REVIEW: Maisha at Ghost Notes Peckham (2018 EFG LJF)

Maisha
Publicity Photo
Maisha
(Ghost Notes, Peckham. 22 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Dominic Williams)

As a long-time fan of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, I was always going to love this gig. To recap, after John Coltrane died in 1964, his widow Alice and the other saxophonist from his band, Pharoah Sanders, carried on making spiritual jazz records (along with fellow astral travellers like Lonnie Liston Smith and Sun Ra) for about ten years before the movement apparently petered out. It was never that popular in hard jazz circles and the album Alice Coltrane made with Sanders, Journey In Satchidananda, was largely ignored at the time. Sanders himself was criticised simultaneously for being like John Coltrane and not being like John Coltrane and he spent long periods in the middle of his career unable to find gigs.

Fast forward almost 50 years: this music is the inspiration for the new south London jazz scene in which (in case you hadn’t heard) a kaleidoscopic set of musicians is continually forming and reforming in bands that are already attracting attention from America as the coolest thing in London. In particular, the music is the jumping-off point for this launch of Maisha’s new album There is a Place. The band features seven members led by Jake Long, augmented for the occasion by trumpet and a 12-strong string section. They romped through the album material in a more-or less unbroken 90-minute set. There were plenty of references to the early 1970s. They used the same textures and instrumentation: flute, harp-like piano runs, washes of organ, strings, strange percussive ropes and rattles. They used the same structures: long slow free introductions, swept away by repetitive base and rhythm figures; abrupt rhythm changes to signal new passages. Twm Dylan on double bass also channelled Cecil McBee for long periods and drew the loudest cheer of the night with an ultra-high-energy solo.

Maisha use their inspirations as a starting point, not an end. When Sanders said that Our Roots (Began In Africa) he largely meant north Africa, especially Egypt. Maisha referenced this with a track called Osiris but added a west African percussive overlay. Jake Long laid down a thunderous barrage of drums, while looking completely cool and unperturbed by the effort involved. Yahael Camara-Onono and Tim Doyle on congas and percussion generated the essential polyrhythms on top.

The other players bring their own styles to make a complex mix: Shirley Tetteh on guitar (fresh from winning Jazz Newcomer of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards) played in sharp rhythmic lines rather than block chords, Amané Suganami on keyboards added dashes of Herbie Hancock to Lonnie Liston Smith. Nubya Garcia, one of the brightest stars in the south London firmament, took the lion’s share of the solos on tenor sax with a Sanders-like tone but generally avoiding his wilder blowing techniques. On top of all this, there is some strong compositional brain at work (credit to Jake Long, with contributions from Nubya Garcia). So this is music that references the past but still moves forward.

As spiritual free jazz, in some ways it was quite a restrained event. There was no chanting of mantras; none of the band claimed to be from another planet (at least, in my hearing) and the free elements were mild by Ornette Coleman standards. The spirituality came from the energetic appeal to the heart and the body, as well as the head – this is music you feel, as well as hear. Plus everyone wanted to have a good time.

Since its beginnings, this kind of jazz has always appealed to a much wider non-jazz audience, like some of the people at this gig, I guess. They were about 30 years younger than the usual jazz audience and cheered like a football crowd at the exciting moments. Unless you feel that youth, popular appeal, strong rhythms and enjoyment are somehow un-jazz-like qualities, this is surely a good thing. It’s great that spiritual jazz has found a new home in south London and is already making waves in America. Long may it – and Maisha – continue to grow.

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