London Jazz Festival – final report

Sunday’s London Jazz Festival finale at the Barbican featured the three vocalists, big band and strings of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues Orchestra. The orchestra’s name comes from the album the saxophonist recorded in response to the Attica prison riot of 1971 – an eloquent pre-recorded introduction to tonight’s performance explained why a more fitting word was rebellion.

This gig, though, was a more general retrospective, with Shepp in character as the jazz legend who can shout the blues. “Blues for Brother George Jackson” and the late Calvin Massey’s “The Cry of My People” had clear political roots. But elsewhere Shepp celebrated Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and a young cousin killed in gang violence.

The American rhythm section was tight and the French brass supple, solos whipped up the crowd, and Shepp’s daubs of gruff saxophone and blues hollers were icing on the cake. Overall, though, it was a pastiche of an era, blending 1950s swing and gospel, a lovely string quartet and a rollicking blues. It went down a storm, but, given the introduction, was somewhat soft-centred.

A more pointed look at the civil rights era came in Wadada Leo Smith’s epic seven-and-a-half-hour life’s work Ten Freedom Summers, which was presented over three nights at Café Oto.

Smith’s compositions alternate and intertwine jazz and string quartets, mixing outright improv, themed jazz and written composition. While the band plays, documentary footage of the era and film of the performance are projected on a large backdrop screen and are periodically deconstructed into abstract shapes that fragment and thicken with the music.

Smith is a forceful, focused and lyrical improviser with a brassy tone and a sharp way with time – and his Golden Quartet has the sound and control to match. They opened the first night with an extended blitz of improv, each element clicking firmly into place. The tempo relaxed, there was a beautiful solo from John Linberg on arco bass, then it was time for the strings. Smith’s scores are futuristic and full of tricks, and the accomplished and sensitive Ligeti Quartet took the plunks, rollercoaster slurs and atonal smears in their stride.

The two-hour set was emotionally intense, but there was light and shade, solo highlights and clanging, bell-like recurring motifs. Pianist Anthony Davis’s spiky, controlled and melodic improvisation was a consistent delight and Smith placed his notes with razor-sharp precision. Occasionally the two quartets would combine, and the long performance ended with Smith firmly conducting ominous slabs of strings and rhythm.

The full houses at this year’s London Jazz Festival displayed the confidence and energy of an art form getting on with it during difficult times. But this vitality doesn’t evaporate as the festival closes. London’s jazz clubs are in an expansionist mood. On December 7, three east London venues, Dalston’s Café Oto, Vortex and Servant Jazz Quarters, link up to present more than a dozen bands in a first joint venture.

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