Wednesday, November 26, 2008

London Jazz Festival 2008

As ever, the London Jazz Festival offers a mouth-watering array of musical treats this year. Sadly, time constraints have left me only able to attend a handful of gigs, missing many of the main attractions. I would particularly have liked to see Bill Frisell’s performance soundtracking silent cinema. Never mind though – one of the undoubted plus points of this year’s festival has been the opportunity to wander off the beaten track a little, or to select gigs I wouldn’t otherwise have attended, such as Courtney Pine’s virtuosic and engaging performance.

There’s an impressive array of exciting talent on offer at Jazz on 3’s special late night festival launch gig at Ronnie Scott’s. It seems appropriate that Tom Cawley’s Curios, BBC Jazz Award winners, should open the entire festival with their short set tonight. Cawley’s piano playing is delicate, lucid and emotional, with a remarkable range of timbre and effect. Just as revelatory is the drumming of prodigious virtuoso Josh Blackmore, who not only has impressive technique but also possesses the sheer musicality and creativity to craft dramatic and suspenseful phrases across the drum kit. He must be one of the most exciting and original talents to emerge in London for many years and how encouraging it is that Cawley has acknowledged his potential. Cawley’s compositions are both playful and cerebral and whilst twenty minutes is by no means long enough to showcase the trio’s breathtaking interaction, it is more than long enough to demonstrate the sophistication and charm of their music.

Vincent Herring’s group, who had also performed the main official set earlier in the evening, were less impressive by some distance. They opened with some generic if mildly enjoyable fusion but follow it with dated synth pads and bland melodies that veered far closer to the lite jazz of Grover Washington and George Benson than is comfortable for me. Somehow it all became tremendously bland and disengaging with alarming rapidity. I rather liked the observation of one of my friends in the audience: ‘To play a synth like that is bad enough, but to play it when there’s a Fender Rhodes underneath it is a criminal offence!’ Another friend’s observation about the uncommon situation of the band being all black musicians save for a white drummer sparked a lengthy conversation about race issues in jazz history which proved considerably more stimulating than the group’s music.

Steve Bernstein’s piano-less Millenial Territory Band had a playful quality that somehow managed to treat the American jazz tradition with both respect and gleeful irreverance. The performance came with a peculiar ragged charm and a general sense of off-the-cuff disorganisation. They concluded with a wryly amusing and rousing arrangement of The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. This proved that even one of the most overplayed songs from one of the most over-exposed groups can still be delivered with fresh vigour when the context is refreshed.

The unrelenting assault provided by the new trio of Ken Vandermark, Barry Guy and Mark Sanders probably offended anyone with an aversion to free improvisation but, for me, was a visceral and thrilling example of spontaneous alchemy. This is not music completely devoid of rules or strategy, but rather a music whereby a map is being charted in front of our very eyes and ears. In this case, it had a lot to do with experimenting with sound and colour. Sanders manages to get pitched notes from meticulously controlled cymbal scrapes, whilst Guy can vary the mood by oscillating between deep, rich, long notes, bowed bass and a sharp, staccato, attacking voice. Vandermark is a master of the aggressive, angry, volatile form of playing. Perhaps this fiery form of expression could benefit from more tenderness but with such short set times, there’s really not enough space to unravel its full potential.

Even Camden’s tiny but wonderful Green Note venue has been getting in on the Festival action this year, with a mouth-watering line-up of fresh talent. Huw Jones’ Neon Bedroom had a dream line-up, benefitting from the muscular saxophone of Tom Challenger, the expressive but empathetic drumming of Josh Morrison and the warm sound and creative improvising of Freddie Gavita. If the improvising is sometimes uncharacteristically tentative from these more frequently questing young musicians, the compositions are sophisticated and compelling. There’s a niggling sense that a certain spark or dynamism is missing, but this will surely develop over more performances. Following the group is a new quartet lead by saxophonist Pete Fraser which is a thrilling demonstration of exposition and spontaneity. The themes are mostly spacious and the creative playing of the group (which includes Nick Ramm of Oriole and Fulborn Teversham on keys and the outstanding drummer Tom Skinner) brings spirit and charisma to the occasion. It’s an auspicious start for what will hopefully become an established, successful and challenging group.

The pairing of Courtney Pine and Empirical made sense for more than the obvious reason that Empirical are signings to Pine’s label. Both groups seem to be going through a stage of looking back in order to move forward. Empirical now have a new line-up and have changed radically as a result (vibes player Lewis Wright replaces prodigious pianist Kit Downes). Their set tonight is built from their current project researching and arranging the music of Eric Dolphy – as such, it’s a much more liberated group than the hip swinging band of last year. It’s a technically accomplished performance but one that also remains very much in touch with the blues. Perhaps a little more fire and certainty would have been appreciated. A surprising lack of confidence is evident in the lengthy, ill-judged onstage chat, perhaps suggesting that the group have been elevated to a massive commercial prospect a little too early.

Pine’s set surprised me with its vitality, wit and warmth. Whilst I’ve always respected his virtuosic talents, some of his recordings have drifted a little too far into the middle of the road for my tastes. Tonight, perhaps paradoxically, saw him push back to the edges by rediscovering the tradition of the music. His latest project is partially a tribute to the music of Sidney Bechet and, as such, is steeped in the rhythms and nuances of New Orleans. Drummer Robert Forger, with his varied passions for swing and hip hop, is a master of the groove, and Pine plays with renewed vigour. Performing only on soprano sax and bass clarinet, Pine frequently defies the laws of physics in some of the sounds he draws from each. In his hands, the clarinet really does become like a drum. Omar Puente’s violin enhances the free spirited, folksy vibe of the performance and Alex Wilson’s latin-tinged Piano is, as always, rhythmically adventurous, although he could have been afforded more soloing space. Indeed, perhaps the only quibble with this fiery, energetic performance is that there is a little too much of Pine’s dexterity, and not enough individual contributions from his excellent band. The gig ends with something approaching a lecture from Pine, after his group have left the stage – ostensibly to promote the new CD, but also to draw attention to the worthiness of British jazz and the vital role of played by the LJF in promoting it.

The final gig of my festival certainly provided something completely different. A collaboration between the Homemade Orchestra (itself a meeting of minds between jazz saxophonist Tim Whitehead and composer Colin Riley) and children’s poet Michael Rosen, this gig proved not just hysterically funny but also creatively sophisticated. Rosen’s nonsense poems are ostensibly expressions of the simple joys of inventive rhyming, but many of them are not as nonsensical as they might first appear. Their scheming wordplay and sharp observations on commercialism and chaotic modern life offer food for thought for grown-ups too. Whitehead and Riley’s music is sophisticated, but in an apposite way – it is by turns slithery, slimy, frantic and mischievous. The quotations from Match of the Day and The Simpsons theme raise a smile, but the hilarious deployment of various toys and gizmos, combined with unashamedly physical playing provide both support and a neat counterpoint to Rosen’s exaggerated readings. Whilst space for improvising is understandably limited, this provided a brilliant introduction to the worlds of jazz and contemporary composition for the younger members of the audience as well as breathtaking entertainment for all.

So, whilst it seems a shame to have missed the likes of Chick Corea and John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell and Jack de Johnette, this slightly less predictable pathway through the festival proved remarkably rewarding. It’s good to find that the festival continues to offer variety and excitement for a dedicated audience.

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