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A Guide To EFG London Jazz Festival 2023 By Stewart Smith
Stewart Smith , November 2nd, 2023 10:05

A week out from this year's edition of EFG London Jazz Festival, Stewart Smith sifts through a vast bill of shows across the capital and selects five highlights you'd be a fool to miss

Irreversible Entanglements, photo by Piper Ferguson

EFG London Jazz Festival begins its 10 days of programming across the English capital on November 10, and finishes on November 19.

Taking in over 300 shows, among the 70+ venues used this year are the Southbank Centre, Ronnie Scott's, Barbican, Cafe OTO, Kings Place and more.

Full information, tickets and more can be found here.

Makaya McCraven & London Contemporary Orchestra

Saturday 11 November, Barbican (tickets)

Since his 2015 debut In The Moment, drummer, composer and beat scientist Makaya McCraven’s process has been to sample and edit recordings of him improvising with peers in Chicago, Los Angeles and London into tracks that embody the head-nodding qualities of hip hop and the spontaneity of live jazz. On 2022’s In These Times McCraven took his art to a new level, seamlessly blending his “organic beat music” into luscious orchestral arrangements that nod towards symphonic soul and Alice Coltrane’s most expansive work.

Recorded over seven years, the album features several of McCraven’s key collaborators, including guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Junius Paul, harpist Brandee Younger, vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Marquis Hill and flautist De’Sean Jones. As gorgeous as the orchestral arrangements are, they never take away from the music’s urgency. McCraven can lay down an irresistible boom-bap, but he’s not afraid to chop beats up into irregular meters or give his rich harmonies a dissonant edge. At certain points he’ll manipulate a solo to produce a particular effect. At other times he’ll let it run unedited, such as Younger’s sublime harp feature ‘Lullaby’ or Parker’s airborne guitar break in ‘The Knew Untitled’. Hearing In These Times live, with McCraven’s band joined by London Contemporary Orchestra and conductor Robert Ames, should be special.

Bill Orcutt

Solo: Tuesday 14 November, Cafe Oto (tickets)
Guitar Quartet: Wednesday 15 November, 7.30pm, Kings Place (tickets)

As Bill Orcutt told tQ’s Vanessa Ague recently, “I always think if I have an idea, and it doesn’t go away, that I should do it.” That willingness to follow his intuition has served the guitarist and composer well over the years, from the ferocious noise rock of his 90s group Harry Pussy, to his improvised outings with drummer Chris Corsano and the ecstatic minimalism of his electronic Counting Albums (they’re all great, but A Mechanical Joey, where Orcutt fashions Ramones intros into a Reichian phased polyphony, is particularly absurd, joyous and inspired). But it’s for the series of solo guitar albums he’s released over the past 14 years that he’s best known. This year’s Jump On It has Orcutt on acoustic guitar, tapping into rich seams of American music, from country blues and hymns, to free jazz and avant-rock. It features some of the most conventionally beautiful music he’s released, yet his tough right-hand attack ensures it’s never too finessed.

In addition to Orcutt’s solo gig at Cafe OTO, his Guitar Quartet make their UK debut. Joining Orcutt to realise the compositions from 2022’s Music For Four Guitars live are a Who’s Who of contemporary guitar virtuosi: Shane Parrish, Ava Mendoza and Wendy Eisenberg. Their NPR Tiny Desk concert was a sensation: an intricate lattice played with a punk spirit.

Strangeness Of Jazz with Edward George

Wednesday 15 November, Cafe OTO (tickets)

A founder of Black Audio Film Collective, Edward George is perhaps best known as the writer and presenter of John Akomfrah’s 1996 documentary, The Last Angel Of History. The groundbreaking film explores Black science-fiction through figures such as Sun Ra, George Clinton, Derrick May, Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. His ongoing series of radio essays, The Strangeness Of Dub, is essential listening, queering and decolonising the narrative of 20th century music to reveal the connections between Lee Perry, Coxsone Dodd and King Tubby, and John Cage, The Bomb Squad and Mika Vaino. His History Of Kuduro and Sound Of Music mixes are equally mind-blowing.

Since 2021, George has been performing live incarnations of Strangeness, expanding its scope to jazz and other music. George’s ruminative delivery gives his ideas space to unfold, while his cross-genre musical selections open pathways across time and space. For all the intellectual stimulus George provides, the sheer bodily pleasure of hearing anything from Alice Coltrane and [Ahmed] to The Slits and Jah Shaka over a venue PA at rinsing volume is hard to beat. For this latest edition of Strangeness Of Jazz, expect the Cafe OTO shutters to rattle as George and saxophonist Seymour Wright - his collaborator in new group X-RAY HEX TET – take a deep dive into the catalogues of Blue Note and Studio One by way of their respective engineers Rudy Van Gelder and Sylvan Morris.

Irreversible Entanglements

Wednesday 15 November, EartH Hackney (tickets)

Liberation oriented free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements dropped their fourth album, Protect Your Light, in September. Their first for the legendary Impulse! label, it embraces a broader musical range than its predecessors, with poet/vocalist Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes joined by pianist Janice A. Lowe, vocalist Sovei, cellist Lester St Louis and producer Shahzad Ismaily. Opening track ‘Free Love’ presents the group at their most sensual and romantic. “It was true beauty and I wanted to dance in its love and its freedom,” intones Ayewa amidst a dubby swirl of trumpet and electronics. From the buoyant Latin fanfare and cowbell grooves of the title track to the slow glimmer of ‘Sunshine’ and the stately ‘Degrees of Freedom’, we hear a more joyful and reflective side of Irreversible Entanglements, but there’s no less urgency or fire than on prior releases. The pointed anti-colonialist critique in ‘Our Land Back’ is particularly potent. “Who holds our story? Who took our land?” asks Ayewa with a measured rage over the group’s slow burning blues. ‘Soundness’ celebrates community in an ecstatic dance of horns and explosive drums, with Ayewa announcing “we call you into the room, come on into the room” in a nod to gospel tradition. Irreversible Entanglements’ live shows have always been powerful affairs. It’ll be hugely exciting to hear what they’ll do with the new material in London.

Tyshawn Sorey

Trio: Friday 17 November, Kings Place (tickets)
Solo: Saturday 18 November, Cafe OTO(tickets)
Duo w/ Pat Thomas: Saturday 18 November, Cafe OTO (tickets)

A master of contemporary music, Tyshawn Sorey works across and beyond genre, exploding preconceptions of what a “jazz” or Black musician can be. A brilliant drummer, trombonist and pianist, Sorey has performed with Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, Angelika Niescier, John Zorn, Kris Davis and many others, in addition to composing works for orchestra, voice and diverse ensembles. Of all his recordings, 2018’s Pillars is a personal favourite, combining the stillness of Morton Feldman and glacial density of Bill Dixon’s Vade Mecum with the volatility of free improvisation. A work of monumental heaviness, it also reflects Sorey’s love of technical death metal like Gorguts and Meshuggah.

Sorey’s trips to the UK are few and far between, making these three EFG London Jazz Festival concerts utterly essential. The first is with his Trio, featuring the outstanding pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. On paper, it’s Sorey’s most conventional project, with a repertoire of songbook standards and classic jazz compositions. And while the Trio don’t radically alter the material, they play it with such sensitivity and vitality that it sounds bracingly fresh. Sorey’s second outing is a solo piano set: a format that we hear him in all too rarely. The third is a piano and drums (and possibly electronics) duo with fellow genius Pat Thomas: a dream pairing.

EFG London Jazz Festival takes place 10-19 November across London.

Full information and tickets for all the shows listed here, and hundreds of others at this year's London Jazz festival, can be purchased here.