Blue Note Records At 75 Celebration crowns triumphant EFG London Jazz Festival

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First up, it was the intertwined grand pianos of Jason Moran and Robert Glasper, their virtuosic recitative running for something over an hour. From where I sat, Moran had the edge, initiating a boogie line to recall Blue Note’s earliest recordings, as Glasper, his more madcap behaviour under wraps, responded before setting up a series of repeated ‘free’ motifs. Moran is another like Italian pianist Stefano Bollani in having rhythmic energy to spare, tapping and clapping and then erupting thunderously at the keyboard as Glasper underpinned the harmonies. I thought the performance compelling and rewarding; others missed any possibility of duelling and thought it lacked bite.

Any such doubts must have surely been dissipated by the second half arrival of today’s Blue Note players, all bandleaders in their own right, and greeted with a whooping reaction by this packed audience. Lit in stadium fashion and stretched out over the wide RFH stage, they hit hard from note one, tenorist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire leading off on Wayne Shorter’s switchback ‘Witch Hunt’, their melodic projection momentarily recalling Horace Silver’s label days. This was my first live sighting of Akinmusire and it proved to be a hugely impressive introduction to his playing, each improvisation considered yet hot, poised yet adventurous, while Strickland appeared less audacious, always tonally sure and inclined to single note passages before moving into a higher gear.

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Rhythmically, this band was a mover, with drummer Kendrick Scott laying down a carpet of cross rhythms and quick-witted variations. His solo feature was a triumphant display of percussive ingenuity, the twin bass drums setting up a fusillade as bassist Derrick Hodge kept things on an even keel. Akinmusire contributed ‘Iliad’, Strickland more solemn here, its subdued dynamic in pleasing contrast before guitarist Lionel Loueke performed his ‘Freedom Beat’, described by Glasper as like ‘hearing three guitarists and two vocalists at once’; a true tour de force of guitar effects, tapped routines and gritty wah-wah shouts, before he settled into a straight sequence of pure jazz guitar. Strickland’s ‘The Meaning’ gave Glasper a showing, always harmonically pleasing and surprisingly calm. Hodge’s ‘Message of Hope’ was a serene finish, its hook like a balm. Needless to say, this crowd loved every minute. Me too.

– Peter Vacher

– Photos by Tim Dickeson