Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Miranda Schiller – EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013

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Two hands on four different keyboards, often playing two instruments at the same time – that in itself is impressive. Brad Mehldau on piano, synthesisers and Fender Rhodes arranged in towers around him, and Mark Guiliana on drums: this is Mehliana, playing an entirely improvised set. Mixing classical jazz piano lines with droning electronic sounds, jumpy, but precise drumming and samples of incomprehensibly distorted voice recordings, they take off on a musical voyage, filling the Barbican's spacey interior with the appropriate sounds.

 

While Guiliana's drumming is impeccable and creative, Mehldau drifts away at times, and the two seem to be somewhat separate for the first part of the set. Although facing each other rather than the audience, their communication isn't working that well at first. They are only really taking off towards the end: the last songs and the encore are spot on, with both of them reacting to each other and really playing together. Maybe they weren't in their best form this evening, maybe Mehldau's forages into experimental music are just not as tight as his more traditional piano playing. One audience member apparently thought so, and shouted “more piano!”, to which the duo reacted with some mild irritation and a drum solo of several minutes of length – quite a clever response.

 

Despite a slow start, Mehliana are enchanting and create a dreamy ambiance of sound, pushing the boundaries of jazz with thick strokes of prog rock, funk and electronica.

 

As soon as Sons of Kemet start playing, it becomes clear why they are on after the main act. It would have been difficult to engage with the calm explorations of Mehliana after the energetic buzz of the quartet of two drummers, one tuba and one saxophone / clarinet. They are not wasting a minute of their time. Bandleader Shabaka Hutchings keeps the announcements to a minimum, skips the ritual of going off stage, being applauded and coming back for the encore. They are not here to be celebrated, they are here to party. This is highly danceable music, with noticeable African and Caribbean influences.

 

The loud, fast-paced band then goes absolutely quiet for the solos, again several minutes long. Hutchings' saxophone has a dry, wooden sound, and his clarinet in turn can sound like a soprano saxophone. His beautifully melodic improvisation is at times supported by a light and groovy percussion from the two drum kits and the tuba. Oren Marshall regularly disassembles his instrument and produces sounds that are unlike a tuba, which turns out not to be a loud instrument at all. But it can be, and it can at other times sweetly duet with the saxophone or clarinet. The two drummers Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner are in perfect harmony with each other, and a driving force in this rhythmic, energising and downright fun set.

 

Grounded on a tight base of exquisite skill and accomplishment, both Mehliana and Sons of Kemet can effortlessly delve into abstraction and exploration and leave the audience simultaneously enchanted and invigorated.

Miranda Schiller