The Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall is arguably Southbank Centre’s one truly good space for jazz and the free, early evening Friday Tonic series presents reliably strong names.
Sax player Matana Roberts was over from the States to promote her new album, Live in London, recorded at the Vortex with this local rhythm section (although drummer Mark Sanders was a stand-in for this gig). The empathy between these players, Roberts and pianist Robert Mitchell especially, was obvious right from the off.
The young Chicagoan has a free jazz background – she was exposed to Albert Ayler’s music at toddler age – but what was most notable about these two sets, was the lyricism and swing of the quartet’s playing.
That’s not to say there wasn’t some challenging material here. The first two long tunes featured both probing ensemble playing and freer improvisation, Mitchell careering up and down the piano while Roberts fluttered Coltrane-style arpeggio figures.
Individual solos don’t feature much with this band. The expressive bassist Tom Mason enjoyed an entwining duo with Roberts in the first number and a fast-paced but beautifully crafted solo from Mitchell lit up the second, but for the most part Roberts’s pieces are group explorations.
This approach favours Matana’s playing. With its car-horn register and historical misuse by cheesy entertainers, the alto is the hardest of the sax family to play really well. Roberts plays her alto like a tenor, favouring long legato lines and drawing a deep sound from the instrument.
Her style matches the spiritual bent of her music. The second set, which to be honest meandered a little, was less energetic than the first. This reflective music requires more concentration, not always forthcoming from a capacity crowd. The band regrouped for a stormy encore however, delighting all present with some hard-headed pyrotechnics.
In between sets I spoke to Matana Roberts about her visit to London and her life in NY, where she’s been living for the past 10 years. Tonight, Matana links up with another prominent British jazz musician, drummer Seb Rochford, for a free improv gig at Cafe OTO, the experimental music venue in Dalston. “What music will we be playing? Hell I don’t know,” she laughed. “Seb played with the quartet last year and I really wanted to hook up with him again.”
For more Friday Tonic – http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/series/friday-tonic
Tim Woodall writes for http://culture-capital-blog.com/