The 30th EFG London Jazz Festival returned to its pre-lockdown pomp with over 300 gigs. Venues so far have ranged from the capital’s network of concert halls to the Woolwich fireworks factory in the far south-east of the city. Opening night gala Jazz Voice presented its eclectic mix of singers to an enthusiastic packed house at the Royal Festival Hall in Southbank. Jazz, represented by the technically astute Kurt Elling and Ian Shaw, was on board; the same was true for soul, blues and love rock. The exuberant indie set design of singer Shingai has found its equal in the presence of Marisha Wallace on Broadway.
Previous Jazz Voice galas have based their selection of vocal stylists on themed selections from the American songbook. This year, conductor/arranger Guy Barker’s Festival Orchestra played to the strength of each singer and delivered blues shuffles and instant soulful rimshots alongside powerful big band brass and smoothing string glides.
Each singer received two songs, one for each set. Ian Shaw opened the evening with the songbook classic ‘Small Day Tomorrow’, written by Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman. Shaw dove from low to high and the orchestra was punchy and rocking. Soul came next, with compelling big band rhythm and blues and Dana Masters soaring sensually on “Satisfied.” Later, the reggae beat of “Perfidia” lost its bounce but, elsewhere, supple orchestral dynamics and powerful rhythms in a range of gripped styles.
Both Elling and Shingai delivered strengths of vocal power, technical excellence and narrative control – Shingai with the climactic slow-burn “Coming Home” and Elling with a flawless version of his Carla Bley collaboration, “Endless Lawns.” “. It ended with a weird spine-tingling falsetto fade.
The finale was “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the musical dream girls. Marisha Wallace delivered it with soulful, operatic power that lifted the house. The ovation was immediate, and the encore of “Think” by Aretha Franklin introduced each singer in turn. Not a note seemed out of place. ★★★★☆
Saturday’s Barbican concert, billed as Chicago x London, promised an evening of one-off collaborations, bringing together the musical and spiritual ties of the two cities’ jazz scenes. What we actually got was two solid groups from Chicago before the break and two unique sets with a British base after.
The evening started out pretty well with a technically slick and effects-laden solo performance from guitarist Jeff Parker. Lead lines shimmered, his sampled bass lines added depth, and vibrant guitar harmonies filled the room with mystery and suspense. Parker’s guitar sound blended jazz mastery with a touch of country, the original material was well put together, and there was an acerbic reading of the “My Ideal” standard.
A quartet came next, led by multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay, based on his album Open your arms to open us. Loaded with sharp rhythms, folk melodies, whistles, flutes and bells, the group is firmly in the Chicago avant-garde. Matt Davis’ sousaphone foghorn blasts and Gay’s spiky trumpet blasts provided power while muted trumpet scribbles created passages of calm. One episode of bell trickery by three band members was pure magic.
Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Angel Bat Dawid provided continuity from left field after the break. She orchestrated her special event quartet playing the Sun Ra-style keyboard, burst into a punk-energy song, and was adept on both clarinet and soprano sax. Theon Cross slammed tuba riffs, alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi delivered sonic abstraction and powerful rhythms ranging from a dirge to upbeat funk and waltz.
An exaggerated set by poet/saxophonist Alabaster DePlume concluded the evening. Harmonized group vocals in the falsetto range, two drummers and a talented line-up promised a lot. But it was DePlume’s banal speech, weakly vibrato-charged saxophone and shrill expletives that dominated. No time for a jam, and at over three hours the event was already too long.
Earlier in the evening, a tribute to the late trumpeter Jaimie Branch played on the hall’s video screen. Branch died in August and was due to appear on tonight’s bill. It showed her working music with local musicians and playing with fire alongside cellist Tomeka Reid. It was a reminder of what the event promised, but turned out not to be. ★★★☆☆
British saxophonist Xhosa Cole’s Sunday gig at Cafe Oto was based on his recent Stoney Lane release Ibeji. The album features Cole in a series of duets with seven percussionists and adds his collaborators’ reflections on the roots of rhythm, the African diaspora and more. Here, the voices have been doctored and rhythmically chopped up and the duets replaced by a single quartet. Trumpet player Byron Wallen joined Cole on the front line and drummer Hamid Drake and percussionist Yahael Camara Onono delivered an intricate rhythmic canvas. A mesmerizing album was brilliantly recast into a focused live concert that captivated audiences for two uninterrupted sets.
The event began with the sound of a beating heart and a recorded voice expounding rhythm and life. Bells tinkled, words were twisted, repeated and cut in half and the drummers simultaneously moaned, exchanged phrases and throbbed below. Wallen was the first to perform solo, delivering controlled lyricism with a rounded tone. The beat got funky, there was a flute duet, then Cole’s long, angular lines on tenor sax with poise and poise.
Both sets were constructed as a series of musical tableaux linked to an organic whole. Cole and Wallen’s multi-instrumental skills added sonic variety – they range from conch and percussion to flutes and African thumb piano – and the young saxophonist manipulated his recorded vocals with the skill of a producer. .
No lull in the night and the detailed interaction was outstanding. That said, Cole’s unaccompanied sax effortlessly shifting from undertone harmonics to high notes was a high, as was Wallen’s breathless lyricism on muted trumpet. The tight weaving of the rhythm of the two percussionists, the crowd-gathering dynamics and the simultaneous hits were even more remarkable, given that they had only just met. ★★★★☆
As of November 20, efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk