[JPL] London Jazz Fest
drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Nov 20 18:17:00 EST 2006
Queen of the night
The highly individual Cassandra Wilson comes of age at the Barbican,
Solveig Slettahjell gets under the skin - and the festival remembers Ian Carr
Sunday November 19, 2006
Cassandra Wilson Barbican, London EC2
Solveig Slettahjell Slow Motion Duo; Ilmiliekki Quartet Holywell Music
Guildhall Jazz Band Celebrate the Music of Ian Carr Guildhall School of
Music and Drama, London EC2
This year, when the number crunchers have done their crunching, it's widely
expected that almost a million fans will have heard events from the London
Jazz Festival, either through its association with BBC Radio 3, or live at
some 160 performances across the capital during its 11-day run (which ends
There was a full house for headliner Cassandra Wilson, who showed how she's
moved on from her early rabbit-in-the-headlight performances to develop a
genuine stage presence. Her highly individual choice of repertoire belies
the fact that back in the Eighties she could have had the jazz world at her
feet singing the well-known Broadway standards that Ella Fitzgerald and
Sarah Vaughan used to inhabit. But she never showed any interest in taking
the obvious route to success, saying, 'We have to take what we can and
learn from the masters, but not by repeating what they do.'
Wilson's moody electronic backdrops - provided by two keyboards, guitar and
rhythm - were punctuated to telling effect when Marvin Sewell swapped to
acoustic guitar or Gregoire Maret took an artfully constructed harmonica
solo. But it was the dark timbre of Wilson's voice that held centre stage.
It gave vivid personal meaning to lyrics and it's a gift that can be scary,
as Billie Holiday and Betty Carter - traces of whom linger in her style -
showed. This hard-won maturity allowed her to claim songs as diverse as the
Billie Holiday favourite 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do' and Cyndi
Lauper's 'Time After Time' as her own. Together with her own originals from
her current album Thunderbird, she's getting closer to the singer she
always wanted to be, a singer who draws on the past to illuminate the present.
In contrast, the Norwegian singer Solveig Slettahjell is a singer of the
future. I caught her in Oxford, since her festival appearance on Friday
fell just outside my deadline. Stripping a song of any excess baggage,
underlined by minimal accompaniment (just herself on piano and Sjur
Miljeteig on trumpet), she dwelt among the slowest tempos. Drawing on
originals from her album Silver Rain, she examined the music's poetry
rather than flaunting jazz's inherent athleticism, extracting the essence
within the essence of each song. It's a forensic skill and can be devastating.
Slettahjell shared the bill with the young Finnish Ilmiliekki Quartet, who
seemed to appear fully-formed when their album March of the Alpha Males was
released last year. On the face of it, it's an I've-heard-it-all-before,
'jazzy-jazz' line-up of Verneri Pohjola on trumpet, Tuomo Prattala on
piano, Antti Lotjonen on bass and Olavi Louhivuori on drums, but what
emerges is a brilliant reconceptualisation of jazz.
On their own labyrinthine originals such as 'Bear', they simultaneously
manage to evoke the space and timelessness of the tundra wastes of their
home country, and classical romanticism (Prattala), and they have the poise
to move seamlessly between written and spontaneously improvised passages.
It means an Ornette Coleman song like 'What Reason Could I Give?' comes
stamped with their group imprimatur and emerges as something fresh and,
well, very Ilmiliekki - and distinctly European.
This search for an identity within jazz that stands apart from the
hegemonic American styles was something that occupied trumpeter, composer
and educator Ian Carr since the Sixties. In the festival's most delightful
cameo, Carr's achievements were celebrated by the Guildhall Jazz Band
directed by Scott Stroman. The concert highlighted what was always dear to
Carr, jazz education among the young. With jazz now a part of the National
Curriculum and the Associated Board producing graded examinations for jazz,
applications to the London music colleges have more than doubled over the
past four years.
It has meant that the Guildhall band has some of the finest young jazz
players in the country, and they demonstrated a startlingly high level of
musicianship with a big band interpretation of Carr's 'Midnight Oil', while
pianist Julian Joseph, once a pupil of Carr, directed a small group of
graduates through pieces the trumpeter wrote in the Sixties and Seventies.
Carr, who once famously wrote that with the flowering of British jazz in
the Sixties it was 'emancipated from American slavery', loved it.
· Solveig Slettahjell and Ilmiliekki are at the Norwich Arts Centre tomorrow
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006
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