The London Jazz Festival can always be relied upon to offer too much choice. With main venues at the Southbank Centre and Barbican, along with a multitude of fringe spaces (including The Vortex, Rich Mix, XOYO, the 606 club and more unconventional spaces such as churches) and regular musician-organised gigs getting a helpful publicity boost, even the most dedicated jazz fans would find it at worst impossible and at best exhausting to experience the full depth and breadth of the festival. Clashes frustrate at every turn, but this can only be a sign of the festival’s ambition and quality.
The opening night is particularly strong this year – with performances from Hugh Masekela, Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Big Band and European piano master Enrico Pieranunzi in various venues. This sets the tone for the range and high quality of the rest of the event.
There are of course performances from familiar names that justly enjoy legendary status. Courtney Pine, perhaps the biggest name in contemporary British Jazz, is back once again. Wayne Shorter may be celebrating his 80th birthday, but he is still as daring and imaginative a musician as ever, perhaps the most restless among living jazz musicians. His quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade (now a longstanding and fruitful relationship) performs at the Barbican with the BBC Concert Orchestra in what promises to be one of the most thrilling shows in the festival.
The exceptional pianist Brad Mehldau returns once again, this time in a duo with the highly creative and articulate drummer Mark Giuliana, performing at the Barbican on Thursday 21st November. Delightfully, this takes place in a double bill with Shabaka Hutchings’ brilliant, MOBO award-winning Sons Of Kemet. Carla Bley and Steve Swallow are also LJF regulars, this time performing at Wigmore Hall in a trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard (Sunday 24th November).
The festival also welcomes big names from European jazz, a powerful reminder that it is not just the big American names that draw in the crowds. There are shows from Phronesis (in the round at the Cockpit Theatre), Nils Petter Molvaer and Arild Andersen amongst others. Then there are the exciting chances to see and hear something rare and wonderful – Archie Shepp recreating his outstanding Attica Blues album, which will hopefully be more than just a nostalgic look back to the days when labels such as Impulse helped ensure that jazz had substantial cultural influence beyond its niche (Sun 24th, Barbican) or Troyka performing new arrangements of their music with a big band consisting mostly of players from the Royal Academy of Music (Sat 23rd November, 3pm, Purcell Room).
The festival is also an opportunity to investigate some new talent, whether it be the brightest light in contemporary jazz crossover fusion (Snarky Puppy at Village Underground) or new songwriting talent (Oli Rockberger, Pizza Express, Monday 18th). The range of smaller venues that regularly schedule jazz gigs throughout the year includes the Green Note (which hosts George Crowley’s new band, Tom Millar’s quartet), The Forge (the duo’s gig on Tuesday 19th with Riaan Vosloo/Tim Giles and Joe Wright/Alex Roth looks particularly exciting for the more adventurous listener) and the Vortex (gigs from Sam Crowe and a curated event from the excellent pianist Alexander Hawkins look promising). The Lume night at Hundred Crows Rising, which has gone from strength to strength since starting only a few months ago, features performances from Cath Roberts’ Quadraceratops and Dee Byrne’s Entropi, two of the most enjoyable bands on the scene right now. Recent reports of jazz’s death have clearly been greatly exaggerated.
Given that much of the wider LJF is a banner to bring greater awareness to the gigs that go on in London on a regular basis, it’s great when fringe venues stick to their guns but simply do so in a bigger and more confident way. The wonderful Cafe OTO venue in Dalston offers the European premiere of Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers suite (arguably the best jazz recording of last year) over three nights. This gig is essential for anyone interested in links between the music and socio-political issues, the civil rights music, and in the balance between composition and improvisation.
A persistent and perhaps justified criticism of the festival programming has been the dominance of male artists, but the performance of ACS, an all-female supergroup featuring Geri Allen, Terri Lynne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding, should be a highlight for purely musical reasons. The double bill of Dianne Reeves and Zara McFarlane will also be enticing to those tentatively exploring the world of jazz for the first time – these are singers and writers with commercial strengths too.
Sometimes it all feels a little overwhelming, but for those with the energy (and the funds) to make it happen, the LJF remains a highlight of London’s cultural year. Even without the necessary finances, just taking a chance on one of the free shows in the open spaces in the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall (Brass Mask being just one of the many excellent bands doing one of these sets) can yield a substantially rewarding experience.
The London Jazz Festival runs from 15-24 November 2013 at various London venues. More information and tickets can be found at the London Jazz Festival website.