London Jazz Festival: November 9-18, 2012


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London Jazz Festival
London, England
November, 9-18, 2012
Now in its 20th year, the London Jazz Festival is a vast, all-encompassing affair. One of the great cities of the world, London's history saw it swallow village upon village and hamlet after hamlet and this can make it all seem dispersed and disconnected. It's an issue that poses all manner of logistical problems for the festival's producer, Serious. Yet, year on year, a better and better balance between club gigs and concerts has been s achieved to the point where one compliments the other.
International names like singer Melody Gardot, pianists Brad Mehldau and Herbie Hancock, and guitarist John McLaughlin filled the main halls, whilst artists like singer Norma Winstone, the Beats & Pieces Big Band, the Westbrook Trio and flautist Gareth Lockrane played smaller spaces in the heart of the city or around its fringes. Clashes were inevitable. How does a fan choose between saxophonist Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet at Café Oto and pianist Matthew Shipp's Trio round the corner at the Vortex? Simple, you just take your pick and say of the other, "Maybe next time." It's the mark of a fine festival and the price of just too much choice.

Is London an easy city to negotiate for outsiders? It's hard to say. Even suburbanite fans and others from the boondocks will know their way around its complex transport system. Jazz tourists must come prepared or beware. Yet once you know the way to Chelsea or Camden or Cambridge Circus, you get the hang of it and recent investment in the Underground system shows welcome signs of improvement.

How one chooses what to hear and see is what matters. This year, as ever, local talent shone just as brightly as stars from Europe and the States. The opening night saw Gareth Lockrane's Grooveyard at The Forge, a new-ish, well-appointed venue with great acoustics in Camden. This was a really, powerful young band with the potential to reach audiences beyond jazz without comprising its dedication to improvisation. Essentially a quintet, guests such as singer Nia Lynn expanded and stretched Lockrane's remarkable compositions. With Lockrane and saxophonist Alex Garnett as its frontline, Grooveyard delivered music with strong hooks and melodies but with surprising, filmic twists that that stressed the bravura quality of Lockrane's writing.

The LJF's great strength lies in matching acts to the right venue. Celebrating its 30th birthday, the Westbrook Trio gave a beautifully elegant performance at Kings Place. Its mix of jazz and European cabaret worked perfectly in one of the capital's finest recital spaces. Taking its cue from pianist Mike and singer Kate Westbrook's recent compilation CD, Three Into Wonderful (Floating World, 2012), this was music and song with the ability to touch in its own distinct and personal way. A new song, "Brazilian Love Songs," was beautifully evocative, but "Wild Cyclamen North of Rome," with an exceptional vocal from Kate Westbrook and gorgeous soprano from Chris Biscoe, was even better.

The Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre is a favorite small concert hall—intimate, with good acoustics. On Sunday afternoon, nearly 30 musicians from British big band Beats & Pieces and Norway's Ensemble Denada squeezed onto its stage. Part of a new festival initiative under the title Jazz in the New Europe, this was a case of hands across the North Sea. Performing separately but often intermingling personnel, the negotiation of space lent a lighter touch to music that was powerful and passionate. It was truly a meeting of musical minds, with B&P leader Ben Cottrell's "Havmann," for Ensemble Denada, the set's highlight and a singularly impressive piece of big band writing and performance.

That evening, Grand Union Orchestra returned to that priceless Victorian confection that is the Hackney Empire. As ever, the band fired on all cylinders with fine versions of "Can't Chain Up Me Mind," "Milon Hobe" and pieces from the excellent If Paradise (Red Gold, 2011), including the visceral "Collateral Damage." But, while the new GUO strings integrated well into the performance, the Eclectic Voices choir section seemed to dilute the music's power and vitality. GUO had six remarkable singers to call upon and it's their voices that cried out to be heard.

Norma Winstone's voice made a cold November night ten degrees warmer on Tuesday evening at St. James's church in Piccadilly. Despite the curious acoustics, Winstone was totally on song and this trio, with Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on reeds, is her finest vehicle since Azimuth. Winstone has reached a level few singers achieve. Voice, lyrics and music combined seamlessly in what was truly a trio of equals. Songs such as the gorgeous "Rush" and elegiac "Here Comes the Flood," from the group's two ECM Records CDs, vied for attention with a new setting of saxophonist John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and a transcendent take on singer/songwriter Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking." Simply divine.

Composer and arranger Graham Collier's music was celebrated at the BBC Maida Vale studios on the Wednesday by the BBC Big Band led by Geoff Warren and featuring Collier alumni like saxophonist Art Themen, keyboardist Roger Dean, drummer John Marshall, trumpeter Steve Waterman and guitarist Ed Speight. The main event featured Collier's The Blue Suite, inspired by trumpeter Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), but re-imagined with perhaps a hint of Webern. The music was both beautiful and articulate, despite a sense that something or rather someone was missing from the occasion. Thursday night saw a complete contrast and one of the most purely enjoyable affairs of the festival with singer Gwyneth Herbert's Peggy Lee Tribute with bassist Alyn Shipton's Buck Clayton Legacy Band playing the Arts Depot in Finchley. It was great fun—a collection of great songs associated with Lee, including a marvelous "Is That All There Is?," delivered with love and joy.

The final weekend at the Southbank was largely devoted to British jazz of the sixties. Saturday afternoon, pianist Michael Garrick's two sons—trumpeter Gabriel Garrick and violinist Chris Garrick paid tribute to their father's huge catalogue of jazz tunes. Garrick associates Art Themen and bassist Dave Green played superbly, but vibraphonist Jim Hart came close to stealing the show, whilst poet Jeremy Robson—Garrick's poetry and jazz confrère—read two poems that recalled more optimistic, if still troubled times. Later that night, pianist Peter Edwards led the Nu Civilisation Orchestra through saxophonist Joe Harriott's albums Free Form (Jazzland, 1960) and Abstract (Capitol, 1962), once more revealing the soul and mind of the musical poet who had conceived them.

Sunday evening saw trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and his big band, featuring Norma Winstone, guitarist John Parricelli and saxophonist Evan Parker, performing tunes from his acclaimed The Long Waiting (CAM Jazz, 2012). It was a testimony to the longevity of creativity that Wheeler embodies. From 1969 and his first album Windmill Tilter (Fontana) to this latest CD, the sheer eloquence and elegance of Wheeler's compositions is matched only by that of his trumpet and flugelhorn playing, and drew the very best performances from his soloists, including here the under-sung Australian altoist Ray Warleigh.

But the highlight of the festival could only be saxophonist/clarinetist John Surman's Lifelines, a collaboration with the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir. To some, the idea of a work that combined piano, saxophone and voices might seem strange but anyone who knows Surman's work would guess that if anyone could pull it off it would be he. The choir was magnificent, combining to perfection with Surman and pianist Howard Moody, but it was the stories told by Lifelines that truly gripped the attention and imagination: stories of industry and empire, of transformation and unfulfilled promise. Could this be Surman's next CD? Maybe. Should it be? Definitely.

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