London Jazz Festival

The Necks | John Escreet, Henry Threadgill's Zooid

Bishopsgate Centre; Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23 November 2011 4 stars3 stars

NecksThe London Jazz Festival always boasts a strong line-up, but this year's seemed especially strong, with Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp topping off a hugely engaging and eclectic bill.

I caught two concerts on the final weekend, enjoying the trancing improvisations of Australian trio the Necks in the first of their two scheduled appearances at the Bishopsgate Institute on Friday night, and then on Saturday sharing with many others the pleasure of finally witnessing AACM and Air great Henry Threadgill, a rare visitor indeed to these shores, live in concert.

The Necks' music shares some of the gestural muscularity of contemporaneous trios such as the Bad Plus and E.S.T, although the Australians' approach is rather more sculpted, with touches of ambient minimalist atmospheres, even if in concert they favour total improvisation over premeditated design or selections from the repertory.

On Friday the Necks played two sets, the first expansive at an hour, the second a little more taut and intense at about forty minutes (I could have done without the thirty-five minute interval though). Having played together for over twenty years, the trio enjoy a rapport and an internal communality of focus, which is highly satisfying to witness. Whilst the tension of impending collapse is often what gives improvised music its impetus, on this occasion the appeal was a much more lustrous one, even if I felt for example that the trio trapped themselves in the first half in the flatness of surging and surging single note sustains, and, another example, that in the second half the pianist, Chris Abrahams, leant a little heavily on both the pedal and, more figuratively, on tasteless arpeggiation.

But these are not major complaints; more generally impressive was the sensitivity to texture of each musician (Abrahams' holding off from entering into the gorgeous bass harmonic and percussion patterns in the first few minutes of the second set was typical), and the freshness of their material. Post-tonal grids promised resolution here and there, but were in the main left enigmatic. Drummer Tony Buck's use of crotales and small hanging gongs in the first set and wooden chimes in the second brought a rich accent to the ensemble, whilst throughout bassist Lloyd Swanton underpinned the drifts of his colleagues with a skill developed over a long career and over lots and lots of hours of sympathetic close listening and musical responsiveness.

It must be said that even those moments of concentration on single notes mentioned above, which can be a bit of a rabbit hole for improvising musicians, were worked out with a great deal of fluidity by the musicians, each of them nudging the flow in other directions, before one would take the plunge, with utmost lucidity, into another musical space. The evening didnít quite reach the realms of transcendence of which the trio is capable, but it was instructive and compelling nonetheless.

ThreadgillHenry Threadgill is as renowned as a jazz composer as he is as a saxophonist and flautist. His headlining concert on the Saturday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank showcased both sides of his musical personality, though if anything we could have done with more of the latter, and a little less of the former.

Performing with his sextet Zooid, Threadgill seemed a little caught up in the minutiae of his skeletal compositions, constantly indicating in the first ten or so minutes for the volume levels to be adjusted like a conductor at the podium, to be able to focus on his own performance. When he did step up to blow on his flute, bass flute, and, particularly, his screaming alto sax, things picked up immensely. Although the musicians in the band, from tuba (which worked very well in the texture) and trombone player Jose Davila, to clattering and skittering drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, were formidable in their way, you felt something was missing.

The material itself was noodly without ever being especially sonically fresh or compelling - the tessellated flow felt too piecemeal to be convincing - and the on-the-fly duos and solo elements, whilst charming enough, were both not free and not coherent enough. A certain reticence on the part of the musicians really to step forward did not help, although guitarist Liberty Ellman and cellist Christopher Hoffman played with a lot of thoughtfulness. On the few occasions the group did let loose, especially in the Free Jazz like explosive hollers of the final number, the effect was pungent. The off-kilter layering of the music also provided much interest, with bassist Stomu Takeishi's strange and unexpectedly loud acoustic lines (not to mention his wild and theatrical performing style) almost stealing the show.

Despite my qualms, it is the case that Threadgill is inarguably moving forward, trying new combinations, aspiring to different speeds and emotions, and for that he most certainly should be praised.

Earlier on, British pianist John Escreet played solo support, crafting a sometimes hesitant and even rote (particularly in terms of structure and theme), but often compelling, set, which occupied the hinterland between new music and modern jazz that the Necks explore in their own music, albeit here the tone was much more austere on the one hand, and the rhythmic groove more pronounced, on the other.

An enjoyable evening overall, particularly for the thrill of finally seeing Threadgill in the flesh, although Zooid's set rarely approached the musical consummation and poise of the Necks.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: The Necks; Henry Threadgill

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