Some Recent Good – But Not Great – Jazz Gigs… London, May 2010.

I’ve been to several jazz gigs in the last month or so that I haven’t done anything with yet. I was going to write about one for LondonJazz, but by the time I got around to it, it didn’t make the cut. None of these gigs set the world on fire: they were good, but…

First up was Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Not Sun Ra himself – he died seven years ago; or, if you believe his mythology, he returned to Saturn; no, this was the Arkestra led by alto player Marshall Allen. They’ve played in London a fair bit over the last year, quickly selling out every gig: I only managed this one because it was part of a special, extended run which I noticed on Twitter: the Arkestra had been due to play a couple of gigs at Café Oto, and been unable to move on because of the volcanic ashcloud. So they played another gig, and then another, and another, hoping to pay their way – stuck in London, they had to eat and pay their hotel bills.

So I saw them on what was, I think, their fifth night at Café Oto in Dalston. I’d not been there before: apparently it has been described as one of the coolest places in London (or possibly Europe – I can’t find the reference!) but that isn’t how it appeared. No stage, a random selection of chairs, it had the air of a village hall. When I got there, most of the chairs had gone – I sat right at the back, on a bench – and people kept arriving. By the time the band came on, an hour later than advertised (perhaps they were still on Saturn-time), it was packed.

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This version of the Arkestra was a septet: a front line of four saxophonists/percussionists, and a trumpet player, drummer and guitarist/bassplayer. I was expecting great things – the Arkestra have a reputation for playing some formidable, funky space-jazz (true, not a crowded genre), but having seen two other superlative bands playing Sun Ra’s music in the last few months – Orphy Robinson’s Spontaneous Cosmic Rawxtra and Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra – the Arkestra seemed a bit flat. Maybe they were tired (I certainly was!), or homesick, or… Whatever, I’d say they were good but lacklustre: I expected more. I enjoyed the gig, particularly the humour they brought – these were serious musicians bringing some fun to the gig. But they weren’t great, whatever everyone else was saying.

The following night I went to see the Stan Tracey Octet. Tracey is one of the grand old men of British jazz: even his website describes him as the “godfather of British jazz”, an apt moniker and one of which he seems justly proud. His current octet features three generations of British players, with a front line featuring survivors from the 1980s jazz revival such as Guy Barker on trumpet and Dave O’Higgins on saxes as well as relative youngster Simon Allen on tenor sax.

Tracey plays in a variety of formats – in the past couple of years I have seen him play solo, in piano duet, in a quartet and leading his glorious big band. His octet fits right in the middle, producing a suitably rich sound for Tracey’s Ellingtonian compositions. These two nights at the Pizza Express – rapidly becoming one of my favourite London venues – saw the launch of Tracey’s latest CD, “The Later Works”, and all the numbers played were from the CD’s two suites. Guy Barker was on great form throughout, playing with verve and energy; Dave O’Higgins also played powerfully, with some great solos on soprano as well as tenor.

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Stan played some lovely, thoughtful solos, too, though he seemed to keep a fairly low profile. His long standing rhythm section of his son Clark on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass kept things swinging along, with a couple of energetic solos from Clark.

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Finally, last week saw guitarist John McLaughlin grace London. I’d not seen McLaughlin – one of electric jazz’s great – play before, so I thought I’d take the opportunity. His quartet featured Mark Mondesir on drums, another survivor of the 1980s jazz revival, and one of my favourite drummer: I hadn’t seen Mondesir play for many years, and he was the main draw. Multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband played (mostly) keyboards, and bassist Etienne Mbappé completed the quartet.

Once more, this gig was something of a disappointment. It was all a bit soulless, something I’d not expected from McLaughlin – much of his music has been rooted in eastern spirituality, though not this quartet. It was technically excellent, and went along at a cracking pace, but I found it very unconvincing.

Husband played some great piano, but he also made some electronic farting noises which added nothing. He sat down at the drum kit to play a couple of drum duets with Mondesir – and added less than nothing. His drumming was good, and the interplay between him and Mondesir was good, but frankly drum solos are boring, and drum duets doubly so. Mondesir is more than capable of holding his own, and Husband’s interventions didn’t add any more rhythmic interest – so why bother hauling an extra drum kit around? It just felt like showing off – good theatre, perhaps, but not great music.

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McLaughlin and Mbappé got a good groove going – Mbappé laying down some funky lines – and Mondesir was great, but all in all I felt the music lacked something.

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