Powerful social and sonic visions from The Cool World to Kairos Quartet

In recent years the film programme at the London jazz festival has grown in stature, and the development continues this year with some excellent features at the Barbican that include documentaries on subjects as rich as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jaco Pastorius and Frank Morgan. But the pick of the bunch is a screening of the groundbreaking, and rarely seen, 1964 feature The Cool World. While the immediate interest for jazz lovers lies in Mal Waldron’s soundtrack, performed with consummate flourish by a group featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Yusef Lateef, there is much more to Shirley Clarke’s film than a series of absorbing musical interludes.

The core scenario of Duke, a teenage gang leader in Harlem struggling to do the right thing in an amoral world where respect is bought with a gun and a traditional family structure is replaced by a ‘clubhouse’ of young boys growing up way too fast and too loose, paints an unremittingly bleak but intensely human picture of post-war ghetto life at its most unforgiving.

What further enriches the script are the brilliant cine-verite snippets of the local community woven into the action to imbue the movie with a distinct docu-drama feel, thus anchoring the fiction of Duke’s ordeal and eventual downfall with the sharp, uncut reality of how African-Americans were living in what was an impoverished and largely blighted part of New York. It is a world away from the glitz and glamour of Wall street, scene of a day trip for the school boy-hoodlums at the beginning of the story. Waldron’s compositions struck all the right chords in its response to this duality, veering from an intensely eerie, recurrent main theme that is practically Duke’s deepest fear – ‘I see death all around me’ – to bustling, hard swinging post-bop that evokes the urgency, if not creeping madness, of a young life about to spin desperately out of control. Furthermore, the array of glittering harmonies, so attuned to the reptilian glamour of the charismatic pimp, Priest, from whom Duke is intent on purchasing his ‘piece’, also show just how effectively a modern jazz composer of Waldron’s emotional depth and technical range could enhance visual content by audio colour. In any case the alternation of toughness and tenderness in the music underlines the importance of jazz as a potently apposite accompaniment to what could loosely be termed the ‘urban movie.’

The street, as a pivot of life and death, a backdrop for the grim adrenalin of robbery and the sweet pulsation of children at play, albeit with the acidic irony of the presence of toy guns, is a character in its on right. So visionary was Clarke’s script and direction that she provided glimpses of some of the key moments to come in American and British cinema in the 1970s and 80s, from the largely unheralded indie classics such as Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep, Horace Ove’s Pressure and Franco Rosso’s Babylon to Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. The uptempo music for the chase and fight scenes, where speed and dynamism of limbs mirror the gymnastic leaps and twirls of the horns, have of course become part and parcel of soundtrack culture in the wider sense, and there is maybe more than neat historical trivia in the fact that the legendary Lalo Schifrin, a prime exponent of the film score, was also one of Dizzy Gillespie’s other great collaborators.

Kairos4tet- MG 4991

Social deprivation and alienation are not specifically evoked in his opening salvo but when saxophonist Adam Waldman takes to the stage at Rich Mix the following day and says “It’s been a pretty crazy week in the world” he nonetheless reminds us of the importance of seeing the Paris atrocities, still lingering painfully in public consciousness, in the wider perspective of global conflict which robs Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali and the middle east of precious souls on a daily basis, though the media impact is lesser. Former Paris resident, the Benin guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, whose mother was in ‘la ville lumiere’ on the day of the attacks, made a similar point when he played an excellent solo set at the South Bank Centre’s Clore Ballroom as part of the Jazz Line Up afternoon session the previous weekend.

Kairos4tet- MG 5037

Fittingly, Waldman’s Kairos 4tet makes a solemn, poignant start with ‘The Lost Ones’, a song based on a poem written by the saxophonist’s mother but arguably relevant to anyone from The Cool World’s Duke to Salah Abdesalam, ‘France’s most wanted man’, as well as innumerable victims of violence for the sake of grotesquely twisted thinking. The piece is a serene, sensitively voiced mid-tempo ballad in which the new recruits in the band, pianist Elliot Galvin and double bassist Connor Chaplin impressively handle the rippling pulse and resonant harmony while longstanding drummer Jon Scott anchors the arrangement with a requisite lightness of touch.

Waldman’s tenor is used sparingly, the well spaced phrases adding to an ambience that seems to bridge the gap between the worlds of Wayne Shorter and Jan Garbarek, and as the set unfolds the signature sound that he has given Kairos in the course of four albums comes into its own. On the one hand there is the svelte lyricism, if not wistfulness of the more downtempo material, which is given a stronger folk undertow by the appearance of guest vocalists Marc O’Reilly and Emilia Martensson. On the other there is a much more kinetic, polyrhythmic approach that often brings to mind the stirring eastern flavours of anybody from Omer Avittal to Avishai Cohen.

Kairos4tet- MG 5019

All of the songs, from previously recorded material such as ‘VC’ and ‘J Ho From The Block’ to new pieces such as ‘Wax’ are of a high standard, but there are two things that hamper the performance. Waldman, particularly on soprano, simply cannot be heard properly above the robust backing provided by the rest of the band, and while maddening problems with a microphone attachment for his horn are an unwanted additional hindrance that doesn't alter the fact that the mix is a long way from what it should be. Furthermore the set list is not sequenced to really show the band to its full advantage, the problem being that there is insufficient variety in tempo and energy in the first half of the show which becomes just a touch too sedate on the back of several slow pieces.

Deciding when to ‘burn’ and when to ‘breathe’ is one of the hardest things for any artist to do, but the pacing of a set is just as important to a jazz musician as a pop singer, regardless of how high the standard of musicianship. With an excellent band and songbook at his disposal the talented Mr Waldman has the perfect vehicle to move Kairos forward as a live act. All he needs to do is fine-tune his choices on where to place material on the performance route before him.


– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Roger Thomas

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