This month I finished photographing 100 days of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Yes, 10 years x 10 days per year capturing the festival across all London boroughs in all types of venue. I've had extraordinary *access all areas* and privilege to witness some extraordinary musicians rising from the burgeoning UK scene and flying in from around the world to perform - often riding the peak of their power.
Each year, a week or so after the close of festival, I grab a chance to reflect on my personal highlights and post my two pennies worth into the webby blogosphere - sharing both musical recommendations and some colorful perspectives I eked out. Here's a snippet from the 40+ events I covered in 2017 - the festival's 25th year.
Jaga Jazzist promised a stunning light show to close the festival in the Royal Festival Hall and Ninja Tune's Norwegian sound merchants didn't disappoint, akin to Blade Runner 2049 marrying Sony's Bravia TV adverts circa 2006. Their lighting designer Kyrre Heldal Karlsen achieved dizzy heights with some LEDs and a set of strobes.
The Clore Ballroom sits directly under the large Royal Festival Hall stage and offers a great space for music lovers with many free gigs throughout the two festive weekends. However 4 huge support pillars create mayham for photographers by heavily restricting the angles one can shot from without disturbing the crowd's view.
So this year I embraced the pillars' collective mass and played with composition to see if any of the acts during BBC Radio 3 Jazz Line Up broadcast would create a few nice frames. Luckily my plan worked with James Francies the keyboardist wizard from NYC, peeking through 2 of the giants. James was playing with Chris Potter's Quartet (with Eric Harland on drums - the audience were blown away and it was for free!).
The next pillar beating moment came when guitarist Rob Luft played his latest release 'Riser' during Jazz Line Up - a near triptych in one frame, with Joe Webb anchoring the left of the photograph. Riser can be found over at Edition Records, a mighty label who are amassing one hell of a sonic library of artists...
Moving into the festival's numerous club spaces, KNOWER pretty well demolished Scala. Yep, a sweatbox lit by mobile phones and drenched in pinks and yellows I reckon they smuggled in from Los Angeles where the band's architects Louis Cole & Genevieve Artadi are based. Fierce sound lapped up by fiercely loyal fans. They're back touring the UK in March 2018.
Robert Glasper first performed in the festival back in the mid noughties and he's been a regular ever since - showcasing new projects and an ever increasing entourage of who's who on the US scene. He did two shows this month - the first in the Barbican with special guests on vocals including Brendan Reilly, Vula Malinga and Bilal (Bilal will feature a little further along this article).
The last guest was Laura Mvula who duetted at the keys with Glasper. She sung a stripped back, 10+ minute long version of her song Bread and drew pretty well everyone in the hall into a trance. Incredible. Barbican Hall is big with a stage that often loses the acts visually, so my eye is always scanning for a decent composition to frame the artists and then, with fingers crossed, hope they offer moments of magic to create a memorable vignette. BAM, just before they started the first tune, they mirrored each other for a split second...perfect.
If you point a lens at stage lights at particular angle at a low aperture, strange but lovely flares and distortions occur. Without wishing to reinvent a gig space, deploying such aberrations occasionally (just occasionally) can reap rewards and turn a regular artist / audience shoot into something a little more noteworthy.
I've had the pleasure of photographing (and of course listening) to Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (Christian Scott) many times over the years and his choice of signature horns and general 'get-up' is a joy to photograph - the man knows how to present to the cameras. This particular gig was in the Electric Ballroom on Camden High Street.
Have you heard Bilal live? If not, you should with a reasonable degree of urgency. His recorded work is good and well received but it is the live environment where his near spiritual magic is sown. Accompanying Glasper at the Barbican and then a 'pop up ' late night gig at the Rich Mix in Shoreditch, Bilal soared.
The next 2 shots are balcony views of the Royal Festival Hall.
First up is Marcus Miller, who supplied exactly what his fans wanted - some serious bass technique (coupled with the longest version of Papa Was a Rollin' Stone I've ever heard). Marcus wears essentially the same look and employs the same central equipment set-up, so finding a fresh perspective is tricky. I lurked for a while and noticed one particular spot light making the brightest reflection off his guitar. I moved higher and higher to max out the angle of max brightness - I was duly rewarded.
The second is Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya receiving a standing ovation for a truly sublime, interval free 90 minutes. Probably one of the quietest gigs I've heard, Abdullah's playing was so intricate and deployed such a huge dynamic range, one forgot his 83 years! His life history is immense and well documented and it seems to seep into every note of his playing.
Back to the free gigs - so often the most surprising of the festival. The Next Generation Takeover has proved very popular in recent years, with a whole afternoon dedicated up & coming bands and musicians studying at various music schools across the UK. One young 3 piece called 'Morpher' from Leeds unleashed some heavily disjointed grooves to a surprised / shocked audience. They sounded great and with a phone signal suddenly interfering with the bassist Frazer's pedalboard mid-set, they took the problem in their stride and improvised with it...and I swear the crowd thought the sound was part of they set!
There was a strong Nordic vibe throughout the closing day of the festival, with artists from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland represented. One of the highlights was a superb set from the Verneri Pohjola Group from Finland (Edition Records strike again). Their drummer Mika Kallio had a particularly fierce look going on, both in attire and drum kit and I couldn't help grab a few frames. Verneri Pohjola himself anchored the whole set with his near-trademark red beanie and some serious trumpet.
I shall now take you full circle and highlight an artist that was part of a double bill with Jaga Jazzist - one of Norway's finest story tellers, Sinikka Langeland. She's currently touring with her latest ECM release, The Magical Forest - a darkly observed folk classic in the making. Sinikka's words cut through the eerie atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall like a knife. Her mastery kantele playing matched by giants of the Scandinavian scene and ECM label mates - Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Trio Mediæval.
I hope you've enjoyed some of my observations and discovered some new sounds. If you would like to see more of my 10 year EFG London Festival image library, head over to my gallery here. Enjoy.