Mehliana plus Sons Of Kemet by Graham Boyd – EFG London Jazz Festival, 21 November 2013

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There are a few commonalities linking the two groups that performed at the Barbican last night: One was a certain, not always comfortable, connection to classical music, another a shocking electricity about the sounds produced.  There was also percussive drive in abundance, from the keyboards/drum duo of Mehliana, and the dual drummers of Sons of Kemet (SoK).

As leader, Shabaka Hutchins, possessing a distinctive individual voice on tenor saxophone and clarinet, wanted SoK to create music for the African Diaspora, and you could certainly hear that, especially when the collective transcended individual voices to coalesce to produce a sound like that of a wounded elephant trumpeting, as a piece drew to a close.   

 Hutchins boasts classical training on his instrument, and compositional acumen, having studied at London’s Guildhall.  Remarkably, the laconically graceful Seb Rochford drummer and producer in SoK was twice rejected by the selfsame Guildhall in terms that would have discouraged a lesser mortal. Brad Mehldau has serious classical chops, and might have gone down that road as a performer, but for a performance of Prokiefiev, a rehearsal for friends, that rather fell apart. Nevertheless his moving suite Highway Rider led to his occupying the prestigious Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall in 2010/11.

Movement is key to Mehldau’s art; his independence of movement of his two hands, which he calls “fun” to execute, enables him to play different lines on different keyboards simultaneously. The range of electronic keyboards and pedals he employed were deployed alongside his piano to produce space age sounds worlds away from the piano trio music of many of Mehldau’s recordings.

Instead, with drummer Mark Guiliana, the music making, while undoubtedly jazz, would not have made a fan of prog rock feel out of place. Mehliana produced rich powerful sounds, especially in the bass, that simply had to be experienced in a concert hall; at times bombastic perhaps but there were also passages of real tenderness and beauty. I felt privileged to be in the presence of true greatness, but occasionally wondered if the performers were performing more for their own benefit than that of the audience.

Perhaps simply by dint of being the second act, SoK seemed to garner the more enthusiastic audience response. Oren Marshall on tuba linked it together contributing both rhythm and lead.   One doesn’t get many opportunities to hear a tuba solo, and mostly it was a good experience, if occasionally a little overdone. From my vantage point it was sometimes difficult to disentangle the contribution of Tom Skinner from that of Rochford , and in any case the drumming is intended to be heard as a unified whole.   

Thunderous, stupendous. If you thought acoustic jazz with classical allusions was necessarily polite, you needed to hear this.  It was about as polite as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  It was overall a thrilling concert experience; one that could not come close to being replicated on their sound systems in the sort of homes in which most people live.                              

 – Graham Boyd