Random notes about the London Jazz Festival 2010

Lo que sigue es mi balance del Festival de Londres de este año. Las crónicas en castellano se pueden leer aquí, y todavía se pueden escuchar conciertos a través de internet en BBC-Radio 3.


This year's London Jazz Festival has been something else, even though my Festival has been different to others'. I missed triumphant vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who was the talk of the town after the vocalists' show, as well as missed Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Brad Mehldau, Cedar Walton, Bojan Z, William Parker & Hamid Drake, Paco de Lucía... and, yet, it was an amazing festival.

As a one man-band, my coverage of the 10-day jazzathon (jazz, a ton?) has been limited. I still managed to see 14 gigs in 9 days (I had to take a break), with up to three on a single day, but that amounts to just about 5% of what's on offer. My reviews can be read, in Spanish, in Cuadernos de Jazz (or click here). The most exhaustive - that comes from "exhaustion" - coverage has surely been carried out by the heroic London Jazz blog, edited by the indefatigable Sebastian Scotney.

Musically, I've been extremely lucky. I've seen all of the acts I really wanted to see, and all of them exceeded my expectations. Sonny Rollins was beyond belief. He's the only jazz musician I know who's able to completely engage a jazz audience playing a song with the chords of "Stand By Me" in C major. His show, way over two hours, was extraordinary. He's a notorious perfectionist, but according to his team, he was happy. Bearing in mind the way he walks and his frail appearance, this verges on the supernatural. But there is something about this music that does just that. Alto virtuoso Peter King was the same at the Bull's Head: he sat between solos and looked short of breath, but as soon as he brought his sax to his mouth, all that disappeared.

Same goes for another octogenarian who's still quietly pushing the envelope: Martial Solal. During an after-show chat he told us that he felt best when he was playing, that it was the only time that he didn't feel his age. The connection between his whimsical mind and his fingers is seamless, and his harmonic imagination beggars belief. He's not young, he may not look cool - although he has terrific comic timing -, and he only uses his hands on the keys, but he's one of the most advanced and imaginative pianists today. Bar none. The Wigmore's acoustics were just magic.

The gig I was looking forward the most was Darcy James Argue's at Café Oto (or as someone said, "London's Knitting Factory"). I admit I left my objectivity at home for this one. I'm a sucker for big bands, and Argue's CD Infernal Machines won me over from the first few seconds. You have to admire someone who founded a big band at 30 - that was five years ago - keeps it going, and takes care of things such as its image. The music was astonishing, with plenty of nuance, drama and punch, the sound was surprisingly good and Darcy himself is the most polite and best-mannered musician I've met since... Hank Jones?

The rest of the best happened, for me, outside the usual venues. The Bull's Head comes on top for the King-Themen-Riel gig, a hard-bop party that was more than that - and King and Themen are two national treasures, what a couple of players! -, and the John Etheridge Trio with Arild Andersen - whose "Hyperborean" was the most beautiful moment of the whole festival - was another hidden jewel. This was a matinee gig on a Sunday, and it felt great to see quite a few children in the audience.

With Chris Potter at Ronnie's. Picture by Sergio Cabanillas.

Chris Potter got slightly more exposure with his gigs at Ronnie's, but the lucky few who saw his Underground band were witness to an explosion of very tight music, with lots of funk in it. Craig Taborn's left hand on the Rhodes is just unreal. On a bluesy mood too, John Scofield also went beyond what I expected, and played some beautiful, melodic solos ("Someone to Watch Over Me" stands out).

Don't forget that plenty of this music can still be heard on BBC-Radio 3.

That's just some of the music. Then, you have the things that make this Festival special. The musicians' banter, which the locals may take for granted, but coming from a non-English speaking country, it's very clear how much more relaxed they are when they speak to the audiences. And there's a long British tradition of self-deprecating public speech that's just hilarious. Pete Long and John Etheridge were especially good at it.

And then there's the people, the very knowledgeable audiences - like the pensioners at Richard Pite's excellent Benny Goodman Quartet show -, the conversations with colleagues before and after the shows, meeting old friends and making new ones...

Anyway. I've had a great Festival, and for that my gratitude goes to all musicians, technicians, and other staff involved at the venues, the organization of the Festival, Serious, and, in no particular order, Sally Reeves, Sorcha Hunter, John Cumming, Stephanie Knibbe, Dan Fleming, Julian Joseph, Wulf Müller, Peter Downey, and my sidekick for part of the festival, Sergio Cabanillas.

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