Sonny Rollins opened his headlining London Jazz Festival concert at the Barbican by sketching the melody of “Cabin in the Sky”; his body language as rococo as the devious logic of the improvisations that were about to unfold. It was the second night of the 10-day festival, and he had been greeted with a standing ovation. His response was perfect; his tenor sax radiating warmth, his playing hovering above ballad tempo.
Rollins spins grandiose structures from the simplest materials. At this gig, two standards and the inevitable calypso were joined by a breezy original and Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You”. The finale was a perfunctory blues over a rock-solid shuffle. Each became a central motif sustaining a network of subsidiary themes, subtexts and blind alleys. Slashes of melody, flurries of notes, low-down honks and robust riffs were strung together with Newtonian logic.
Faced with such an inventive onslaught, it is easy to overlook the band. Clifton Anderson added colour on trombone, guitarist Bobby Broom was a soulful foil and new drummer Kobie Watkins probed. They set up this peerless improviser a treat. “Don’t Stop the Carnival” was the sole encore. The ovation could have lasted all night. ()
On Friday, I saw a double bill of lean-edged groove at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The intense precision of John Scofield, one-time guitarist with Miles Davis, stood starkly over the brittle marches and loose-skinned backbeats brewed by his New Orleans-based Piety Street band. Scofield traded low-register resonance and taut melodies, his solos a balance of jazz development and bar-room bliss.
The repertoire was mostly gospel-based, though the difference between sacred and secular seemed paper-thin. John Cleary’s blues-drenched vocal delivery and the rolling eccentricity of his piano playing had earthy overtones. Only the finale, “It’s a Big Army”, used the fast handclap of popularised gospel – Terrence Higgins’ tambourine-infused drum solo a highlight – though Hank Williams’ take on the grim reaper, “Angel of Death”, was a sombre reminder of a spiritual root.
Midway through his set, Scofield announced “His Eyes on the Sparrow” with “this song is really old, probably dating back to a 19th century Protestant hymn”. The rhythms, though, were set in the 1960s, when blues blurred into funk, impelled by the raggedy rhythms of New Orleans street parades.
Support act Denis Rollins delivered a contemporary take on this lineage with his muscular trio of Ross Stanley on organ and Portuguese drummer Pedro Segundo. The Yorkshire-raised trombonist carved angular melodies, lucid lines and abrasive electronic harmonies over bashed-up beats, squelchy bass and rich Hammond organ. The rhythms were cutting edge – dancehall swing, elliptic funk and ultra-sharp changes in tempo – and the blues never too distant. ()
Each night, the festival presents contrasting headliners at the Barbican or Southbank and a host of supports in London’s network of clubs and smaller concert halls. Some idea of the variety on offer came from the BBC Radio 3 late night launch party held at Ronnie Scott’s. Young UK band Empirical opened with a homage to saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who died in 1964; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, who played with him, followed imperiously.
Then in quick succession Paolo Angeli created moody soundscapes – a guitar, bits of bicycle and a plastic bag were involved – Kurt Elling delivered glossy songbook vocals supported by saxophonist Ernie Watts, and Ted Daniel and Michael Marcus wrapped up with sparse and spiky New York improv on trumpet and clarinet. ()
The London Jazz Festival runs until Sunday. Details and booking at www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk