City of London Festival – Shabaka Hutchings, Kit Downes, Leafcutter John, John Edwards & Mark Sanders

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Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet & tenor saxophone), Kit Downes (piano), Leafcutter John (electronics), John Edwards (double bass) & Mark Sanders (drums)


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 14 July, 2011
Venue: St Sepulchre without Newgate, Giltspur Street, London EC1

The three-week series of early-evening concerts from BBC New Generation Artists at the City of London Festival ended on a pleasing note, emphasising the scheme’s commitment to encouraging young jazz talent in the form of an improvised set from Shabaka Hutchings. Hutchings (born 1984) has a classical degree from the Guildhall School of Music, where he studied under Joy Farrall and Andrew Webster, while his jazz craft stems from performances with experimental electronically-powered groups such as The Heliocentrics, Red Snapper and Polar Bear. He is an integral part of the London Improvisers Orchestra.

As the five performers arrived in St Sepulchre without Newgate, one of the principal questions was how they would achieve rhythmic clarity in the acoustic of a large church, but as their set unfolded it was clear the priority was instrumental colour. Melody was not necessarily forsaken but was reduced either to fragments from Kit Downes’s sensitively pitched piano and keyboards, or longer phrases well thought out by Hutchings, initially leading from the clarinet. There were a number of ways in which the quintet manipulated the sounds their instruments were capable of making, with John Edwards in particular putting in a heavy shift as he lunged forward and back, sometimes playing the very wood on the back of his double bass, using it as a large, sonorous percussion instrument.

Perhaps the most striking sounds came from the desk of Leafcutter John, aka John Burton, who conjured weird and wonderful textures through the compression of two small mineral-water bottles, as well as using computer-manipulated sounds to add to the atmosphere. The sonic landscape shifted slowly for the most part, pausing for brief thought now and again but not long enough for applause. This was a risky calculation, as some of the audience became distracted once it became clear we were sitting through a single strain of musical thought, but there were nonetheless moments of an unusual and almost reverent calm.

Above all this floated the clarinet of Hutchings, softly played for the most part and very much a feature of the quintet rather than as a solo instrument. When he swapped to tenor saxophone the mellow tone was still in evidence, though as the music became gradually more frenetic so his timbre became harsh and dominant. Increasingly frenzied contributions from Mark Sanders lent a more percussive weight, while Downes too applied pressure to his contributions on Hammond organ, Nond synthesizer and Steinway piano. With a weighty summit reached, the music subsided to its most moving passage, with Downes shadowing Hutchings in soft unison, Sanders, Edwards and Leafcutter John concentrating on subtle but valuable shades of colour to complement the plaintive melodies. On this note the improvisation finished, just over 50 minutes of music that held a large percentage of the audience under its spell.

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