipation was all re-invention and re-interpretation.  Leader, Mark Lockheart’s very personal treatment of the Ellingtonian source material gave us a riveting set and provided a platform for some gloriously uninhibited playing from a fantastic band with a dream rhythm section of Seb Roachford and Jasper Hoiby.

The melody of ‘It don’t mean a thing’ appeared, stretched out of over a rolling 12/8 feel and the familiar repeated notes became a distinctive, African flavoured, rhythmic figure. ‘Caravan’, starting with a collective bout of percussive tapping of instruments and stamping of feet, developed a flowing even quavered feel and evoked the first of a number of explosive solos from Finn Peters.  James Alsopp’s solo on Creole Love Call was a standout moment as was Liam Noble’s solo introduction to the dark Lockheart original ‘Beautiful Man’. The distinctive addition of Margrit Hasler’s viola added unusual colours to the sound.

This was an absorbing, celebratory and emotionally charged evening of music.

Troykestra, Purcell Room, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23rd November

What extra do you get with an ‘estra’?  Troyka, the sizzling. electronica orientated trio of Kit Downes on keyboards, Chris Montague on guitar and loops and Josh Blackmore on drums, who have made such a splash with their blend of rock, jazz and clubby loops and grooves, added the ‘estra’ by collaborating with the Royal Academy of Music’s big band and its conductor Nick Smart, made possible originally by a commission from Jazzwise.  This gig launched the CD, a live recording of their 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival performance.

One extra is the impact of stabbing, syncopated riffs from the squeakily tight horn sections, artfully arranged so that the jagged phrases locked and retained the momentum of the quick-fire techno exchanges of the trio. From the off, ‘Rarebit’ began with a looped rocky feel and the force of the big band’s richly voiced chords pinned us to our seats.  ‘Dropsy’ starting with atmospheric washes of sound from the trio developed into a real groover, the brass storming in with joyous declamatory phrases.

The repertoire was mainly the trio material reworked and arranged for this bang up to date big band, although given that this was a CD launch, only two or three of the tunes were from that recording. What is lost in the translation  to a larger ensemble is some of the manoeuvrability of the trio with less scope for pieces to evolve new directions and develop organically in performance.  A gain, alongside that rich palette of sound, is space for some incendiary soloing from the ranks of the sections. Mick Chillingworth on alto and James Allsop on tenor in particular cut through and produced wild and exciting moments surfing the hubbub of riffs and grooves.   ‘Chaplin’, a quieter piece, built around an acoustic piano figure and singing guitar lines from Montague, evoked a more tender emotional solo from Allsop and a standout moment of the gig.

The extension of Troyka to Troykestra provides for plenty of excitement and energy with more to come. The set closed with new pieces written specifically for the combined band as one of the twenty one commissions celebrating the festival’s twenty one years.  A great pointer towards some of what might be coming in future years.

Jeff Williams, Green Note, Camden, London Jazz Festival, Wednesday 20th November

“That one was about airport security” said Jeff Williams as the band juddered to a halt. A spooky, stuttering swing had built to a frenzy, with Phil Robson’s guitar blurting zig-zagging runs in a wildly distorted synth voice whilst Williams lashed his drums. Airport Security; it all made sense. This quintet’s off-beat vibe reflect the oddities in everyday life that provide inspiration for the drummer leader’s compositions.  There’s no shouting, just a quiet intensity that draws the listener in before wrongfooting with a swerve or surprise burst of energy. Williams is all colour and nudging, no spelling out the obvious. The caress of his sticks makes the kit an orchestra. On Hermeto, named for the Brazilian composer, a rattle of the cymbal doubles the rhythm of the melody whilst a tap on the tom ghosts the guitar’s accompanying stabs and Sam Lasserson’s propulsive bass figure gets a helping prod from a click on the snare.  Wonky bossas, twisted calypsos, loose limbed swing; Williams’ writing, all sidelong glances at familiar forms gives this band plenty to work on. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor nods at absent from this year’s festival, Sonny Rollins, in fullness of tone and inventive routes through angular harmony.  Finn Peters, switching between alto and flute, repeatedly pulled out fiery impassioned solos.  Williams left the stage for ‘Lament’, a hold your breath, haunting hymn in memory of a gone too soon friend; he returned to Arcoleo taking the tune out with long notes and hoarse cries on tenor and whipped up a storm on the drums. Not so much a crescendo as a howl of anguish. A treasure of a group, a gem of a gig.

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.