October and November bring such a torrent of arts festivals to London that it is impossible to know where to turn. One of the most interesting is the EFG London Jazz Festival (November 11-20, 2016). Now in its 25th year it has grown to be not only London's largest city-wide music festival, but one of the major international jazz events, featuring a mix of world class artists and emerging stars in a wide-ranging programme of concerts, commissions and club events at venues across the city.
The festival brought Canadian tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald to the Pheasantry for two nights in a rare UK appearance. Long recognised as one of Canada's leading saxophonists and composers he is seen as a bridge between traditional and modern saxophone playing. His recent album Symmetry picked up a clutch of awards and he has performed on over fifty CDs as both leader and sideman. A regular on CBC Radio national broadcast recordings, MacDonald has sold out jazz clubs and concert venues from Lincoln Centre to Korea. He's also an educator and even leads his own Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, a 19-piece all-star ensemble dedicated to performing his original compositions.
In London he was accompanied by Fabio Miano on piano and Duncan Hopkins on bass. Hopkins' virtuoso displays were a joy giving full flight to his instrument and reminding us how, in expert hands, the bass can lend so many layers of texture to a piece.
MacDonald himself is typified by a powerhouse style with a fierce, yet pristine, rhythmic drive. His set here was balanced in favour of standards with gloriously old school takes on Weill's 'Speak Low', Berlin's 'How Deep is the Ocean' and 'I Remember You', which drew out the almost telepathic connection between him and Hopkins. We also heard some prime examples of MacDonald's own compositions including 'Eleven', dedicated to Bill Evans, 'Miniature' and 'Calendula' which has a jaunty romantic melody at its core.
His playing foregrounds melody, lending the standards a plaintive eloquence combined with a strong emotional line. He guides us into new territory with his own work and succeeds because he is grounded in such a mastery of great traditional sax playing. As a taster of a packed London Jazz festival, MacDonald's concert whetted the appetite.
This venue features cabaret as well as jazz and it is heartening to see that the former is now being programmed by Ruth Leon, who had great success at Crazy Coqs, where she regularly showcased many leading American jazz/cabaret artists. Long may she continue.