Jingle-jangle-jazzy bells

Rob Ryan’s pick of the festive-themed shows this month – plus gigs for those immune to the Christmas bug

Wednesday, 1st December 2021 — By Rob Ryan

Tony Kofi

Tony Kofi rings the Xmas changes at the 606 Club on December 22

WHY do Christmas and jazz seem to make such comfortable bed-fellows? All over town this month, disparate musicians will be presenting their own version of a festive show, from Rat Pack-style crooning, through classic piano trio to post-bop raucousness and big band pomp.

I subscribe to pianist Gabriel Latchin’s theory that the reason jazzers of every stripe are drawn to the old festive tunes is because they were written by many of the same composers of the 30s and 40s who gave us the Great American Songbook.

And like the works of Gershwin and Porter and Strayhorn, they often have the intriguing chord and key changes, coupled with memorable melodies, that provide plenty of grist to the improvisational mill that is at the very heart of jazz. Latchin maintains that if Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas didn’t actually mention the season, it would be a year-round favourite.

Gabriel Latchin. Photo: www.gabrielllatchin.com

I recently saw Latchin in a free afternoon performance in the foyer at the Cadogan Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival. Alongside bassist Dario De Lecce and drummer Josh Morrison, he fronts a piano trio in the classic Bill Evans mould.

He is an elegant and eloquent player and beneath the superficial prettiness of many of the tunes (standards such as The Shadow of Your Smile and The Very Thought of You and as-yet unnamed originals such as, er, “A”, “I this borrowed bassline from Ahmed Jamal” and “C”) there is a craftsman at work who digs deep into harmonic and rhythmic variations without losing the essence of the composition. Plus there is that telepathic communication between the players that is the mark of the best trios.

He performed one Christmas number, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which he infected with the spikiness of Thelonious Monk, lending a whole new tension to the piece. Is he coming? Should I really watch out? And beware?

Latchin is one of those with an Xmas show, at the Pizza Express, Soho (www.pizzaexpresslive.co.uk), on December 6. At the time of writing tickets were going fast, but if you don’t score one, console yourself with a copy of his excellent album I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Alys Jazz), which channels Jamal, Evans, Herbie Hancock, Barry Harris and Cedar Walton, while never subsuming Latchin’s own winning ways with a keyboard. Just don’t expect any Cecil Taylor.

Other festive-themed shows include singer/pianist Ian Shaw “shimmering” (his description) into Christmas at The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel on December 19 and 20, one of several Xmas bashes at the venue (www.pizzaexpresslive.co.uk); and over at the 606 club (606club.co.uk) on December 22, ace saxophonist and Cannonball Adderley aficionado Tony Kofi will be showing just what sort of changes you can wring out of those familiar themes.

On December 16, Camden’s Jazz Café (jazzcafelondon.com) goes for an Afrobeat- and Latin-style Xmas with the appropriately named Cubafrobeat “party machine”. Expect sleigh bells to be drowned out by marimbas and congas and bata drums.

Ryan Quigley blows that horn in a Hampstead church on December 23

Less frenetic, perhaps, on December 23, the Hampstead Jazz Club presents “A Jazzy Christmas” at St John-at-Hampstead church, featuring voice-of-the-moment Jo Harrop and a cracking band with high-note-flyer Ryan Quigley on trumpet. I hope that church roof is securely battened down (hampsteadjazzclub.com).

Liv Warfield, who was a backing singer for Prince, appears at the Albert Hall on December 10. photo: livwarfieldofficial.com

Fresh from his LJF Jazz Voice gig, Guy Barker hotfoots it to the Albert Hall on December 10 to present the biggest bash of all – the Big Band Christmas, with 45 musicians and guest singers (including soulman Tony Momrelle, pianoman Joe Stilgoe and ex-Prince woman Liv Warfield) tackling Jimmy Smith, Lionel Hampton, Louis Prima, Louis Jordan and Duke Ellington’s versions of the festivities, with some non-Xmas nods to the hall’s 150-year anniversary and its jazz history mixed in (royalalberthall.com).

Another big band, the funky 17-piece MOJO have a Sunday afternoon Christmas-themed gig on December 12 at the Vortex in Dalston, featuring singer Catherine Lima (vortexjazz.co.uk).

Most of Ronnie Scott’s Christmas programme is sold out, but the vocal powerhouse that is Liane Carrol is offering her popular post-blowout Cold Turkey show on December 26 and 27, which nods to some festive music but also points us towards 2022 and putting those Xmas warhorses away for another year (ronniescotts.co.uk).

Of course not everyone in jazz is infected by the Christmas bug and there are some strong, secular gigs coming up. You might not have heard of keyboard player Neil Cowley, but you’ve certainly heard him – that’s his piano on Adele’s Rolling In The Deep. He used to lead his own eponymous trio which was one of my favourite live jazz acts: shows were fast and funky and fun, the music full of memorable hooks. A few years ago he put the band on hiatus, disappeared for a while, and returned with music that was more delicate, meditative and often sublimely beautiful.

Is it jazz? Well, jazz is in there, but it shares space with ambient, neo-classical and electronica. The piano, though, remains front and centre even as Cowley pushes the instrument deep into new sonic landscapes.

Neil Cowley contemplates his forthcoming shows at the Southbank on December 4-5

You can sample this musical melange on his fascinating and involving solo album Hall of Mirrors – which also demonstrates he hasn’t lost his knack for a melodic earworm – and it will be intriguing to see Cowley perform this music live, which he does on December 4 and 5 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s Purcell Room, as part of the ongoing Purcell Sessions series of contemporary culture events which run well into next year (https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/gigs/neil-cowley).

Also on the Southbank is a celebration of 30 Years of Tomorrow’s Warriors, the jazz education and mentoring organisation set up by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons. Now, we have mentioned other celebrations of its three decades in these pages before, but on Saturday December 4, the mothership is landing at the QEH.

The line-up is a who’s who of the movers and shakers of the neo-jazz movement that took root in south London but has spread like a benign, jazzy version of Japanese knotweed across the country.

Alumni of the charity, which encourages and nurtures young jazz talent, including Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, Zara McFarlane, Binker Golding, Theon Cross, and more, are all scheduled to perform.

The gathering is called A Great Day in London, in homage to the famous photograph of 57 American jazz musicians by Art Kane (for Esquire magazine) in 1957, known as A Great Day in Harlem.

Tickets are £35 or £150 for the VIP package. The latter is, granted, a bit punchy, but it does include the aftershow party and promises all-star late-night jams. And it’s all in a good cause (https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/gigs/tomorrows-warriors-great-day-london).

King’s Place on December 10 sees Synthesis, a triple bill of genre-bending, forward-thinking artists which includes her own project un.procedure, featuring Piera Onacko on keys and drummer Nathan England-Jones, which takes a “deep and exploratory dive into electronics, free improvisation, heady soundscapes and tight, angular grooves”.

Mind and body will be engaged: leave your expectations at the door (tickets at https://www.kingsplace.co.uk).

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