London Jazz Festival – Andrew McCormack & Jason Yarde / Michel Portal


Andrew McCormack (piano) & Jason Yarde (soprano & alto saxophones)

Michel Portal (bass clarinet, soprano & alto saxophones), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Bojan Z (piano), Scott Colley (double bass) & Nasheet Waits (drums)

Reviewed by: Julian Maynard-Smith

Reviewed: 14 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The rarity of saxophone and piano jazz duos is a mystery, considering the possibilities they offer for empathetic dialogue. Some of the finest (Art Pepper and George Gables, and Stan Getz and Kenny Barron) have been firmly in the American tradition, so it was a delight to hear two outstanding British musicians painting music from a different palette.

Andrew McCormack and Jason Yarde have composed for the LSO, and McCormack’s pretty Spanish Princess was imbued with European classical influences. In contrast, Yarde’s Hill Walking on the Tynerside raged with the energy of the freest jazz, Yarde prowling the stage hunched over his instrument, losing himself amid liquid sax runs, growls and upper-register squeals, buoyed up by McCormack’s pounding rhythms. Silence followed, as if the audience sensed that to applaud would be to intrude on a deeply private moment.The quiet was broken by McCormack’s Antibes, which imaginatively began and ended with lapping wavelets of piano, and saxophone whispers as soft as hissing surf. Then for the final piece we were back from water to fire, Yarde’s Dark to Bright blazing with multiphonics and bebop-like phrases over crashing piano.

Michel Portal has also bridged different musical worlds. Equally renowned as a classical and jazz musician he has composed film scores, winning three Césars. For this concert he played pieces from his new album, Bailador. Guitarist Lionel Loueke was absent, but with music as densely packed as this, it’s hard to imagine where a sixth musician could fit in. At times there was almost a Grand Prix feel as the band roared round the hairpin bends of Portal’s tricky melodies, Portal himself deftly avoiding skids and collisions with the smallest of hand gestures to each musician. What’s more, the music stands and scores (and an album release date less than a fortnight ago) suggest that the ink was barely dry on the compositions.

There were imaginative contrasts too: delicate interplays between bass clarinet and trumpet, saxophone flurries over nothing but drums (hinting at John Coltrane’s and Rashied Ali’s duets on the album Interstellar Space), and fine solos from all. And humour – after one slow build-up from intricate drumming to a furious ensemble climax, Portal steered the band down to a quiet fadeout that he signed off with breathy ‘kiss kiss’ noises from the bass clarinet. Back up again for a climactic final piece with thunderous drum solo – and back down again with a gentle encore, a final kiss goodnight.

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