Great expectations: London Jazz Festival 2013

Last night on Twitter I summed up my reactions to this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival in a few words:

The huge smile that is Troyk-estra / the power of Phronesis / the majesty of Brad Mehldau / the fun of Sons of Kemet

Many more images and sounds come flooding back:  the awkward stance of Brad Mehldau,  seated with his back to the entire audience, right hand on Steinway , left arm reaching up across his body to an ancient and very deep synth; or maybe he was Prospero conjuring magic from his battery of keyboards, so many fizzing, spacey layers of sound to keep track of yet he kept everything in order, each composition a perfect journey in one direction or another;  his lopsided expression as he took his bow (was he pleased?);  the smell of real smoke at the start of the Sons of Kemet set; the energy of Anton Eger on drums,  his head bucking like a prize stallion tugging at the reins;  bright lights raking the audience in Sons of Kemet, making us feel part of the act;  Kit Downes striking the keyboard so quickly he could just as easily have been receiving electric shocks from the keys;  Jasper Høiby embarrassing latecomers to the set, not once but twice, his ironic comment that the live recording was “No big deal” (when their mesmerising urgent sets indicated that they were playing for the highest stakes); the sparkling fingerwork by Alexi Tuomarila on a humble upright piano at Ray’s Jazz; catching the end of a set by a stellar quintet of Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Chris Lawrence, Stan Sulzmann and Jim Hart in the Clore Ballroom; hearing David Redfern tell us that jazz photographers are born not made; learning that just one picture can sum up an artist – not the obvious image but the one that is most honest because it was unposed (Oscar Peterson with his head in one hand, maybe anxiety before a performance or pain, or both?).

My thoughts shift like the particles in a kaleidoscope.  Sometimes I felt alienated by a performance that others were enjoying – Nik Bärtsch is a case where I felt manipulated by the lighting, the staginess of it, the performance felt controlled and controlling.  I respond to honesty in a performance and this one felt contrived.  Twist the kaleidoscope and in my mind’s eye and my heart I feel the wonder and wistfulness of Chaplin by Troyk-estra, the joy of  Chris Montague’s Dropsy where the brass filled the hall with palpable warmth, where people smiled at the sound, where we felt happy to be there.

While I enjoyed it, other people appeared to be disconnected from Brad Mehldau’s performance, I gather some people actually walked out. The video below is by Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana from an earlier Mehliana but I want to capture it here as it is typical of the evening.  He may even have played this composition.  But it is also indicative of how he divided his audience into those who had hoped for a little more Steinway and fewer loops.  Was his back to the audience an indicator of arrogance or a statement that we really did not need to see his hands or face to absorb the sound.  I would like to think it was the latter.  Overall, my festival was one of great expectations that were fulfilled by deep honest performances by artists of integrity.  That is why I love jazz.

Mary James

Impressions: The Necks: 3 November 2013 – Birmingham Town Hall

The series was called Risk.  Enticing.  So I took a risk and didn’t do my ‘homework’, I didn’t listen to anything by The Necks before their gig at Birmingham Town Hall.   The organisers had taken a risk and turned the almost overwhelmingly cavernous Town Hall into a cosy venue – we sat on all sides of the band, on the same level. No lofty stage. We sat so close I could almost gently nudge a sliding cymbal back into place.  They captivate by their stillness, slight figures in black, only the occasional gentle glance at the audience by the drummer indicated they knew we were there.  Everything about them is spare, taut and precise.  Painters with a blank canvas, surgeons ready for an operation but unsure what they might find after the first incision.  In profile the pianist Chris Abrahams reminded me of an intaglio, an engraved gem of precious stone, frozen in time.  Only his fingers moved, gently, so gently the keys seem to depress themselves by thought not action. Could a piano be played so quietly?

Did the drummer touch his drums at all?   Instead we heard tiny sounds and scrapes, a cymbal ticked and tapped delicately for what seemed like hours. The bass player toying with the idea of using his bow, putting it away thoughtfully and returning to his few insistent notes.  After just a few minutes I realised I was not hearing anything that reached back to the European tradition I was familiar with. This was Australian impressionism, its own tradition, unapologetic and unique.  In my mind’s eye I sensed huge empty spaces, felt scorched by heat, strained after trains clanging in the very far distance (leaving without me, oh, nightmare), was suffocated in a dust storm, dodged hissing rattle snakes, gasped for air as they built up the emotion so intensely I wanted to cover my ears, to block the waves that crowded my brain. How would they end, how could they end?    How did they take us from minimal notes to this vast canvas?

Then it slowed, some imperceptible sign, and just the drummer was left.  They became human, arms moved from instruments, they straightened up,  eyes refocused and the spell was broken. But we dared not applaud, not yet, not for a very long beat. It seemed almost wrong to break the silence.  And we went into the night bewitched, shaking our heads at the distance we had travelled.

The Necks
Chris Abrahams, piano
 Tony Buck, drums
Lloyd Swanton, bass

Mary James, 4 November 2013