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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
 

LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL SPECIAL:
Four for the price of one!
Tessa Souter, Pizza on the Park, London November 12th 2009
Sonny Rollins, Barbican, London, November 14th 2009
Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, Barbican, November 15th 2009
Blind Boys of Alabama, Allen Toussaint, Barbican, November 18th 2009

Tessa Souter There are times when you just love living in London, no matter what its overcrowded and under-funded public transport system, congested highways, heaving pavements, hyped restaurants and tawdry shopping streets throw at you.  London Jazz Festival is one of those occasions: a week packed with the most sensational artists ranging from guitar wizard Bill Frisell to saxophonist John Surman.  Of course the difficulty is choosing  what to go and see, but in the end we settled on three shows, but began with a pre Festival gig at the Pizza on the Park (it turns out to be quite a week for pizza) by Tessa Souter, recently interviewed by Serge for Whiskyfun.  She may be in London because boyfriend Billy Drummond (whom she talks about quite a lot) is playing on the South Bank with Carla Bley.  It’s her first time with this trio of piano, bass and drums (I noted at times that some of the arrangements cried out for a guitar) and as pianist Nick Weldon mentioned over the urinals, it was “a bit nerve wracking” for the band.  When it’s going well Ms Souter cuts a graceful and serene figure, arms crossed as the band solo away.  But when they get it wrong she throws a glance that could shatter glass.  Her voice is clear and strong, deeply thoughtful, and she can hold a note and a tune effortlessly. 
Her act comprises mainly standard tunes, the love theme from Spartacus, Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Little sunflower’, Leo Ferre’s ‘Avec le temps’, Wayne Shorter’s ‘Native dancer’ and “Bill Evans’ ten bars of melancholy”, ‘Blue in Green’, some featuring her own lyrics.  And there are also original compositions such as ‘Usha’s wedding song’, and a surprising unaccompanied duet with drummer Winston Clifford.  And many of the evening’s songs, including ‘Crystal rain – sunshower’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ are from Ms Souter’s new album, Obsession, copies of which were being snapped up by the audience (many of whom were family and friends) at the end of the show.
Sonny Rollins
Ask anyone who their first choice performer for the Festival was and most would probably have picked veteran saxophonist, or should I say ‘saxophone colossus’, Sonny Rollins.  He’s nearly eighty, bent and stooped, red silk shirt and shades, looking as cool as you like, and raising a defiant fist to the packed Barbican as he takes the stage.  I’ll be clear that this was not the most challenging of musical evenings, but the playing, both of Rollins and his band, was of the first order.  The material was mixed, with even Noel Coward providing a canvas for Rollins’ improvisations.  His playing was remarkably strong from the off, relaxed and fluid, and as the notes soared from his saxophone so he rose in stature and straightened himself like a young man.  Such is the power of music.  The interplay between Rollins and trombonist Clifton Anderson and guitarist Bobby Broom brought some unexpected subtlety, but I noticed that it was Rollins’ favoured calypso melodies that seemed to most engage the audience, notably the finale ‘Don’t stop the carnival’, famous to English audiences through Alan Price’s hit version.  Naturally it brought the audience to its feet for a well-deserved ovation for an hour-and-half’s pure pleasure.
Futureman
Futureman (The Flecktones)
I must confess ignorance of “the Jimi Hendrix of the banjo” Bela Fleck, despite the fact that with his band the Flecktones they have featured three times on Whiskyfun pages (apologies again Serge).  Actually I don’t believe the ‘Hendrix’ moniker really does Fleck justice for the versatility that he brings to a powerful but more often than not underestimated instrument.  For a band leader he’s surprisingly reticent in his playing, but perhaps that’s because of the hugely talented Flecktones, who make light work of hugely complex arrangements.  Tonight they comprise Howard Levy on piano and harmonica (after his solo of ‘Amazing Grace’ I vowed to go home and throw my collection of harps away, but perhaps what I should do is sign up for his on-line harmonica school instead), on electric bass the mesmerisingly powerful Victor Wooten (who needs reminding that he’s not playing a lead guitar), and his brother, the piratical Futureman, on the ‘Drumitar’.  These few words cannot do them justice – simply let it be said that their set was probably the best support act I’ve ever seen, with a deserved standing ovation. 
Flecktones
Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten are listening reverentially to Chick Corea
I suppose it takes someone as good as Chick Corea to have the nerve to ‘follow that’, as they say.  But then he does have drummer Lenny White and bassist Stanley Clarke to hand to help, in a recreation of the classic Return to Forever line-up that’s missing only guitarist Al Di Meola.  When we saw Corea with Gary Burton a few years ago I wrote that “it’s easy to forget that Corea is even there”, such was the subtlety of much of his playing.  With this line-up he appeared to achieve the same result, giving Clarke the lion’s share of the set to produce impossible solo after impossible solo, supported more than ably by the very full drumming of Lenny White. Yet it was Corea’s effortlessly moody playing that held the whole thing together.  As a finale he brought back the Flecktones who paired up with their counterparts for duelling solos on Corea’s ‘Spain’.  The witty White versus the deadpan Futureman was a delight, but Wooten’s electric bass and Clarke’s acoustic bass  together was a simply explosive combination, making it feel like you were watching and feeling  Godzilla running towards you at breakneck speed. 

Chick Corea

Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke
I can’t imagine Allen Toussaint running; he appears to do everything with a remarkable New Orleansian  laid-back ease.  His opening set for the Blind Boys of Alabama ran pretty much like the last performance we saw him give: a humourous run through his astonishing back catalogue of compositions, all played with that wonderful syncopated New Orleans keyboard style.  But he has released a new album, The Bright Mississippi, a distinctly Toussaint take on a collection of songs, some traditional New Orleans tunes, like ‘St James Infirmary’, others modern compositions like Thelonius Monk’s ‘Bright Mississippi’.  He played both of these, and ‘Singin’ the blues’, paying tribute to the influence of producer Joe Henry: “he heard in me a different light, heard something in me that I didn’t know was there..”.  The album, like any Toussaint performance, is highly commended.  Sadly I didn’t feel quite the same about the Blind Boys of Alabama, who seemed to have lost some of their dignity in the chase for commercial success since I last saw them not long after the release of their hugely successful album Spirit of the Century.  They’ve also sadly lost a few members: founder member Johnny Fields died only in November, whilst Clarence Fountain has stopped performing due to ill health, leaving Jimmy Carter as the surviving lead singer and graduate of the Talladega Institute for Blind and Deaf, where the group started in the 1940s.  Too many references from the stage to buying CDs and merchandise became tiresome, and some of the faux-rabble-rousing gospel schtick, was simply undignified in my rather conservative English view of things.  But that didn’t stop the audience having a great time, and no doubt buying lots of CDs as they left.  Job done.
Pizza

And for anyone who’s counting, that’s four gigs and three pizzas in the space of  seven days, which is almost more than a body can handle. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)

Listen:
Tessa Souter
Sonny Rollins
The Flecktones

 



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