This year’s EFG London jazz festival has taken its usual breathtaking tracking shot across the many styles of jazz. At the more gently breathtaking Temple Church, Norway’s Jan Garbarek blew the soprano saxophone with such pealing vehemence that he seemed to be sketching in sound the ascents of the marble pillars toward the echo-spinning dome of Temple Church. At Southbank, Branford Marsalis muscled his way through flinty contemporary jazz that had the seductive swagger of old-school swing. South African piano giant Abdullah Ibrahim played soft versions of his best-loved themes to a hushed audience at Royal Festival Hall, following Dedication Orchestra’s rollicking take on classic South African townships jazz.
Garbarek and classical music’s Hilliard Ensemble are winding up a 20-year partnership, and Temple Church’s unusual circular nave was the perfect echo chamber for this quintet’s ethereal sounds. Garbarek opened by exhaling whooping long notes while the singers slowly advanced down the pews toward him, mingling pure tones and nasal, jaw-harp noises. As Garbarek prowled in and out of view behind the singers, the soprano sax’s high register and the voice of countertenor David James often blended into a single, ringing chorus. The repertoire spanned songs from the 11th century to the present. On a springy medieval dance, Garbarek’s phrasing grew more rhythmic, and he embarked on a solo jig full of slurred blues phrasing. Gravitas returned with Arvo Pärt’s prayer-like Most Holy Mother of God, and a long, ecstatic finale culminated in their disappearance by a side door, Garbarek softly tooting behind them like a whimsical minstrel. They returned for an encore on the 16th-century Scottish traditional Remember Me My Dear, and the cheering crowd seemed to feel its valedictory sentiments keenly.
At Southbank, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his powerful quartet delivered a mix of ricocheting, Monkish themes and a Thelonious Monk original, along with slow reveries featuring the leader’s exquisite soprano-sax tone. British pianist Julian Joseph sat in for a memorable sprint across It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), but nothing topped the exchanges between Marsalis’s regular pianist Joey Calderazzo and New York percussion student Evan Sherman, who mixed the low-end rumble of a 30s big-band drummer with the hair-trigger reactions of a postbop improviser.
Elsewhere, Dedication Orchestra’s celebration of the variously jiving and hymnal South African jazz of the late Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor and others had its haphazard moments, but when it came together it rose like an African-jazz requiem, expanded on by a raft of fine soloists.
And Abdullah Ibrahim confirmed how heartwarmingly communicative he is. He barely touched the keys to unlock the secrets from classic originals like African Marketplace and The Wedding, repeated the intrigue, with cello and flute accompaniment playing almost as quietly, and then upped the volume a little – and the explicit jazz references a lot – with his Ekaya septet. The sidemen played with a pristine clarity, as if hypnotised by the boss’s touch on piano and trombonist Andrae Murchison with an infectiously sidelong bluffness, and at times they collectively glowed with a sound reminiscent of that of Ibrahim’s most famous patron, Duke Ellington.