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

Arild Anderson Quintet plus Reijseger/Fraanje/Sylla, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Saturday 16th November

A racing pulse from the cymbals, fragments of mazy melodic patterns delivered at breakneck speed in unison by Tommy Smith’s tenor sax and Matthieu Michel’s trumpet, bass player and leader Arild Anderson nods, smiling and then he and pianist Marcin Wasilweski are in, upping the momentum further. Those fragments join together in a final furious blizzard launching a blazing, driving solo from Wasilewski. This was a post-bop burner. Anderson had started the gig with atmospherics. An echoey, bowed bass set up an accompaniment with loops to back a lyrical solo bass melody that evolved into an almost choral sound as the other instruments joined and blended their parts.  An elegiac and elegant opener, that was something of a tease as they proceeded to pin us to our seats with that burner ‘The Fox’ that came next. “My dream band..” muttered Arild Anderson as he name checked his collaborators for his Quintet’s London Jazz Festival appearance.

With all points of the European compass covered by the band from the leader’s Norway to drummer Patrice Heral’s France and Smith, Michel and Wasilewsky marking out West to East with Scotland, Switzerland and Poland, I wondered what language was used for chat backstage. If Anderson’s flawless English was a guide then accents may have been the only barrier.  There was no mistaking the common musical language and accent on stage. There were plenty of excursions into rock flavoured ballads, angular funk and European folk tinged flowing grooves, territory Anderson has made his own with numerous other ensembles, but this band seemed rooted in a fiercely exuberant take on driving post bop jazz with the effortless mastery and understanding between each other to break things down, dissolve into free collective improvisations and then find their way back to tightly delivered explosive themes.
The connection between Anderson and drummer Heral was the axis on which most incident turned. Time and again, a change of mood or pace was hinted at by a speculative chord from Waslilewsky or a held, burnished note from Michel’s flugel and they were onto it like a flash; disrupting the rhythm, fading out completely for one extended impressionistic passage from the pianist in the middle of another furious burner only to launch back in and ramp up the energy again with one of a number of extended bass and drum duels. Heral was a wonder, as likely to be using hands, battering the drum box he was sitting on as lashing a cymbal to goad a soloist onto greater feats.  And they certainly responded. Tommy Smith seemed to be on fire and provided some of the most incendiary and tender moments of an evening that covered that spectrum.  Even at breakneck tempos, he seemed to have time to steadily unfold ideas that built the excitement’ ‘look I can stretch this phrase this way… now that way… now distort it’ and on. Its not hard to see why this is a dream band for Anderson even if co-ordinating their diaries may be more of a nightmare. Lets hope he manages to continue to do it.

This set was preceded by another international collaboration this time between Senegalese singer Mola Sylla and the Dutch paring of pianist Haanse Fraanje and cellist Ernst Reijseger, part of a series in the festival with a Dutch focus. They delivered a set that by turns audibly juxtaposed classical like accompaniments with the characteristically wailing chant like melodies of the West African storyteller and then blended the sounds more around calypso like rhythms with Sylall adding percussion, mbira and kora playing and  exuberant strumming, plucking and battering of his cello by Rejseger adding particular colour. The combination of the two bands spanning two continents and seven countries was a reminder of the global phenomenon  this festival is showcasing.

– Mike Collins

Mehliana by Adam Robinson – EFG London Jazz Festival, 21 November 2013

This year’s ECHO Jazz award-winning pianist Brad Mehladau, and internationally acclaimed drummer Mark Guiliana, came together last night at Barbican Hall for a midway-stop on their European tour as the duo: Mehliana.

Positioned between a keyboard and a grand Fender Rhodes, each stacked with vintage synthesisers; Mehladau broke from acoustic solos to explore a space between the funk-filled cosmos of the 70s and the Eglo records style bass mixing born from it. Elbows cocked, either side of a spinal posture any physiotherapist would be proud of, he painted this soothing dimension. When Mark’s supple breaks wove into the air, the audience were released from looking into living.

Equipped with samples on drum keypads as well as keyboards, the duo tenderly unlocked their vision. Tranquil synth hums of deep space, punctuated by the percussion of travel, gently built until a cacophony of free jazz meteors were swallowing the auditorium.

Un-phased by an over-excited heckler, Mehladau and Guiliana enacted their roles in the story with unbending devotion. The painter, folding his legs on the duet bench, faced his partner’s percussive solo in meditation. It was a truly virtuosic break-beat display. Snare-rim with tambourine, and mini high-hat with ride combinations that perpetuated the idiosyncratic theme. When roles were reversed, the energy guide left his vehicle to stretch and refuel. Meanwhile, Brad’s fingers twinkled, tumbled and twirled from behind his body. Even at speed, his extremities somehow maintained such a graceful laze that, without his expression on view, one could have mistaken it for boredom.

Adam Robinson

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