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London Jazz Festival lookback

November 29, 2011

Three more reviews originally posted on LondonJazz, which are duplicated here for archiving. If you read them there, you get pictures and such, and even some comments – particularly interesting ones on Henry Threadgill, I thought.

In gig order:

Review: Henry Threadgill Zooid

(Queen Elizabeth Hall, Nov 19th,)

A week after Steve Coleman, another Chicago-raised composer and performer who is an all too rare London visitor graced the stage of the QEH.

Henry Threadgill brought the latest in his succession of, er, distinctively named bands, Zooid. And what a band! Together, they operate in his habitual workspace: lots of warm, low to mid-register sounds (cello, tuba or trombone, mellow amplified acoustic guitar), interlocking rhythms, and uncliched motifs, but this crew, all new to me, were all striking players to hear for the first time, and brought his arresting music alive in the best possible way.

Most eye-catching was Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, who boomed and bounced while dancing barefoot, at least until his strap broke and he was forced to cradle his giant instrument while seated for the rest of the set. He and fine drummerElliot Kavee opened the proceedings with the simplest of figures, but an immediately gripping timbre (the sound was notably good all evening). They, with Jose Davilla ’s tuba, filled out the lower reaches of the several layers Threadgill loves to build in his music, while cellist Christopher Hoffman and guitarist Christopher Ellman furnished the next level up.

Threadgill has a wonderful facility for creating music in which highly arranged passages sound improvised. Listen a while and it is apparent that the parts where everyone plays – which can create a sound maelstrom when the band is full on – actually work because the whole piece is as carefully engineered as a swiss watch. The tuba riff complements what the guitar is playing perfectly. The cello meshes with the bass and drums. No-one gets in anyone else’s way. There is irresistible flow.

Threadgill, presiding a little professorially, seemed as happy listening intently to the results as playing himself. There was plenty of solo space for all, with fine moments from all the band members, and an especially fine duo from cello and bass. When Threadgill did play, he laid some lovely lines over the top on his brace of flutes. One of the neat properties of his band’s sound mix is that it sets off the instruments the composer plays beautifully. The flute tops off the sound. The alto sax, when he finally clips it on, blazes through the mix as only an alto can. There were no titles, no intros, no encore. Just an outstanding performance of intriguing, involving music, delivered with total concentration.

At the end, a visibly gratified Threadgill returned to front stage alone to acknowledge the crowd’s roar. Performers will take a bow even when they know the evening did not quite deliver. Not this time. I reckon the smile on Henry’s face was there because he, like us, recognised this evening as a small artistic triumph.

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Then something in a slightly smaller venue…

Review: Jeff Williams Quartet

(Green Note, LJF2011, November 18th 2011.)
Away from the big halls on the second Friday of the festival, that paragon of drumming taste and style Jeff Williams chose the Green Note café in Camden Parkway to launch his excellent new CD, Another Time.

In a day that began with Julian Siegel and Liam Noble exploring the stately acoustic of St James’s Piccadilly at lunchtime, and took in Phil Bancroft’s At Home project in the early evening at the South Bank, this needed to be something special to grab the ear. It was.

After a beguiling opening set from violinist Olivia Moore, Williams offered a slightly oblique launch for his recording. That features his New York band, with Duane Eubanks on trumpet and John O’Gallagher on alto sax. The drummer, who spends most of his time in the UK these days, brought a different quartet into the Green Note’s small back room. Although they played the same tunes, the three Brits he chose gave the music a less freeboppish sound than the US line-up.

Tenor sax star-in-the-making Josh Arcoleo – graduated from the Royal Academy mere weeks ago but already keeping some impressive company – Phil Robson on guitar and bass man Sam Lasserson are equally impressive players. Their approach to the leader’s excellent compositions had a more head-and-solos feel, a little less loose in approach than the CD line-up. Doubtless they have spent less time with the music, and heads bent over manuscript paper indicated they needed the odd reminder. Still, they burned through the evening, responding to an audience crammed in shoulder to shoulder.

Robson unfolded a series of gripping guitar improvisations which gained intensity from being witnessed from about three feet away. Arcoleo was confidently inventive, dug into the tunes with enthusiasm and soloed with an engaging tenor-traditional swagger. Lasserson kept things cool, and had an impressive solo feature at the end.

And the leader was a marvel on the kit balanced precariously on the edge of the Green Note’s miniature bandstand (the cymbal stands in danger of toppling off when he let loose). Williams is a comprehensively skilled modern drummer, as happy implying the time as stating it, and constantly shifting timbres and textures. No solos to speak of, no grandstanding, just 40 years’ experience lightly worn, and a relaxed alertness which creates the feel that inspires everyone else. Altogether an out of the way gem of the festival: I doubt if there was anyone doing jazz better, anywhere this evening.

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and finally, another alto player, who is quite well known…

Review: Ornette Coleman

(Royal Festival Hall, Nov 20th. Closing night of LJF2011.)

Listen hard enough, and you can still almost feel the vibe from Ornette Coleman’s triumphant performance to close the Meltdown festival he curated on the South Bank in 2009. So would his reappearance on the last day of the LJF live up to that night of standing ovations and cries of “we love you, Ornette?” Hell, yes.

This was a reversion to the great man’s usual show, if you like. No Charlie Haden duet. No Flea from the Chili Peppers adding bass to Turnaround (in fact, unusually, noTurnaround). No wailing interlude from Master Musicians of Jajouka. The absence of guests gave a clearer view of the remarkable understanding between Coleman and his two long-standing bass players – Tony Falanga, thunderously emphatic on acoustic bass, and Al MacDowell, whose fast-fingered electric bass sounds more like guitar. It is perhaps a little like having Ornette’s contrasting bassists of old, Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro, at the same time. Falanga is Haden, typically keeping solid time and underpinning the leader’s shifting line, MacDowell is LaFaro, skipping around in lightning fast commentary-cum-anticipation alongside the man with the plastic alto sax.

The three together make a tight-knit trio, supported by Denardo Coleman behind the drums. Denardo, a drummer it is easy to hear too much of, exhibited an unusually light touch for much of the evening, using his cymbals and brushes to good effect. Some of the bluesy ballads still had backbeats, but they were fine too.

The quartet’s single set lasted over an hour and a half, with rarely a dull moment. Most numbers were short, but the Coleman song book is long. We had plenty from the very beginning of his recording career – sometimes pretty much as they were then, sometimes reworked a little. Round Trip, from a little later, was a welcome favourite, and Latin Genetics as jaunty as ever. Coleman stuck mainly to alto, the trumpet and violin excursions being a bit perfunctory these days. His intonation is occasionally more wayward, too– hardly a problem in this music – and he makes a few more squeaks, but the keening, swooping tone is largely intact. In mid-set, he eased off a little, allowing MacDowell to state themes and confining himself to a few flurries and trademark licks as the bass players explore the tune. But by the end he was back in the driving seat, signalling the switches of direction each number took. These are not as unexpected, or as inventive, as fifty years ago. But to me the effect was still as fresh, as invigorating as ever.

At 81, the man’s urge to play seems inexhaustible. And at set’s end, the clamour for an encore eventually brought him back for the customary reminder that he is one of jazz’s peerless melodists. Lonely Woman, played against softly plucked acoustic bass, became a farewell benediction.

(LondonJazz has reviews of many other LJF gigs to tantalise you, as well).


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