London Jazz Festival
This year’s London Jazz Festival reflects the city in all its joyful diversity. Marcus O’Dair looks forward to the big names and compelling acts on the bill.
For those who insist that the death of Miles Davis in 1991 robbed jazz of its final marquee name, the launch of the London Jazz Festival the following year could hardly have been more inauspicious. Yet two decades after the festival emerged from its Camden Jazz Week origins, jazz continues to make Rasputin look like a quitter – and London is up there on the international calendar alongside North Sea, Newport, Montreal and Montreux. Jazz, as Frank Zappa put it, is not dead; it just smells funny.
This year’s LJF bill is topped by three musicians, each of whom, as it happens, played with Miles before going on to plant his own flag on the jazz A-list. Pianist Chick Corea, winner of a mantelpiece-conquering 18 Grammy Awards, is one of the most prominent jazz musicians of the last 50 years. So too is Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin, who today channels blues and flamenco, as well as rock and jazz, with his band 4th Dimension. And Sonny Rollins, the octogenarian ‘saxophone colossus’, is possibly the most revered jazz musician on the planet.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for jazz’s enduring health lies in the younger names on the bill, among them singer Melody Gardot and singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. Pianist Brad Mehldau, meanwhile, achieved international acclaim for his reworking of rock tracks – back before the Radiohead cover became obligatory for any emerging jazz artist.
Though jazz is, of course, at root an African-American music, LJF’s horizons are impressively broad. The festival has always enjoyed particularly strong ties to Europe, and these will only increase following a recent grant of up to €100,000 from the Culture Programme of the European Union. The ambitious Jazz in the New Europe programme will take in everything from duos to big bands via workshops and public discussions.
Norway’s Jan Garbarek is, like John McLaughlin, one of the European players who can genuinely claim to have diverted the course of jazz history. Garbarek is synonymous with the ECM label – the tenderness in the tundra – but appears here alongside India’s master percussionist Trilok Gurtu. The festival even finds room for musicians who might not receive the blessing of the jazz aficionado, among them the ‘Golden Voice of Africa’ – Mali’s Salif Keïta – and Paco de Lucía, the grand master of flamenco.
The UK is represented by John Surman, arguably the finest, and surely the most English, saxophonist of his generation. Heading up the new breed is Shabaka Hutchings, who premieres a unique piece that attempts to find the middle ground between Caribbean music and the BBC Concert Orchestra. ‘Vast and infinitely diverse, the London Jazz Festival is as unique as London itself,’ sums up programmer Freda Knowles. ‘Jazz is woven throughout this city’s communities and generations, so whether you find yourself in the Royal Box at the Festival Hall, or pushed up against a makeshift stage at a smoky late-night jam session, the festival is a way of revelling in an abundance of people and music through those dark November nights.’
The London Jazz Festival runs from Friday 9–Sunday 18 November across the capital