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REVIEW: Walthamstow Jazz Festival 2019

Binker Golding at Walthamstow
Picture: © Mochles Simawi

Walthamstow Jazz Festival
(Walthamstow Assembly Hall, 16 February 2019. Reviews by Gail Tasker and Mark Kass)

Gail Tasker writes: Walthamstow Assembly Hall is a tall, white, imposing building of art-deco style, preceded by a Great Gatsby-esque fountain and neat lawn. Whilst the wood-panelled interior hall brings to mind school assemblies, this was in fact the rather surreal setting of the inaugural Walthamstow Jazz Festival last Saturday. Presented by local label Byrd Out, the line-up was a refreshing compendium of intergenerational musicians playing varying styles of jazz from across the UK – something for everyone.

Free jazz and the avant-garde seemed to dominate the proceedings. Evan Parker’s set, with John Edwards on double bass and John Russell on guitar, was an attack on the senses. Edwards’ use of extended techniques was especially impressive; frenzied bowing transformed into jarring bass chords, and at one point he detuned his low bass string, which produced deep, reverberating notes. Russell was equally committed, snapping a string in the first tune. The trio have released an album, Walthamstow Moon (‘61 Revisited), in homage to Coltrane’s 1961 performance at the Granada Theatre; Saturday’s performance must surely have been in the same spirit.

Thurston Moore’s performance with Steve Noble was along a similar vein. With an array of pedals at his disposal, Moore was imaginative in his use of distortion and feedback, producing spine-tingling wails and shrieks from his guitar that sounded as atonal and discordant as possible. Noble in comparison was less interesting, preferring to maintain a constant heavy beat and only changing his rhythms incrementally and very rarely. Yet the duo drew a large audience, hypnotized by the unearthly sounds of Moore’s guitar.

A true highlight for me was the duo performance by Binker Golding and Elliot Galvin. It was hard to tell to what extent the pieces had been planned, though Golding clarified that by explaining that it was all “made up” on the spot. This was not self-evident however, such was the symbiosis between the two musicians. Galvin’s use of extended piano techniques was extremely memorable; amongst various tools, he stuck Scotch tape to the piano strings, creating a muted, harpsichord-like sound which Golding responded to with hiccupy, fast notes on the soprano saxophone.

Javi Pérez of Cykada
Photo: © Mochles Simawi
The younger, more hip hop-oriented bands were a welcome breather throughout the evening. Bristol-based Snazzback, with an extended line-up of keys, guitar, horns, percussion, double bass, and drum kit, played on the basement stage. Chris Langton was impressive on the drums, playing tight rhythms with Cory Fonville-esque flair in partnership with Myke Vince on percussion. Project Karnak, a duo made up of Dominic Canning on keys and Sam Ouissellat on drums, were reminiscent of Yussef Kamaal in their heady use of hip hop rhythms and modal synth progressions. London-based Cykada, on the main stage, were the eccentrics of the night. Their on-stage theatrics brought to mind Led Zeppelin, with bass player Jamie Benzies falling to his knees during a bass solo and trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lindstrom dancing around for the majority of the performance. Despite the laid-back attitude, the musicianship was top notch; the rhythmic interplay between Tilé Gigichi-Lipere on electronics/synth and Tim Doyle on drums was a highlight.

The main drawback of the afternoon was the poor acoustic, to the point of distraction. With most performances, the drums and bass often seemed undefined and muffled. Galvin’s piano was barely audible at points whilst Kaner-Lindstrom’s trumpet was echoing and loud. This could have been due to the high ceilings, swift line-up changes, or constant murmur of people talking in the background. However, the atmosphere in the hall and the masterful playing of the musicians was such that the performances were always enjoyable – hopefully the first edition of many more Walthamstow festivals to come.

Dylan Jones of Pyjaen
Photo: © Mochles Simawi
Mark Kass writes: Following the musical theatricals of Messrs. Galvin and Golding was always going to be a challenge but jazz fusion youngbloods Pyjaen pulled it off. Headed up by super-hot trumpeter Dylan Jones, the horn man of Ezra Collective, Pyjaen are yet another ear-inspiring jazz crew of hot musos emanating from the Trinity Laban/Tomorrows Warrior/Ghost Notes stables. With the two Bens – Vize on sax and Crane on bass – and Charlie Hutchinson on drums, the band were drawn together by the very funky “blaxploitation” guitar of Dani Diodato, creating some very danceable sounds and wiping the eyes back to normality of those still in shock from Evan Parker and Thurston Moore!

Followed on to the main stage by Vels Trio who were also sadly hit by the curse of the day, (a pretty unstable sound system that seemingly struggled to get the on-stage monitor balances right for most of the acts), these Brighton boys produced a sound not dissimilar to GoGo-Penguin-meets-Bill-Laurence. When we finally got to hear Jack Stephenson-Oliver’s keys they proved to be a tight trio with a resonating groove sound created by Cameron Dawson’s bass and Dougal Taylor‘s drums with some mellow electronica reminiscent of a very cool Miami Vice soundtrack.

Between the main stage acts, the real jazz club happenings took place in the basement of the awesome Walthamstow Assembly Halls. With walls literally dripping with condensation, ceilings just grazing the scalps of the audience and barely accommodating a double bass, the real-feel of those stereotypical jazz clubs of the ’50s came alive again in 2019… all that was missing was a carpet of used chewing gum! An amazing range of bands and performers including the diminutive Harry Potter-esque producer, composer and trumpet/tape phenomenon known as Emma-Jean Thackray, the fiddle-fronted Hey Fish and South London-based drum and based driven Project Karnack.
Timings of the main stage and the basement gigs meant your reviewer couldn’t cover everything but even if we could, the crowds in the basements meant it would have been an aural review rather than a visual one!

Ginger Baker at Walthamstow
Photo: © Mochles Simawi
Back on the main stage, and billed as the festival headliner, expectations of seeing Cream drum legend Ginger Baker in action were extraordinarily high amongst those who knew who he was! Baker has always said he was always a jazz drummer first and his African influences such as Fela Kuti and a variety of “my other experiences” as Baker puts it over the years are clearly the forerunners of the jazz Afrobeat resurgence of today.

Expectations rose even higher when Baker’s wizard-like drum technician wheeled out his voluminous drum kit onto the stage alongside a second smaller kit for the co-billed Nigerian drummer, Tony Allen and following yet another sound set-up issue, the stage was set for what we’d all come for…Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion. And I think that’s just what we got!

Sadly, the now 80-year old and rather frail Baker was led onto the stage by other band members and into his kit and having made his apologies and promises to do his best, having just left hospital that morning -– which didn’t bode well – you had to admire the man for a) turning up and ) absolutely having a go! Supported by a band that hadn’t played together for six months, Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth, saxman Pee Wee Ellis and percussionist Abass Dodoo revisited their earlier 2014 jazz album, Why?.
Tony Allen
Photo: © Mochles Simawi
After a handful of tracks, where Baker still manged to deftly demonstrate some of his trademark floor-tom work, he introduced fellow octogenarian Tony Allen for a very quick drum duet before leaving the drum work for the rest of the set to Allen as he left the stage clearly feeling the worse for wear. Heart-breaking to see but you have to applaud the great man. For one known to be “feisty”, he could easily have gone home from hospital instead of trekking over to Walthamstow but ever-the-musician, he honoured his obligations, played to a largely appreciative audience but many of whom we’re heard to be muttering on the way out: “Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion? Why?”

Mark Kass is the founder of the London East Jazz Network

Categories: Live reviews

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