After years of bubbling away under the surface in corners of London like Deptford and Hackney, the jazz scene has well and truly boiled over into the mainstream of late. Given that development, you might well imagine the London Jazz Festival to be a display of the scene’s strength.
While, yes, it most certainly was, the two week long affair was something even more significant than that – it was also a demonstration of the breadth of the music, and the many different fingers of musical influence it has inserted in various pies around the musical sphere too.
So, as well as the jazz scene’s hottest acts and tributes to departed heavyweights like Alice Coltrane, there were moments around the fringes of the event that you suspect simply would not have happened ten or 20 years ago. The always wonderful Gazelle Twin, for example, whose work links English folk traditions with the shock of the ultra-modern technology-wise.
Or indeed Black Midi, who play what is effectively the first night’s afterparty in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. They seem to incorporate equally generous amounts of punk, prog and jazz into their edgy, aggressive sound, but in many ways their love of improvisation embodies rather than circumnavigates jazz.
Fresh from a previous night’s tour de force at the Alexandra Palace Theatre in North London he night before, they head back down south to truly blast out the cobwebs from events. Much is made of the Londoners’ musical upbringing at the Brit School in Croydon, which is much more used to seeing the Adeles and Amy Winehouses of this world churned out than this unholy rabble. If they learnt anything there, it wasn’t how to be mainstream and acceptable, but quite the opposite – the power of straying off the most frequently trodden path. That and trusting each other enough to really let rip, as they do tonight. There’s always an element of improvisation when this lot play, but tonight they seem to have ramped this particular element to the max, in the main veering away from the structures that made their ‘Cavalcade’ album one of this year’s most desirable.
It’s definitely a by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach, and you get the feeling that without BM’s drummer – surely one of, if not the most spectacular drummers playing right now – Morgan Simpson, it would fall apart at the seams. Singer/guitarist Geordie Greep might be their nominal frontman, but in musical terms it seems to be Simpson pulling the reigns and showing as much versality as has power.
It’s the turn of another drummer – the recently departed Tony Allen – to take the spotlight the following night, when the larger and altogether more formal confines of the Festival Hall. Curated by writer Ben Okri and Damon Albarn, who worked extensively with Allen in his later years, it shows that while the Nigerian may be synonymous with Afrobeat thanks to his time with Fela Kuti’s band, his influence reaches out much further. Where else, for instance, would you finds Finnish techno icon Jimi Tenor and leading Asian underground hero turned compositional institution Nitin Sawhney rubbing shoulders on the same bill?
Okri and Albarn make appearances, alongside a cast of seemingly hundreds, but ultimately it’s the sprawling ensemble themselves who are the real stars of the evening, landing the Fela Kuti anthem ‘Water No Get Enemy’ like a joyous punch early on. It’s their efforts, once again holding a fantastical balance between chaos and discipline that never quite resolves on one side or the other, that get the concert hall onto their feet and cutting a rug, transforming the evening from carefully curated culture into the sweaty knees up it deserved to be. Allen would no doubt have approved.
black midi by Alex Waespi