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London Jazz Festival 1: The peak of their art

After an hour of Mike Westbrook’s autumnal musings at the Pizza Express’s piano on Sunday afternoon, in which the great composer, arranger and bandleader stitched together the memories of a life in music into a seamless reverie with a quiet intensity that held the room in thrall, the scene at the 2021 London Jazz Festival moved to the South Bank, where Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey stormed the Queen Elizabeth Hall with something belonging entirely to the here and now.

Sometimes you get lucky and witness something that makes you realise how high the standards can be. Doesn’t matter what it is. Tennis, poetry, carpentry. On Sunday night it was jazz. A pianist, a bassist and a drummer dropped in to examine the art of the possible, demonstrating over the course of two hours of high-density interplay what can happen when three like-minded virtuosi get it into their heads to create something in which 1+1+1 = infinity.

Basically, they played their way through their recent album, Uneasy. It’s one of the year’s finest releases, but here they stretched it, expanded it, tossed its elements around, and gave it a completely new existence. So many bases were covered — 21st century takes on bebop, Latino patterns, reggae, the circular rhythms of Tyner-Garrison-Jones — that the time passed very quickly.

Linda Oh is the least known of the three, but her bass playing was the heart of the group: slight build, total physical commitment, wonderful tone, great agility, an endless flow of ideas. Vijay Iyer is a cerebral pianist who nevertheless relishes any involvement with rhythm (one night at the Lido in Berlin a few years ago, he and his regular acoustic trio — completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore — locked into an endless groove that any funk band would have envied). Tyshawn Sorey operates with complete comfort at the absolute extremities of the dynamic range, from whisper-quiet to shatteringly loud, plus every setting in between. On this occasion he made you wonder why anyone would ever need more than a small bass drum, a medium-sized snare, a single cymbal and a hi-hat, from each of which he drew an astonishing variety of tones and timbres.

Their music rattled, jolted, cruised, purred, broke apart, blended back, cantered, swung, faked a stumble, slowed to a sigh. The audacity made you gasp. Solos were taken, but were always part of the whole. Oh’s leaping grooves made you want to dance. Iyer’s upper-register filigree made your mind soar. Sorey’s sudden whipcracks straightened your back.

Another side of the multi-dimensional Sorey is on view in For George Lewis / Autoschediasms, a two-CD set in which his compositions are performed by Alarm Will Sound, a New York-based 16-piece chamber orchestra here made up of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion, tuned and untuned. “For George Lewis”, a 50-minute piece dedication to his mentor and fellow composer, conducted by Alan Pierson, bears the imprint of Sorey’s interest in the music of Morton Feldman: fully composed, based on a process of accretion and subtraction of single held notes, it moves with mesmerising deliberation through austere and refined layers of sound, creating the musical equivalent of colour-field painting.

“Autoschediasms” is Sorey’s name for his version of the approach to creating real-time music with large ensembles pioneered by Butch Morris (who called it “conduction”) and Anthony Braxton. In these two performances, recorded in St Louis in May 2019 and in various US cities via internet video chat in October 2020, Sorey takes the rostrum, giving the musicians prompts via gestures and prepared cue-cards. “The method can involve the use of up to four batons simultaneously by the conductor,” he writes in his informative notes, and anyone who has seen him at a drum kit will know that this is a challenge well within his scope. The result is a much more obviously active ensemble music, its details and densities sometimes clashing or overlapping, but with an emerging coherence and, like a master of action painting, an excellent sense of drama.

* Uneasy by Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh and Tyshawn Sorey is on ECM. For George Lewis / Autoschediasms by Tyshawn Sorey and Alarm Will Sound is on Cantaloupe Music (www.cantaloupemusic.com).

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. The QEH concert was indeed great. Amazing how much Sorey gets out of that small set. And not having seen Linda May Han Oh before, I was astonished by her playing. A night to remember.

    November 16, 2021
  2. G Papa #

    Thank you, I had been waiting for this since Sunday evening. I was particularly struck by how quickly time went, as if the deeply immersive nature of what was going on transcended these bare necessities of life. The other astonishing detail, taking us back to the here and now, is that they managed it all with face masks on. Unbelievable! A small correction: Tyshawn Sorey did not use just that minimal set of drums, he also played a small plastic bottle to great effect.

    November 16, 2021
  3. John Blandford #

    I followed exactly the same trajectory on Sunday; my first thoughts were that both concerts were indeed great in their different ways, but if one had to quibble, a little more variety of mood would have been beneficial. But then second thoughts kicked in.
    For Westbrook in particular, his place in British music history is already more than secure. Although his live appearances these days are understandably less frequent, this is all the more reason to relish every opportunity available to see him perform.
    The Iyer concert was almost overwhelming, and I agree with the comments about Linda Oh (the only one of the three musicians I had seen live before), and Tyshawn Sorey’s minimalist drum kit!

    November 16, 2021
  4. Chris Sugden #

    Having eagerly awaited this gig, 6 months after hearing “Uneasy”, I was really disappointed that the sound engineer couldn’t allow the music to be heard properly. It may have been partly that we were sat 3 rows from the front, but all we could hear were the drums and badly-EQ’d bass. The latter was all resonating bottom-end, and it was only when she went higher on the fingerboard that the pitch of each note could be properly heard. After the opening notes from the piano, I could barely hear the piano at all, and in the louder sections (where Tyshawn really let rip) it was inaudible. So, in between numbers, I asked the guy on the desk to push the piano up, which he did, so after that, it was audible, but the drums, in particular, were deafening. So, still a bad mix. And I can’t agree with the view that the small kit was adequate – so much more colouration could have been achieved with a bigger variety of instruments.
    As a jazz pianist myself, I’m in awe of Vijay and he’s definitely the most exciting player around and, importantly, as Bill Evans used to say, “plays what’s true”.
    I really hope I get to hear this phenomenal trio in a better setting.

    November 16, 2021
  5. stewart gunn #

    We would have loved to be there on Sunday, but there was a clash between that, Jon Scofield/Dave Holland, and Ralph Towner ( 2 iconic guitarists performing at the same time, what a shame). Ralph Towner at Pizza Express Jazz won out, and it was a wonderful evening. We had a similar situation with Linda May Han Oh’s bass when we saw her al fresco on the shores of Lake Garda with Pat Metheny. Difficult to discern the lower end, and also very low in the mix. Double bass must be a sound engineer’s nightmare in a large-ish venue, though.

    November 16, 2021

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