Jazz re:fest 2016

The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London. 31st July 2016

Jazz re:fest is a live event organised by Jazz re:freshed, an arts based collective that hold a weekly jazz influenced night in London, but for the last few years have also planned a larger annual event, which is growing exponentially.

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Photo: Courtesy Steve Funkyfeet

Jazz re:fest 2016 was what we used to call an ‘all dayer’ rather than a traditional festival spread over a few days, and was held indoors at the Royal Festival Hall in the Clore Ballroom, situated at the constantly busy Southbank Centre, home to Europe’s largest arts centre site, which ran from 12-7pm on a very muggy Sunday and featured a plethora of jazz based or influenced artists. In order these included: Kokoroko, Ashley Henry Trio, Robert Mitchell’s Panacea, Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Native Dancer, Moses Boyd Exodus, Mark De Clive-Lowe and finally, Dego and one of his many musical offerings.

As the event was over seven hours long, I’m being honest in that we did not fully analyse every piece of music in every set in-depth. We had food to eat, drinks to drink and people to chat with. So this is more of an extended overview of the event rather than a detailed breakdown. But regards the performances themselves, all artists were perfectly chosen, especially considering that you rarely see a lineup with such a UK focus (except for antipodean MdCL) and for this the organisers have to be applauded. The event though, as like any large-scale music event was not without its problems – but more on that later.

We unfortunately missed the Ashley Henry Trio, who are fronted by a musically very mature 24-year old and the exulted Kokoroko, the female led young afrobeat collective, who were the first groups on the bill – but great things were said by all who saw them. They were followed by Robert Mitchell’s Panacea, the stalwart improvisational group that include the exquisite Deborah Jordan of Silhouette Brown fame on vocals.

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Photo: Courtesy Steve Funkyfeet

The woefully non-prolific Ayanna Witter-Johnson, the London-based cellist, composer and producer was accompanied by a larger ensemble than when we first had the opportunity to see her perform at Birmingham Town Hall a few years ago, but Ayanna was as absorbing as ever. Native Dancer, a London-based five-piece outfit that fuses soul, jazz and electronic production techniques are also highly recommended and were very engaging, as is their current EP, the very sensibly named EP Vol. II.

Moses Boyd’s Exodus, fronted by their enigmatic leader Moses, are currently one of the most talked about groups in UK jazz circles and have been heavily championed by Gilles Peterson. Here, they unleashed a percussive, brass thick and genre-crossing set, which included one of the hottest tracks of 2016 with ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’.

Mark De Clive-Lowe had probably the most polished set, which included guests Soweto Kinch, Shabaka Hutchings, Tawiah and even Bembé Segué on ‘Heaven’ – which was a massive surprise considering that Bembé has unfortunately not been visible for a while. Mark was also joined on stage by vocalist Abdul Shyllon for ‘Relax Unwind’, the somewhat Broken Beat standard from 2003. The band also jumped quickly into a few classic grooves to allow for some nice solo action, including Soho’s ‘Hot Music’ and the often sampled Minnie Riperton classic ‘Inside My Love’, which added to the spontaneity of their performance.

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Photo: Courtesy Steve Funkyfeet

2000 Black’s Dego is one of the UK’s most influential music producers and definitely does not get the recognition he deserves. From his early Drum & Bass years, to the legendary Reinforced Records, the influential 4hero with Marc Mac and his many collaborations and musical associations post-2000 have been considerable, and here, his regular co-conspirator Kaidi Tatham joined Dego to perform old and new Tatham, Mensah, Lord & Ranks material – Dego’s present musical vehicle. One of the highlights of the evening was seeing Kaidi jump on percussion duties for some frantic conga playing. The one downside of their performance was their shortened set due to the overrunning of the event, and being the final act meant that their slot was cut short.

Additionally to the performers, DJs played between the group change-overs, supplying a varied mix of soul, jazz and Hip Hop, including classics by Don Blackman, A Tribe Called Quest and Gary Bartz, so musically nothing too exotic, but solid records that you rarely hear played out in 2016.

But any event of this size and nature will have problems and issues, and Jazz re:fest was no different, with the sound system being vastly underpowered for the size of the venue. The audio engineering was also not of a high quality. This may have been due to the inappropriate PA, but nonetheless, some musicians were hardly audible at times and microphone feedback was common throughout the day.

I’m not sure that each group completed a sound check prior to the event beginning, which is normal for live performances, as they are used to identifying basic audio problems and check levels for each group and their musicians – as this may have helped. But the large number of helpers (all in matching yellow printed t-shirts) are to be applauded, as they were all very friendly and helpful throughout the event.

The lack of air conditioning was also a problem on a sunny July day. But an old building constructed in England in the 1950s and 60s without A/C will always have this issue. Other halls in the Southbank Centre complex are currently undergoing large-scale building work to update them and the Clore Ballroom may be due for a similar refit and facelift soon.

And the event was probably a victim of its own success as it was very busy, and at times, uncomfortably so. But thankfully, the Southbank complex allows for easy access to its numerous bars, restaurants and outdoor spaces, which was a major advantage of the Southbank location, so attendees could freely leave the main auditorium and move around the local vicinity. And for a free event, (yes, it was free) it would be a very different kind of festival if it was held in a park or the open air like most similar large-scale music events, as it would have definitely lost some of its atmosphere and charm if it was held outdoors.

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Photo: Courtesy Steve Funkyfeet

Overall, I loved the event. Coming from an audio background may mean that I scrutinise the sound quality of gigs more closely than most people, but the sound system is an easy fix. The chosen performers were well curated, the staff very helpful and there was even a fantastic after party at Topolski, a venue two minutes walk from Southbank, with DJs playing boogie, afro beat, disco and broken beat. So yes, I’m already looking forward to next year.

Damian Wilkes

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