Monday, November 20, 2006

Choppy Waters

A Brief Report From the London Jazz Festival

We Londoners all like to moan at every available opportunity. We hate the tube and its endless delays and 'planned engineering work' (just because it's planned doesn't make it any less inconvenient, does it?), we hate the dirt and the smoke, we hate the crowds and the relentless rush to be somewhere. Yet, honestly, when London does things well, it remains one of the best cities in the world to live in and experience. Over a period of years, the London Jazz Festival has slowly been cultivating a major reputation, attracting big name acts whilst helping to promote promising local talent. This year, it had the biggest, most star-studded line-up yet. I'm already regretting not booking a ticket to see EST and Polar Bear, a mistake as it must have been one of the highlights of the festival. Still, I can't complain when I got to see a plethora of excellent concerts, some of which came at almost no cost to myself!

First up was an intriguing double bill featuring the Stan Tracey Trio and the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Tracey is justly a legendary figure in British jazz history, and astoundingly has just celebrated his 80th birthday. The set was a polite, somewhat limited trio performance which took few risks and certainly broke no new boundaries. Tracey's unique style has, if anything, become more pronounced with age, and there were a few times when his accompaniment felt a little clunky. Still, the compositions were simple but effective, and the rhythm section swung nicely.

Wayne Shorter's set could hardly have been more different. With Brian Blade kicking up all manner of storm and fury on the drums, Danilo Perez and John Patitucci were left the unenviable task of holding this free-flowing, rather abstract music together, something they handled with characteristic skill and vision. The performance was incredibly intense, and occasionally brimming with genuine invention - but it also felt tetchy and wilfully unpredictable. Whilst the pieces all seemed composed rather than freely improvised, it was immensely difficult to determine what had actually been written down, and melody was certainly made to take a back seat to individual expression. Shorter himself kept switching between soprano and tenor, occasionally even bending his less than supple body to whistle into the microphone, to little more than slightly comic impact. The pieces were long, but packed full of ideas rarely given enough space to develop, and sometimes I simply longed for Blade to lock in with Patitucci's wonderfully rhythmic bass playing. It is, however, amazing that Shorter continues to reinvent himself, never content to repeat or trade on past achievements.....

....Unlike, say, Herbie Hancock, who put in a set at The Roundhouse on Saturday that was in part an unabashed crowd-pleaser, but also demonstrated some of the peculiar judgment that has dogged the latter stages of this great musician's career. His playing remains little short of astounding and he may still be the best piano accompanist in jazz. His solos also still seem largely effortless and inventive. They contrast effectively with the spirited playing of guitarist Lionel Loueke, who clearly has little respect for genre boundaries or polite conventions. His brief solo spot was one of the highlights of the show. Yet, there were too many things wrong with this performance for it to be truly worthy of someone of Hancock's status. The rhythm section of Nathan East and Vinnie Colaiuta are technically proficient, highly gifted musicians, but also relentlessly heavy and a little lacking in soul or feeling. As such, the performances of Headhunters-era classics 'Watermelon Man' and 'Chameleon', whilst lengthy and driving, lacked the subtlety provided by original drummer Harvey Mason. The insistence on performing a handful of tracks from last year's ghastly 'Possibilities' album (featuring the likes of Christina Aguilera, John Mayer and Paul Simon, and apparently representing Hancock's aspirations for the world) also undermined the flow and quality of the show. I would have preferred a more challenging and affecting ballad than the insipid and protracted arrangement of Stevie Wonder's artistic nadir 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'. None of us had really come to hear Nathan East sing after all! Perhaps I'm being too conservative, but I felt Hancock sounded most comfortable and expressive when at the acoustic or electric piano - the electric keytar just sounded stilted, whilst the novelty synth pads immediately damned most of the material with a dated '80s atmosphere. There were moments to tresure for sure, particularly on a rousing 'Canteloupe Island', but it was a difficult set to get through.

Cassandra Wilson started ominously, with similar cod-ethnic synth playing and mock-atmospherics. Her band soon picked up though, with some controlled playing from the rhythm section and benefiting greatly from a harmonica player, whose improvising proved consistently stimulating. Still, the version of Cyndi Lauper's 'Time Out Of Time' (already more famously jazzed up by Miles Davis in the 80s) was soporific, never breaking out of its rigidly enforced ambience. A gritty take on a Willie Dixon tune soon livened things up, and from that point onwards, Wilson demonstrated her passion and genuine feel for the blues. A moron in the crowd still insisted on making unnecessary demands for a standard, to which Wilson obliged with pointed humour. The concert was at its most exciting when closely in touch with the traditions of New Orleans and the Mississipi Delta, and a fine drum solo also helped raise the spirit.

The two gigs I caught on the closing weekend were on a completely different level. The 60th birthday concert for Dave Holland was one of the finest jazz performances I've seen in years. Opening with a brief trio set with Jim Hall and Kenny Wheeler, the three old-timers playing what appeared to be a spirited and perhaps unrehearsed set of consistently excellent compositions. Wheeler took a while to warm up, fluffing his own composition and sounding slightly out of tune. Once in the zone though, he still has merciless control and a rich, beautiful sound. Even in his eighties, Jim Hall still sounds effortlessly fluent in the language of the guitar, his playing elegiac and mellifluous throughout, more than appropriate for the trio setting. Holland, a superb bandleader, held everything together with sturdy precision. The set from the Dave Holland quintet was undermined slightly by the absence of Steve Nelson, who usually plays vibraphone and marimba for the group. Instead, we get Jason Moran on the piano, and an inevitably more conventional approach. Mercifully, this didn't matter too much - Moran's soloing was outstanding, and he left plenty of space for the rest of the band, a good tactic, as trombonist Robin Eubanks and unstoppable saxophonist Chris Potter frequently need it! Opening with a remarkably crisp 'Prime Directive', during which Potter and Eubanks initiated the thrilling trading of licks which characterised the whole concert. Nate Smith, relatively new to the band having replaced the outstanding Billy Kilson, proved himself just as gifted as his predecessor, grooving hard with superb time, and relishing the opportunity to play the unconventional rhythms which Holland's compositions demand. His solo toward the end displayed not just technical virtuosity, but also some real success in conveying musical and meaningful ideas from the drum kit, actually orchestrating and arranging a solo, rather than just showing off his abilities. It was hugely fascinating to watch. The main body of the set focussed on the excellent new 'Critical Mass' album, and was democratic in allowing Eubanks and Smith to have their compositions performed in addition to Holland's. They basically emulate his style, although with great success on this new release. The improvising was lengthy, with bucketloads of energy and enthusiasm, not least from the extraordinary Potter, who played his furious notes with fiery passion. The infectiousness and accessibility inherent in Holland's melodies contrasted brilliantly with all the exuberant improvising, and many of the compositions are as memorable and hummable as pop songs. Anyone who can compose music that is so musically and technically audacious, but also so immediately appealing, must be on to something good.

The final show came from label-mates at Dune, Soweto Kinch and Abram Wilson. Wilson's opening set was surprisingly long, showcasing what must have been the entirety of his new concept album, telling the story of troubled musician Albert Jenkins, his experiences in hybrid hip hop/jazz big band The Outsiders and his family trauma against the backdrop of New Orleans musical history. What a vibrant and exciting mix of styles and ideas this was - and so refreshing to hear someone reinvent the big band with such verve and tenacity. The music was characterised mostly by its driving rhythms and deep rooted connection with gospel and the blues, with Wilson a commanding presence both when performing long, rapidly flowing lines on the trumpet and when singing with gritty integrity. He is an intense and serious performer, and rarely ever smiles - but it certainly seemed like the whole band was enjoying bringing this intriguing music to life.

Soweto Kinch played much the same show he delivered at his album launch at Cargo a few months ago, but with the added bonus of the extraordinary Troy Miller returning to the drum set. Miller is one of the best young players in Britain, with real natural feel and completely unique invention. He sounds as comfortable playing tightly controlled hip hop grooves as he does when swinging beautifully, which again begs the question of why Kinch elected to programme drum beats on the recorded versions of the hip hop tracks. As a result, his intelligent and articulate concept album about lives in the tower blocks of B19 in Birmingham really comes to life in live performance, especially as Kinch is a shamelessly brilliant entertainer. He has brought this music to a young and attentive audience, and they seem to value the attacking soloing as much as the witty wordplay. This show sounded less tentative and more comfortable than the Cargo performance. Kinch continues to get better and better - the second part of his new project gets released next year, and I'm looking forward to it already!

No comments: