About Me

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

Monday, 28 November 2016

One jazz festival, two buildings, freedom, democracy, love and a stupid blog

Eve Risser (far left at piano) and the White Desert Orchestra blew everyone away with an astonishing 90 minute free set on the final day of LJF 2016
At first this blog was going to be about music on vinyl and cassette, record shops, second-hand bookshops, charity shops and other analogue stuff.  It quickly went off piste and started ranting on about property developers and library closures and all manner of outrages on the sensibility of a disappointed old fool living in a London he no longer understood.  But, by coincidence, the last batch of posts have all been about music in one way or another, and this one will complete that series. It's about the free-est of all free music, jazz music, and the delights of two jazz-filled afternoons, courtesy of the wonderful 2016 London Jazz Festival.

Revelations as Hackney Young Musicians challenge the jazz:classical
music divide at the Festival Hall. Note the thunderous dual drumkit set
up, one of many reminders of the great Sun Ra & his Arkestra
The first of these was at the Festival Hall - yes, back in the Clore Ballroom, scene of last month's National Poetry day events.  You just can't fault the Southbank Centre: yet again on a cold Sunday afternoon a cultural refuge for old vagrants like self, serving up a feast of free, fresh and surprising jazz music for anyone who happened to be around. This was the opening weekend of the festival, and the event was dominated by young musicians.

Over five hours, four big groups took the stage, from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama; the Hackney Music Service/LSO "Classical meets Jazz" project; a band from the Guildhalll School and finally the Trinity Laban Shapeshifter ensemble.

All through the afternoon, a growing audience was treated to a diverse and exciting range of music. Like many others I drifted in and was quickly hooked - in my case, by some truly astonishing collisions of well-known jazz and classical standards from the young Hackney/LSO group. At one point they seem to be playing Gustav Holst and Sun Ra pieces simultaneously: the two pieces of music fused and intertwined and separated out again in a thrilling way.

Equally intriguing to watch the big Guildhall project, (Im)possibilities and their guest-star vibraphone player,  Orphy Robinson. He played as an equal member of this big ensemble, but when his solo slot came round you see the others rapt in admiration, feeding on his brilliance, firing some truly explosive funk off off each other's skills and energies.

The music that seemed to draw people in from the many corners of this massive arts complex was the funky stuff, and of that there was plenty. A good few blessed moments when total sonic chaos suddenly seemed to crystallise out into a broken madly dancing off-beat, linking back to the root of all jazz, all blues, all music.

The finale was a sort of jazz symphony in six movements written by Mark Lockheart. This was complex, subtle music. The players were the Trinity Laban Shapeshifter orchestra, and a clutch of professional stars, including  Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford, but without his trademark afro. That great explosion of wiry hair seemed such a good visual equivalent of his incendiary jazz-punk. But here has was taking a much lower profile, his drumming super-sharp but restrained, tied to the composer's score or the conductor.

Hard and angry jazz in London's greatest  brutalist citadel

Medium cool: Israeli trumpeter Itamar Borochov wins over the whole of the
Barbican crowd with a passionate, note-perfect musical storm
A week later, more free festival jazz,  this time over the river to the 1970s response to the Southbank....that is to say, the Barbican Centre.

The Barbican arts centre is even more astonishing, buried deep within the apparaently fortified City of London  housing estate, with its three gaunt, beautiful concrete towers and its high wall and walkways. Inside it's so beautifully crafted, the wood-block flooring and hammered concrete walls,  fabulous 70s style lighting, the weird vistas and angles and the many levels....it's a magical place with a great space for free performance in the main concourse.

I love the Barbican and everything it stood for, although these days those council flats are occupied by rich city types. One thing for sure - we'll never see anywhere of this quality, and on this scale being built in this way in London, ever again.

Again, the ground-level foyer was the scene for a full Sunday afternoon programme of free jazz. As I arrived, an amazingly sharp Israeli-based band led by trumpeter Itamar Borochov were playing a storming set fusing a sort of hard bop with rich Levantine and Maghrebi flavours.

It was the next and final band that really made me write this piece: a French musician, Eve Risser, and the White Desert Orchestra.  Here was a group of highly talented instrumentalists making music that truly defied labelling. In other words, it was jazz.

That for me is what jazz is or should be. Not background plinking in a posh restaurant, not endless noodlings in a posh concert hall, but engrossing, mind-expanding, body-shifting sounds. For the first five minutes or so of the Paris-based band's performance, I wondered if I would stay (and quite a few were leaving). They were doing that thing where each band member seems to be playing a different piece,  at maximum volume, in a crescendo of discordant noise, racket, jangling the nerves, setting teeth on edge, and then it all changed.

This was music for a the new world, incredibly angry at times, amazingly soft and comforting at others, benignly overpowering. It was a sea or ocean of sound, you could jump in and let it knock you about a bit, then it would calm and you dive through it. You just had to trust it!

And after first piece, an almost shellshocked audience hesitated before bursting into applause, and then Eve Risser herself (who had been in the shadows at her grand piano, stood up and began to explian in beautifully French English what the next piece was about, then cracking up with laughter when the English words failed her.

A few minutes later she was laying into her beautiful shiny Steinway grand like a pile-driver. So much anger, but so wonderfully controlled! At each slam of the piano-lid the crowd jumped or winced; it all made sense in the context of this piece. Memorable!

Then I watched from another angle and saw the sax player pick up this massive baritone sax. It was as big as he was, I swear, and he was not a small bloke. He made this monstrous horn emit great honks of sound, like lead bubbles, which plopped out and hit the first three rows of the audience like Atlantic breakers on a north Devon beach. One  man was flinching at each blast, and then grinning like mad.

This is what jazz should be, is: surprising, astonishing, crazy.  And for me at least, the only way to really enjoy it is to be at a performance, to see the musicians close-up, watch how they interct with their instruments and with each other and with the audience, that is  for me about 80 per cent of it. The best recording on the best hi-fi is just a reminder of this if you're lucky.

But the true music criticism needs to be left to the professionals, the informed, and in this case there is no better place to read deeply intelligent reviews of festival performances than the London Jazz site.

All I can say is thanks to the LJF, wish I'd gone to dozens more of their events, will try to next year if by some miracle I've managed to hang on by my cracked nails to my small perch in this maddening city.

Thanks, thank you so much, thanks Eve Risser, and the amazing White Desert Orchestra, for bringing your strange, violent,
hallucinatory, erotic and poetic music to the UK.

No comments:

Post a Comment