Wednesday 22 November 2023

Epic re-imagining of Miles Davis’ legendary album 'Bitches Brew' in the first ever performance from super group London Brew

London Brew - EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre (Photo:  Mark Allan /
London Brew - EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre (Photo:  Mark Allan)

London Brew: EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 18 November 2023

A veritable tsunami of electric jazz from a supergroup of London-based players

Back in the heady days of 1969, a Woodstock-inspired Miles Davis brought together eight leading jazz musicians in an epic three day long, freely improvised, recording session. The result was the monumental double LP Bitches Brew, recognised almost universally as one of the most influential jazz records of all time. 

In 2020 music publisher Bruce Lampcov, as a tribute to this landmark session, gathered a dozen members of the contemporary London jazz scene - not to recreate the original, but to collectively create something new in the same free, improvisatory spirit. The recorded result of these sessions was released as London Brew in 2020 to great critical acclaim. Three years later, this concert, given as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival in a sold out Barbican Hall on 18 November 2023, was the first live performance together of the concept, and being freely created, in the moment music making, was as different to the 2020 recording as it in turn was to its 1970 inspiration.

London Brew - EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre (Photo:  Mark Allan)
London Brew - EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre (Photo:  Mark Allan)

This was clearly a group that was very comfortable on stage with each other, and they simultaneously plunged into the opening welter of noise with thunderous enthusiasm, immediately setting up a seething, dense, polyphonic web of sounds, like a dark kaleidoscope of swirling timbres. If occasionally erring on the side of self-indulgence, the clash of egos on stage nether-the-less presented a fascinating listening experience. With very little evidence of any pre-agreement about form, structure, groove or even general mood, the music flowed and reshaped in strange and unpredictable ways; wallowing in a soup of distorted overlaid dissonances, or erupting into extended contesting solo lines, threaded through with bright flashes, whoops and deep growls from the synthesised alchemy of electronic sound-wizard Nikolaj Topp Larsen.

The delineation of roles was blurred from the outset - often it was impossible to distinguish foreground from background, bass line from low pitched melody, beat from groove from pulse. At its best, this produced the effect of stirring an aural soup, filled with a wild variety of strong flavoured and brightly coloured ingredients, bringing different elements to the surface with every swirl. At times, however, one musician or another emerged as a dominant voice, like a ray of sunshine piercing through a thunderstorm, or a clearing in a dense forest. Particularly the vocals of Eska drew the ears' attention, reciting incantations, as did a couple of forceful and direct saxophone contributions from Nubya Garcia - who delivered some powerfully intense and forward lower register tones in her extended contributions to this primordial music.

As is often the case with music based on extended jams, there were some periods where things didn't quite work so successfully. Violinist Raven Bush, performing beautiful, intricate, effect-drenched lines, was choked out by some unsympathetic contributions from across the stage and, perhaps due to the number of musicians assembled, we were denied an opportunity to hear much of the improvisation from bassist Tom Herbert and Robert Stillman on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone - a shame, as when they were able to find some space to be heard through the vortex of sounds, they both had some exceptionally innovative and interesting things to say. The pair of electric guitarists, Okumu and Terefe, were perhaps the most culpable of overplaying. Their strong amplification and heavy use of both distortion and reverb created an exciting, lively and exuberant wall of noisy sound, but the ensemble as a whole benefited from the space that opened up when the guitarists sat out or stepped back, allowing more of the ensemble's complex interwoven lines to be heard.

London Brew - EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre (Photo:  Mark Allan)
London Brew - EFG London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre (Photo:  Mark Allan)

The overall effect, however, was staggering; overwhelming waves of sound breaking over the audience, great edifices of intertwined lines, colossally sustained grooves from the almost telepathically linked and interlocking drum kit partnership of Raman & See and the massive spectacle of over a dozen improvising greats doing their thing simultaneously. This was music to swim through, music which completely filled the space in the hall and left no room for anything but itself; a robust and chaotic celebration of the thriving London jazz scene and a fitting tribute to the original seminal album that inspired it all. 

When the final number of the free flowing set, the enigmatically titled Raven Flies Low, came crashing to a deafening conclusion, the fully sold out Barbican audience erupted into a massive welter of appreciative applause and a sustained standing ovation.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Raven Bush violin, Theon Cross tuba, Eska vocals, Nubya Garcia tenor saxophone, Tom Herbert bass, Nikolaj Topp Larsen keys/electronics, Dave Okumu guitar/musical director, Saleem Raman drums, Nick Ramm piano, Dan See drums, Robert Stillman saxophone and clarinets, Martin Terefe guitar

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