Bowling for jazz

Rob Ryan takes a trip down memory lane to the Crystal Palace Bowl and previews the upcoming South Facing Festival – plus some album favourites

Thursday, 24th June 2021 — By Rob Ryan

Crystal Palace Bowl

Posters from the 70s for the Garden Party at Crystal Palace Bowl

THIS August I shall be spending some time in south London. No, that’s not my idea of a staycation, more a walk down Memory Lane. Or, to be precise, Memory Park.

Almost 50 years ago exactly, I was swept along on a cloud of patchouli oil and the distinctive odour of badly cured Afghan coats into Crystal Palace to witness the first ever rock Garden Party. The Crystal Palace Bowl with its distinctive hemispherical stage (think a dinky version of the Hollywood Bowl) overlooking a small lake had opened in 1961, but up to that point it had only hosted classical music.

Top of the bill was Pink Floyd. I don’t recall too many details of the actual gig – it was the Atom Heart Mother tour – but I do remember that the inflatable octopus that was meant to rise majestically from the lake was, literally, a bit of a let down.

Pink Floyd’s deflated octopus

I must have had a good time, though, because around 18 months later I was back on the grassy knoll overlooking the stage. Top of the bill was prog-rock warhorse Yes, but I never got to see the band. After witnessing the aural and visual assault that was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, I left early in a bit of a daze. Not only had I never seen a twin-necked Gibson guitar like McLaughlin’s – or anyone play that fast – I had never heard powerhouse polyrhythmic drumming like that of Billy Cobham.

John McLaughlin, 1972. Photo: Michael Putland

As soon I could I researched Cobham’s background – not quite as easy as that would be today – which led me to Miles, which took me to Coltrane and so on. The Crystal Palace Bowl that day was the start of my journey into jazz. (Incidentally, Cobham is still a regular in London and still plays those killer breaks sampled by the likes of Massive Attack and Lil Wayne – he is at the Jazz Café on September 30 and October 1,

The Bowl hosted many other concerts over the years, including Bob Marley, Santana, Elton John, Jimmy Cliff, Roxy Music. However, the cute original stage fell into disrepair and was replaced by a more angular (and now rusty) steel one in 1997, but that too became dilapidated.

However, I am writing this out of more than a sense of nostalgia for a lost venue. Recently, a successful crowdfunding campaign (match-funded by Sadiq Khan) has raised enough money to rebuild/refurbish the stage and bring back live music to the Bowl, which always was one of the best outdoor concert spaces in London.

In the meantime, a temporary structure will be floated onto the lake and used until the new permanent stage is complete. First up in this re-birth is the South Facing Festival, a month-long series of concerts with The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Cymande, Soul II Soul, Sleaford Mods and the English National Opera. August 5-29,


The Comet is Coming. Photo: Fabrice Bourgelle

There is jazz, too, from north London. August 15 sees a celebration of the fifth birthday celebration of Worldwide FM, the award-winning digital station run out of N16 by Radio 6 DJ and festival promoter Gilles Peterson. His day is topped by electronica/nu-jazz legends Kruder & Dorfmeister but don’t miss saxophonist Shabaka Hutching’s rumbustious The Comet is Coming or Kokoroko, an Afrobeat-focused eight-piece that features jazz scene stalwarts such as Cassie Kinoshi and Sheila Maurice-Grey, as well as much exuberant on-stage dancing. Between them those two bands will have the crowd on its feet throughout the afternoon and evening.


Kokoroko performing at the Roundhouse. Photo: John Williams

To coincide with WWFM’s anniversary, Gilles, who is also DJ-ing on the day, has just published a book called Lockdown FM: Broadcasting in a Pandemic (available though which documents the impact of Covid on the broadcaster’s life but also on the global musical and cultural community. It includes tributes to some of the many artists we have lost in the past year or so, including McCoy Tyner, Tony Allen and Manu Dibango and fascinating playlists curated by well-known musicians, artists and producers. It is above all a celebration of music – jazz and beyond – and how it helps us survive and heal.

• In these uncertain times live performances are subject to change. Check refund policies and keep an eye out for any alterations to artist, date and venues.


Album recommendations:

FERG Ireland is London’s go-to bassist at the moment, providing exciting and unusual underpinnings for the likes of Gregory Porter, Ashley Henry, Kansas Smitty’s and Soweto Kinch. His own outfit has a new album, taking the art of the sax/bass/drum trio into new, vibrant spaces that acknowledge the past but seamlessly incorporate contemporary idioms. Volume II is available on Bandcamp.

Buyers of vinyl know they have to get in quick, because many albums these days are pressed in limited editions (and pressing plants worldwide are overwhelmed by demand, meaning re-issues are unlikely any time soon). Rosie Turton’s new EP Expansions and Transformations Parts I & II is a case in point. Limited to just 300 units, it is a truly joyous exploration of spiritual jazz, with empathetic musicians such as Jake Long on drums and Johanna Burnheart on violin supporting Rosie’s nimble trombone excursions. Pre-order now on Bandcamp, because it is going to sell out. Rosie also appears on ace acoustic bassist Daniel Casimir’s ambitious new single Safe (Part 1), a very tasty appetiser for his new album due on Jazz re:freshed label, which is a celebration and a reflection of Black life and culture in Britain.

Emma-Jean Thackray. Photo: Joe Magowan

Rosie also put in a brief but typically effective appearance at a genre-busting concert by London-based Emma-Jean Thackray at the LSO St Luke’s in Old Street a while back. I have been a fan of Ms Thackray since I heard her EP Ley Lines, a mix of jazz grooves and club beats with an affecting oft-kilter approach to a tune (she quotes Madlib and Robert Glasper as influences). She plays trumpet – although a bout of coronavirus has curtailed that somewhat of late – keyboards, guitar and sings, as well as composing and producing, and her excellent new album Yellow is out very soon. Anyone who saw her play a blinder on Jools Holland’s Later recently will already have it on their to-buy list.

Talking of rarity, there’s only 200 of the blue vinyl limited edition of Kurt Elling with Charlie Hunter’s album SuperBlue, but it doesn’t really matter what colour record you get, Elling is in typically fine and mischievous voice against a blues – and groove-soaked backdrop provided by eight-string wonder guitarist Hunter. Elling was meant to appear at Islington’s Union Chapel last year with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez to promote their powerful, passionate and Grammy-award winning Secrets Are The Best Stories album. Then lockdown happened. The singer hopes to be back in the UK this autumn, possibly at Ronnie Scott’s, touring the new release. Meanwhile, pre-order from Edition records.

Elling’s regular drummer Ulysses Owens Jr has his own new record out, Soul Conversations, an ebullient live recording of his 19-piece UOJ Big Band. No boundaries are broken, perhaps, but the playing is first rate and if you love Ellington or Basie or Roy Hargrove’s big bands, you’ll certainly appreciate the UOJ. You can feel the snap and energy in room on tunes such as Coltrane’s Giant Steps and the roaring original Two Bass Hit and it’s nice to hear that big bands are still alive and well and living at Dizzy’s NYC.

Julian Lage. Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Julian Lage’s Squint (Blue Note) has excited and impressed every guitarist I know who has heard it and with good reason. According to a recent New Yorker profile, Lage has practiced every day since he was five years old, apart from one when he had to take a train trip. That missed day still troubles him, apparently. Anyway, it was time well spent because his tonal shifts, from sharp and bell-like to deep and grungy, and his ability to navigate complex melodies and changes is remarkable.

There is a video of him on the EFG London Jazz Festival website (he appears at the festival on November 12) playing his cover of Charles Lloyd’s (a long-term inspiration) Island Blues that’ll have you clamouring to see him live.

Finally, a record that came out last year but has only just made it onto my turntable (thanks for the nudge, Robert Elms), which it has hardly left these past weeks. It is called You Already Know (Impulse!) by Ted Poor, a Seattle-based drummer. Its opening track, Emilia, will sort the jazz sheep from the goats. It opens with an extensive, cyclical exploration of the drum kit, wonderful it its sense of space, before the percussionist is joined by the abrasive and exhilarating alto saxophone of Andrew D’Angelo.

It seems as if we are firmly in Ornette Coleman/Albert Ayler territory (what my wife calls my music-to-tell-guests-to-go-home-by). As it progresses, however, the sonic palette subtly expands beyond the drum-sax duo, with guitar, harmonium, piano, violin and even strings adding washes of colour.

Folk-like melodies emerge alongside patterns of rhythmic urgency and by the final track, after an excursion into almost danceable territory on Push-Pull, it has become positively devotional and contemplative, with minimalist hymn-like explorations that call to this mind Norwegian pianist Todd Gustavsen. As the final cymbal gives way to a fading harmonium drone, I inevitably turn it over.

One tip: listen on the best sound system you can, to get the most out of Poor’s hypnotic tom-tom driven drumscapes.

Ferg Ireland:

Rosie Turton:

Emma-Jean Thackray:

Daniel Casimir:

Kurt Elling:

Ulysses Owens Jr:

Julian Lage:

Ted Poor:


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