Isn’t a certain coterie to be expected at the Barbican Hall on the opening weekend of the London Jazz Festival? After all jazz is mature music for serious people right? Three small infants with ice-cream slathered faces quickly put an end to such assumptions as they darted between the programme attendants and several tweed clad men at the bar.
The cause of the unusually high family attendance was a specially curated film and music event that both celebrated and contemporised silent movies of the 1920s. In two separate concerts, classics from Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton were screened with the accompaniment of screwball band leader Steven Bernstein’s off kilter brainchild, The Millennial Territory Orchestra, and revered American jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.
The highlight of the MTO’s set was a suitably slapstick arrangement of Double Woopee, arguably the magnum opus of Laurel and Hardy’s silent output. The nine piece band created music that riotously embraced every poke in the eye and kick in the shin with seamless comic timing. With just the right wobbly slide trombone here, or quivery violin stroke there, they were always right on cue, setting pace and dramatic tension throughout the madcap adventures of perhaps cinemas most enduring misguided heroes.
Bill Frisell is an enigma in the music world, a shy man with a wry sense on humour whose individual sound-world has garnered him obsessive fans around the globe. Like his home nation, his music is something of a melting pot, drawing influence from jazz, blues, country and pop; you could say he produces Americana in the purest sense of the word. It seemed fitting then that he accompanied the greatest deadpan comic in Hollywood’s history, Buster Keaton. The music was undoubtedly cinematic but rather than overtly accompanying with a score, Frisell created distinctive textual soundscapes with his delicate guitar, bringing the sepia images of the ‘jazz age’ comedies to life.
Ultimately, the idea that children of today would be entertained by black and white silent movies from almost a century ago, accompanied by experimental avant-garde jazz, is quite literally laughable in an age where high octane, big budget film making is the norm. But this mixed media arts event really worked and audiences of all ages and persuasions found it hugely accessible. The musicianship was of the highest integrity and refused to dumb itself down for children, and yet with the help of farcical cinema at its best, it was refreshing to hear humour radiate in a musical genre that is too often afraid to laugh.