Wayne Shorter, Jason Moran, Dhafer Youssef — London Jazz Festival

Highlights from an event that had jazz in all its forms — orchestral to hip-hop to modernist
Wayne Shorter and John Patitucci at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Photo: Roger Thomas

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The Wayne Shorter Quartet have been processing the world’s music through their saxophonist leader’s futuristic vision for 15 years, evolving an internal telepathy on the way. Their concert at the Barbican on Sunday night was a triumphant conclusion to the 10-day EFG London Jazz Festival which, like Shorter’s quartet, celebrated jazz in all shapes, sizes and blends.

Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset’s genre-blending Snowmelt and British trumpeter Laura Jurd’s orchestral take on electric Miles Davis captured the rekindled interest in orchestral jazz. At the opposite pole, a jazz hip-hop strand featured a clutch of Americans confidently raising the jazz banner over well-crafted grooves. Robert Glasper, Christian Scott and Theo Croker are frequent visitors to the UK, Charlie Hunter and Marcus Strickland less so, and full-house club dates reflected a music in tune with the times. But it was Shorter, 83, who transcended all.

Shorter’s compositions shift shape through oblique melodies, slanting ostinatos and sudden explosions of rhythm. Here they were rendered as tantalising two-note hints and fragments of line that rendered even the well-known “The Three Marias” unrecognisable. He presented six works, the first starting with a casual off-mic whistle, the last conjoining the quartet with a sizeable wind ensemble from Poland for the newly commissioned “The Unfolding”.

In a new development, pianist Danilo Perez orchestrated the band without stop, a constant source of energy that freed bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade to explode at will. Shorter was equally on song on both tenor and soprano sax, probing enigmatically with fragile wisps and forceful blares. The wind ensemble underscored the quartet’s key elements, added an impressionist sheen and delivered a magical flutter of flutes. It was a beautifully conceived summary of all that had gone before, and won a prolonged standing ovation.

Jason Moran’s episodic performance piece Wind, performed at the Barbican’s Milton Court on Friday, presented the pianist’s long-running Bandwagon trio with guitarist Marvin Sewell and a Polish chamber sextet. It intertwined jazz with classical influences and more, and was held together by hints of theme and recurring textures. Periodically, Moran’s percussive, emotionally complex piano would emerge from a mix of shimmered strings, sonorous military brass and wheezy organ chords. Some of the ensemble passages recalled Gunther Schuller’s third-stream experimentation in the early 1960s, others a New Orleans march, and the ending was a calypso picked out on fading solo guitar.

Intrigue was heightened by the stage setting. The musicians were spaced across the stage in a series of garden-party marquees draped in net curtains. These rendered the players as vague shapes or oversize shadows cast by sparse backlights that changed colour as the music changed mood. It had a peculiarly distancing effect, somewhat like snooping on a private event.

The audience loved it, and called Moran back. “We are living at a time of shift,” he said. “When we whisper in private, we can understand one another”.

Singer Dhafer Youssef and pianist Aaron Parks perform. Photo: Roger Thomas

On Saturday, Dhafer Youssef’s headline Barbican set thrillingly captured the festival’s mood of tempered optimism. The performance began with gently bucolic piano, the Tunisian singer and oud player perched on a stool. His first vocals were low register, microtonal and sung close to the mic. Soon he was standing, sustaining a high falsetto of such power that it had to be delivered 3 feet off mic to keep the sonic balance intact.

Despite Youssef’s mesmerising voice, the main focus lay in his oud’s strums, riffs and laments, which sat within slow burns and shifts. As on Youssef’s album Diwan of Beauty and Odd, Aaron Parks’s supple and sensitive piano was a delight and Ben Williams’s bass powerful in attack. But live the band was fired up by the polyrhythmic maelstrom of Justin Faulkner’s drumming. The long set twisted from beatific melodies hovering in space to trades of blazing intensity, urged on by Youssef’s shouts and whoops.

Guest trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire added the interest of an extra voice — pensive on the title track, riffy on “Cheerful Meshuggah” — and slotted in with the leader’s vision. The finale, introduced as an all-standing, clap-along dance, was a complex fusion tour de force powered by an undertow of contemporary beats. Nobody danced, and the clapping eventually died away, but we stood entranced and demanded more until, eventually, it came.

Ambrose Akinmusire at the Barbican. Photo: Roger Thomas

Akinmusire had already demonstrated his sensitivity and purpose in a spellbinding earlier set. He began unaccompanied, his mastery of emotion and sound on full display, and then reshaped the deeper recesses of the modernist tradition with a no-frills acoustic quartet. Long trumpet lines rummaged in dense harmonic structures, breathy sustains slurred into melancholia and spiky rococo flourishes ended with a punch. Mid-set, the trumpeter delivered a festival highlight when a plangent lullaby was followed by a melancholic elegy. A long-sustained high note, emotionally pure and as quiet as a breath bewitched us all.

A more traditional jazz modernism was represented by Thursday’s Cadogan Hall double bill featuring modal jazz veterans who forged their careers as sidemen to the modern jazz elite.

Headlining septet The Cookers stand out for their surging rhythms, sharp dynamics and richly voiced brass. Their performance began with the set-piece drama and soaring melody of “The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart”, written by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. His long opening solo smouldered with power and commitment and cymbal smashes from drummer Billy Hart.

The band continued with a powerful set characterised by surging rhythms and a disciplined ensemble. The brassy, intricate Davis Weiss and smoothly fluent Eddie Henderson were contrasting trumpeters, pianist Danny Grissett played with soulful finesse and bassist Cecil McBee delivered a firm, obliquely atonal showstopper to set up “The Core” for a furiously paced finale. The highlight was Eddie Henderson’s firm tone and delicate touch on the ballad “If One Could Only See”.

A ballad also stood out in Chico Freeman’s curtain-raiser. The Chicago-raised saxophonist got to the bittersweet essence of “To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain” with unaccompanied high notes and a round, muscular warmth, rooted in the blues. Elsewhere, “Elvin” was inspired by the late drummer Elvin Jones, “Erica’s Reverie” was fugue-like and the closer an up-tempo romp. Sax and rhythm quartets have space to fill, and at this show, Freeman and pianist Luke Carlos O’Reilly delivered with unflagging invention and style. Freeman hasn’t played in London for more than a decade, and this imperious set was a welcome return.

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