Brick Lane Jazz Festival Harnesses East London Talent

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Leeds, England-based alto saxophonist Jasmine Myra, far right, led an expansive six-piece group for her festival debut.

(Photo: Ellie Koepke)

East London’s Brick Lane is best known for its historic South Asian community and the slew of Indian and Pakistani restaurants that snake along its sidewalks. Yet, in recent years the area has also become known for more than just its food culture. A number of independent music venues have sprung up, championing the capital’s brightest jazz talents in warren-like rooms scattered throughout its industrial complexes.

Spaces like Ninety One Living Room or 93 Feet East regularly host jam nights for local musicians, along with larger headline shows taking place at the Rough Trade record store or the Truman Brewery. Harnessing this thriving new community of improvisers, the Brick Lane Jazz Festival launched its debut edition in 2022, featuring the likes of young saxophonist Binker Golding, guitarist and singer Jelly Cleaver, and production duo Blue Lab Beats.

Returning for its second year April 14–16, the 2023 version of the festival kicked off under typically grey London skies to present an expanded edition that buzzed with warmth and vitality regardless of the weather. Leeds-based Jasmine Myra, a saxophonist and member of Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana Records, was a Friday night highlight, taking to the sofa-lined space of 93 Feet East with her expansive six-piece group for her festival debut. Largely playing compositions from her 2022 debut album Horizons, Myra’s set was a masterpiece in dynamic control, opening with the Kenny Wheeler-referencing ensemble harmonies of the album’s title track and trading its plaintive melodies between her alto saxophone and the trilling of a harp and double flutes. As the set progressed, Myra maintained the gentle, hip-swaying feel that has become her signature, backing a dexterous solo from guitarist Ben Haskins on the keening “Morningtide” before building to close on the rhythmic swells of “1000 Miles.” Throughout, Myra managed to keep her crowd rapt without deviating from her steady medium tempo — an assured first performance promising greater depths to come.

Across the street in the club-space of Ninety One Living Room, trombonist Rosie Turton made a standout appearance. Releasing her debut EP in 2019 with local label Jazz Re:Freshed, she performed as part of their Saturday night venue takeover, producing a texturally rich and embodied sound with her quintet. Violinist Johanna Burnheart provided punctuating solos, processing her instrument through pedals to create a synthesized tone that provides a metallic counter to Turton’s warmth. “The Unknown,” taken from 2019’s Rosie’s 5ive EP, meandered through a dubby undulation, anchored by drummer Jake Long’s deft polyrhythms, while the spirited bossa of a new composition proved to be a rousing closer, pushing the ensemble to perform at competing heights with traded solos. Despite only having a handful of releases to her name so far, Turton gave a welcome glimpse into a fresh songwriting talent.

While the festival boasted an array of acts that push the genre-boundaries of jazz, such as in the improvised dance floor rhythms of Ebi Soda or the cross-cultural fusions of Sarathy Korwar, few artists tread the lines between styles with as much seamless flair as pianist and vocalist Ashley Henry. Over his hour-long set Henry displayed his aptitude for luscious arrangements, thundering through a kinetic version of Solange’s 2016 hit “Cranes In The Sky,” as well as a propulsive cover of Nina Simone’s protest anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” leaning on the lyrical lightness of his right hand throughout. Trumpeter James Copus provided a piercing clarity to cut through the groove base of Henry’s rhythm section, while his own lyrical skills behind the microphone lent a welcome counterpoint to his instrumental melodies on hip-hop referencing tracks like “Colours.” The quartet burned brightest, though, when Henry allowed his arrangements to extend outwards, progressing from their typically tight song structure. On the ascending lines and yearning choruses of “I Still Believe,” taken from Henry’s 2019 debut album Beautiful Vinyl Hunter, he managed to traverse everything from elegantly simplistic pop phrases to stacked soulful harmonies and fast chromatic lines, truly expressing the depth of open-eared possibility within improvisation.

Ultimately, it is this depth and variety that made the second edition of Brick Lane Jazz Festival such an exciting proposition for its audiences, who packed out each room throughout its three nights. It is a testament to the vitality of London’s improvised music scene — one that develops through community workshops and jam nights as much as at music schools — that the new venues and ventures showcased at Brick Lane Jazz Festival continue to thrive, allowing homegrown artists a welcome platform to surprise and delight. DB



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