London Jazz Festival’s 2021 edition takes over the capital breathing life into new music.

Words: Poppy Richler

First held in 1992, The EFG London Jazz Festival occurs every November across the city. Hosting a range of artists both iconic and emerging, traditional and experimental, it’s not a surprise that this festival spreads its wings across up to thirty venues per night. From a hundred-or-so-cap Pizza Express lunch in Holborn set to the brilliant compositions of the Sultan Stevenson 3o, to jazz yoga featuring the transcendental sounds of Marysia Osu’s harp, to a packed out Royal Festival Hall for global royalty Amadou & Mariam, the festival was not shy in boasting an incredible range of musicians, panelists and DJs from all around the world.

Diversity and opportunity lie at the heart of the festival’s ethos: the first sentence on their site notes that ‘jazz, at its very roots, is a music created, developed and shaped by Black culture. The EFG London Jazz Festival has worked for years to promote cultural diversity and opportunity, but we know that there remains much more to be done.’ This drive to highlight the cultural roots of jazz whilst also pushing the boundaries of the genre is something that shouldn’t be, yet is, particularly admirable in today’s climate of festivals billings that seem blind to racial and gender equality.

Our introduction to the LFG couldn’t have been better. Setting out to see the legendary Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, we luckily turned up early to the Royal Festival Hall, only to be greeted by a free show in the foyer by the incredible Balimaya Project. Based in London, Balimaya Project is a 16-piece collective led by percussionist Yahael Camara Onono, whose music fuses his West African musical and second-generation Londoner heritage together. The word ‘Balimaya’ comes from the Maninka language and means ‘the essence of kinship,’ relating to concepts of extended family and forging cultural ties through music, much like the festival’s ethos.

Following Balimaya Project, we headed to the main auditorium for South African rapper Yugen Blakrok. From her COLOURS performance to featuring on the Black Panther soundtrack alongside Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar, Blakrok has been making waves with her softly spoken, thought provoking lyrics about the cosmos and ancient history. These lyrics separate Blakrok’s music from much South African rap, as her first album Return of the Astro-Goth (2013) was created at a time when many similar artists were sponsored by alcohol brands, producing music that promoted hedonism. Blakrok couldn’t be further from this, and the audience was clearly entranced by her performance, evidenced by the respectful silence between each song.

Amadou and Mariam, the headliners of the evening, undoubtedly hold legendary status. Meeting at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, the duo are married and both in their 60s. Whilst Amadou lost his sight at 16, Mariam lost hers at 5 after a case of untreated measles. Their music is heralded for fusing rock guitar (which Amadou SHREDDED) with traditional Malian music, as well as Syrian, Cuban and Egyptian instrumentation. The couple’s performance was filled with catchy audience sing-alongs, melodic breaks, and heart-warming caresses of a couple clearly in love. Despite the gig being seated, the couple and their enthusiastic band wasn’t having any stiff-upper-lipness, and got everyone on their feet for most of the performance.

Wednesday followed with Ishmael Ensemble – a Bristol-based collective led by vocalist and saxophonist Pete Cunningham. Ishmael Ensemble fuses traditional jazz with trance, techno and experimental electronica. Much of the band’s latest album Visions of Light was put together using recycled samples of their past performances, takes and studio recordings. With guest appearances from Holysseus Fly, STANLÆY and Tiny Chapter on vocals, this performance beckoned us in, immersed us in its ethereal heaviness and pulled the carpet from under our feet before we even realised it was over.

Our final stop at the LFG was with the sold-out launch of the Levitation Orchestra’s album Illusions & Realities at Studio 9294. Levitation Orchestra are an 11-piece ensemble composed of ridiculously talented young jazz musicians. The group played the whole album from start to finish – an occurrence which bandleader and trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lidstrom noted would ‘not be repeated! (Unless you believe in the eternal recurrence theory of human nature…which you shouldn’t because it’s boring!)’ Illusions and Realities is one of the most electrifying and layered jazz albums to come out this year – with hints of both Alice and John Coltrane, Sun Ra and endless more, this performance brought the music and audience to life. Alongside interpretative dancers and sets from Social Records Society, FEEO and Maxwell Owin, this was a truly celebratory, inspiring and memorable way to end our time at the London Jazz Festival. While we wait eagerly for next year, we’ll be having the festival’s Spotify playlist on repeat, where you can hear the artists mentioned, as well as many others we couldn’t make it to, including: Japanese folk singer-songwriter Ichiko Aoba, Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia, and Turkish psych duo Derya Yildirim & Grup Šimšek.