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This double-bill twinning US veteran bassist Haden with new UK kid on the block Simcock was one of two house-full headline gigs that opened the London Jazz Festival. Both referenced tradition, but the contrast could not have been greater. While a clutch of divas paid homage to the legacy of Ella Fitzgerald backed by the full pomp of the BBC Concert Orchestra, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West delivered an oblique nod to West Coast jazz and film noir with a series of exquisite miniatures.
Haden’s quartet is an odd amalgam of flawless virtuosity and uplifting simplicity. In lesser hands, the music could come across as clinical and detached, but they are so determined to push the envelope and so clearly relish each other’s company they charm the pants off you. From the opening Charlie Parker cover – the rarely played “Passport” – it was clear each has a radically different bent.
Saxophonist Ernie Watts wears his virtuosity on his sleeve. Cool-toned, he enters the fray blazing torrents of pitch-perfect, harmonically accurate scales and even an unaccompanied ballad ends in an aggressive split harmonic. Pianist Alan Broadbent prefers to forage the harmonic structures for lush chords and florid arpeggios, moulding even the heart-rending simplicity of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” into a warm, romantic edifice.
Against this rich tapestry, Haden scored by what he left out – and the gorgeous sound of his double bass. Unhurried at the fastest tempos, his perfectly placed, spacious solos floated across the underlying harmonic structures following a logic all of their own. The musical strategies differed, but were perfectly complementary, although it was the remarkable drummer, Rodney Green, who made them cohere.
Multi-award-winning pianist Gwilym Simcock’s support act was almost as eagerly awaited as the headline. Playing music from his first album, this was a studio creation’s first gig, and although accurate the band was a little stiff. Simcock, though, was exuberantly schooled and has a good ear for floating melodies and linear structures that mix township and classical references into the modern mainstream.
The London Jazz Festival continues until Sunday November 25. www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk