Four reviews from the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival

1. The New Jazz Blueprint

Terrace Martin, Makaya McCraven and Takuya Kuroda at the Jazz Cafe

Bass so heavy it feels like it’s massaging your internal organs. Grooves that walk with a limp, dreamy synth chords prefaced by that little lift (Robert Glasper’s sonic signature) and vicious snare drum backbeats like a captive bolt in your cranium. Beat three. It’s all about beat three.

That. Plus a young crowd, crammed in shoulder to shoulder, nodding heads and bare brickwork and blue light and segues and switches of feel that make set lists feel like mixtapes mixed live. That’s the new jazz blueprint – the defining sound, look and feel of the last few of years. It’s where the momentum is. 

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2. Hip hop and high culture

Suite for Ma Dukes, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s tribute to J Dilla

Amongst hiphop fans J Dilla’s status is in no doubt. He was a production genius, known as “the greatest”, “the Mozart of hip hop”, “the king of beats”. But his influence goes way beyond that. Without Dilla, Robert Glasper wouldn’t be Robert Glasper and drummers from Chris Dave and Karriem Riggins to Makaya McCraven and Trevor Lawrence Jr., who tore it up at the Jazz Cafe last week, wouldn’t sound the way they do.

If you’ve heard some of Dilla’s music then LA composer/violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s arrangements of classic beats, scored for modern chamber ensemble and dedicated to Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, are arresting at first. At the Barbican on Wednesday night, as part of the London Jazz Festival, the opening few tracks (Find A Way, You’re My Lady, The Look of Love) made everything sound so much softer than it does on record. It was feathers and cream. Almost festive, with shimmering harp and velvety brass and woodwinds that brought shades of Gershwin. Where was the dirt? I found myself wanting for the steel-trap-snap of the drums on an MPC 3000, Dilla’s production tool of choice.

But arresting is good. It makes you listen in a different way, which is partly what Suite for Ma Dukes is about.

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Jason Moran Milton Court Live Review London Jazz Festival Thomas Rees

3. Jason Moran, stage shows and sul tasto strings

Jason Moran knows how to create a spectacle. He likes film and contemporary art and it shows. The most remarkable thing about All Rise, his recent tribute to Fats Waller, was the audacity of the arrangements, which captured Waller’s essence while radically reinventing his music and illuminating the darker corners of his psyche. But the visuals were a close second. At the Montreux Jazz Festival last year there were riotous fabrics draped across the stage and Moran sat down at the piano wearing a Haitian carnival mask – a giant Waller head complete with ribald, raised eyebrows and a smoldering cigarette. Along with Esperanza Spalding, whose Emily’s D+Evolution live set borders on surrealist theatre, he’s one of the few jazz musicians to go in for stage shows.

‘Wind’, a new commission from Jazztopad Festival in Wrocław recognising the city’s status as one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture, might be his most outlandish show yet. For the UK premiere at Milton Court, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, the stage was dominated by a giant marquee made from white lace curtains, embroidered with birds and flowers. Behind that was a white lace train the height of the room, illuminated by squares of light. When Moran’s Bandwagon trio took their places in the tent, at the heart of a Polish chamber ensemble, the walls became a shadow theatre dominated by the looming figure of drummer Nasheet Waits.

By comparison, the music was a little underwhelming – meandering at times and seemingly under-rehearsed with some slightly suspect brass playing. But there were affecting moments all the same: squally improv from the Bandwagon trio, underscored by organ drones or spotlit by Marvin Sewell‘s gleaming guitar lines; and passages of piano and fractured, reedy, sul tasto cello and violin – the sound of early morning sunlight and folkloric romance, a sound that tugs at the heartstrings.

Elsewhere there were street beats, R&B jams, stirring melodies and sombre themes. The transitions between improvisation and through-composition worked well. The emotional range was satisfying and broad. It played out much like a film score. The tent and the curtains were inspired by a visit to Wrocław’s famous Świebodzki Flea Market. The score described a city with catholic taste.

4. The Scream

Ambrose Akinmusire veers between painterly and harrowing

What links Dhafer Youssef, the Tunisian vocalist and oud virtuoso with Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, aside from the fact that Akinmusire features on Diwan Of Beauty And Odd, Youssef’s latest album?

If you saw their double bill at the Barbican on the final weekend of the London Jazz Festival then you already know the answer. It’s range, control and a painterly approach to sound.

Youssef is the showman, the crowd-pleaser. He elicits whoops of delight as he sings, graining laments with guttural inflections before soaring into his upper register, borne by reverb. He goes so high it’s uncanny – a weird but wonderful sound, like he’s broadcasting a signal from the outreaches of the solar system. It earns him standing ovations, but to my ear Akinmusire’s palette is broader and more intriguing. He’s the old master in disguise. Read the rest on

— Thomas Rees

— Main Image: Makaya McCraven by Roger Thomas

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