Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Thomas Rees EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013

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Heads are nodding in the row in front as a screech of controlled feedback and a layer of treble, like the beam of search light, fills the room. You can feel the bass-drum in your chest, like distant mortar fire, right before the snare snaps your head back and the stuttering fills and bewildering cross-rhythms leave you drowning in a sea of electronic noise.

 

The closest you'll get to clubbing in Barbican Hall, last night's gig featured two acts out on the fringes of jazz. An opening set from Mehliana, a collaboration between legendary pianist and composer Brad Mehldau, and drummer Mark Guiliana, known for his work with Wayne Krantz and Gretchen Parlato, was a hard-hitting blend of improvisation, electronica and drum and bass. On piano, Fender Rhodes and an arsenal of vintage synthesisers, Mehldau unleashed arpeggiated riffs, twisting, gospel-inspired lines and electronic soundscapes. His eyes screwed shut in concentration, Guiliana responded with driving grooves, risking it all on drum breaks of astonishing precision and rhythmic complexity.

 

In the second half, young London-based quartet, Sons of Kemet, brought raw energy to a stage wreathed in smoke. Tuba player Oren Marshall pounded out bass-lines amidst the clattering fills of the band's two drummers, Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. Showcasing his extended technique, Marshall added effects, with sounds like scratching on vinyl and rumbling bass notes that evoked Mehldau's synths.

 

“Godfather”, one of two clarinet features for reeds player Shabaka Hutchings provided a welcome change of pace. Its gentle melody, inspired by “Ethio-jazz”, calmed the hall before the band exploded into a finale, tinged with rock and high-stepping reggae.

 

Neither group were flawless. Mehliana's set, in particular, lacked variety and saw attentions wandering by the end. But, for pushing the boundaries and capturing the atmosphere of a sweat-soaked underground club in the polite confines of a concert hall, both acts should be commended.

 

Thomas Rees