Somnambule - Writing About Music

London Jazz Festival 2004 ~ An Overview

From modest beginnings in 1993, the London Jazz Festival has grown into an impressive, cosmopolitan affair that this year delivered more than 100 concerts by a wide variety of artists. Centred upon the South Bank Centre by the River Thames, it commandeered the capacious Royal Festival Hall and its smaller siblings, The Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room as well as extending its reach into 15 other venues across London. The Festival’s programming reflects the variety of its settings and the catholic interpretation of the term ‘jazz’ by the festival’s organisers, Serious Promotions and BBC Radio 3. This year provided a veritable smorgasbord featuring everything from the UK’s current predilection for smooth jazz vocalists (Gwyneth Herbert and Jamie Cullum) to the knottier end of free jazz (Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton in one evening) via world, hiphop and funk flecked with jazz (Dhafer Youssef, Jan Garbarek, Roy Ayers), and a number of American big names (David Murray, Branford Marsalis and Carla Bley).

The festival presented a number of double-bills which in most cases worked well, but occasionally resulted in frustratingly abbreviated sets. The first night fell into the former camp with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd playing an hour-long first half succeeded by the lively Future Sounds Of Jazz. Iyer and Ladd were responsible for 2004’s highly acclaimed ‘In What Language?’, a critical and poetic investigation into the worsening conditions experienced by people of colour in a post-9/11 world. Their music operates at the interstices of socially-conscious hiphop, beat poetry, tone painting and jazz, but if that sounds like an overloaded palette, the duo made it sound effortless. Ladd’s delivery was generally wry, but also tinged with wonder as he mouthed an imaginary talkshow interview with Laura Bush against a backdrop of plaintive strings. The result was a surreal elegy fuelled by unexpected pathos. If there’s one regret, it’s that Iyer’s brilliant solos occurred all too infrequently. The 11 piece Future Sounds Of Jazz attempted unsuccessfully to whip up a party atmosphere in the resolutely unfunky Royal Festival Hall. However, the group’s music was an energetic delight, blending world and urban musics driven by everything from blockparty beats to township rhythms into a cohesive whole that respected rather than smothered its influences. Highlights included brilliant solos by pianist Matthew Bourne, keyboard player Nick Ramm and saxophonists Soweto Kinch and Jason Yarde.

The following night saw Sam Rivers play in the more intimate QEH. The concert by the venerable 81 year old veteran of performances with the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill felt like a real event. The evening was divided into two halves with Rivers’ trio appearing first, followed by a specially assembled big band. Mr Rivers took the stage, dapper in dark plaid jacket, black shirt and colourful tie, signature shocked hair a dark halo above his up and over brow. After the first piece’s tumbling stream of rapid, unpredictable notes, Rivers smilingly told the audience “Impromptu for you. Never to be heard again. I don’t know what I did.” The subtle note of wonder in his voice spoke volumes for a n impressive enthusiasm that was displayed throughout the evening. Later, ‘Beatrice’, dedicated to his wife of 52 years, was played fragile and strong, tender and playful in a charming testament to their love. After the interval, the music performed by The Rivbea Orchestra UK sounded as though it had been physically compressed: large blocks of sound rained down upon the audience, while solos raced out of the tiny spaces between them and seemed to be over almost before they’d begun. The music was punchy, vigorous, athletic even. On the strength of tonight’s performance it’s to be hoped Sam Rivers will be returning to these shores many more times.

A couple of evenings later, a bespectacled, cardiganed Anthony Braxton took the RFH stage in front of a packed auditorium, purposeful gait revealed in his brief stride to the microphone stand, four remarkably youthful musicians following him. The quintet’s unusual instrumentation offered up a sound that was at once fleet-footed and intense, fierce but airily cushioned. Braxton was silent for much of the time, sometimes frowning but always listening and directing, his numeric cues counted out emphatically on raised fingers. Resisting easy assimilation, the music appeared to be composed out of space, air, light: perhaps its very buoyancy was what made it difficult to define. For such reportedly intellectual music there was a gentle tactility, as though each player was proceeding by feel rather than the notation in front of them. This wasn’t music that punched the gut, instead it dazzled the eye and fluttered around the ears until something akin to dizziness ensued. The second set was billed to be Cecil Taylor. Unfortunately he didn’t appear until trumpeter Bill Dixon and drummer Tony Oxley had played two overly long solo sets and, adding insult to injury, he only performed for twenty minutes or so. His brief spell was, however, characteristically dense as he worried at multiple figures successively, reforming them from bar to bar. The brevity of the set only compounded further the sense of frustration experienced at two great composer-performers having to share a single billing.

Dhafer Youssef’s music trains one eye on tradition and the other on how that tradition can thrive in the present. Along with fellow oudists Anouar Brahem and Rabih Abou-Khalil, he explores the interface between his native Tunisian music and that of Western improvisation. At the same time he weaves contemporary elements including electronica, breakbeats and ambience around distinctive vocals and oud playing. Youssef’s voice ranged between a velvety, beseeching whisper and an impassioned, extended yell. In full flight he achieved a fervent glossolalia, its candour perhaps even provoking some discomfort for a small minority of the audience. As with last year’s Digital Prophecy, Youssef was accompanied by some of the cream of Norway’s recent generation of musicians. Arve Henriksen played gorgeous, breathy trumpet solos and intermittently sang angelically. Eivind Aarset sketched ambiences and occasionally delivered a trademark solo in either monsoon wind or abstract noise mode. The group’s music ebbed, swelled, flowed and flooded, but there was a loping, forward motion when nothing particular happened, which achieved a feeling of luminous movement that was sufficient in itself and more subtly eloquent even than Youssef’s vocals.

The Royal Festival Hall closes in 2005 for refurbishment, but the Festival will continue in the remaining South Bank halls and numerous other venues across the capital. Apart from minor reservations about the cramming of major artists into short sets, the Festival vividly underlines the healthy, variegated state of jazz today and provides treats galore for those lucky enough to be able to attend one of its many gigs.
Colin Buttimer
Published by Signal To Noise magazine