Review: Contemporary Jazz Ensemble at London Jazz Festival

Contemporary Jazz Ensemble_image by jk-photography_600x250

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Despite the fact that it’s only 6pm on a Monday, the foyer is absolutely packed. The chairs are filled and crowds of people are squeezed in at the back, peering eagerly at the stage waiting for the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble to perform their set for the London Jazz Festival.

London Jazz Festival is a weird and wonderful time, where jazz enthusiasts like myself come out from hiding (and if we’re being honest, from listening to a Kind of Blue  on repeat). This was a gig where the beret wearing, goatee loving, scat singing jazzer was few and far between. In fact, the foyer sampled an array of people – teenagers, school children, young professionals, OAPs, students…you name it, they were there.  And despite the slight hitch when the presenter accidently called us Trinity Lay-ben  (naughty presenter), the band was greeted onto the stage with whoops and cheers from the audience.

The Ensemble performed a set influenced by the counterpoint of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band in the early 1960s. Gerry Mulligan was a leading baritone sax player renowned for his light and airy tone.  His piano-less quartet with trumpeter Chet Baker was probably one of the most important groups in the Cool Jazz  style.

“Gerry Mulligan’s music sounds as current today as it did back in the 60s,” exclaims director Mark Lockheart, of Loose Tubes  and Polar Bear  fame. It was interesting to see how music that is half a century old is relevant today.

From the get go, the overall ensemble playing from the band was phenomenal – it was hard to believe this wasn’t a professional band. Articulation was particularly detailed, a really important factor when playing in a big band, and the sections moved together as a single entity which immediately conveyed an air of excitement.

This first piece – entitled Blueport  – also gave the opportunity to hear some improvising from the band.  Trumpeter Harrison Cole particularly stood out, not only for his highly technical and virtuosic lines but for his dark and velvety tone which emphasised the Cool Jazz  feel. Many an audience member took a double take during this, expecting to see a flugel horn instead of a trumpet. It reminded me of Clark Terry and instantly made me grin from ear to ear.

Another great solo was by alto player Reiss Beckles. Reiss juxtaposed long and fluid licks with outrageous interval leaps and tri-tones. It really brought Mulligan’s music to the 21st century and created a lighter side to the programme. Tenor Ruben Fox also captivated this style well in the final piece, Little Rock Getaway,  which left many audience members having to pick their jaw off the floor once he had finished.

Despite the fact there were a lot of upbeat, highly technical pieces in the set, the band’s excellent musicality shone through in the slower pieces. Sweet and Slow  by Harry Warren was a particular favourite of mine. The sustained notes could easily sound tired and dull, but the band put the right amount of swells in the note which created a sumptuous feel and complimented the rich harmony perfectly.

Overall, the band was nothing short of outstanding and it was shocking to think these performers were only in their late teens and early twenties. If I am being particularly picky, it would have been great to hear more about the pieces themselves and why Gerry Mulligan was the focal point for this gig. What prevailed throughout though, was the advanced musicality of the performers and mature soloing throughout. I don’t think the presenter will be mispronouncing their name in a hurry!

Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble will perform these and other works at Blackheath Halls on Wednesday 10 December. To find out more and to book tickets, click here.

Heather Stephenson

Marketing and PR Intern

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