EFG London Jazz Festival Round-up \\ 25 Years of Jazz Legends and Fresh Talent
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.
Moses Boyd Exodus – Jazz Café
Moses Boyd Exodus lived up to their hype with a sold-out Friday night crowd at The Jazz Café. Having previously performed as a septet, Boyd reduced his band to five to allow for a rawer, more hard hitting sound. Brothers Theon and Nathaniel Cross provided the bass on tuba and trombone, Artie Zaitz on guitar, and long-time collaborator Binker Golding on tenor sax, with Moses leading from behind on drums.
Unlike many neo-soul inspired jazz groups characterised by keyboards and a grooving bass line, having a tuba and guitar for bass and rhythm gave Exodus a different texture closer to Shabaka Hutchings‘ cosmic bursts. Having come up through Tomorrow’s Warriors as teenagers, the band members have been playing together for so long that it comes as second nature to them. You could clearly see the camaraderie on stage as their improvisations complemented one another, while trying to outdo each other’s solos.
From the comfort of such a stable group of musicians, it was also apparent that Moses was trying to take his music in a new direction. He chose DJ and MC James Massiah as a support act, and performed two tracks from his recent electronic-tinged EP Absolute Zero. Although for one of those he played the drum kit along with his synthesiser, he didn’t quite integrate these electronics with the full band, providing a dynamic lull in the proceedings.
The audience went wild for his encore performance of Rye Lane Shuffle, however, with Nubya Garcia making a guest appearance on tenor sax. It was electric be amongst the crowd for this underground dance-floor filler: a new generation of jazz lovers who can dance in 7/8 time and clap at the solos.
Christian Scott – Electric Ballroom
A packed Wednesday night crowd gathered to see Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah perform works from his 2017 triple album release, The Centennial Trilogy, a celebration of 100 years of jazz at Camden’s Electric Ballroom.
Swagger in abundance, the collective on-stage presence of his ensemble was part Wu Tang, part Sun Ra Arkestra. Adjuah’s charisma floored the crowd, speaking his activism and protest through his shrieking trumpet. He poured out soliloquies demonstrating why we should fight for the vulnerable, for racial, gender, sexual and identity equality and why ‘we should all look after each other’.
His social commentary didn’t compromise the music. The set flipped from jazz standards like Moanin’ to working in Trap basslines in a way that made complete sense to the flow. What Scott does impeccably is to simultaneously convey the old and new of this rich genre.
Adjuah futureproofs jazz by nurturing the young artists he works with, allowing space to explore their performance and personalities through the band’s music. In this instance spotlighting Braxton Cook on alto sax and supporting support artist Nubya Garcia on tenor.
Scott stands front and centre of the new wave for the new century of jazz with counterparts Kamasi, Kendrick, Glasper and Shabaka. His ethos is in transcendence, helping to stretch music and minds for another 100 years.
Miles Mosley – Islington Assembly Hall
Miles Mosley took to the Islington Assembly Hall stage and held the audience with an assured American showmanship that made British bands seem awkward in comparison.
Mosley’s songwriting style draws from a range of influences, from 1970s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell to ’90s grunge bands like Soundgarden, while retaining a fidelity to writing catchy hooks. In the lengthy solo breaks, Mosley used a range of pedals and a mix of fingers and bow to make pretty much any sound he wanted to on the double bass, deserving the regular comparison to Jimi Hendrix. Several times he mentioned the hard work involved to get that good, and he is clearly a master of his trade.
Mosley is one of several artists like Cory Henry and Anderson Paak (as well as all the other members of his West Coast Get Down) who, after spending their lives playing as sidemen or producers for chart topping artists, are finally enjoying careers under their own name. Along with Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, Mosley and the rest of the West Coast Get Down came to prominence after working on Kendrick Lamar‘s decade-defining album To Pimp a Butterfly.
One of the night’s highlights was a track from BFI, a new project featuring Miles on vocal and bass, and his drummer Tony Austin, which sounded like a jazz version of Royal Blood. It’s another unreleased album from the legendary 30-day studio session which also produced Kamasi Washington’s The Epic.
Much like the London jazz scene, the West Coast Get Down is loyal to its roots, and has pooled its resources to create a jazz resurgence which can take on the world.
Zara McFarlane – Rich Mix
Where voice becomes the channel of identity, Zara McFarlane expresses heritage, community, and self-exploration in her 10-piece London Jazz Festival performance, singing songs from her latest album Arise.
Influenced by genres including Spiritual Jazz, Soul, Reggae, Dub and Kumina, this mix of genre reflects the multifaceted experience of someone who has grown up with parents from another country, adopting an identity which moves between the place of birth and the place of roots. As McFarlane states cheekily, “You might hear a little bit of Jamaican flavour!” later enquiring where the crowd has travelled from, “anyone from my ends, Dagenham?”
Blending past and present together in a wholesome dream-sound, McFarlane’s commanding voice conveyed great depth and clarity throughout the evening. Introduced to the stage by Gilles Peterson, the performance marked the development of an artist whose vocals and composition embody a musical awareness and stature equivalent to the blues singers of the ’60s. From her celebratory respect for all the musicians in her band, performing energetic, fierce solos from Shirley Tetteh on Guitar to Rosie Turnton on Trombone and Pete Edwards on Keys, McFarlane is an artist who keeps growing and keeps giving. Most evident is the texture of rhythms; an enveloping dub beat in Fussin’ and Fightin’ and vocal harmonies blending into a transportive mix of sounds in Allies and Enemies.
The emotive and expansive nature of the songs from Arise powerfully situate McFarlane as one of the prominent artists at the forefront of the UK Jazz scene. Arise is a symbol of a communal voice; it is a mapping of past wth present. Through joining her past and her present so intrinsically, McFarlane’s performance is timeless.
Trombone Shorty – Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Troy Andrews exudes self-assuredness on stage. It’s a confidence that probably comes from having New Orleans jazz in his blood, playing trombone from the age of four when he was dubbed Trombone Shorty for playing an instrument that eclipsed him in size.
Andrews has referred to his music as a ‘gumbo’, which seems spot on for the way he masterfully whipped up a tasty cacophony with his band onstage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. That blend reaches boiling point and explodes to create something more universal than just the corner of New Orleans he hails from, whilst the utmost regard for its musical traditions is always simmering in the background.
Although he’s known for pushing the boundaries of genre definition with his experimentation, he does so without alienating his audience. The Shepherd’s Bush show felt most right when Andrews slipped into the comfortably nostalgic. His cover of Allen Toussaint’s Here Come the Girls, exposed the maturity of an artist who knows his audience and how to work them. Where It At?, taken from his latest LP Parking Lot Symphony, was another audience-engaging moment, proving that beyond his strength as a multi-instrumentalist, he’s a showman.
You’d be forgiven for being caught off guard by his Red Hot Chilli Peppers cover, Give It Away, but it was proof of Andrews’ capacity to navigate into whichever musical lane he pleases, without being beholden to gimmick. There ain’t nothing wrong with that when you have the capacity and flow that Trombone Shorty has.
Knower – Scala
Knower and their support act, Skeltr, are part of a growing trend of jazz musicians also acting as producers, mixing laptops and live instrumentation in their vibrant shows.
Knower, an LA-based group, came out to huge cheers from the Scala crowd with multi-instrumentalist Lewis Cole wearing a comic-sized chain as if impersonating MC Hammer, and singer Genevieve Artadi head-to-toe in neon, appropriately dressed for a rave. For this performance, they arranged their laptop compositions for a full band of guitar, bass, drums and two keyboards, all pulling lightning-fast solos.
The show played-out like video game music that was constantly levelling up, or like Weather Report on study drugs. It makes sense that their song Fuck the Makeup, Skip the Shower was featured on Grand Theft Auto V. As Cole mentioned at the beginning, “We don’t do slow ones”. In a touching moment at the end they gushed that it was the largest headline gig they had ever done, and they really gave the audience everything they had – so much so that they were called back for encores. Twice.
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 Plan at 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.