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Hugh Masekela, Colston Hall, Nov 17, plus London Jazz Festival (again)

November 21, 2010

Another flurry of gigs here and there – so another round-up. Hugh Masekela’s set at the Colston Hall was pretty much the same as  we heard at Brecon back in the Summer, save the brief opening from the now, er, venerable Mahotella Queens. They provided a taste of older South African sounds, while Hugh reprised his more modern mix, impressing again with his energy and drive through a set that lasted getting on for two hours.

I was particularly struck this time by his singing. He has an excellent voice, with good range, and a facility with jazz phrasing, a flexibility round the beat, which confers interest on the tritest material. Like Armstrong, it sounds closely related to the way he phrases on his horn, and the two inform each other when both happen in the same song. A seamless affair, and when he is not singing or blowing he is dancing or using small percussion, or both. The band are great, but their leader is a phenomenon.

So that was Wednesday, then off to London again where the elder brother turned out for a couple of the smaller events of the Jazz Festival. We caught the excellent Fraser Fifield in the Front Room at the QEH, in duo with his regular guitar partner Graeme Stephen. They interact superbly, and quite freely, injecting something special into their repertoire of jazz tunes with a traditional Scottish inflection, as well as some older material (15th century in one case). The latter piece, a lament which Fifield played on soprano sax rather than one of his several pipes, was particularly affecting.

It would be great if this duo recorded, but buying Fifield’s latest CD to take away a taste of what we’d heard turned out to be a mistake. The studio production, and the addition of a conventional, and not terribly interesting rhythm section on the recording flatten everything out and apart from one or two moments the music loses precisely the spontaneous, flexible quality it had on stage. Ah well, so it goes with live events.

A quick tube hop to Great Portland Street allowed us to squeeze in to hear Bobby Wellins at the Green Man, with  a nice quartet with Barry Green on piano, Dave Wickens on drums. A nice jazz room:  they need to do something about the lighting and a shame they don’t have a real piano, but they do serve a fine plate of fish and chips. More important, Mr Wellins is playing very well indeed – there’s a real relaxed authority to his work after all these years, and the all-standards sets sounded like newly minted pearls, one after the other. His tone is gruffer than it used to be, though still matchless on ballads, and he really digs into the up tempo numbers. His visit to Cabot Circus (where they do have a good piano) in a couple of weeks is one to look forward to. The venue will suit him well – quality music for people who want to listen.

Then a final treat on Friday, Tom Cawley’s Curios at the National Portrait Gallery. A curious venue for jazz, with the trio placed at the intersection of two galleries and overlooked by unsmiling Victorian worthies, but a large and appreciative after work audience heard a terrific hour of state of the art piano jazz. I had been trying to think about time during the day, and it struck me that what distinguishes this kind of trio is its relationship to time. The melodic and harmonic content here is certainly pretty straightforward, but the continually shifting, and very musical drumming of Joshua Blackmore gives it a huge lift. He, Cawley, and the superb, deep-toned bassist Sam Burgess fit together beautifully and deliver some tantalising arrangements which often feature splendidly non-obvious endings. Attractive, accessible, enjoyable and thoughtful music, which was just a fragment of the large canvas the jazz festival has unfurled across the capital but sent me homeward bound happily.

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