Monday, November 23, 2009

London Jazz Festival 2009

London Jazz Festival Diary 2009

Respecting the Masters
Saturday 14th November

Sonny Rollins/Liam Noble Trio – Barbican Centre

Getting things off to a fabulous start, the opening weekend of the London Jazz Festival brought a performance to treasure from one of the last surviving titans of the American jazz tradition. Rollins still performs with impressive frequency for someone on the cusp of turning 80, but there’s always the feeling that every visit to London could be his last.

Like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen in the world of pop and rock, Sonny Rollins is such an icon that to pair him with a support act would seem both unnecessary and insensitive. Luckily, the festival organisers have the perfect answer with their series of free gigs. Liam Noble’s Dave Brubeck-inspired trio provided the perfect complement to hearing a true legend perform. Noble is a hugely gifted pianist capable of vivid flights of melodic invention who also has a radical and distinctive harmonic sensibility. His handling of Brubeck compositions, some of which (‘Take 5’, ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’, ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’) are among the most familiar in the jazz repertoire, is respectful without being overly reverential. He uses Brubeck’s themes as a springboard for original and intelligent extemporisation.

His humorous description of one of the group’s more abstract moments as being ‘like kids messing in a sandpit’ somehow succeeded in being both self-deprecating and slightly truthful. There was a wonderful innocence and naivety to Noble’s rapid flow of ideas but also a palpable artistry in their expression. The empathetic playing of bassist Dave Whitford and drummer Dave Wickins ably supported this imaginative flow of ideas. Refreshingly, this ensemble is a long way from the ‘power trio’ setup that now threatens to become a cliché. Yet it’s also far from the delicate, near-silent trios on the ECM label. Wickins’ lithe and expressive drumming is unobtrusive but highly creative. The result is a dynamic, flexible unit, taking inspiration from a master and generating something new and exciting from it.

Of course, there was a time when every Sonny Rollins gig must have been audacious, imaginative and creatively challenging at the highest possible level. This was not one of those performances. In later life, Rollins has developed his own comfort zone, playing similar sets with a generous helping of heavily stated, crowd-pleasing calypso rhythms.

He ambled onstage uncomfortably, looking hunched and as frail as one might reasonably expect an 80-year old to appear. Yet from the first notes it became clear he still had the energy and air in his lungs to produce a tough, full bodied sound from his saxophone. His accompanying musicians, whilst undoubtedly impressive (especially drummer Kobie Watkins), mostly offered adaptable and willing support for his unpredictable bursts and flurries. For a while, the rhythm section swung beautifully, before unleashing toe-tapping urgency and palpable joy.

The more rigorous side of jazz performance may now be lost to Rollins. He played tentatively over his musicians’ solos, as if he was struggling to keep his place, and towards the end he exploded in an unstoppable, barnstorming tirade of sound, delivered directly into the faces of people in the front row. This felt like a relentless, highly energised rock n’ roll take on jazz, something akin to watching James Brown or The Rolling Stones. What it lacked in formal precision and sophistication, it compensated for in sheer enthusiasm and excitement.

Two Sides of the Musical Coin
Vijay Iyer + Leszek Mozder and Lars Danielsson – Purcell Room, Sunday 15th November

This could be one of the most challenging pieces of concert programming in the entire festival week. For the headline act, the festival brought over from America Vijay Iyer, a remarkable pianist with a PhD in physics and an interest in cultural history, justly lauded for his fiendish rhythmic complexity. Mostly working with a quartet or, more recently, a wonderfully intense trio, on this occasion Iyer performed solo piano. Completing the double bill were the duo of Polish pianist Leszek Mozder and double bassist Lars Danielsson. By way of contrast with Iyer, these musicians had a distinctly European sensibility, seemingly absorbed more in the traditions of classical and European folk music than with the American standard repertoire.

In Mozder and Danielsson, the festival has introduced some previously unfamiliar but supremely able musicians. They played with subtlety and tremendous technical facility but more importantly with a synergy that proved entirely unflinching. Not even some technical glitches could disturb their refined delicacy or the gleeful precision of their rapid unison phrasing. Whilst I’m sometimes suspicious of the overuse of effects pedals, hearing electronic effects applied to the acoustic bass produced surprisingly rich results – with the additional chorus basking the room in a warm aural embrace.

All this impressed the audience greatly, who offered them rousing applause for which they won a surprise encore. In spite of this, there seemed, to these ears, to be something missing. Without wanting to get drawn into a tedious debate over what, precisely, might constitute ‘jazz’, it might at least be uncontroversial to suggest that jazz is a music that requires both tension and release. Dissonance was almost entirely absent and the occasional selections of foreign notes seemed to lack conviction. This music too often seemed firmly rooted harmonically, with a combination of playfulness and serenity that became saccharine and repetitive over the course of a whole set. With his dark clothes, long hair and cross around his neck, Mozder perhaps looked better suited to being in a heavy metal band. He announced the final piece as being called ‘Suffering’ with no sense of irony.

After the interval, Vijay Iyer stated his intent immediately and with percussive attack. The opening ‘Testing’ featured extravagant rhythmic gestures and his trademark complex cyclical structures. He continued with a confounding take on the standard ‘I’m All Smiles’, at once playful and measured. Perhaps some audience members were expecting more of the duo’s benign calm. The minor exodus from the venue at least indicated some frustration or confusion in the ranks of the audience.

Yet whilst Iyer is noted for his intellectual approach to composition and also for his intricacy, he usually couples these characteristics with a strong melodic sense. At his best, he employs all his technique in the purpose of creating a forceful emotional impact. His boyish appearance belies a mature and nuanced musicianship. Sometimes the effect of his music is visceral and unsettling, but it would be unfair to brandish him as alienating or impenetrable, however fearless and radical his ideas are on pieces such as ‘Autoscopy’.

Perhaps this would have been made clearer to those departing audience members had they stayed to hear Iyer joined by Talvin Singh, playing Tablas with fluency and elegance, on a clever and highly physical reworking of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Big Brother’. Even more impressive was Iyer’s surprise choice of encore – an interpretation of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ that coupled asymmetrical phrasing with a previously disguised lyricism. He also demonstrated his knowledge of the jazz tradition with a spirited and sincere rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’. His latest trio album ‘Historicity’ contains new versions of previously recorded originals, brand new compositions and a wide range of interpretations. Iyer now seems to be joining those musicians determined to build a new standard repertoire, an important move that could really help widen the audience to music too often mistakenly viewed as elitist or inaccessible.

For all this concert’s scope and imagination, it also seemed a little tentative at times. It’s possibly unfair speculation, but I wonder whether Iyer is as suited to the solo piano setting as Keith Jarrett or Stefano Bollani. Jarrett always has a massive range of emotion and mood within his reach, from lush romanticism to angular expressions of doubt or loss. He always plays with absolute conviction and confidence. Iyer’s ideas sometimes didn’t quite seem to reach full sustained flourish. Part of the joy of his recorded repertoire so far has been the sheer wonder in hearing his ensembles keep pace with his breathtaking demands.

There can be little doubt though that Iyer is one of a clutch of music taking American jazz to new places, fusing it with influences drawn from his heritage and wider framework of interest. He has a compelling story to tell.

When Whispers are Wrong or Turning Disappointment Into Triumph

Hans Koller Band
The Oxford, Kentish Town – Monday 16th November

A sizeable audience created a rather sweaty atmosphere upstairs at The Oxford, many appearing following rumours (from credible sources) that Bill Frisell would be sitting in with Hans Koller’s group. Sadly, an inscrutable world of political intrigue and contractual issues prevented that from happening. To his great credit, Koller explained the situation, and addressed the disappointment of those hoping to see a legend in such an intimate setting. Again to his credit, Koller’s lively music hopefully enabled those people to go away nonetheless satisfied.

Koller’s arrangements are closer to the lush orchestrations of Mike Gibbs than the tumbling, turbulent energy of Dave Holland’s big band works. Some contrasts in improvising styles amongst the players made for an engaging, unpredictable performance – from the bright, singing lines of Nick Smart to the unassuming but effortlessly intelligent phrasing of Julian Siegel. Koller himself made for a warm and humble presence.

Drummer Jeff Williams and bassist Dave Whitford provided steady support, although Williams proved markedly less interventionist than Gene Calderazzo (who played on Koller’s ‘London Ear’ big band recording). Whilst the performance occasionally lacked a sense of danger or risk, there was plenty of space for the full sonorous detail of Koller’s arrangements to shine.

The Quirky and Quixotic

Carla Bley and The Lost Chords/Julian Siegel Trio
Tuesday 17th November – Queen Elizabeth Hall

This concert seems to have been one of the most rapturously received of the festival, with the Telegraph rather uncritically claiming that Bley’s performance was ‘beyond praise’. Bley’s injection of irony and humour into her music has long made her one of the most distinctive and refreshing jazz auteurs.

Actually, in the event, I was perhaps more impressed with Julian Siegel’s quite wonderful trans-Atlantic trio with Greg Cohen and Joey Baron. Siegel’s themes are simultaneously both simple and complex. He plays inventively with a restricted complement of notes – twisting rhythm and phrasing with playful and stimulating results. His musical personality is restrained and unpretentious, but his technique and imagination are tremendous.

Baron has long been one of my favourite drummers on recordings, so I was glad to finally get the opportunity to see him live. Located centre stage, his imposing charisma, utter commitment to the music and enthusiastic interactions almost threatened to distract attention from his bandleader. Luckily, though, he is a drummer that does not feel the need to fill every space (contrasting hugely with performances from Jack De Johnette and Eric Harland later in the week). His solo patiently and carefully develops musical ideas, and his bizarre disintegrating drumsticks raise a few bemused reactions in the audience. Speaking to Baron in the interval, I discover these sticks were made from rattan and, as a result, ‘decompose’ on impact, but ‘make a really interesting sound in the process’. Baron is as interested in the variety of sounds he can draw from the drum kit as he is in rhythm and phrasing.

Although Carla Bley, painfully thin, looked both physically and emotionally vulnerable, she began her set in customarily comedic mode. Explaining that she would begin with a suite based on ‘Three Blind Mice’, she played the nursery rhyme’s basic melody, claiming we would hear those notes but also ‘many more’. She then proceeded to exclaim – ‘I feel like Wynton Marsalis up here!’ This, perhaps a dig at Marsalis’ tendency to be a self-elected educator and evangelist for the jazz tradition, raised a predictable cheer from her fans.

This may have been the most demanding performance of the entire festival, bookended by two long suites (the aforementioned ‘Three Blind Mice’ and the suite that gives the group its name). These lengthy, highly composed works were full of mysterious twists and turns and bold melodic and harmonic developments. Between them, the band performed brighter, more immediate pieces such as the Lee Morgan-inspired ‘Sidewinders in Paradise’.

The prevailing temperament throughout though is one of subtlety and restraint, which sometimes threatens to conceal Bley’s characteristic humour. Her improvising is delicate and tentative, and sometimes her phrases seem to end too early, without reaching a natural point of resolution. Occasionally, the band echo her uncertainty – there was a point when Billy Drummond and Steve Swallow were feeling beat one of the bar in different places for a long and noticeable amount of time before recapturing the delicate groove. Swallow has, however, retained his graceful elegance on his five string electro-acoustic bass and his mastery of the upper register of his instrument was in plentiful display.

My review of John Surman is on The Write Stuff section of the Jazzwise magazine website.

Expanding the Vernacular

Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava
Thursday 19th November - King’s Place

For Stefano Bollani, jazz and comedy are closely connected. This makes the experience of watching Bollani play live markedly different from that of listening to his recordings. His work is mostly refined, elegant and expressive, his collaborations with trumpeter and mentor Enrico Rava being a particular highlight. Rava is the special guest at this, the second of Bollani's four night residency at King's Place, but anyone going in having never seen Bollani before could hardly have expected such merriment and mirth.

Bollani started proceedings with his new trio, featuring Danish musicians Jesper Bodilsen on bass and Morten Lund on drums. Even at this early stage in proceedings, the group made it clear that they intended to be more kinetic and driving than on record. Lund's ferocious, all-frills drumming provided much of the momentum, with Bollani spurring him on with his extraordinary technique at the piano. Veering between fast runs, percussive block chords and expansive lines traversing the full breadth of the instrument, Bollani demonstrated precisely why he is so highly praised. He kicked his left leg out and, when particularly energised, even played standing up.

The apperance of Rava added an extra dimension. The relationship between Bollani and Rava is jovial and full of warmth, and they traded jokes in Italian and English. There was a particularly hilarious discussion about Stan Getz living in London as an 'amateur archaeologist' - 'so that's why jazz musicians say I dig it', Bollani wisecracked.

There seemed to be a spontaneous quality to much of the performance, with debates over who would start a particular piece and some simple but clear gesturing to mark out structures. In addition to this, the stating and inventive exposition of recognisable quotes (including tunes as well-worn as ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’) played a major role in the performance, Bollani and Rava seemingly playing elaborate games with each other. Rava's control of sound is breathtaking, both in terms of his microphone technique (he was happy to play off-mic when the musical texture demanded it) and in the range of tones he can produce. The second set proved particularly entertaining, with Bollani and Rava engaging in a frantic duel, and with the memorable encore of 'Bandeleros' even allowing for some audience participation.

How refreshing it is to see jazz musicians at the highest level of artistry working to make a performance witty and joyous. After all, what could be more inherently ridiculous then 4 people on a stage making it up as they go along?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Troyka – Clore Ballroom Freestage, Royal Festival Hall
Overtone Quartet/Clarinet Council – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Friday 20th November

I really want to like Troyka a whole lot more than I actually do. On an individual basis, the group includes my favourite musicians currently operating on the London scene. Chris Montague is a guitarist with not just a mastery of electronic effects, but also a nimble agility around the fretboard and an apparent love for the dusty resonance of Bill Frisell. Kit Downes is frantically justifying all the hyperbole used in praise of him, playing in a wide variety of contexts and displaying both prodigious technique and sensitive musicality. His trio with Calum Gourlay and James Maddren has made some involving, beautiful music. Josh Blackmore is the mad scientist of the drums, although I prefer it when his supreme articulation is deployed with greater subtlety in Tom Cawley’s Curios.

I’m just not yet sure that there’s a wider concept, purpose or direction behind their particular brand of jazz-rock fusion. Time Out’s supposedly positive description of them as ‘King Crimson for the iPod generation’ actually encapsulates all their limitations. There’s fearsome control, rhythmic security and technique but a quickfire onslaught of ideas that suggests a severe case of attention deficit syndrome. The results are often briefly exciting, but alienating and austere over time. I enjoyed it when they allowed time to develop their ideas, particularly with the unfamiliar sound of Josh Blackmore on brushes on the superb new composition ‘Rest’ and a desert take on Nirvana’s ‘Heart Shaped Box’. Too often though, the intricate, asymmetrical grooves too rapidly disintegrate into murk and fog.

If the paring of Vijay Iyer with Leszek Mozder and Lars Danielsson seemed uncomfortable, this was nothing compared with the double bill of Dave Holland’s new supergroup with David Jean-Baptiste’s ‘Clarinet Council’. A lot of people I spoke to in the interval reacted angrily against this opening act. It’s not hard to see why – chamber jazz is an uncomfortable format anyway, even more so with an unconventional quartet of variations of the same instrument. There’s probably an argument that the humble clarinet deserves some sort of regeneration, but I’m not sure Jean-Baptiste’s project is going to achieve it. This was jovial and endearing to some extent, but rhythmically insecure, overly polite and ultimately, better suited to a corporate function.

Overtone were every bit the powerhouse group you’d expect them to be. New compositions from every member of the group, including extraordinary drummer Eric Harland, proved ambitious and sophisticated, although Holland’s music continues to stick doggedly to his winning formula. The audacity and quality of interaction in the ensemble was at the highest level, with Holland’s relaxed, super-secure basslines enabling Harland to stretch and contract the time feel with consummate ease.

Some sound problems undermined my enjoyment slightly. Jason Moran’s improvising may arguably have been the most original and attacking in the group, but both the acoustic and Rhodes pianos could have done with a brighter sound and more attack. Others in the audience voiced their frustration at not being able to hear Chris Potter’s saxophones.

Potter seemed to have adapted his playing to suit this new environment – less flighty and verbose in his language than in his own groups. Tremendous power remains the basis for his full sound – but here he demonstrated his versatility and restraint. The memoral themes – both lyrical and sprightly, lingered in my mind after the gig’s conclusion, even if Eric Harland’s outrageous, lengthy drum solo threatened to induce a panic attack.

Meditation and Reflection

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble/Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Saturday 21st November

The preceding days of this superb festival had been heavy on intensity, pace, drive, humour and entertainment. They had been relatively short on reflection and contemplation. This excellent concert went some distance in redressing the balance. The opening duo set from Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde was both inspired and playful, with McCormack’s crisp and clean right hand beautifully supported by his busy, conversational left hand. He plays the piano as if one hand is conversing with the other, a style that proved particularly beneficial to the duo setting. The duo had a brilliant way with developing simple ideas – as in one piece with a recurring melodic and rhythmic motif subjected to all manner of imaginative harmonic extensions.

I’ve not yet been completely comfortable with Tord Gustavsen’s latest album release but this concert made me glad that I’ve held fire writing about it. I shall return to it very soon. The addition of Tore Brunborg on saxophones and replacement of bassist Harald Johnsen with Mats Eilertsen does not seem to have disturbed the finely tuned equilibrium of the core trio too much. Indeed, Brunborg’s typically Nordic sound actually serves to have enhanced the group’s sensitive dynamic rather than punctured it.

Gustavsen described more than one of his pieces as ‘prayers’ and, indeed, the likes of ‘Tears Transforming’ and ‘Draw Near’ had a spiritual, becalming, perhaps even sacred quality. Singer Kristin Asbjornsen was absent, so the group could only tackle a limited amount of the new material. Still, this provided an opportunity for the group to expand a little beyond its spacious, quiet comfort zone, with a further hint of the energy and fervour of gospel, something that complemented rather than competed with Gustavsen’s spiritual preoccupations. This group’s music is defiantly simple rather than simplistic, and the audience responded to this with jubilant enthusiasm.

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