This year’s London Jazz Festival got off to a mightily impressive start by securing two extremely rare performances from major jazz figures from both sides of the Atlantic. This was legendary US saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman’s first UK performance in seven years, whilst British saxophonist Steve Williamson – a contemporary of the bright generation of British jazz musicians that included Courtney Pine and Julian Joseph – has performed only sporadically in recent years. It was also one of the London Jazz Festival’s inspired pairings – with Coleman having long been a friend and mentor to Williamson, and the M-BASE movement having inspired significant trends in contemporary jazz here in the UK as well as in the US. For many of the younger members of the audience, it would have been the first opportunity to see both these musicians in concert.
Williamson performed in a spontaneous, freely improvised duo with pianist Pat Thomas – a setting somewhat removed from the groovy jazz-funk of his performing heyday. His saxophone tone now seems abrasive and attacking where once it had been warmer and brighter, but there was much to admire and enjoy in this all too brief set.
Crucial to the success of a successful improvised performance is close listening and musical empathy.. Both musicians seemed alert and intuitive, altering intentions, texture and mood at precisely the right time. Also refreshing were the abrupt and decisive endings, the set being comprised of shorter, more controlled bursts of improvisation rather than one long, interrupted piece. The second piece, progressing from a languid and almost lyrical introduction into a fluent flurry of activity, proved particularly exciting. Thomas was in playful mood throughout, at one point initiating a near-swing feel through the use of a walking bass figure in his left hand, and elsewhere varying his hand position to achieve stark dissonances.
Unlike much of the indie and rock scenes on both sides of the Atlantic, Steve Coleman is not tempted by demands for some sort of M-BASE reunion. He brought to the London Jazz Festival not his regular ensemble Five Elements, but a fresher, bass-less trio called Reflex, which performs very rarely.
There are clear musical threads which connect much of Coleman’s substantial musical output. He remains preoccupied with rhythms from the wider world, including Africa and South America. Much of his music involves experiments with metric cycles, super-imposing figures in various time signatures over others, or constructing complex rhythmic forms that are unusual and challenging. This distinctive approach was very much in evidence in this Reflex performance. Wearing his trademark reverse baseball cap, Coleman had relaxed but commanding stage presence – a poise reflected in the confident intensity of the ensemble.
In the absence of a bass player, pianist and keyboard player David Virelles often assumed an anchoring role, repeating intricate asymmetric figures with admirable discipline and rigour. This left Coleman and impressively nimble drummer Marcus Gilmore free to be adventurous. He also proved improvised dynamically and flexibly, his long solo being one of the evening’s highlights. Also striking and effective were moments when Virelles dropped out, leaving Coleman and Gilmore in some thrillingly risky duets.
Towards the end of the concert and during the encore, Coleman appeared to treat the performance as something of a work-in-progress, introducing new rhythmic figures to the group which appeared to be unrehearsed. Watching Coleman vocalise rhythmic patterns and lay down various claves on a set of bells provided valuable insight into his working methods, as well as challenging the individual band members in a radically spontaneous exercise. Virelles subtle shades of harmony were always considered and imaginative, although it might arguably have been good to hear him stretch out a little more. Nevertheless, this was an exciting and brave exploration from three aware, concentrated and exciting musical minds.