Live Music + Gig Reviews

EFG London Jazz Festival 2019 @ Various Venues, London

15-24 November 2019

Kings Place (Photo: Nick White)

As always, the EFG London Jazz Festival offers up such a range of exciting and challenging music that negotiating its contours can be quite demanding. A trend of the festival is its ongoing diversification, often in very welcome ways, with promoter Serious making a conscious effort to achieve some balance in the gender representation of musicians.

This has also taken the festival in some more controversial directions too, with the number of gigs presenting musicians from well outside the broad spectrum of music perceived as jazz seemingly on the increase. However good these concerts might be – and this year they were particularly excellent – there will always be some heated debate about their place in the festival schedule. If they draw curious audiences to other events, this is surely a good thing – and it would be interesting to see some data as to whether or not this is happening.

This year, some of the strongest and most interesting performances took place at Kings Place. Drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington has such an impressive performance and recording CV that she might now justly be considered jazz royalty. As an artist in residence at the venue during the festival week, she performed two separate sets, each focusing in on a different aspect of her work, and discussed her enthusiasm for Nina Simone’s Black Gold album as part of the venue’s Classic Album Sundays. For the first set, joined by her current ensemble Social Science Community, she performed a range of material including reinterpretations of classic compositions (Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, the late and great Geri Allen’s Unconditional Love), selections from her back catalogue and new material from the impressive new double album The Waiting Game.

Opening with Mindful Intent, the purpose and momentum of the ensemble is established from the outset, a nuanced and musical drum solo eventually opening out into a driving bass line delivered by one of the UK’s most grooving and fluid electric bass players, Rob Mullarkey. Throughout there is an intriguing interaction between the DJ and electronics contributions of Val Jeanty (which often highlight the music’s socio-political themes) and the sparse piano comping of Santiago Bosch. The improvising is mischievous and inventive throughout, although the strongest melodic contribution comes from a beautiful ballad written by saxophonist and occasional drummer Morgan Guerin.

Over in Hall 2, something stranger and less tethered takes place. Angel Bat Dawid and her band enter the venue through the venue foyer, chanting and singing, and threading their way through the standing audience to the stage. Chanting the words “Indestructible Consciousness”, the performance already feels something more akin to a prayer meeting than a conventional gig. Dawid’s album The Oracle, much of which was recorded solo on her phone, is often spiritual and has an aching quality, but in live performance the music is considerably more exuberant, from the jarring stabs of dissonance from Dawid herself on piano and keyboard, to the greater emphasis on voices and groove. Throughout, the musicians use chanting, sighing and singing as a vehicle for improvisation, and the results place them somewhere between Sun Ra and Funkadelic (particularly on an intensely rousing Black Family ‘the strongest institution in the world’).

Dawid explains that she makes music because she feels she has no choice, and many of these pieces address civil rights and race relations issues. She veers between celebratory ebullience, anguish and righteous anger, often rapidly and without warning. There is some common ground with the Terri Lyne Carrington set, not least the effective integration of acoustic instruments with samples and electronic sounds, but more noticeable are the contrasts, the two performances making for a provocative and thoughtful contrast in approaching the social and political imperative behind improvised music. Dawid concludes the performance sprawled on the floor of the Kings Place foyer, perhaps in a state of ecstasy. She has every right to claim that she is not involved in the business of ‘entertainment’, but it’s difficult to deny that this set was as much a compelling spectacle as an intense musical and spiritual experience.

Alongside big international names and double bills which often boost the profile of UK artists, the festival also celebrates the regular ongoing bustle of London’s thriving jazz scene (a wide range of questing musical activity that includes but also goes well beyond the ‘new jazz explosion’ currently riding a wave of media interest that has seemed dormant for too long). The Vortex in Dalston hosts a monthly residency from the London Jazz Orchestra, something of a London jazz institution, a high quality contemporary big band that not only celebrates the compositional and improvising skills of its current personnel but also keeps alive the music of past members sadly no longer with us.

The band’s director Scott Stroman, who both conducts and sings, always assembles a thoughtful programme, and the band’s festival gig was no different. Trumpeter Noel Langley offered a thoughtful and empathetic tribute to the late Kenny Wheeler in the wittily titled Beyond Our Ken, and a particular highlight was a joyous and thrilling take on John Taylor’s great composition O. As ever, the band featured regular soloists such as Martin Hathaway, Martin Speake and Tori Freestone, alongside some musicians covering for others (pianist Tom Millar confidently stepped in for Alcyona Mick), everything cemented by the clarity and authority of Paul Clarvis’ drumming. Sometimes things seem to be on a knife edge with these often complex charts, but the ensemble always creates something new and magical from them.

Singer, songwriter, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki is one of the sharpest talents currently at work in UK jazz, her music heavily featuring improvisation and drawing from jazz harmony, but also incorporating a range of specific folk music (particularly from Eastern Europe) and a melodic sensibility that imbues her music with features common to the work of Björk, Joni Mitchell or Joanna Newsom. In a collaboration with musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music, her Kings Place performance found her in captivating form, commanding a larger venue with confidence, wit and breeziness, while delivering songs of great depth and feeling. The arrangements, either handled by Zawadzki herself or contributed by band members Rob Luft (guitar), Fred Thomas (mainly drums but also occasionally piano, percussion or banjo) and Misha Mullov-Abbado (bass) are lush and expansive whilst also providing space for contemplation.

The lion’s share of the two sets consists of music from her outstanding new album Within You Is A World Of Spring. The album is beautiful and often transcendent (particularly the stunning songs Keeper and God’s Children, both highlights of the first set) but also feels as if it deploys the resources of the recording studio a little more than the majority of jazz recordings. The extent to which this performance manages to capture that meticulous quality is particularly impressive. Zawadzki plays both piano and violin (although the collaborative nature of the performance means we perhaps don’t quite hear enough of the latter), and her clarity of communication is remarkable. The entire ensemble is well integrated, with particularly impressive improvising contributions from the lively horn section. Rob Luft on guitar is also a scintillating presence, providing a wide range of sonic effects, timbre and texture in addition to this fluent improvising. The performance as a whole felt like a major statement from an increasingly significant artist.

Polish duo Zimpel/Ziolek performed a gradually unfolding, minimalist set intuitively meshing acoustic guitar and reed instruments with electronic atmospherics. The sound is typical of the genre in its hypnotic and immersive qualities, but the subtle intrusion of texture and rhythm from Kuba Ziolek’s folk influenced guitar parts and the sometimes abrasive presence of Waclaw Zimpel’s clarinets offers something distinctive and earthy. There is a refreshing openness to their music, and it is not hard to envisage the duo veering off at different but no less interesting tangents should their collaboration continue for the longer term.

Breathtakingly virtuosic saxophonist Marius Neset returned to a London stage to premiere his new long form composition Viaduct, resuming his productive ongoing collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, one of the UK’s strongest contemporary music ensembles. The performance is effectively staged, with Neset’s regular ensemble (Ivo Neame on piano, Petter Eldh on bass, Anton Eger on drums and Jim Hart on both tuned and untuned percussion) on a riser at the back of the stage, the orchestra at the front, and Neset centre stage in between the two. This arrangement highlights Neset’s physicality, expression and commitment to the music, but also demonstrates how well attuned the London Sinfonietta are to the intricate, lattice-like demands of his music.

There are sudden and unexpected bursts of bop energy, alongside rather more conventional orchestral passages that sometimes veer a little too close to contemporary music pastiche. Yet the integration of the two ensembles is undoubtedly impressive (sometimes the strings even drive the intensity), although this sometimes means that Neset’s own ensemble seem a little restricted, particularly the usually frenetic and dazzling Eger. That being said, the carefully poised comping of Neame and Hart, never seeming to get in each other’s way, is a delight to observe. The explosive conclusion is particularly thrilling and there’s a generous and warm encore that demonstrates Neset’s warmer, more melodic side.

Rhiannon Giddens may not strictly speaking be a jazz singer (in fact, she draws as much from her training in opera as from the blues), but her collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi certainly demonstrates an enthusiasm for the jazz tradition. With strong support from bassist Jason Sypher, Giddens and Turrisi explore, contrast and find connections between a range of folk music traditions, both from America and Europe. In addition to his informed banjo and piano playing, Turrisi is also a remarkable percussionist, showing a dexterity on Italian tambourine to match that of the great Airto Moreira.

Partially as a result of this, the range of sound worlds that Turrisi and Giddens explore with insight and confidence is impressive. Giddens is an expert communicator, not exclusively through the depth, power and impact of her extraordinary and distinctive singing voice but also in providing important context for the material, some of which involves her reclaiming the banjo for an African-American musical lineage and confronting the troubling history of black minstrelsy. Guesting trumpet player Alphonso Horne helps elevate proceedings to a spirited and rousing conclusion. It is a remarkable performance and perhaps the biggest highlight of the festival.

Calexico and Iron And Wine, returning to London well over a decade after their last visit as a double act, certainly seem like a particularly odd fit with a jazz festival programme, their music more often highlighting Texas border influences, Appalachian folk and the tenets of American folk songcraft. Yet, as the promoter introduction highlighted, there is an impressive intricacy in the arrangements, John Convertino is clearly a jazz influenced drummer and there is plenty of improvising on display, from some quirky keyboard solos veering outside the harmony to an upright bass solo that certainly would not have been out of place in a jazz club.

Still, the most lingering and memorable elements of the band’s music is the warmth of the collaboration between Calexico’s Joey Burns and Sam Beam, still one of the strongest songwriters and lyricists currently at work. Their voices blend together beautifully (such that they can handle a collaboration with support act Lisa O’Neill on the Everly Brothers’ All I Have To Do Is Dream), and they seem to have an intuitive understanding of each other’s musical driving forces. The set mostly draws from their two collaborative mini albums, but there is also an effective repurposing of material from both back catalogues (Calexico’s Glimpse is particularly effective, and Iron And Wine’s Boy With A Coin becomes slower and more ethereal).

Perhaps most striking are the judicious choice of covers, including Lucinda Williams’ I Lost It, Echo And The Bunnymen’s Bring On The Dancing Horses and Chris Gaffney’s Frank’s Tavern. As on their previous visit, they manage to omit some of their strongest moments (no Prison On Route 41 or Dead Man’s Will sadly), but there is still plenty here to keep the audience satiated for another decade or so. It’s not quite jazz, but then what is jazz exactly if not a flexible, collaborative approach to a range of material? Sam Beam remains someone who never quite performs his songs in the same way twice. Whatever the implications of this side of the festival’s programming, it’s pretty clear from the schedule as a whole that jazz is very much alive and well.

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