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London Jazz Festival: November 9-18, 2012

Duncan Heining By

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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.

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