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Love Supreme is the UK’s only greenfield jazz festival; it is certainly one of the most open hearted. This year, its third, delivered more than 50 bands in four all-standing venues spread far enough apart to keep sound leakage to an acceptable minimum. The three-day event, the biggest yet, is a successful blend of chilled-out soul weekender and jazz-heads jamboree. It’s a wild guess, but this year’s festival must surely have marked the first time that Ginger Baker has shared a bill with Lisa Stansfield.
Midway through his early Saturday evening set, US trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire set aside his complex web of harmony and rhythm and delivered an achingly slow ballad with only piano support.
Long-held notes leapt high into the upper register and, pinched for extra effect, wrung every nuance from the title, “Regret No More”. Bittersweet and on the edge of despair, it held the audience spellbound.
The ballad was a bold festival highlight, but what followed came close. “Trumpet Sketch” delivered a rhythmic tangle of rimshots that sounded like the climax of a firework display while the finale built a crunchy, asymmetric drum solo over an ominous rhythmic trumpet and piano pedal. The encore restored calm with a melodic, mid-tempo reverie.
Like many of the contemporary bands in this year’s strong jazz strand, Akinmusire’s music is edgy, fractured and very much of our time. But on the open-air main stage, the best bands are brash and funky. It was there that, immediately after Akinmusire, Larry Graham and Graham Central Station delivered energy of a different, but not totally disconnected kind.
Graham was the bass player with Sly and the Family Stone before launching his own band in the early 1970s. Graham Central Station had several hits — 1974’s “We’ve Been Waiting” opened the set — but, more importantly, Graham is the grandmaster and inventor of slap bass guitar. Here he delivered a supercharged performance driven by a skin-tight band and loaded with harmonised vocals and machinegun blasts of funky bass guitar.
Mid-set Graham traded funk nostalgia by asking each member of the band to name their key influence — Carlos Santana and James Brown were among those mentioned and uncannily imitated. Graham’s first influence was his mother’s left hand (he used to copy the lines she played on piano when, as a child, he played guitar in her band).
Sly Stone was inevitably name-checked, with Woodstock and the Isle of Wight fondly remembered; “Dance to the Music” was among the classics brought brilliantly to life. And the set ended with Prince’s “1999”, referencing Graham and Prince’s many collaborations.
Two vocalists followed, and the contrasts were pronounced. Dianne Reeves’ set was so intimate that even covers such as “One More for My Baby” sounded like personal statements. Much of her material was self-penned, and most songs delivered chunks of octave-swooping vocalese, though only “Tango” was entirely based on scat. Reeves is a technically adroit singer with a velvet tone but with her band solid rather than inspired, she was the only focus of an entertaining set.
Headliner Chaka Khan has lost none of her power or range, and she swooped into the upper register but here her tuning was slightly adrift. Her band did a competent job, and three superb backing singers with spot-on vibratos and true harmonies saved the day. Khan started with “I Want to Dance All Night” and included an overlong ballad interlude. “I’m Every Woman” wrapped it up, but by that time I was immersed in the strange world of Jason Moran and his Fats Waller Dance Party, where Khan’s classic was an occasional intrusion from a distant main stage.
Pianist Moran has taken the Fats Waller songbook and turned it inside out. Snatches of melody become discordant riffs or are looped asymmetrically like a sample gone awry. Bits of stride swirl out of the mist but they come with drum’n’bass beats, Afrobeat rhythms or disco swing. And for most of this set, Moran donned a disturbing carnival-head caricature of Fats Waller, hinting that Waller, the smiling entertainer, liked nothing more than an underground late club jam.
“Honeysuckle Rose” was jolly in a surreal kind of way and “Too Much in Love to Stay Awake” was sung straight by trumpeter Leron Thomas. The vocal focus, though, was Lisa Harris, unworldly on “Lonely Woman”, a dreamy tribute to the late Ornette Coleman, and defiantly understated on a slow and moody “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do”. The finale was an intriguing, multi-layered tambourine-shaking “Jump for Joy”, and I’ve never heard the like.
The day had opened with another band that works a postmodern aesthetic. The Bad Plus were an acclaimed next big thing soon after launching in 2000, but now their critical support is on the wane. They are now billed as The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, and the addition of saxophonist Redman has been a masterstroke. The trio’s pre-worked intricacy and populist references remain, but he adds an improviser’s bite and at this gig he was on fire, sparking drummer Dave King into spirited and uninhibited support.
Although Sunday’s bands never reached Saturday’s peaks, both jazz and populist strands had moments of note. Jarrod Lawson’s early set was a standout of bouncy bass lines and slinky nu-soul grooves. His smooth tenor voice blended perfectly with the backing singers’ harmonies and the original material was enhanced by jazzy instrumental breaks.
The jazz strand was dominated by three trumpeters who spanned the generations. Theo Croker and his acoustic quintet appeared at last year’s London Jazz Festival, supporting Dee Dee Bridgewater. Here, their enthusiastic blend of Blue Note swagger and hip-hop beats was in the spotlight. Though they are clearly a close-knit collective, Croker stands out for his poise, tone and technical control. Highlights included “Fundamentals”, an original take on a technical exercise and a tribute to Hugh Masekela that moved from strummed ruminating bass to Croker plangent on wah-wah trumpet.
Veteran Masekela wound up the jazz side of this immense three-day event, and attracted the biggest jazz audience of the weekend. Accompanied by his regular African band, he toasted and sang in Zulu and delivered bursts of mellow-toned flugelhorn, his style a pastiche of trills and flutters, nicely placed lines and blues-laced licks. These days, strong vocals and an inspiring stage presence are equally to the fore, and here his vibrant humanism and township rhythms uplifted all.
Sandwiched between Croker and Masekela, Terence Blanchard’s sample-enhanced set turned up the volume with unadulterated hip-hop and funk. The trumpeter is in his prime and has a new band, The E-Collective, and a new set of compositions whose jam-band delivery masks the care of the construction underneath. Titles such as “Soldiers” and an elegy for Jimi Hendrix capture a sharply delivered gritty aesthetic, though it was the mature Blanchard, crafting each phrase without a note of excess, who lifted the set.
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