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Bill Laurance lead

EFG London Jazz Festival makes a stunning return to form

02 December 2021, 08:27

London's premiere city festival pulled out all the stops for its 2021 edition, with a programme spanning doom jazz, cinematic pop and everything in between.

Regular attendees should be quite accustomed to hearing some genuinely weird things at EFG London Jazz Festival gigs.

2021’s edition began with challenging squeaks and squawks of maverick saxophonist Archie Shepp; 2019 threw up the spectacle of Hermeto Pascoal’s percussionist playing children’s toys at Ronnie Scott’s. Nothing, however, had prepared me for the sight of four grown men in the pitch dark of Rich Mix’s Studio, mimicking the sounds of dying domestic animals.

Those four men were WorldService Project – an explosive alt-jazz quartet who, despite having been around for a decade, I was discovering for the first time (playing a track titled “Fire in a Pet Shop”). With a few years of LFJ attendance under my belt, I now know this to be a typical experience: pin a tail on the enormous list of available gigs, turn up to a dive bar/dark studio/grand heritage venue, and proceed to have your mind-blown by something unexpected.

Running from 12 to 21 November, this year’s event felt especially packed with talent, though: no mean feat in the wake of the pandemic. When festival organisers were announcing cutbacks and cancellations, our biggest pan-city bash kept rolling out exciting announcements – a Tony Allen retrospective headed up by Damon Albarn; art-rockers Black Midi at the Southbank Centre; an appearance by award-winning Kurdish icon Aynur. In uncertain times, the festival’s trend towards outstanding home-grown talent, natty international bookings and imaginative collaborations paid off. This, plus a genuinely thoughtful online programme featuring exclusive performances from South African rapper Yugen Blakrok, experimentalist Gazelle Twin and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa – and we only lost a handful of artists on the night (get well soon, Brad Mehldau).

In addition to the sheer wealth of artists performing this year, the festival’s placement in the calendar year also gives it a special edge: when nights are getting colder, it drags you out from under your weighted blanket to reconnect with London’s nightlife. Unlike some city festivals that only utilise their most bourgeois venues, LFJ can take you to the heady heights of a Pizza Express in Holborn, a primary school in Finchley or a gastropub in Barnes. These intimate shows are bookended by performances at the crème de la crème of London’s venues – from the Royal Albert Hall to the Barbican.

In an attempt to sample a representative breadth of the programme, I picked only a handful of artists I knew and left the rest to a hasty Google. As ever, I was happy to discover some new rising stars – and some relative-unknown veterans, too.

Julian Lage

Lage – with his hyper-accessible take on American guitar music – was a solid choice to open the festival on Friday afternoon. He also provided a great excuse to visit Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square. This gorgeous art-deco venue’s typical programme tends to run a little on the Radio 2 side; posters outside advertise The Rat Pack at Christmas, and – bizarrely – Rick Wakeman. But its decorous formality offset Lage’s conversational style to a tee.

Projecting a far bigger sound than one might anticipate, the modest trio toured a songbook of genres, from smoky midnight blues to driving rock and roll. Lage remains one of jazz’s most sensitive contemporary guitarists, injecting a surprising amount of playfulness and humour into a relatively straight set. And although he held lightly the spotlight, his drummer Kenny Wollesen – with his acrobatic, sometimes chaotic, energy and penchant for playing with his hands – gave Lage’s affability a welcome counterpoint. A fittingly eclectic kick-off.

Photo by Monika Jakubowska

Robocobra Quartet

About 20 minutes into Robocobra Quartet’s set, drummer/vocalist Chris Ryan has spotted a problem. “That’s a class divide right there,” he says, pointing out the wealth of people standing behind the minimal allocated seating. "Seize the seats of production!" a voice calls out from the back. The band collapsed briefly into laughter, before slamming into their next tune, “Got keys/out” – a searing polemic about Northern Ireland’s housing crisis.

This interplay of easy humour and sly political commentary defines Robocobra Quartet. The Belfast lads have been around since 2015 but their sound – a wry, doomy brand of post-punk-jazz – still feels light-years ahead.

Ryan is an absolute powerhouse of a band leader: theatrical, self-conscious, and armed with a dry quip for every on-stage mishap and awkward pause. The rest of the band provide the tension and release – simmering distortion and psychedelia gives way to saxophone squeals and pounding bass guitar. Standout track “Wellness” – which the band only slightly ironically call their ‘hit’ – provides a furious peak to the set: Ryan reads aloud the actual morning routine of an influencer he found printed in The TImes (“After I’ve had my coffee I fill out a spreadsheet with my urine PH and how well I’ve slept”), as its sinister undertones bubble over to ecstatic effect.

WorldService Project

Together since 2013, WorldService Project wouldn’t sound out of place on the now sadly inactive label Blood and Biscuits (Three Trapped Tigers; Physics House Band) – but with more laughs, and more asides about Brexit. Playing somewhere deep in the belly of Rich Mix, the band tore up a quiet studio with some seriously loud alt-jazz, band leader Dave Morecroft cutting an especially dramatic and spiky figure. The hair metal influence was strong; tracks “Vendetta” and “Plagued with Righteousness” featured big riffs and singalong codas, peppered between shifting time signatures and shocks of noisy improvisation. Almost too much fun.

Photo by Pete Woodhead


The back of the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall is emblazoned with 20ft high images: ominous smoke clouds; a twisted puzzle of unidentifiable flesh; shots of a vast space station. As Woodkid introduces each new track, his backdrop shifts to provide an allegory, the lights often blinding and the bass shaking our seats. “It’s like Imax … but live,” says my friend, who has recently seen Dune.

She’s not wrong. On record, Woodkid’s brand of melancholy electronic pop uses the language of film scores – suspensions, orchestral swells, war drums – to illustrate its tales of love and loss. But live, Woodkid’s background in film-making really pays off. It’s a technically impressive show on every level – from the coordinated movements of the mini orchestra, to the spotlights which change the show’s protagonist from angelic to sinister in a split second. And when he speaks, Woodkid himself is sweet and self-effacing, in violent contrast to the aggressive spectacle of the performance. Mesmerising.

Photo by Tatiana Gorilovsky

Bill Laurence and the Untold Orchestra

For his return to Union Chapel, Bill Laurance treated fans to two gigs: one from his trio, and one with the Untold Orchestra. Although all works were selected from Laurance’s back catalogue, it was astounding how the addition of a string ensemble transformed each of them.

With his trio, Laurance cut a figure not dissimilar to Robert Glasper: precise, melodic, soulful, and with drummer Marijus Aleksa throwing in pop-literate breaks and backbeats. Union Chapel’s neon-lit rafters magnified the delicacy of his playing, quieter moments feeling raw and personal. But with the Manchester ensemble, we witnessed sweeping epics – Laurance’s favoured themes of human connection and personal triumph were honoured with rousing, motivational opuses. It was a wonderful opportunity to witness two sides of this London stalwart: in the micro, Laurance’s work is subtle and unpretentious enough to soundtrack a dinner party; in the macro, it could soundtrack Spielberg.


On the last day, LJF’s least quintessentially jazz-looking band played their most quintessential jazz venue. One imagines that snapbacks are a rare sight in Ronnie Scott’s, but Snazzback – nominal reference unconfirmed – played some of the smoothest jams of the week, despite looking like they’d just been kicked out of Nozstock.

Snazzback are a mainstay in Bristol’s jazz scene, and a Worldwide FM favourite. This evening, their brand of mellifluous contemporary jazz was kept sharp with some distinctly Bristolian dub and sharp brass arrangements. Breakdowns referenced the midnight moods of Submotion Orchestra, whilst climaxes reflected the perfectly orchestrated freak-outs of Snarky Puppy. By the end of their second set, the typically stoic Ronnie’s crowd had lost all semblance of composure, hooting and hollering as the unassuming six-piece gave a shy bow.

Beyond the music

  • At Vicarage Shopping Centre, families gathered to see vocalist Juliet Kelly and pianist Naadia Sherriff lead a kids jazz workshop, where they used classic children’s story The Three Little Pigs to introduce tiny people to jazz’s array of sounds, techniques and styles.
  • For those nibble footed attendees, a dance workshop run by French Nana gave a high-energy introduction to traditional African dance moves.
  • And no jazz festival would be complete without shoehorning some jazz into an otherwise unrelated activity – and this year, jazz yoga took the biscuit. Harpist Marysia Osu provided the soundtrack to a collective downward-dogging, led by teacher Sarah Malcolm.


EFG London Jazz Festival feels increasingly like a festival for people who simply want to connect with the live tradition of their home city, such is the vast and often highly accessible nature of their programme. The event continues to provide one of the best ways to experience our capital in all its raucous and diverse glory – and following a year of live drought, this year’s line-up felt like a welcome storm.

EFG London Jazz Festival ran from 12 – 21 November 2021.
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