Every year I look forward to the London Jazz Festival. Ten days of countless gigs all over the capital at all the usual music venues and more. There seem to be fewer icons playing these days but we have Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Sonny Rollins, Hugh Masekela, Terence Blanchard, Cedar Walton, Gary Burton and Steve Swallow. But there are many new up and coming artists such as the Sam Crowe Group and the Kit Downes Quintet who played for free in The Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday! Not that there’s a shortage of live jazz in London but it doesn’t match NYC for venues and choice. That’s where I first heard the timeless Bill Evans Trio, Bill Frisell and Joe Lavano at the Village Vanguard.
The Sam Crowe Group were straight forward and more than competent, especially Crowe on piano. Adam Waldman on sax added warmth but I’m not a fan of the vibes, not even when played with four mallets! Whereas I could listen to Kit Downes on piano endlessly in his very skilled quintet. If there was jazz justice in this world his trio album Golden would have won this year’s Mercury Prize. But he has a new album coming out in 2011 and the quintet played all of it. Very exciting music with the textures and the feel of a George Russell Orchestra with British musicians thanks on this occasion to James Allsopp, saxophone and bass clarinet, Adrien Dennefeld cello, Calum Gourlay bass, James Maddren drums.
On Sunday night I went for the Americana artist and former lead singer of The Mavericks, Raul Malo. But is this jazz? I think not but I’ve always been a big fan of Malo who is now a leading Americana artist, not country, alongside such luminaries as Levon Helm, John Mellencamp, Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, Buddy Miller, producer musician T Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Billy Swan, Wanda Jackson and The Crickets. The Americana Music Association Awards in Nashville showed of much of this great talent in September.
As a frequent visitor to Nashville I’ve followed Raul Malo from the beginning of The Mavericks. They became international stars thanks to the support of their legendary manager Frank Callari who died not so long ago and Luke Lewis of Lost Highway Records. Since the band’s demise Raul Malo has developed a successful Americano solo career. He has the big voice of an Orbison or an Elvis, great feel, rhythm and swagger no doubt emanating from his Cuban roots. Malo played accoustic guitar, sang his heart out and romanced us for nearly two hours bringing tears to everyone’s eyes with songs like “Smile” for his sons’ 14th and 15th birthday. He was accompanied by Michael Guerra on bandoneon and accordion. The bandoneon became a little pointed and tedious on its own but mellowed when joined for a short stint by former Shakin’ Stevens piano player Elio Pace. Malo also sang in Spanish which works so well and two Maverick’s songs O What a Thrill and of course Dancing the Night Away. An Orbison classic J D Souther’s You’re only Lonely, Ole sole Mio, Elvis’ It’s Now or Never and Dont. Malo returns to England early next year for the release of his new album Sinners & Saints. It wasn’t jazz but Americana roots music that never failed to stir the emotions.
The opening act, Alyssa Bonagura, from Nashville but a frequent visitor to England joined the others for the encores. Her Nashville sound didn’t emerge from her own songs until she finished the set with Blue made famous by LeAnn Rimes. It always helps a little known act to sing a great cover.