Randy Weston and Billy Harper plus JD Allen Trio – 17 November 2014, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Monday night’s concert was one of contrasts and confluences. With a less-than-full concert hall eagerly awaiting Randy Weston’s arrival, JD Allen and his trio put on a sterling performance of virtuosic strength and slick tunes. Allen is a tenor saxophonist from Detroit with numerous reputable recordings under the belt, but entered my listening sphere through Jaimeo Brown’s mosaic-style album ‘Transcendence’ (2013). Apart from a few moments of crunchy multiphonic playing, Allen’s sound is self-assured, silky smooth and filled this large reverberant space with no problem.

Each phrase, cluttered with bop vocabulary, ended with twirls of vibrato harking back to a bygone era – all of this on top of the blistering drumming of Jonathan Barber and rock-steady, if slightly overshadowed, bass playing of Alexander Claffy. Amidst fast high-hat drilling, free moments, and double-time grooves, this dense sound all comes to a close in a perfect moment: the only ballad of the set. The audience is still and the sax-heavy mix in this huge venue has now settled. What we hear is a perfectly balanced melancholy tune of great beauty. Though securely within traditional jazz language, Allen’s compositions lend themselves to his trio’s virtuosity and amidst all of the frenetic energy, moments of reflection and beauty do show through.

Reams have been written on the roots of the blues and African American musical links in Africa (and West Africa to be more specific). Musical outpourings across many a genre pay homage to this tie and it is from this that we can place the collaborative music of Randy Weston and Billy Harper. Based on their late 2013 release The Roots of the Blues, this set was a surprisingly fresh response to two personal conversations with this important continent. Starting with ‘The Healers’, Weston’s square and deliberate solo piano-playing displayed his characteristic respect for space and silence, and his percussive, Monk-like chordal attack. The great Billy Harper’s fluid tenor sound enters providing simple melodic responses to the frameworks outlined by Weston. Building up to some atonal and gruff arpegiated figures, the opening piece starts to thicken harmonically, and Harper’s distinctive phrasing and tuning preferences come to the fore.   

‘Blues to Africa’ followed (which Weston admitted was inspired by the walk of an elephant) and as the set developed, one witnessed a deepening interaction on stage. Harper’s solo musings beautifully squawked and moaned, and Weston’s pianistic touch bounced between agitated stacatto voicings and quieter, legato moments. This intimate duo setting allowed the space and time for conversing, but also aided those less familiar with the artists to get a sense of their respective styles. Though their music was scattered with demonically fast scalier lines, the two veterans brought a sense of space and reflection to the evening’s proceedings. Weston and Harper’s playful and unsentimental exploration of (mostly) West African musical idioms was honest and moving - providing food for thought and leaving many satisfied ears in their wake.

– Cara Stacey

Charles Lloyd Group plus Joe Lovano/Dave Douglas Barbican, 23 November 2014

The last evening of the EFG London Jazz Festival 2014 was a fitting end to what has been a diverse ten days. With an almost full house, the audience poured in from the cold damp outside in eager anticipation of hearing two saxophone giants in new contexts, Charles Lloyd in ‘Wild Man Dance Suite’ and Joe Lovano in ‘Sound Prints’. What followed were two extraordinarily balanced and sophisticated sets.

Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas formed the group ‘Sound Prints’ in 2012, with the idea of performing music inspired by the work of Wayne Shorter. With interactive free moments as interludes to more structured tunes, each band member contributed equally to this set - as did Wayne Shorter, who had composed two songs specially for the ensemble. Throughout the set, Lovano and Douglas moved from playing sweet melodic lines in harmony, to collectively improvising in a chaotic and haphazard way. Grooves from Joey Baron frothed and fluctuated; now slowly swinging, now plunging forward at breakneck speeds. The highlight of the set was Linda Oh’s rich bass tone and extraordinary musicality, truly deconstructing any notion of accompanying roles in this group. Each player came forward and receded cyclically in a kaleidoscopic journey, far from any predictable Shorter ‘tribute’.

The much-anticipated ‘Wild Man Suite’ followed displaying Lloyd’s characteristic hermetic approach to instrumental forces. Though the Greek lyra was harder to discern in louder sections, this set was notable for the equal space each instrument was granted. Often jazz musicians have tried to incorporate timbres from other musical worlds into compositions, ignoring the necessary acoustic considerations. ‘Wild Man Suite’, however, showed how the virtuosic stylings of Lukacs (cimbalom), the melancholy of Sinpolous’ lyra, Clayton’s sensitive accompaniment, amongst the remarkable musicianship of Lloyd, Harland and Sanders could all be housed under one roof.

– Cara Stacey

Regina Carter plus Yazz Ahmed at Queen Elizabeth Hall – EFG London Jazz Festival

Had this concert been programmed with a specific theme in mind, then the subject of ancestry might very well fit the bill. It was clear that British Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed had something new to say before she even played a note, arriving on stage in a stunning emerald green full-length dress of Middle Eastern origin. Joined by a sextet that included bass clarinet, assorted percussion and vibraphone, the sound of the Arabic modes pervaded her music as textures varied effortlessly throughout her short set.  

Violinist Regina Carter has been investigating her forebears recently, which led her to the folk music of the Appalachians where her paternal grandfather worked as a coal miner. A mix of these folk songs, arranged by her bassist Chris Lightcap, among others, were interspersed with other tunes including one commissioned for tonight’s concert. Hank Williams’ ‘Honky Tonkin’’ opened the set with the band laying down a solid groove before she even made it to the stage. The harmony remained static for what might otherwise have felt like a generation, however Carter’s sustained inventiveness in dialogue with accordionist Will Holshouser meant that the piece was over all too quickly. One of the folk songs, ‘Miner’s Child’ is a simple minor key theme that flourished as the harmonies were gradually reworked by bass and guitar.

Carter asked the audience what they would like to hear. ‘It won’t be loud’ she responds, but there was a break from the folk songs to ‘Hickory Wind’. Loud it wasn’t. Nor was it flashy or showy, and yet Carter digs deep into the subtle beauty with stunning results. If her band showed any brief sign of flagging as in ‘New for N’awlins’ by drummer Alvester Garnett, then Carter’s solos with their heavily syncopated lines got them burning again. Carter’s commission may have been titled ‘Pound for Pound’, but there was nothing here to suggest that she needed to punch above her weight.   

– Mark Stokesbury

Jef Neve/Rusconi Kings Place, London – EFG London Jazz Festival

Jazz pianists often talk about ‘being ready’ to approach a solo project, the lack of bass and drums requiring them to dig deep into the realm of inventiveness. Jef Neve was certainly prepared tonight and he had also prepared his piano, which conferred an unexpected timbre upon the opening of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’. Neve’s set was a mix of standards and originals, with perhaps the standout piece of the evening being Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’.

Baring his soul in the same way that playing solo piano does, he revealed that the power and beauty of this song saved his life once, memories perhaps alluded to by the minor chord reharmonisations towards the end, which then resolve, thankfully, back to the major. Contrapuntal inventions on an original, ‘Solitude’ gave way to the implied groove of Monk’s ‘I Mean You’, which served to demonstrate what a versatile player Neve actually is. ‘Flying to Diani Beach’ is inspired by a flight over Mount Kilimanjaro that sees a busy ostinato in the right hand join ascending melodies in the left. As for Neve’s ascent to the summit of solo piano, he has proven that he is more than ready to undertake the climb.

Mixing things up after the break were Euro trio Rusconi whose stage attire would portend the music to come with bobble hat completing an ensemble of shirts, cardigans and blazers. Perhaps the most joyous moment of their set was when Fabian Gisler substituted his double bass for electric guitar, which succeeded in moving the music in entirely new directions. Before the piece was concluded however, guitar was out, bass was in again and relative jazz order restored.

This change in format was repeated a few more times, as was the use of three part backing vocals over solos as witnessed in the following tune, ‘Ankor’. Unconventional perhaps, but it did at times distract from the business at hand. Pianist Stefan Rusconi, in explaining the narrative behind ‘Sojus Dream’ makes mention of Laika, the first living creature to orbit the Earth, and the effect the experience may have had on her. The poor mongrel never returned to Earth, and I’m not sure I have yet either.    

– Mark Stokesbury

Kris Bowers plus Peter Edwards XOYO, London – EFG London Jazz Festival

Devices. Gadgets. Gismos. These things have become such a part of our day-to-day living that we take the technology for granted and become frustrated when it ceases to function properly. Jazz musicians turn to technology as well on occasion as both acts did tonight, with mixed results. Keyboardist Peter Edwards was clearly having problems with his technology as an unplanned hiatus was experienced by a nonetheless sympathetic crowd who were thanked for their patience at the end of an extended piece of electro jazz, which never really took off despite some nice moments.

Kris Bowers, from behind his mighty rig of keyboards, laptop, mixers and pedals experienced his own little snag in the form of an over-zealous audience wanting to join in with the infectious rhythms he was clapping and finger-clicking, which he would loop to provide percussion to a solo rendition of Juan Tizol’s ‘Caravan’. But it was the real deal, the men who rounded out his band that helped to make this such a strong gig. If there was any hint of hesitation at the outset, then it was gone in the blink of an eye and by the second song, ‘Wake the Neighbours’, Bowers, propelled by a frantic solo from guitarist and Marcus Miller sideman Adam Agati, had hit his stride. ‘The Protestor’ allowed drummer Richard Spaven to build the music to absurd heights of euphoria, something that he had done consistently throughout the concert.

Bassist Alex Bonfanti introduced ‘Vices and Virtues’ with a simple yet engaging riff, and Bowers again made the most of the technological arsenal available to him, looping a synth riff which freed him up to produce an intensely creative solo on the Rhodes. A quick stop to change a broken pedal again reminded us of the shortcoming of relying too heavily on technology in live performance, but overall, in this case the virtues far outweighed the vice.

– Mark Stokesbury

The Write Stuff

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