Review: EFG London JF last weekend

Bob Weir wraps up the last weekend of an event that forms the perfect conclusion to a jazz festival season that stretches from spring to late autumn, with several concerts available via BBC Radio 3 (see links below)

London in November has long been the ideal way to round-off the jazz festival season. With about 350 events at over 60 venues all around the capital, there was a wide choice of top quality homegrown and international talent to suit all tastes. After several months of European festival-trotting, this year I had to limit myself to the last weekend of the 10-day festival to avoid jazz burnout.

My first visit was to the Pizza Express in Soho at Friday lunchtime for the young Danish sextet, Girls In Airports. With two contrasting saxists in front and a versatile rhythm section, they combined an appealing Nordic ambiance with a range of exotic influences (Latin, African, Baltic, advanced rock and contemporary jazz) in an individual and very expert manner.

The evening was spent at the splendid Cadogan Hall for a sublime double concert. Master percussionist Asaf Sirkis and Polish singer Sylwia Bialas brought their new quartet for a soulful performance of their folksy ballad originals. The trio of Leszek Mozdzer (pictured left) - with fellow virtuosi Lars Danielsson (bass) and Zohar Fresco (percussion) - followed with a dazzling display of mesmerizing music, playing compositions by all three from last year's brilliant album, Polska. They have been together for 10 years and it showed in their high degree of musical empathy. The leader's piano playing is breathtaking - classically trained and Chopinesque in parts but always infused with powerful jazz sensitivity. The many Polish expats in the audience loved every minute and they gave the band a rock-star send-off.

Saturday started in the afternoon at the Southbank's Purcell Room for a very enjoyable concert by the Royal Academy of Music Big Band (pictured below) featuring Nikki Iles's piano and compositions (several arranged by Stan Sulzmann and some with lyrics by Norma Winstone). The lovely melodies evoked English pastoral and maritime moods and were performed stylishly by the talented students with engaging vocals by Miriam Ast. One of the best of the many free-stage sessions at all the main venues was an early evening show at the Southbank's Clore Ballroom by trumpeter Claude Deppa's new band. They offered bright and breezy South African township jazz with exuberant soloing by the leader, Pierre Chabrele on trombone and veteran pianist Mervyn Africa. Everyone left this concert smiling broadly.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited production of the whole festival was the Saturday evening concert at the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Blue Note records. This was another two-part event. Robert Glasper and Jason Moran (pictured left) opened with an hour-long continuous piano duet. After short preliminary skirmishes, their playing touched on several aspects of the Blue Note tradition including the label's boogie-woogie beginnings and Herbie Hancock's major contributions. Along the way were beguiling passages of free-improv interplay and individual sequences of soulful balladry. The large crowd loved it all. The big guns came on next in an all-star sextet to honour the label's many great bands. The brilliant Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured above right) brought reminders of all of the trumpet giants from Brownie to Freddie Hubbard via Miles, and Marcus Strickland's tenor hinted at Wayne Shorter's off-centre musings. The rhythm section of Robert Glasper, Lionel Loueke, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott told us why the Blue Note spirit is still very much alive.      

Sunday's afternoon concert in the Purcell Room by the Jazz Family All Stars was good fun. Juliet Kelly sang standards in tribute to legendary jazz vocalists (Ella, Nina, Sassy, Satchmo etc) and a couple of her charming originals to involve the many youngsters in the audience in clapping and singing along. She was helped by a strong quartet with the alto sax of Tony Kofi to the fore. It was an indication of the importance the festival gives to introducing young people to jazz.

The shade of the recently deceased JJ photographer David Redfern, a regular presence at past festivals, was felt by many of us throughout. It seemed appropriate, therefore, that a group of his friends and colleagues met at the end to recall the many times we had shared his company over a meal and good red wine.

Photography: John Watson, except Lezsek Mozdzer by Rita Pinkse

BBC Radio 3 recorded several of the festival's concerts, as listed here. Once broadcast, events will be available for 30 days afterwards on BBC iPlayer – accessible here.

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