Review: Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper and Christian Scott among ecstatic highs at EFG London Jazz Festival
A quarter-century after his death, the shadow cast by Miles Davis has rarely felt longer, or stronger. Exhibit A: the recent EFG London Jazz Festival, where the maverick innovator’s influence was as evident in appearances from surviving legends he mentored – Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland – as it is in the new rank of American trailblazers following fearlessly in the footsteps of Miles – such as Robert Glasper and Christian Scott.
Now in its 24th year, the epic ten-day festival wrapped on Sunday November 20 with a Barbican set from Shorter which was already the UK’s hottest jazz ticket of the year, before a single note had been played.
Revered for his 1960s work with Art Blakey and Davis’ “Second Great Quintet”, and renowned for co-forming 1970s jazz-fusion supergroup Weather Report, Shorter is ranked at the very head of jazz royalty. Ever inspired, since 2000 he has led a world-championed acoustic quartet which appears to only improve with age, displaying unparalleled ingenuity and invention.
Rather than reciting former glories, the Wayne Shorter Quartet offer a freewheeling, four-way conversation; an empathetic exchange of musical ideas and melodic turns which matches technical ferocity with visceral adrenaline. Opening with a single 45-minute suite-like excursion, the quartet sway from moments of wispy serenity to furious climax – both densely organised and inherently spontaneous, familiar and fresh phrases and fragment are cut up and thrown out like confetti into the room.
Pianist Danilo Perez drives the harmony, while Shorter surfs spontaneously over the tumult of bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade’s controlled explosions. At the grand age of 83, Shorter’s playing – on a mix of tenor and soprano – has necessarily evolved. Instead of barrelling workouts, he plays with economy and flair, emitting abrupt, gaspy spurts and vertiginous runs which are no less distinctive than his heyday work. Every. Note. Counts.
Before departing Davis’ epoch-defining ensemble in 1970, Shorter was briefly bandmates with Dave Holland, the British bassist who Miles plucked from Ronnie Scott’s London jazz club and inserted into seminal fusion recordings In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
While well established as a leader in his own right, in new project Aziza Holland democratically (and perhaps stubbornly) takes equal billing alongside guitarist/magician Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Chris Potter and Eric Harland. The latter are frequent Holland sidemen, so it is inevitably Benin-born Loueke – an alumni of Herbie Hancock’s band – who offers the most auspices surprises to this respectful musical meeting, where capacity and flair flow in equal abundance.
Performing at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday November 15 – a space normally reserved for classical concerts – Aziza showcased self-penned material from this year’s eponymous LP, a thrilling set mixing big, rocky hooks, knotty harmonies, syncopated rhythms, sturdy improvisations and the evergreen textures of Loueke’s West African heritage. We can only hope this peerless ensemble finds time to meet again.
Arguably the coolest contemporary jazz musician on the planet, Robert Glasper is a natural heir to Davis, who was called on to soundtrack last year’s biopic Miles Ahead, and present the posthumous “duet” album Everything’s Beautiful. Typically, neither release was evident on Monday November 14 – the first of two nights at Koko – which presented a newly expanded five-piece formation of his Robert Glasper Experiment.
Breaking with the covers concept of Grammy-winning, career-making Black Radio, this year’s group-penned release ArtScience wilfully merges hip-hop, soul, rock and electro influences into a dense, danceable, vocoder-strewn stew.
Attracting a distinctly atypical “jazz crowd” to Camden, the collective spewed thick, funky struts right up curfew, this hip standing venue suiting the band’s expanded line-up and sonic scope. It certainly felt more engaging than the boxed-in, four-piece Experiment experienced at the all-seated Royal Festival Hall, as part of the same event four years earlier.
Also benefiting from the festival’s welcome embrace of indie spaces was Christian Scott – a trumpeter whose breathy tone and antagonistic swagger also owe much to Miles. Performing at Scala on Wednesday November 16, Scott fought familiarity by premiering a raft of new material, from a planned set of three albums to be released next year.
Carving restlessly through hip-hop, funk and straight-up jazz, despite some incredibly dexterous solo work – most notably from Scott and flautist Elena Pinderhughes – the cumulative instrumental mood was more joyous abandon than cerebral consideration. Once more, it was an experience utterly unlike the moody quintet Scott brought to a seated gig at the fest six years earlier – and seems emblematic of a wider shift in both jazz and its audience, which in 2016 is embracing ever-brighter hues and ever-broader listeners.
Aside from Davis, the other figure who jarringly cast a rather more sombre shadow over the music, was Donald Trump. United as musicians sporting a healthy sense of political self-consciousness, Glasper and Scott both made pointed speeches referencing recent events.
Yet the most stinging attack came from American saxophonist Joshua Redman who, appearing at the Barbican on November 12 – just four days after the election which will put The Donald in the White House – proclaimed himself spiritually homeless following the preceding “horrific week”.
That might have explained the solemn intensity of the musical masterclass he and piano superstar Brad Mehldau served up. Sharing deep stage roots – yet documented for the first time as co-leaders with this year’s live recording Nearness – the pair revel in a near-telepathic interplay, effortlessly throwing lead lines back and forth like a ball. Mehldau’s trademarked, ingenious harmonic exposition was countered in Redman’s gutsy sax cries – best evidenced in a molecular deconstruction of bebop staple Ornithology which served as the evening’s encore.
A similar empathy was shared on a neighbouring stage at Milton Court, earlier the same day, by the three musicians featured on Tord Gustavsen’s latest release What Was Said. The project wildly recasts Lutheran hymns the Norwegian pianist grew up with into moody jazz expositions – and translated, bizarrely, into the Pashto language native to parts of Afghanistan. Virtuoso vocalist Simin Tander sensually worked these texts, crowed between choir-like serenity and guttural moans, conjuring a mix of moody Nordic serenity and Sufi spiritualism.
Such a project might only find a home on ECM, the longstanding German record label which has historically offered perhaps the most compelling counter-voice to the hegemony of American traditions described above. ECM’s greatest cross-cultural flag-bearer, Jan Garbarek, offered another banner moment, performing at Royal Festival Hall on November 13. Backed by electric bass, synthesised keys and the earthy percussion of Indian master Trilok Gurtu, the juxtaposition of amplified and acoustic sound offered a shifting, sympathetic canvas for the Norwegian saxophonist’s typically shrill, searing soul-searches.
These were just the headline highlights this writer chose from the London Jazz Festival’s incredible cast of more than 300 gigs at 50 venues – amongst them many on free stages across the city. And this will be my final point of remark – through no sense of design, each of these afternoon showcases I caught was led by strong female bandleader – from the big-hearted, pop-influenced quartet Isq (opening at the Southbank’s Clore Ballroom on November 11) to the assured swinging sax trio led by Helena Kay and the cluttered, off-kilter compositions of Trish Clowes (who both performed at the Barbican on November 12). Most impressive was the dense, intractably constructed neo-classical work of Eve Risser’s ten-piece White Desert Orchestra, who had the unenviable job of warming up for Wayne Shorter in the lobby.
So this is the face of jazz in 2016. A genre than honours its legends, for sure – but is not tied to them. A genre being led forward by both strong female bandleaders, and the collectivism of a new generation of musicians equally fluid in both jazz and hip-hop – melting musical languages rather than awkwardly fusing them together. And a genre which, far from the museum relic many like to cast it as, is as relevant and alive as ever – proudly and politically engaging with the issues and traumas of the day, and preaching a better, more inclusive tomorrow.