There was a lot of excitement in the air as Nubya Garcia, saxophone in hand, squirmed her way through the crowd to join the other members of Maisha on the low stage at Ghost Notes in Peckham the other night. The whooping and cheering had already started, and it didn’t stop as the London-based band set up a series of grooves that kept the audience moving as well as listening through the long set, part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.
This is jazz in London in 2018, or at least the part of it that is attracting a new audience. The streets of Peckham and Hackney are its incubators, and it is made by people to whom grime, hip-hop and Afro-Beat are as familiar as bebop and the ’60s avant-garde. Under their leader, the drummer Jake Long, Maisha reminded me at various times of Pharoah Sanders, Osibisa and the Santana of Abraxas and Caravanserai. Garcia, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the pianist Sarah Tandy were the main soloists. Occasionally, as on the beautiful tune called “Azure”, it was possible to hear the two string quartets, one set up at each end of the long stage, on either side of the basic seven-piece band.
What most amazed me was how this audience has clearly acquired a habit of cheering not just the end of an improvisation but individual moments with a solo: a particularly resonant phrase, or a tricky high-register figure. If you were being cynical, you might say that this was like the 1940s, when tenor-players such as Big Jay McNeely walked the bar, goading the audience with squeals and honks. And it’s true that a young soloist might be encouraged by that kind of enthusiasm into a adopting a less reflective approach. But there’s more to it than that. And on their first album, There Is a Place, which they were launching at this gig, they showed that they are capable of as much subtlety and seriousness as anyone could require, while keeping that groove going.
That same feeling was in the air at Islington Assembly Hall a couple of nights later, in a gig by Moses Boyd’s Exodus that was not technically part of the festival but was very much of it in spirit. In this venue the band were not as close to the capacity audience in physical terms, but once again they managed to communicate very directly through the medium of storming rhythms and Boyd’s very engaging compositions: his irresistible “Rye Lane Shuffle” feels like a theme tune for the whole movement.
The trumpet-tenor-trombone front line was driven by Boyd’s astonishingly fluent drumming and Theon Cross’s tuba, a one-man perpetual motion machine, while Artie Zaits played some nice solos in a style with inflections from Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. After two or three tunes Boyd introduced a group of bata drummers, who performed a couple of chants, with Kevin Haynes taking the lead. Then the rest of the band returned and Haynes picked up his alto saxophone, sounding a little like Dudu Pukwana on “Marooned in SE6”, the highlight of the set and one of the strongest tracks on Displaced Diaspora, the band’s debut album, which I can’t recommend too highly.
For me, this was the defining vibe of this year’s festival. The event’s other key characteristic, every year, is superabundance. You can’t hope to make it to everything that sounds attractive, and I was sorry to miss Tandy’s solo set at the Purcell Room, Garcia’s own gig at the Vortex, the altoist Cassie Kinoshi’s band at the Vortex, two of the three nights of Ethan Iverson’s King Place residency, and much else. But on Friday evening I did make it to the Old Street subway, where Empirical spent a week doing pop-up sets for commuters and other passers-by in a very nice loft-style space.
Material from their fine new album, Indifference Culture, was played, Lewis Wright’s “Persephone” and Shane Forbes’s “Celestial Being” particularly catching the ear. As always, their staggering level of eloquence, creativity and energy captivated not just those familiar with their sophisticated post-bop language but everyone exposed to the perfectly honed and balanced collective sound of Nathaniel Facey’s alto, Wright’s vibes, Tom Farmer’s bass and Forbes’s drums.
So much that was good about the 2018 festival was home-grown, and congratulations are due to John Cumming, its founder and outgoing artistic director, for recognising and encouraging British musicians. Of the visitors, I particularly enjoyed Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound (above), a large ensemble with which the Iraqi American trumpeter/composer explores a blend of microtonal maqam music and jazz. ElSaffar also sang and played santur, while Nasheet Waits (drums), George Ziadeh (oud), J. D. Parran (bass saxophone), Miles Okazaki (guitar) and, particularly, the Norwegian tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen made powerful contributions. Their album, Not Two, is another that I’d strongly recommend, if you can find it.
Cafe Oto was packed for Jaimie Branch, the Chicago trumpeter, leading her Fly or Die quartet through a set of high drama, featuring the material from the group’s eponymous album. Branch’s sound on the horn goes back to the distant origins of jazz, much like Donald Ayler’s did, but the bold, brassy attack is deployed with devastating control, particularly when she switches between two microphones: one dry, the other drenched in reverb (which sounds like a gimmick, but isn’t). The cello/bass combination was used with great subtlety, and Chad Taylor once again showed himself to be among the era’s most stimulating drummers.
Bill Frisell‘s solo concert at the Cadogan Hall was a joy from beginning to end: like sitting in the great guitarist’s living room listening to him play for his own pleasure. Apart from the lovely pieces based on country and folk cadences, I enjoyed a version of “Goldfinger” that switched between the styles of Wes Montgomery and Vic Flick, gorgeous readings of “Lush Life” and “What the World Needs Now”, a perfectly flighted snatch of “In a Silent Way”, and an eye-moistening encore of “In My Life” and “Give Peace a Chance”.
To close the festival week, I went to Kings Place to hear a vinyl repress of Joe Harriott‘s Abstract, played over a very good sound system and introduced by John Cumming, with a subsequent commentary by Soweto Kinch. I know the eight tracks of this 1962 masterpiece by heart, but I wanted to be made to sit and listen to it in undistracted silence. Every note sounded brand-new, just as startling in its freshness and beauty as it was five and a half decades ago. Then I went home to watch the final of the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition, won by a 22-year-old tenor saxophonist from Handsworth in Birmingham called Xhosa Cole. A life playing jazz is not an easy choice, but it seems to me that he couldn’t be joining the scene at a better time.
* Maisha’s There Is a Place is on the Brownswood label. Moses Boyd Exodus’s Displaced Diaspora is on Exodus Records. Empirical’s Indifference Culture is on Empirical Music. Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound: Not Two is on the New Amsterdam Records. Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die is on the International Anthem label.