Given the times we’re in, it was pretty wonderful to witness the scale of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, which shows no sign of losing its ambition under its new artistic director, Pelin Opcin. Typical of its scope was last night’s meeting of the trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, under the title Fusing Forces.
In recent years Ahmed has been pursuing a strand of thought which blends her jazz training at the Guildhall with an exploration of the music of Bahrain, where she lived until she was nine. Two striking albums, La Saboteuse and Polyhymnia, gave evidence of her success, and last night’s project took the process a stage further. With the help of arrangers including Noel Langley and Tim Garland, her compositions were enhanced by the use of the orchestra’s resources, under the empathetic baton of Bramwell Tovey.
Ahmed’s exceptionally gifted quintet — completed by Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dave Manington on bass guitar, Martin France on drums and the percussionist Corrina Silvester — was positioned across the front of the stage, separated from the orchestra by a perspex barrier, presumably for reasons of acoustic separation (the concert was being recorded for radio). But, thanks to Tovey and the sound engineers, there was no separation of thought or action. The calibre of the writing ensured that both elements were often perfectly integrated into a single organism, with no sense of excess baggage or impediment on the occasions when the orchestra simply added its weight to the smaller group.
The most striking of the compositions were those that brought Middle Eastern patterns and modes into the music, such as “A Paradise in the Hold” (inspired by the songs of Bahraini pearl divers) and “Al Emadi”, with their distant echoes of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration on “Solea” from Sketches of Spain. The blend sounded completely organic, the rhythmic drive providing a fine setting for inventive solos by Wyld, who was heavily featured, and Ahmed herself, who made use of reverb and other electronic effects to emphasise the legato quality of her playing but sounded even more impressive when she allowed the natural qualities of the flugelhorn to be the vehicle for her tone and ideas.
Other interesting Ahmed compositions included “A Shoal of Souls”, dedicated to refugees who lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in small craft, in which Garland’s chart made dramatic use of tubular bells and timpani against the strings, and “2857”, inspired by Rosa Parks, its title using the number of the bus on which she refused to give up her seat to a white customer in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, the two-part piece moving from sombre reflection to urgent hustle.
The programme also included short pieces by Jessie Montgomery (a fantasy on “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and Judith Weir (gentle nightmusic). At Ahmed’s behest, the orchestra’s strings played Arvo Pärt’s “Silouans Song”, a compositions of great loveliness that might have resulted from Vaughan Williams visiting a Baltic monastery in winter. All in all, an absorbing evening which fully justified the audience’s prolonged ovation.
* Fusing Forces is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow night (Tuesday 23 November) from 7.30-10pm.