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EFG London Jazz Festival, Thursday November 16th 2017.

Friday, December 01, 2017

EFG London Jazz Festival, Thursday November 16th 2017.

Ian Mann on a long but satisfying day of jazz including performances by Ranjana Ghatek & Liran Donin, Sarah Tandy, Kate Williams, Steve Williamson, Sam Leak and Illegal Crowns.

Photograph of Taylor Ho Bynum of Illegal Crowns by Tim Dickeson


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, THURSDAY NOVEMBER 16th 2017

RANJANA GHATAK /LIRAN DONIN / JACK ROSS, WIGMORE HALL

This early morning concert began twelve hours of music on what, for me, was the longest day of the Festival. Billed as “Jazz Around the World” this performance was actually a schools concert with the audience mainly comprised of Key Stage 3 students from local schools. Curious jazz fans such as myself were admitted free of charge.

I’ve attended similar events before at EFG LJF and there’s always some good music played by musicians who I’m normally used to seeing in very different contexts. In previous years I’ve enjoyed similar educational performances given by the percussionist and vocalist Adriano Adewale.

I was also keen to visit Wigmore Hall, a famous classical music venue but one that I’d never previously visited. Built in 1901 by the Bechstein piano company to showcase their products the Hall is a splendidly elegant Edwardian building with superb acoustics. Initially used for classical music performances only it has hosted jazz events in more recent years with the Justin Kauflin Trio set to play the venue later in the day as part of EFG LJF. Carla Bley has previously played a sell out Festival show at this magnificent and impressive venue.

This morning’s show featured music by vocalist Ranjana Ghatek, who has previously worked with drummer Sebastian Rochford, and bassist Liran Donin, best known as a member of the band Led Bib and for his work with clarinettist Arun Ghosh. These two were joined by composer, educator and guitarist Jack Ross who hosted the show and made occasional musical contributions.

Born in London of Indian descent Ghatak is a pianist and vocalist with a thorough grounding in Indian classical music as well as Western forms, including jazz. Donin, originally from Israel, studied jazz at Middlesex University where he met the other members of Led Bib.

The first piece of music was drawn from Ghatak’s classical Indian background and featured her on voice and shaker as Donin utilised the body of his bass as auxiliary percussion. This opening exercise in rhythm was followed by an exploration of the concept of the drone, an important concept and factor in Indian music. Surprisingly it was a song by a Western composer that was chosen to illustrate the precept with Ghatak singing and playing harmonium as she delivered the English lyrics of David Byrne’s “Glass, Concrete and Stone”.

Returning to the concept of rhythm Ross led the children in clapping exercises involving different beats, rhythms and time signatures as Ghatak and Donin supplied the necessary melodic content on a performance of a dance tune from the North Indian classical tradition, originally written for the tabla.

Ghatak then introduced a song from her Bengali heritage with a “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” theme with Ross on acoustic guitar and Donin on bass, shaker and backing vocal.

The concert concluded with the performance of a Hindi raga of the type normally sung at the end of an Indian classical music concert, the vocal refrain, which the students were encouraged to sing along with, translating as “following the path of light, following the path of love”.

Although not quite living up to its “Jazz Around The World” tag thanks to the almost universal focus on Indian music this was still an enjoyable performance for the adults watching with a detached eye from the back of the hall. The children seemed to enjoy it too, the majority wilfully participating thanks to Ross’ enthusiastic, easy going presenting style.

Ghatak and Donin both performed well, as one would expect. I was previously familiar with Donin’s work but this was the first time that I had heard Ghatak and I’d be more than happy to see her again in a more conventional performance situation.

The combination of the music and the sumptuousness of the surroundings made this an event well worth getting into town early for.

SARAH TANDY TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

There’s currently something of a buzz on the London jazz scene about the young pianist and composer Sarah Tandy. Currently best known as the pianist with alto saxophonist Camilla George’s quartet Tandy is also the leader of her own trio featuring bassist Daniel Casimir and sharp suited Italian drummer Alfonso Vitale.

Today’s show at the Pizza represented a late change to the programme with Tandy’s trio replacing the advertised show by tap dancer and vocalist Michela Marino Lerman. Tandy’s brand of contemporary piano jazz was far more to my liking so even though we hadn’t booked, as we weren’t sure how long the schools concert would run for, we turned up ‘on spec’ and managed to secure a table at the front with a great view of the trio.

I’d seen Tandy perform before with the George quartet at a gig at Kenilworth Jazz Club in Warwickshire and also the night before at the Electric Ballroom in Camden when drummer Jake Long’s band Maisha supported Christian Scott. On both those occasions Tandy had played an electric keyboard and it was only today when she played the Pizza’s magnificent Steinway grand that I finally got to appreciate the enormity of her talent as a pianist.

Although today’s set list was mainly comprised of items from the standards repertoire Tandy’s approach to her chosen material was consistently bright, adventurous and inventive, something that immediately became apparent as her hands swarmed all over the keyboard during her vivacious solo on the opening number, an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo”.

The Tandy contrafact “It’s Not Right With Me” was based on the chords of a well known jazz standard with a vaguely similar title with the pianist’s mercurial right hand runs complemented by her sturdily rhythmic left hand comping. This piece also included features for rising star bassist Casimir and drummer Vitale, both of whom provided excellent support throughout.

Next came “Temperance”, a tune written by one time Miles Davis pianist Wynton Kelly. “It’s an ironic title really” mused Tandy, “considering he died of alcoholic poisoning”. Swinging and bluesy Kelly’s gospel tinged tune proved to be an excellent vehicle for Tandy who delivered a barnstorming solo. She was followed by the highly dexterous Casimir while Vitale enjoyed a series of drum breaks in a set of vigorous exchanges with the pianist.

Tandy’s own “Kaleidoscope”, which she admitted to basing on the theme of the “Fireman Sam” children’s TV series, saw the trio adopting a cooler, more melodic approach. In a truly kaleidoscopic performance the piece opened with a passage of solo piano from Tandy followed by a melodic bass solo from Casimir and a more conventional jazz piano solo from Tandy. Vitale delivered a neatly constructed drum feature before a gentler, more subdued group finale.

“Everything Happens To Me” was performed as a true ballad, again commencing with a passage of unaccompanied piano with Tandy subsequently joined by sympathetic and responsive double bass and delicately brushed drums. This was a beautifully mature and lyrical performance that showcased the subtlety of the trio.

An excellent set concluded with the trio stretching out imaginatively on Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” with an expansive solo from Tandy and a final drum feature from Vitale.

This was a hugely enjoyable performance that was again enthusiastically received by another large audience at the Pizza. Tandy’s adventurous approach to the piano and to her chosen material sometimes reminded me of Zoe Rahman who had given a solo piano performance at the Pizza earlier in the week. Like Rahman Tandy trained as a classical pianist before turning to jazz and both musicians have technique to burn, plus the imagination to channel it into something really exciting. It may well be the case that Tandy has studied with the more established pianist.

I’d like to hear more original material from Tandy, and also a full length album under her own name at some point in the future.

In the meantime this performance was an excellent event in its own right and helped to maintain the high standard of the lunchtime performances at the Pizza in a series that goes from strength to strength.

Later that evening Tandy was due to perform with the Camilla George Quartet supporting Dee Dee Bridgewater at Cadogan Hall. Good reports subsequently reached me about this performance, and Tandy’s contribution in particular.

KATE WILLIAMS ; FOUR PLUS THREE, THE FOYER, CADOGAN HALL

As the Sarah Tandy gig finished relatively early we headed across town hoping to catch something of a performance in Cadogan Hall’s “Round About Two-Thirty Series”. These free events take place in the foyer during the Festival period and feature some of the leading names in British jazz.

Today it was the turn of pianist and composer Kate Williams, an established and popular figure on the London jazz scene who presented a performance featuring her regular trio of bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer David Ingamells plus the Anglo-Italian Guastalla String Quartet comprised of John Garner and Julian Fish on violins, Miguel Rodriguez on viola and Sergio Serra on cello.

Williams also leads her own jazz quartet and septet as well as being a prolific sidewoman. She also has a number of recordings as a leader to her credit including the 2016 release “Four Plus Three” featuring this project. The seven piece ensemble has also toured the UK with financial support from the Arts Council.

Four Plus Three’s repertoire includes arrangements of pieces by Cole Porter, Bill Evans and A.C. Jobim alongside Williams’ original compositions.

We arrived towards the end of the first set to find the foyer space at Cadogan packed out and with no seating available – other than the floor, of course. The core trio were playing the standard “How Deep Is The Ocean?” and were then joined by the string quartet for Williams’ own “Big Shoes” which closed the first half and featured violinists Garner and Fish in prominent roles.

CD sales during the interval were brisk with the personable Williams happily chatting to fans. The audience had evidently enjoyed the first set and stayed on in their numbers for the second which commenced with Williams’ own “Seven Across” played by the core trio.

The strings played an essentially textural role on the lyrical and evocative original “Twilight’s Last Blink” which featured Chaplin both with and without the bow plus a sensitive brushed drum performance from Ingamells.

An imaginative Williams arrangement of Jobim’s “Triste” featured the sound of bows striking strings as lead violinist Garner played the melody, eventually handing over to Williams for a piano solo.

The ballad “You Know I Care”, written by Duke Pearson, featured some of Williams’ most lyrical playing with the melancholy sound of Serra’s cello also prominent in the arrangement.

“Walkin’ Up”, one of Bill Evans’ liveliest pieces, featured a briskly brushed drum intro and jaunty pizzicato strings.

The set closed with Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing” which Williams dedicated to the memory of the late saxophonist Bobby Wellins, a musician with whom Williams had played and recorded.

The majority of the audience seemed to enjoy this set very much but after the exuberance of Tandy’s performance it all felt a little bit too polite to me, with the string quartet sometimes feeling like a bit of an ‘add on’.

Admittedly arriving late may not have helped, standing for the performance in a very hot space wasn’t particularly comfortable and I found it difficult to engage and immerse myself fully in the music. However I wasn’t the only member of the audience to regard the performance as being a little bloodless as subsequent conversations revealed.

Despite my personal misgivings this was a successful performance for Williams and the ensemble with the septet getting an excellent reception from the audience and with post gig CD sales again correspondingly busy.

STEVE WILLIAMSON TRIO, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

Tonight’s early evening performance at Foyle’s was a late addition to the programme and featured a very welcome appearance from British sax legend Steve Williamson.

Emerging as a member of Jazz Warriors in the British jazz boom of the 1980s Williamson also played with Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath, Louis Moholo’s Viva La Black and the reggae outfit Misty In Roots.

Signing to Verve he released a series of solo albums in the early 1990s, these featuring high profile guests such as vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson, before fading off the scene.

He returned to active jazz service in 2014 and I recently witnessed him guesting with fellow saxophonist Denys Baptiste ‘s Late Trane project at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

It’s good to have Williamson back and the prospect of seeing him leading his own trio at Foyle’s was too good to miss. Originally best known as an alto saxophonist Williamson has now become something of a tenor specialist, thanks in no small part to the enduring influence of John Coltrane.

This free-wheeling set in the classic saxophone trio format saw Williamson joined by drummer Eddie Hick, once of Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble, and the young bassist Hamish Nockalls-Moore. These two proved to be excellent foils for Williamson, with Hick’s crisp, powerful drumming and Nockalls-Moore’s muscular bass lines fuelling the saxophonist’s improvisatory flights of fancy on tenor in an energetic group performance.

Coltrane may be Williamson’s main source of inspiration but the free-wheeling take on Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” that opened the set was also reminiscent of the classic saxophone trios of the great Sonny Rollins. Nockalls-Moore, who impressed throughout with his stamina and propulsiveness also featured as a soloist.

The next piece, an unannounced ballad, cooled things down a little with Williamson adopting a softer tone on tenor and Hick switching to brushes while Nockalls-Moore sung along Jarrett style to his bass solo.

An unaccompanied tenor sax cadenza introduced “Hummingbird”, a Williamson composition dating back to 1988. Like the other Festival events at Foyle’s this concert was performed ‘in the round’ and Williamson ensured that he ‘worked the room’ as he soloed, ensuring that everybody in the audience got a good look at his playing. His performance was powerful and was backed by a similarly muscular groove that veered close to funk. Williamson took a well deserved swig of water as Hick rounded off the piece with a dynamic drum feature.

“This is a language that took me thirty years to learn” said Williamson as he name checked some of his bebop heroes. Elsewhere his between song chatter was positively surreal, streams of consciousness ramblings about cycling to the venue with his tenor and soprano dangling around his neck and complaining about the price of reeds in nearby Denmark Street.

The last piece saw him switching between tenor and soprano on a final free-wheeling excursion with solos stuffed full of quotes as the tireless Hick and Nockalls-Moore continued to offer unstinting support.

Five tunes might not sound like much but this was a gig that lasted nearly an hour and a half as Williamson stretched out boldly, imaginatively and joyously on his chosen material in the company of his young, indefatigable sidemen. This was a performance notable for its energy and inventiveness with Williamson’s newly rekindled love of jazz shining through.

SAM LEAK TRIO / ILLEGAL CROWNS, THE VORTEX

My second visit of the week to The Vortex was prompted by the prospect of seeing Illegal Crowns, an avant garde ‘supergroup’  featuring the talents of New York based musicians Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and flugelhorn, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara at the drums. They were joined by the French pianist Benoit Delbecq, a musician the New Yorkers had long admired.

The group’s début album was recorded in 2014 in France with the band name coming from the Halvorson composition “Illegal Crown”. All four musicians brought compositions to the table and the Illegal Crowns sound sits nicely on the cusp between composition and improvisation. Indeed this band places a greater emphasis on the writing than some of its individual members’ projects elsewhere. The group are currently in the process of recording a second album and most of tonight’s material was sourced from the forthcoming record, but more on that later.

SAM LEAK TRIO

Filling what was essentially the ‘support slot’ was a trio led by the British pianist and composer Sam Leak, a prolific figure on the London jazz scene. Leak was joined by bassist Simon Reed and drummer Dave Storey in a set that mixed Leak originals with compositions by other pianists that the leader admires.

They commenced with “A Dance Took Place” written by Leak’s contemporary, the British pianist Kit Downes. The tune served notice of the trio’s skills with solos from the leader and the first of several impressive excursions on the bass from Reed.

This was followed by Keith Jarrett’s ballad “Love No. 1” from the pianist’s “Life Between The Exit Signs” album, the lyrical, melodic composition facilitating similarly inclined solos from Leak and Reed as Storey supplied sensitively brushed drum accompaniment.

“This is one of mine” said Leak as he announced his own composition “Scribbles and Scrawls” which included a freely structured group intro, a right hand only piano solo from Leak and a carefully constructed drum feature from Storey in which he concentrated on his role as a colourist.
The piece resolved itself with a closing passage of unaccompanied piano from Leak.

The trio’s version of the Phronesis tune “Eight Hours” concentrated on the lyrical side of the composition but rather lacked the snap and crackle of the original.

Leak’s own “Treasure Chest”, a tune originally written for his Aquarium quartet was rather more successful with fluent solos from the composer on piano and Reed on double bass.

“I’m an atheist agnostic” declared Leak “ But I’m going to end with a hymn because it’s such a great tune”. This proved to be an arrangement of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, which was addressed by the trio with due reverence with a solo piano introduction from the leader before Reed picked out the melody on the bass. This was followed by a lyrical piano solo from Leak with Storey providing delightful filigree cymbal accompaniment. This was a delightful way to end the set with the Vortex falling silent as Leak and his colleagues proved that the devil doesn’t necessarily have all the best tunes.

This was a pleasant, if rather inconsequential, set with Leak’s own tunes the most convincing items, apart from the inspired choice of the hymn at the end.

ILLEGAL CROWNS

Welcomed to the stage by Oliver Weindling of the Vortex Illegal Crowns commenced their performance with Delbecq’s composition “Two Blue Circles”. From the outset it was apparent just how finely attuned this group was with even the smallest of musical gestures being thrown into sharp relief in a performance that was all about intense listening and finely calibrated group interaction. The group’s compositions act as skeletal but sturdy frameworks on which the quartet hangs their improvisations and there was sufficient structure for listeners to engage with. This was a surprisingly lyrical, and often beautiful performance that was far removed from a typical free jazz gig.

However I don’t want to give the impression that Illegal Crowns’ performance was bloodless as it was far from it with plenty of improvisational grit and gristle being thrown into the mix. The four members of Illegal Crowns have highly distinctive individual instrumental voices and there plenty of stand out moments from all of them, but more importantly they were totally convincing as a BAND.

Delbecq’s opener contained some striking individual moments with Ho Bynum muting the sound of his cornet with a felt hat as he produced vocalised slurs and smears. Fujiwara borrowed an empty beer bottle from a table near the stage, deploying it as an auxiliary percussion device before returning it to its owner with a flourish.

The drummer’s own “The Wonder Puppet” saw the quartet initially adopting a more conventional jazz sound with Ho Bynum now blowing through the open bell. Halvorson’s guitar solo deployed the inventive use of electronics including live looping techniques. Ho Bynum then soloed on cornet, playing first with a mute and then switching to the open horn, his sound now packing a real punch, his attack buoyed by the almost danceable rhythms of Fujiwara. After a final vocalised, avant garde flourish from Ho Bynum the piece resolved itself with a passage of unaccompanied piano from Delbecq.

Acting as group spokesman Ho Bynum announced the new Halvorson composition “Blood And Sand”, a surprisingly gentle and melodic piece that featured Ho Bynum on both muted cornet and flugel horn.

“Rushes” then featured an engaging opening dialogue between Delbecq and the consistently inventive and distinctive Fujiwara before Ho Bynum delivered a stunning, heavily vocalised cornet solo that saw him coming across like a 21st century Bubber Miley.

Announcing his own “Extemporisations” Ho Bynum informed the audience “ the sharp eared amongst you might detect elements of themes by Ellington and Messiaen”. As one would expect these proved rather difficult to trace but one could still enjoy the absorbing dialogues between Halvorson and Delbecq and Ho Bynum and Fujiwara with the latter also impressing with a highly inventive solo drum feature.

Hlavorson’s “The Niece Knows” was also notable for the interplay between her guitar and Delbecq’s piano on a gentle concluding piece that also featured the whispering of Ho Bynum’s muted cornet and the sensitive brushwork of Fujiwara.

The deserved encore was Halvorson’s “Illegal Crown”, the composition that gave its name to the group. Described by Ho Bynum as “very angular” this proved to be a slow burner of a piece that included a solo from Ho Bynum on open horn cornet and another remarkable dialogue between Halvorson’s distinctive guitar and Delbecq’s piano.

I was hugely impressed with Illegal Crowns’ performance. For me their music achieved a perfect balance between composition and improvisation and was thoroughly absorbing throughout. The group’s début album achieves a similar synthesis and is thoroughly recommended. Only the title track was played tonight and on the evidence of the new material we heard tonight the group’s second album is going to be well worth waiting for.

Of the individual members Ho Bynum was the only one whose playing I was really familiar with thanks to his work with the Trans-Atlantic group Convergence Quartet featuring him with British musicians Alexander Hawkins (piano) and Dominic Lash (double bass) plus Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstadt. Convergence Quartet achieve a similar balance between the written and the improvised and their recorded output is also highly recommended. I’ve heard Halvorson on album and on the radio too, but not to the same extent.

“ Art music with enough mainstream signifiers to satisfy any culturally aware audience” wrote Tim Owen when reviewing Convergence Quartet for The Jazzmann at this same venue back in 2009. It’s a quote that thoroughly applies to Illegal Crowns too.

It almost seems invidious to single out individual musicians in such a complete group performance but Ho Bynum’s playing really stood out and was frequently quite astonishing.
I don’t think I’ve seen such a display of technique from a trumpeter since the great Peter Evans visited the Vortex with Mostly Other People Do The Killing back in 2011 (for the sake of argument let’s assume the cornet and the trumpet are essentially the same instrument, OK?).

Illegal Crowns were hugely impressive as an ensemble but Ho Bynum’s contribution represented one of the most outstanding individual performances of the entire Festival.


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