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fray, twist, skip and blaze / The Front Room @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, 20.11.’11

It’s been ages since I went to see live jazz. I had forgotten how much fun it is. Especially when it’s as high quality as yesterday’s free concert at the Southbank Centre as part of the London Jazz Festival.

Jazz trio Phronesis had embarked on a collaboration/workshop with a whole bunch of very young, very talented musicians and they interpreted some of their material and also included two songs by two of the young’uns. And I’m not even sure now which was better – the pieces by the old hands or by the young people. Together they were awesome.

Before I tell you about the concert, I have to warn you: I really don’t know much about jazz in the technical sense. I’ve been to a number of concerts; some of the first concerts I can remember as a kid were jazz. I listen to some of the big names from time to time. I stop and listen to street musicians improvising. But I don’t know “the scene”. And that is also what I don’t like about it – it tends to be quite elitist. However, I firmly believe that even without “knowing” one can still “know”. I cannot talk about the concert in technical detail, but I can still give you a fairly good (hopefully) impression of how it was – all fervent jazz aficionados will have to excuse me.

What I liked most about the concert yesterday was that it reminded me that jazz is unexpected. As much as I adore folk and reggae and ska and quiet singer-songwriter tunes – none of that has the ability to completely surprise me. None of the songs last night sounded like the one preceding it and – even better – none of them stayed the same themselves. What started out as a quirkly little bass rhythm with a tiny smattering of melody swelled into trumpets blaring, clarinets shrieking and the drums going wild only to suddenly fray into different strands of melody, all loosely twining around the rhythm. And what started as a pleasing, interesting melody went suddenly into blaring overdrive, only to shatter into a myriad of different instruments, playing with the original theme and only connected by one constant – the humming of the bass or the dancing of the drums or the swinging of the vibraphone or the snaring of the cajon.

The solos were short and snappy and to the point and played with vigour. The enjoyment of the players was evident on their faces and their passion for the work they put in to produce this concert could be seen in their hands softly or not so softly slapping their thighs when they weren’t playing, in their sometimes closed eyes, in heads nodding, in smiles spreading, in the little signs sent across the stage to some of the other performers by looks, hands and quick movements: ‘He totally nailed it!’ – ‘I knew you could do it, that was awesome!’ – ‘Wow, we really got it more than right this time!’

The voices of the ten young women (17 to 24 years old, if I remember correctly) acted as added instruments, with them doing shrieks, the sounds of raindrops or simply singing sounds. Some parts were also sung in the traditional meaning – words set to a melody. All ten sounded fabulous and very interesting. They had come together from Voicelab, a project by the Southbank Centre, and were led by Sam Coates.

The musicians, apart from Phronesis (Jasper Høiby, Ivo Neame, Anton Eger), were the 16 to 24-year-old members of Soundbank, another Southbank Centre project, and led/directed by composer Dave Maric.

Alltogether, there were twenty-four performers on the stage, plus the two directors. The fun they had playing with this material and arranging it into something unique transmitted itself easily to the over 300 people who had come together to listen to this one-off performance. It certainly transmitted itself to me. As Jasper Høiby said: “Jazz is growing. Everybody’s saying it is dead, but I don’t think so.”

I don’t think so either.

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