Tuesday, November 26, 2002


Each year the London Jazz Festival throws up a profusion of exciting artists, confirming the capital's cutting-edge status in the burgeoning, global-edged European jazz scene. (Yes, dear US friends: you read that correctly.)

Tenorist Joe Lavano and alto Lee Konitz represent, among other things, the homage to black America and its centrality in twentieth century blues-based musics. But Lavano has also bitten the opera bug, his octet tearing into Caruso's I Pagliacci at the Queen Elizabeth Hall over the weekend. Konitz, meanwhile blows cool and cooler. Somewhere else on the scale, Nigerian saxophonist Femi Kuti (son of legendary Afrobeat trailblazer Fela) syncopated and funked his way into the hearts of a physically stoic but emotionally entranced RFH audience.

Headlining regular Courtney Pine's Barbican set was perhaps the highlight of the Festival, however. Billed partly as a tribute to John Coltrane, it could have sounded reverential and referential. But that is hardly Pine's style, and his culturedly untamed spirit did not disappoint. Courtney is as much predator as musician when he takes to the stage. His assertive presence, by turns lingering and fiery, haunts a sound of almost architectural finesse.

Where 'Trane managed to be both spiritually centred and sonically disturbing, Pine (a very different character bitten by the same kind of musical bug) combines personal assurance and professional aggression. The result, underwritten by stellar guests including sitarist Sheema Mukherjee and drum'n'bass team Donald Gamble and Bob Fordjour, was heart stopping. This is what John Prescott might have called 'traditional values in a modern setting', but with no spin.The band was, indeed, devoid of turtablists this time.But they still managed to produce something that emulated the studied playfulness of plunderphonics.

Pine is hip, but also very far from cool. His irony is steel-edged. Scorching, technically sharp circular runs rip bloody chunks out of the melody line. Cascades of notes alternate with wispy, subtle harmonic references and auto-suggestions. Where Coltrane drew an audience into his mesmeric sound-puzzles by stripping away at peripherals, Pine assembles a maze-like collage of aural accompanists (tonight including Hammond organ, guitars, voices, bass and percussion). Then it seems as if he scythes through them with a floating, finely tuned chainsaw. Electrifying, literally. You have to hear him live, man...

Simon Barrow