London Jazz Festival Review (19) Curios/ Geri Allen

Tom Cawley’s Curios/ Geri Allen
(Purcell Room, part of London Jazz Festival, November 17th 2010, review by Patrick Hadfield)

An evening of pianists at the Purcell Room: first Tom Cawley’s band Curios, and then Geri Allen. Matching these two pianists on the same bill illuminated two alternative approaches to the music.

Curios create an open sound, with lots of space. Joshua Blackmore’s drumming is restrained and quiet, and Sam Burgess’ bass solid behind Cawley’s simple piano forms. Often starting from seemingly mathematical, repetitive structures which brought classical minimalism to mind, the trio built the intensity without needing to fill every moment with sound. The silence between the notes seemed as important as the notes themselves. This music was understated, with a typical English humour – a very thoughtful, enjoyable set.

Geri Allen’s set was very different. Ostensibly playing solo, she played with a backing video; sometimes it was just her piano playing, sometimes both video and piano, and sometimes just video. The changes between the two media were very smooth – it sounds disjointed, but the energy flowed between the two forms. Allen explained the evolution of the project: she had written a suite in tribute to her influences, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, when filmmaker Carrie Mae Weems approached her with a view to collaboration.

The resulting film features Allen’s music, so at times she was playing live with her recording. The repetitive images – snow falling, a figure climbing a staircase (Ms Allen, I think), women wearing angels’ wings, an ancient wall (perhaps the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem) – were interesting, but distracted rather than added to the music, for me.

Compared to Curios’ open style, Allen produced dense, intense music. She filled all the space with notes. The influence of Taylor was clear, with rumbling, thunderous bass notes. I could hear Tyner in there, too, as Allen played lots of block-chords. Maybe I was looking too hard, but I thought I heard bits of Hancock’s Maiden Voyage in there, too!

The suite was played as one piece, with no interaction with the audience between sections. All of Allen’s attention was on the notes she played, sometime clearly reading – it was complex music – sometimes staring intently at the keys. Her playing was deep and emotive: this music clearly meant a lot to her.

Once the suite finished, she left the stage, but the audience brought her back for an encore. Introducing it as “the music of Charlie Parker”, I thought perhaps she’d play some of Bird’s bebop. Instead, she took us on an exploration of Bird’s music, the starting point being a string of Bird’s solos. Lighter in tone than the suite, this was still intense, as Allen played her bebop exposition at great speed – wonderful stuff.

The audience that remained loved it; but many people had walked out during the earlier suite. I had been surprised that this gig wasn’t a sell-out: there were a lot of empty seats, the only gig in the London Jazz Festival of the many I have been to which wasn’t fulll.

Having heard Allen play in other ensembles, the opportunity of hearing her play solo was one not to be missed: but that made it risky and different, too. I’m surprised that jazz fans weren’t prepared to give this concert a fair hearing.

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