“The combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion”

And so goes the description of MUSIC. Through the utilisation of a staggering number of instruments, as well as incorporating vocal chords to produce the finest food available to the ear, our human existence continually benefits from the endless possibilities known to man through making music. The improvisation of such techniques continues to evolve in evermore exciting ways which brings me to why I love Jazz. It is a genre of music that only increases in allure through this spontaneity in performance. From Acid to West Coast, crossing borders by fusing ethnic influences and technical elements, we have a genre of music that brings together a community of voices and instruments that when combined together produce a reaction of euphoria that is utterly captivating when witnessed live. London Jazz Festival has come to London for 2012 and it was bringing a heavy-weight amount of talent with it.

I adore a huge range of sounds and prefer not to answer the question of ‘What is your favourite music?’ as it would be impossible for me to restrict myself to just one artist or influence (much like my film choices). Jazz has an enchanting effect on me, playing a part similar to that of a snake charmer on my vulnerable ears. I sway back and forth, seated or standing, in rapture by the combination of sounds generated by the instruments used before me. It is quite a heady experience and I find there is a tendency to categorise Jazz as one style. It cannot be so quickly classified because it is SO many things. So this year, I purchased some tickets excitedly and can bring to you some key offerings that I enjoyed.

Emilia MÃ¥rtensson at Pizza Express Soho

Through good fortune, my paths have been lucky to cross with this Swedish chanteuse. I had already planned in my concerts for the festival, however with knowledge that Emilia was playing opening night it would have been a travesty to miss this opportunity (especially as another gig of hers later in the week was sold out. Important lesson learned; never pass on opportunity!).

On entering Pizza Express in Soho, I strolled through the ‘thin-crust’ crunching crowd, voices booming excitedly through the air in an otherwise average restaurant and wondered if they were to relocate to the dimly lit den beneath their feet. A picturesque ‘black and white film’ setting greeted me, which served as a great place to induct myself to Emilia’s charms (as well as the other musicians).

Her set was well varied and included a rendition of ‘You Only Live Twice’ (how I wish it had been sung as many times. Such a wonderful delivery!) and incorporated the superb skills of various musicians including:

Barry Green on piano

Sam Lasserson on bass

Adriano Adewale on percussion

Alice Zawadzki on violin and vocals

Adam Waldmann on Soprano Saxophone

Hearing Emilia sing was to have beauty translated through aural function; a purity in transmission. I regress to sitting in a church pew when hearing similarly heavenly voices from a choir, reducing myself to an emotional state by being so privileged to hear such talent. Emilia is delicate with her clutch of the microphone but powerful with the voice laid upon it; a touching combination. She clearly enjoys performing and has a natural ease on stage, engaging both her captivated audience as well as gaining much pleasure herself from the highly talented accompanying musicians. Acknowledging those around you, who essentially make you do what you do even better is imperative to the performance. The high calibre on stage that night all mutually shared in each other’s individual glory which contributed to the success it was. Commendable stuff. And with a silky voice like Emilia’s that could tempt sailors to the rocks with her exhilarating note-hitting precision, there is no doubt it’s not only London Jazz Festival that will be noticing this siren.

Brad Mehlau Trio at Barbican Centre

This was a concert I was well and truly looking forward to since summer. As with most festivals, you are presented with the possibilities of witnessing many hugely dedicated and established performers, however one can only be in so many places at a time. So therefore you have to limit yourself to a select few. I had sought out Brad as one of the 2 early bird tickets I had chosen as from hearing some of his interpretations of contemporary songs I knew I had to witness this virtuoso in person.

And how glad I was that I did. Joined by Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, I was truly awestruck by their talent. The lady who introduced the Brad Mehldau Trio described how Brad likes to tell a story though his music. Through a unique fusion between themselves, I was privy to a fluid liberty in interpretation that I have rarely seen live. Brad was bent over the Steinway, barely opening his eyes, instead tilting his face to the side as his ear tuned into Larry’s magnificent bass performance and Jeff’s similarly dynamic drum beats. They tuned into each other’s play which produced a collage effect of notes, overlapping together in rhythm with such a fantastic seamlessness. It was some sort of wizardry that I was watching on stage; I have never seen such improvised genius be performed like it was that night, with every piece surpassing the previous one. This kind of performance is akin to a good sexual experience. The musician and instrument fumble together, seeking new techniques and testing out strokes that tingle and tantalise the ear to bring you towards levels of excitement you knew not possible. At a moment you think it cannot increase in pleasure, it does and shudders you to the point of elation as you sway uncontrollably from the ecstasy now reached. It is prolonged (thankfully) whilst they hold off at crescendo, so not to end this moment of elation you are both in. Slowly…gently…then aggressively, the ending approaches and although you want to resist, the climax hits you and astonishment washes over your entire being by what you have managed to achieve. You applaud the moment from sheer joy and relief, being manoeuvred by a startling ability through channels of skill that only those fingers and ears could induce. Now you have experienced your ‘true’ jazz cherry pop and oh what a popping point it was!

The 3 encores just teased the sold-out audience further, it was no surprise that they screamed for more. If the general public were able to expose themselves more to this magnitude of Jazz, where the musicians were truly lost in the music, intoxicated by notes plucked, beaten and tinkled with such hypnotic effect, the reality stars that gets flicked on with a reflex action on a Saturday night would no longer be considered ‘talent’.

THIS is talent.

Mulatu Astatke at KOKO, Camden

This was the finale that I’d been waiting for eagerly. Another sold out performance and this time I was to have the honour of watching a bona fide master in person. It is not very often that I am able to witness an established musician live, someone who has influenced, that other musicians look up to and long to collaborate with over their long and dedicated career. Mulatu is one of those artists; the ‘Don’ of Ethio-Jazz with a distinguishable style applied to his signature vibraphone. He was accompanied on stage by 7 other musicians incorporating drums, bass & double bass, piano/keyboard, trumpet, saxophone and flute (and a few more other instruments too).

I arrived a little frantically due to a miscalculation in journey time, however I was able to enter as they opened with their first instrumental piece. It was a heaving crowd at KOKO that night (great to see such support for quality music!) so I scuttled here and there to find a suitable resting spot so I could savour every moment of Mulatu. Through pure luck, the persons in front of my partially obstructed view decided to voluntarily sit down, allowing a more peripherally pleasing visual. And I was to enjoy what can only be described as some sort of Voodoo. Mulatu has a mesmeric effect on people, as he smiles with wise contentment at the centre of this musical circle, patting away on his drums rhythmically. And this effect was bewitching as it invoked some sort of Jazz ‘spirit’ that momentarily seized and possessed each and every musician on stage. From the trumpeter to the drummer, they focused trance-like on their instrument, producing exciting solos that whipped the crowd into a frenzy, concluding with rapturous applause when the spirit was exorcised. Mulatu continued to look on, smile still firmly in place, whilst playing his instrument. At 65 years old, the talent he must have witnessed and continues to inspire must indeed be an extremely proud feeling to have. It is no wonder that this ‘lion’ is utterly enchanting to whomever he works with, as well as the ears his music falls upon.

As I nodded my head in time with the drum beats (no doubt under Mulatu’s spell), I contemplated the moment I was in and what a privileged position it was. This wise cat of the Jazz circles was before me, creating more magic for future generations to enjoy and learn from. What a wonderful world we live in when we can still admire such magnificent individuals like these on stage, LIVE. So I encourage more support in future for these Doyens from the past that continue in our future; educating us, astounding us and ultimately making more of us fall deeply for their magical musical powers.

Mulatu, I bow to your greatness.