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birdsong, clangs and polyrhythmic swing

birdsong, clangs and polyrhythmic swing

May 08
22:56 2018

Jason Moran is a musician respectful both of his own band’s traditions and those of jazz as a whole. “We’re in a mode of preservation,” he declared as he introduced The Bandwagon, his feisty piano trio. But anyone expecting a sedate tour of the canon was in for a shock at this buzzing festival performance.

For nearly two decades now, the American pianist and his trio have been in dialogue with jazz history. This performance referenced Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, stretched over louche R&B. And early in the set, a zig-zagging melange pulled together music by Jaki Byard, the teacher who inspired Moran when he moved at 18 to New York — though it would have taken an acute ear to discern the Byard beneath the trio’s bleak balladry, shaded themes and atonal struts. “It’s where I get my restless spirit from,” Moran confessed. “He wouldn’t have sounded like this.”

In fact, nobody sounds much like Moran, who draws on a percussive piano tradition of expressionist clusters and imperious stride. For good measure, he throws in oblique harmonic voicings and references the blues, from the Delta to contemporary R&B. Bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits match the leader for tonal control and intellectual bite.

Jason Moran delivered a buzzing performance © Roger Thomas

It was all on show here, compressed into a blur of disjointed juxtapositions, bittersweet harmonies and exhilarating accelerations. It was one such that ended the set, an encore that twinned the percussive zap of Moran’s latest iteration of his ever-evolving “Gangsterism” with Monk’s “Thelonious”. This year’s festival had a strong line-up; Moran’s Saturday afternoon gig set a high bar.


Jim Black’s Malamute also mix moods and juxtapose styles, though their beats and textures draw on alt-rock and electronic dance music. The American is a virtuoso drummer with a trenchant vision that sets him apart, but at this gig, the rest of his band relied on shock and awe and lacked the virtuosic depth of Moran’s trio.

Their early evening set opened with plops and squeaks of electronica, high-note strums of bass guitar and three basic notes from Óskar Guðjónsson’s tenor sax. As the evening progressed, the Icelandic saxophonist cavorted across the stage, but his phonic squeaks and growls were lost in a blizzard of electronics. With bassist Chris Tordini restricted to single-note riffs and rumbly blurs, the focus of this continuous performance was the dialogue between Black’s shifting beats and the squelches, whines and keyboard samples of Elias Stemeseder’s electronics. Dramatic shifts stopped one’s attention wandering, but it was Black’s bounced sticks, shifted beats and unexpected cymbal splashes that really gripped.


In contrast to Moran and Black’s chop-and-change antics, the peaks and plateaux of Evan Parker ’s late-night through-improvised set evolved at an unhurried pace. The saxophonist was presenting a loosely signposted tribute to the late film director and found-sound innovator Basil Kirchin, which Parker developed with his collaborative quintet Trance Map+.

The project sets Parker’s soprano sax in an unfurling backdrop of ambient sound, industrial clangs and the growling undertone of Adam Linson’s double bass. The piece opened with recorded bird-cheeps remoulded into sprays of sound by electronic duo Spring Heel Jack. Parker entered with a whispered flutter that gradually cohered into the first of a series of continuously breathed spirals of microtonal arpeggios. Later in the set, the saxophonist added low-note melodies while notes flew on high, like a pianist exercising his left hand.

As the piece developed, birdsong changed to cityscape sounds and, at one moment, a surreal balm of sampled lobby-fodder violins. Parker’s virtuosity had found beatific support. The audience sat as though in a trance, then roared their approval as a final long-sustained single note faded into silence.


Sampled birdsong was also featured on baritone saxophonist and bandleader Issie Barratt’s “Kulning”, the final composition of her Sunday afternoon set. This descriptive tableau of overlapping themes was inspired by traditional Swedish herding calls sung by women. Earlier themes varied from trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s “Still Here”, a life-affirming dedication to her mother coping with Alzheimer’s, to “Donna’s Secret”, a multilingual complexity by vocalist Brigitte Beraha that celebrated the creative methods of the writer Donna Tartt.

Issie Barratt, right, with Carol Jarvis on trombone © Roger Thomas

Barratt works in European big-band jazz, and it was that tradition’s rigorous structures and rich textures that were given an impressive narrative thrust by her 10-piece band Interchange. All five pieces had a story to tell and used the ensemble’s accordion- and cello-enhanced line-up to the full.


The American counterpart followed soon afterwards when bassist Christian McBride’s ranks of brass made their European debut. McBride takes established routines and give them a tweak. Thus call-and-response horns sit on surging modal swing, and sweet songbook harmonies are interrupted by chirrups of flutes; here an achingly slow “I Thought About You” came with slurred moans of brass.

The band entered with a swagger of Basie-style blues and a young local player on double bass. McBride strode on stage, bowed, took over the bass and cranked up the power. Highlights included the pinpoint funk of a cover of George Duke’s “The Black Messiah (Part Two)” and the expanded modal hard bop of “Thermo”, written by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard for Art Blakey’s band. Solos were top-drawer, the programme varied, and the performance oozed emotion and gloss.


Saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s band also tweak established routines, though their references are spiritual modal jazz and late-night funky jams. Two drummers beef up the beat without losing rhythmic guile and, fusing with the supercharged lines of Miles Mosley’s doctored double bass, are equally powerful on polyrhythmic swing.

Washington, introduced as “the biggest name in jazz at the moment”, opened with music from his hit triple album The Epic. The motifs are simple and the themes comic-book. But expanded on and experienced live, they pack a punch. “Fist of Fury” followed, from his new EP Heaven and Earth, featuring soft voicings, Washington’s father Ricky on flute, and a repeated chant that ended, “Our time as victims is over.”

The finale, “Truth”, conjoined five melodies over a network of rhythm. It was inspired by human diversity — “not to be tolerated, but celebrated”, Washington said. As before, long solos built to a peak as rhythms chopped and changed underneath and the saxophonist delivered expressionist fire with the articulated power of R&B. The performance ended with a thunder of drums that brought the audience to their feet. Washington has packaged his brand well, but imitators beware. Authenticity and virtuosity lie underneath.


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