LJF 2015: James Farm; Dans Les Arbres; Cassandra Wilson

Andy Hamilton witnesses wild enthusiasm, musically alluring improvisation, and a slow handclap for a missing singer

The opening concert of the London Jazz Festival featured James Farm, the all-star quartet of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland (pictured right). I guess you could call it a jazz supergroup; a more modest description would be a collective. The group's recent Nonesuch album City Folk offers a postbop soundworld with material ranging across pop-like songs and country-ish ballads. It proved one of the best contexts for Redman's playing, I'd say since his early album Moodswing with Brad Mehldau.

The live sound was first-rate. The material consisted of original compositions from the band's two albums, opening with a rather restrained interpretation of – I think – Penman's City Folk. Things loosened up on Redman's If By Air. A beautiful ballad in 6/8 was followed by the edgy, acerbic Aspirin, included, Redman said, because of the band's long and stressful journey via Gatwick. Harland's North Star, with its agitated descending theme, began with a long, inventive solo by the bassist, and a great one by the saxophonist. The encore, Otherwise, with its funky, countryish theme, was a fitting conclusion to a sold out concert before a wildly enthusiastic Cadogan Hall audience. (I missed the opening support act, Partisans – not to my taste.)

Improvising quartet Dans Les Arbres first came together in 2004, and though they've not been prolific on record, there are two superb albums on ECM. Personnel is Xavier Charles on clarinet, Ivar Grydeland on guitar and preparations, Christian Wallumrød on prepared piano and Ingar Zach on bass drum and percussion. At the excellent venue of The Forge, Camden, the instrumentation was pared down a little for touring – no harmonium, banjo or sruti box. A continuous soundscape was sustained by electric guitar and circular breathing on clarinet, Charles often describing an arc with his instrument, to exploit effects of spatialisation.

The huge bass drum had been hired for the gig, Zach explained afterwards – his own drum at home is slightly more massive – and the huge beater he used was capable of unleashing massive power. Zach lays crotales across the drum's surface, with ceramic bells hanging above. Grydeland often plays his guitar laptop, offering tiny scraps of sound; clarinet, also, produces the tiniest pinched tones. A knowledgeable audience of 20 witnessed the most musically alluring free improvisation you're likely to hear, a harmony of timbres, intuitive yet refined – though also at times featuring more ferocious playing than I recall from their discs.

The festival blurb talks of Cassandra Wilson's "long overdue return to the London concert stage" - literally true because as I write these lines at the South Bank the interval has already lasted 40 minutes. (I missed the support act, solo guitarist Lionel Loueke – again, not to my taste.) Wilson is paying homage to Billie Holiday on the centenary of her birth, following her recent tribute album Coming Forth By Day, it says. But after some slow handclapping, there's an announcement. Not an easy one to make, because it turns out that Ms. Wilson is still at her hotel, where the band are going to try and persuade her to perform. Hmm, I recall she was rather a prima donna. What rankles is that since I have a press ticket, I can't get my money back.

[Bruce Lindsay adds: Cassandra Wilson did eventually perform. According to one review she announced that she had been ill at her hotel. However, the story is still not clear. Serious, the organisers of the EFG London Jazz Festival, issued this statement on Monday 16 November, apologising for the delay, offering refunds and stating "Cassandra repeatedly delayed leaving her hotel without Serious or Southbank Centre being told when, or if, she was willing to go onstage." Wilson herself has written about the event on her Twitter and Facebook pages: as well as apologising to her fans, she refers to "...malicious and unprofessional conduct" on the part of the festival organisers and to "...dismissive, disrespectful" behaviour on the part of two of the organising team.]

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