London Jazz Festival 2012: Big Bands Blow Away The Competition


Featuring more than 250 gigs, the London jazz festival 2012 brought musical thrills to packed halls, foyers and free stages at the Southbank and Barbican. And the LJF buzz spreading out to the city's small clubs and pubs confirmed that this eclectic event continues to provide a fillip to jazz at all levels.

At the grassroots end, I saw a lively post-bop set – but one open enough to include Fats Waller's Jitterbug Waltz – led by the young London saxophonist/composer George Crowley at the Oxford Arms in Kentish Town last week. The band included former Loose Tubes trumpeter Chris Batchelor, Empirical bassist Tom Farmer, and London-based American drummer Jeff Williams, and it was a typical LJF scenario in that I was on the way home from a gig that could hardly have been more different – harpist Iro Haarla, saxophonist Trygve Seim and vocalist Norma Winstone at St James's Church in Piccadilly.

New music from around Europe was a key theme this year, as seen in the Take Five Europe project from LJF producers Serious. The initiative – for a bespoke band formed from workshop encounters between 10 young European performer/composers – showed just how much important background work on jazz-nurturing goes on all year round. Take Five Europe explored free improv, Scottish folk music (from saxophonist/bagpiper Fraser Fifield), the art of making a bulky baritone-sax sound vivacious (as demonstrated by Celine Bonacina) and a lot more from its French, Dutch, Norwegian, British and Polish lineup.

There was a time when jazz big-bands were proclaimed to be dead. But there were plenty of large ensembles at this year's LJF to blow that theory away. Performances by Guy Barker's mammoth Jazz Voice band, Manchester's Beats and Pieces, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Australian Art Orchestra, and the BBC Concert Orchestra with reeds player Shabaka Hutchings, confirmed the enduring significance of big-ensemble jazz. These outfits packed with conservatoire students also made vital contributions this year, as the Trinity Laban jazz students did on their lively Gil Evans tribute under the direction of Polar Bear's Mark Lockheart, and as the dynamically funky pianist Neil Cowley found with the sound of the Guildhall's Big Strings group swelling around him. The Royal Academy of Music's big band also showed the class of the emerging jazz generation last Saturday in its sophisticated interpretations of Kenny Wheeler's lesser-known works.

Other exciting and original big bands included Sid Peacock's Surge – a midlands outfit influenced by Belfast's Brian Irvine and by Django Bates – which played a structurally adventurous music of real independence, even if a noisy Friday night Barbican free stage obscured its subtleties, and the improvised solos might have been better integrated. The next afternoon in the same location, jazz, reggae and dubstep drummer/composer Tommy Evans, also showed why he won a Basca British Composer award last year, with a genre-bending mix of tightly organised ensemble-playing, free-spirited jazz improv – notably for his sax players and tempestuous Leeds bassist Dave Kane – and imaginative use of three singers.

Imaginative use of singers was also a characteristic of the festival, in saxophonist John Surman's choral piece Lifelines, commissioned by the 2012 Huddersfield contemporary music festival for him, pianist Howard Moody and the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir. It was probably Surman's purest expression of his love of English choral music, and how the hip jazz gracefulness of his soprano and baritone sax lines could productively blend with massed voices – even if a line like "pop your nose in a jug of this", from a traditional west country drinking song, might be unlikely to make it on to one of Surman's recordings for the rather more astringent ECM label, unless maybe sung in Latin.

Pianists also provided plenty of enduring memories from the festival. Tigran Hamasyan and the Cuban Aruan Ortiz – the latter in the group he co-leads with London bassist Michael Janisch – were vivid presences on the BBC's Jazz Lineup recording at the Southbank's Clore Ballroom on the first weekend. Neil Cowley brought the house down for a rock and funk-inclined audience at the Barbican, but if he isn't a Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau, his chord-thundering pop-jazz gives his listeners the uplifting sense of witnessing musicians having the time of their lives, and he has a knack for catchy tunes, too. At the other end of the scale, former Wynton Marsalis pianist Marcus Roberts (who played a three-day residency at Kings Place, some of it with the Guildhall School's students) sounded almost flawless, and his torrential eloquence was dazzling, even if he did make Thelonious Monk's flinty pieces sound more graceful than some fans might consider necessary.

Last but not least, a joke recounted by Jazzwise magazine's Jon Newey, in a speech to mark the 10th birthday of the magazine's venture The Write Stuff – a mentoring scheme for would-be jazz journalists. "What's the difference between a jazz journalist and a pizza?" Newey asked. The answer? "A pizza can feed a family of four."

Powered by article was written by John Fordham, for on Monday 19th November 2012 17.19 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010