Thoughts On London Jazz Festival 2020

This year the London Jazz Festival overcame the difficulties created by the second national lockdown and managed to create a huge and very successful online event.  It is only possible to catch a certain number of events and here I will concentrate on nine events that I believe reflect the range and diversity of the festival.  I also reviewed two major concerts for London Jazz News: Seed Ensemble’s tribute to Pharoah Sanders, the review of which you can read here, and Shabaka Hutchings’ performance with the Britten Sinfonia, the review of which you can read here

Clod Ensemble: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady 

This dance performance by the Clod Ensemble built around Charles Mingus’ masterpiece was something unique and a type of event I would love to see more of in jazz programmes.  The dance company had conducted a number of workshops in which the dancers improvised to the music of the album as played by members of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra.  These improvisations were then choreographed and performed as part of a Listening Party.  In view of the restrictions the dancers performed to the original studio album, but NCU’s director, Peter Edwards, was there to introduce the music in interview with Suzy Willson, Clod Ensemble’s co- artistic director.   The dancing and the way it was presented in the film was brilliant and certainly brought out aspects of the music that I had not been aware of before. 

Vilnius Jazz  

This snapshot of jazz from Lithuania was part of a collaboration with other European jazz festivals and scenes which included programmes from Switzerland, Poland and Turkey (istanbul).  Vilnius tried to pack a little too much into a short programme resulting in frustratingly short features for each band.  Nonetheless, it was good to hear a very exciting improvising large ensemble, the Improdimensia Orchestra, a nicely melodic piano trio in the Dainius Pulauskas Trio, and a performance entitled Prayer which featured a Jewish prayer declaimed by a cantor.  This latter combination works really well and has been used by Uri Caine in his interpretation of Mahler’s music. 

Nathaniel Facey Quartet 

Nathaniel Facey led an excellent quartet with two fellow members of Empirical: bass player Tom Farmer and drummer Shane Forbes, plus guitarist David Preston.   This was a nicely judged set with excellent playing from Facey on alto sax, often playing unison lines with Preston.  The vibe was very much that of the Empirical quartet with its focus on the adventurous music found on the Blue Note label in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with tunes by Eric Dolphy and original material in the same vein. 

Binker Golding with Olie Brice and Steve Noble 

Binker Golding has moved away from the music of his duo with Moses Boyd into the area of free jazz.  He has recorded with Evan Parker and has a huge respect for Evan’s music.  Here Golding was in the very challenging situation of playing with two leading improvisers in bass player Olie Brice and drummer Steve Noble.  Golding created a number of excellent improvisations driven along by the massive swing of Brice and Noble; he was able to produce long flowing lines in which invention was always at the fore. 

Olie Brice Trio 

Olie Brice had his own gig recorded at The Vortex Jazz Club in which he led a trio with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer Will Glaser.  As mentioned above, Brice is very active as an improvising bass player, but in his own groups he likes to base the improvisations on a number of his own tunes.  Both Challenger and Glaser responded to this material with great delicacy and energy.  A wonderful set. 

Yazz Ahmed Quartet 

Yazz Ahmed played with what I believe is her regular quartet with Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dave Mannington on bass and Martin France on drums.  As ever, her blend of jazz, electronics and Arabic music produced a beautifully atmospheric set.  Interesting that contemporary Arabic music is receiving some attention this year; Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has had a fascinating focus on the experimental scene in Beirut. 

Linda Oh Quartet 

 Linda Oh is an extremely active bass player on the New York scene where she works with, amongst others, Dave Douglas, Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano as well as leading her own groups.  She was born in Malaysia, but was brought up in Perth, Western Australia, and this gig saw her back there playing with pianist Fabian Almazan and two Australian players: saxophonist Jamie Oehlers and drummer Ben Wanderwal.  It was great to hear these two, both new names to me, and this was a nicely integrated group. 

Between The Lines: Skylla and Leafcutter John + Helen Pappaioannou 

Leafcutter John curated this excellent set which featured a wonderfully interactive duo between baritone saxophonist Pappaioannou and himself on electronics and various toys.  This followed a stunning set from Skylla, Ruth Goller’s new project with herself on electric bass and vocals plus Alice Grant and Lauren Kinsella, both also on vocals.  I loved the description of the music as ‘raw folk and gentle punk’ (Debra Richards, personal communication). 

JFrisco 

I had heard and been impressed by JFrisco at a Thinking/Not Thinking event in Birmingham last year.  It’s a trio with Lara Jones on saxophone, Jemma Freese on keys, and Megan Roe surprising everyone on this London gig by playing drums rather than guitar.  It’s an improvising trio that creates a mesmeric almost ritualistic sound. 

Finally, this year’s London Jazz Festival was undoubtedly a triumph in its solution to the pandemic.   However, I have to say I really appreciated the concentrated nature of the Berlin Jazz Festival earlier in the month.  There I listened to 22 hours of music over three days with every concert easy to access.  The online nature of this year’s London festival really brought out how spread out the festival is.   But this is a relatively minor quibble! 

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