The celebration of a century of song that opened the London Jazz Festival, under the title Jazz Voice, was something of a microcosm of the 10-day festival itself. The Barbican’s curtain-raiser, one of 17 opening-night gigs ranging from underground heavyweights to world-music stars, swept from sultry soul to fragile modernism via club-cool crooning and songbook snap.
The Jazz Voice showcase is now in its third year and took “anniversaries” as its theme, narrated by the actor Dougray Scott. Overall, the evening had the competitive intimacy of a singers’ open-mic night, albeit a decidedly posh one, as a succession of classy vocalists performed party pieces with full orchestral backing.
Inevitably, the programme was something of a patchwork quilt, but there were several highs and not a low in sight. Gretchen Parlato’s complete makeover of Wayne Shorter’s “Juju”, Jacqui Dankworth’s strength and fragility on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and Noel McCoy’s soulful authenticity on “Don’t Know Why I Love You” stood out, though the highlight was Paloma Faith following the barnstorming sensuality of Etta James’ “At Last” with a butter-wouldn’t-melt smile.
The real star, though, was musical director Guy Barker and his bespoke arrangements. There was delicate impressionism and pizzicato frolics, big-band bash and Sixties soul. And it was Barker who best captured the anniversary theme with his opening second-set medley, which zipped through classics by Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins (70 and 80 this year, and both festival headliners) and chucked in a dazzling orchestration of Charlie Parker’s solo on “Parker’s Mood” (the late saxophonist would have been 90 this year). ()
I left midway through the second set to get to Jazz on 3’s live broadcast from Ronnie Scott’s. The five sets of contemporary beats and left-field aesthetics were capped by Parlato, now accompanied by her freewheeling trio who underscored the pin-point accuracy of her delicate phrasing with pianistic subtleties and pulse-bending rhythms.
Young south London band United Vibrations had opened with a neat combination of spoken irony and on-the-edge beats. US saxophonist Chris Potter’s hard fusion quartet followed – Craig Taborn’s roof-raising keyboard was an evening highlight – while Colin Stetson delivered death-defying solo improv on bass sax. And there was a walk-in spot for New Orleans-based Soul Rebel brass band – literally, as they had just marched up from Hungerford Bridge. ()
On Saturday I saw Herbie Hancock deliver The Imagine Project designed, he told us at the gig, to “encourage an active role in shaping the global world”. The lingering doubt that he might be about to water down his music was soon blown away by the slippery rhythms and out-of-nowhere riffs of the first number, the Hancock staple “Actual Proof”. The pianist then packed his near three-hour set with such a variety of top-quality sounds that a good-sized pamphlet wouldn’t do it justice.
There were keening vocal harmonies – Greg Phillinganes and Kristina Train brilliant contrasts – and full-force funk, musicianly trade-offs and the sampled sounds of African thumb-piano choirs and Irish pipes. Reworked classics appeared in extruded form and slunk stealthily out of lush orchestrations. His band were superb, adding much-needed coherence to the globally referenced rock covers of the CD, impressively balancing rock’s power and simplicity with dark jazz subtleties when required. ()
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