These days it’s not enough for a jazz booker to marry up the big names on tour at the appropriate time, plonk the name of the appropriate city in front and call it a festival. This year’s London Jazz Festival, which opens on November 10, does indeed boast at least one top-calibre concert every night, but is rather more than just a string of gigs by international touring bands.
Alongside the heavyweights – a spectrum running from the saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s interactive acoustic quartet, the vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s latest blues project and the experimentalism of the guitarist Marc Ribot – is a wealth of locally based musicians, many of whom gig regularly in London’s well-established network of jazz clubs such as Chelsea’s 606, the Vortex in Dalston and The Spitz in
Their integration into the programme creates a mix of cutting-edge concerts and vibrant club culture. Add in the 200 saxophonists of Andy Sheppard’s “Saxophone Massive” serenading the opening of the newly built Gillett Square in Dalston (which just happens to be outside the Vortex) and the London accent is strong.
Last year’s audience figures for the London Jazz Festival were the highest in its history and the event was voted best music festival of the year by readers of Time Out magazine. The 2006 festival has even bigger ideas, with the addition of a further seven important venues, including the reopened Roundhouse and the established concert venue Cadogan Hall. There are some imaginatively themed gigs such as the UK composer/pianist Mike Westbrook roaming round venues with his “band for all occasions”. Also in the mix are films, talks and instrumental lessons.
The festival’s roots go back to the early 1970s and the jazz weeks funded by Camden Council. American headliners and UK support bands certainly pulled in the punters at venues such as the Roundhouse and the Shaw Theatre, but the programme was by its nature highly localised and certainly didn’t reflect jazz as it was being played and heard in the capital as a whole.
The festival’s organiser John
Cumming, who is also the director of Serious Productions, says that London’s jazz landscape has always absorbed the city’s convergence of cultures. He argues that the festival’s biggest asset – and what stops it from being just another event in an already crowded cultural calendar – is the way in which jazz in London is “a mirror of the social fabric of the city”. Afro-Caribbean, west African and Indian musicians, along with exiles such as the Brazilian guitarist Gilberto Gil and the late South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, have always invigorated London’s jazz scene. More recently, the Baltic restaurant in Southwark has become a centre for east European jazz.
London’s determination to be a brand-leader of metropolitan edge is clear from its choice of the American guitarist Marc Ribot as its inaugural artist-in-residence. Renowned for his slashing attack and ability to fuse influences as far removed as Cuban rumba and spaghetti western theme-tunes, he will be showcased in two events.
On Friday November 10, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, he celebrates the music of the saxophonist Albert Ayler, with a specially convened band that includes one-time Ayler associate, the bassist Henry Grimes. On November 18, again at the QEH, Ribot explores relations between classically trained and improvising musicians with his regular group, members of the London Sinfonietta and young musicians who have attended a week of workshops.
Prewar jazz is unrepresented this year – Cumming believes that gigs should be more than run-of-the mill events and have a special theme – but the scope of contemporary jazz is extraordinarily wide, and each day offers a choice of the experimental and the accessible. The festival is presented in association with BBC Radio 3, which this year will make many of the concerts available as downloads, extending the festival’s reach and prestige.
Given that the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim is a frequent visitor and that the Wayne Shorter and EST concerts are sold out, here are my concert recommendations.
The pianist Herbie Hancock’s
defining mix of acoustic jazz and amplified funk is a must-see, and relaunches jazz at The Roundhouse (November 11). On November 13 choose between the vocal virtuosity of Cassandra Wilson at the Barbican and the veteran cool-school saxophonist Lee Konitz leading a one-off nonet at the Wigmore Hall. On November 16 at the QEH, the pianist Randy Weston teams up with the BBC Big Band on a set of Weston originals. The UK’s most subtle pianists, John Taylor and Gwilym Silcock, are at the Wigmore Hall (November 17).
There is outstanding acoustic modern jazz at the Barbican, from the bassist Dave Holland’s quintet, augmented by the legendary guitarist Jim Hall (November 18). There are also dozens of knock-out club gigs to choose from, with Dennis Rollins’ Badbone & Co at the Jazz Café (November 12) and the pianist Zoe Rahman at the 606 Club (November 15) standing out.
The London Jazz Festival runs from November 10 to 19. Full details at www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk