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

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