London Jazz Festival – Jazz & Surgery: Professor Roger Kneebone and Ollie Howell

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Liam Noble (piano), Ollie Howell (drums), Mark Perry (trumpet), Duncan Eagles (tenor saxophone), Ant Law (guitar), Matt Robinson (piano) & Max Luthert (double bass)

Surgeons / presenters: Roger Kneebone (former trauma surgeon and professor of surgical education), Mark Wilson (neurosurgery consultant) & Jez Nelson (presenter of Jazz on 3)


Reviewed by: Julian Maynard-Smith

Reviewed: 16 November, 2015
Venue: Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street, Marylebone, London

Ollie HowellPhotograph: www.olliehowell.com“This must be a world first”, announced Jez Nelson, the evening’s host and presenter of Jazz on 3 (BBC Radio 3). He’s probably right: what other performance has ever combined a jazz concert, simulated brain surgery with real surgical equipment and gowned surgeons, and a philosophical discussion comparing and contrasting the two? And with one of the presenters called Professor Roger Kneebone, the event sounds like a joke warranting egregious puns. But no, the surname of this former brain surgeon and professor of surgical education is genuine, and this most unlikely presentation was both fascinating and – sorry, just can’t resist the puns – “cutting-edge theatre combined with incisive solos.”

Mind you, I’m not the only one to have succumbed to puns. Jez Nelson told the surgeons he was going to “pick their brains”. And when pianist Liam Noble asked the audience for a tune to demonstrate the art of improvisation, some wag yelled “You Go to My Head”, generating groans from the audience but also a brooding and angular solo from Noble.

The solo provided a fine segue to a stimulating discussion on how a jazz musician thinks when improvising and “in the zone” – a thread (oh dear, another pun) picked up by trauma neurosurgeon Mark Wilson and Professor Kneebone, who explained that surgeons have similar experiences. A surgical team is as tight a unit as a well-rehearsed band, the surgeon picking up on what the anesthetist and nurses are doing with the same split-second intuition as a soloist responding to cues from the rest of the band.

We were then treated to a lecture from Wilson on the six types of brain trauma and surgical techniques for dealing with them, followed by the simulated brain operation on a medical dummy. Both were gripping and educational, albeit not for the squeamish and having nothing to do with jazz. Except that they did, because Ollie Howell has in real life undergone the operation the surgeons simulated – the inspiration for compositions from his album Stitches and Sutures performed by his sextet along with pieces from his second album. As a final treat, Noble and Howell wrapped up the evening with a completely spontaneous piece of improvisation.

Every final Monday of the month, Jez Nelson hosts “Jazz in the Round” events at the Cockpit Theatre, promising “barrier-busting music.” On the evidence of this gig, I can believe it.

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