An encouraging feature of this year’s London Jazz Festival is the number of female musicians performing – the balance is being redressed, albeit slowly. On the opening night, the King’s Place (ironically named) hosted Blow the Fuse, an event based around this artist-led organisation, started in 1989 by guitarist Deirdre Cartwright and bassist Alison Rayner, who introduced the evening’s proceedings. Over the years it has supported and raised awareness about women in jazz, giving them the opportunity to perform.
The evening had a subtitle of Past, Present and Future and it started with the appearance of relative newcomers J Frisco, a duo of guitarist Megan Roe and saxophonist Lara Jones. Recent graduates of Leeds College of Music, they launched into an uncompromising free-form attack, their instruments heavily amplified and using electronic devices to add to the mix – a screeching sax with a heavily bass-dominated pounding guitar. Think Brotzmann with Sonny Sharrock. Their subsequent numbers included pre-recorded speech as a statement of intent, vocals and loop; the echo on the instruments giving a mesmeric, ethereal atmosphere, although the use of a variable sonic drone tended to be overdone. A brave opening which showed creative potential.
The second part was given over to a reunion of the Guest Stars, the popular band that was on the scene in the 80s and it was a reminder of the feel-good factor they generated. Often more like a party than a gig, their mix of jazz-rock, Latin and Afrobeat is still just as infectious. Alison Rayner’s bass guitar and the drums and percussion of Josefina Cupido and Lynda DaMango laid a solid rhythmic base for the front line of guitarist Deirdre Cartwright and saxophonist Ruthie Smith; Laka Daisical’s piano filled the gaps and alternated between smart runs and percussive vamping.
Memories of the Drill Hall and Seven Dials came flooding back – Ruthie Smith’s hard-edged alto, her big, full-sounding tenor and the interaction between her soprano and the stylish guitar of Cartwright were impressive. Vocals were shared and the audience enjoyed a group a capella interlude, before Cupido’s composition La Tierra El Sol stood out for its haunting soprano and socially relevant lyrics, forcefully delivered by the composer.
Hard to follow, but the award-winning Rayner-led ARQ completed the evening, much of the material coming from their recently released and well-received album Short Stories. The leader introduced the compositions and gave poignant background information about each. Highlights were pianist Steve Lodder’s Seeing Around Corners, with Cartwright’s raunchy blues-tinged guitar; the atmospheric soprano of Diane McLoughlin on the Scottish inspired Braw Boy; Buster Birch’s commanding drums on Buster Breaks A Beat; and the guitar and sax creating the sound of a didgeridoo on Croajingolong Bushwalk, Rayner’s highly percussive composition about the outback, with her resonant bass propelling the group.
The event also was a tribute to the late Debbie Dickinson, who worked closely with The Guest Stars as manager and close friend. The encore saw the collected musicians from both groups on stage, which underlined the party feel. A highly enjoyable night.
Blow the Fuse: The Alison Rayner Quintet, The Guest Stars & J Frisco at Kings Place, London, 15 November 2019 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival