It's jazz - but not as we know it

They'll be funking the boundaries at this year's London Jazz Festival, Duncan Heining predicts
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There's a real buzz about this year's London Jazz Festival. Maybe the music's just going through one of its periodic revivals. But more likely it's because this is the most diverse and diverting line-up ever. As the mumblings from some fans of 'Is it jazz?' rub against the cutting edge of world music and club culture, it seems that the promoters Serious have organised a genuinely challenging festival this time round.

There's a real buzz about this year's London Jazz Festival. Maybe the music's just going through one of its periodic revivals. But more likely it's because this is the most diverse and diverting line-up ever. As the mumblings from some fans of 'Is it jazz?' rub against the cutting edge of world music and club culture, it seems that the promoters Serious have organised a genuinely challenging festival this time round.

John Cumming of Serious acknowledges that the week is light on the bigger American stars, but sees this as a positive thing: "It's a chance for people to see how the International Jazz scene fits in the context of a major European city festival. It reflects the way things are in London and how the musicians are taking the music in exciting new directions."

The State Of The World night on Saturday 18 November offers a perfect example of Cumming's point. The loungecore of Ashley Slater's band will slide into the funk of the US jam band Galactic, and the sounds of DJ Spacer will clash with a classical orchestra. The Asian Underground stars Badmarsh and Shree will make way for jazz musicians Andy Sheppard and Claude Deppa, who perform with Space DJ's Rita Ray and Max Reinhardt.

So, is it jazz? Cumming reckons that's maybe the wrong question. It's certainly not one that many of the musicians are asking. "It's like there's this huge creative soup at the moment. There's all these musicians who find it more interesting to work across different genres and even cultures. If there's a theme to the festival, it's about looking at where the creative musicians are going and inevitably jazz musicians are included in that."

Anyway, alongside world stars like Salif Keita (RFH Friday 10th), and Airto Moreira (RFH Saturday 11th), there's plenty to please the purists. The Heath Brothers and sax player James Moody both play Ronnie's, and there's drummer Roy Haynes group and guitarist Mike Stern at the Pizza Express. With Bill Frissell, probably the most exciting Jazz guitarist around, playing the QEH on Sunday 12th and David Murray's Octet at the same venue on the Thursday, there are more than a few transatlantic stars on hand.

But of the straight jazz gigs on offer, the Stan Sulzmann Big Band (Purcell Room 14th November) promises much. Just turned 50, Sulzmann is celebrating with an excellent CD on Village Life records and an Arts Council-funded tour. The CD confirms his talents as a saxophonist, but also reveal that he's a very interesting composer/arranger. The band will feature old friends like Henry Lowther, Guy Barker, Paul Clarvis and Ray Warleigh. I'd definitely choose this over the Jazz Passengers, who are at the RFH the same night.

The previous night sees Alan Skidmore at the QEH with percussion group Amampondo. Skid's recent CD features his Coltrane-inspired tenor alongside his regular quartet and this tumultuous group of South African musicians. It's a collaboration that seems to have revitalised the fortunes of the musician and tour reports suggest this could get pretty wild.

There are also gems in the margins between jazz and other musics. Friday 10th offers a major conflict of choice. At the QEH, baritone sax player John Surman premiÿres his LJF commission, CORUSCATING, while in the Purcell Room Big Band iO perform one of their rare gigs. The Surman concert features long-standing bass partner Chris Laurence and a string quartet. The CD has received some excellent reviews, with references to Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and illustrates where jazz can go while maintaining identity and integrity. It's a work that allows Surman, as composer-writer and improviser, a wonderfully free rein. iO is a huge 35-piece mixing young improvisers and classically-trained musicians, determinedly expanding their musical horizons beyond the conservatoire boundaries. Their performances have drawn comparisons with Loose Tubes, Lalo Schifrin and Carla Bley.

There's also a plethora of Italians this year. Post-modern Renaissance man, Paolo Conte, returns to the Barbican on the last Friday and Saturday.

With singer Maria Pia De Vito and pianist John Taylor on the bill with Brad Mehldau at the QEH Friday 17th and the Italian Wind Band, La Banda, at the same venue the next night, you could be forgiven for thinking this is an invasion. La Banda are actually the band of Ruvo di Puglia, a town fortunate in having renowned trumpeter Pino Minafra as its musical director. The idea is as evocative as it is simple. Minafra wanted to link jazz and improvisation to the traditional structure of the Italian Wind Orchestra, and the music draws a line through Verdi and Rossini to big band jazz. There are hints of Gil Evans and George Russell, too, in the arrangements, and with the calibre of tenorist Willem Breuker and clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi as guest soloists, this is bold, proud music. Possibly the gig of the festival.

So, back to the original question, is it jazz? Well, it's music that is touched and fed in some way by jazz and says that the music is alive and well. The final word to John Cumming: "This is a continually evolving and changing music. I just think that jazz should be jolly pleased it's having such an impact."

La Banda play Kendal Brewery (Sunday 19th), Brighton Dome (Monday 20th), Basingstoke Anvil (Tuesday 21st). CMN sampler CD .comp, featuring La Banda, Dave Holland, Jocelyn Pook and other CMN tourists, is available free from www.cmntours.org.uk

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