Django Bates and The BBC Big Band - Tribute To Joe Zawinul
Poor planning sadly left me unavailable for much of this year's London Jazz Festival. What inititally looked like a rather unpromising programme (at least in comparison with last year's stellar line-up) had mushroomed into something rather special - not least with an outstanding selection of smaller, home talent-focussed gigs at The Vortex and The Luminaire (I am kicking myself for yet again missing the chance of seeing Fraud). The concluding show at The Barbican last night had been arranged as something spectacular and unmissable - Joe Zawinul performing new arrangements of the cornerstones of his catalogue with the BBC big band. Sadly, his unexpected death earlier this year robbed London concertgoers of that treat - but with admirable gusto, BBC Radio 3 and The Barbican honoured the date with a tribute that was both reverent and exiciting in its own right.
Real care and thought went into the staging and planning of this concert. British talent Django Bates was an audacious but also shrewd choice of keyboardist to fill Zawinul's rather large shoes. He is undoubtedly quirkier and tetchier than Zawinul, but his dazzling technique and improvisational flair were consistently evident throughout, with a sheer insistence on covering the full geography of the keyboard. He kept his pranksterish sense of humour on a tight leash, but where that side of his musical personality did emerge, it seemed strangely appropriate. Bates' love for gonzo synth sounds, warm pads and clattering electronic noise echoed many of Zawinul's preoccupations with the musical potential of new technology. Similarly, his frequent vocoderised singing was both sutble and in the spirit of Zawinul's own live performances.
The choice of supporting musicians proved similarly judicious. Legendary bassist Victor Bailey seemed a little frail, but performed with feeling, expression and quiet dignity throughout. This contrasted neatly with the driving, powerful drumming of Martin France - dexterous without being pointlessly virtuosic, and full of energy and groove. His frantic urgency on a sterling version of 'Fast City', veering from cluttered dance rhythms to swashbuckling fast swing, neatly encapsulated the tendency of Zawinul's music to engage the feet as much as the brain. Together with adventurous percussionist Bosco D'Olivera, this was a rhythm section of real muscle, with as much feeling as technical prowess. Luckily, in the likes of Stan Sulzman and Henry Lowther, the BBC big band had soloists to more than match their credentials.
In essentially recreating Zawinul's recent 'Brown Street' big band project, the selection of music also proved thoughtful, covering as close to all bases of Zawinul's prolific career as might be expected. From some curveball choices from lesser known Weather Report projects ('Procession') to the inevitable, but carefully executed renditions of classics ('A Remark You Made', a colourful and adventourous recasting of 'In A Silent Way' and a terrifyingly funky 'Black Market'). The set also touched on material recorded by the syndicate and some solo Zawinul pieces with which I must confess to being completely unfamiliar. It also avoided the deeply obvious crowd-pleasers (no 'Birdland', and no encore!).
Whilst Julian Joseph's frequent interjections (largely for the purpose of the radio broadcast) could have been frustrating, they did not disrupt the flow of the performance too much, and somehow managed to be both reverent and celebratory. The interviews with Zawinul's biographer Brian Glasser were hardly necessary, but did serve to add a human touch to the proceedings from someone who had obviously had numerous encounters with the man himself. Best of all was a snippet of a recorded Zawinul radio interview which gave a real sense of the character, spirit and determined vision of this most crucial of jazz performers.
Whilst I feel deeply privileged to have caught Zawinul himself at his last London performance at the Jazz Cafe earlier this year, I also felt rather special to have been part of a sadly much-reduced audience at this dynamic and engaging spectacle. What emerged crystal clearly from this show was that Zawinul's music was not based so much on 'composition' or 'arrangement', but on living, breathing ideas that could be recreated comfortably in a number of different contexts, given the right combination of musicians. Zawinul's brand of fusion - merging the adventure of improvisation with the basic impulse and relentless energy of true dance music (incorporating numerous and intricate rhythms from all across the globe in the process) has been somewhat out of fashion, particularly in Britain, for some time. Is the tide starting to turn back in its favour?