The Final Weekend of the London Jazz Festival: A Round Up

Three of the concerts I attended in the London Jazz Festival (LJF) received standing ovations: Irreversible Entanglements, which I reviewed on London Jazz News, Soweto Kinch’s White Juju and The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) playing material from John Zorn’s Masada Songbook arranged and conducted by Sam Eastmond. I think this tells us something about the quality of this year’s festival, or perhaps my luck in choosing the right concerts to attend!

Soweto Kinch’s ovation was from a large crowd, possibly a sellout, in the Barbican Hall. White Juju is a major work for the full London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) plus Soweto’s quartet with Rick Simpson on piano, Nick Jurd on double and electric bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. In it Soweto reflects on events of the last twenty months with ten pieces for the orchestra and quartet with hip hop vocals and accompanying visuals and soundtrack. The topics covered include the Covid pandemic, the lockdown, the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue of statues of slave traders and even the recent shortages arising from the pandemic and Brexit. The visuals were presented in short film sequences of, for example, the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the recordings included one of Johnson announcing the first lockdown and another of Priti Patel condemning the Black Lives Matter movement as Marxist. There were also visuals of major buildings associated with Britain’s imperial past which implied that these brought out a feeling of not belonging amongst minority groups.

The music opened with a totally improvised passage from the quartet , and proceeded through movements with the full orchestra driven by Gregory Hutchinson’s powerful drumming, hip hop vocals accompanied by the orchestra and interludes for the jazz quartet. The writing for the orchestra was punchy and rhythmic with the sound of the quartet integrated into the overall mix; I particularly enjoyed a short section for the clarinets that had a touch of New Orleans. The hip hop vocals were backed by some very attractive writing for the orchestra. In this there was a contrast between the force of the vocals and the melodic writing for orchestra. This movement between unity and division was a key aspect of the overall approach with a further contrast between the mostly free playing of the quartet and the classical sounds of the orchestra. Even within the free playing of the quartet there was a contrast between the forceful and intense statements of the quartet and the collaborative interactions that created that sound world. All this seemed appropriate for the critique of the political and social situations in the UK and the USA.

This was a very successful collaboration between the classical and jazz approaches which produced a unique set of music, and one which the audience clearly found absorbing and intriguing so much so that they applauded at the end of each movement. This certainly generated a warm and receptive atmosphere, but at times it interrupted the flow of the music. I have, however, two related criticisms; one is that in a large hall and with issues of aged-related hearing loss, I struggled to catch the words of Soweto’s vocals, and therefore lost most of their impact. Catching the words of hip hop vocals is often an issue, and I remember Dizzee Rascal’s suggestion that we need to ‘listen faster’, but in a piece of political and social criticism, I wanted to catch all the words. Likewise the words of the recorded excerpts of politicians’ words were difficult to catch.

Overall, it was good to see the ambition of Soweto’s earlier Black Peril work has been developed and extended into this major work. Mention should also be made of the conductor Lee Reynolds who worked closely with Soweto on the orchestration and conducted the orchestra.

Yazz Ahmed also worked very successfully with an orchestra, in her case with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Yazz’s approach was very different from Soweto’s; in the latter’s concert the piece developed a whole new work that successfully blended aspects of free jazz, hip hop and orchestral writing, whereas in the former concert Yazz had worked with various arrangers to adapt small group pieces of hers from her La Saboteuse album, her Polyhymnia album and her Alhaan al-Siduri suite. Noel Langley arranged La Saboteuse, Earth’s Reflection, A Shoal of Souls and Dawn Patrol, Tim Garland arranged A Paradise in the Hold, Ed Puddick arranged Barbara, Yazz’s tribute to Barbara Thompson, Callum Au arranged 2857, Yazz’s tribute to Rosa Parks, and Guy Barker arranged El-Emadi, Yazz’s tribute to her Bahraini tribe. All these pieces worked wonderfully well with Yazz’s beautiful trumpet and flugelhorn sound rising gloriously above the sound of the orchestra and the excellent contributions from Ralph Wyld on vibes and Dave Mannington on electric bass.

It’s interesting that these two jazz and classical collaborations worked so well in their different ways; it used to be the case that such attempts seemed to fall between two stools and ended up satisfying neither. That has changed and it is likely that such work will be a feature of ambitious jazz festivals.

Arrangements of a very different kind were the feature of the NYJO concert at Cafe Oto where they had a short two-day residency playing music from John Zorn’s Masada Songbook. Arranger/composer Sam Eastmond has collaborated closely with John Zorn who has encouraged and supported Sam in his arrangements of material from the Masada Songbook, and on this project he has worked with a large group of current members and alumni of NYJO to present a number of these arrangements. It’s powerful stuff; NYJO played with great enthusiasm and skill, and this plus Sam’s highly energetic conducting resulted in an evening of exciting and dramatic music. The arrangments left plenty of space for soloists and James Romaine, Emma Rawicz, Dan Kemshell, Asha Parkinson, Dan Coulthust and Joel Knee in particular impressed. It’s great to see NYJO tackling contemporary repertoire of this kind. I also caught and was impressed by the NYJO Jazz Exchange group on the freestage at the Clore Ballroom

I’d also like to mention: a late night set downstairs at The Vortex with Olie Brice presenting new pieces for Tom Challenger and Will Glaser following on from a set upstairs with the Shirley Smart Sextet playing music with a strong Arabic influence, and the set on the freestage at the Barbican with the project I heard in Lithuania with the Nojo Airlines led by drummer Dalius Naujokaitis-Naujo. Nojo is an abbreviation of Dalius’ name and the Airlines title refers to an ensemble with a lot of freedom to fly. The group at 25 was much smaller than the 60+ group I heard in Vilnius, but the energy and fun was still very much a feature of the performance. I did feel, however, that the set lost momentum towards the end.

I heard some great music over the weekend, and there were many more events I would have liked to catch. I believe The London Jazz Festival took a step forward this year.

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