Davina & the Vagabonds + Natalie Williams, Cadogan Hall – EFG London Jazz Festival 2018

Natalie Williams Soul Family opened the Thursday evening with 'C’est La Vie', her effortlessly sensual vocals kicked into life by the electric undercurrents from the two bass guitarists and drummer, the pianist honed the dissonance in between. Williams shuffled to the upbeat harmonies, each song from her 45-minute set followed a pattern of steady soothing tones ending with an instrumental solo epogee. Some successful, some not, as a couple of songs like ‘Sleep’ lacked lyrical finesse. The crowd didn't seem too bothered however, nor by the adynamic changes throughout; they had warmed to her infectious personality. The husky undertones to her dulcet voice energised the performance with powerful moments.

Up next, Davina and the Vagabonds, the introduction of ‘bluesy, blustery, bawdy’, hadn’t prepared the audience enough for the Minnesota-based quintent’s riotous performance. Layerings of double bass, trumpets, drum and barrelhouse piano battled over each other, in an organised cacophony that demanded attention. The band’s brass rowdiness encouraged the audience into a clapping, tapping trance. Davina’s sultry vocals led the charge, harmonised by the raspy backing vocals of her male bandmates. The mixture of blues, jazz and swing tones, resembling New Orleans Mardi-Gras vibrance and Memphis soul, blasted the Cadogan Hall with uproarious colour. Occasionally, the jagged set lacked narrative, the domineering drums and barrelhouse piano halted the rhythmic fluidity. Nonetheless, it only left the audience wanting more of the fantastical feral atmosphere.

Davina’s eccentric charisma juxtaposed upbeat melodrama with caustic lyrics like those of ‘Keep Running’. The cabaret ‘Sunshine’ uplifted the audience, whereas the rest of the quintet’s instrumental solos were equally impressive. Euphonious variations demonstrated the band's skillset, providing quick breaks from the otherwise delightful discordance. Front stage were two tip-toeing, red faced trumpeters, meticulously readjusting their mouthpieces and distance to the microphone stands throughout, a testament of the band’s rigour. Especially as Davina had confessed to everyone only having ‘about 5 hours sleep’ fuelling herself with red bulls throughout the eclectic set of originals and covers from Fats Waller to Louis Jordan. The band’s boisterousness earned them a resounding standing-ovation that very nearly matched their own roaring energy.

Pamela Vera

Arun Ghosh + Jason Singh at Corsica Studios - EFG London Jazz Festival 2018

Corsica Studios was treated to a night of weird and wonderful sounds by Arun Ghosh and friends midway through the 2018 London Jazz Festival. Following the unbefitting default ‘jazz gig’ playlist, the audience were hypnotised by sound-artist Jason Singh. Beginning solo, Singh cooked cinematic drones with bubbling beatboxing and smatterings of Kannakol (vocalising of Indian percussion sounds) in a cauldron of electronic and vocal inventions. Multi-instrumentalist Alicia Gardener-Trejo joined Singh onstage, and although her bass clarinet and chirping flute were occasionally overpowered by Singh’s earth-rumbling effects, their duets were as beautiful as they were strange.

Ever-grinning ringleader Ghosh led his eight-piece band with wide-eyed energy, hopping madly about the stage, clarinet in (often one) hand. The 2018 Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year was flanked by tenor saxophonists Chelsea Carmichael and Idris Rahman, who bolstered the frontline against a powerhouse four piece rhythm section and Singh’s electronic wizardry. In extended, gritty vamps like ‘Dagger Dance’ and ‘Snakebite’, the twin tenors of Carmichael and Rahman showed flashes of magic. In a brilliant contrast to the grungy back-beats, a mind-bending rhythmic duet between drummer Sarathy Korwar and Singh’s Kannakol led into a song written for god Shiva. Opening with flowery arpeggios from Ghosh’s clarinet, Korwar, Singh and keyboardist Jessica Lauren painted a starry, rippling backdrop to tell the Hindu story of creation. The irresistibly funky ‘Punjabi Girl’ really got feet moving before a rousing encore of Lennon’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

Ghosh and his group tackle any anxieties about genre head-on, by slinging in ingredients of rock, Punjabi music and spiritual jazz, and asking questions later. In this melting pot of sound, Ghosh consciously reflects a society in which celebration of cultural diversity is needed more than ever.

Tom Barber

Empirical, Purcell Room (2) – EFG London Jazz Festival 2018

One, two... one, two, three, four.

A sharp blue light cuts out four male silhouettes dressed in suits. Sparks of metal and wood take over the Purcell Room beat by beat. The quartet: Nathaniel Facey, alto sax; Tom Farmer, double bass; Lewis Wright, vibraphone and Shaney Forbes, drums; begin the show with eyes closed as if each one were hypnotised by his particular instrument. The result is a blend that is full of dissonant and precise nuances that hook you in from the first moment.

Their formal dress code of browns and greys contrasts with the energy of their innovative jazz that, far from constrained, vibrates and snakes through the room bringing the audience closer to the stage, despite its large size, to create a more intimate atmosphere. "No service" is a song that exemplifies their modern influences. Inspired by a permanently connected world, reflects on how indispensable it is to be online nowadays.

Tropical vibes of subtle drums and vibraphone join a more romantic tone in the second part, whispered by the double bass and the saxophone. The audience's imagination wanders among sandy and wet sounds that clear all worries and calm minds. In one of their last songs, the group begin a string of rhythmic clapping. The euphoric public follow giving the timber a rather physical and Latin touch.

Empirical started more than 10 years ago, for a tribute concert to the great American saxophonist, Eric Dolphy. “There is no set thing. You have to be open to anything,” says bassist Farmer. “Today it was quite astral. I was thinking of space. We haven’t played for a while, so we’ve got this intensity to come out,” he adds.

Lucía Camblor

Mr Jukes Presents Soft Machine’s Third, Rich Mix - EFG London Jazz Festival 2018

It takes a map to dignify a masterful album. The capacity to navigate revolutionary sounds with courage and carry their spiritual loudness without self-indulgence.

In an energising rendition of Soft Machine’s Third, Jack Steadman a.k.a. Mr Jukes gave new life to this 1970 LP, with grace and unabashed amounts of appetite for a kind of jazz-infused rock that gives every genre permission to go interplanetary.

If Steadman was the map, Rich Mix turned into a space dripping with intention. The sound poured like the inside of a lava lamp, with the same viscosity and vibrancy, accompanied by patterned backgrounds that further confirmed the psychedelic undertones of 1970s rock. Soft Machine’s Third was celebrated in Sarah Tandy’s climatic keyboard, Dan Berry and Binker Golding’s timely saxophones, Max Hallett’s reverberating drums and Steadman’s nuclear bass, which gently but potently led his band and the audience through a confirmational experience.

It never felt anonymous. Steadman was in his purest form, is equal parts delighted, moved and intoxicated. His body predicted and reacted to every powerful moment of each composition, delivering attention to each layer and each curated twist, in a sense of purposeful inflammation. In 'Out-Bloody-Rageous', Steadman and Tandy were in full synergy – confirming and amplifying each other’s movements. Golding’s saxophone was the caramel of the performance, filling the stage and the sound with a moreish execution, whilst Moon in June became Hallett’s poem to 1970s rock as the drums delivered the intensity needed for the room to feel fully fluorescence.

Before the music even began, Steadman held the LP with such a sense of selfhood and gratitude. In his chrysalis mode, it was as if he then become Mr Jukes – ready to pay meaningful tribute to this music, his teenage years and the understated beauty of honouring the sounds that make us.

Renata de Sousa Brites

Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Orchestra, Purcell Room – EFG London Jazz Festival 2018

Stan Sulzmanns Neon Orchestra

Veteran jazz musician Stan Sulzmann has seen it all. London-born with a career spanning decades, Sulzmann celebrated his 70th birthday (a few days early) in an all too familiar venue, you wouldn’t know how special this night was for him. He casually walks on to stage, dressed a little more informally than the rest of the orchestra, and almost trips while finding his way to the chair at the front. A stranger to his work would have no idea what kind of sound would emerge from his saxophone. And then the orchestra explodes into life.

Stan’s musical arrangements come in waves, each washing over you with delicate emotion and multifarious harmony. In an orchestra comprised of so many different instruments, it’s no easy task to give each part a purpose, but he succeeds in making everything an integral element. Even if something like the guitar is a background instrument in one piece, it’s sure to get its time to shine a few songs later, with a solo or beautiful melodic part. It’s also nice to see an orchestra comprised of many different ages, which only serves to aid the variety factor, bringing different backgrounds together to make something that feels diverse but perfectly in sync.

Stan himself is of course a supremely confident figure, always bringing his A-game to his solo parts, but serving the music with his solos and never over-doing them. He introduces each tune, sometimes with bittersweet eulogies to the musicians who wrote them or who he collaborated with. 'Between Moons' in the second half is a highlight, written by John Taylor, who Stan used to be in a duo with in the 1970’s.

Of course, not everything has to be so serious. Sulzmann doesn’t shy away from writing songs about the joy of free coffee, or a pat on the back, and they come with just as much energy and enthusiasm. Stan maybe 70, but he’s not slowing down. May he perform for decades more to come.

– Ethan Saphra

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