Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Matthew Wright – EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013

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Brad Melhdau has been searching out new genres to conquer like a mountaineer after unscaled peaks, with recent projects including opera, bluegrass and classical chamber music. This time it was a spectrum of electronic music, encompassing dance, garage, funk and R&B, in the auspicious company of Beat Music drummer Mark Giuliana.  


In addition to the Barbican’s grand, Mehldau had quite a showroom of keyboards - period models, for a truly psychedelic 70s vibe - and sound deck. He’s performed this gig before with just synths, but the analogue stringiness of the piano meshed beautifully with the synths’ clean reverb. Using the sampler, he lovingly crafted layers of sound texture, and with Giuliana’s assistance, there were some periods of breathtaking balance between the martial, metered rhythm and the delicate ebb and flow of the phrasing, as if some clockwork beast were slumbering.  


The beast never quite woke up, though. Mehldau could turn a set of spoons into a musical epiphany, and his twining loops of synth were indeed beguiling. But while melody and sound texture formed an important part of Mehldau’s impact, Giuliana was focusing purely on rhythm, and the two didn’t fully gel. For connoisseurs of electro drumming, there was plenty to admire in Giuliana’s rhythmic variety and control, but this focus came at the expense of variety in the tone and volume. From this jazzer’s seat, it became a touch monotonous.  


The riotous, rainbow sound of Sons of Kemet, meanwhile, has become even more ambitious since their album launch in September. The band’s exploration of, as Kevin Le Gendre put it in September’s issue of Jazzwise, ‘the west Africa-West Indies-New Orleans musical continuum’, meant that generic playfulness would always be key. There were long solos of spectacular virtuosity from Shabaka Hutchings and Oren Marshall, while for this short set the rhythm section retreated a touch, controlling the show from the sidelines.


Hutchings, alternating between clarinet and tenor sax, offered everything from jinking Middle-Eastern clarinet melody to cascades of jagged, Colemanesque free jazz. Marshall gave a masterclass in extreme tuba, massaging his beastly instrument into a spectrum of sounds from the softest coo to the most thunderous roar, often in the most theatrical manner. There were fragments of New Orleans, both traditional and newer sounds like bounce, but his playing was too fluidly abstract to be pinned down.


The drumming partnership of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner maintained a sophisticated dialogue throughout, shifting their pulse through many varieties of traditional African polyrhythm, via the marching band, to a brief history of the electronic beat. They managed the tempo to fingertip perfection, surging and slowing with an organic lightness of touch.


Mehliana’s last London outing was at Village Underground, better suited to their trippy, hypnotic vibe than the Barbican Hall, which was also too big for Kemet, whose glorious rumbling brassiness is best heard unamplified. These groups appealed to rather different audiences, too, as the large number who left after Mehliana, and during Kemet, suggested. More fool them.


Matthew Wright