London Jazz Fest Adds New Spice

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Myele Manzanza

(Photo: Courtesy Myele Manzanza)

Over the past five years, London has established itself as the epicentre for a unique approach to improvised music. Eschewing a fixation on standards and costly conservatoire training for grassroots workshops, young musicians have instead been embracing London’s status as a sprawling, immigrant city and interweaving the music of their varied and often migrant upbringings into a diasporic, jazz-focused mix. The result is a genre-defying blend whose unifying quality is only its consistent openness to change.

Over the past 30 years, the EFG London Jazz Festival has been an opportunity for this mutable London scene to share lineups with international jazz stars, pitting the likes of Herbie Hancock with saxophonist Nubya Garcia, or Pharoah Sanders with the group Maisha, and this year’s packed edition — following a pandemic-induced online version in 2020 — was no exception.

Alongside heavy hitters such as saxophonists Archie Shepp and Charles Lloyd were opening slots from London guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the female-fronted group Nérija, while drummer Jas Kayser produced an afrobeat-laden set before formidable upcoming U.S. talent Kassa Overall. Recently relocated to London, the New Zealand drummer Myele Manzanza’s headline slot at Soho’s Spice of Life was a highlight that encapsulated the free-flowing ethos of the multi-venue festival.

Having set himself the daunting task of producing five new albums during the coronavirus lockdowns, all entitled Crisis And Opportunity, Manzanza took to the stage to launch his second volume. While Volume One celebrated the sound of the London scene, this latest album is a paean to Manzanza’s migrant identity, playing with fellow New Zealand expats and self-sampling their live sessions into newly produced forms.

Towering over his tiny drumkit, Manzanza led his quartet with vocal flair, calling out changes and conducting the intensity of their solos with intuitive yelps — all while producing textural washes of sound on his cymbals and clattering rhythms through his toms. “Coldharbour Lane” (named after the road Manzanza lived on when he first arrived in the city) was a highlight, showcasing bassist Benjamin Muralt’s harmonics and guitarist Ashton Sellers’ nimble fingers on a fast-moving solo, while the quintuplets of “Back In The Days” sent the tip of Manzanza’s stick flying with the intensity of his playing.

Split into two sets, the second half of Manzanza’s performance took on a more free-flowing feel, as he channeled the free-jazz playing of the likes of Milford Graves in moving around the kit intuitively and applying a range of thoughtful dynamics. A cover of Detroit DJ Theo Parrish’s “Moonlight” had the crowd firmly head-nodding, while final tune “Crisis & Opportunity” led the rapt audience into an impromptu singalong of its downtempo theme.

Despite his New Zealand origins, it was a distinctly “London” set, channeling Manzanza’s various influences through the prism of the city’s open-eared willingness for groove and infectious melody.

Across the River Thames, London-based saxophonist and educator Jason Yarde injected this multifaceted energy into a very different setup: an ensemble of more than a dozen musicians playing as the group Acoutastic Bombastic. Originally formed in 2004 for a performance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the group is only now readying its debut album for early next year. Unencumbered by their masses of sheet music on stands, the orchestral ensemble was masterfully conducted by veteran scenester Yarde, who spurred on their intricate arrangements through hand claps and blistering solos on his alto saxophone. The group’s intuitive connection — honed by their 17 years playing together — was apparent as they opened with the lyrical suite “Random Wishes & Abstract Dream,s” with drummer Seb Rochford laying down a loose groove while violinist Alice Zawadski provided an interweaving vocal harmony.

It was a deft organization of complex instrumentation that was unfortunately lacking during trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s performance with the BBC Concert Orchestra on the closing night of the festival. Ahmed performed works from her 2017 album La Saboteuse and 2019’s Polyhymnia, yet the delicacy of her melodies were often drowned out by the orchestra’s power, while her rhythm section struggled in more challenging sections to keep up with conductor Bramwell Tovey’s timekeeping.

Here, that heart-pumping vitality and exciting energy that so characterizes the London scene was lost in the constraints of a stuffy, formalized orchestration. Instead, the performance merely served to highlight how the life of this vast urban scene lies in its inability to be pinned down onto detailed sheet music or under the conductor’s baton — it is rather alive in Manzanza’s frenetic playing (by way of New Zealand) and in the force of Jason Yarde’s saxophone, carrying his ensemble in a sense of uninhibited freedom. DB



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