EFG London Jazz Festival Round-up

Now in its 25th year, the EFG London Jazz Festival is one of the most vital live showcases of this thing we call jazz. Born out of the Camden Festival in the 1970s, the London Jazz Festival as we now know it was founded in 1992. With a commitment to putting on shows from the best UK and international jazz talent, as well as running educational programs such as the Write Stuff workshops for aspiring young music writers, the Festival has seen performances from the likes of Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Jazz Jamaica.

We sent a team of EZH writers to cover some choice picks from this year’s stellar line-up, including Herbie Hancock, Moses Boyd, Miles Mosley, Christian Scott and more. Read on for our full verdict.

Herbie Hancock – The Barbican

At age 77, with a back-catalogue of over 30 LPs to his name, as well as a roster of collaborators including Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Hancock has long been established as an elder statesman of jazz. Yet, his restless reinventions and free-wheeling explorations of funk, R&B, and synth-based electronics still mark him out as an enduringly youthful and vital presence.

Proving his lasting relevance, Hancock is currently touring a new show accompanied by a re-vamped band of some of this generation’s best players: Kendrick Lamar producer Terrace Martin on saxophone, Ropeadope artist Trevor Lawrence on drums and Chick Corea collaborator James Genus on bass.

With a permanent grin accompanying his performance, Hancock was a sprightly on-stage presence. Opening with a 30-minute patchwork improvisation, he featured snatches of iconic tracks 'Butterfly' and 'Actual Proof' amongst streaks of spatial synth, screaming alto sax solos from Martin and ever-present, rock-solid grooves from Lawrence.

Straddling his Fazioli grand piano and Korg synth, Hancock maintained a constant interplay between electronic and acoustic sounds during his two-hour performance. Trading vocoder scat-improvisations with Martin atop of lightning-fast changes to padded piano chords and balladic moments, Hancock and his band showcased their capacity to hold seeming contradiction within musical unity.

On 'Actual Proof' drummer Lawrence blasted through an epic solo of cymbal washes, rhythmic stabs and centrifugal force, while Martin countered with a burning saxophone bop redolent of Ornette Coleman’s finest work. The soloing heralded Hancock’s transition to the keytar for 'Cantaloupe Island' and 'Watermelon Man'; a welcome throwback to his kitsch yet pioneering work during the ‘80s on electro-hip-hop hit 'Rockit'.

Closing with the crowd on their feet, singing along to atonal melodies, Hancock continues to subvert the norms not only of jazz but music as a whole. With a new album being produced by Martin and a collaboration on a NASA project orbiting Jupiter, Hancock confirms his place amongst the stars.

Pharoah Sanders – The Barbican

In its 100 years of history, jazz has taken on many mutated forms. From big band swing to hard bop, Afro-Cuban rhythm, cosmic free jazz, and much more – each has their own niche and dedicated subcultural scene. Few artists, therefore, seem to cross these boundaries, to hold the very lineage of jazz in their being and musical careers. Miles Davis was one such figure, as was his bandmate John Coltrane, and so is Pharoah Sanders.

A pioneer of the free jazz sound, developed during his time playing with John Coltrane on the Meditations and Ascension albums of the mid-1960s, Sanders has pushed his instrument of the tenor saxophone far beyond mere note-making. Through his sheer force of exhalation, he creates raw, thick sheets of sound and teeming clusters of overblown rhythm and melody; his saxophone becomes an extension of his body and spirit, instrument no longer it feels closer to the unmediated voice of self-expression.

After more than fifty years of playing and now aged 77, Sanders’ slow hobble onto the Barbican stage was telling of his time spent living the sometimes hand-to-mouth existence of a touring musician. Notwithstanding any seeming physical frailty, as soon as he put his saxophone to his lips, the sound was as vital and invigorating as ever. Opening with soft, breathy tones of melody and cymbal washes, Sanders set the scene for a showcase of his softer-sounding late works.

Yet, this languorous lyricism didn’t last long. Soon, pianist William Henderson stabbed rhythmic chord changes and shifted the performance into a burning bop, complete with the restrained force of a drum solo from Gene Calderazzo. Calderazzo’s touch throughout the performance perfectly accompanied Sanders, moving the show from moments of balladry into free-form power and heady swing at a lightning-fast pace.

Accompanied by the oud for the second half of the performance, Sanders showcased his impeccable phrasing on the tenor and his capacity to imbue even the gentlest ballads with his inimitable breath and percussive fingering. All colour and texture, Sanders led the rapturous crowd in a singalong to his classic The Creator Has A Master Planat the close of the performance. Even dancing a little jig as he scat-improvised on the microphone, his humour was infectious and left the audience enveloped in the higher power of his music.

[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 20/11/17]