The Independent: Gateshead International Jazz Festival
The great and the good of Stateside get the best out of Tyneside
Reviewed by Philip Johnson, The Independent
You can talk all you like about the influence of French gavottes, and brass band instruments left over from the Civil War, but when it comes to jazz, in the beginning was the drum. As played by slaves in Congo Square, New Orleans, its intricately accented pitter-patter provided the rhythmic model for everything that followed. The American saxophonist Joe Lovano knows this very well, making it the foundation of his thrilling new group, US Five.
The band’s drummers, Otis Brown and Francisco Mela, are young and energetic and their conversation defines the US Five sound: a shifting rhythmic wave whose accents are picked up and commented on by Lovano’s tenor sax. Even the piano of James Weidman is less a harmony instrument than a rhythmic one, and bassist Peter Slavov hews out the time in great inchoate blocks. The elephant in the room was Slavov’s predecessor, Esperanza Spalding, who recently pipped Justin Bieber to a Grammy for Best New Artist. She appears on the new US Five recording, the excellent Bird Songs, but is now probably too famous to tour as a sidewoman.
With so much reliance on percussion, the sound of US Five is relentless, even unforgiving. But as an avuncular Italian-American who has recorded tributes to Frank Sinatra and Enrico Caruso, Lovano also has his softer side, caressing a melody with courtliness, as with a beautiful “Lover Man”, played on the G-Mezzo saxophone. When I saw the band a second time, on the last date of their tour at St George’s, Bristol, the drummers weren’t just straining at the leash, they were off it completely. A series of four-bar breaks on the final tune proved magnificently loud and dangerous before Lovano cooled us all out with Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee”.
But US Five, for all that, was still only music. The Gateshead International Jazz Festival’s grand education project, Subway Moon, must have been a life-changing experience for its participants. Fronted by The Jazz Passengers, who had opened the festival with Deborah Harry on vocals, 25 schoolkids from New York collaborated with their Tyneside peers to produce an audio-visual song cycle on the theme of the subway (or the Metro as it is up here), conceived and composed by saxophonist-poet Roy Nathanson. The material included samples of Allen Ginsberg reading “Kaddish” as the voice of a cantor boomed from the back of a hall in a threnody for Nathanson’s dead brother, while Napoleon Maddox beat-boxed, and Geordie rapper Rick Fury rhymed “dole” with “Greggs’ sausage roll”. It was the most inspiring performance I’ve seen for years.