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Walthamstow Jazz Festival 2019

Luke Seabright By

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Walthamstow Jazz Festival
London
February 16, 2019

If you're not from London the name Walthamstow most likely means nothing to you, unless perhaps you admire the work of designer and craftsman William Morris. Even to most Londoners it is probably little more than the fabled end of the Victoria Line. And yet in recent years, as the North London borough has undergone rapid urban change (like many others before it), it has managed to make room for itself on the city's already dense cultural map. Case in point, Waltham Forest will be 2019's London Borough of Culture, the first recipient of the £1.35m grant from the City Of London as part of a new initiative from mayor Sadiq Khan. This was the inaugural year of the Walthamstow Jazz Festival, organised by the homegrown label Byrd Out.

The event took place in one of the buildings of Walthamstow's Town Hall, a massive white Soviet-style chunk of concrete. The Ghost Ship stage (named after a beer by the festival's main sponsor) was in the main hall, a voluminous square room with a seated balcony, in which (as former Stereloab frontwoman Laetitia Sadier reminded us) the Sex Pistols played in 1977. To get to the second stage, Copper House, you went down a small flight of stairs to the basement. Here, smaller crowds and better acoustics made for a more intimate (and stuffier) setting. This was ideal for the smaller bands, such as Run Logan Run, made up of Dan Johnson on drums and Andrew Hayes on saxophone.

Sax and drums might seem like an unusual pairing, though it's far from unheard of (John Coltrane's recording with Rashied Ali is a free improv classic). However the success of another British duo, Binker and Moses, has given it some increased visibility, and Run Logan Run are another great example of its potential. Hayes' use of circular breathing and delay effects created minimalist loops and phasing effects over which Johnson displayed some impressive improv and beat-making skills. Their set was at times stirringly soulful, at others feverishly entrancing. Upstairs in the meantime, the first band to perform was the Leeds-based collective Tetes de Pois. Jasmine Whalley, who provided slick Paul Desmond-like solos on alto, was one of only a tiny handful of women heard throughout the event—a long-standing issue in jazz that the community urgently needs to confront. After prompting the still thin but receptive crowd to come forward, the seven-piece outfit proceeded to indulge with some upbeat grooves. Their Afrobeat-influenced blend of fusion set the tone of stylistic eclecticism that would characterise the whole event.

The main stage would shortly afterwards welcome three towering figures of British free jazz. Saxophonist extraordinaire Evan Parker, famous for his use of extended techniques, created undulating shimmers of sound to counterpoint John Russell's muscular chordal attacks on acoustic guitar (he broke a string shortly into the set), and the spry acrobatics of John Edwards, whose double-bass he frequently repurposed as a percussive instrument. Their set was unfortunately marred by what would become a recurring issue throughout the day: poor sound quality. In a large resonating room, the inadequate sound system couldn't compensate for the disturbing background chatter which made the music at times very difficult to hear. This is particularly problematic when—as is often the case with free improv gigs—so much of the experience comes from appreciating subtle variations in texture and intricate musical interplay. Luckily, a trio of this calibre make the experience worthwhile regardless. They are long-time partners, and as recently as 2017 recorded an album together for Byrd Out. Coincidentally, it is called Walthamstow Moon and was recorded in the Old Cinema in Walthamstow where, 55 years prior, Parker had seen a concert by John Coltrane. This gig—in front of an unusually large crowd for free jazz—must have had a special significance for the three of them.

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