Sunday, November 14, 2010

Taped Blogging the London Jazz Festival - Sam Crowe Group + Kit Downes Sextet

The Royal Festival Hall was packed on Saturday evening for a concert featuring Herbie Hancock and his ironically titled "Imagine Project".  Knowing that the audience, expecting a full-out onslaught of trippy Mwandishi kosmigroov, would be disappointed in Hancock's performance, the promoters threw in a free opening gig in the lobby featuring two British pianists whose best work is in front of them, rather than behind - Sam Crowe and Kit Downes.

There was quite the lively vibe at the hall, with families resting their legs after a big shopping day, old friends conversing over pints, teenagers just there to hang out.  I couldn't even grab a seat near the stage, rather electing to stand behind the back row of chairs in plain view of the drums (Even if I didn't like the music that much, I could at least pick up an idea or two).  It might not have had the same self-congratulatory optimism at the Undead and Winter Jazz Fests in New York, but there sure were a lot more people, and a lot more different kinds of people.  It seems that jazz is a lot less uncool in Britain than in the states.  Maybe it's the fact that there isn't this self-important "Jazz is America's classical music" preachiness to it all.
Don't they look nice!

That inherent coolness was embodied by the Sam Crowe group's slick attire (see right) - suit jackets with colorful shirts and jeans, pointy shoes, designer 5 o'clock shadow.  They look those "nice boys" your mom always wanted you to date...

Oh wait a sec, haven't I seen this before?
Downes, bassist Calum Gourlay, and drummer James Maddren have been playing together since starting at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2005, and they took the stage with a relaxed politeness. Like those "nice boys" your mom always wanted you to date. Except that Downes has a mighty beard and pony tail.
Oh right, I guess I thought the same thing about Kit Downes and his mates when I saw them a couple of months ago.  Is British instrumental jazz just "nice boy" music (also considering I haven't seen one female jazz instrumentalist on stage here)?

Certainly Django Bates is more than a little too intense and subversive for this category, but Sam Crowe seems to fit the bill quite well.  The pianist's harmonic palette is sweetly tonal, not far removed from the likes of Esbjorn Svensson or the American young guns Aaron Parks and Taylor Eigsti.  There's no down and dirty swing, no vicious attacks on the piano.  Crowe and his group seem content to sit in glossy landscapes, and that can be quite nice, at least for a while.

Although Crowe was working with deps in the drum and vibe chairs, the band sounded tight and surefooted.  It was clear they all knew the language of Crowe's music, which makes me wonder if the blend of poppy harmonies and icy even-eighth groove is the young British jazz musician's vernacular.  If it is, then I guess it's safe to say that British jazz speaks in a posh accent

But throughout the mostly mild-mannered set, there were some rhythmic sparks.  Bassist Jasper Hoiby in particular was never afraid to throw the soloist some slippery curveballs, his big tone penetrating the bustling room.  He and Crowe seemed to share quite a few devious smiles when interjecting on a vibes or soprano sax solo.  The last tune of the set was quite rhythmically playful and was dedicated to Crowe's nephew Max (don't worry, his niece Phoebe also had a song dedicated to her earlier).  It began with a sprightly major-key vamp, leading into a simple song, beguilingly innocent.  Everyone got to show off their chops playing over the quick tempo, but it always stayed in character.

As I waited through the stage change, my next review was forming in my head:
Kit Downes came on next and his set sounded just like it did last time, nice and pretty, blah blah blah...
The end.
Well, after about five minutes I was scrambling to erase what I had thought and just catch up with what was actually happening.  Downes, hair neatly cropped now but still with that beard, came on with significant reinforcements - 2 saxes and a cello - and a different drummer.  The band jumped right into a sort of tipsy parlor song, then seamlessly transitioned into a tune both folksy and funky.  Downes said afterward that it was inspired by pianist Keith Jarrett's tambourine playing in the 1970s, which he often did with his fantastically off-kilter and vastly underrated "American" quartet.  Drummer Tim Giles (on right) perfectly channeled Paul Motian (from Jarrett's band) on the tune with a thuddy sound and impeccable placement.  Already, this performance had a much wider trajectory than the one of two months ago.

Perhaps due to his success following his Mercury Prize nomination, Downes seems more willing to take ambitious risks in his music.  For example, on the tune "The Wizard," he let saxophonist James Allsop and Giles go for it at the outset before chiming in with deep, dark chords and keyboard-spanning runs.  This wasn't your Harry Potter playtime kind of wizard, rather something much more mysterious and druidic.  The music here wasn't afraid to ruffle the audience's feathers and was much more engaging for that.

It didn't always mean it was loud, in your face music.  On a ballad called "The View," Downes began the tune solo, playing much too softly for a noisy lobby.  Yet in a Cagean fashion, the shear quietness of the piano was so unnerving, it was impossible not to pay attention.  Throughout the set, Downes and his band played deftly with such contrasts in volume, harmony, timbre, and tempo (or total lack thereof).  Although such contrast may suggest a lack of individual vision, the contrasts here showed that Downes does indeed have a personal sound.  Everything was united by Downe's careful touch and intense patience.  The contrasts belie a multitude of influences, but all integrated into a particular vocabulary that Downes already speaks quite fluently.

Who knows what Downes' music will be like next month.  It's hard enough predicting his hairdo.
Before the last tune Downes mentioned that all the set's music had been recorded by the group and was going to be released on a new album in March of the coming year.  If the performance is any indication, this is certainly an album worth looking out for.  With the additions to his normal trio, Downes doesn't have to carry the weight of melody and accompaniment all the time.  He can be more texturally inventive while backing other soloists and also use the new voices to enrich the variety of his compositions.  Downes' music is starting to head down dark and mysterious paths.  While that means another Mercury nod is likely not in the cards (it'll be too terribly adventurous for a mainstream prize soon enough), it is clear we can expect great things from this young piano wizard.

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