[JPL] London Jazz Fest

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Nov 20 18:17:00 EST 2006


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  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
Stuart Nicholson
Sunday November 19, 2006

Observer
Cassandra Wilson Barbican, London EC2

Solveig Slettahjell Slow Motion Duo; Ilmiliekki Quartet Holywell Music 
Room, Oxford

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 
tonight).

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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