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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Live and free - two brief musical encounters in one London weekend

Seb Rochford and Polar Bear work up a storm of sound during the 2014 Canary Wharf Jazz Festival, Canada Square gardens, London E14
Polar Bear play the 2014 Canary Wharf Jazz Festival.
Drummer Seb Rochford has his eye on you.
From sweet Cuban sounds in SW4 to a full blast of the hot and icy jazz wastes of Polar Bear in the far east - just another weird London wet and windy august weekend.

Saturday afternoon, and for once am at home in south London. I was restless and needed some food. I thought I'd cycle the scenic route to Asda, i.e. across Clapham Common. As the sun was out I went the long way round, and noticed crowds around the bandstand area.

First thought -  just another corporate sports event. But closer up, I realised there were two unconnected events going on.

First, lots of people in loose skater-style clothing were tying long streamers between trees, then walking along them and doing stunts. A tightrope walkers' convention of some sort….but with music, nice Latino sounds.

Then I saw the band on the recently-renovated bandstand stage, an eight-piece in full flow. Turns out this was a separate concert, the band being Here to Havana, a London-based Afro-Cuban big-band re-working traditional dance music.

They looked good in their black and red gear,  and their sound had enough of that always surprising rhythm to get even my feet and hips moving. A bit. They had a battle on, though. Sudden gusts of wind were blowing the sound away, and the casual audience of young parents and their pushchair-bound kids, the dog walkers and weekend cyclists, joggers and outdoor drinkers, needed some working up.

This they did, very well, and the audience grew from a few chance passers-by to an almost-crowd with some people actually dancing! Tiny children racing around the edge of the bandstand chased by their young dads and a skinny dog which seemed to actually enjoy the music, completed the scene.

In my head I was back in the 80s, when we'd get events like these throughout the summer; in fact, when I first saw them, I thought this was Happy End all over again. The second trombonist, a woman with cropped blonde hair, looked just like Annie Whitehead had back in that strange day, even down to the print top over black leggings.

Yes, this was a powerfully anachronistic event - no signage, no one selling anything, no brighter borough claiming credit for the "Arts in the community"event.  Just sweet music, and friendly and happy crowd.

Today, I was determined to keep riding on this cultural wave. I search for interesting events, find none, and decide instead to head for the Docklands museum in West India Dock, as I had never visited it before and it has an exhibition about bridges.

I go to this area - the Canary Wharf commercial district - as little as possible, as I always think of it as a sort of fake Dallas, a hostile gated community of money-makers dumped on the mass graves of old maritime London.

Arriving today, it seemed more real, or at least more permanent. Odd how quickly these places get rooted in London's wet and sticky soil. Tens of thousands now live and work and shop and eat around here in jobs and supermarkets and bars and homes that did not exist 15 or even 10 years ago.

Above all, it was well populated, and the gigantist architecture seemed a little less show-off flash harry, a bit greened in and a bit stained.

But, it is still an unwelcoming place, despite the best attempts of all the authorities. Not that they don't try. Confused by the maps I walk past the Canada Square skyscrapers and immediately hear the weirdly inappropriate sounds of a 1970s progressive jazz-rock band. It might be Colosseum or the National Health - but no, it's a band called Nostalgia 70 or some such and they are very determined to give an authentic performance. There's a hardy crowd, clad in oilskins and carrier bags as clearly there has just been a downpour.

It all seems so odd, I can hardly believe what am I seeing. But as I walk through this odd crowd of well-dressed people sitting on squares of Canary Wharf plastic on the wet grass, I get a whiff again of that other world - the London of the early 80s, free gigs, and as I pass by by I read a poster. It's the Canary Wharf Jazz Festival, and next up are Polar Bear - a band I got very keen on three or four years ago via drummer Seb Rochford's other band (Acoustic Ladyland) - and then forgot about.

SO I make a hurried tour of the museum, memo myself to make a return visit when i have more time, and rushed back to Canada Square just in time to catch Polar Bear tuning up.

By now there's a real crowd, lots of grizzled jazz fans and  serious young jazzistas mixing with what I imagine are the cooler of the local residents, young couples and young parents, most very smartly turned out.

Polar Bear have not mellowed with age: the wall of sound they create hits the HSBC building and the On Canada Square skyscraper and for a moment I imagine this aggressively anti-establishment music bringing down the walls and trading floors of E14's neo-capitalist temples.

I love the way they veer off on mad and dangerous rhythmic adventures, then they all seem to get back together on a lovely funky freeway to pleasure, but they can never allow this to last - they never  take the easy route. Reminds me of Miles Davis at his most experimental, the era of Get Up With It, Live Evil, etc.

Stunningly crazy playing by all, I adored the two sax players, the bassist, the Apple Mac man. Seb himself is such a sweetie - he seems so shy, mumbling a little between songs, clearly rather embarrassed about the giant code-ups of his face on the three big screens around the square. As a drummer he makes maximum impact with apparently minimal display - not much evidneceof the flailing arms and pumping legs of a Ginger or a Jonh-Paul. Seb's rhythms drive it all, though, and they are always surprising and intriguing.

One piece he said, was as yet untitled but was basically about how we should all love each other.

I love him and his band, and for a short time I almost loved Canary Wharf.

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