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London Jazz Festival 2015

Duncan Heining By

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London Jazz Festival
London, UK
November 13-22, 2015

Like many city-fests, the London Jazz Festival criss-crosses the town, spanning the River Thames that splits it in two. Two Southbank Centre venues—the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room—are being refurbished this year, making Kings' Place an even more significant festival stage and bringing the Cadogan Hall near "posh" Sloan Square into major service.

The festival's programming is, as ever, eclectic and highly creative in its presentation of jazz to different audiences. Year on year, it expands its audience base, apparently counter to the prevailing winds of the UK jazz economy. Perhaps jazz festivals are now the place to see and hear jazz, with jazz clubs moving still further to the margins. If so, it is a worrying trend—after all jazz musicians need to eat all year round and not just in March (Gateshead), May (Cheltenham, Glasgow) or November (London). It seems that the building of a sustainable jazz audience and economy remains elusive.

With festivals like the London Jazz Festival, gigs on the fringes often offer the more interesting fare. Yet, the megastars pull in the crowds on the Southbank and Barbican, no matter in some cases how badly they behave. There was one particularly shocking diva moment this year. For me, however, London Jazz Festival 2015 was marked by one gig that surprised in a good way, another where expectations ran high but which disappointed and one where I just didn't know what to expect.

To be honest, the two Nik Bärtsch CDs I own rarely make it to the deck. I went along to his gig on the opening Friday at Kings' Place somewhat grudgingly. This, however, featured Rhythm Clan—an expanded ensemble based on his current quartet Ronin with the addition of brass and guitar. The music is still minimalist, still owing much to Bärtsch's distinctive approach to the layering of textures and rhythms. It is an approach that eschews solos in any conventional sense, apart from one fine piece of gutbucket trombone from Michael Flury. Rather the music is built in a modular fashion utilising motifs, riffs and cross-cutting rhythms. Live, it is astonishing how these simple building blocks can be brought together to create dynamic and dramatic interest. At times, it seemed a shame to bring the horn section of Flury, Fabian Capaldi on saxophones and Martial In-Albon on trumpet all the way from Switzerland and leave them so little to do. Yet, their deployment—long notes, drones, funk riffs—worked well to create contrast with Bärtsch's limpid piano melodies and the darker colours of Sha's bass clarinet. There was one instance (on the third number) where the horns combined with guitar to shape a fragilely beautiful moment in the music.

Bärtsch's music works to a large extent on repetition. The second number, for example, had a certain filmic feel. Two motifs played on the keyboard stood against another played on guitar and a three note figure repeated by the horns. From this, the group built up the tension simply through repeating these motifs and figures along with a slow increase in volume. It must be said, however, that perhaps the key players in this are drummer Kaspar Rast and new bassist Thomy Jordi. Both are hugely impressive musicians and their capacity to play against time was a thing of minor wonder.

To my surprise, however, I was sorely disappointed by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, not that my reservations were shared by the enthusiastic Cadogan Hall audience, as Ms Schneider featured music from her new CD The Thompson Fields. I am not narcissistic enough to think that the audience was wrong or that my verdict was the correct one. But I am puzzled by these different reactions. It was one of those disconcertingly alienating moments when one feels as if one is inside a transparent bubble separated from others present. The same thing is heard and seen inside and outside the bubble's protective membrane but its reception in each realm is not the same.

What I witnessed inside my bubble was a '7 out of 10,' when I expected at least a '9.' I heard those beautiful ensemble sections, those soft and translucent textures and colours that I associate with Schneider's writing—and those of her one-time mentors Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. I heard also some of that American pastoralism of her mid-Western origins that seems to owe more to Copland and Ives than Evans and Brookmeyer. So, what, for me, was wrong?

Schneider is not one of those big band writers for whom 'theme-solo-theme' represents in any degree her compositional ambitions. Improvisations are usually carried by just one or two players in the context of compositions that allow for a high level of thematic development. I think it is in these respects that my problem lay with the music.

Two lengthy rubato sections on "Nimbus" and "Birds of Paradise" seemed shapeless and loosely connected to the place they began and to which they would return. More importantly, with the notable exception of Mike Rodrigues on "Evanescence," saxophonist Rich Perry on "Home" and pianist Frank Kimbrough throughout, the sense I was left with was of the sessioneers' professionalism rather than the inspiration that propels the best jazz. Elsewhere, I felt that the soloists lacked the creative resources to inhabit the music and make it their own. In one instance, the word I would use is 'smug.'

Not that my view would be shared by others, going by the smiles on the faces of Ms Schneider, her band or 99% of the audience. But for me, at its best, Maria Schneider creates music that is highly personal in its vision and potential. The paradox, however, is that its fullest realisation requires players able to mark their own personal stamp upon it.

Moving from the pleasant surprise through disappointment takes us to Club Inégales and the 'no idea what to expect category.' I knew the playing of the two club guests that night, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and guitarist Jaak Sooäär, but in terms of the nature of the club itself and what it was trying to achieve, those things were a mystery. Well, I have good things to report.

Club Inégales is one of those places where anything can happen and maybe already has. The emphasis is on spontaneity and improvisation. There might be comedy or spoken word, jazz or folk or world music, free improv or rock. And the vibe is just about the friendliest you could imagine. Bearing in mind this is London, bar and food prices are very, very reasonable. But then the club premises belong to Hodge, Jones and Allen, a firm of human rights' lawyers, whose offices are in the building above. A firm of lawyers with their own bar? How cool is that?

Peter Wiegold runs the house band, Notes Inégales, who perform on their own and at the end with the evening's guests. This is improvisation but is improv that owes as much to Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the Javanese gamelan and jazz that inspired them. Alfanar, a small group of young Egyptian musicians (percussion and saxophone) turned up and played. Later, a Korean flautist improvised with Raymond McDonald on alto. It's that kind of gig. MacDonald's duo with Jaak Sooäär was a peach. mixing spoken word and blues licks one minute and wild sax and guitar pyrotechnics the next. Yet, both MacDonald and Sooäär fitted beautifully into the ensemble set that closed the night. But really, it just felt so good to be there—relaxed, easy but up for anything.
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