The London Jazz Festival’s opening night routines progress from the gala spectacular of Jazz Voice at The Barbican to a left-field tasting menu and late-show jam at Ronnie Scott’s. This year began with a soothing sweep of orchestral strings and, many hours later, saxophonist Soweto Kinch tearing up the standard repertoire in an after-show jam. In between, there was soul-diva flamboyance and smouldering understatement, elegance and edge from two trumpet-led quintets and a bizarre-but-energetic mix of human beat-box, New Orleans march and Weimar cabaret from the Swiss band Hildegard Learns to Fly.
Jazz Voice is organised as a sequence of single-song vocal showcases themed, this time, on anniversaries marked in 2012. Cushioned by bespoke arrangements and a 42-piece orchestra, it is a singular mix of competitive cut, under-the-spotlight performance and comfort zone bonhomie.
This year, soul classics dominated the American songbook, and first-set tempos were a little too firmly in the middling range – the exception being a jaunty instrumental trot through Ted Heath’s “Bakerloo Non Stop”. The highlights came early, when second number in, the pitch-perfect Juliet Roberts built “Do Right Woman” from a whisper of hope to a crescendo of desire. The arrangement was modelled on the classic recording by the late Etta James, and Roberts’ delivery captured the power of the original, while adding a touch of Aretha Franklin’s effortless grace.
Newcomer Natalie Duncan followed, performing the self-penned title track of her new CD “The Devil in Me” – she also wrote the between-verse instrumental breaks. Sultry, deep-toned and wide ranging, her strong blues palette has a soulful, central European inflection. Claire Martin and Patti Austin sang with confidence and panache, Junior Giscombe needed to sharpen his act, and surprise guest Boy George gave a late-set show-stopper with “You’ll Lose a Good Thing”.
The four bands featured at Ronnie Scott’s gave focused performances, though the stylistic range was broader. Piano trio GoGo Penguin’s tried and tested formula gains sparkle from an excellent, polyrhythmic drummer, though it needs the depth and detail of the Terrence Blanchard performance that followed. The trumpeter opened with a hurricane of electronically enhanced lines weaving through dark-toned, rhythmically dense piano. Precisely squeezed notes hovered over spacious mallets, a fusillade of tenor sax ran riot over complex rhythm and tight as tight themes appeared as if by magic.
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s equally controlled quintet delivered depth and detail. Tunes came out of a hat but his band has an abrasive edge and a freely developed, collective narrative. Sax and trumpet leapt in pitch, serrated lines slashing over a fractured evolving pulse. Uplifting and intense, the tone was set for a late-show jam.
On Saturday, Matthew Shipp’s trio played at The Vortex. Shipp opened unaccompanied, head stooped over his keyboard, rippling quietly up scales of his own invention. Soon there were snippets and clusters and spiralling lines. Bass strolled in, shifted gear, a swish of brushes firmed the pulse and Shipp was up and running. Shipp juxtaposes brittle, spider-and-spike runs with sustained vamps that change key, alter shape and explode into dense, closely-textured chords. There were snappy riffs and tub-thumping themes – one such, an almost straight “Johnny Comes Marching Home” – dancey beats, rhapsodies and hints of tradition. The interplay was uncanny with bassist Michael Bisio fine-tuned to every move, and delivering the first-set highlight, a resonant and thumping solo that ended as a bowed bass elegy themed on Coltrane’s “Naima”.