The London Jazz Festival finished last weekend, and seven days on, it seems like a good time to take stock. I went to nine paid-for gigs, two free gigs which I had planned to see, I caught a couple of free gigs which I hadn’t planned, and a couple of other free events. I had a busy ten days – possibly too busy: it felt like trying to cram six months’ live jazz into ten days – and many clashes: the curse of the festival. I had to chose what music to miss as well as what to see.
I deliberately experiment with LJF: whilst I go to some gigs where I know the musicians’ work (and expect to enjoy the gig), I also seek out people I haven’t seen before or who are doing things I haven’t heard before. I also seek out artists I’m unlikely to get a chance to see at other times of the year – this means that my selection is skewed towards foreign “big name” artists rather than London-based musicians. (Though I have long decided not to see artists just because I think they are likely to die: I saw Art Blakey the year before he died for this reason, and I wish I hadn’t – he was a shadow of his former self, and that’s not how I want to remember my heroes.)
All in all, then, it was an eclectic mix of musicians and styles over the ten days.
I started off with Manu Katché
. Part of the festival’s French programme (there was a fair bit of jazz nationalism this year: there were French, Danish and Scottish streams – it somehow seems a bit against the grain to me, since I see jazz as an inclusive art form, encompassing peoples regardless of race or origin), he played with a quartet with saxophone as the lead instrument. Though Katché is a drummer, this wasn’t a drum-heavy sound, but it somewhat lacked the full balance of his recorded work. His drums sounded great from the back of the Royal Festival Hall – a rarity, since they are often mixed to mud in large halls. I enjoyed this set, but I didn’t think it was great music.
After a fascinating session by musicians Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchins exploring the roots and evolution of jazz (part of the festival’s free education programme, they had two conversations over two days – these were a really interesting couple of afternoons), I ventured out to Kingston for Andy Sheppard’s Movements in Colour and Didier Malherbe’s Hadouk Trio. I wrote about this gig for the LondonJazz blog
, so I won’t repeat myself here. This was very “world” tinged jazz. Malherbe’s band were interesting, lively and unexpected; Sheppard’s more – well, chilled. It is no surprised that they record on ECM – they have that very cool, European sound. Despite Sheppard
’s excellent – though controlled – sax playing, the star for me was bassist Arild Andersen
. I’d go a long way to see him play.
Which I did the next day, venturing across London to see him play with John Etherdige
and John Marshall. This was just a brilliant gig. It covered a range of moods, from relaxed to energetic, whilst maintaining a cohesive voice. Both Andersen and Etheridge used electronic looping to construct tracks to play along to, building up the layers of sound. They were, frankly, great. Marshall added so much – playing without amplification (the Bull’s Head
, though one of London’s foremost jazz venues, is still really just a pub…), he was simultaneously subtle and powerful. This gig was just wonderful – they played exciting, adventurous music. Exactly as I expected.
Monday night was one where my high expectations weren’t fully met. It started with John Scofield
in a trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, his regular rhythm section. (Last time I saw Swallow play, it was with Andy Sheppard
…) They played a mixed set of standards and Scofield’s tunes – a couple of their standard ballads were exquisite – and all three were excellent. The disappointment came with the second set, which matched Scofield with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra
- and only because I was really looking forward to it! Playing arrangements of Sco’s tunes and some from his time with Miles Davis, it felt at times as if Sco and the SNJO were pulling in different directions – as if Sco’s loud guitar was fighting with the orchestra. Knowing both Sco and SNJO’s music, this seemed like such a waste: Sco’s record Quiet
has some beautiful, haunting brass arrangements, and those commissioned by SNJO didn’t really match up.
There were some great moments – Ryan Quigley on trumpet, Martin Kershaw on alto and Alyn Cosker on drums all played good solos, and Tommy Smith, SNJO’s director, was on his usual fine form, but this was just a good rather than great gig.
Next up was Frech pianist Martial Solal in a solo gig. This was one of my wild cards, and I’m very glad I went. In the refined setting of the Wigmore Hall, Solal played a fascinating set of standards. He took a theme, dissected it, and then took off in all sorts of new directions, time and time again, in ways which reminded me of his compatriot Michel Petrucciani in his approach to the music, if not his playing style. This was quite dense music – Solal filled all the space – and it was not easy to identify what he was playing: in the interval, the people sitting behind me ran off a list of tunes they had heard, none of which I heard! What I heard over the two sets included Autumn Leaves
, My Funny Valentine
, Autumn Leaves
, Round Midnight
, Well You Needn’t
, In A Sentimental Mood
, Satin Doll
and All The Things You Are
. Solal barely spoke to the audience, and at times it felt a bit like a classical recital – perhaps because of the venue. But there was also something very personal about Solal’s music: it was like he was sharing some secrets with us. He was brought back for several encores, joking before the third “…I like to play the piano!” This gig was a joy as Solal explored these tunes for all he was worth leading us down unexpected byways. Marvellous stuff.
After a (well deserved…) night off, two more pianists featured in a double bill. I wrote this gig for LondonJazz, too
. First came Curios
, a British trio featuring pianist Tom Cawley. Curios’ music left lots of space; Geri Allen
’s just the opposite, as she filled every moment with notes. She had name checked Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner, and the influences were clear. This was one of my “experimental” gigs – I’d seen Allen before, but never solo, and she was performing in collaboration with a filmmaker. It wasn’t wholly successful, but it was very interesting. The music felt very intense; the encore, based on music by Charlie Parker, was lighter and more playful.
Before the main gig, I caught a free duo set by Scots saxophonist, flautist and piper Fraser Fyfield
and guitarist Graeme Stephen
. Whilst their roots were clearly in traditional Scottish music, they were also improvising. Fyfield’s piping sounded like a heavily peated whisky – this was heady stuff. I liked it so much I bought the CD!
Another double-bill followed: well, Louis Moholo-Moholo followed by Louis Moholo-Moholo… Actually a triple bill: first was Jez Nelson interviewing Moholo about his experiences as a black musician in apartheid South Africa (alternately surreal and harrowing) and then as an exile in Europe, playing with the Blue Notes, the Brotherhood of Breath and a wealth of free-jazz players. This was followed a duet set by Moholo and pianist Keith Tippett – half an hour or more of imaginative, inspiring improvisation. The second set was Moholo’s septet commemorating his birthday, “Seven for Seventy”. This band made a glorious sound, mixing township rhythms with improvisation. Featuring Jason Yarde
and Ntshuks Bonga
on saxes, Henry Lowther on trumpet, free-jazz firebrand John Edwards on bass, Alex Hawkins
on piano and Francine Luce
on vocals, this was a great band. Moholo was pushing them forward from the drum-stool, full of energy – quite how he can keep up that force and power at 70 is beyond me. This was definitely one of my favourite gigs of the festival, together with the John Etheridge Trio – things that I was really pleased to have seen!
I caught a couple of numbers by Brass Jaw
in a free set at the Royal Festival Hall, but I was a bit passed it by that time. They sounded good, and it’s great they are getting recognition – they are fine musicians – but I had had enough for a Saturday night.
The Bad Plus
were playing a three-night residency at Kings Place, one of the more original bits of programming during the festival. They did one night on their own, one night with singer Wendy Lewis (which had excellent reviews on Twitter!) – and the night I saw them, with Django Bates
. This was one of the gig I must post in the “good but disappointing category”: I’ve seen the Bad Plus play many times, and I was looking forward to hearing their augmented quartet tackling some of the tunes I love; what I got was ninety minutes of, I think, wholly improvised music. Some of it was inspired, some very good, but a fair chunk sounded self indulgent, too. A bit like they were trying too hard. Pianist Ethan Iverson seemed to take a backseat to Bates – Iverson seemed very reticent, as if he wasn’t wanting to get involved in the music. Bates pushed forward, with Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King being as inventive as I expected. I wanted more Iverson, though.
The last day I took advantage of more free music – in both senses of the term. There was a triple bill down at the Festival Hall – or, at least, I saw three bands... The first was a trio of Steve Lawson
on bass, Otto Fischer on guitar and Tony Buck on drums. This trio didn’t grab me much – it seemed a bit like they were each playing their own thing without adding to each other; perhaps I couldn’t just make sense of it.
They were followed by Shabaka Hutchins on clarinet, Tony Bevan on sax, Phillip Barre on bass and Tom Skinner on drums. This grabbed me much more – Bevan and Hutchins played some fiery solos, Barre and Skinner pushed things along. This was much more exciting.
Best of all, though, was Orphy Robinson’s Cosmic Raw Xtra Four. I saw Orphy’s Cosmic Raw Xtra big band last year
, and that was a brilliant gig. This quartet was quite different: with Lawson on bass and Fischer on guitar, and the great Steve Noble on drums, Robinson created some amazing music. It was a step above the rest – brilliant vibes and steel pan from Robinson, and energetic drums from Noble. They were all together: they played as a unit, not four individuals. It was a really exciting end to the festival.