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

Shiva Feshareki with the BBC Concert Orchestra, QEH – EFG London Jazz Festival 2018

On Sunday, 18 November, the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Bramwell Tovey attempted the precarious endeavor of adapting jazz to an orchestral setting. Thanks to the likes of George Gershwin, there is a history of combining these two disparate genres, yet the improvisatory nature of jazz and swing music remain difficult to replicate authentically in orchestral instrumentations. That being said, the BBC Concert Orchestra chose a perfect jazz standard to adapt, Wayne Shorter’s 'Nefertiti'. Aranger Guy Barker’s use of classical 'theme and development' techniques, in tandem with stylistic touches of jazz – such as trumpet growls and the use of brass mutes – made for a unique and ultimately satisfying take on the Shorter staple.

'Pictures in the Smoke', written by conductor Bramwell Tovey, bookended profoundly melancholy yet rich piano solos with bustling, chaotic brass and percussion interludes. Though occasionally rambling, Tovey’s adaptation of the Dorothy Parker poem largely captured the vast range of feelings that can come with love: from delicate vulnerability to dizzying confusion. After 'Chorales for Orchestra' by James Tenney, Shiva Feshareki (pictured above) made a point of acknowledging Tenney’s contributions to electronic music. For most listener’s, this was likely a welcome explanation of Tenney’s brooding, dense composition, and it helped contextualise what Feshareki was about to do.

Feshareki explained that her primary objective was to expose new perspectives on sound. This was masterfully achieved, for although Feshareki’s improvisations featured everything from distorted orchestra stabs to robotic coos, it held together coherently, and was deftly balanced with the orchestral material. The BBC Orchestra’s technical mastery was also utilised marvelously in the second half, a minutes-long, intense yet gradual build from whispers to vast pools of strings with thunderous brass swells. While the concert as a whole was not as demonstrative of jazz stylings as others in the festival, Feshareki’s singular approach to improvisation more than validated the programme, and made a powerful statement on the possibilities for and versatility of the turntable itself.

Luke Martin Franc

Leyla McCalla and Mélissa Laveaux, Cadogan Hall – EFG London Jazz Festival

Leyla McCalla and Mélissa Laveaux both explored the history and music of Haiti in their EFG London Jazz Festival concert at Cadogan Hall. Laveaux, a singer-songwriter and guitarist, opened the evening with a set focusing on the US occupation of Haiti, and the humour and melodrama of Haitians, as she put it. Although suffering with a cold, Laveaux’s raspy voice was commanding. Accompanied by Elise Blanchard on bass and Martin Wangermée on drums, Laveaux’s folk-rock reworking of traditional Haitian songs really deserved a standing audience. As Laveaux said, she was not used to playing in a seated venue. She got the crowd on their feet however with a standing ovation.

Following Laveaux, McCalla’s touching set was soulful and powerful. With a band of guitar, double bass and drums, and switching herself between cello, tenor banjo and guitar, the subtlety of McCalla’s voice was truly captivating. She brought impressive variety to the short set, playing songs from both her 2013 and 2016 albums and from her upcoming album The Capitalist Blues. Her music seeks to connect issues and events throughout history. It’s not “random”, she says, when discussing refugees fleeing Haiti in the 1980s and 90s, to Syria in 2016, in relation to the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Marrying personal and political struggle, the feeling she conveys live creates a sense of hope in the power of people, and in a less overwhelming, human approach to social justice. A motivating expansive intimacy. The second standing ovation of the night was well deserved.

McCalla and Laveaux closed the evening together with Manno Charlemagne’s ‘Pouki’. They explained some of the lyrics: “Why does life not separate us equally?” This felt like an appropriate way to end a thought-provoking and inspiring evening.

Annie Walker-Trafford

The Write Stuff

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