London Jazz Festival

The final weekend of the 250-gig London jazz festival opened with yet another stark choice. Frequently visiting tenor-sax titan Sonny Rollins was at the Barbican while master drummer Jack DeJohnette presented a new line-up at the Southbank.

With Dick Fontaine’s lovely Rollins documentary reminding me of what I might be missing – Beyond the Notes was fresh in mind after last weekend’s showing – I headed for the QEH and DeJohnette’s fine balance of structure and freedom.

A brief lollop called all to order, a sharp whack established pulse, and the sultry groove of “Blue” took shape. DeJohnette’s loose-limbed pulse comes with razor-sharp timing, and a fine mesh of compressed rolls and perfectly placed accents.

The American is currently marking his 70th year, and the five-number set was drawn from a back catalogue that shrouds its diamond-hard core with ethereal harmonies and sudden accelerations.

His sextet was tight on the theme, but imaginations took wing on long ensemble improvisations that flowed intuitively from streetwise swing and world-music inflection to free-jazz roar and, on the encore, gritty urban funk. Reedsman Don Byron’s soulful academicism and George Colligan’s forceful keyboards would normally stand out, but here the sharp group ethic was both key and showcase for a remarkable drummer.

On Saturday I dipped into the calming waters of piano trio jazz, first with Marcus Roberts at Kings Place and then with Chick Corea at the Barbican. Roberts, bolstered by brass from the Guildhall School of Music, gave the classic jazz repertoire contemporary sparkle, while Corea delivered established moves with a sparkling new trio. Hardly a restful interlude – both pianists are intense performers – but it recharged the batteries for next day’s slam-dunk festival finale, featuring Macy Gray with the David Murray Big Band.

Murray is a fearsome saxophonist whose split notes shriek at lightning speed. At this gig, he fronted a band in his own image and rollicked through a set of muttering riffs and gospel shouts, skin-tight stabs and atonal blares. Solos were fiery, soloists stood up to be counted – the leader’s ballad was a long caress and a festival highlight; Tony Kofi’s blues-laced alto was not far behind. Macy Gray also has powerful roots, but they come with a glamorous sparkle, a post-Prince drawl and an unsettling fragility. She toasts with the best, but needs more gigs for a perfect fit.

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