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

Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/Mark Lockheart’s Ellington in Anticipation LJF, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23 November

Tommy Smith, leader of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, is one of Scotland’s favourite sons. When he achieved a scholarship to the famed Berkley College in Boston, the community clubbed together to secure the funding necessary for him to take up the opportunity.  He narrated the show with an American inflected Scottish tongue. It is no stretch to say that he is Scotland’s equivalent of Wynton Marsalis; he has amply repaid the investment the community made in his tutelage.

Even his haircut, which would have been ideal for the latest production of The Great Gatsby, was in sync with the performance. The sound balance to which the audience was treated was superb, every detail clearly articulated, the timbres vivid. Many in the auditorium were from the same generation as the Jazzwise contributor The Colonel ; many of whom were clearly aficionados of the Duke’s work, they responded with delight to arrangements of familiar Ellington tunes such as Mood Indigo, Take the A Train, The Queen’s Suite, and a section of Ellington’s arrangement of the Peer Gynt Suite .  I’m not sure I could have danced all night, but I certainly could have listened to the SNJO all night.  

The audience response to Mark Lockheart’s Ellington in Anticipation was, it is fair to say, rather more reserved.  Indeed, some members of the audience started drifting out before the conclusion of the set, which perplexed me.  It was a Saturday night after all, and it seemed to be younger attendees leaving early. Perhaps they didn’t connect with the reworking of Ellington’s tunes – Satin Doll for instance became Jungle Lady.  It all started off very promisingly with a toe-tapping version of It don’t mean a Thing. Lockheart has followed Ellington’s lead in discovering interesting, individual voices for his band, and then writing parts for them. Seb Rochford though was more restrained in this setting than when I saw him to pulsating effect with Sons of Kemet earlier in the week.  James Allsopp can be fiery when he performs in solo settings on the local London Jazz Scene, and flautist/saxophonist Finn Peters had a four star album release with ”Butterflies”.  Perhaps they were trying a little too hard to blend their individual sounds into the collective? Although fewer in numbers than the SNJO, they also managed to produce an impressively big, hall filling sound.

Lockheart announced that a CD album of the tunes would be available for purchase after the show, but this did not appear to be the case; I was far from the only one who was enquiring after it and would have wanted to revisit the arrangements. They are, perhaps, something of an acquired taste, and would I imagine have rewarded further hearings as they yielded up their subtleties. On the penultimate night of the London Jazz Festival, what could have been more fitting than an evening devoted to one of the greatest American musical giants of the 20th century?           

- Graham Boyd      

Essentially Ellington: SNJO/ Ellington in Anticipation, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23rd November

Duke Ellington is said to have avoided the word jazz, saying there was only good and bad music referring to his own work as American and ‘beyond category’. It ‘s impossible however to make sense of all the music we celebrate as jazz and jazz inspired without acknowledging the musical language and legacy of the great composer, bandleader and pianist. This gig was the centrepiece of a series of events doing as part of EFG London Jazz Festival.

Two contrasting sets first by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, re-creating the sound, look and experience of the Ellington Orchestra and then Ellington in Anticipation, reinterpreting and re-working the repertoire, made for a fascinating, entertaining and moving evening.

The attention to detail of saxophonist, leader Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra goes far beyond playing the exact arrangements with the stylistic quirks of the great band. The layout of the stage, style of the music stands and dress sense of the band were all in keeping (barring the odd fulsome beard).  The effect was enchanting. As well as now universally known standards like ‘Mood Indigo’ we were treated to lesser-known material from the Queen’s Suite ; ‘Le Sucrier Velours’, ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ – a sumptuous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock on piano.  There were pieces written by Ellington for individual virtuosos in his band; Jack the Bear for bass player Jimmy Blanton, Concerto for Cootie for pyrotechnic trumpeter Cootie Williams, Calum Gourlay and Tom Walsh respectively stepping up to fill the shoes on the night.  If this couldn’t help but be drenched in a sense of nostalgia, the seriousness and artistry with which it was done made the music pulse with life.

The one exception to the pattern of re-creation, that duet between Smith and Kellock, made the contrast between the constraints of the big band and the very short pieces of the early 1930s repertoire all the more striking. Smith’s warm tenor swopped and embellished the melody as Kellock responded giving a very contemporary, interpretive take on the beautiful melody.

Ellington in Anticipation was all re-invention and re-interpretation.  Leader, Mark Lockheart’s very personal treatment of the Ellingtonian source material gave us a riveting set and provided a platform for some gloriously uninhibited playing from a fantastic band with a dream rhythm section of Seb Roachford and Jasper Hoiby.

The melody of ‘It don’t mean a thing’ appeared, stretched out of over a rolling 12/8 feel and the familiar repeated notes became a distinctive, African flavoured, rhythmic figure. ‘Caravan’, starting with a collective bout of percussive tapping of instruments and stamping of feet, developed a flowing even quavered feel and evoked the first of a number of explosive solos from Finn Peters.  James Alsopp’s solo on Creole Love Call was a standout moment as was Liam Noble’s solo introduction to the dark Lockheart original ‘Beautiful Man’. The distinctive addition of Margrit Hasler’s viola added unusual colours to the sound.

This was an absorbing, celebratory and emotionally charged evening of music.

Mike Collins

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