London Jazz Festival 2008.

I was down in London for the first half of the London Jazz Festival, and I went to four gigs.

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First up was Keith Tippett, in a variety of settings. First, he premiered a new piece for piano and string quartet; then he played some piano duets with Stan Tracey (whose quartet I saw in Edinburgh in July); and finally he played a set of improvised music with his wife, Julie Tippetts [sic].

The string quintet was energetic, but didn’t really grab me: it didn’t swing. True, I don’t think it was meant to – but it wasn’t really my kind of thing.

On the other hand, the piano duets were excellent: two of my favourite pianists playing together. They played a couple of extended numbers, pure improvisation as far as I could tell. They played almost as one – I have no idea if how much they rehearsed or planned, but it seemed seamless. I have no idea how they knew each piece was over – indeed, I’m not sure that they did – I think the audience applause in a space they’d left pre-empted the end of one piece!

The duet between piano and voice was interesting, although a little too out there for me. Keith Tippett was trying all sorts of things with the piano – putting stones and metal onto the strings, plucking the strings and so on. The wordless vocals were at times lovely, and there were moments of beauty, but I think I’d have preferred more of the Tippett/Tracey piano duet.

Next up was the Bill Frisell Trio. They were playing along to some silent movies – first up were some abstract, modern animations, then a couple of Buster Keaton movies. The animations I found distracting – I didn’t like the visuals – but the music was brilliant. With the two Keaton movies, the whole thing came together: the films and the music were made for each other. It was brilliant. The trio made some really lovely music – some of it rocking out, some of it country-tinged, some lovely trio jazz. It was an excellent gig!

On the Tuesday, we went to another trio and another audio-visual gig: Henri Texier on bass, Louis Sclavis on saxes and clarinets and Aldo Romano on drums, together with projected photographs by Guy Le Querrec. This was another wonderful, wonderful concert: the three player created such a beautiful sound, at times contemplative, at others energetic and forceful – this was really exciting music. Sclavis had a beautiful sound, particularly on bass clarinet. All in all, it was marvellous. The photos were interesting, too – though I am not sure what they added to the music.

On Sunday, we went to a free gig – kind of coals to the South Bank for me, since it was a couple of Scottish big bands playing: the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra; Tommy Smith directed the first and played tenor and directed the second.

I have seen the Youth Jazz Orchestra a couple of times before, and they never fail to amaze: these young people are brilliant musicians. They played a set of big band standards – Ellington’s Cottontail, Oliver Nelson’s Hoe-Down and so on. They were really good.

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The Youth Orchestra were great; but the SNJO were steaming – they were on great form. I was surprised that they were playing of Steely Dan tunes – they toured Scotland with this set last year, and I chose not to go; and they have just been touring a new set, including a commission by Mario Caribe, which I’d wanted to see but missed (since I was in London at the Jazz Festival…): they were playing this in Glasgow the night before, so it was odd that they chose the Steely Dan.

Despite the repertoire, they were on fine form. It was the first time in a long while that I had seen Tommy Smith play in more than a trio setting, and in contrast to his northern European, contemplative sound in those gigs, he was on fire, blasting out really gutsy solos.

The leader set the standard for the band – Konrad Wiszniewski, Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow all played empassioned sax soles, and Ryan Quigley and Tom McNiven played some blistering trumpet. They were all steaming, pushed along by some really energetic drumming from Alyn Cosker. It was a really impressive set.

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