Regina Carter plus Yazz Ahmed at Queen Elizabeth Hall – EFG London Jazz Festival

Had this concert been programmed with a specific theme in mind, then the subject of ancestry might very well fit the bill. It was clear that British Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed had something new to say before she even played a note, arriving on stage in a stunning emerald green full-length dress of Middle Eastern origin. Joined by a sextet that included bass clarinet, assorted percussion and vibraphone, the sound of the Arabic modes pervaded her music as textures varied effortlessly throughout her short set.  

Violinist Regina Carter has been investigating her forebears recently, which led her to the folk music of the Appalachians where her paternal grandfather worked as a coal miner. A mix of these folk songs, arranged by her bassist Chris Lightcap, among others, were interspersed with other tunes including one commissioned for tonight’s concert. Hank Williams’ ‘Honky Tonkin’’ opened the set with the band laying down a solid groove before she even made it to the stage. The harmony remained static for what might otherwise have felt like a generation, however Carter’s sustained inventiveness in dialogue with accordionist Will Holshouser meant that the piece was over all too quickly. One of the folk songs, ‘Miner’s Child’ is a simple minor key theme that flourished as the harmonies were gradually reworked by bass and guitar.

Carter asked the audience what they would like to hear. ‘It won’t be loud’ she responds, but there was a break from the folk songs to ‘Hickory Wind’. Loud it wasn’t. Nor was it flashy or showy, and yet Carter digs deep into the subtle beauty with stunning results. If her band showed any brief sign of flagging as in ‘New for N’awlins’ by drummer Alvester Garnett, then Carter’s solos with their heavily syncopated lines got them burning again. Carter’s commission may have been titled ‘Pound for Pound’, but there was nothing here to suggest that she needed to punch above her weight.   

– Mark Stokesbury

Jef Neve/Rusconi Kings Place, London – EFG London Jazz Festival

Jazz pianists often talk about ‘being ready’ to approach a solo project, the lack of bass and drums requiring them to dig deep into the realm of inventiveness. Jef Neve was certainly prepared tonight and he had also prepared his piano, which conferred an unexpected timbre upon the opening of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’. Neve’s set was a mix of standards and originals, with perhaps the standout piece of the evening being Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’.

Baring his soul in the same way that playing solo piano does, he revealed that the power and beauty of this song saved his life once, memories perhaps alluded to by the minor chord reharmonisations towards the end, which then resolve, thankfully, back to the major. Contrapuntal inventions on an original, ‘Solitude’ gave way to the implied groove of Monk’s ‘I Mean You’, which served to demonstrate what a versatile player Neve actually is. ‘Flying to Diani Beach’ is inspired by a flight over Mount Kilimanjaro that sees a busy ostinato in the right hand join ascending melodies in the left. As for Neve’s ascent to the summit of solo piano, he has proven that he is more than ready to undertake the climb.

Mixing things up after the break were Euro trio Rusconi whose stage attire would portend the music to come with bobble hat completing an ensemble of shirts, cardigans and blazers. Perhaps the most joyous moment of their set was when Fabian Gisler substituted his double bass for electric guitar, which succeeded in moving the music in entirely new directions. Before the piece was concluded however, guitar was out, bass was in again and relative jazz order restored.

This change in format was repeated a few more times, as was the use of three part backing vocals over solos as witnessed in the following tune, ‘Ankor’. Unconventional perhaps, but it did at times distract from the business at hand. Pianist Stefan Rusconi, in explaining the narrative behind ‘Sojus Dream’ makes mention of Laika, the first living creature to orbit the Earth, and the effect the experience may have had on her. The poor mongrel never returned to Earth, and I’m not sure I have yet either.    

– Mark Stokesbury

Kris Bowers plus Peter Edwards XOYO, London – EFG London Jazz Festival

Devices. Gadgets. Gismos. These things have become such a part of our day-to-day living that we take the technology for granted and become frustrated when it ceases to function properly. Jazz musicians turn to technology as well on occasion as both acts did tonight, with mixed results. Keyboardist Peter Edwards was clearly having problems with his technology as an unplanned hiatus was experienced by a nonetheless sympathetic crowd who were thanked for their patience at the end of an extended piece of electro jazz, which never really took off despite some nice moments.

Kris Bowers, from behind his mighty rig of keyboards, laptop, mixers and pedals experienced his own little snag in the form of an over-zealous audience wanting to join in with the infectious rhythms he was clapping and finger-clicking, which he would loop to provide percussion to a solo rendition of Juan Tizol’s ‘Caravan’. But it was the real deal, the men who rounded out his band that helped to make this such a strong gig. If there was any hint of hesitation at the outset, then it was gone in the blink of an eye and by the second song, ‘Wake the Neighbours’, Bowers, propelled by a frantic solo from guitarist and Marcus Miller sideman Adam Agati, had hit his stride. ‘The Protestor’ allowed drummer Richard Spaven to build the music to absurd heights of euphoria, something that he had done consistently throughout the concert.

Bassist Alex Bonfanti introduced ‘Vices and Virtues’ with a simple yet engaging riff, and Bowers again made the most of the technological arsenal available to him, looping a synth riff which freed him up to produce an intensely creative solo on the Rhodes. A quick stop to change a broken pedal again reminded us of the shortcoming of relying too heavily on technology in live performance, but overall, in this case the virtues far outweighed the vice.

– Mark Stokesbury

Kris Bowers at XOYO, London – EFG London Jazz Festival

XOYO is a far cry from the plush environs of the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican, but no matter; this is jazz for active engagement and unadulterated energy – not for sitting pensive upon a throne stroking one’s chin – and this dingy basement next to Old Street station was enlivened by Kris Bowers, one of the most promising young pianists around.

After a tentative but admirable performance from show opener, Peter Edwards, the tension was palpable. Bowers, however – alongside Adam Agati (guitar), Alex Bonfanti (bass), and Richard Spaven (drums) – immediately dispelled any of these worries, moving straight from the serenity of album opener ‘Forever Spring’ into a sprawling twelve-minute long version of ‘Wake The Neighbours’.

This was a night for fans of improvisation. Bowers’ debut album Heroes + Misfits features Casey Benjamin’s ethereal alto playing heavily throughout, but his absence this evening was more than made up for by Agati who demonstrated great rhythmic dexterity in his phrasing, and moments of all-out rocking to rival the great John Schofield; a real gem in the making. Bowers equally matched Agati’s playing, though, and his hands soared across the Fender Rhodes with consummate ease in his masterful interpretation of tUnE-yArDs’ ‘Gangsta’.

Outside of these demonstrations of improvisational prowess, however, compositionally the end product at times felt to be lacking. Aside from the really special ‘#theprotester’ and the single ‘Forget-er’ – which was subject to an inspired re-visioning in the absence of vocalist Julia Easterlin – the tracks performed didn’t have the strongest sense of direction or development. Nonetheless, this was but a minor lacuna in an otherwise very impressive full London debut for an artist who may be raw, but who is incredibly exciting and bursting with potential; he may just be the kick the jazz world needs to invigorate a new generation.

– Alex de Lacey

100 Years of British Song – Ian Shaw with special guests at QEH – EFG London Jazz Festival

It was always going to be an ambitious project to capture 100 years of British popular song in two hours, but if anyone can do it, it’s Ian Shaw. MC Jumoke Fashola’s observation that she “doesn’t know any singer who hasn’t worked with him” paved the way for an evening of, in jazz showbiz terms, a glittering all-star line up.

Shaw’s long time collaborator Claire Martin made the first sparkling entrance onto the cabaret set stage with her rendition of Bowlly’s Love is the Sweetest Thing, placing us between the two World Wars. The segue into Smile illustrated with projected images from the Jazz Age, Chaplin, Hitler and Auschwitz(!) was no doubt intended as juxtaposition, but was one of several visual sequences that at times jarred with the upbeat tone of the evening.

The jazz royalty roll call continued with Elaine Delmar and Barb Jungr, both capturing the spirit of the 1940s and 1960s with their fluid, expressive style. Shaw is unafraid to venture from jazz to other genres if it suits and Kathryn Williams’s Folk-tinged rendition of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is apparently the finest Ewan MacColl ever heard.

Shaw took the opportunity to showcase his protéges: Ben Cox didn’t change from his 2WW Naval uniform despite being the star of the 1970s slot with an easy going, crooning rendition of Drake’s River Man. Another new discovery is Yvette Riby Williams, celebrating the 2000s with her soulful (and much improved) version of Coldplay’s Fix You.

Natalie Williams’s finale of Emeli Sande’s Next to Me brought us up to date and was the cue for the entire ensemble to dance and clap on stage. A strange sight – jazz royalty past and present waving back to the audience, before departing backstage where the real party began.

– Kate Gamm

The Write Stuff

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