The contrasting double bill is a familiar experience for seasoned devotees of the London Jazz Festival. Perhaps last year’s strangest concert was the pairing of a solo piano concert from the devilishly complex Vijay Iyer with the refined neo-classical flourishes of Polish musicians Leszek MozdzerLars Daniellson.
The pairing of 72-year-old Memphis saxophone legend Charles Lloyd with British vocalist Norma Winstone is less peculiar in the sense that both artists have released albums this year on Manfred Eicher’s estimable ECM record label. Yet the differences between Winstone’s floaty, folk-tinged European sound and the Lloyd quartet’s brilliant exploration of American musical traditions served to emphasise what a broad umbrella the ‘jazz’ label has become.
Winstone’s set with Klaus Gesing and Italian pianist Glaco Venier managed to be both whimsical and mournful. Winstone is an exemplary vocalist – her phrasing and articulation so careful and clear that the lyrics resonate strongly around the hall. Klaus Gesing proved an engaging presence too, particularly on soprano saxophone, his phrases assuming a nimble, dancing quality. If the lyrics sometimes seemed emotionally haunted (albeit burdened by a slightly limited lexicon filled with references to spirits and nature), the playing mostly seemed light and considered. The best moments were Winstone’s engaging reinterpretations of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ and Wayne Shorter’s Diana, the former re imagined as an expressive ballad tinged with regret and sadness.
Charles Lloyd’s string of excellent recordings for ECM has reached a new pinnacle with this year’s Mirror, a beautiful album comfortably as good as anything in his long career. In his quartet with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland he appears to have struck a remarkably fruitful relationship with a group of much younger, but hugely empathetic talents. This Barbican performance was as good an example of collective improvised music making as will likely be performed on a British stage this year.
Lloyd had something of the mercurial, superstar quality of Miles Davis in his stage presence. Dressed in flamboyant neck scarf and sunglasses, he appeared simultaneously cool and intense – completely absorbed in the music when soloing but retreating to the extremes of the stage and allowing his superb band the time and space to work their own magic.
Musically, the performance was infused with the spiritual concerns most famously explored by John and Alice Coltrane. The encore concluded with Lloyd reciting from the Upanishads, whilst much of the main set had a fervent gospel swing. Much of the audience’s adulation was reserved for pianist Jason Moran, given plenty of freedom to transform standards such as I Fall In Love Too Easily into ecstatic, tempestuous bursts of expression and colour. Moran’s tumbling lines contrasted beautifully with Lloyd’s often lyrical explorations of the main themes.
This was a concert that covered improvisation from an impressive variety of angles – beginning with the brilliant light touch groove of Go Down Moses, before continuing to explore perfectly timed abstraction, fiery interaction and moments of beatific calm. Drummer Eric Harland displayed both his extraordinary technique and his musical sensitivity. He is a drummer with the ability to make a strong and idiosyncratic contribution without being disruptive. His solo in the rollicking first encore was a fearsome display of skill and musicianship.
Yet for all that Lloyd’s distinctive, passionate sound, Rogers’ impeccable time, Moran’s unstoppable flow of ideas and Harland’s depth and dexterity, the success of this concert was really a result of the group’s collective relationship. All four musicians were committed to creating a rich, engaging and fluid sound, all completely aware of each other’s space and character. Along with the superb Wayne Shorter Quartet, due to return to London next October, Lloyd’s group may be the best small ensemble currently at work in contemporary jazz.