This year’s London Jazz Festival ran from 12 to 21 November. It took place in locations across London, ranging across the genres associated with jazz and in locations as large as the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, to pubs and clubs around the capital. I managed to see three concerts, which captured that variety. It should have been four, but unfortunately the pianist Brad Mehldau had to pull out a couple of days before his Barbican show on 21 November due to illness. We’re hoping that show will be rearranged for some time in 2022.
Katriona Taylor Quintet at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, 13 November
A few of us went down to the Bull’s Head, which looks onto the Thames just downriver from Barnes Bridge. It’s one of London’s stalwart jazz pubs, with bands playing most days. Of course, that all stopped during lockdown, but all is now in back in working order. There’s a dedicated music room out the back of the pub, which can take maybe a hundred people. I’ve been there a few times before. The pub itself is a nice place to stop for a pint if you are out walking, and the food is decent too – we ate there before the show tonight.
I’d not come across Katriona and her band before, but the prospect of hearing 60s and 70s pop and soul classics played in a jazzy style sounded like a nice thing to do on a Saturday night. And so it proved. The band were all accomplished players and Katriona herself interpreted the songs with imagination. If anything her voice is a little high and pure for this kind of music, but she carried it off with style. She has released an album this year called Blind Passion, which is a tribute to blind or partially sighted songwriters. Katriona is partially sighted herself. This meant we got three Stevie Wonder songs in the first set: Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing, Master Blaster and My Cherie Amour, which was alright by me. Inevitably there were moments when I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of those international hotel bars I have sat in in years gone by, listening to mellow jazz standards being crooned in the background. I’ve always enjoyed that vibe, and of course it also reminds me of one of my favourite films, Lost in Translation!
The band circulated in the audience in the interval, which was a nice touch. We had an interesting chat with the keyboard player. Playing in the band is not the day job, but most of the band have been together for a long time and there was a clear affection for Katriona. The second set took a few more risks, notably a reconstructed version of the Bee Gees’ Night Fever which was barely recognisable. It was all good though, with some funky Latin touches at times.
So yes, a very agreeable evening, and as ever, we all agreed we should do this sort of thing more often. Time will tell!
Vijay Iyer Trio, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14 November
Second concert of the weekend, and quite a contrast to the first, both in size of venue and musical pallet. The Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of the South Bank Centre, is a perfect venue to sit and soak in music of the highest quality. The seating is comfortable, the views excellent thanks to the relatively steep banking, and the acoustics superb. That was all just right for these three accomplished musicians: Vijay Iyer on piano, Linda Oh on double bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. I can’t say for sure what pieces they played, but my guess is that at least two of the five that spanned a good hour and a half were from the 2021 album, Uneasy, which was a collaboration between the three of them. I’ve been listening to it a lot since the concert and really like it – a cool and inventive set of jazz numbers, including a nearly ten minute version of the old standard Night and Day. Improvisation is the name of the game, and that was very much the case on the night. The first two numbers both lasted for around half an hour. That induced a variety of reactions: while you marvelled at the musicianship, and wondered where the tune would go next, it was also quite easy to drift off a bit and start thinking about what you needed to buy at the supermarket tomorrow. Having said that, time flew by, because the sheer quality of the playing was absorbing. I could happily have listened to more. And the first thing I did when I got home was put the new album on.
One slight criticism would be that the drums were a bit high in the mix. Tyshawn is an absolute master, and with a very spare kit, but the snare sound was overwhelming Vijay’s improvisation on the piano at times.
On a side note, this was the first band I’ve seen in recent times who have all been wearing masks. Some of Vijay’s comments suggested he was a bit fearful of catching something while he was in London. And the band have been whizzing around Europe by the sounds of things. Whether things are any better in America, I wouldn’t know, but I guess you feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings.
But to get back to the music, I would love to see Vijay Iyer play again someday, and I bet it would be very different to tonight.
Ishmael Ensemble, Jazz Café, Camden, 17 November
This one brings the music right up to the present, with a mix of jazz, soul, electronica and hip hop. The present, but also the 90s, another time when all these genres collided to produce an explosion of creativity. And one of the places that was central in the 90s, as it is now, is Bristol – from where Ishmael Ensemble hail. That Bristol sound, the sound of fusion, with Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky amongst the principal players. And now Ishmael Ensemble are very much part of that tradition, while adding new dimensions, jazz dimensions.
The band released an album called Visions of Light in August this year. It follows 2019’s State of Flow. Both are highly recommended. Tunes from Visions of Light formed the core of the set, which was a joy from start to finish. They were bathed in red or golden light much of the time, and their music was made to match: atmospheric, hard-edged, soulful, funky and wild. Not all at the same time! Unavoidably the sounds took me back to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album, especially when the music built to a crescendo, with guitar and sax blazing. Likewise those soulful moments, adorned with the beautiful vocals of Holysseus Fly. Memories of Elizabeth Fraser singing Teardrop! Let’s not overstate the likenesses though – this was vibrant jazz music, with Pete Cunningham’s sax a constant source of wonder.
The band came back for a much welcomed encore and went back to their beginnings, with a piece called Song for Knotty, which was the title track of their first EP. A fitting finale to a performance which showcased the new, but celebrated their Bristol roots too.
I went to this gig with my friends Jon and Shane. We all came out of the Jazz Café knowing that we had seen a very special band. They must be nailed on to play some of the festivals next year – can’t wait to see them again!