The Best Things I’ve Heard This Year

15 Musical Discoveries From 2017

What are end of year lists for? In the introduction to a list for Esquire, music writer Ben Ratliff makes his feelings clear. Numbered lists are absurdity-laden “hate-reads,” he argues. How can you possibly rank albums from radically different genres without drastically compromising your judgement, and why would you want to? The subtext to a list should be: listen to this and this, not this over and above that. A list should prompt further inquiry. It should imply “etc.”

I agree with all of that, and I’d second Ratliff’s advice to consult genre specialist publications and to read as many lists as you can. But I would also add that the reasoning behind the choices on a list – why those pieces of music deserve a place – is the most important thing of all. Why is the ultimate “etc.” It makes you hear things differently, as the author of the list hears them. It encourages you to re-listen, or to go off and make new discoveries to confirm or challenge what you’ve been told. It makes a list useful and informative even if you don’t agree with anything on it. And that’s the strange thing about Ratliff’s list. There’s no why. He just dumps a load of Spotify links to albums (15 of them, arranged in alphabetical order) at the foot of his firebrand introduction and leaves you to sort yourself out. It’s a bit of a let down.

To be clear, why isn’t the same as a review. This is not the time for description heavy, blow by blow accounts of tracks. An end of year list is a chance to zoom out, to reflect, to think about context and about the long view. Maybe even to change your mind about things.

This is a best of 2017 list with a difference. It’s unnumbered and it isn’t just albums. On it are 15 things from the past year that I think are important – radio shows that have made me sit up, tracks I’ve listened to obsessively and gigs that have changed the way I think about music – along with the reasons why. Whether you like them or not, I hope they give you pause for thought and lead you to some exciting discoveries of your own.

 

DNA.

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN isn’t a masterpiece like To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s not epoch defining. But it’s still one of the best albums of 2017 and probably the one that I’ve obsessed over most. Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of all time. That’s no longer in doubt. His mastery of language – of word play, assonance, phrasing and above all rhythm – is something to behold. I hear a lot of similarities with jazz in what he does – in the way he pulls the beat around and manipulates the sound of his voice as if it’s an instrument. He’s experimenting and pushing boundaries. It’s really not that far-fetched to describe him as the John Coltrane of Hip Hop.

‘DNA’ is the album’s standout track. It was produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, the Atlanta-born super producer behind ‘HUMBLE’ and ‘XXX’ as well as Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’, the best track on Lemonade by a “never take the country out me” mile. Trap is taking over the world and Mike Will is a big part of the reason why.

On ‘DNA’ we hear the Atlanta sound at its darkest and most disturbing – all warped basslines and needle-sharp 808s. There’s so much tension and urgency wound into that final minute. Lamar is spitting fire, battling glitchy vocal samples as a series of lurching sub-bass suspensions pull the whole thing so tight it feels like it’s going to self-destruct. It floods your body with adrenaline, but it also captures the mood of 2017. It’s a perfect distillation of anger and fear, pride and determination – the soundtrack to deeply troubled times.

 

Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

The horrors of contemporary politics — yawning wealth gaps, Brexit and the social rifts it has exposed, the election of Donald Trump and the ongoing battle for civil rights — have stoked a fire in jazz, as well as hip hop. The spirit of protest is raging with an intensity not seen since the days of Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. Many artists, including Christian Scott and Shabaka and the Ancestors, whose set at this year’s Love Supreme Festival peaked with a defiant “we will not forget Grenfell” have responded directly — and with the same attack dog ferocity as Lamar. Others, notably flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell (a former leader of the AACM), have harnessed the power of Afrofuturism, using imagined worlds to comment on our present day reality. Read my paragraph on Mandorla Awakening II, #7 in EZH Mag’s best releases of 2017.

I can’t mention the Chicago scene and the AACM without also recommending Hear In Now, a string trio featuring violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Silvia Bolognesi. Their latest album, Not Living In Fear, is exquisitely played and powerfully political too.

 

Robert Wyatt on BBC Radio 3 Late Junction

Much as I enjoyed listening to Robert Wyatt’s music selections, especially that stunning Rahsaan Roland Kirk track (‘Alfie’ from Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith), this programme was really all about the wisdom – hearing the thoughts of someone who has spent a lifetime making music and defying expectations along the way.

Wyatt is the darling of the alternative music world, but he was refreshingly free from edge. There was none of the tedious iconoclasm that so often accompanies that scene – the rubbishing of anything remotely popular or mainstream. Quite the opposite: Wyatt does high low. I particularly enjoyed hearing him talk about his love for pop, and the art that it demands, and his quoting of Charles Mingus: “The further popular music gets from song and dance the further it gets from relevance to anything.”

I often struggle with humour in music so his comments about Ivor Cutler’s musical absurdism hit home (“people think if it’s funny it can’t also be high art”). And I appreciated his advice for creatives of all kinds: in the moment of creation, block out the intellectual part of your brain (that’s useful later, when the time comes for analysis) and let your instinctive, animal side take over.

 

Bill Frisell’s Music for Strings at JAZZMI

When you watch great musicians perform their instruments seem less like instruments and more like extensions of their bodies – vehicles for self expression. So it is with guitarist Bill Frisell, violinist Jenny Scheinman, viola player Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts. Their set at Milan’s new jazz festival this November was a masterclass in subtlety and understatement. There was no gratuitous flash. Not a whiff of ego. No one was trying to impress. They were just making music together – playing beautiful tunes, exploring and improvising from the heart. Frisell took one thirty second solo in the whole gig and it was glorious. As Trevor Tomkins, one of my music college tutors, loved to tell us: “it’s not about how much you play, it’s about how much you say.”

 

David Virelles, Gnosis

With Ḿbọ̀kọ́ (ECM, 2014), Cuban-born pianist David Virelles unveiled a whole new take on “Latin Jazz”. Gone were the sunshiney montunos, dancing salsa grooves and flashy solos. Virelles’ Cuba was filled with the flinty sound of contemporary classical piano, sparse percussion and chant-like vocals drawn from the shadowy world of Abakuá ritual. On Gnosis he continues to explore that sound world, drawing on a broader palette of colours that comprises cello and woodwinds, along with percussion instruments I’ve never heard before, including a giant thumb piano called a marimbula. Some of the tracks are expansive, others are more like sketches – scampering atonal piano studies, or brittle percussive fragments. The beautiful two-part ‘De Ida Y Vuelta’ starts like a study, becomes a dissonant nocturne and then incorporates a distorted Cuban traditional style that could be danzon in super slow motion. ‘Del Tabaco y el Azúcar’ features the most leftfield use of steel pan you’ll ever come across. This is the music of the Caribbean, but not as you know it.

 

Rhodri Davies at Borealis Festival

Back in March I went to Borealis, a festival of experimental music held in the Norwegian city of Bergen, and posted a series of short instagram reviews which I’ve collated here. There were many memorable performances, including a meteorological sound art piece held in an abandoned Second World War military installation out in the fjords. One of the most thought-provoking was a solo set from Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies, a respected name on the experimental and contemporary classical scenes, who unleashed a barrage of tensile, acoustic noise, wrenching at the strings of his harp until every single one of them had snapped. I’m not sure what the takeaway is with this one. I’ve just never seen someone do that before and it struck me as an ingeniously simple (if unorthodox) way to structure a set – to play until you’ve exhausted yourself or the instrument, until you physically can’t play any more.

 

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the London Jazz Festival

There are very few composers around these days writing world class material for big band –  true innovators who are taking the music forward. Gil Evans’ protégé Maria Schneider is one of them. Another is the Vancouver-born Brooklyn-based bandleader Darcy James Argue. At this year’s London Jazz Festival Argue and his Secret Society Big Band proved their metal with an atmospheric performance of Real Enemies – a masterpiece of contemporary big band repertoire inspired by conspiracy theories and the politics of paranoia. As the music seesawed between nagging unease and hysterical panic, Argue conjured an astonishing array of colours and textures from the ensemble, exploiting the raw power that comes from massed ranks, but also proving just how agile a big band can be. Real Enemies is available on Bandcamp, along with Argue’s previous release, Brooklyn Babylon, another outstanding suite that incorporates classical minimalism, alt rock and Balkan brass band music. Following the LJF gig I’ve been doing some more digging into the contemporary big band scene. Check out LA bandleader Jacob Mann and John Beasley’s MONK’estra. And, if you don’t know them already, Manchester band Beats & Pieces.

 

Despacito

I know, I know. It’s total trash. The lyrics make this year’s Bad Sex Award winner look like a masterpiece of poetic titillation. (“I want to sign the walls of your labyrinth and make your whole body a manuscript.” WTAF, Luis Fonsi?) But bear with me. Earlier this year I went to a Barbican exhibition about vulgar fashion. It touched upon vulgarity in many different senses of the word, from vulgar meaning sexually explicit or over the top, to vulgar as in popular (the word derives from the Latin vulgaris, ‘as used by the common people’). Many of the exhibits were so ludicrous or revolting they were actually really fun, and Despacito made me realise that the same could be true of music. It’s so full of shit and unrefined sugar that it’s sort of great.

It also helped me remember just how much lies behind our appreciation and enjoyment of music. My love for ‘Despacito’ has a lot to do with nostalgia and association. Reggaeton and horrifyingly cheesy Latino pop was the soundtrack to a golden time of my life: the six months I spent travelling in Latin America. Sometimes it takes Justin Bieber to remind you that critical objectivity is a myth.

 

Ambrose Akinmusire at Ronnie Scotts

Oakland-born trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the great instrumentalists of our time. He’s a sound painter who can produce an incredible range of hues on the trumpet – stinging voluntaries, bugle calls, fragile whistles, rasps and bestial snuffles – and his emotionally raw compositional style, which blends bracing abstraction and heartfelt tenderness, is strikingly distinctive. He’s been touring with pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown for years and the interplay between them is at a level most groups can only dream of. Their latest release, A Rift In The Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard is one of this year’s best. Hearing them live live at Ronnie Scott’s back in July was thrilling.

 

I Called Him Morgan

Kaspar Collin’s documentary tells the story of the great trumpeter Lee Morgan from the perspective of his common law wife, Helen – a fascinating character, who helped Morgan rebuild his career after a struggle with heroin addiction and then shot him dead in Slug’s Saloon one snowy night in 1972. It’s a deeply affecting film that explores passion and forgiveness. The interviews, not least some tape of Helen recorded towards the end of her life, are compelling. And the soundtrack, full of lesser known Morgan cuts along with classics like ‘The Sidewinder’, is a joy. I listened to Search for the New Land and Live at the Lighthouse on repeat for several days afterwards.

 

Jazz and Grime

I’ll remember 2017 as the year I properly got into grime, and the year I started to notice grime influence creeping into UK jazz – particularly in the skanking dub grooves and disgusting sub bass grot doled out by brilliant young tuba player Theon Cross. At a time when RnB and hip hop fusion is dominating jazz output and 80% of young keyboard players sound like Robert Glasper, jazz n grime feels refreshing. It ticks the accessibility box, but it’s unique to the UK. It’s our own distinctive contribution to the burgeoning jazz crossover scene.

One of the best moments of this year’s Glastonbury coverage was Kano’s ferociously energetic set, complete with a stage invasion from Cross and his brother Nathaniel, on trombone. As part of a full band, which also featured Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner on drums, they lifted ‘New Banger’, ‘P’s and Q’s’ and ‘3 Wheel-ups’ to new heights. To Pimp A Butterfly gave US jazz a huge boost and it would be great to see more grime world heavies linking up with jazzers here in the UK. The two styles are a natural fit.

 

Vijay Iyer’s Wigmore Hall Jazz Series

US pianist Vijay Iyer’s series as jazz artist in residence at Wigmore Hall is the best I’ve seen so far. I wrote about his first performance, a fractious musical conversation with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, for Jazzwise. His trio set, which I reviewed for the October issue of the Wire, was made all the more memorable by Tyshawn Sorey, an astonishing drummer and composer breaking new ground where the contemporary classical and the jazz worlds meet. Sorey has had a busy year. He features on Roscoe Mitchell’s magnificent album, Bells For The Southside, and his own release, Verisimilitude, is another of this year’s strongest. I was out of town for the final gig in Iyer’s series, featuring his new sextet, and I’m still kicking myself. They sound storming on record.

 

Field Recording

The art of field recording has been a major discovery for me this year. I came across it via the work of American field recordist Alan Lomax, who travelled the world in the mid 20th century documenting everything from spinners’ songs on the Orkneys to the work songs of prison farm chain gangs in the southern United States. Armed with a little handheld, I’ve recorded raucous rara carnival bands in Port-au-Prince and Balkan brass bands at Serbia’s Guca Trumpet Festival, and discovered rich music scenes that I knew next to nothing about in the process.

One of the great joys of field recording is the way it re-enchants the world. Many field recordists record ambient sounds as well as music. When you do that, it wakes you up to the beauty and the interest in everyday sounds of all kinds – hissing charcoal, the clatter and scream of the Tube, the whir of a flywheel — and the sounds within those sounds. Your ear latches onto interesting sonic juxtapositions, in the same way a photographer develops an eye for composition.

Two musicians doing interesting things with field recordings are drummers Jaimeo Brown and Sarathy Korwar. For anyone interested in Haitian music, I’d recommend recent rara and vodou releases on Soul Jazz Records as well as sax player Tom Challenger’s wonderfully chaotic Brass Mask Live album. It features two tracks, ‘The Bague’ and ‘The Merman’, that are heavily inspired by Haitian rara.

 

Not Quite Music:

Laughter Meditation with Laraaji

At this year’s End Of The Road festival I took part in a laughter meditation workshop led by zither wizard and new age mystic Laraaji. Laughter meditation is all about harnessing the “healing, mood-enhancing power of laughter” and using it to stimulate different areas of the body. Being a cynical Brit, I wasn’t sure if it would work for me. When it came to the freestyle laughter session at the end, I thought I’d have to force it. I didn’t think I’d laugh for real. But there I was, laying on the grass in the glare of the late summer sun, laughing so hard my muscles ached. Properly, uncontrollably shaking with laughter. Catching my breath, hearing someone else go and starting all over again. By the end you’re drunk on endorphins. It’s the strangest, giddiest feeling.

 

Definitely Not Music: 

The Invisible College

This isn’t music (although it does touch on the musicality of speech). It wasn’t even made this year, but I only discovered it this spring and I love it so much I have to mention it. Cathy FitzGerald is one of the UK’s most creative radio producers. For this BBC Radio 4 series subtitled “little lessons in creative writing”, she’s spent hours mining archive interviews with great writers of the past (everyone from Ted Hughes to Allen Ginsberg and Maya Angelou) for pearls of wisdom. Topics range from writing dialogue to dealing with writer’s block. It’s thought-provoking, whimsical, comforting, inspiring and beautifully made – a series to be treasured and one I know I’ll listen to over and over again, whenever writing seems daunting or I feel as though I’m stuck in a rut.

 

— Thomas Rees

Image Credits: Luca Vantusso (Bill Frisell), Tim Dickeson (Darcy James Argue), Andrea Ruffini (rara band Follow Jah) 

Insta Review: Tigran Hamasyan

Beatboxing and piano wizardry

Rara and Rhum in Haiti

A review of the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince ft Danilo Pérez and Christian Scott

Port-au-Prince is one of the most intoxicating places I’ve ever been. The Haitian capital is filthy and utterly dysfunctional – one vast, chaotic squatters camp/street market strewn across the hills that climb up towards Kenscoff and baked onto a coastal plane that drags itself into the Caribbean. It’s the first city of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A difficult, squalid place to live. But it’s also colourful and captivating. It heightens your senses and works its way into your dreams, filling your head with images of lacy, “gingerbread” mansions and brightly painted “tap tap” minibuses, with the sound of carnival bands, birdsong and grinding gears, and the sweet smell of bougainvillea and gasoline. Read On…

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.  Read On…

Review: Match&Fuse Festival London, New River Studios

Alt-jazz and Brexit

Just what Brexit will mean for Europe’s music scene is anyone’s guess – though most people are guessing it won’t be good. A recent BBC News article warned of visas and restrictions on movement discouraging overseas acts from visiting the UK and making it more difficult and costly for UK acts to tour. It hinted at the disappearance of funding bodies too.

Scaremongering? I hope so. Perhaps it will come out in the wash. Right now though the outlook seems bleak and embarrassing for those of us who identify ourselves as musicians and music-lovers of Europe.

We need solutions, but we also need to rail against it all in the best way that we can: against the idiotic nostalgia for an imagined golden age, against mind-forged divisions and pig-headed insularity, and there’s no better place to do that than Match&Fuse, where you can deafen and drown your sorrows in improv and irreverent, pan-European skronk.

Run by Dave Morecroft of UK punk-jazz outfit WorldService Project, M&F celebrates alternative music from across Europe and has branches in Oslo, Rome, Warsaw and Toulouse. This year’s London edition billed itself as “a political ‘up yours’ to the obtuse world we find ourselves in” and came good on its promise by bringing together 23 acts from 14 countries across two days of leftfield music-making.

Saturday took place at East London venues Cafe OTO and the Vortex, as in previous years, with Evan Parker and portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva topping the bill. But I went for Friday, which had the added benefit of being held at New River Studios, a converted furniture warehouse in Manor House run as a not-for-profit arts and performance space, which has just started hosting gigs. It sulks on an industrial estate, a few kicked-in-doors down from Cara House, an old office block full of studios and former squats (naturally, they now go for around £800 a month) that shake with the bass from warehouse parties at weekends. Just the sort of place for some anti-establishment musical agitating.  Read On…

Crimea River

A review of Crimea’s Koktebel Jazz Party for Jazzwise

For a place that was so recently in the eye of a political storm, Koktebel feels negligently laid back. This dusty Black Sea resort town was once a hangout for bohemian intellectuals, most famously turn-of-the-century poet Maximilian Voloshin and his circle, but has been a popular holiday destination since Soviet times. Nowadays it’s a bit like the Crimean equivalent of Margate, or perhaps Skegness, known for its hang-gliding, local brandy and pebbly, naturist beaches – which sounds like an accident waiting to happen.

Wander along the main drag and it’s all bouncy castles and bulgy bronzed bodies, jet skis, inflatables, ferris wheels and shooting galleries, though here they use decommissioned AK47s for the pellet guns. You get the impression that everyday life is much as it was before the Russian annexation of 2014. According to the locals there are slightly fewer tourists around, but it’s still heaving. Business as usual.

Koktebel Jazz Party has never been quite the same however. Founded in 2003 as a joint Russian-Ukrainian venture, it has been Russian-only since 2014, when the Ukrainian contingent left to set up their own version in Odessa. The past two editions have been marred by politics, with artists, including De-Phazz and Arturo Sandoval, pulling out following pressure from their home governments.

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Koktebel © Thomas Rees

I worried a great deal about coming here for fear of tacitly condoning the occupation, saying the wrong thing or indicating any kind of support for the views of the festival’s director, Dmitry Kiselev, a notorious TV news anchor appointed by Putin to head-up government owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya in 2013. He was recently described by The Economist as Russia’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’.

But I was told that the 2016 edition would be different. Koktebel Jazz Party was a cultural event, designed to promote ‘honesty, internationality and artistic freedom’. This year all of the US bands would be announced on the day to avoid any hassle for the musicians and Kiselev (a dedicated jazz fan) would be taking a weekend off from the kind of jingoistic punditry that has landed him on the EU sanctions list – describing Ukraine as a failed state for instance, or making sabre-rattling comments about the size of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.  Politics was to have nothing to do with it.

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Dmitry Kiselev © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Almost inevitably, that didn’t come to pass. This year’s logo was red, white and blue for a start (the colours of the Russian flag) and Kiselev couldn’t help mentioning in his opening night speech that Koktebel Jazz had been given a ‘second wind’ by the occupation (questionable when you look at line-ups and photos from previous years). Arina Novoselskaya, Minister of Culture of the Republic of Crimea (one of several political attendees) went a step further, describing the peninsula as ‘the embodiment of a free Russia’ in an address that was anything but apolitical.

With the Russian Ministry of Culture and lead sponsor Smolensk Diamonds fronting the cash, no expense had been spared on the stage, a beachside confection complete with giant video screen and roving red and blue spotlights. Sat in front of it on the first night, in a half empty stand separated from the cheap seats on the beach by a ring of burly security guards in tight-fitting Koktebel Jazz Party t-shirts, I briefly wondered whether this was all just for show, a spectacle for no one but the press and the TV cameras. But then the first of the bands came on, the stand filled up and Kiselev put down the mic and retired to the VIP balcony to survey the scene over a glass of brandy. The next three nights were mostly about the music.

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Takuya Kuroda © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Nights one and two were uneven, though the music-loving holiday-makers in the crowd were wonderfully appreciative, needing little encouragement to get up and dance. Shanghai-based trumpeter Li Xiaochuan, a leading light on the Chinese jazz scene, proved himself a superb technician and an imaginative improviser, but his set of indie rock-inspired originals was scuppered by one of several sound-crew meltdowns that left the stage littered with blown amps and agitated roadies. A performance from the Japanese-born New York-based Tachibana Quintet felt a bit thrown together, though Blue Note-signed trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and pianist Martha Kato impressed with some gutsy solos; and we saw our fair share of sketchy vocalists.

Still, there were plenty of high points too. A set from British blues man Julian Burdock, performing with his all-Russian band the 24 Kopeks, was a huge hit with the crowd and brought theatrical guitar, harmonica and washboard solos, along with a cheeky rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’. Russian/Cuban outfit Mambo Party, led by all-singing-all-dancing frontman Juan Horlendis Baños, delivered hip-swinging grooves; and performances from Georgy Garanyan’s Krasnodar Big Band and Russian pianist Yakov Okun and his International Band were both excellent.

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Yakov Okun’s International Band © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya

Garanyan had teamed up with Finnish clarinet player Antti Sarpila for a tribute to Benny Goodman that was all spit and polish – a right royal rumpus full of silky melodies and raucous big band shouts. Okun’s set of intricately arranged standards was an excuse for his all-star septet to stretch out. Horace Silver’s ‘Filthy McNasty’ saw the pianist knit a Monkish cat’s cradle of lines and ‘Body and Soul’ was deeply moving, with passionate solos from trombonist Phil Abraham, Spanish alto player Perico Sambeat and trumpeter Viktor Guseinov, full of age-old phrases and hard won wisdom.

On the final night, the mystery Americans rolled into town, the stand was packed, the sound crew seemed to have ironed out the kinks and the quality remained consistently high. New York Connection were one of several bands formed especially for the festival and featured a rock solid rhythm section of pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III. With Johnaye Kendrick on vocals, ubiquitous tenor player (and festival art director) Sergey Golovnya and trumpeter/bandleader Vitaly Golovnev completed the frontline.

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New York Connection © Evgeniya Novozhenina/Rossiya Segodnya

Golovnev was a semi-finalist in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition (won that year by Ambrose Akinmusire) and proved his mettle in the opening number, an original called ‘Long Hands’ studded with dissonant hits. From there the six-piece swung through some lesser-known standards and straightforward Kendrick compositions. Hayama’s solos, all clambering motifs and nerve-shredding harmonic tension, were a highlight, but Kendrick was the darling of the crowd. When she reached for the top of her register, scatting and stretching notes to breaking point, it brought the house down.

The grand finale was a set from drummer Jimmy Cobb. It was more straightahead jazz, but immensely enjoyable all the same, with fluid, rhythmically inventive piano solos from Alexei Podymkin and some magisterial alto-playing from Vincent Herring. He hurtled through ‘Blue Monk’ quick as a cannonball and poured a lifetime’s worth of language into his flourishing double-time cadenzas. Cobb swung hard but kept things low key before letting loose with a bustling, feature-length solo on Gershwin’s ‘Strike Up the Band’, mouthing the rhythms as he went and taking his applause with an almighty stretch, a playful grimace and a grin. He’s seriously impressive for a man of 87.

When the organisers came back on, Cobb was thanked profusely for ‘being brave enough to come to Russia’. I suppose the implication was that he’d defied a repressive US regime in order to do so and at that point I lost interest.

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View from the beach © Vladimir Astapkovich/Rossiya Segodnya

If you want to find the soul of this festival you have to join the crowds of loved-up couples, hippies in harem trousers and tie dye, and families with babes in arms down to the beach, away from the bright lights and the posturing of the main stand. Sitting out there in the gathering darkness, listening to the lazy lap of the waves and the crunch of pebbles beneath sandy feet as the sound of Legends of Brazil drifted across from the stage, the world of geopolitics seemed very far off indeed. Nationalism and nationality were utterly irrelevant.

The same was true of the sprawling, vodka-fuelled jam sessions that rocked the hotel bar until five am each morning, but, as a whole, the festival isn’t quite there. It still feels as though it has a secondary, if not an ulterior, motive and it’s questionable whether it can ever be truly apolitical while Kiselev remains at the helm. This year was a step in the right direction, but if it wants to emulate its carefree host town and easy going audience and to ensure that boycotts and moral dilemmas become a thing of the past it still has work to do.

– Thomas Rees 

This article was origianlly published on jazzwisemagazine.com

LUME Festival 2016 Review by Thomas Rees

Review: LUME Festival 2016

Toy pianos, operatic theremins and homely vibes

Perhaps it was the intimacy of the performances or the fact that all of the musicians seemed to be old friends, but this inaugural afternoon of music from underground promoters LUME felt as much like a family get together as it did a festival. There was a handmade charm about the whole event and the lineup was refreshing too, with left-field bands from across the UK and some overseas cousins stopping by.

First up were our hosts, LUME founders Dee Byrne (alto) and Cath Roberts (bari) and their four-piece Word of Moth whose rough-and-tumble grooves and tectonic unison sax lines made for a gutsy start. Leeds-based trio Hot Beef Three explored a similar sound-palette, but ramped up the anarchy, mixing baritone screams and pecked alto with agro snare-drum tattoos and feral guitar swipes; while a set from Austrian visitors Blueblut was a wonderfully eccentric jumble of genres that turned up drone music, circus music, psych rock and country, along with crashing waves of drums and operatic Theremin that sounded disconcertingly like Edith Piaf.

Two wholly improvised sets changed the pace. Manchester duo Ant Traditions, featuring guitarist Dave Birchall and Adam Fairhall, hunched over a series of miniature upright pianos, created jangling metallic soundscapes full of ostinati that span like merry go rounds in a surrealist amusement park. A trio performance from Julie Kjær (alto), Rachel Musson (tenor) and Hannah Marshall (cello) was sparser, all shifting moods and luxuriant stretches of silence.

The two larger ensembles on the bill cleaved closest to jazz tradition. Little Church, led by Birmingham keys-player David Austin Grey, drew inspiration from electric Miles and shuffled jazz rock covers with hazy melodies and looping grooves of their own; while guitarist Anton Hunter’s Article XI ensured the festival ended on a high with originals that smashed blazing horn-lines into passages of chaotic group improvisation.

Like all the best family get togethers LUME should be an annual event. This debut was outstanding.

— Thomas Rees

This article was originally published in Jazzwise Magazine September 2016 issue

Logan Richardson Taking Off Interview by Thomas Rees

Taking Off: Logan Richardson

The rising star saxophonist on his Blue Note debut, working with Pat Metheny and drawing inspiration from Pygmy rituals

Talking to Logan Richardson is fascinating, but keeping up is a challenge. When we meet, the 36-year-old altoist has come straight off a heavily-delayed Eurostar from Paris, where he lives, into an afternoon of interviews. He’s wired – sleep-deprived but radiating a nebulous energy – and for the first twenty minutes of our conversation he hardly draws breath, save to lean out of the window of his hotel room and take quick drags from a roll-up (“you don’t mind if I stand do you?”)

I sit, as we slalom through topics ranging from the importance of self-belief to the molecular construction of a saxophone, pygmy fire-lighting techniques, the wisdom of “crazy people who live in the woods” and The Matrix.

Shift, Richardson’s Blue Note debut, has a similarly restless feel to it, accentuated by blazing solos from an all-star band that features Pat Metheny, Jason Moran, Nasheet Waits and Harish Raghavan. Yet it’s anchored by strong melodies and more accessible than his previous albums, Cerebral Flow (2007) and Ethos (2008). I tell him the unison refrains remind me of singing and he lights up.

“I love vocalists! That’s great that it comes off. I like ‘singing’, but with polyrhythmic shifting things happening underneath. With that combination everyone can find something they want. Someone who knows nothing about jazz is probably gonna like it because of that melody and then they’re into everything else that maybe they don’t [understand].”

Richardson’s obsession with vocalists goes way beyond jazz. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri listening to his parents’ collection of funk, soul and gospel records, and Shift even includes a cover of Bruno Mars’ ‘Locked Out of Heaven’. “I’ve always listened to everything,” he says. “Prince, Olivia Newton-John, R.E.M., The Fugees…I was just speaking with Soweto Kinch. I’ve been hip to his music ever since ‘99 or 2000.”

The music for Shift was composed between about 2009 and 2015. “I compose a lot from piano,” Richardson explains. “I’ll come up with a chord and try ideas. I prefer to do what feels good and figure out what it is after the fact. That way I always keep ahead of myself.

I want to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he says. “That was the best thing about school: you had teachers who pushed you.” Top of his list of inspiring mentors is saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen, a legendary figure in Kansas City, who died in 2010. “He was my Morpheus,” Richardson says, dropping another Matrix reference. “At 17 he really set me free.”

From there Richardson went on to Berklee and the New School, where he took lessons with Nasheet Waits. “I’ve always had a thing with drummers,” he says. “I like playing duo. That’s what hooked up my independence, my time and my harmonic strength. I love the way Coltrane and Bird didn’t need anyone. Everything’s clear, with no crutch – no bass, no harmony. I got that with Nasheet, constantly having my butt handed to me in lessons.”

Not long afterwards he joined Waits’ band Equality and then Jason Moran’s Big Bandwagon, playing the music of Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert – which is how he met Metheny.

“We did a commemorative concert at Town Hall in New York in 2009,” he recalls, “I don’t want to make it seem like a movie script, but it was kind of crazy. I woke up the next day and I had this email saying: ‘Hi Logan, this is Pat. I was at the concert last night and I had a great time. I’ve got your first two albums. I love your music. My brother’s been telling me about you since you were 16 in Kansas City…’ He’d been watching me for 20 years!”

Eventually they fixed a date to record. “That was the first time everyone had got together, but there were never really any mistakes,” Richardson says with a grin. “Pat had built, like, seven different sounds… He’s the first person in the studio and the last to leave. It’s impeccable, man. Everything he does, whether people love it or they hate it, they can not deny it. Undeniability is something that I strive for.”

Richardson is just as enthusiastic about the touring band for Shift, which includes guitarist Nir Felder and pianist John Escreet. “I’ve been working the name Shift since 2005/2006,” he explains. “I always loved the idea of the Jazz Messengers: one name, one band, yet they brought through so many bad MFs. I have three different bands that I can bring, but this band is really, really crushing. It’s been like fire from the first time.”

Alongside that, he’s touring with Christian Scott’s Stretch Music, covers super-group the NEXT Collective and pianist Gerald Clayton, whilst developing further ambitious plans of his own. “I want an electric bass, drums and saxophone trio, but with a string quartet comping, “ he says. “Imagine the pianist split into four people, on top of this crunchy, cinematic…yeah.”

He’s also considering a foray into world music, which is where the pygmies come in. “My lady is half Congolese and we went to the village where her father is from,” he explains. “She’s from the Bantu tribe, but in this village there’s also a community of pygmy people. They put on celebrations all night, the Bantu doing their thing around a drum and dancing in a circle for hours and the pygmy sitting around a fire clapping and singing. I was running between the two. It was one of the deepest experiences I’ve ever had… I want to take the band there and record!”

— Thomas Rees

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Jazzwise Magazine

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Montreux Jazz Festival at 50

Fireworks from Herbie Hancock + Terrace Martin, Avishai Cohen and Quincy Jones

I never met Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He died in a skiing accident in 2013, but I feel as though I know him. It would be hard to visit Montreux and not feel that way. There are beaming bespectacled images of him wherever you look. There’s even a street named in his honour, which sounds over the top until you realise what he did for the town. And Montreux is a town. A small one at that, in the crook of the alps at the far end of Lake Geneva, not the sort of place you’d expect to find one of the world’s most celebrated music festivals.

It had a few famous admirers in the days before Montreux Jazz, most of them literary heavyweights. Byron and the Shelleys were fans and Nabokov spent his last years there, living in a suite in the Montreux Palace Hotel, writing and collecting butterflies. The nearby Château de Chillon (a lakeside castle that looks as if it’s been plucked from the pages of children’s book) is a draw and the setting is beautiful.

Sometimes it’s almost too much, so blindingly picturesque you’d think it was staged. When I drew the curtains on the first morning and looked out on a cloudless sky, with the lake a radiant cornflower blue and the mountains shimmering on the skyline, I could have sworn I heard the voice of a director:

“And cue hang-gliders.”

“Can we get that schooner in the shot? Yeah, the absurdly beautiful one with the toffee-coloured wood and the crimson sails.”

“More swifts around the eaves please.”

“Belle Époque paddle steamer arriving in 3, 2, 1 … ”

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Photo Credit: Arnaud Derib

It’s gentler and more manageable at dusk, when the lake is the dusky blue of tempered steel and the sky is flushed with pink. Then there’s nowhere nicer to be than the waterfront, where the beautiful people are, beneath the palm trees and the willows, watching boats drift on their moorings and wishing one of them belonged to you.

When the festival is in full swing, the town oozes affluence and youthful glamour. They sell bottles of Montreux-branded Taittinger in the gift shop and you’re all but tripping over Lamborghinis. It makes it hard to imagine it the way it looks in archive footage from the 1950s and 1960s when it was a dull place full of dust sheets and empty hotels – somewhere up-tight retirees went to spill soup down themselves in cavernous dining rooms. It could have sunk without a trace. Instead it’s a honeypot and household name, home to the biggest jazz festival in the world save Montreal. Its great friend and patron Quincy Jones calls it ‘the Rolls-Royce’.

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Claude Nobs (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin)

That’s an extraordinary transformation for a town to undergo and it leaves you wondering just how it was possible. But then you visit Claude’s chalet, tucked away in the mountains overlooking the lake, and you talk to people who knew him and you stop wondering altogether. They tell you about Claude turning up to stuffy press conferences on water skis and about his respect for the musicians. How he’d insist on picking them up from Geneva airport himself, driving them to the chalet and cooking them an elaborate dinner. He was the host with the utmost, they say, but he was also a dreamer, passionate and wildly ambitious. Someone who didn’t take no for an answer.

“Nothing was impossible,” said Mathieu Jaton, Claude’s right hand man and the current CEO of the festival, who showed me round the chalet last winter. You get a sense of that from the decor. It feels less like a home and more like a live-in antiques shop or a museum of music industry memorabilia, from the jazz world and beyond. Every available surface is covered with curios and the whole place is bathed in the honeyed glow of around 30 vintage jukeboxes. There are motorbikes and vespa scooters parked in the hallways, model train sets, walls of toy cars and shelves and shelves of vinyl.

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There’s a fireproof room to house the festival’s UNESCO-listed sound and video archives and a cinema room to watch them in. Downstairs is a ‘jam room’ complete with Freddie Mercury’s piano and a guitar played by Paul McCartney, where the names in the guest book include D’Angelo, Robert Plant and John McLaughlin. That’s a self-portrait by David Bowie. Over there are some photos of him and Claude on a skiing trip together. The painting by the door? That’s Snoop Dogg holding a cross and extending the hand of benediction. Why, I’ve no idea.

Mathieu remembers Claude returning from overseas trips with kilos and kilos of stuff in his luggage. “We’d say, ‘where are you going to put all of this?’ Oh just by the wall over here.” He was a hoarder, but a hoarder with style and you can’t help but wonder if programming a festival was, to him, just another form of collecting – an extension of the chalet.

Montreux’s collection is certainly comprehensive. Highlights from the archives, released earlier this year, prove that beyond doubt. You’ll spot Oscar Peterson pouring with sweat, beating all hell out the piano and Miles looking like some jazz rock Dumbledore in a multi-coloured jacket and half-moon spectacles. Ella, Nina, Mingus, Prince, Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Sun Ra and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with a mouth full of saxophones, taking the term multi-instrumentalist quite literally – they’re all there.

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Oscar Peterson (Photo Credit: Georges Braunschweig)

Appropriately, this 50th anniversary edition of Montreux felt as though it were made in Claude’s image. It was bigger and more ambitious than ever, 17 days long with 15 stages (seven of them free) plus jazz cruises and train rides, competitions, workshops, gigs in the Château de Chillon and late night raves by the waterfront. Old friends including Charles Lloyd, who headlined the very first festival, back in 1967, were in town and there were numerous tribute concerts too.

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Brazilian Dream (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin)

Claude loved Brazilian music. He was one of the first to bring it to Swiss audiences and a Brazilian spectacular in the Auditorium Stravinski, the festival’s main concert hall, was a nice touch. The sizeable Brazilian contingent in the crowd really made it, in particular a man dressed like a magnificent Latino buccaneer with waist-length hair, black winkle-pickers and a diamond stud earring, who sambaed and sang and waved a Brazilian flag. On-stage, the highlight was a turn from mandolin-player Hamilton de Holanda whose solos were astonishing – like showers of sparks.

Claude was a harmonica player, so a set from Geneva-born harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret seemed fitting too. It was shamelessly cheesy, but you couldn’t fault the energy. There were soulful grooves and rousing gospel jams, with a guest appearance from UK vocalist Zara McFarlane, and glorious Hammond organ solos from Ondrej Pivec – all filth and holy water.

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Herbie Hancock with Terrace Martin (Photo Credit: Lionel Flusin – MJF)

Montreux always seems to have the latest gadget (another of Claude’s personality traits, I’m told). This year they were premiering a new video sharing app called Cuts, and as always all of the performances were being recorded in HD, which meant I could watch gigs from earlier in the week – things I’d agonised about missing. Top of my list was Herbie Hancock’s set from the opening weekend. Not just because it was Herbie, but because of who he was working with: Terrace Martin, the production visionary behind Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

According to those in the know, it was Martin who introduced Kendrick to jazz. He’s the reason ‘For Free?’ is whipped along by a burning swing feel and the reason Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire appear on the album at all. You may not have heard his name before, but you should remember it. He’s the missing link between jazz and West Coast hip hop, at home in both worlds and uniquely positioned to connect the dots. Along with the likes of Flying Lotus and Thundercat he’s spearheading this LA renaissance.

Herbie knows that, which is why Martin is helping to produce his next album and why he booked him, along with bassist James Genus and drummer Trevor Lawrence for this one-off appearance. Had it not been Montreux’s 50th he wouldn’t have left the studio.

Unfortunately, that also meant most of the new material wasn’t ready and the set wasn’t as fresh as I was hoping it would be. According to Hancock, there were snippets scattered throughout an opening overture, but for the most part the quartet fell back on stock repertoire and Hancock still sidled out of the wings wielding his white keytar to play ‘Chameleon’ as an encore. You really think he’d be bored with that by now.

But even though I was watching it on a TV screen in a strip-lit subterranean room and listening through tinny headphones, there was still plenty to get excited about. There were bubbling funk and R&B jams, with Martin on synth and vocoder, adding ribbity grooves, murmurs and sighs. He played alto too and the anguish in his sound, which complemented the lyrical thrust of To Pimp A Butterfly so well, was instantly recognisable. On ‘Textures’ Hancock really took off, pouring ice water over the groove with dissonant chords and storming through enough ideas to fill a decade’s worth of jazz harmony classes. It’s too early to say for sure, but this project could be a new lease of life for him. I can’t wait to hear the album.

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Avishai Cohen (Photo Credit: Marc Ducrest – MJF)

Montreux has taken a lot of flack over the years for its line-up, which, as you’ll have guessed from the names in the archive and the trinkets on Claude’s many mantle pieces, goes a way beyond jazz. PJ Harvey, Simply Red, Muse and Grimes were all on this year’s bill, along with the festival’s old friends Deep Purple, who wrote ‘Smoke on the Water’while staying in the town. Even so, there’s plenty here for jazz purists and those who prefer to roam the leftfield, as two outstanding sets in the Montreux Jazz Club proved.

Backlit by cool blue neon, Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen sank the room in shadow with music from his ECM debut Into The Silence, a suite of noirish chamber jazz full of fragile textures and exquisite contrasts. There were gorgeous, delicate moments when it felt as though the music were made of glass, swing feels from bassist Barak Mori that scattered and shipwrecked themselves and piano lines from Yonathan Avishai that drifted like falling leaves and provided glimmers of light amid the gloom. The title track opened with an engrossing introduction from drummer Nasheet Waits in which he ratcheted up the tension with snare drum blurs and tom toms as hollow as war drums, waiting an age before lashing at his cymbals.

There’s a scrappiness to Cohen’s playing that I love. He’s a brawler. A whippet-thin bare-knuckle boxer and a master of the dog-eared phrase. Sometimes his lines are like scribbles or charcoal sketches at others like twists of razor wire, finished with smears and strangled high notes played with hunched shoulders, straight at the floor. Even on the ballads, when the smokiness in his sound comes to the fore, there’s some grit there. An acrid bonfire-y back-note. Just a hint of trouble.

The night before, US saxophonist Chico Freeman and his quartet, who seldom seem to make it to the UK, provided another masterclass in ensemble-playing with a set of surging modal swingers from 2015 release Spoken Into Existence. Dressed all in white, Freeman led from the front with thrusting solos, as the rhythm section ripped the tunes to pieces. Pianist Antonio Faraò added wiry phrases and sledgehammer chords and drummer Michael Baker threw blustery fills into the mix. A series of sunlit hang drum grooves laid down by ‘exotic percussionist’ Reto Weber were the ideal counterpoint – a release from all the superbly-wrought tension.

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Quincy Jones’ 50th Anniversary Celebration (Photo: Lionel Flusin – MJF)

One of this year’s gala jazz gigs was a 50th anniversary celebration curated by Quincy Jones, who visits the festival every year and feels as much a part of the fabric as Claude. It took the form of a variety show, with turns from family members, friends and Jones protégés backed by the pin-point precise Pepe Lienhard Big Band, who’ve worked with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr and swing harder than you’d think possible for an outfit that once placed sixth in Eurovision. There’s a comment in there about Swiss timekeeping, I’m sure of it.

Quincy was in full-on promoter mode. Everyone was “one of the greatest talents he’d ever seen” and “only 21 years old”. Jacob Collier for instance, who kicked off his spell in the limelight with an arrangement of ‘I Wish’, prefaced by richly-harmonised vocoder vocals, and finished up with a straightforward account of ‘Killer Joe’.

New Orleans born pianist/vocalist Jon Batiste proved himself a consummate performer with a soulful take on ‘What a Wonderful World’, full of theatrical pauses, and a stonking Hammond organ blues. Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez brought some latin flair with a funked-up, full fat rendition of ‘Manteca’ and singer Patti Austin (who Quincy describes as his goddaughter) sounded magisterial, paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and scatting through ‘How High The Moon’ at breakneck speed.

The most moving moment in the whole evening though was the reception for Al Jarreau (just 76 years old) who hobbled on with his stick to sing ‘Midnight Sun’ and a Vince Mendoza arrangement of ‘I’m Beginning to See the Light’ to rapturous, heartwarming applause. He was back on after the finale, Quincy’s classic ‘Soul Bossa Nova’, along with a beaming, excitable Mathieu Jaton who kissed Al on the head, gave Quincy a painting and paid tribute to Claude himself. The cheers were deafening.

And that’s what stays with you. There’s a warmth and a feel good atmosphere about Montreux that makes it unlike any other jazz festival that I’ve been to. It’s vast and rampantly commercial, but it still feels intimate, generous and fun – like a giant pool party or a fortnight-long soirée at Claude’s chalet. Fifty years after the first incarnation, his spirit lives on.

Thomas Rees

— Lead image credit: Marc Ducrest – MJF

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com

Camping Chairs and Kamasi Washington

My take on Love Supreme Festival 2016 for The Arts Desk

“Can you take a picture of us looking really middle-aged?”

Two woman in their forties are enjoying the sunshine on the opening afternoon of Love Supreme, sipping prosecco from the comfort of their fold-up camping chairs as a charismatic, vapour-voiced Lianne La Havas launches into “Unstoppable”. I watch them scroll through the photos I’ve taken and collapse into fits of giggles. The funny thing is though, they fit right in. They’re doing this festival as it was meant to be done.

The fold-up camping chair is the unofficial emblem of Love Supreme – the leitmotif for the weekend. They’re everywhere. Parked fifty deep in front of the open-air Main Stage and slung across people’s backs as they queue up at the bars. They provide makeshift muster-points (“Where should we meet? At my parents’ chairs?”) and they’re plonked in the middle of some of the festival’s most enduring images. Perhaps my favourite memory of all is of a silver-haired man in a fleece doggedly reading a copy of the Telegraph from the comfort of his camping chair, seemingly oblivious to the hundreds of people all around him, on their feet, swaying contentedly to the sound of Esperanza Spalding’s bass.

The Love Supreme Main Stage

You could go wild at Love Supreme if you wanted to. On Saturday night I met up with some musician friends and we made a stab at it, dancing like idiots to a late-night DJ set from Gilles Peterson and doing the limbo under a pair of inflatable dumbbells. But it felt like swimming against the tide. If you go to Glastonbury to embrace your inner hippy, you come to Glynde Place to embrace your inner (or outer) middle-aged self and a fold-up camping chair is an essential part of the look.

But if it sounds like I’m complaining I’m not. The UK’s only green field jazz festival isn’t in the slightest bit edgy, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s just trying to be a nice weekend out with good music, and that’s something it unquestionably nails. All the essential elements of a festival are here. There are candy-striped fairground rides and over-priced street food stalls; made-up flags for countries that, if they existed, would have zero carbon emissions and relaxed laws on hallucinogenic drugs; and stands selling patterned scarves and brightly coloured dresses under the tagline ‘Goodies From Gambia’. Aside from a few showers on Saturday even the weather behaves itself and, with the sun riding high over the South Downs, the atmosphere is so relaxed it’s almost serene. Oh, and the soundtrack is very good indeed.

Slave to the rhythm: Grace Jones at Love Supreme

Grace Jones and the Average White Band

This is a jazz festival in the loosest sense of the word. The Main Stage, billed as a platform for “artists with a soul and funk lineage” and presumably designed to keep the festival’s accounts team on board, can be hit or miss. The sound of a husky-voiced Kelis belting out “Milkshake” to a backdrop of obnoxious high register trumpet is not one I’ll easily forget. Yet there are far more pleasant surprises than there are shockers.

Seventies legends the Average White Band play the right kind of cheese as far as I’m concerned and they were sounding as funky and tight as ever on Sunday afternoon, while Grace Jones’ Saturday night headline slot was a hoot. It culminated with Jones (68), dressed in nothing but a corset, tribal body paint and the last in a series of outlandish headdresses, hula hooping continuously for upwards of 10 minutes as she introduced the band on “Slave to the Rhythm”; though my favourite costume of all featured a mirrored top hat that gleamed like a radioactive disco ball when sprayed with beams of light.

Erik Truffaz on the Arena stage

Jacob Collier, Swindle and Erik Truffaz

For fans of actual jazz, giant marquees the Big Top (for jazz headliners) and the Arena (for rising stars) offered plenty to get excited about. They’re close enough together that you quickly flit between the two, which is a bonus, and I found myself catching bits of sets that I hadn’t expected to make it to. Some were by musicians I’d seen before, like multi-instrumentalist Youtube sensation Jacob Collier, who wowed the Arena with his frantic, multi-layered covers of “P.Y.T.” and “Close To You”, as well as some insanely danceable tracks from his debut album, In My Room.

Others were new to me. French trumpeter Erik Truffaz, who channelled electric era Miles Davis by floating reverb-enhanced solos over ambient, funk grooves, impressed. As did British producer Swindle and his fleet-footed horn section. “Mad Ting”, a Swindle original that mixed storming trap-inspired drum grooves, horn section hits and lairy vocals laid down by Grime MC JME, drove the crowd wild (not a camping chair to be seen in this set).

Esperanza Spalding transformed

Esperanza Spalding and Scofield/Mehldau/Guiliana

Esperanza Spalding’s wonderfully-freaky, Cream-inspired Emily’s D+Evolution show was more polished than when I saw it first, back in the winter. Musically it was just as wide-ranging, blending blues, funk, trippy show tunes and grungy rock, but the sense of theatre had been ramped up even further. Spalding took the stage dressed in a black and white ball gown, sporting a voluptuous afro, and in the opening number we witnessed her transformation. Strings were pulled, the ball gown became a cocoon (very Kendrick Lamar) and out came Emily, Spalding’s alter-ego, with her braids and her wayfarer glasses, gazing at her outstretched arms as if she’d never seen them before. It was a proper stage show, which is definitely something we could use more of in the jazz world.

A new trio comprising pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Mark Guiliana, was less convincing. Musically, it picks up where Mehldau and Giuliana’s duo electronica project, Mehliana, left off. The grooving jams are funkier this time, but the key ingredients – milky synth lines and swirling acoustic piano, thrusting, needle-sharp drum fills and beatpad trickery – are all there. Even so, the set never quite seemed to settle and though Scofield threw some nice ideas into the mix – bluesy bends and bursts of funky, chicken-scratch guitar – he often seemed uncomfortable and unsure of his place. It’s early days though and with more time on the road the dynamic will surely improve.

Slap bass maestro Stanley Clarke

Binker and Moses, Stanley Clarke and Beats and Pieces

MOBO-winning duo Binker and Moses, who held an Arena crowd transfixed with a stripped back set of skronking sax lines and richly textured kit playing, displayed outstanding synergy. As did iconoclastic Manchester big band Beats and Pieces, whose Sunday morning appearance in the Big Top was a welcome slap in the face. Their punchy grooves and anthemic melodies are just what you need after a night on a camping mat, when your eyes feel like they’re made of velcro and you’re brain is a soup of misfiring neurons.

Stanley Clarke’s young band, which includes Georgian piano prodigy Beka Gochiashvili and the borderline terrifying Mike Mitchell on drums, were similarly energetic and their set was one of the highlights of the weekend. They all have ridiculous chops but there were some wonderfully delicate moments in the performance too, led by Clarke on bowed acoustic bass. When he ditched the bow again and played a theatrical slap solo across the length of the fingerboard it brought the house down.

The Next Step let rip

Kamasi Washington

The standout gig of the festival though was LA saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s Sunday night headline slot in the Big Top. Despite what many sections of the media would have you believe, Washington is not the messiah. He’s benefitted enormously from his association with producer Flying Lotus, whose Brainfeeder label released The Epic, and from his work with rapper Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly, which has ramped up his street cred and brought him to a younger, hipper audience. Press hysteria has followed. He’s not reinventing the wheel. His repackaging of spiritual jazz is actually quite old school and there are more virtuosic saxophone players around.

But, and this is a colossal but, he is a phenomenal performer with a presence and onstage charisma that’s impossible to ignore. There’s an incredible rawness to his sound, as if his breath is filled with iron filings, and the power and commitment behind it almost knocks you over. He seems to play with every ounce of his strength, like he’s hell bent on blowing the rivets out of his saxophone. With his double-drumming band The Next Step, all childhood friends united in their commitment to burning swing, shredding behind him, there’s more energy radiating from the stage than you can believe. When they’re all at full stretch it’s like standing in front of an exploding star.

The performance took a similar shape to Washington’s debut in London back in November, with a feature for vocalist Patrice Quinn, a guest appearance from Washington’s father Rickey, on flute, and a ferocious drum-off between Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin, but we also heard something new. The group recorded seven other albums alongside The Epic in a marathon session in LA and next to drop is Uprising from bassist Miles Mosley. It’s one to watch out for if “Abraham”, featuring Mosley on effects-driven upright and soulful vocals, was anything to go by. The funk groove was so heavy it gave me heart palpitations.

Which brings us back to middle-age. I missed Burt Bacharach’s headline set, the last of the festival. “What’s New Pussycat” was blaring out of the main stage speakers as I packed up my tent. But I heard most of it second hand on the shuttle back to Brighton:

“What the BUS needs now is love, sweet love / It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

So ended my first visit to Love Supreme: trapped on a double decker full of 50-somethings singing sickly-sweet Burt Bacharach numbers, fold-up chairs jammed between their knees. I kept my head down and pretended not to like it, but I was smiling on the inside. If it means more weekends like this one, middle-age doesn’t seem such a terrifying prospect.

— Thomas Rees

— All images by Andy Sturman

This article was originally published on theartsdesk.com