One of the many reasons for picking this particular week to spend in London was to spend time at gigs in in the London Jazz Festival.
I have seen Haden play many times, most recently as leader of the reformed Liberation Music Orchestra; this time round, though, he was leading his Quartet West. This was jazz very much in the tradition: it had a standard cool jazz feel, from the West Coast – it could have been any of the small bands lead by Miles Davis in his post-bop period of the 1950s – without the trumpet, obviously.
It was not necessarily the best setting for such music: it felt it needed a smoky jazz club to capture the intimate nature of the sound. The band was good – saxophonist Ernie Watts leading most of the tunes, and pianist Alan Broadbent played some great solos. But it didn’t feel like it was anything new, nor anything special: it was very enjoyable, not great. The LJF programme had said that the band evoked the feeling of film noir. Not in me, it didn’t – unless they equate film noir with smoky jazz clubs, which of course they might. For me, though, that would mean a sparser, meaner sound than the quartet created.
Gwilym Silcock is the wunderkind of British jazz: he has won several awards and was BBC New Generation Artist, and he has been raved about for some while. Frankly, I am not sure that I get it. He was technically very proficient, and he created music of great complexity – the time signatures to all his tunes seemed intentionally obscure (7/13, anybody?) – but it left me cold. He had a percussionist who added nothing; the only member of the band who really shone for me was Martin France on drums, who drove the music along despite the strange time he had to keep.
A couple of days later, we were down in cellar of the Pizza Express Jazz Club – a venue so different to the QEH could hardly be imagined: this was the intimate jazz club par excellence, without the smoke (this is modern Britain – not the 1950s!). Indeed, maybe too intimate: I had intended to take some pictures, but I felt uneasy being so near the musicians – the music was literally in our faces: it didn’t feel right pointing a camera straight at the musicians; I am used to hiding behind the audience. So, no photographs…
The evening started with a duo set by trombonist Annie Whitehead and pianist Steve Lodder. This was the set of the week for me: a blistering, imaginative mix of British jazz. I have seen both musicians play many times over the last twenty years or so – Lodder with District Six and particularly with many of Andy Sheppard’s bands, and Whitehead with the Brotherhood of Breath and Spirits Rejoice, as well as various small bands. Their music really moved, building on a South African feel (tunes were dedicated to the South African émigrés Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo, as well as Whitehead’s mentor John Stevens); there was a real understanding between Lodder and Whitehead, and it was a shame they played a relatively short set.
The second set was pianist Bojan Z, playing in a trio format. I last saw Mr Z (his last name is – deep breath – Zulfikarpasic; when he started playing gigs in Paris, he couldn’t fit it on the posters, and reckoned even if he could, no one would be able to pronounce it, so he truncated his name to the memorable Z) play a solo, acoustic gig in a small hotel function room in Dundee, with at most twenty other people – even more intimate than this cellar jazz club in the heart of Soho.
This time round, he had a drummer and bass player backing him, and as well as acoustic piano, he also played a Fender Rhodes, which he ran through a couple of different effects pedals. For all the electronic gadgetry, though, I thought he was at his best on the baby grand – he didn’t need electronics, which added nothing and obscured the fluid lines he was playing. The trio worked well together, the bassist working up quite a groove, and in such a small place they weren’t overpowering.
But they didn’t play my favourite Bojan Z tune – Henri Texier’s beautiful Don’t Buy Ivory Anymore.
Our last evening at the Festival was at the Barbican – another large concert hall, though it felt rather more intimate than the QEH – for another European piano trio (the in thing!), the Tord Gustavsen Trio. The gig was opened by Italy’s Stefano Bollani and Enrico Rava playing piano and trumpet duets. Playing mostly tunes by Rava, they were well matched, their sound filling the hall. Rava’s trumpet lines were well steeped in classic jazz, and Bollani’s piano brought to mind Monk – at times treating it as a piece of percussion.
Gustavsen’s brand of minimalist quiet jazz was a different kettle of fish; contemplative, almost cod-spiritual (I think it was trying, but lacked the depth of truly spiritual music) or meditative. The auditorium was deathly quiet, and it sounded nice – coming as much from classical (think Satie or Debussy) as jazz – but it didn’t really grab me: it didn’t have the intrinsic beauty of the last time I saw them play. This may be because of a truly awful bass drum sound – when everything was so quiet and gentle, the bass drum boomed: it seemed incongruous. We didn’t stay for the encore.
So a mixed week of mostly European jazz. Entertaining, but only Lodder and Whitehead built up any real excitement.