JAZZ: So much sax, his knees were shaking

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Not many musicians have the temerity to go for sheer, swooning ecstasy from the off, but the American saxophonist Charles Lloyd began his set at the Royal Festival Hall last Monday with a solo that immediately plunged us into the farthest reaches of a music not so much recollected in tranquillity as wrenched from some deep, sensual core. Against a hypnotic pulse from piano, bass and drums, Lloyd produced one long breath of transfiguring emotion, his body swaying and knees trembling from the intensity of it all.

Dressed in a loose-fitting oriental suit topped by a nifty Tibetan hat, Lloyd - a star of hippie jazz in the 1960s - more than looked the part. He also looked a little like Lester Young, whose sideways-on saxophone stance he favoured. Lloyd was a devotee of the Maharishi years before the Beatles cottoned on, and perhaps the only jazzman of note to jam with the Beach Boys. His first quartet - with future stars Keith Jarrett on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums - defined a special kind of psychedelic mood-music that suited the times, right down to the stages of Bill Graham's Fillmore that he shared with Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane.

As the first solo came to an end, the intervals gradually lengthening until the sax sounded - in one's imagination at least - like the beating of wings overhead, Lloyd took up a position on a nearby stool, emptied half a pint of spit from the bell of his horn to the floor, and sat back with a satisfied expression on his face. It was just about the most enthralling opening to a concert I've ever seen.

He followed with a masterfully delivered bop work-out - as fully in the tradition as the preceding number had been out of it - displaying the sort of delicacy of phrasing associated with the cool, mentholated jazz of Lee Konitz. Then came a fluttering ballad with a long solo coda that seemed impossibly good. He relaxed a little after that, and gave more time to his band - but fair enough, although the temperature did drop rather alarmingly. A brief outing for his flute was followed by a feature for Tibetan oboe which returned to the same devotional style as the opener. It was a stunning, heart-wrenching performance.

You could accuse the audience at Ronnie Scott's of many things (impersonating Members of Parliament being one of the very worst), but happy-clappy, blind idolatry would never be one of them. For the opening performance of saxophonist Kenny Garrett however, all previous bets were off. During the whole of the closing number, the entire audience sang along, in Kumbaya style, to a lilting African refrain and clapped their hands in perfect time to the rhythm of the band. This was, it has to be said, no ordinary gig. Garrett - the last sax-man to play with Miles Davis - was a marvel, and his young quartet were proverbial greyhounds off the leash, producing exactly the kind of rushing modal jazz that is everyone's favourite club tipple. By the time Garrett got around to a version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", the whole packed house was pretending it was in New York, calling out "Yeah!"

To a jazz fan, the role of the conductor in classical music is rather like that of a premiership football manager. They get big signing-on fees and make urgent yet usually futile gestures from the sidelines; when things go well they take all the credit, then blame the players when they don't. In jazz, the role of the conductor is even more clear-cut: he's a fat white bloke with a tux, a baton and a pencil moustache. Even 70 years after Paul Whiteman, the very notion of a conductor in jazz is still looked upon as sullying the best democratic impulses of the music. Or at least it was, until the American "conductioner" Lawrence "Butch" Morris came on the scene.

Morris's "Conduction" tour for the Contemporary Music Network, which came to the end of its run this week, was a real eye-opener. Morris really does conduct the musicians rather than the score. In fact there isn't a score: just Butch, 23 British musicians and a bewildering array of instruments. There's also a bewildering array of "conduction signs and gestures", summarised conveniently in the programme, and consisting of palm movements, hand-to-ear signs and thumbs-up or down gestures.

Anything which can get a loose coalition of the most esteemed free-improvising musicians to follow something other than their inner muse has to have something going for it. And at first, the music was wonderfully sharp, bringing into focus individual foibles so that what came out was a thrilling ensemble sound. As the first, very long, piece developed, however, the direction of the music became far from clear, and you had to wonder about the indeterminacy principles involved. Were they really following the gestures? Or only pretending to, like schoolchildren giving the teacher a reflection of what he wanted?

Finally, in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday, the duo of pianist Tim Richards and Austrian saxophonist Sigi Finkel played quite brilliantly to a lunchtime audience of lager-sipping office workers. Jazz? Lager? Lunchtime? It was almost like the evil reign of the GLC. Someone should surely tell the authorities. Unfortunately, they're all kicking it large at Ronnie Scott's. Yeah!

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