Brad Mehldau/Wadada Leo Smith – review

Barbican/Cafe OTO, London
With Mark Guiliana, Mehldau was funky and electric – while Wadada Leo Smith's epic was both beautiful and sobering

Some of his audience began heckling the American piano star Brad Mehldau ("Play some piano! Play a solo!") during his untypically funky electric set with drummer Mark Guiliana. As the duo Mehliana, the pair were stirring the new brew of improv, 1970s dance-funk, and drum'n'bass with which they've enthused club audiences this year. It enthused most of this London jazz festival audience, too, though clearly not all of Mehldau's longer-term acoustic-jazz admirers. The barrackers hung on until the encore, only beating a slow retreat when Mehldau responded by turning up the loudest synth-bass thunder he could muster.

The set had begun reflectively with mingled acoustic-piano and Fender Rhodes lyricism, and built over Guiliana's bass-drum barrages, hailstorm rimshots, and remarkable tonal variety at speed. Oceanic vintage-synth sounds washed over roaring low-end noise, then turned to a Ray Charlesian soul-blues theme. A typical Mehldau piece of sustained Bach-like modulation brought cheers, with Guiliana's edgy energies behind it, and the encore became a headlong Joe Zawinul-like charge. But it was still pure Mehldau in its care for detail and its song-shapes, just with some loudly infectious histrionics piled on top.

Later, at Cafe OTO, the American jazz visionary Wadada Leo Smith launched the first of three nights devoted to his civil-rights epic Ten Freedom Summers, with his fine American group including pianist Anthony Davis and bassist John Lindberg, and Britain's Ligeti Quartet. Against wall-high video screens merging the band in action with haunting images from the race conflicts of the 1960s, Smith steered narratives of eddying improv-strings, jazz ensemble call-and-response, quotes from John Coltrane's iconic Alabama, and elliptical Miles Davis-like passages led by his own blistering trumpet phrasing. It was beautiful and sobering music, and one of the festival's big triumphs to have helped stage it.

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John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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