The London Jazz Festival

Nick Catalano By

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A fitting climax to my stay here in London was the jazz festival which has become something of a major classic. Most Americans don't realize it, but someone figured out that there are about 800 jazz fests annually in Europe and, if that is true, then the London festival should rank near the top in quality of production.

The festival ran nine days (Nov.13-22) and featured some familiar American stars, e.g., Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Chick Corea, Bill Frisell, John Scofield. International stars included Gilberto Gil, Allen Toussaint, Mayra Andrade and Stefano Bollani. A third group of international newcomers stamped the festival as a major showcase for African and Asian jazz voices.

At 79, Sonny Rollins can still make audiences buzz. Well known for his protracted concert improvisations, Sonny did not disappoint the crowd at the Barbican, blowing nonstop for an hour and a half. Fans can always count on Rollins to come up with a humorous pop tune ("The Tennessee Waltz" is one example) to titillate them, and for the London crowd he chose Noel Coward's "Some Day I'll Find You"—a popular piece of whimsy. The crowd roared. Sonny is still at the top of his game.

Marsalis ran a brilliant gamut from swinging articulation on tenor to tender sonority on soprano over at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The reception was overwhelming.

Such merriment is standard fare for us New Yorkers who see these stars nightly, but there were artists here who haven't made it across the Atlantic yet, and I focused on some of them.

Hailing from Nigeria was Femi Tomowo, a guitarist who performed "Yoruba," or West African music, with aplomb. The music has a rhythmic and lyrical uniqueness virtually unknown outside the region. Tomowo has been influenced by notable American guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny but uses these influences sparingly. In addition to novel harmonic renderings and exchanges with a "talk" drum in his band, Tomowo performed vocally drawing upon a litany of his own compositions. "Felicia's song" was a highlight here and delighted the crowd at the 606 Club.

Zem Audu, a student of Courtney Pine, brought his tenor sax sound into the festival, displaying another strong tie to continental music. Audu is an example of the plethora of young internationals who have invaded the London jazz scene and have subsequently spurred club owners and concert promoters to recognize that fertile jazz ground is abundant in U.K. and, moreover, is expanding.

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