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19 November 2015

Shiver those timbres: the London Jazz Festival hits the airwaves

To Ronnie Scott’s in Soho for the opening of the London Jazz Festival and the launch of a new “BBC Music Jazz” pop-up station.

By Antonia Quirke

To Ronnie Scott’s in Soho for the opening of the London Jazz Festival and the launch of a new “BBC Music Jazz” pop-up station. “Intestinal,” notes my companion of the club’s dark red walls, further shadowed by all the usual elderly jazzos pressed into the interior’s nooks and crannies like benign colon polyps. Two technicians sit nearby over a mixer desk, unsmiling – this is going out live at any moment and the various acts are still crowding the small stage, double-checking positions while the presenter Jez Nelson shuffles through a script.

Standing in the middle of it all, a twentysomething woman with long, curly hair and very clear skin, wearing the sort of brown shift top favoured by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan of Arc or an Open University maths tutor circa 1970, holds aloft a pair of drumsticks. There is something youthfully devotional about her: you imagine her sighing fiercely over favourite poems or pictures in school library books. And when the broadcast begins and this woman – a classically trained percussionist called Bex Burch, it turns out, with her group Vula Viel – starts whacking the hell out of an all-wooden xylophone that she learned to make and play living with the Dagaaba people of northern Ghana, the two unsmiling technicians turn to each other and very slowly mouth three simple words rarely uttered during the too-crammed Jazz Festival: “I like this.”

Not a person present isn’t stupefied as Burch pogoes high, hair a ferocious occluding cloud, stopping occasionally to crouch to the floor with a little axe and chopping pieces of wood to create notes of other timbres. “I first started needing to hit things in the church choir in Yorkshire,” she said in an interview once. In another, Burch mentions the “asymmetrical bell pattern driving with chaos” of this instrument she made, and the “mastery of space and silence”.

Listening back to the show later, I found this opening act didn’t sound much like jazz at all. It sounded like the oubliette that awaits so many radio listeners of the festival – from which you emerge not wanting to tune in to those samey rhythms and locutions for a long time – being put off, and put off again, indefinitely. Ingenious programming moment of the year, no question. 

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror