Once again, we made the journey down to the capital to sample three events during the opening weekend of the London Jazz Festival. The music began with what was, for me, a welcome second helping of Tord Gustavsen’s collaboration with the German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander on songs from their ECM album, What Was Said. The weekend concluded with a strong set but not totally convincing set from the Jan Garbarek Quartet at the Royal Festival Hall. But the outstanding event was a masterclass of breathtaking jazz improvisation by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman. That alone was worth the journey.On Saturday afternoon I went along to the matinee performance by Tord Gustavsen and Simin Tander. On his ECM albums Tord Gustavsen has created a distinctive musical landscape primarily based around a conventional piano, bass and drums trio that distils the music he grew up with – Norwegian hymns and classic jazz – into a unique and exquisitely minimalist style of chamber jazz.
In 2015 he released What Was Said, on which he pushed this approach a giant step further, taking majestic tunes from the Lutheran hymnal, having their lyrics translated into Pashto by an Afghani poet, and then sung by the entrancing German-Afghani vocalist Simin Tander.
Back in March, we saw these songs performed at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham when the trio were just a couple of months into an extensive touring schedule which now finally brought them to London for thelast two concerts of their tour. For Tander, as she announced from the stage at the Barbican’s superb Milton Court venue, it was her London premiere.
As I observed in March, this unlikely mix comprises not only Norwegian hymns sung in Pashto; Gustavsen has also created beautiful settings for 13th-century lyrics by the Persian Sufi poet Rumi. Curiously, no gulf seems to separate the Nordic hymns from the Persian meditations: both conjure the same mood of sensuous bliss and harmony. Also remarkable is the fact, mentioned by Tander in one of her introductions, that although her father speaks Pashto, she does not (though she is learning). It would seem, therefore, that she is singing sound shapes – but with the same passion and intensity as if she knew the language.
In the months since the Birmingham concert, the repertoire has been expanded, with three new settings performed here. In these new numbers, but also in their approach to the familiar songs from the album, it seemed to me that the trio had somehow succeeded in combining fire with ice: the hymnal melodies punctuated more audibly by angular chords from Gustavsen’s piano, while Tander, striking in a long textured Afghan dress of brightest crimson, entered into the songs with a greater sensuality and abandonment of movement than I recall from Birmingham.
The passion was most evident in their closing number, the traditional Norwegian hymn ‘Castle in Heaven’: at its conclusion, as in Birmingham, Tander seemed suddenly possessed by unbearable sorrow as she broke out into a wordless Islamic wail, a cry of anguish that is, sadly, not to be found on the recorded version.
I know a castle in Heaven
Shining like the sun
There are no sins nor sorrows there
There are no tears, no crying.
Three hours later we were in the main hall of the Barbican Centre to hear Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman (sometimes playing alto, at other times soprano sax) storm through a series of quite outstanding improvisations. This tour de force was an ehanced presentation of the album Nearness, released by the duo earlier this year.
The pair make quite a contrast: Redman tall and besuited, dapper and elegant, while Mehldau wears pumps and sits hunched over the piano keys, sometimes one hand hanging by his side, a pained and anxious expression never far away. Despite the contrasts, though, these two guys are most definitely on the same wavelength, offering a masterclass in jazz improv in which they seem to communicate on a whole other plane of existence.
The inventiveness with which the two men approached themes from the album was quite breathtaking. This was seriously creative jazz, jaunty theme, with each musician listening intently to the other, batting ideas back and forth, each nudging the other into new discoveries. I really have no idea how jazz improvisation really happens, but whatever was going on here was enthralling.
I’ll let someone who understands more than me sum up the mastery of this evening; John Fordham, in his review for the Guardian:
Redman and Mehldau startled even their seasoned fans at the Barbican on Saturday night. After Mehldau’s catchily rocking Always August, and truculent tenor sax blurts and radiant falsetto sounds from Redman on his Mehlsancholy Mode, the saxophonist’s ingenuity on Sonny Rollins’ Sonnymoon for Two told the crowd they were witnessing a performance a cut above even this pair’s usual standards. And Mehldau confirmed it in an unaccompanied break in which his control of separate melody lines let loose on the fly never lost its careering momentum. Redman (who had tweeted the single word “dread” as Trump won) wryly reflected on the mixture of guilt and relief they felt at taking refuge in music-making away from America, before the pair concocted streams of songlike lines, separately and together, on a bewitching visit to the ballad I Should Care; a gently introduced but increasingly frenetic burn through Mehldau’s The Distance; and a standing-ovation encore with Charlie Parker’s Ornithology. If it was a refuge in music, a lot of people in the hall sounded volubly grateful for it.
Both men took turns to add comments between numbers, with Redman at one point describing the London Jazz Festival as ‘a home from home’, before adding, ‘not that I know where home is anymore’. All of the three concerts I would attend during the weekend would underline the central message of music: that it knows no boundaries.
And so to Jan Garbarek on Sunday evening, making his first British appearance since 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall with his quartet. Regular readers of this blog (if there is such a species) will know how much and for how long I have valued his work, which has been the standard-bearer for the ECM label. So I was really looking forward to this gig – but, I have to say, I was somewhat disappointed by what I heard. Not totally, by any means – but, particularly after the exploratory brilliance of Mehldau and Redman the night before, this performance seemed uneven and a long way from the lyrical incisiveness of Garbarek’s best work.
The hall was packed and expectant as we waited for the quartet – Trilok Gurtu, percussion with bassist Yuri Daniel and keyboardist Rainer Brüninghaus – to take their places on stage (Ian – I lurked near to your seat until five minutes before the start. Sorry I didn’t catch you – impossible in the flood for the exits afterwards.)
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3’s pop-up Jazz station (and may still be available on iPlayer). Julian Joseph came on stage to introduce the musicians – he spoke of Garbarek’s mystical lyricism and his role in helping define the identity of the ECM label – before the quartet took their places and Brüninghaus began to conjure the wash of ambient sound like the wind through Nordic pine forests that heralds the opening movement of Molde Canticle from his 1990 album I Took Up the Runes.
Rainer Brüninghaus has supported Garbarek on keyboards for a long time, and tonight I thought his playing was a significant part of the reason why I was underwhelmed by the concert. Though there were passages of brilliance in a set which was structured to allow each member of the quartet several solo spots, this did mean that the whole thing tended not to hold together, with the music shifting from Nordic lyricism towards something alarmingly close to the sound of seventies prog-rock/jazz fusion as dispensed by the Dutch group, Focus.
There were times when Brüninghaus, swivelling from the Steinway to noodle on the Roland, sounded a little like that. A little harsh, perhaps; and there were other times when he sounded more convincing – most notably in one of solos when a thundering boogie extemporisation culminated in him knocking hell out of the Steinway.
I had similar feelings about the electric bass player, Brazilian Yuri Daniel, particularly when he slipped into a thunderous slap bass that seemed out of place in Garaberk’s compositions. Meanwhile, Garbarek, playing tenor and soprano sax – and, in a duet with Trilok Gurtu, Norwegian wood flute – did what he always does. He’s approaching his 70th birthday, and was in fine form.
Familiar pieces from the back catalogue were restructured to give the performers plenty of space for improvisation, sometimes in a solo spot, or sometimes as a duet. On several occasions two or three of the musicians would leave their positions to sit in darkness at the rear of the stage while one player took the spotlight.
In terms of flamboyance, the star of show had to be the white-haired Gurtu who created a whole dazzling soundscape from the panoply of percussive devices which surrounded him in a series of extended improvisations, including the first one I’ve ever heard on a galvanised bucket of water into which various brass discs were lowered and raised as he beat and tapped the outside. We were also treated to a dazzling display of his accomplishment in konnakkol – the sothern Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally.
Jan Garbarek’s music will always remain an inspiration to me, an original voice in jazz whose saxophone has opened up aural vistas, transcendent and transfiguring. But a lot of this show sounded – well, a bit middle-of-the-road.