The playlist: jazz – London jazz festival, Kamasi Washington, Maria Schneider, Sheila Jordan and more

The London jazz festival- which ended on Sunday - presented some exciting acts, established and new: from Vula Viel to Julia Hülsmann, here is a selection of the best of them

Vula Viel: Yaa Yaa Kole

This young London band – the name means “good is good” in the Dagaare language of Ghana – played one of the LJF launch day’s 20-odd gigs on 13 November, and kicked off Jazz on 3’s live broadcast from Ronnie Scott’s that night. Leader Bex Burch learned how to build and play the gyil – the region’s traditional wooden xylophone – while living and farming in a Ghanaian village for three years, and then came home to form Vula Viel as a mix of religious and communal songs, electronics, free-jazz and Steve Reich’s minimalism. The group’s virtuosity, but also their infectious enthusiasm, delighted the first-night crowd.

James Farm: Two Steps

The headline-grabbing festival curtain-raiser is always the Jazz Voice gala at the Barbican – the celebration of a century of popular song featuring Guy Barker’s 42-piece orchestra and a cast of A-list vocalists, including this year the US soul singer Jarrod Lawson. Discreetly tucked away at Sloane Square’s Cadogan Hall on that same night, however, was a performance by uber-cool American quartet James Farm. Featuring sax supremo Joshua Redman and the hip pianist and composer Aaron Parks, the band was just as dazzlingly smart live as they are on disc, but quite a bit more vivid and creatively loose-limbed.

Kamasi Washington: Clair de Lune

Kamasi Washington, the powerful US saxophonist and composer, has moved from session work with hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar and jazz workshops with community bands around Los Angeles to being one of the most talked-about jazz artists in the world this year – for the earthily intense playing, and decisive sweeps across jazz, classical and pop/hip-hop styles on his rightly-named 2015 triple album The Epic. A stripped-down Washington band played the festival’s second night (and an unscheduled extra Sunday performance, following the cancellation of their Paris concert), in a double bill shared with the UK’s 2014 Mercury prize contenders GoGo Penguin.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Charlie M

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the finest jazz bands to come out of that city, didn’t play the festival – but a landmark for the pioneering Chicago collective that helped them and many others to grow was celebrated in workshops, performances and talks by local players. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the self-help and educational group originally founded by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams to raise the profile of African-American experimental music – particularly free-improvised jazz – and still very active now. The Art Ensemble, with the late Lester Bowie on trumpet, Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on saxes, Malachi Favors on bass and Famoudou Don Moye on drums, were a classic AACM band in their espousal of musical democracy and creative freedom, explicit African roots, and experimentation with a popular touch.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: Spark of Life

It was a memorable festival for pianists – with Keith Jarrett the most famous, but Cuban-American David Virelles, Texan Helen Sung and Britons Gwilym Simcock, Liam Noble, Kit Downes, Ivo Neame, Andrew McCormack and rising star Jacob Collier all making their presences felt. The Polish star Marcin Wasilewski shared a double bill with Helen Sung on 15 November. Spark of Life was the title track of the album to which they devoted much of their set.

Maria Schneider: Hang Gliding

The composer Maria Schneider brought her long-running New York orchestra to the festival, and introduced much of the music from this year’s vivid evocation of her rural homelands and their inhabitants, The Thompson Fields. Schneider learned a lot as an assistant to one of jazz’s greatest big-ensemble writers, Gil Evans, but she knows plenty about classical music too, leads a band that knows her methods inside out, and mixes urban bite and a rare jazz mission to pay her respects to nature. This version of Hang Gliding, an old Schneider favourite, was caught in London in 2005.

Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song

The memory of Kenny Wheeler, the late great expat Canadian trumpeter and composer, was commemorated during the festival in a concert that brought together many of his long-time kindred spirits – including saxophonist Evan Parker, vocalist Norma Winstone and bassist Dave Holland. This cut of Angel Song, one of Wheeler’s wistful classics, is from the 1996 album of the same name – featuring the composer, Holland on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar and Lee Konitz on alto sax.

Sheila Jordan: Autumn in New York

Sheila Jordan, the mischievously ingenious 87-year-old vocalist, told a New York audience this year “if it wasn’t for jazz music, I wouldn’t be alive today”. The jazz natural, who grew up concocting her own vocal lines to Charlie Parker solos – and even moved Parker himself to call her “the singer with the million-dollar ears” – played the Pizza Express Jazz Club on 21 November.

Julia Hülsmann/Theo Bleckmann: A Clear Midnight

Sheila Jordan was in the audience at the Guildhall School’s Milton Court theatre the next night to check out a singer after her own heart – Theo Bleckmann, the Dortmund-born New Yorker who has been collaborating with German pianist Julia Hülsmann on a Kurt Weill project that catches the menace in some of those songs in a way few jazz interpretations do. Hülsmann’s fine band with Bleckmann and UK expat Tom Arthurs on trumpet played the festival’s last night.

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden: No Moon at All

Keith Jarrett has waited until his senior years to start swearing at the bearers of his hated cameraphones, but though he did that before the encores began on his first-ever concert for the London jazz festival, he followed the outburst with an amiable welcome for the crowd’s requests, and almost gave the impression of enjoying his own stereotype as a short-fuse genius. Some find Jarrett’s mannerisms and his we-are-not-worthy audience a pain, but he’s forgotten more about improvising on a piano than many performers ever learn. His most informal and least-exalted playing settings are some of his most engaging, though – such as this effortlessly lyrical home-recording of the 1950s pop hit No Moon at All in 2007, with the late bassist Charlie Haden.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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