Sons of Kemet, Neil Cowley Trio and Dylan Howe play up a storm at Canary Wharf Jazz Festival

Musicians have always benefitted from the patronage of the wealthy, but though it’s now in its ninth year, there’s still something odd about a jazz festival in Canary Wharf. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting worlds than those of jazz and high finance and you’d think this fiercely ordered business hub would take umbrage against a bunch of scruffy, free-spirited musos traipsing through.

Yet it all works rather well and the arts and events wing of the Canary Wharf Group proves itself a generous and accommodating host – the philanthropic heart of gold behind all that glass and steel. For starters the whole weekend is free; they’ve splashed out on a series of giant video screens to relay the on-stage action around Canada Square Park; and when I arrive on Friday night, in the driving rain, there’s a gaggle of dripping wet stewards handing out ponchos. It’s down to Bristol-based jazz-rock band The Rawness to start the show and, to their credit, they play their hearts across some funked-up originals, despite performing to a crowd of around 30 people cowering beneath umbrellas.

Headlining the opening night are Sons of Kemet (pictured top) who banish the rain altogether with tracks from forthcoming album Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do. It’s an inspiring set, full of heavy dub grooves, swaggering, roar-throated sax lines and jolting drum beats, with Arabic and Ethiopian notes to counterpoint the strong Caribbean flavour. Theon Cross gets the crowd going with a thunderous tuba breakdown, complete with yelping altissimo whoops, and Shabaka Hutchings (below) riffs in return, spinning out some arrestingly fragile melodies – notes of calm amidst the wonderfully chaotic, bull-in-a-china-shop drum solos of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. The four musicians give it their all and by the end, spurred on by the roar of the small but dedicated crowd, they’re wetter than we are – drenched in sweat.

SOK-Nunzio-Prenna1

The rest of the weekend is dry, the stewards are handing out plastic picnic rugs and the park is packed. It’s a varied crowd – families, friends of all ages, a few barefoot hippies and a sprinkling of the formidably well-heeled – and we get a varied programme to match. Some of it ispretty involved and one of Sunday’s highlights is an appearance from trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and her Family Hafla Band, followed by an atmospheric set of Bowie instrumentals from drummer Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans. As archive footage of goose-stepping soldiers, murky street scenes and flickering crowds plays out on the big screens, Howe transports us to 1970s Berlin. The music is engrossing and much of it is sunk in shadowy intrigue, but there are bright lights and bold colours too, with glinting solos from pianist Ross Stanley and unison melodies that see James Allsopp’s saxophone blending with Steve Lodder’s fizzing, acid-trip synth to great effect.

Also on the bill are a few party bands and, as private jets skirt the surrounding skyscrapers bound for London City Airport, Afrobeat warriors The Fontanelles take the stage. Formerly the band for FELA! at the National Theatre, a musical about the life of Nigerian icon Fela Kuti, they’re polished and punchy and they get the crowd dancing.

There’s more dancing when Venezuelan timbales player Edwin Sanz and his San Agustin Salsa Orchestra steam on, with charismatic, high kicking frontmen and keys player Alex Wilson pounding out the montunos. They’re a lot of fun but it’s a surreal experience and thoroughly disorienting, particularly when they launch into salsa versions of pop classics ‘Ain't Nobody’ and ‘Higher Love’ and when Brit rapper Jayel comes on for the finale, amidst furious percussion breaks, beatboxing and screaming lead trumpet.  

Just as spectacular are the Neil Cowley Trio. Backlit by the eerie blue glow of the Barclays and KPMG buildings, they bring the festival to a close with a characteristically RSI-inducing set of minimalist grooves and thrashing, rock climaxes that go down a storm. “It’s great to be here at Canary Wharf,” the pianist says with a laugh, “... a place I so rarely come.” I’d be willing to bet that’s the last time you’ll see a jazz musician in Canada Square Park, at least until they allow us all back for the festival’s 10th anniversary next year.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Nunzio Prenna

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