Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Rob Luft

Rob Luft Band, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 08/06/2019.

Photography: Photograph of Joe Wright, Tom McCredie and Rob Luft by Hamish Kirkpatrick of Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

by Ian Mann

June 10, 2019


Luft is a supremely versatile guitarist who has developed a unique playing style of his own that embraces an astonishingly broad range of influences. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen at this venue

Rob Luft Band, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 08/06/2019.

Rob Luft – guitar, voice, Joe Wright – tenor saxophone, Joe Webb – keyboard, Tom McCredie – electric bass, Corrie Dick – drums, percussion

For me this Shrewsbury Jazz Network event was the most keenly anticipated event of the association’s 2019 programme.

In 2017 I gave a very favourable review to Luft’s début album “Riser”, which was released on Edition records and featured all of tonight’s superlative quintet.
Review here

I’ve seen Luft perform before in bands led by other people, but this was my first opportunity to see him leading his own group and it was a performance that I was very much looking forward to. Fortunately the young guitarist and composer and his similarly youthful colleagues didn’t disappoint.

Previously I’ve seen Luft performing with large ensembles such as the Royal Academy of Music Big Band and the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra at the EFG London Jazz Festival. I’ve also watched him provide rich textural backdrops for drummer/composer Phelan Burgoyne’s trio and deliver dazzlingly inventive solos as part of South African harmonica player and pianist Adam Glasser’s band. Former NYJO member Luft is a supremely versatile guitarist who has developed a unique playing style of his own that embraces an astonishingly broad range of influences.

Others with whom Luft has worked include vocalists Elina Duni and Luna Cohen, saxophonists Dave O’Higgins and Phil Meadows, bassist Misha Mullov- Abbado, trumpeter Byron Wallen, cellist Shirley Smart drummer Enzo Zirilli. He is also part of the tango group Deco Ensemble and of the co-operative quartet Big Bad Wolf, whose 2017 début “Pond Life” is reviewed here;

More recently Luft has recorded with the Shropshire based violinist and composer Faith Brackenbury, appearing on the excellent “Knife Angel” EP which is reviewed here.

He has also performed with Snowpoet, the group co-led by vocalist and lyricist Lauren Kinsella and Multi-instrumentalist and composer Chris Hyson.

A genuine rising star of the UK jazz firmament Luft is a regular award winner including the 2016 Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize, which helped to finance the recording of “Riser”. More recently he has been selected as a BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist, following in the footsteps of such musicians as pianist Gwilym Simcock and trumpeter Laura Jurd. The Radio 3 connection proved particularly effective tonight with several audience members attending on the strength of hearing Luft and his band on the In Tune programme earlier in the week!

These were among several new faces in a hearteningly large audience that included a healthy number of younger listeners, a welcome trend. Overall there was a terrific turn out for such a young band, and particularly one focussing solely on original music. Jazz audiences at The Hive are prepared to be adventurous and there was a palpable sense of anticipation about tonight’s event, which was totally justified as Luft and his band hit the ground running to deliver one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at this venue. There have been many memorable performances here over the years, so this represents praise indeed. My enjoyment may have been enhanced by my existing familiarity with the “Riser” material, which still formed the core of the performance, but everybody else seemed to totally ‘get it’ as well, with the entire stock of CDs that the band had brought with them being sold, always a sure sign of a successful performance.

This is a regular working band and their familiarity with each other and with the material was apparent from the off as the quintet hit the ground running with album opener “Night Songs”. There was no sense of the band having to ‘play themselves in’, these guys were ‘right on it’ from the start.  As I indicated previously Luft’s writing embraces a myriad of influences including jazz, rock, minimalism and various types of world music with African and Caribbean influences particularly significant. It’s music that is unashamedly complex but which is also highly rhythmic, vibrant, colourful and accessible. The quintet is a tightly knit ensemble that takes delight in interlocking rhythms and inter-weaving melodic flourishes, the compositions often centred around Luft’s arpeggiated guitar motifs, these variously based on Reich-ian style minimalist phrases or African inspired rhythmic figures. It’s all a long way removed from the conventional head-solos-head format but the listener finds themselves drawn in by the dense ensemble sound while also taking delight in the moments when individual musicians assume the lead, the solos less obviously sign posted than in a more conventional ‘straight-ahead’ setting but solos nevertheless. “Night Songs” featured Webb deploying an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound as he soloed effectively at the keyboard before handing over to the consistently inventive Luft. There were even moments when Dick’s drums seemed to take the lead in a performance that left the audience both dizzied and dazzled. A great start.

It was fascinating to hear some of the inside stories behind the “Riser” repertoire. For instance that “Beware” is dedicated to trumpeter Byron Wallen, one of Luft’s many mentors. Here luminous guitar combined with smoky tenor sax and the rustle of small percussion, the sound filled out by electric bass and the Hammond like swells from Webb’s keyboard. “Night Songs” had featured both Rhodes and Hammond sounds but in the main it was the latter that was to be Webb’s default setting. Solos here came from Wright on tenor, his first of the night, and the ever imaginative Luft on guitar.

“St. Brian 1st” was dedicated to a drummer named Brian, the man described by Luft as “the Art Blakey of dinner jazz”. Introduced by a piano and guitar duet the early stages of this piece offered atmospheric balladry with Dick’s cymbal embellishments adding to the mood of the piece. The introduction of Wright’s tenor and Webb’s switch to a Hammond sound saw the music gather momentum and begin to resemble more closely the recorded version as Luft’s guitar solo saw him stretching out and heading for the stratosphere. Luft takes an almost orchestral approach to the guitar, his impressive picking and ‘hammering on’ techniques being augmented by an impressive array of foot pedals. Yet there’s no sense of excess about Luft’s playing, everything sounds natural and unforced and totally in the service of the music, there’s no suggestion of technique for technique’s sake.

The quintet are set to record their second release for Edition Records and tonight we were lucky enough to hear a couple of pieces scheduled for the new record. “Expect The Unexpected” is the result of a London Jazz Festival commission and was introduced here by Luft’s unaccompanied guitar, its composer using those pedals to loop and layer his sound. The addition of sax and bass plus Dick wielding maracas augmented the sound as the leader’s wordless vocals added to the ethereal atmosphere – Luft also sings with Big Bad Wolf. In a typically multi-faceted Luft composition the band then meshed together in trademark fashion to ramp up the energy levels once more, with the leader again cutting loose on guitar.

A lengthy first set concluded with an arrangement of the tune “Berlin”, written by the Danish bassist and composer Anders Christensen and brought to the band by drummer Corrie Dick. Christensen’s piece is a homage to the techno music of Berlin and proved to be a dynamic set closer as powerful motorik style drum and bass grooves fuelled powerful solos from Webb and Luft, the keyboard player combining Rhodes and Hammond sounds while Luft turned up the wattage for a blistering solo that embraced rock dynamics and techniques. It’s perhaps not so surprising that the twenty five year old sports a Sonic Youth T shirt on the “Riser” album cover.

The second set was slightly shorter but no less intense with the quintet maintaining the extraordinarily high standard of music making throughout.  The infectious opener, “Shorty”, grew out of a jam between Luft, McCredie and Dick and was credited to all three musicians. “It’s called that because it took us such a short length of time to write it” joked Luft. Interestingly the quintet was developed from the core trio of Luft, McCredie and Dick, with Webb, who studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama being the latest addition to the band.

“Riser” was based on the music of Zimbabwe and the guitar sounds that Luft had heard emanating from that country, these in turn based on the melodies and rhythms of the mbira, or African thumb piano. “It’s an abstraction upon an abstraction” mused the composer. It’s also a stunning piece of music with Luft basing his arpeggiated guitar patterns on the figures of the mbira. As Wright played the melody on tenor and Dick added small percussion Luft and Webb hand-clapped the African rhythms. Solos here came from McCredie with a rare outing on electric bass, followed by Wright on tenor sax and finally Luft on guitar, his ‘hammering on’ technique drawing both on African music and the influence of the American guitarist Stanley Jordan. This may have been McCredie’s only solo of the night but his agile and adaptable electric bass was an essential component of the overall band sound. A technically adroit and supremely flexible musician he is probably best known for his role in pianist Elliot Galvin’s trio.

Luft has described his range of influences as ‘manifold’ and it was surprising to hear that the late, great improvising guitarist Derek Bailey was among them. “Dust Settles” was dedicated to his memory with Luft deliberately giving the piece a disarmingly simple melody that was distinctly at odds with Bailey’s own, more avant garde, methods. Luft felt that Bailey would have enjoyed the contradiction and this atmospheric piece with its floating melody actually sounded more akin to the American guitarist Bill Frisell, especially when Luft made effective use of a finger slide during his solo.

A second new piece, “Synesthesia”, was co-written with the Turin born, London based drummer Enzo Zirilli, leader of the Zirobop quartet with which Luft plays. Rhythmically this was a particularly complex and demanding piece, one that tested McCredie and Dick and saw them pass with flying colours. Playing on the Hive’s resident kit Dick was hugely impressive throughout. One assumes that he’d brought along the many items of small percussion (maracas, shakers etc), stored in a basket by the side of the kit, himself. I’ve seen Dick perform on numerous occasions with others (Adam Glasser, Adam Waldmann, Dinosaur, Blue Eyed Hawk, Glasshopper) and tonight offered further evidence that he is among the brightest and most imaginative of UK drummers.
After a gentle introduction this jointly composed piece quickly became more knotty and complex as the energy levels were ramped up with intertwining sax and guitar melody lines and interlocking rhythms before Webb on electric piano and Luft on guitar finally broke loose to deliver fluent and powerful solos. 

The evening concluded with the final track from “Riser”, the appropriately titled “We Are All Slowly Leaving”. This proved to be Wright’s dedication to the great Armenian-American drummer, composer and bandleader Paul Motian (1931-2011). Introduced by the sound of Luft’s unaccompanied guitar and with the composer making judicious use of live looping techniques to create a layer of lush textures, these enhanced by Dick’s atmospheric cymbal embellishments, the piece eventually took on a greater intensity with the addition of sax, bass and keyboards. Driven by powerful riffs and grooves and with Luft continuing to make excellent use of his array of effects this was music that sounded bigger than the work of a mere five people and was truly epic in its scope.

It evoked one of the most vociferous reactions that I’ve seen at The Hive, with several audience members getting to their feet to applaud the band. The quality of the performance more than justified SJN’s decision to book the quintet, an arrangement entered into more than twelve months ago.

There was no to be no encore, although one was richly deserved, mainly because the band had to drive back to London that same evening. However having heard the majority of the “Riser” album along with a couple of ‘tasters’ for the next planned release nobody felt in any way short changed or hard done by.

Luft and his colleagues are brilliant musicians and genuinely nice, humble people. My thanks to Rob for speaking with me after the show, and also to Faith Brackenbury who was seated in the audience. It was good to meet with her for the first time too.

As we left the five members of the Rob Luft Band were squeezing into a single car along with what equipment they had brought with them. The fact that they had played using a lot of hired gear (drum kit, amps) only served to make their performance all the more remarkable.

My only cavil was that we didn’t hear enough of Wright as a soloist, his role was essentially as Luft’s foil, doubling up on melodies and providing colour, nuance and texture. Webb was given more freedom and responded with a number of blistering solos on both Rhodes and Hammond, particularly on the latter. It was the first time that I’d seen him play and I was very impressed.
McCredie and the always creative Dick were excellent throughout.

This generation of British jazz musicians are as creative as anything coming out of New York at the present time and Luft’s star can only continue to rise, especially with the Radio 3 New Generations appointment which will greatly enhance his profile. But at the end of the day jazz is a music where reputations are built by word of mouth. If Rob Luft keeps playing shows like this jazz stardom surely awaits. The appearance of that second album will be very keenly anticipated.

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