The Vortex and Cafe OTO are separated by a few hundred yards in Dalston, but they felt very connected by way of two outstanding gigs at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis appeared at the former on the penultimate night of the 10-day event, while trumpeter Jaimie Branch was at the latter just a few days before him, and it was interesting to see a crossover between the two audiences, as several listeners had clearly identified both artists, who have been steadily building impressive discographies, as real must-sees. They are deservedly hot tickets.
Last year Branch (pictured) released Fly Or Die to critical acclaim, and the buzz around that album crackles into excited expectation during her two nights at OTO, the first of which is sold out. Her quartet, with cello occupying the space other bands usually fill with piano, guitar or second horn, is superbly anchored by drummer Chad Taylor, one of the defining figures on Chicago’s creative music scene for the past few decades. The band proves an inspiring example of how skilled improvisers can work on a refreshingly broad stylistic palette, all the while retaining a strong sense of individuality. The seamless shifts from ricocheting dub to hearty Afro-Brazilian-New Orleans stomps to abstract electronica in which the lower range of the brass is manipulated to send tremors right across the floor, essentially serves the irreverent as well as focused nature of Branch’s character. That becomes explicit when she sings ‘Love Songs For Assholes And Clowns’, a staggering, almost punch-drunk blues-rocker that offers caustic comment on the powers that be the world over, and proves a suitably provocative prelude to the unsettling but rousing riffs of Monk’s ‘Brilliant Corners’, which is reprised in style.
A comparably inventive nod to traditions in black music is made by Brandon Lewis (whose trio released the superb No Filter last year) in the middle of an explosive set that raises the temperature of the room by way of the notable reaction of the audience. During a torrid alternation of free playing and slash’n’burn hip-hop-rock grooves, his quartet, featuring guitarist Anthoy Pirog, launches into the timeless gospel staples ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’ and ‘Wade In The Water’. The narrative logic is cast-iron given that the hard edge of the band stands on a historical foundation of which the black church is an integral part. To hear drummer Warren G. Crudup III and bass guitarist Luke Stewart stoke the kinetic fire of the music with such intensity, with their flurry of sub-divisions of the beat, gravelly chords, and stark leaps between low and higher range, is to hear musicians plug into numerous additional vocabularies, which often suggest metal and punk, without ever quite weakening such a building block. It is when Lewis pushes the tonal envelope of the horn to evoke the staccato backward scratch of a turntable that the cultural border crossing and, above all synthesis of acoustic and electric music, hits a head-turning creative peak. One surmises that the great Eddie Harris may well have approved.
Lewis clearly knows how to do tenderness as well as aggression, and the haunting ballad ‘Bittersweet’ brings a deeply meditative mood to the fore as a contrast to the adrenalin shot of many of the other songs. Next year the band will release Unruly Manifesto, which could well be an exquisite musical riot.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Jim Aindow
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