Django Bates Belovèd trio, Stratford Circus, London – 24 November 2013

Pianist Django Bates defies all the rules with the freedom of his improvisations and unique approach to deconstructing and reconstructing melodic lines. Walking into the venue for his concert at Stratford Circus last Saturday felt like entering someone’s living room, with an intimate stage close to the audience. This however seemed to give license to the eccentric Bates to test the audience’s boundaries, at one point even getting up from the piano to perform impromptu impish dance moves. While their ability to perform entirely spontaneous improvisations is impressive, there was a point in this performance where ‘freedom’ started to feel more like a gimmick.

For new album Confirmation Bates, along with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun, combine new compositions with well-known Charlie Parker tunes. The trio got together because of their love of Parker, never intending to perform concerts or record, simply to play the music they enjoyed. Throughout this concert the group managed to put their own individual stamp into every song. Unfortunately seeing Bates live it was easy to miss a lot of his creative genius and musical spontaneity with the focus instead on the bizarre lighting. It was never made clear whether the lighting, and periodic blasts from a smoke machine behind the drums, was the band’s own choice or that of a particularly enthusiastic stage manager, but it managed to completely change the focus of the two sets; not least because Eldh, whether soloing or not, was in the dark.

The group plays very well together and has a solid sense of direction between them, even if their free improvisations are not the easiest to follow. The audience seemingly enjoyed the technical ability and agility of the performance, mostly undeterred by the strobe lighting and disco ball flashes. Bates as a pianist is undeniably captivating, however on Saturday night the audience appeared spilt between those in awe of his playing and those scared by his performance, nevertheless the whole room was mesmerised.

– Esther Hayden

Brad Mehldau Trio – Barbican, London Jazz Festival 2012

“Please switch off your mobile phones so you listen and don’t get distracted,” this was the first sound you heard walking into the Barbican on Wednesday evening. The second was the urgent rustling of pockets and bags while people scrabbled for the most essential item that they can never be without. However this announcement captured the essence of the Brad Mehldau Trio. For the performers it was all about listening and focus on the individual sound world the group create. Walking onto the stage with a single bow, the relaxed Mehldau wasted no time in immersing himself and the audience in this. Often the style of a group is revealed through the audience they attract and the diverse mix of pop, jazz and classical fans show the influences that combine to make Mehldau’s performance style so unique and musically exciting.

For the first tune, ‘Great Day’ by Paul McCartney, drummer Jeff Ballard began by using his hands on snare drum and tom toms, the mellowness of which enabled bassist Larry Grenadier to showcase his impressive harmonic range and extensive technique. Together the trio know how to perfectly shape lines, adapting their instruments harmonically and rhythmically to keep the audience transfixed. In Mehldau’s solos the rhythmic clarity between his hands drew the whole room in to the point where it appeared most of the audience had stopped breathing.

The pianist did not break his focus even to introduce a tune until 30 minutes in, at which point he turned to the audience to dryly announce: “thanks for coming, you had other choices.” Having started with two songs by McCartney, there followed a piece by Charlie Parker, a new composition of Meldau’s and a closing standard, ‘Since I Fell For You’. Mehldau’s original improvisations really showed why he’s so admired, combining strong classical influences with Keith Jarrett-like flowing lines and creativity. The group support each other musically in every piece especially during solos where they demonstrated strong musical empathy, without trying to outshine or play across each other.

Having played together as a trio for seven years now the group seem to have developed the ability to be completely musically attuned. Tonight Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard, through this powerful performance, showed that they really have found a way to perfect the art of the trio.

– Esther Hayden

Robert Glasper Experiment and Phantom Limb perform at the South Bank Centre, London Jazz Festival 2012

Amidst minimal stage settings and ambient lighting, Phantom Limb lead singer, Yolanda Quartey, effortlessly blended her soulfully rich vocals with the simple accompaniment of her band. Foremost a storyteller, throughout, ‘Laugh Like You're Mad’, Yolanda interlaced emotive lyrics with charming melodies. A recent release, ‘Good Fortune’, displayed Yolanda's explosive range, whilst a cover of Hank Williams', ‘Angel of Death’, paid homage to the late country legend.

After the Robert Glasper Experiment sauntered on from stage left, the band formed a primal rhythm, escalating in pace until it became a frenzied wall of sound; some elements were appealing and others disjointing. Fusing contemporary jazz with hip hop and psychedelic funk, the quartet created a stadium arena presence within a modest auditorium.

The Robert Glasper Experiment was a full sensory experience. Mark Colenburg (percussion) unfurled a syncopated beat; a seed of an idea transforming in to something tangible. The bass crawled, finding its feet as Derrick Hodge and Casey Benjamin added melodic layers, until the full-bodied piece came of age as Robert Glasper adorned this creation with rhythmic ostinatos. The audience witnessed the evolution of sound and it was beautiful to behold. The collective invited guests on stage to perform crowd favourites. Rapper, MF Doom, served up East Coast flavours of, ‘Figaro’, and, ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, whilst the delightful Vula Malinga, leant her honey-drenched vocals to perform the evocative number, ‘Cherish The Day’.

With tribute paid to late hip hop heavyweight J Dilla, and an unexpected cover of Nirvana's, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, The Robert Glasper Experiment not only showcased their versatility but their overall appreciation of good music.

– Joanne Eze

Clare Connors & Red-Angel: Big, Small And Sideways – Royal Academy Of Arts, London

British award-winning composer/violinist, Clare Connors, led her trio, Red-Angel, featuring Thomas Toms (violin) and Chris Allan (cello), in playing her own compositions to a mainly middle-aged audience. Connors’s top matched the golden décor of the room, but she lacked stage presence, unaided by the compare’s rushed introduction of her.

Toms played with scratchy rhythmic emphasis and energy beneath Clare’s melodic lines and repetitive siren-like motifs during opening number ‘Circus Dreaming,’ to which the introduction of the cello added rich depth.

Same sounding ‘Blaze,’ inspired by the use of chords and brass in Carla Bley’s big band music, sadly failed to translate for small string ensemble: Though playful in tone, none of Bley’s subtle use of voicing to build thrilling crescendos in her arrangements on, for example, her 1996 record, ‘The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church,’ could be heard; indeed Connors’ work seemed steeped in composer, Michael Nyman’s minimalist music of rolling phrases with droning quaver accompaniments and switching time signatures (Connors played in the Michael Nyman Band as lead violinist for some years).

Toms’ clapping the rhythm at the beginning of ‘Neat And Tidy’ added interest, though it felt out of place as disappointingly, there was no recurrence of this, and intonation problems proliferated (especially Toms’) throughout, ruining the already dissonant harmonies.

‘Sideways,’ with its swinging pizzicato cello lines, and distinctive vibrato-less tone, emphasised by the harsh lighting in the room, made for a welcome change, but Connors’ cover of German techno band, Kraftwerk’s ‘Robot,’ was the highlight, where the transfer from electronic music to acoustic strings really worked with Toms making his violin sound like a snare drum. Overall, though, the trio failed to pull the performance off convincingly.

– Gemma Boyd

Australian Art Orchestra + Young Wagilak Group, Southbank Centre, London Jazz Festival

The Wagilak speaking Yolngu aborigines of southeast Arnhem in Australia’s northern territories belong to one of the oldest surviving cultures on earth. Some of Australia’s first people, the tribe retains a strong, spiritually alive heritage distinguished not only by its transportive song compositions, but by painting, dance and storytelling traditions too.

Tonight, three of the tribe’s custodians – brothers Benjamin, David and Daniel Wilfred –in the shape of the Young Wagilak Group join forces with the Australian Art Orchestra, led by Melbourne-based pianist-composer-producer-director virtuoso, Paul Grabowsky. Together they transmit their intense ‘Crossing Roper Bar’ song cycle (or, in Wagilak, manikay), an often violent, visceral and wildly unpredictable brew of howled, arching vocal refrains, scratchy guitar, pulsing didgeridoo, stream-of-consciousness saxophone, scattergun drums and hammered, atonal piano improvisation. Much like Miles Davis’s electric landmark Bitches Brew, it is intoxicating music to lose yourself in. That said, it’s also music that speaks its own fierce language, collapsing cultural boundaries while fusing both ancient and modern sounds.

Prior to the performance, the collaboration is contextualised by an insightful interview, chaired by Radio 3’s Kevin Le Gendre, with Benjamin Wilfred and Paul Grabowsky. Wilfred speaks of his grandpa’s spirit, which visits him in dreams to impart melody lines. Judging by the way the brothers soar onstage, both vocally and instrumentally – Daniel’s didgeridoo work is breathtakingly virtuosic – one’s inclined to agree with Wilfred assertion that the spirit is in the room with us tonight.

Meanwhile, poignant video projections of the band’s sojourn with the tribe also reveal how this collaboration is much more than just simply a jazz project. It’s a personal and collective journey, which builds connections between people and societies, celebrating the vital beauty of ancient cultural traditions.

– Jamie Skey

The Write Stuff

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