Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Steve Owen – EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013

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The Barbican - brutal but warmed on the inside by natural wood floors, low lighting and rich red velvet seats – a London venue with a real claim to retro-vintage charm. An apt venue for the pop art retrospective in the gallery upstairs showcasing the space-aged and space-shaped objects of the colourful synaesthestic generation, and downstairs for jazz evoking the sounds of the 1960s space age, when the future really was futuristic.

The soft wooden, analogue undertone of the auditorium feels like the kind of place which abhors digital like space abhors the vacuum, and there is something of the soothing mechanical electro tones of the church organ as Brad Mehlda plays rolling, globular, lava lamp sounds on warm and warbly synths accompanied by Mark Guillana, the maker of futuristic, metallic washes of cymbal sounds and rhythms on drums.

Both sit beneath a modernistic rose window of organic circles of light thrown up in the curtain behind them – Mehlda with his back to the audience and both largely ignoring the audience with a lazer like focus as they tweek this knob or that, or trigger new sounds or vocal tracks which overlay their thick and often deep and resonant sounds. The beeping and blipping of the synths and drum pad is reminiscent of the pioneering electronic and computer music of the 1960s when we weren’t so familiar with the sound of a computer’s singing voice. Communicating little from what I observe, the pair nonetheless pass the sound back and forth, but whereas the synths solos - with the range of sounds at Mehlda’s disposal - stand up on their own, the drum solos, whilst interesting, seem tense and heavy handed until the dulcet tone of the synths weave their way back in and calm things down again with their easy going burble.

There seemed little to connect the first act with the second act unless you know one of the drummers, Seb Rochford, in another of his bands – Polar Bear - is fond of deep resonating ensemble grooves and borrowed electronic sounds wooshing in from a computer. But the Sons of Kemmet was a totally analogue affair tonight, albeit one filled with sounds, which were just as experimental, particularly from the womping bass of the big tuba which seemed more contraption than instrument.

It was a theatrical performance from the start – filling the auditorium with nightclub smoke there was something of smoke and mirrors – or hall of mirrors - about the reflection of drum kits fronted by double brass – the smaller alto sax convexed into a bulging tuba and Seb’s head and hair distorted into a mad afro. The double drums worked in sympathy with one another and with diagonal partners on brass. Heavier-handed and more definite Seb worked with tuba to create bass grooves while a more languid Tom Skinner on the second kit had a lighter touch and matched Shabaka Hutchings’ melodies on alto sax and clarinet. Theirs was an enthusiastic ensemble performance and they rushed through their set with less seriousness and more exuberance, perfect for the jaunty Balkan folk vibe, which could sometimes be heard along with all sorts of other feelings. The tuba was the surprise star of the performace – half performance art such was the theatricality of Oren Marshall’s tuba - sounding at times what it must sound like listening to a tiger’s heartbeat through a stethoscope, it was a restrained growl or purr, before turning into the snore of a slumbering giant, and the crowd appreciated the comedy in it and the power of a big instrument.

Tonight was a double main act – ie. no support, equal billing. There was a sense in the audience that Mehlda and Guillana were the ‘serious’ act – the musicianship and composition (carbon-based or silicon-based) which went into their open-ended soundscapes which now have the feel of a vintage ‘future’ soundtrack, were appreciated for the rocket science it was. No less the musicians, Sons of Kemmet had something of the students about them – their less serious turn was a riot of joyful playing and taking the finishing slot made perfect sense.  



Steve Owen