The Barbican opened its final EFG London Jazz Festival weekend with a grand spectacle. Soweto Kinch’s new work Wit Juju Kinch’s own articulate rap and small group jazz mixed with the subtle textures of the London Symphony Orchestra and explores present and past with a mixture of sound clips and archive film. These ranged from clips from George Floyd’s funeral and Ku Klux Klan footage to talking heads and news reports of riots and peaceful parades.
Kinch’s fine-tuned orchestral score reuses well-known orchestral practices. Violin whips, brass and double bass combine on angular modernist lines, while flutes, clarinets and trumpets merge to a magical effect. Heartbreaking violin riffs and short whistles meet the demands of hip-hop or add counterpoint to the rhythm section’s lines.
The 10-part work began with the recorded bird song of “Daybreak” and continued with “The Old Normal,” which analyzes the recent past; disturbing, a track by Boris Johnson that introduces locks looked from a bygone age. Floating free jazz scattered in abstraction and chirping of the orchestra’s flutes calmed the nerves.
Later, images of the sugar trade’s infrastructure came with a baroque orchestral pastiche, and Stravinsky-like strings bounced behind news reports. So inspired, jazz emerged from the orchestra, sometimes pulsating with contemporary beats, otherwise brittle and free. Segues were seamless, contrasts clear and dead points were delivered exactly on cue.
But the focus was Kinch, who was standing on a pedestal near conductor Lee Reynolds, alternating sharp-toothed and rhythmically nuanced rap with pensive tenor and alto sax. His solos ranged from oblique modernism and rough-and-tumble lines to melancholy free jazz. However, they were too deeply mixed in the sounds of the orchestra to perform fully. A small detail in a captivating, well-reasoned event that made you think, “Whatever next?”
On Saturday, two American bands delivered a contrast of styles. Vibraphonist / pianist Joel Ross delivered two sets of hip-hop bends and modernist lines at Ronnie Scott’s, while Pizza Express Jazz Club presented a set of sets for the established Trio M’s left-field mix of expressionism and the blues.
Ross’s seasoned Good Vibes Orchestra changes tempo and mood at will. Solos are long, exploratory and full of bite, and Ross ‘metal vibraphone resonance found a perfect foil in the sounds of Immanuel Wilkins’ alto sax. Here, bassist Kenoa Mendenhall anchored movements on double bass, and drummer Jeremy Dutton complemented the soloists’ rococo lines with compressed roles and sharply spaced edge shots; his two drum solos were masterpieces of melodic flow and close control.
Ross began his first-set performance at the piano by delivering somber chords in a minor key. John Coltrane’s “Equinox” was the theme, played by Wilkins with a dry, focused tone and a hint of breath. The tempo was painfully slow, but as it changed and doubled, soloists explored the outer edge of harmony.
As the groove calmed down, Dutton switched to hip-hop and Ross switched to vibes for “More?” from last year’s album Who are you?; the up-tempo “Marsheland”, of the same version, concluded the set with an exciting chase between saxophone and vibes. In between, the group reconstructed Monk’s “Evidence” and concentrated on newer work in a performance that rarely stood still. Ballads floated, gained speed and swung, and hip-hop grooves melted into urgent modal swings.
The densely detailed show ended with a sudden dead end, but there was no time for more. A second set was already in line.
Trio M, together for 15 years, also uses jazz tradition and changes tempo at will. But pianist Myra Melford’s twin tradition with abstraction and double bass player Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson’s aesthetics is equally wide.
Here the trio explored time and space and pushed orthodox technique to the edge. Melford, fully in control of spidery modernism, was equally persuasive as to explode into discord or to arrive at the essence of a stormy blues. Dresser combined two-handed pliers with strollers and slaps and stepped reliably in a steady step. Drummer Wilson swung, shuffled and made friends resonate in acres of space.
Their second set began with a dramatic collapse of cymbals, a bent bass motif and Melford authentically proclaiming the blues in “Naive Art”. Its centerpiece was a drum solo that made every powerful blow count and took minimalism to extremes.
The evening continued as a kaleidoscope of moods and references. Melford’s “Be Melting Snow” played with space and produced groups of sound, “Dried Print on Cardboard” combined rhythmic angles with melodic jumps and “FUNterfaht” galloped along with a Latin twist. Wilson’s “Getting Friendly” was the ballad, playfully romantic and delivered in the middle of the set, and the township tune of “Economy” culminated in an uplifting evening.