Loopfest 2009 - Financial Times review

The Loop Collective is a left-field jazz co-operative pursuing original composition, experimentation and group spirit. In four years they have accumulated a record label and connections in Europe as well as award nominations. To celebrate their fourth anniversary, they upped sticks from their north London headquarters to curate an ambitious four-day festival at the Vortex jazz club.

The 17 gigs mixed acoustic modernism, improv and electronica and gave them a final twist. At the edges, there was a tendency to be slightly cerebral or over-referential, but a kernel of newly established high-profile musicians such as vibraphonist Jim Hart, pianist Gwilym Simcock and drummer James Madden lifted a well-received outward-looking showcase to full festival status.

The opening night twinned bassist Dave Mannington’s flowing acoustic quartet with the electronica trio Ma. Both benefited from guests, Brigitte Beraha’s wordless vocals giving Mannington’s 1960s modernism a novel slant, while Steve Argüelles on laptop and electronics transformed Ma. He sampled and bent the simple components of Tom Challenger’s folksy sax and Dave Smith’s repeated drum patterns into shadowy shapes and disturbing textures, setting up climactic bursts of acoustic energy.

On Friday, Dog Soup’s homage to electric Miles Davis opened and Fraud’s thrash-metal inferno was a late-night conclusion, but two acoustic bands were the highlights. Pianist Ivo Neame’s quartet (pictured) with the outstanding Hart on vibraphone gave an established format a contemporary sheen of shifting structures and linear logic. Spiritual swirl morphed to anarchic climax, skittering cross-rhythms shifted to bucolic pastoral and “Caught in the Light of Day” – we were told to “think vampire” – captured the sense of a desperate search for escape. Madden’s fractured flams cajoled a stunning performance from the rhythmically poised Hart, who delivered a fine balance of ringing tones, deadened notes and hard-swinging lines.

It took time to adjust to the next set’s spartan intimacy – bassist Dave Kane’s improv duet with trumpeter Alex Bonney. Each piece was strong in mood, sustained by muffled pluckings, quietly ferocious two-handed assaults and elegiac bowing, with trumpeter Bonney a spiky toned and empathetic partner.

Dog Soup got the essence of Miles Davis’s staccato stabs and rhythmic wash but were happiest on the sole cover, and wandered slightly. Fraud needed compression too. Laptop-linked drums and keyboards created a wall of white noise for bursts of screechy tenor sax, though Norwegian guest guitarist Stian Westerhus was a standout on baritone guitar, providing fire, fury and ominous bass lines.

Saturday’s acoustic evening opened with rollicking chamber jazz trio Blink and closed with saxophonist Sam Crockett’s acoustic modal quartet, with contemporary piano trio Phronesis and riffy twin-sax combo Outhouse squeezed in the middle.

The contrasting pianists stood out. Alcyona Mick’s rumbustious accompaniment was Blink’s cornerstone, and Simcock’s classical precision lit up Crockett’s quartet. But the highlight was the well-worked trio Phronesis, with pianist Neame. Tricky unison lines from bass and piano, warped fugues in compound time, romantic solo piano flourishes and a strong, rocky drum pulse integrated neatly into a strong group concept.

Penultimate band Outhouse specialise in simple riffs and group improv, a punky frayed-at-the-edges energy and a rocky rhythmic base. They excited some but seemed rooted in late-1960s rocky free-jazz jams.

The festival presented stylistically varied and conceptually clear jazz with a lovely atmosphere to a capacity crowd. Sometimes I wished Loop had let themselves off the leash more, but then this was a tightly organised showcase format. All the bands I saw are at least worth checking out; the best are of international standard.