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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.

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