The second year of any festival with ambitions is a bellwether for its longevity. Love Supreme, a three-day event offering a canny blend of jazz and groove at Glynde Place in East Sussex last weekend, had visibly doubled in audience since last year, and had broadened its scope to match.
It bedded in with classic jazz and good-time vibes, but Saturday, the first full day, focused on the riffs and rhythms of the 1970s and what a new generation of jazz musicians can do with them.
Not that there was any shortage of unreconstructed R&B, as exemplified by Lalah Hathaway’s early evening set. She is a wonderful singer with a creamy lower register and a sound-sculpting technique – and she needed all her effortless virtuosity to transcend a somewhat routine repertoire that took in “Summertime” and Anita Baker’s “Angel”. She concluded with “Something”, written in 1981, first recorded in 1991, and earning Hathaway a Grammy this year for her recording of it with retro-flavoured newcomers Snarky Puppy.
They weren’t backing her here, having performed on the open-air main stage earlier in the afternoon; their set spliced together classic grooves with laid-back interludes, and added fresh riffs and solid solos for good measure. Pleasant enough; but the Earth, Wind & Fire Experience, led by the band’s original guitarist Al McKay, showed how to deliver this stuff with more punch. Their romp through a classic heritage was a festival highlight.
The main jazz action happened in the 5,000-capacity Big Top. It began with a two-band showcase laden with contemporary edge, from two high-tech outfits whose performances unfurled as a dialogue between multi-layered textures and razor-sharp rhythm. But there the similarities ended. Drummer Jaimeo Brown led his sax and samples trio through a continuous performance inspired by Alabama spirituals. Derrick Hodge surrounded his fluent and focused bass guitar with the flavours of hip-hop, metal and indie rock.
Brown’s tense and technical set opened with a sampled choir singing “Mean Old Town”. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen chipped in with some soulful preaching, and then drums entered with a chatter of snare and a well-timed thump. The performance evolved through climax and fade, with Allen tight, lean and articulate on sax, and Chris Sholar triggering samples as he added guitar; the result was a compelling collage of roots music and contemporary sounds.
Hodge’s set also ebbed and flowed with scarcely a pause, but this time the dense textures were created by two musicians playing a battery of keyboards. Hodge provided occasional vocals (with a little electronic help) and virtuoso bass: he has a slap that jolts lungs, a singing tone and a fingerpicking style that reminds you that a bass guitar is still a guitar. Rhythmically, he was completely at one with 19-year-old drummer Mike Mitchell’s paper-ripping rolls, rimshot chatter and single beats on bass drum and snare. The dynamic of their relationship made this one of the weekend’s standout sets.
The evening programme featured two one-time Miles Davis sidemen. Bassist Dave Holland’s band played free-flowing jazz with a hard rock edge, while guitarist John Scofield’s Überjam played lean melodies over tight grooves – titles such as “Boogie Stupid” and “Al Green Song” sum up their flavour.
In Holland’s band, the drums were in constant dialogue, either with Craig Taborn’s freewheeling piano and rhythmic Rhodes or with Kevin Eubanks’ crunchy, fast-fingered guitar. Rhythms were slippery, textures fluid, and harmonies moved in subtle ways. Holland held it all together imperiously with firm fingers and positive intent. Scofield’s aesthetic is simpler in design, but his precisely etched phrasing and the funky keyboard samples triggered by rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick lifted it way above the average jam band.
Sunday began with a main-stage set that quickly transcended the persistent drizzle. Vocalist José James sings in a mid-range tenor, phrases with the deceptive nonchalance of Prince and D’Angelo and comes across as a singer-songwriter who loves hip-hop and jazz. The funky “Trouble” stood out, as did the lilting “Do You Feel”, which played out the set to a slow hip-hop groove. But the highlight was an astonishing James freestyle pitched midway between vocals and rap.
Two of James’s studio collaborators appeared later in the day: keyboardist Kris Bowers in the Big Top and trumpeter Takuya Kuroda in the smaller arena marquee. Bowers keeps the arrangements for his guitar-fronted quartet simple and tight. “Wake the Neighbors” was suitably raunchy but without more going on, his compositions sound like backing tracks in waiting. Kuroda roots his trumpet style in the fluency and soul of the classic Blue Note era and plays tight themes alongside trombonist Corey King. Strong solos delivered good things on solid grooves, but there needed to be more harmonic finesse for the band to stand out.
By this time, the drizzle had gone and the sun was shining. Courtney Pine had been the first to benefit, and his mix of Caribbean references, showmanship and saxophone virtuosity proved to be a crowd-pleaser. So too were Soul II Soul, whose searing set was launched (of course) with “Back to Life”.
The day’s first mainstream set of substance came soon after, with bassist Christian McBride leading an attitude-laden piano trio through a set of jazz standards and soul classics from the Stax label. McBride’s walking bass lines have enough oomph to power a city and young pianist Christian Sands was just as strong. The trio opened with Thelonius Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t”, gave Ellington’s “Caravan” a new spin and approached Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” from a new angle. They finished with an instrumental cover of Stax vocalist Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love”. McBride cued the riff, Sands was soulful and the audience sang along.
The festival finished with the rich baritone of Gregory Porter filling the Big Top with stagecraft, song and pulsating jazz, and with De La Soul whipping up a storm with their full live band. Love Supreme is on the up, and on this form, could take jazz in the UK along with it.