Troyk-estra review by Miranda Schiller EFG London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall 23 November 2013


Can a spontaneous, abstract trio like Troyka work with something as traditional as a big band? The answer is yes, Troyk-estra combines the two with ease. And moreover, it shows how a big band can grow beyond its traditional identity.


The core trio Troyka are Kit Downes on keys, Chris Montague on guitar, and Josh Blackmore on drums. They are known for their frequent unexpected changes of mood, alternating between powerful energetic outbursts and calm, complicated lines of unpredictable rhythm and abstract melodies. With the big band, of course, there is less room for free improvisation. But this does not make the music less unique.


The horn section adds a vibrant and upbeat quality to the music, they provide a constant source of energy. Not at all static, and although more predictable by nature, their sound still has a certain wildness to it. They also improvise, and vary the music spontaneously. This works, it loosens the structure up, without ending up in chaos.


The core trio, while not completely dominating the band, are nonetheless the driving force of this group. Their creative and varied approach to their music is supported and solidified by the big band, so it seems as if they had even more freedom to wander in unknown territory, because a safe framework is set. This leads to a wonderful array of improvised beauty.


Originally a commission from Jazzwise, Troyka have built their Troykestra out of young musicians from the Royal Academy of Music to perform as part of Jazzwise's 15th birthday celebrations at Ronnie Scott's. Everyone involved felt the project should go on, so it did. Troyk-estra recorded a live album (called Troykestra) and played more shows. They have not announced any further concerts though, the future of the project is uncertain. It can only be hoped that it will be continued, as it is a signpost for a possible, and desirable, development for big bands in general.

Mirand Schiller

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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