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EFG London Jazz Festival 2019 - Day Seven, Thursday 21st November, 2019.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

"Piano Men". The music of leading British jazz pianist / composers as interpreted by the Sam Leak Trio and the exotic and wide ranging sounds of Palestinian pianist and composer Faraj Suleiman.

Photograph of Faraj Suleiman sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website;

EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Seven, Thursday November 21st 2019


Pianist and composer Sam Leak is one of the stalwarts of the British jazz scene as both bandleader and sideman. In addition to leading his current trio featuring bassist Simon Read and drummer Will Glaser Leak has released two albums as the leader of the quartet Aquarium (with James Allsopp on reeds, Calum Gourlay on bass and Joshua Blackmore on drums). Both Aquarium recordings are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.

In 2014 Leak led his own big band in a memorable performance at the Spice Of Life as part of that year’s EFG LJF.  The first set featured arrangements of tunes by composers such as Duke Ellington and Kenny Wheeler while the second featured a suite composed by Leak specifically for the Festival. This was an impressively mature piece of work and an artistic triumph for Leak, but regrettably the music has never been released on disc. My account of that performance, plus a set by the sextet Locus, also featuring Leak, can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;

As a sideman Leak has worked with saxophonists Stan Sulzmann, Martin Speake and the late Ray Warleigh, flautist Gareth Lockrane and vocalist Anita Wardell among others. He has also deputised for James Pearson in the house band at Ronnie Scott’s.

For this free lunchtime performance at the Pizza Leak and his trio performed an extended single set paying homage to notable British jazz pianist/composers. It represented something of an extension or variation to the show that Leak, Reed and drummer Dave Storey played at The Vortex at the 2017 EFG LJF when they supported the international quartet Illegal Crowns (Mary Halvorson on guitar, Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet/cornet, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Benoit Delbecq on piano). The Leak trio performed a short selection of tunes written by the leader’s favourite pianists, among them, on that occasion, Keith Jarrett.

First up today was Leak’s arrangement of the tune “Eight Hours”, written by Danish bassist Jasper Hoiby, leader of the acclaimed trio Phronesis, a group that also features the talents of British pianist Ivo Neame. Leak’s version of the tune is a gentler, slowed down version of the Phronesis original and was also featured at the Vortex performance. Introduced by Glaser at the drums today’s performance also included a double bass solo from the highly capable Simon Read.

Leak’s own composition “The Treasure Chest” was sourced from the Aquarium repertoire and was another piece that had also been featured at the Vortex. An unaccompanied piano intro led to an atmospheric passage featuring Glaser’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers before the music began to gather momentum with an expansive piano solo from the leader and a closing drum feature from Glaser.

An arrangement of the Kit Downes composition “Hampstead Place” was particularly vibrant and included further fluent soloing from the leader and another opportunity for Glaser to demonstrate his skills behind the kit. This was a thrilling performance that really got the audience on side and which represented something of a set highlight.

By way of contrast Gwilym Simcock’s arrangement of the hymn tune “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” was sparse, spacious and simply beautiful, with Read playing the melody on double bass prior to a delightful passage of solo piano from the leader. I remember this closing the set at The Vortex, and here, as there, the audience remained transfixed throughout.

Solo piano also introduced the jazz standard “If I Should Lose You”, which also included conventional jazz soloing from Leak and Read plus a series of brushed drum breaks from Glaser.

To conclude we heard a brace of tunes from the second Aquarium album “Places”, released on Jellymould Records in 2013. The segue began with the ballad “February” which featured another atmospheric intro featuring the gentle rumble of Glaser’s mallets. As the music segued into the title track the drummer then set up a Latin-esque groove that provided the backdrop for Leak’s own soloing and Glaser was then featured himself, his solo played exclusively with bare hands, The trio then switched back into ballad mode with a gently anthemic final passage.

This was a highly enjoyable set from one of the comparatively unsung heroes of the UK jazz scene. With more time available to him Leak appeared relaxed and confident as he and the trio expanded upon the promise of the Vortex performance. The mix of Leak originals and an admirably diverse selection of arrangements of outside material made for an absorbing set that included some excellent playing from all three musicians. A little low key perhaps, but very worthwhile.


I had hoped to catch the six o’clock performance at Foyle’s by Ms. Maurice, the group led by Nerija trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey. However early Thursday evening represented the only chance for us to meet up with Katie, a friend from Brighton who we only get to see once or twice a year, but who attends college in London on Thursdays.

So it was an early evening drink rather than a trip to Foyle’s. It was an enjoyable re-union but I still felt a tinge of regret at missing the opportunity of seeing Maurice-Grey leading her own band.

After an hour or so at the pub we decamped to Kings Place for a performance by the Palestinian born pianist and composer Faraj Suleiman and his quintet

I have to admit that tonight’s concert represented something of a leap in the dark for me. I was aware that Suleiman had played a sold out show at the same venue at last year’s EFG LJF and I’d been impressed by the youtube footage of his playing that I’d sought out, but I’d never actually heard him live or on disc.

Born in 1984 in the village of Ramy in upper Galilee Suleiman is now based in Paris and his current band includes a number of French musicians. Suleiman began playing piano at the age of three and his music draws heavily on his Arabic heritage, drawing on folk forms as well as jazz, rock and even tango. His penchant for Arabic modes and scales ensures that his sound is very different to that of conventional American jazz. For US and Western European ears,  this helps to give his music a mysterious and exotic quality. Suleiman has also composed classical works, from chamber ensembles to full orchestra, and also written music for theatre, poetry and film.

Tonight’s event was organised in conjunction with Marsm (English translation “Easel”), an organisation dedicated to “promoting Arabic alternative and independent music concerts in the UK”. Marsm’s current programme extends until March 2020 and details of forthcoming events can be found at
I’m indebted to Federica of Marsm for providing me with a set list from tonight’s event, which will make reviewing the performance so much easier. Tonight’s performance was also filmed by the London based Al Araby TV, one of the main supporters of Marsm’s autumn programme.

To date Suleiman has released a total of five albums and his next release, “Second Verse”, will feature his voice and lyrics for the first time. There was some singing tonight, but the performance remained predominately instrumental.

Suleiman has clearly acquired a considerable following for his work and Hall One, the larger of the two performance spaces at Kings Place, was again sold out, with many Arabic and French voices heard in the audience.

Suleiman commenced with a solo piano performance of his composition “Eleven and Twelve”, a piece sourced from his 2017 quartet recording “Once Upon a City”. The performance was distinctive for its use of Arabic scales and rhythms and for its bravura melodic flourishes.

The tune “Love City” saw the pianist joined by Come Aguiar on electric bass and Baptiste De Chabaeix at the drums, these two laying down a powerful groove as they underpinned the leader’s piano soloing.

Suleiman continued to add to the ensemble in ‘Talking Heads’ style. A passage of unaccompanied piano presaged the introduction of oud player Habib Hanna who joined Suleiman in the duet that introduced “Beneath The Walnut Tree”, one of the pianist’s most popular tunes and one which appears on both “Once Upon a City” and the 2018 live recording “Toy Box”.

Finally trumpeter Julien Alour joined the ensemble, soloing fluently on flugel on the tune “First Night”, a tune that combined Arabic scales with rock rhythms.

Alour was impressive throughout and also featured strongly “The Trickster Dance” where he shared the solos with Hanna and Suleiman.

The group was reduced to the core trio of Sulaiman, Aguiar and De Chabaeix for “Mountain Street”, which was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano, this followed by the establishment of an E.S.T. style groove as the music gathered momentum, culminating in a series of lively piano and drum exchanges.

Solo piano also introduced “Unsuccessful Lie”, another piece that grew from quiet beginnings to embrace an impressive power, with a returning Alour again shining on flugelhorn.

Alour moved to trumpet for a piece listed on the set list as “Take 5”, but it didn’t sound anything like the famous Dave Brubeck composition of the same name and even included Suleiman’s vocals.

“Issa Jai” included some powerful riffing from the core trio but also incorporated a typically assured flugel solo from Alour plus a drum feature from De Chabaeix.

I suspect that Suleiman wandered a little ‘off piste’ at this point as the rest of the band vacated the stage and the leader gave a solo voice and piano performance of a song that combined French lyrics with a traditional, folk feel. I’m fairly certain that this was “Bad Timing”, a song with lyrics written by Amer Hlehel that appears on the “Toy Box” live album and resurfaces on the forthcoming “Second Verse”. Many of the audience already seemed to know the piece and were encouraged to sing along with the choruses.

The full band reconvened for the final tune of the evening, the fast paced “Naughty Boy”. This was presaged by a passage of solo piano, but quickly took off as Aguiar established a solid electric bass groove which fuelled powerful solos from Alour on trumpet and Hanna on oud, with Aguiar also taking a solo and engaging in a bass / drum stand off with De Chabaeix that introduced an element of humour into the proceedings.

The inevitable encore acted as something of a feature for Hanna who entered into an introductory dialogue with the leader before the music broadened out to incorporate the whole quintet. The piece was also notable for the vigorous exchanges between Suleiman and De Chabaeix as the evening ended on an energetic note.

This performance by the Suleiman quintet was rapturously received by the pianist’s many followers. He’s something of a star in the world of Arabic music, as this sell out show demonstrated. It took me a little while to adjust to the unfamiliar scales and rhythms but I soon found myself enjoying Suleiman’s music, even though the bass and drums sometimes seemed to veer a bit too close to rock for my current tastes. Alour’s playing on trumpet and flugel was genuinely impressive, but although this was billed as “an exclusive quintet performance” we didn’t really hear enough of Hanna and the oud, an instrument that I’ve developed a real fondness for over the course of the last couple of years, thanks to the playing of Anouar Brahem, Stefanos Tsourelis,  Ahmed Mukhtar,Yaz Fentazi and now Hanna.

These minor cavils aside it’s obvious that Suleiman is a huge talent with a broad ranging musical imagination and an impressive technical facility, music just seems to pour out of him. I was impressed enough to treat myself to copies of the “Once Upon A City” and “Toy Box” recordings that both make for interesting and enjoyable listening, as well as acting as excellent souvenirs of tonight’s show. Both are essentially instrumental and feature different line ups. Of tonight’s musicians Hanna appears on the first named and Alour and De Chabaeix on the second. All of tonight’s band feature on the new recording “Second Verse” but I shied away from this due to the presence of vocals, far preferring to hear Suleiman’s talents in an instrumental context.

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