We stand for social justice” said famed drummer/composer Terri Lyne Carrington as she opened her set at Kings Place, the first event in her residency there as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. She warned us that there would be “some protest, maybe even some anger”. Carrington comes from a long tradition of protest against racism in America from jazz musicians, and often that anger has been expressed as a deliberate embrace of thorny avant-garde difficulty, in musicians such as Anthony Braxton and Alfred Ayler.
We might have expected something similar last night, from a band dourly entitled “Social Science Community". Their new album is entitled “The Waiting Game” – the waiting being, as Carrington explained, for the current president of the United States to be no longer the president. Sometimes the mood was ominously dark. The band’s resident DJ Val Jeanty peppered most numbers with snatches of black protest speeches, little fragments looped and repeated in a way that made even a lofty sentiment seem aggressive. And sometimes Carrington’s musical material seemed to express a kind of clenched refusal to unbend or smile, as in For Max Roach, from her Ellington-inspired album Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue. Here the repeating patterns in Robin Mullarkey’s bass guitar pushed against Carrington’s own steely, irregular pulsation, in a way that was thrilling but also oppressive – deliberately, one felt.
But as her numerous verbal asides showed Carrington is a genial, generous soul who cannot be dour for long. In one number, as a recorded voice “played” by Jeanty at her laptop repeated the question “What is our Music?” the band gave an answer: something disciplined yet ecstatic, the tangle of different rhythmic layers and “hooks” as rich as ever, but bathed in louche side-slipping harmonies from keyboard player Santiago Bosch. In Unconditional Love, a number by the late lamented black keyboardist Geri Allen, the mood was even more radiant. Here saxophonist Morgan Guerin finally forsook his urgent little riffs and allowed a long melody to unfold.
Carrington's smooth set captured that essential component of jazz to transmute the anger and sorrow of the African-American experience into disciplined joy. It was no accident that among the many recorded slogans inserted into Carrington’s performance was “Jazz is a great art”. In this wonderfully energising set, and in the later one featuring four British guest musicians all on great form, she and her band proved the slogan true.
The EFG London Jazz Festival continues until November 24. Tickets: efglondonjazzfestival.org. uk