Visiting London for ten days this September, I was fortunate to see gigs by the great South African drummer Louis Moholo-Mohohlo, pianist Keith Tippet and his wife Julie Tippetts and the Vortex Café in Dalston, and Caribbean saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings in a three-night residency at the Café Oto. I just missed the Necks’ three-night residency at the Café Oto, and was too early for Mike Cooper’s 75th birthday bash there in October, but you’ve got to take things as they come. I also saw the Bemondsey Folk Festival, and Martin Simpson along with Stick on the Wheel, but managed to miss Alastair Roberts, to my great disappointment.
The Vortex is a smallish jazz club in Gillett Square, which was filled with almost exclusively middle-aged and elderly white people, although two of the Musicians playing were black, namely Noholo and ace saxophonist Jason Yarde, who accompanied Noholo on his Viva La Black Freedom tour of South Africa in 1994, and has played frequently with him since then, along with a regular quartet, pianist Alexander Hawkins, who is one of the most able pianists in London, and bass player John Edwards, who is one of the most prolific and hard-working.
The quartet together were absolutely astonishing, playing a long piece in the first half in which Edwards broke a string – not an easy thing to do on a double bass, but it shows how hard and fast he plays, while Hawkins stuck mainly to chunky chords, and Yarde sounded at times like Albert Ayler. Amongst the all-white audience at our table was a trio of South Africans who said they lived in Malaysia, but also had residences in London and South Africa. One of them complained bitterly at interval that this was ‘a horrible noise’, which didn’t sound at all like township jazz, which she had expected. Given that the musicians have played together so frequently, and Moholo’s signature of township jazz is perfectly clear, as are the other musicians’, I took this as something of an insult. ‘Maybe you just don’t like improvised jazz’, I said to the woman. ‘Oh, I like Miles Davis’, she said. ‘But this isn’t like him’. No, arguably it was much better. Our three friends looked increasingly uncomfortable during the second half and eventually fled, obviously finding the music not folksy enough for them. For me, it was one of the best live improvised jazz concerts I’ve ever seen. Mohoho is now 76, and the last of the surviving Blue Notes who came to the UK with Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath in 1964 (both McGregor and Dudu Pukwana died in 1990), and he has played with an enormous number of UK and UK musicians, including Keith Tippett, Shabaka Hutchings, Evan Parker and Cecil Taylor, and he dedicated the Dedication Orchestra to the Brotherhood of Breath. Apparently on the second night of his Vortex residence there were more black people in attendance.
Two nights later I was back at the Vortex for Keith and Julie Tippetts (the ‘s’ seems to be optional) described in the Vortex publicity as ‘the father figure of postmodern jazz in the UK’, and ‘a phenomenon way, way outside any kind of regular understanding of British “jazz” and improvisation’. He has just turned 70 and his work goes back to the 1970’s, when I first got to know of him, and when I interviewed him in Perth for his trip here earlier this year, he was happy to talk about these 70s projects such as Centipede, a group of 50 musicians who had their own plane, and many of whom are dead now.
Julie Tippets is a phenomenon in her own right as a singer, and her 1975 album Sunset Glow with Tippett’s band backing her on it, is an absolute classic, although she has done much much more, including the time when she was Julie Driscoll, and has collaborated with Robert Wyatt, and her album ‘Tales of Finin’, collaborative works with computer wizard and multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer, was voted a Jazzwise magazine 2011 ‘Record of the Year’. The couple was joined by a young violinist, Theo May, a virtuoso who sported three different violins and matched the pianist and singer for inventiveness. It was a great pleasure to see these musicians for the first time ever.
Shabaka Hutchings was something else again – a Caribbean saxophonist and clarinettist who currently plays in three different groups –Shabaka and the Ancestors , based in South Africa, the Sons of Kemet and the Comets, all of whom played recently in the UK over a two-day period, he is also a composer, and has been described as ‘British jazz’s new king’ by Jazzwise Magazine. Last year he wrote an article in the Guardian recalling when the UK MOBO awards suspended their Jazz and World Music awards ten years ago, ‘when I was a part of the protest that helped to reinstate the jazz award the following year, and have since taken a keen interest in the impact that this, and other mainstream awards, have on my field of practice’. In 2013 Sons of Kemet, which he lays in, won the jazz award, and ‘after the win our fanbase outside of London increased massively’. He also identified 2016 as ‘an exciting time for jazz’, with exciting acts like drummer Yussef Kamaal and trumpeter Laura Jurd, nominated for this year’s Mercury award, Moses Boyd’s Exodus, the all-female band Nérija, who were featured on Radio 3 the other night, Matthew Halsall, Ezra Collective, United Vibrations, Bex Burch’s Vula Viel, and previous MOMO winner Zoe Zahman. But recently the MOBOS have gone to high-profile Americans, Esperanza Spalding and Cory Henry, which rather defeats the purpose. Hawkins also commented on the lively scene in South Africa, where he’s been going twice a year to Johannesburg and Cape Town, where he plays with his band the Ancestors.
But back to the Café Oto, where Shabaka does two sets, one with the erstwhile bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders, both stalwarts in the London improvised scene, and then with drummer Roger Turner and a Caribbean pianist and synthesiser player called Pat Thomas with beard and wollen cap, who resembles Sun Ra and produces some very space age sounds. Shabaka plays both sax and clarinet in both sets, and all is preceded by an interview with music journalist Kevin Le Gendre, where he talks about his classical aspirations, about when he could only improvise on the sax but not on the clarinet, and how growing up in the Caribbean, where he lived until he was 16, he was very unfamiliar with jazz, and eventually came round to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. He’s an engaging talker, as well as a very engaging player, and his cohorts match him in intensity. Oh, and the Café Oto are selling an A2 screenprint advertising the Necks’ August residency. Only 15 pounds ….
The Bermondsey Folk Festival runs every year and is part outdoor, which meant rain, and partly in pubs. The main acts I saw were Stick on the Wheel, a relatively new group with three women and a man who specialise in traditional folk songs which they perform with intensity and spirit, and a political edge, and Martin Simpson, by now a veteran of the English folk scene, who specialises in political songs as well as a very moving song about his father, which he claims is his one hit. He’s an engaging performer, and rides out the rain in style. It’s great that there are still free events like this in London.