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Review: BBC Jazz on 3 Celebration of British Jazz

You could feel the heat. And the exhilaration. And the sheer rhythmic energy generated by Django Bates ’ band Human Chain in their second number at Ronnie Scott’s last night, called ‘Three Architects Called Gabrielle… Just What I expected’

Saxophonist Marius Neset had just given a burst of rapidfire altissimo eeks. Bassist Michael Mondesir was furiously thumb-popping. But what caught my eye was the expression on the face of drummer Martin France (above- photo credit: Richard Kaby) as he sat back for a brief moment. He was blowing air up his face to try to cool it down. The updraft of breath caught his curly fringe and lifted it airborne. Quite something for a night when the temperature outside on Frith Street was below freezing.

This triumphant return to Ronnie’s by Django Bates was his first appearance back at the club since 1998. Bates’ influence is massive, his voice is unique and totally assured. But his presence on the UK scene has been irregular. The best result from this evening would be for both Ronnie’s and Radio 3 to make amends for that.

Human Chain were the fifth band of the night at the BBC’s Jazz on 3 Celebration of British Jazz. The programme went out at 11.15 last night and is available on BBC iPlayer until next Monday January 11th.

The evening worked, not just as a start-of-year celebration, but also as a sampler of the breadth and the depth of talent in the UK jazz scene. Whether referring to the individual acts or to the whole evening, people were coming up to me and talking about the variety, the range of expression they had experienced. Who knows, there might even have been something there for those British who just don’t get it, can’t see anything to celebrate in jazz, and (still) claim to hate all of it. Dontcha love ‘em.

The evening opened with Kenny Wheeler ’s quintet. The great man turns 80 next Thursday 14th , and the event is due to be celebrated at the Royal Academy of Music, with no less a figure than Dave Holland flying over and donating his services. The quintet with Stan Sulzmann, John Parricelli, Chris Laurence and Martin France opened with the deliciously shifting harmonies of Jigsaw and ended with a particularly happy and uptempo Everyone’s Song but my Own.

The youngest band of the evening was Troyka , Chris Montague ’s trio with Kit Downes on Hammond and Josh Blackmore on drums. Their short set built to a final climax with a sequence which started with the polite exchange of eerie clicks and pops, grew through quick joshing interplay, and built into an exchange of angry semitone clusters. I sensed an audience intrigued, but absolutely hooked by the twists and turns of this musical conversation.

Vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, bassist Mark Hodgson and drummer Winston Clifford are all musicians in their absolute prime. Watkiss started his set with a vocal bass line which got looped and formed the foundation for a wordless multi-tracked solo performance, with beat-boxed consonants and a beautifully controlled final fade. I also enjoyed his take on Faure’s Sicilienne, gently phrased and lyrical.

The quietest set came from Tom Arthurs on flugelhon with regular duo partner Richard Fairhurst on piano. They were finding a delicate language on the boundaries of silence, sometimes just enjoying the rocking back and forth of two chords. There were clear homages in Arthurs’ playing to the harmonic delicacy, the sound and the presence of Kenny Wheeler. But Arthurs’ is his own man, and this gentle music caught the audience’s mood well.

Getting five bands on and off stage in the evening was a feat of organization and collaboration, as was editing the performance down for broadcast not much more than an hour afterwards. MC Jez Nelson managed proceedings and a couple of interviews well- but I will confess I’ve now already heard the word “edgy” enough for this year.

The radio sound which I caught later is excellent, more than a memento of a very good evening. Go listen.

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2 replies »

  1. Absolutely agree, but it's only going to happen when we overcome this British tendency to devalue what we have or let personal taste interfere with a broader view. I meet jazz fans who are a bit iffy about Django – I tell them, forget whether you like it or not, just acknowledge that the man is brilliant and should be cherished as a national treasure. Just as Mike Westbrook should be, but that's another whole thing… If we don't use them we lose them! Whether to Denmark or obscurity, either way it's no good. If Courtney can get the recognition, Django definitely should. That would give us all The Right To Smile.

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