The 2012 London Jazz Festival got off to a flying start with this hotly anticipated show teaming up one of the UK jazz scene’s brightest, most marketable acts with one of the great stars of contemporary American jazz. Initially a protege of the saxophonist and rhythmic innovator Steve Coleman, Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet has enjoyed an extraordinarily rapid ascent to the highest level of international jazz performance. Where just last year he was performing a short series of club shows at Ronnie Scott’s, he can now headline a concert hall as part of a major festival. Empirical remain a strong, committed presence on the jazz scene, in spite (or perhaps because) of the line-up changes in their relatively short history.
Tonight, the young London quartet are debuting material resulting from a collaboration with the Benyounes Quartet, a string ensemble. Both groups have enjoyed fellowships at the prestigious Trinity College of Music. Saxophonist and nominal bandleader Nathaniel Facey explained the collaboration at length (jazz audiences surely can’t be used to this much patter at gigs) and suggested that the aim was to integrate the string parts and jazz ensemble improvisation fully. Although much of the music proved satisfying and exciting, it’s debatable to what extent this goal has been realised. Jazz-meets-classical hybrids are pretty much de rigeur at the moment, with new music from Gwilym Simcock, Trish Clowes and Laura Jurd occupying ostensibly similar territory. It is a tough task to stand out in this increasingly crowded space.
The performance began tentatively, with what appeared to through-composed music over-dominated by the strings. There also seemed to be a slight degree of insecurity with the charts, which is maybe to be expected given the freshness of the material (this was its first official public performance). As the set progressed, the confidence of all the performers grew, and the communication and interaction became clearer. The compositions of Lewis Wright now seem to be taking centre-stage in the band’s repertoire, and they are increasingly assured. Nathaniel Facey also contributed an entertaining piece ‘about spatial awareness’ that featured some nimble musical acrobatics from the players. Throughout, the rhythm section of drummer Shane Forbes and Tom Farmer provided colour and texture in addition to deep but sensitive grooves, and it was surely no coincidence that the music seemed more assured as they became more active, playful and involved.
The colour and the sound of the strings blended well with Empirical themselves, although it would have been interesting to hear even further integration. The quartet did not get too involved either in improvising or in accompanying the Empirical members’ solos. It’s early days yet for this project – and it will surely continue to grow and develop during 2013.
In his trademark beanie hat and dark T-shirt, Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet had a somewhat casual demeanour whilst the rest of his band were sharply dressed. There was nothing casual about his playing, however, as he delivered a remarkably clear tone at impressive volume throughout, from the very first note of his initial cadenza. If anything, he sounded best when playing slightly off-mic, projecting with disarming authority and conviction. It is this quality, amongst others, that has prompted all the adulation and acclaim.
The set began at a feverish pitch of intensity and interaction and, for a short while, it appeared as if it might be exhaustingly sustained for an entire set. The relationship between Akinmusire and the bewilderingly imaginative drummer Justin Brown is clearly a very strong musical and personal bond, something that was communicated very strongly from the stage. The set mixed material from Akinmusire’s excellent debut album as bandleader, When The Heart Emerges Glistening, with some impressive new statements. At times, it all felt a bit too busy and involved. With Brown often ingeniously provocative, and with bassist Harish Raghavan and pianist Sam Harris serving as sparring partners, the music rarely settled into an established groove, and the rhythm section sometimes seemed to be competing for space.
Fortunately, Akinmusire appears to be an excellent judge of pace and mood and some evocative ballads with sophisticated harmony shifted the mood and provided a sense, perhaps, of spiritual exploration (much of this music seemed to combine the spirit of hard bop with a post-John and Alice Coltrane lineage). Akinmusire and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III make for a fluid, exciting improvising frontline and they play together with real verve. This occasionally frazzled but ultimately thrilling performance has set standards high for the rest of the festival, which continues in venues of various sizes around the city until Sunday 18 November.