EFG London Jazz Festival opens with a wild weekend

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The EFG London Jazz Festival may have celebrated its 21st birthday last year, but as if to prove it has truly come of age – and lost none of its spark – the opening weekend of the 22nd edition positively swaggered and swung with joyful jazz noises everywhere across the capital. If proof were needed of this all-encompassing event’s diversity and pulling power then opening vocal gala Jazz Voice got off to a flying start with top US vocalist Kurt Elling (pictured top) delivering a typically punchy ‘Stepping Out’. With his rich tenor resonating against the 40-piece orchestra-cum-big band, Elling’s bravura technique saw him scat soloing with abandon – a half-concealed grin bearing witness to the fun he seemed to be having dueling with conductor/arranger Guy Barker’s bristling score.

Jazz Voice is something of a ‘taster’ for the less jazz inclined listeners, and as such welcomes voices from soul, blues and pop to join the party – tonight including Basement Jaxx session soulstress Vula Malinga and rising soul-boy Jacob Banks – yet this was also a great showcase for young jazz singer Emma Smith whose time has surely come to move from rising to established name, performing a wonderfully restrained take on ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’. Jacqui Dankworth was equally mesmeric with a truly heartfelt performance of the Charlie Chaplin classic ‘Smile’, turning this all too mawkish melody into something deeply special, while Georgie Fame and Elling had fun with Cab Calloway’s ‘Mini the Moocher’. Other highlights included Barker’s masterful Blue Note medley that began the second half, to mark the label’s 75th anniversary this year, while Natalie Williams and the brilliant Dee Dee Bridgewater demonstrated that today’s vocal scene has both youth and experience in abundance. Click here to listen again to the programme on the BBC iPlayer.

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If the Brit-jazz powered big band thrilled the Barbican, then it was the turn of US bass boss Stanley Clarke (above) and his extraordinary band of young guns to shake the walls of Ronnie Scott’s for both their own headline gig and the late night Jazz On 3 live broadcast immediately after. This annual opening-night showcase always provides a contrasting array of sounds – a genuine snapshot of the sheer diversity of the capital’s jazz festival – and this 15th edition was no exception. Clarke’s firecracker foursome of keyboardist Cameron Graves, pianist Beka Gochiashvili and drum monster Michael Mitchell gave the bass icon’s Return To Forever acoustic fusion a blast of 21st century energy. Mitchell’s drumming was the perfect amalgam of Cobham-kick and Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave-daring while Gochiashvili is surely a name set for huge things on the international jazz scene.

As is typical with a Jazz On 3 line-up things detoured into freer terrain as South African drum guru Louis Moholo Moholo brought a reduced Dedication Quartet to the stage – his Dedication Orchestra headlined the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday – with pianist Steve Beresford, bassist John Edwards and saxophonist Jason Yarde digging deep into their collective resources. Yarde bringing things to a head with both soprano and alto saxes in his mouth in a self-harmonising peak. Calmer waters followed with the beatific baritone sax of John Surman creating delicate harmonies of a different kind with singer Karin Krog but it was the aforementioned Dee Dee Bridgewater who had a few aces up her sleeve.

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Hot-footing it from the Barbican, Bridgewater also brought an astonishingly talented young band of Edsel Gomez Rentas (piano), Kenny Phelps (drums), Theo Croker (trumpet), Irwin Hall(sax) and Stefan Lievestro (bass) and needed no encouragement to unleash a feverish ‘Afro Blue’ that skittered and twisted across the 6/8 groove. Trumpeter Croker is a name we’re sure to hear a lot more from in the coming years, playing with the kind of unfettered, infectious exuberance missing from so many players today, likewise Hall on sax was his equal – also be-dreadlocked and grinning with refreshing enthusiasm. Bridgewater’s obvious bond with them all took on a motherly/mentor-ish air as she looked on with pride at her young brood’s brilliance – her own vocals much better suited to the intimacy of a club rather than a concert hall – but perhaps it was just her band providing new levels of inspiration. (MF)   

The protective power of Gris Gris came to town on Saturday night when New Orlean’s very own hoodoo man Dr John brought his ‘Spirit of Satch’ show to the Barbican and proceeded to give fellow home-boy, Louis Armstrong’s timeless repertoire his own highly individual stamp, not to mention a hefty injection of second line funk. With a super-tight band led by trombonist and arranger Sarah Morrow, and featuring a Brit-jazz horn section boasting trumpeter Reuben Fowler, saxophonist Patrick Clahar, Tony Kofi on baritone sax and Byron Wallen on lead trumpet, Mac (Dr John) Rebennack sashayed on, walking-stick style, to a hero’s welcome as he slipped behind the skull-adorned piano and pushed ‘What A Wonderful World’ through the Crescent City juicer.

What was once a ballad transformed into a joyous fat groove and the well-worn lyric dripped with a lip-smacking new tang courtesy of Rebennack’s utterly unmistakable voice. And this is exactly what elevated the show above a mere tribute concert as each of Armstrong’s tunes, including ‘I’ve Got The World On A String’, ‘That’s My Home’, and ‘Tight Like This’ were twisted into irresistible new shapes – some with an impassioned Carlene Anderson on guest vocals – that sounded as though they’d been in Mac and the band’s book for years. “He came to me in this dream and said, ‘Do my stuff – your way’,” said Rebbenack, and with the band in full-funking flow and the audience rocking on its feet, who would want it any other way? (JN)

Yet as the 22nd EFG London Jazz Festival springs into life, one long-running partnership draws to a close. Over the past two decades Norwegian alto/soprano sax master Jan Garbarek has forged a fruitful (artistically and commercially) relationship with leading early music vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble. For their penultimate concert together on Friday night at Temple Church, London, the collaborators treated the audience to a selection of songs and chants from the 11th to the 21st Century, taking in everything and everyone from Part to traditional Scottish song. Gabarek sometimes echoed and commented upon the serene harmonies of the Hilliards; sometimes he blew with a celestial passion, forcing notes to clatter and soar around the church.

The venue itself, slap bang in the heart of the Inns of Court, is both breathtakingly beautiful and entirely appropriate; its vaulted ceilings make the perfect echo chamber for this at once fiery and crystalline, meditative music. If the music was serene and still, the vocal performers were not, moving about the church and adding an extra dimension to the sound – this was music that seems to come from everywhere, and nowhere, at once. It’s a pity that such a successful merging of talents has to end, but it has ended on the highest of notes. (KW)

– Mike Flynn, Jon Newey and Kevin Whitlock

– Photos by Tim Dickeson


The EFG London Jazz festival continues until Sunday 23 November for more info go to www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk

Click here to listen again to the launch night at Ronnie Scott's on the iPayer – available until 14 December

 

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