Review: London Jazz Festival 2013

on Monday, December 02, 2013
London Jazz Festival (15-24 Nov '13) // Words: Alex Kidd

The curtain came down on this year's London Jazz Festival with ‘FREEDOM - Jazz Improv Session’ at Charlie Wright’s Music Lounge in Hoxton. A loose, ‘avant-garde’ jam in a small, awkward space populated by musicians and aficionados, I feared it would reinforce every negative stereotype associated with the besmirched genre in its contemporary form.

And so I was a relieved man when the music started. In one unconscious flurry of mayhem, the musicians on stage put a match to these tired clich├ęs and offered a near-perfect distillation of everything that I had heard during the ten-day musical binge: swing, bebop, improv, free jazz, prog, electronica, hip hop and much, much more…

If the LJF 2013 - the most accessible and genre-bending yet - has taught me anything, it is that ‘jazz’ is a woefully inadequate label. I’m not even certain that such a music now exists or should exist at all - an ongoing topic of fervent debate involving, most notably, the trumpet player, Nicholas Payton, and the Nextbop blog.

So what unites all these musical forms - some quite disparate - that are now paraded across the sixty London venues, under the misleading banner of ‘jazz’? I am no expert but based on what I’ve seen over this ten day period, I would tentatively propose that the music contains the following (admittedly, very fuzzy) qualities: dazzling musicality, swing, groove, unpredictability, soul, freedom/improvisational skill and democracy. The first and last points here are closely aligned and help to explain its unique vitality as a musical form but also its inherent weakness as a marketable product - as true musical virtuosity and curiosity, particularly within a group dynamic, does not always manifest itself in something that is easily digestible for a mass audience.

Jazz also contains an almost transcendental, looping quality comparable only, in my opinion, to electronic music and the more ancient musical forms of Asia and Africa which, of course, is the cradle of blues, gospel and, yes, jazz. This spiritual nature imbues the music with an emotional depth and freedom that might explain it’s restlessness as an art form but also, paradoxically, the sense of timelessness. Percussionist Jaimeo Brown’s mesmerising gig at XOYO is a case in point.

Accompanied only by guitar and tenor saxophone, this accomplished drummer takes the audience back to the roots of African-American music and charts its progress via blues and bebop in a continuous, twisting hour-long set. The swirling blues riffs are broken up by searing drum breaks and saxophone solos, all underlaid by the hum of gospel samples programmed by guitarist Chris Sholar (his brooding guitar playing can also be heard on Kanye West and Jay Z’s 'No Church In The Wild'). Inspired by the spirituals of the Gee Bend community in Alabama, which can be heard on his debut album, 'Transcendence', Brown has produced a documentary about this subject that is due for released soon.

The jazz aesthetic also lends itself generously to film and if it has a recurring narrative theme it is the struggling, self-destructive artist and the spiralling effect of drugs and isolation. Perhaps this is what makes jazz such an attractive subject for biographical documentary - two new films about musicians, James Booker from New Orleans (dead at 43 in 1983), and Scot, Bobby Wellins (born three years before but still alive and still playing - beautifully as it turns out).

'Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker' is an essay in the anatomy of a musical genius, and a mad one at that. Completely unmanageable and hooked on drugs and alcohol for most of his performing life, Booker is surely the greatest blues pianist that no one knows. If you lived in Louisiana in the 1970s, the chances are you would have seen the ‘Piano Prince of New Orleans’ play in the French Quarter or even at your house, as he would frequently do for Harry Connick Junior who received lessons from Booker in exchange for a pardon from Harry’s father who served as district attorney for New Orleans.

Only in New Orleans, and if anyone could be the physical embodiment of this manic-depressive city, it would be Booker - the one-eyed ‘black Liberace’. He left a depressingly small recording legacy but the director has unearthed some breathtaking archive footage that left me shaking my head wondering in disbelief. The Montreux festival performance was a special highlight that I hope others will get a chance to experience when the film goes on general release in the UK.

'Dreams Are Free' charts the life saxophonist Bobby Wellins directed by Gary Barber was screened the 606 Club in Fulham - a regular haunt of the film’s subject. The Glaswegian’s career spans the history of modern jazz in Britain and the film chronicles the British scene during its golden age in the 1960s when bebop was the alternative youth culture. His demise as a musician and the surrender to drug addiction coincided with the decline of the music jazz lost its popular audience to soul and rock and roll. Wellins re-emerged from drug addiction in 1975 and formed a new group with drummer Spike Wells (now an Anglican priest) who was present on the evening to play with Bobby after the screening. Relaxed, unfussy and authentic, the 606 Club is a fine independent institution but crying out for a younger audience.

How can a genre of music so willfully defiant of categorisation expect to survive in such a crowded market place of musical forms? It has a struggle on its hands, no doubt, but it requires the listener to break free of any musical prejudice and identify the qualities that it shares with the music that the he/she already enjoys. If it’s soul or RnB - you will locate this music in jazz at several points across it’s wide spectrum. If it’s hip-hop, there is so much in the history of jazz and it’s present manifestation that resonates with hip hop and electronica. The electronic mish-mashing of Spoek at XOYO, and to a greater extent, the ‘electro-brass’ support act, Benin City bears this out. (Their debut album 'Fires In The Park' was released earlier in the year while the multi-talented frontman, Joshua Idehen, also promotes poetry and alternative music through his unique multi-media organisation, Poejazzi).

If progressive/math/post-rock or other forms of alternative rock music is more your thing - jazz, in Europe at least, is cross-fertilizing more and more with contemporary alternative music. Go along to a gig by Anglo-Scandinavian trio, Phronesis, and you will spot so many contemporary references from funk to drum ‘n’ bass (that may sound cringeworthy but the fusion really does sound fresh and natural). The first of three sold-out shows at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone was recorded for a forthcoming live album called 'Life To Everything' which, judging by the quality of the sound and the precision of the playing, promises to eclipse the success of their critically-acclaimed 2010 live album, 'Alive'.

To sustain such a pure and precise sound at that velocity is astonishing and can be partly attributed to the comradeship and compositional equality that binds Phronesis together. The sense is heightened by the stageless venue which seats the audience on all four sides of the band, reinforcing the triangular equilibrium of the musicians. If anyone stands out it is the Danish double bassist, Jasper Hoiby, whose cool swagger belies a warm bass tone that pushes the music along with a relentless mixing of styles and tempo.

I must also mention here the exciting Manchester three-piece, GoGo Penguin, a loud and, frankly, filthy set at XOYO that synthesised pounding progressive jazz with jungle, funk and even post-rock. Their thumping sound does not quite come through on record - something I hope they address on their next album as their clear appreciation of electronic music could enable this group to penetrate new territory and blur the lines further between jazz and everything else.

There are currently hundreds of outstanding, open-minded young musicians trying to make a living here in the UK, fusing genres with dizzying levels of skill and musical appreciation. So I implore you to clench your jazz hands into fists and cast Jamie Cullum aside. Forget any preconception you had about the artform and just appreciate musical skill and expression of the highest order. In fact, I’d go along with Nicholas Payton, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington, and forget the label ‘jazz’ altogether.

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