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

Jeff Williams Quintet, The Green Note, Camden, London Jazz Festival, Wednesday 20th November

“That one was about airport security,” said Jeff Williams as the band juddered to a halt. A spooky, stuttering swing had built to a frenzy, with Phil Robson’s guitar blurting zig-zagging runs in a wildly distorted synth voice whilst Williams lashed his drums. Airport Security; it all made sense. This quintet’s off-beat vibe reflect the oddities in everyday life that provide inspiration for the drummer leader’s compositions.  There’s no shouting, just a quiet intensity that draws the listener in before wrongfooting with a swerve or surprise burst of energy. Williams is all colour and nudging, no spelling out the obvious. The caress of his sticks makes the kit an orchestra. On Hermeto, named for the Brazilian composer, a rattle of the cymbal doubles the rhythm of the melody whilst a tap on the tom ghosts the guitar’s accompanying stabs and Sam Lasserson’s propulsive bass figure gets a helping prod from a click on the snare.  Wonky bossas, twisted calypsos, loose limbed swing; Williams’ writing, all sidelong glances at familiar forms gives this band plenty to work on. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor nods at absent from this year’s festival Sonny Rollins, in fullness of tone and inventive routes through angular harmony.  Finn Peters, switching between alto and flute, repeatedly pulled out fiery impassioned solos.  Williams left the stage for ‘Lament’, a hold your breath, haunting hymn in memory of a gone too soon friend; he returned to Arcoleo taking the tune out with long notes and hoarse cries on tenor and whipped up a storm on the drums. Not so much a crescendo as a howl of anguish. A treasure of a group, a gem of a gig.  


– Mike Collins

Mehliana plus Sons of Kemet by Ilya Fedorov – EFG London Jazz Festival 21 November 2013

Excitement by the unknown. That is definitely what Mehliana feat. Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana and the four of Sons of Kemet (Hutchings, Marshall, Skinner & Rochford) cast upon the attendees of the EFG London Jazz Festival gig last night, 21 November at Barbican Center unveiling universal mysteries by genesis of music. Provocative and exuberant, Mehldau on piano and Giuliana on drums hit with their first major appearance on the British jazz scene. Coming seemingly from deeper space their cosmic art embraced the audience with a feeling of distancing first and getting involved onwards. Experimenting with the structure of tunes they improvised leaving ends open with minimum instruments to produce maximum effect. You could not but get thrilled by Mehldau virtuoso playing grand-piano, Rhodes and two synth-keyboards combining their controversial sounding to create a true sonic integrity from what initially seemed noisy chaos. Giuliana's drumming involved technical novelties processing voice and 'space' sounds adding to the common picture alluding to the classical image of Universe born in agony, transforming, structuring, defying itself. Rhythmical beats and prolonged 15-min pieces feat. stunning solos left no one indifferent, while side noises heard randomly from the audience fitted well into the storming whirl of sound that night.

Second set by Sons of Kemet made you travel forth in time and space along the path of music evolution. The group feat. prolific clarinet-saxist Shabaka Hutchings, energetic Oren Marshall on tuba and both fierce Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford on drums. Their playing ranging from aggressive early tribal dance-beats and tiger-like roaring to elegant and vibrant melodies. In-trend drum duo accompanied by a horn-like wind suggested return to the originals, African-Carribean ancestors, fathers of jazz, who were major influences on the band's music. While tuba and drums fitted into the 'pre-historic' styling in the best way possible, saxophone and clarinet seemed guest-instruments from far future invading with their delicate Arabic tuning (clarinet) or belligerent New Orleans' swinging (sax). Despite certain influences band's music credited personality of each member contributing to the general philosophy.

Conceptual thread sewing the night wavered when harmonic metamorphoses by Mehliana lacked visual effects only backed by static lighting. While rhythmical magic by Sons of Kemet seemingly cast spell on space and got accompanied by lavish visualization.

What first seemed bizarre and chaotic musical patterns transformed into most coherent and consecutive vision of music and eventually the world itself. Its free interpretation by true masters reflected the very essence of today's approach to jazz, as a means of creating the reality we live in, or rather improving it, making more perceptive and comprehensible through music, which appealed to both hearts and minds of people.

- Ilya Fedorov

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

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

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