Thursday, September 9, 2010

Snap Judgments

I have been in London for about 36 hours, and I am already making rash generalizations about its music scene, or at least its jazz/improv scene.

It all started when I began exploring the lineup for this year's London Jazz Festival that runs from November 12 to 21, inclusive as the Brits like to say. The festival is full of the heavy hitters in jazz - Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Terrence Blanchard - not to mention some younger (and not so younger) hip cats like the Bad Plus, Darcy James Argue, Robert Glasper, Brad Mehldau, and Dave Douglas. But wait a second, I'm sensing a pattern here. Why are all these folks American? Isn't this the London Jazz Festival?

Well, I may be oversimplifying the issue here. Django Bates and Norma Winstone get featured performances. There are plenty of names I don't recognize on the lineup, so this could be more about my lack of familiarity with British Jazz (It goes dark after Evan Parker and Kenny Wheeler). However, the pattern I can confirm is that the big venues, like the Barbican, are stacked with American acts.

Though I am excited at the chance to see some great shows here in a couple of months, I feel that the lack of Londoners in their own jazz festival could say a lot about the jazz/improv dynamics here.

From perusing the LondonJazz blog and specific venues, most jazz gigs in town are meant to accompany a meal. Not a good sign. Jazz as accompaniment to classy dinner is never jazz you want to pack up in an audio doggie bag.

But hark! Two venues in particular caught my eye as places where adventurous improvised music has a home - The Vortex and Cafe Oto. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), the two clubs are virtually next door, a quick walk from the Dalston Kingsland train station in northeast London. While their "what's on?" pages also have a share of internationals (Pieter Brontzman! Ken Vandermark! Sax anarchy!), it's not at the expense of local musicians. I'm particularly interested in hearing drummer Steve Noble, who appears as a nexus of several groups, and the London Improvisers' Orchestra, who have a monthly residency at Oto.

Geographically, these clubs are really on the fringe of London. I'd have to change tubes twice to get there. I wonder if the location of the clubs suggests something about the intensity of the music, or the press they get. Though it is interesting that some of the Americans at the London Jazz Festival (Dave Douglas, Darcy James Argue, William Parker) come out of fringe New York improv scenes in the Village and Brooklyn. This story begs further investigation, and hopefully an interview.

Please pardon all the namedropping, and on the subject of snap judgments, here is a list of the top 5 paintings at the British National Gallery, where I spent 4 and half hours today.

5. Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors

4. Bronzino - An Allegory with Venus and Cupid

3. Caravaggio - The Supper at Emmaus

2. JMW Turner - Rain, Steam and Speed

1. Jan Van Eyck - The Arnolfini Wedding


  1. If you're interested, Bronzino's Allegory is the subject of my historical novel Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


  2. Cool, I'll have to check it out.