Live: A weekend at the London Jazz Festival – Southbank Centre, 16th – 18th November 2011

Heidi Goldsmith spends a weekend immersing herself in all that London’s annual Jazz festival has to offer.

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The London Jazz Festival began as quite a concentrated affair in Camden and, much like the metropolis itself, sprawled out over time into venues all across the city centre. Being only in town for the weekend I limited myself to the consistently brilliant Southbank centre. It has garnered a reputation for an artistically democratic approach since the programme is varied and experimental and concerts are either reasonably priced or free.

The first gig I attended was De Jongens Driest, who had an impressively busy calendar of concerts in venues such as the magnificent Vortex, Dalston, but were to be seen here playing in front of the downstairs bar, like a troupe of buskers in a city square. This trio consists of slightly dishevelled-looking Dutchmen in un-ironed suits, playing sousaphone, trombone and soprano saxophone playing tunes which varied from evoking afro-Caribbean carnivals to traditional Batmitzvahs, with the ever present feel of a marching band somehow fusing the eclectic genres, the audience found themselves overtaken by a strange desire to dance to this eccentric umpah-pah. Each piece was concluded with a stamp of the sousaphonist’s battered shoe on the marble floor and was received with a sort of baffled applause.

The following night was ‘Jazz Line-up’ in the Clore Ballroom and included a number of young British jazz ensembles selected by BBC Radio 3’s Kevin le Gendre. The most noteworthy performance was from the final band, Empirical, who strutted confidently onto the stage immaculately dressed in perfectly ironed suits and bowties, with no need to exhibit their nonchalance through jeans and t-shirts. They were confidently ironic and launched straight into a short, intense set of jazz that was simultaneously traditional and subtly innovative. The quartet of sax, bass, vibes and drums were thrillingly tight, verging on funky and dripping with groove. Each of them played with a mesmerising assuredness which allowed for playful improvisation and spontaneity. The mainly seated audience, and particularly those who had sat audaciously cross-legged in front of the stage, soon began to bop, and Empirical were given an enthusiastic reception of relieved applause and whooping for their ‘Empirically’ good music. (Sorry!)

Jazz line-up was, along with an egg & cress sandwich and a bottle of homemade gin and tonic, my amuse-bouche for the real finale of this festive jazzing: Portico Quartet, who made their name busking on the South Bank, only a few meters from their venue tonight, but a world away in terms of stature. Their unique sound comes mainly from the use of a hang drum – an instrument which sounds indefinably exotic and Eastern, somewhat like steel pans, but deeper, richer and more resonant. In their first two albums, Knee Deep in the North Sea and Isla Portico, Quartet play with repeated hooks that are at once reminiscent of minimalism and UK dance music. It was apt then that the support set came from Stuart McCallum – guitarist for Cinematic Orchestra – with his drummer, bassist and Apple Mac. These long tracks filled the room with a sensual timelessness, almost definable as ‘ambient’ but with more substance than simple mood-music, demonstrating the hypnotic work of intelligent and artful precision.

With my appetite whetted Portico Quartet slipped into position and played a set with pieces from their forthcoming album, which sees a shift in style from an aesthetic of other-worldly beauty into one which is firmly rooted in the UK; with clear influences from alternative dubstep and dance music artists such as James Blake and Jamie Woon. Like a virtuoso musical circus they continuously swapped instruments with somebody always in charge of the riff, whether on the hang drum itself, a synthesised hang effect, or just keys. The ever-creative Duncan Bellamy on drums twisted the rhythms and time signatures making you at times dependent on the synchronised nodding of these entranced musicians to find where the beat actually falls. No recording could capture the sense of oscillating between being entirely lost and suddenly found, part of the exciting solidarity of nodding in time with one another and finding the pattern out of seeming chaos.

As audience members filtered out before the encore, it was clear that if you overlook this very unique essence of the music, you could be really quite bored. Luckily, for those of us with spirals still turning in our eyes, the encore was a track from Isla, which began with a melody in minor, bowed out on the double bass and transporting us back into the ethereal world of the former albums. The tell-tale plucked bass sounded, the ostinato/hook began on the hang and the animalistic tone of the soprano saxophone cried. Just then a little whoop was emitted from somewhere in the shadowy auditorium, causing a wave of short screams to pass along the audience of listeners who had been wrapped in a sense of quiet euphoria and hadn’t realised they had barely been breathing for an hour and a half.

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