The Jazz Mann | EFG London Jazz Festival, Sunday November 12th 2017.EFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday November 11th 2017 - Part TwoEFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday November 11th 2017.‘Jazz Alley + Boogie Party’,Sunday @ Wall2Wall Jazz Festival,Market Hall,Abergavenny, 03/09/2017Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 02/09/2017.Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 31st August and 1st September 2017.“Jazz Futures” in Brecon and Reading.Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2017.Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017.Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 29/04/2017.Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017.Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 27/04/2017.Surge In Spring Festival, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/04/2017.‘Jazz on a Winter’s Day’ -  Scott Willcox Big Band recording session, 18/02/2017.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Ten, Sunday 20th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Nine, Saturday 19th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Eight, Friday 18th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Seven, Thursday 17th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Six, Wednesday 16th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Five, Tuesday 15th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Four, Monday 14th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Three Sunday 13th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Two, Saturday 12th November 2016.EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day One, Friday 11th November 2016.‘Jazz Alley + Boogie Party’, Sunday @ Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Market Hall, Abergavenny, 04/09/2016.Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 03/09/2016.Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 1st and 2nd September 2016.Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.Saturday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 13/08/2016.Friday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 12/08/2016.Jazz Corner - ‘All Those Cultural Links’.Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 02/05/2016.Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2016.Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2016.Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2016.‘A Journey Into Deep, Deep Peace’ - the music of Johnty Wilks.From the Archives - Dorian Ford.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Sunday, 22/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Saturday, 21/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Friday, 20/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Thursday, 19/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Wednesday, 18/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Tuesday, 17/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Monday, 16/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Sunday, 15/11/2015.EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Saturday, 14/11/2015.Ray Warleigh (1938-2015).Sunday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 06/09/2015.Friday and Saturday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 4th and 5th September 2015.Music and ... the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).R.I.P.  John Taylor (1942-2015)Sunday at Swansea International Jazz Festival, 14/06/2015.Saturday at Swansea International Jazz Festival, 13/06/2015.Friday at Swansea International Jazz Festival, 12/06/2015.Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2015.Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 03/05/2015.Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 02/05/2015.Way in to the Way Out: Arun Ghosh and Zoe Rahman, EFG London Jazz Festival, 15th, 16th November 2014Book Review; Different Every Time The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt by Marcus O’ Dair.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Ten, 23/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Nine, 22/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Eight, 21/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Seven, 20/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Six, 19/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Five, 18/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Four, 17/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Three, 16/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Two, 15/11/2014.EFG London Jazz Festival, Day One, 14/11/2014.Sunday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 31/08/2014.Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 30/08/2014.Book Review ; Free Jazz And Improvisation On Vinyl 1965-1985 by Johannes Rd .Sunday at Brecon Jazz, 10/08/2014.Saturday at Brecon Jazz, 09/08/2014.Friday at Brecon Jazz, 08/08/2014.Sunday at Titley Jazz, 27/07/2014.Saturday at Titley Jazz, 26/07/2014.Friday at Titley Jazz, 25/07/2014.Michael Wollny “Wunderkammer XXL” and “Weltentraum”.An evening at Cheltenham Music Festival, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 04/07/2014.Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/05/2014.Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2014.Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 03/05/2014.Alex Ward;  Predicate “Nails” and Forebrace “Bad Folds”.Geoff Eales ; “Free Flow” and “The Dancing Flute”.EFG London Jazz Festival 2013, Part Three.EFG London Jazz Festival 2013, Part Two.EFG London Jazz Festival 2013, Part One.Two Jazz Poems by Tony Walton.Sunday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, The Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 01/09/2013.Saturday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, The Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 31/08/2013.Sunday at Brecon Jazz, 11/08/2013.Saturday at Brecon Jazz, 10/08/2013.Friday at Brecon Jazz, 09/08/2013.Sunday at Titley Jazz, 28/07/2013.Saturday at Titley Jazz, 27/07/2013.Friday at Titley Jazz, 26/07/2013.Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 06/05/2013.Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/05/2013.Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2013. | Feature | The Jazz Mann

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FEATURE

EFG London Jazz Festival, Sunday November 12th 2017.

Friday, November 24, 2017

EFG London Jazz Festival, Sunday November 12th 2017.

Ian Mann enjoys performances by Jim Rattigan's Pavillon and Matthew Stevens Trio plus the opening event of the 'Expect the Unexpected' series at Club Inegales.

Photograph of Jim Rattigan’s Pavillon sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, SUNDAY NOVEMBER 12th 2017


JIM RATTIGAN’S PAVILLON, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO


This lunchtime performance in the famous Dean Street basement featured the twelve piece ensemble Pavillon, led by French horn virtuoso Jim Rattigan.


Rattigan is a busy musician who is the first call on his instrument across a variety of genres including jazz, folk, pop, classical and film and TV soundtracks. The latter include the James Bond and Lord of the Rings film series.

His list of credits is mind boggling, far too lengthy to list in full here, but includes six years with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and session work with some of the biggest names in rock and pop, among them Paul McCartney, George Michael and Adele. I know his playing best best from his work in jazz ensembles including bands led by Mike Gibbs, Hans Koller, Mark Lockheart, Carla Bley, Percy Pursglove and the late, great Charlie Haden. And as he proved with Pursglove’s “Far Reaching Dreams of Mortal Souls” ensemble he’s also a skilled accordionist.

In his capacity as a jazz musician Rattigan has released a number of albums under his own name including “Unfamiliar Guise” (2000), “Jazz French Horn” (2004), and“ Shuzzed” (2010).

In 2014 I reviewed his excellent trio set “Triplicity” which teamed him with the classical violinist Thomas Gould and the acclaimed jazz pianist Liam Noble. This was a chamber jazz recording that combined moments of pure beauty with an admirable improvisational rigour.  The full review can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/jim-rattigan-thomas-gould-liam-noble-triplicity/

It was his work with Mike Gibbs that inspired Rattigan to form his own twelve piece band, Pavillon. The group name comes from ‘pavillon’, the French word for the bell of the French horn.  The album “Strong Tea” was originally recorded in 2011 and was re-launched in 2016 to coincide with a national tour by Pavillon together with a London Jazz Festival appearance at The Vortex. My review of the “Strong Tea” album can be viewed here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/jim-rattigan-pavillon-strong-tea/

Rattigan has said of Pavillon and the “Strong Tea” album;
“ I formed Pavillon with these wonderful musicians to perform my music and recorded the album “Strong Tea” as a 50th birthday present to myself in 2011. The compositions are very much interwoven with the personalities of the band and their musical styles. As I write I hear them playing certain themes and solo sections. I incorporate as much freedom in the music as is possible, leaving them space to express themselves”.

The line-up that Rattigan brought to the Pizza differed slightly from the album personnel and comprised of;

Jim Rattigan – French horn
Martin Speake – alto sax
Andy Panayi – tenor sax
Mick Foster – baritone sax
Percy Pursglove – trumpet & flugel horn
Steve Fishwick – trumpet
Robbie Robson – trumpet
Trevor Mires – trombone
Sarah Williams – bass trombone
Hans Koller – piano
Dave Whitford – bass
Martin France – drums

The repertoire was mainly drawn from the “Strong Tea” album but the programme also included a number of newer pieces written specifically for the band plus new arrangements of a couple of tunes from the “Shuzzed” album.

The first item was unannounced but proved to be a punchy and rousing opener driven by France’s skittering drum grooves and the propulsive bass lines of Dave Whitford, almost hidden at the back of the stage among a veritable forest of musicians and instruments. The piece was a feature for the leader whose solo on the French horn, an instrument rarely heard in jazz circles was stunning. Rattigan is a supremely fluent soloist whose sound combines the agility of a jazz trumpet improviser with the pure technique of a classically trained musician. In Rattigan’s hands the instrument, with a tone pitched somewhere between a trumpet and a trombone, is utterly convincing as a jazz solo instrument.

The title track of “Strong Tea” was introduced by Koller, Whitford and France in piano trio mode before the advent of the horns paired the clarion call of Rattigan’s French horn with the rasp of Foster’s baritone sax. Rattigan is a skilled composer and arranger and his deployment of the instruments available to him was consistently impressive; this was a rich blend of tea, full of interesting colours and textures. But for all the excellence of the ensemble passages Pavillon is also a hard swinging blowing band with plenty of opportunities for the excellent soloists within its ranks. Here we heard from Fishwick on trumpet, Speake on alto and the impressive Mires on trombone.

The ballad “Rose”, a comparatively new piece, featured the sounds of muted trumpets and included melodic, lyrical solos from Whitford on the bass and Koller at the piano, sensitively supported by France’s brushed accompaniment. Rattigan’s own solo combined his customary fluency and agility with an admirable expressiveness.

Whitford’s bass ushered in “Parkwood Fair”, another track from the “Strong Tea” album. Rattigan has also recorded in a quartet format and this piece featured his remarkable playing in conjunction with the piano trio, the other horns only being used to add colour and punctuation to the arrangement.

The new tune, “Henbo Waltz”, written as a paean to the London street where Rattigan resides, introduced a fresh crop of soloists with Mires’ opening trombone feature followed by solos from Foster on baritone sax and Robson on trumpet with France also featuring at the drums.

An excellent first set ended with the new tune “Blue”, a blues that managed to include some syncopated Loose Tubes style riffing in addition to solos from Pursglove on trumpet, Speake on alto and Williams on bass trombone. I’ve seen Williams perform many times on bass trombone with a variety of ensembles but I think this was the first time that I’ve ever seen her take a solo. Rattigan certainly likes to give the “minority” or “Cinderella” instruments a chance.

The second half opened in a similar manner to the first with the punchy but quirky big band swing of “Dulwich Park”, another piece from the “Strong Tea” recording that featured solos from Panayi on tenor sax and Pursglove on flugelhorn.

“Forever” included an extended unaccompanied piano introduction from Koller plus further solos from Foster on baritone and Robson on trumpet.

Based on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” the title track from “Shuzzed” was originally recorded by a quartet featuring guitarist Phil Robson, bassist Phil Donkin and regular Pavillon
drummer Gene Calderazzo. Scaled up for big band the first solo went to Sarah Williams on bass trombone who again impressed with the warmth, fluency and agility of her playing. Speake, Mires, Fishwick and Rattigan also featured as soloists, all delivering cogent statements of their own.

The performance was introduced by Rattigan with good humour and a ready and salty wit, the title of “The Freedom Of Movement” producing much ribaldry as the band bantered amongst themselves. The piece itself was notable for the intelligent dialogue between the leader’s French horn and France’s brushed drums.

“Ballad” featured lush, warm horn voicings with solos coming from Speake on alto, Koller at the piano and Robson on trumpet, the latter building up quite a head of steam despite the title of the tune. Having peaked the trumpeter eventually handed over to Rattigan whose feature helped to resolve the piece.

The afternoon ended with the exciting “24/7” from the “Strong Tea” album which was driven by the powerful combination of baritone sax and bass trombone in addition to bass and drums. The propulsive rhythms fuelled solos from Foster on baritone, Panayi on tenor and Robson on trumpet with drummer France also featuring.

The deserved encore found Rattigan returning to the “Shuzzed” album for an arrangement of the tune “Mung Beans” with trombonists Williams and Mires trading solos before handing over to Williams. Rattigan’s solo included a quote from Mozart’s horn concerto ( I think), but for me it just raised a smile and memories of Flanders & Swann.  Foster, Panayi and Speake enjoyed a series of sax exchanges with the three trumpeters eventually following suit on a barnstorming closer that featured virtually every member of the band.

Tucked away on a Sunday lunchtime this wasn’t one of the Festival’s most high profile gigs but for me it was undoubtedly one of the best.  I had enjoyed the “Strong Tea” album release and had been disappointed not to be able to catch Pavillon anywhere on their fairly recent tour. This more than made up for that and the long wait to see this stellar band was well worth it. Rattigan himself was brilliant and he was given superb support by a stellar band who brought the best out of his considerable compositional and arranging gifts. A low key performance then, but right up there as one of the highlights of the Festival.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED – PART ONE – CLUB INEGALES, EUSTON

I moved on to a new venue for me, Club Inegales, another basement performance space, this time beneath an office block in the Euston area of London.

During the Festival the club was the venue for “Expect The Unexpected”, a series of events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Festival. As part of the Serious Talent Development programme the Festival had commissioned 25 composers from different generations and different genres of music to submit pieces to be played by the resident house band, conducted by Peter Wiegold, and their guests. The only stipulation was that the piece had to fit onto one page of Manuscript paper, thereby by leaving plenty of room for interpretation and improvisation.

The performances were spread over both weekends of the Festival and I was to see the very first session which saw Wiegold conducting Notes Inegales, the house band that included Hyelim Kim on the Korean taegum flute, Christian Forshaw on alto and soprano saxes, Jon Banks on accordion, Joel Bell on guitar, Ben Markland on acoustic & electric bass, Simon Limbrick on percussion and Martin Butler on piano.

Guests at this first session included contributing composers and performers Cath Roberts (baritone sax), Olie Brice (double bass), Anton Hunter and Ant Law (guitars) who all formed part of the ensemble alongside the House Band.  The duo of vocalist Heidi Heidelberg and flautist Mauricio Velasierra also brought compositions to the table and performed with the ensemble.

With no prior rehearsals having taken place each new piece was seen for the first time on the day with the score being illuminated on overhead projectors for the benefit of the audience. First up was Roberts’ “Octopus”, the notated score little more than a sketch and with more than ample room allotted for improvisation. It’s a method that Roberts also deploys with her quintet Sloth Racket and large ensemble Favourite Animals. Introduced by the guitars of Hunter and Law, the latter playing acoustic 12 string , the music also featured the distinctive and haunting sounds of Kim’s Korean flute. Veering towards the freer end of the jazz spectrum the piece moved through a number of different phases with the composer soloing on baritone sax and also entering into a dialogue with Forshaw on alto. Roberts’ solo was underscored by a wall of sound including the drones of accordion, bowed cymbals and arco bass before Limbrick’s cymbal crashes ushered in a powerful closing written riff.

Following Rattigan’s rather more conventional performance at the Pizza it took my ears a little while to adjust to the less structured feel of the music at Inegales but gradually I became acclimatised and began to enjoy myself. Hunter’s “Bits Of A Piece” embraced elements of minimalism with its sussurating melodies, arpeggiated guitars and vibraphone embellishments. Solos came from Roberts on baritone and Forshaw on alto and Kim on flute, the three taking flight against a backdrop of chunky, angular riffing.

The first set closed with Law’s “Her Majesty”, written about “a freaky queen from another planet” according to its composer.  Electric bass and tuned percussion combined to state the melody with the vibraphone providing a constant thread throughout the piece, again suggesting a minimalist influence. Solos came from Roberts on baritone, Brice on muscular pizzicato double bass and finally Law on twelve string guitar.

It had been an intriguing first set of absorbing experimental music in a relaxed and informal setting with acclaimed composer and educator Wiegold conducting the ensemble with a practised ease.

During the interval Festival Director John Cumming of the Serious organisation spoke briefly to the audience detailing the growth of the event over the past twenty five years from its origins in the now defunct Camden Jazz Week. The 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival was to present 360 gigs in 60 different venues.

Set two saw Heidelberg and Velasierra joining the ensemble to present their piece. Although more obviously structured and through composed than the items in the first half the piece still adhered to the ‘one page’ rule. “Raven King” was inspired by the tapping of ravens’ beaks on the guttering of the couple’s house. Heidelberg’s wordless vocals proved to be a supremely flexible instrument and the piece was also distinguished by a mesmerising duet between the different flutes of Velesierra and Kim.  Guitarists Hunter and Bell then combined to create a bridge into a section that combined suitably bird like flute sounds with percussive noises depicting the tapping of the ravens, these including pecked saxes in addition to Limbrick’s percussion and Heidelberg’s repeated vocal refrain “out of rain”. A final passage of ensemble playing included a powerful alto solo from Forshaw.

Heidelberg and Velasierra stuck around for Brice’s piece, named for the event for which it was composed. “Expect The Unexpected” included snippets of Jewish liturgical tunes, the music of Brice’s childhood. The graphic notation encouraged the improvisatory process with the composer’s double bass,  Banks’ accordion and Heidelberg’s voice all playing key roles with the singer sounding authentically Yiddish. Hunter’s scabrous guitar and Roberts’ towering baritone added depth and power to the music.

This had been an absorbing afternoon of adventurous and experimental music making, spontaneous and inevitably a little ragged at times but ultimately both interesting and satisfying. In many ways I was reluctant to move on to my next planned event.

Following Brice’s piece there was an extended interval which saw the local curry house Taste of India supplying food, a regular occurrence at Inegales it seems. It looked and smelt good but we’d already eaten at the Pizza before the Rattigan performance.

After the break a different series of guests joined Notes Inegales including percussionist Kuljit Bhamra, guitarist Rob Luft, trumpeter Kim Macari and alto saxophonist Raymond MacDonald.

The following week the line up was set to include Byron Wallen (trumpet), Alexander Hawkins (piano), Jaak Sooäär (guitar), Chris Sharkey (guitar), Alice Zawadzki (voice/violin), Matthew Bourne, (piano),  Mark Sanders (drums), Orphy Robinson (steel pans), Pat Thomas(keys) and James Mainwaring (sax).

The shows were also due to feature new scores by Hermeto Pascoal (Hermatoids), Alex Roth, Helen Papaioannou, and Corrie Dick.

I enjoyed my first visit to the friendly and welcoming Club Inegales and approved of the club’s adventurous music policy, masterminded by Peter Wiegold. My thanks to Peter, Cath Roberts, Olie Brice, Anton Hunter and members of the Inegales staff for speaking with me afterwards and I hope the rest of the Expect The Unexpected programme went well. This is a venue I’d like to return to at the 2018 Festival.

MATTHEW STEVENS TRIO, RONNIE SCOTT’S JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

I first encountered the playing of Canadian born guitarist Matthew Stevens in 2010 when he appeared on trumpeter Christian Scott’s album “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow”. Then a regular member of Scott’s band the guitarist appeared at that year’s London Jazz Festival when Scott, then an emerging talent, supported Courtney Pine at the Royal Festival Hall. Scott has come along way since those days, but more on that in a later article.

Stevens went on to perform with saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Jacky Terrasson and drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Harvey Mason among others. In 2015 he recorded his début album as a leader, the excellent “Woodwork” which appeared on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings imprint and featured a line up of bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob, pianist Gerald Clayton and percussionist Paulo Stagnaro. My review of that album can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/matthew-stevens-woodwork/

However Stevens is probably best known for his role as guitarist and producer for the American bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, notably on her album “Emily’s D + Evolution”. He subsequently toured the world as part of Spalding’s trio.

Stevens has also recorded a second album, “Preverbal”, which was released in March 2017 on the Ropeadope imprint. The album features a pared down power trio including Archer and Doob and with a guest vocal by Spalding on the final track “Our Reunion”.

Thanks in part to the Spalding connection a large crowd turned out at Ronnie’s on a Sunday night to witness Stevens’ first performance as a headliner at EFG LJF. Doob was present and correct but Archer was replaced on electric bass by Zach Brown, a musician who receives an engineering credit on the “Preverbal” album. Of Spalding there was, unsurprisingly, no sign.

A man of few words Stevens, modishly sporting a baseball cap, preferred to let his music do the talking. This was a power trio that combined the virtues of old fashioned jazz rock fusion with a more contemporary approach with both Stevens and Doob, the latter credited as co-producer on the “Preverbal” album, both mutating the sound of the trio via the use of electronics.

With no support act the trio hit the stage at around the scheduled 8.15 start time and played straight through an eight tune set that comprised of most of the new album plus the occasional selection from “Woodwork”.

Few of the tunes were announced and the trio began with a piece that commenced with an ambient wash of looped and layered guitars before striking out with a muscular but melodic groove embracing a strong rock influence. Brown’s role was strictly rhythmic, he didn’t take a solo all night, so the emphasis was very much on Stevens, a player with technique to burn and a fluent improviser’s instinct.

The second piece saw Doob combining electronic beats with real time drum rhythms as Brown laid down a fat, meaty electric bass groove. Stevens soloed powerfully above this propulsive backdrop, his playing referencing the fusion heroes of the past. However the music then took an unexpected turn into more ambient and minimalistic territory.

Stevens remained the focus of attention, soloing over a busy bass and hi-hat groove on the next
item.

The fourth piece then opened with an engaging dialogue between Steven and the impressive Doob, the pair creating mesmeric rhythmic patterns that later opened out to embrace some chunky, hooky riffing and more virtuoso guitar soloing. This, in turn, led to a slowed down groove with the music taking on more of a spacious, impressionistic feel before gathering momentum once more to peak with a drum and electronics feature from Doob underscored by Stevens’ chiming guitar. A further ambient passage then concluded the lengthiest item of the evening thus far, possibly a segue of two different pieces.

Stevens now spoke for the first time, informing the audience that his father had been born in Liverpool before emigrating to Toronto, Stevens’ home town although the guitarist is now based in New York. There was a sizeable Canadian presence in the audience at Ronnie’s with Stevens name-checking one Ross Porter.

“Reservoir” was one piece that Stevens did introduce by name, another piece to include both real time and pre-programmed drums plus the now familiar chunky and angular guitar riffing.

A solo guitar excursion into Bill Frisell territory was hampered by a temporary electronic problem but Stevens and the trio quickly recovered their poise.

Brown briefly came to the fore as he and Stevens duetted on the opening to the penultimate piece before stepping back into the shadows as Stevens soloed.

The performance concluded with the song “Our Reunion”, a piece inspired by David Bowie and written by Stevens and Spalding. Performed here as an instrumental it sounded very different to the recording but was undeniably melodic in a rock influenced way and ended the evening on a positive, anthemic note. 

I was intrigued enough to invest in a copy of the “Preverbal” recording but ultimately felt a little bit underwhelmed by the evening as an ‘event’. Without the presence of Clayton’s piano the music felt a little one dimensional after “Woodwork” despite the presence of the electronic components, There was insufficient variation and a distinct lack of light and shade. I’d like to have heard something from Brown as a soloist, although it has to be said that Archer is not widely featured on the album. Maybe that’s the way Stevens likes it but there did seem to be too much of a disproportionate emphasis on his own playing, impressive as it undoubtedly was.

Writing for London Jazz News my fellow scribe Rob Mallows (good to meet you Rob) obviously enjoyed this performance rather more than I did. Maybe Stevens just suffered in comparison with Pat Metheny whose performance I’d witnessed (strictly as a ‘punter’) at the Barbican a couple of nights previously.

Having put a 21st century twist on the concept of the jazz power trio it will be interesting to see which direction Stevens’ solo career takes next. He’s obviously a highly accomplished and versatile musician with the ability to explore other musical areas.

 

 

 

EFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday November 11th 2017 - Part Two

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

EFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday November 11th 2017 - Part Two

Ian Mann enjoys the ACT label 25th Birthday Celebration at Cadogan Hall with performances from Adam Baldych with the Helge Lien Trio and the European supergroup Out Of Land.

Photograph of Adam Baldych by Tim Dickeson


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, SATURDAY NOVEMBER 11th 2017

ADAM BALDYCH with the HELGE LIEN TRIO / OUT OF LAND, CADOGAN HALL

This unique double bill at a sold out Cadogan Hall represented a momentous double celebration. 2017 represents both the 25th anniversary of the London Jazz Festival in its current format and the 25th birthday of the Munich based ACT record label founded by music manager and producer Siggi Loch. Two of the label’s most acclaimed and successful groups made rare UK appearances with both bands receiving rapturous receptions from a capacity crowd comprised of many nationalities.

Both acts represented international collaborations with the Polish violinist Adam Baldych joined by a Norwegian trio led by pianist Helge Lien.

Meanwhile Out Of Land is the band name adopted by the European ‘supergroup’ of ACT artists comprised of Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer, German pianist Michael Wollny and French musicians Emile Parisien (soprano sax) and Vincent Peirani (accordion).

ADAM BALDYCH with the HELGE LIEN TRIO

The evening commenced with the young lady who was introducing the proceedings leading the audience in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” in honour of the ACT label. Following this she welcomed the Baldych / Lien quartet to the stage to deliver a set of sublime music.

Baldych, born in 1986, first came to the attention of the ACT audience in 2013 with his label début “Imaginary Room” (actually his fourth album) recorded by an international ACT all star band dubbed The Baltic Gang and featuring saxophonist Marius Neset, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, pianist Jacob Karlzon, bassist Lars Danielsson and drummer Morten Lund. He later released “ The New Tradition”, an intimate set with pianist Yaron Herman as part of ACT’s “Duo Art” series.

Since 2015 Baldych has forged a highly successful creative alliance with pianist Helge Lien and his trio featuring bassist Frode Berg and Per Oddvar Johansen. Together they have delivered two excellent albums, 2015’s “Bridges” and the recent “Brothers”, the latter also including contributions from the Norwegian saxophonist Tore Brunborg. However it should be noted that the Lien Trio is a successful entity in its own right and has released a total of nine albums in the piano trio format.

Tonight’s performance was supported by the Norwegian Embassy and the Polish Cultural Institute and featured music sourced from the “Bridges” and “Brothers” albums. The bulk of the compositions were by Baldych and the quartet began with “Polesie” from the “Bridges” album.
Baldych’s writing embraces elements of jazz, classical and folk music and his abilities as both a player and a composer were apparent from the outset.  Once considered to be something of a child prodigy in his native Poland Baldych honed his technique at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and his playing, both with the bow and pizzicato was flawless and seemingly effortless. His fluency and purity of tone were stunning. Named after a region of Poland this opening piece embraced folk melodies and cadences and also included a significant contribution from Lien at the piano, who was also featured as a soloist. Meanwhile Johansen’s richly detailed, neatly energetic drumming helped to push the music forward.

The majority of the music came from the “Brothers” album, a highly personal work for Baldych which was written and recorded following the untimely passing of his own brother Grzegorz. The album’s tracks all have one word titles and next we heard “Faith” with its melancholic violin melody above a sparse piano vamp and filigree percussion. As the piece developed Lien added his own lyrical piano solo to Baldych’s mournful fluency.

Unaccompanied violin introduced introduced the next piece, which was unannounced. Again the music was thoughtful, melodic and often downright beautiful and included a melodic double bass solo from Berg and a typically lyrical contribution from Lien as Baldych alternated between arco and pizzicato techniques.

Ushered in by Berg’s unaccompanied bass the title track of “Brothers” introduced a spikier, more aggressive approach from the quartet with Baldych’s violin soaring above the muscular grooves laid down by Berg and Johansen with fiercely plucked bass augmented by some busy and dynamic drumming. With its avant garde flourishes this was a piece that epitomised Baldych’s album liner note explaining “our new music is more dirty and wild than on the previous album, balancing on the border between scream and silence; as does today’s world, where joy and suffering coexist side by side”

By way of contrast “One” proved to be a delightfully delicate and emotive duet between Lien and Baldych with the violinist again deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques on the larger renaissance violin.

Johansen, a skilled and highly distinctive presence at the drums, ushered in the next (unannounced) piece in conjunction with Baldych’s pizzicato violin and Lien’s dampened piano strings. As the rhythm section established a groove Baldych picked up his bow to stretch out and soar before handing over to the Norwegian trio to generate an impressively big group sound on their own account.

The set concluded with “Love”, a piece played by Baldych using the pizzicato technique exclusively. This proved to be stunningly effective on a beautiful piece that demonstrated the violinist’s remarkable gift for melody, on this showing almost on a par with Pat Metheny’s. What could have been a mere novelty proved to be a moving and brilliantly realised piece of music.

The Cadogan Hall crowd gave the quartet a terrific reception and on this genuine double bill Baldych and Lien returned to the stage for a deserved encore. Their second duo performance of the evening proved to be an inspired instrumental interpretation of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” that combined great beauty with a solemn gravitas. The “Brothers” album features an equally effective duo arrangement.

During the interval business at the ACT record stall in the foyer was brisk with copies of the “Brothers” album quickly selling out.

“I wish for my music to carry the message of Love and Beauty” Baldych has declared. This concert fully delivered on that promise and with his flawless technique and remarkable compositional gift Baldych is arguably the world’s leading jazz violinist right now. The members of the Lien trio, of which I’m a fan in their own right, played their part but ultimately this was Baldych’s show. It was my first live sighting of him and I was extremely impressed with all aspects of his music making.


MICHAEL WOLLNY / EMILE PARISIEN / ANDREAS SCHAERER / VINCENT PEIRANI – OUT OF LAND

The four members of this ACT ‘supergroup’ are all band leaders in their own right and each has recorded solo albums for the label. Originally brought together by Schaerer for a one off club engagement in Budapest the four musicians had never played together as a unit before despite the fact that there had been other collaborations between various members of the group, all of them part of the wider ‘ACT family’.

Originally intended to be a trio featuring Schaerer, Parisien and Peirani it was the accordionist’s idea to bring Wollny on board, the pair having toured and recorded frequently as a duo.

Following the Budapest club date the new quartet went on to play a theatre show in Berne, the results of which were recorded and subsequently released on ACT under the title “Out Of Land”, this subsequently becoming the name of the band. Rather like the Anglo-American alliance The Impossible Gentlemen a seemingly one off collaboration has evolved into a semi-regular working band.

There was a palpable air of expectation at the Cadogan about the appearance of this European ‘supergroup’. They commenced with an opening segue of Schaerer’s “Air Song” and Wollny’s “Kabinett V” that combined individual brilliance with a strong group aesthetic. With no bass or drums the group shared rhythmic responsibilities between them with Wollny and Peirani inevitably taking on much of the work, even after making allowances for Schaerer’s vocal percussion effects.
The singer’s voice proved to be a wonderfully flexible instrument, predominately deployed wordlessly and forming an essential component of the music. There was a vitality and playfulness about the group’s music making with the quartet often breaking down into smaller units, invariably duos. Thus this lengthy opening segue included Parisien’s soprano solo dancing above Schaerer’s vocal percussion, or beat boxing if you will. Then there was the impish duet between Parisien and Peirani, both previously familiar with each other’s playing after years on the Paris jazz scene. Peirani then duetted with his old sparring partner Wollny, the latter adding prepared piano effects to an already heady mix, Parisien eventually added searingly incisive soprano sax to the mix as he danced around the stage. This was music that was constantly evolving, shifting from one point to another at the drop of a hat in a fast moving roller coaster ride that demanded lightning reactions from the players. With no anchoring rhythm section this was very much music without a safety net.

The next piece was unannounced but explored similar territory with Schaerer entering into extended dialogues, firstly with Parisien and then with Peirani, the accordionist’s playing taking the music in the direction of a kind of twisted cabaret. Humour was an essential ingredient of the quartet’s performance.

Schaerer’s lengthy “Playing With Fire” concluded the performance, the piece beginning with the organ like sonorities of Peirani’s accordion, this joined by Schaerer’s haunting wordless vocal. Wollny then delivered a typically bravura passage of unaccompanied piano imbued with the dramatic gothic flourishes that characterise his work as a solo artist. Parisien’s soprano sax feature borrowed from both North African music and the blues while Schaerer’s vocal solo included a stunning display of beat boxing that mimicked the beats of electronic music without resorting to any form of electronic manipulation as he encouraged the audience to clap along.

The Cadogan crowd loved Out Of Land’s spirited display of musical virtuosity and gave the group a standing ovation. They returned for a deserved encore that saw the musicians finally coalescing on a unison theme statement but with Schaerer eventually taking the individual honours with a display of quasi-operatic vocalising followed by a passage featuring his voice approximating the sound of a trumpet soloist. He’s clearly a remarkable talent – and the formation of the group was his idea so it was perhaps appropriate that he had the final word.

The audience clearly loved this performance by Out Of Land and the group were practically overwhelmed at the subsequent ‘meet and greet’ at the ACT stall in the foyer. Subsequent reviews have been favourable but for all this I found myself harbouring doubts.

For all his skill and adventurousness Schaerer’s style of vocalising doesn’t always do it for me, but I guess that’s just a personal thing. More pertinently I didn’t feel that Out Of Land genuinely cohered as a band in the way the Baldych / Lien group had done. For all the individual brilliance the music too often seemed to represent a series of ‘set pieces’, full of virtuosity and stunning technique and undeniably delivered with good humour and a sense of both fun and daring. Yet ultimately this was music that lacked the emotional impact that Baldych’s had done and, for me, it was less satisfying overall. I don’t deny that it was spectacular and I’m sure that there are many who will disagree with me but I didn’t want to take the Out Of Land CD home with me in the same way as I did the Baldych one.

I remain a fan of the individual members of Out Of Land, particularly Wollny and Parisien, whose output as leaders is strongly recommended. Despite my personal reservations this was an excellent celebration of one of the most enterprising and distinctive labels in European jazz.

 

EFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday November 11th 2017.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

EFG London Jazz Festival, Saturday November 11th 2017.

Ian Mann enjoys performances by the Kadri Voorand / Mikhel Malgand Duo and the Andy Sheppard Quartet at Kings Place.

Photograph of Andy Sheppard by Tim Dickeson.


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, SATURDAY 11th NOVEMBER 2017.


My first full day at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival began in (for me) a moderately quiet fashion. In the morning I viewed the superb Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition, “Boom for Real”, at the Barbican, not part of the Festival itself but closely linked thanks to the influence of jazz on Basquiat’s work. The artist numbered Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk among his musical and cultural heroes.

KADRI VOORAND / MIKHEL MALGAND DUO / ANDY SHEPPARD QUARTET, KINGS PLACE

The 2017 EFG LJF included a series of events presenting the music of Estonian jazz musicians to British audiences. The Weekend Guitar Trio had played on the Freestage at the Barbican the previous evening as a prelude to the concert in the main hall by Pat Metheny.

Today it was the turn of the idiosyncratic duo of pianist/vocalist/violinist Kadri Voorand and bassist Mikhel Malgand who opened for the Andy Sheppard Quartet at Kings Place. The bald description hardly does the pair justice, particularly when Voorand manipulates her already distinctive voice with the aid of live looping and other electronic techniques. Meanwhile Malgand provides both rhythmic propulsion plus additional colour and texture as he deploys both pizzicato and arco techniques on his double bass.

The opening piece, “Circle Dance” commenced with the drone of Malgand’s bowed bass, the sound soon augmented by Voorand’s violin and vocals, the former played pizzicato and the latter electronically manipulated by live looping as Voorand sang in English with the pointed chorus “Where would you be without me?” lingering in the memory. Voorand then switched to piano and delivered an impressive passage of scat vocalising as Magland used the body of his double bass as a type of percussion.

Still at the piano Voorand sang the words of a poem in her native Estonian before standing to sing, in English, the words of the poet Emily Dickinson with Malgand’s double bass as the sole accompaniment. As the Dickinson piece developed Voorand struck out into more obviously improvised territory with another scat episode that also involved further electronic manipulation of her voice.

If the settings of poetry suggest that the duo were adopting an overly serious or intellectual approach nothing could have been further from the truth. Humour and theatricality were both essential components of the duo’s music as Voorand’s improvised singing, in English, proved at various points in the programme. The tongue twisting lyrics of “They Don’t Really Care About Us” delighted the audience on a piece that included elements of soul, r’n’b and hip hop.

“Divided Into Three” was a haunting Garden of Eden allegory for piano, voice and arco bass while a song with the chorus “I’m Not In Love With You” presented a kind of feminised 10 CC delivered via electronically treated voice and acoustic five string bass guitar, the latter played by Malgand.

The duo signed off in theatrical fashion with Voorand deploying two vocal mics to loop and layer her voice on a piece which saw her encouraging the audience to clap along, which they did enthusiastically as the singer worked the words “Thank you London” into this vocal extravaganza.

With their eclectic blend of poetry, cabaret, pop and electronica the duo of Voorand and Malgand clearly delighted the audience and , rare for a ‘support act’ , were even allowed back on stage to deliver a swift encore.

Online research reveals that Voorand is a highly accomplished straight ahead jazz singer but her interests clearly extend into other areas and she’s a highly adventurous and charismatic performer with a highly flexible voice which she pushes even further via the inventive use of real time electronics. Also the leader of her own trio and quartet Voorand is a name to watch out for.

I’ll admit that today’s performance wasn’t totally my cup of tea but Voorand’s talent was immediately apparent and I welcome the breadth and adventurousness of her music making. She is the kind of artist who attracts a cult following and today’s show will no doubt have attracted new followers to the fold. Voorand’s international reputation seems destined to grow, and stardom, of a sort, undoubtedly awaits.

Despite the success of the opening act I suspect that the majority of the audience at a sold out Kings Place were there to see saxophonist and composer Andy Sheppard, a British musician with a truly international reputation, thanks in no small part to his work with Carla Bley and his record deal with ECM.

The international quartet that Sheppard brought to Kings Place was the same band that appeared on his 2015 ECM release “Surrounded by Sea” and featured French bass player Michel Benita, British drummer Sebastian Rochford and Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset. Benita and Rochford had previously worked with Sheppard as Trio Libero, Aarset had been part of the all star Anglo/Norwegian quintet that recorded the 2008 ECM album “Movements In Colour”. The current quartet are currently in the process of recording a new album for ECM which is due for release in 2018.

Sheppard is a versatile saxophonist who is capable of playing very differently in other contexts but his music with this quartet is highly representative of what has come to be called ‘the ECM sound’ with a soft melodic focus and with great emphasis placed on ambience, colour and texture. These qualities were apparent on the opening piece with its soft, breathy tenor sax, melodic double bass, delicately brushed drums and ambient guitar washes. Sheppard then switched to soprano as the quartet adopted a fuller sound with Benita now playing with greater muscularity and Rochford offering occasional glimpses of his nascent power behind the kit as they supported Sheppard’s solo.

Folk elements have always been part of Sheppard’s repertoire as emphasised by the melody of “Forever And A Day” with the softly spoken, self deprecating Sheppard joking “it takes that long for a bar to go by”. This featured Sheppard’s plaintive sounding tenor and Benita’s melodic but resonant bass soloing as Rochford provided the subtlest of drum colourations, predominately deploying mallets.

Unaccompanied bass introduced the next piece with Aarset’s Frisell like guitar twang complemented by Sheppard’s keening tenor sax, the saxophonist sounding at his most Garbarek-like. Sheppard’s solo was underpinned by Benita’s melodic bass motif, with the latter eventually taking over for a solo of his own underpinned by the soft, subtle patter of Rochford’s hands on skins and cymbals.

An as yet untitled new piece based on the melody of a bird song commenced with Sheppard on tenor trading phrases with Aarset’s treated guitar. Subsequently the saxophonist soloed in more conventional fashion supported by Benita’s bass and the muted march of Rochford’s drums.

Besides his guitar Aarset’s set up included a lap top and a table full of electronic devices. The Norwegian introduced the next section unaccompanied, deploying his arsenal of equipment in a manner reminiscent of Robert Fripp as he sculpted and layered his sound in quasi-orchestral manner in conjunction with Sheppard’s soprano and the undulating grooves eventually laid down by Benita and Rochford.
As the piece developed Rochford delivered a brilliantly constructed drum solo that developed from quiet, almost subliminal beginnings via some exquisite cymbal work to a final explosion of almost elemental power. The famous barnet may have gone but the man is still the complete drummer and musician.
Moving on Sheppard reverted to tenor to deliver a majestic solo that again evoked the sound of Jan Garbarek before Aarset’s guitar soundscaping was featured once more, this time accompanied by the rustle of Rochford’s percussion, featuring shakers in addition to the conventional drum kit.
A final salvo from Sheppard featured his most full blooded and abrasive playing of the set before the quartet rounded off the performance in almost anthemic fashion with a lovely, flowing, soaring melody.

The crowd rose to their feet to applaud the band and were rewarded with an encore, Sheppard announcing the piece as being something “to make you feel eighteen again”. This proved to be a gorgeous, slowed down arrangement of the Lennon & McCartney song “And I Love Her” with Aarset laying down the familiar chord pattern as Sheppard soloed tenderly on smoky sounding tenor above Benita’s grounding bass and the patter of Rochford’s drums, played with a combination of mallets and bare hands. Aarset’s guitar then took The Beatles to outer space in an innovative interpretation of a much loved song that delighted the audience and sent everyone on their way feeling uplifted by the skill, grace and beauty of it all.

Sheppard remains one of the best loved and most consistently interesting of British jazz musicians. The impending album release by this quartet will be one of the most keenly awaited album releases of 2018.

 

‘Jazz Alley + Boogie Party’,Sunday @ Wall2Wall Jazz Festival,Market Hall,Abergavenny, 03/09/2017

Friday, September 08, 2017

‘Jazz Alley + Boogie Party’,Sunday @ Wall2Wall Jazz Festival,Market Hall,Abergavenny, 03/09/2017

Ian Mann on the final, family friendly day of the Festival with performances by Samba Galez, Budapest Ragtime Band, Chris Moreton, Kitty & The Purramours and the Red Stripe Band.

Photograph of Neil Drinkwater of the Red Stripe Band sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz website http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk


JAZZ ALLEY & BOOGIE PARTY

SUNDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, ABERGAVENNY, 03/09/2017.

The final day of the wall2wall Jazz Festival has settled into a well established format. Today was the third annual edition of “Jazz Alley”, the family friendly event held in Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall featuring free musical performances, food stalls and a licensed bar.

Jazz Alley has proved to be a popular event with the people of Abergavenny and even an unseasonably cold and wet September day didn’t deter the crowd and audience numbers were actually up on the previous year.

Jazz Alley featured enjoyable performances from Samba Galez, The Budapest Ragtime Band, Chris Moreton and Kitty & the Purramours before the venue was cleared at 6.00 pm in readiness for the evening’s “Boogie Party”, a modestly priced ticketed event featuring the music and showmanship of the Red Stripe Band, back by popular demand following their successful performance in the same time slot in 2016.

Before turning my attention to the Red Stripe Band I’ll take a quick look at the free performances by the four acts featured at Jazz Alley. Although very different in musical style all four bands were readily accessible and highly energetic with the focus very much on entertainment of the kind that virtually everybody could relate to. The emphasis was on fun rather than profundity.

SAMBA GALEZ

Formed in 1990, initially as a youth project, Samba Galez is a community band from Cardiff boasting over ninety members. Many of these made the short trip to Abergavenny for today’s performance.

Samba Galez play around forty gigs a year including festivals, parades, sporting events and even village fêtes and hold regular samba workshops. Led by Simon Preston their musical remit has expanded to include Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and reggae rhythms and even traditional Welsh folk tunes. They have also recorded two albums, including a live set from Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach.

I’ve seen the band previously at Brecon Jazz Festival and when I arrived at the Market Hall in the afternoon they were already in full swing as they got this year’s Jazz Alley event off to a rousing start.

The first thing that strikes one about the massed ranks of Samba Galez is just how loud they can be with their veritable battery of percussion instruments, including some enormous, and seriously impressive, parade drums.

In their colourful and well designed band uniform of red T shirts featuring the band motif they are visually arresting too, especially when choreographer Sallie MacLennan (wasn’t she a character in a Pogues song?) puts the group’s dancers through their paces.

Loud, brash, colourful and vibrant - performances by Samba Galez are always great fun, for the band and audiences alike. Today was to be no exception with Samba Galez enjoying a warm reception from the Jazz Alley crowd.

BUDAPEST RAGTIME BAND

Next to take to the stage were the seven piece Budapest Ragtime Band led by bassist Ferenc Gayer. The band are regular and popular visitors to the UK and have toured all over the country.

The line up also includes Tibor Antal (violin), Ferenc Stein (keyboard), Balint Kiss (trombone), Sandor Csarics (trumpet), Janos Weszely (drums) and Laszlo Forgacs aka Papa Flight on lead vocals and pocket trumpet.

The group’s repertoire features staples from the ragtime and Dixieland jazz eras but has also expanded to include Dixie style arrangements of popular classical and operatic works. To some it might all be a bit too much of a novelty but these gentlemen can play (and sing) and they are also great entertainers, and as such were perfectly suited to a family event such as this. Energy and good humour characterise their performances, with a variety of props being deployed to often hilarious effect.

Most of the songs were well known favourites and included “Sunny Side Of The Street”, “Dark Town Strutters Ball”, “The Sheikh Of Araby” “Blueberry Hill” “When You’re Smiling” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” ,“Bill Bailey” and the closing “Wonderful World”.

The spirit of the earlier ragtime era was expressed via two of Scott Joplin’s most famous compositions, “Black & White Rag” and “Maple Leaf Rag”.

A kind of Spike Jones / Bonzo Dog Band humour came out in the group’s good humoured but musically sophisticated set of arrangements of popular classics including a sequence from Bizet’s “Carmen”, Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”. The latter saw trumpeter Csarics apparently with an arrow through his head! Earlier in the set a “Shoe Shining Song” had seen the frontliners polishing their footwear as piano, bass and drums played on.

For all the goofing around these guys were seriously talented musicians with Antal and Stein both proving to be accomplished soloists, as did trumpeter Csarics. The diminutive Flight sung with great assurance and no little wit and also proved to be a highly competent instrumentalist on his equally diminutive pocket trumpet.

After a while the appeal of the band’s good natured trad revivalism began to fade and I wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to them at home but they were ideal for this early afternoon slot in front of a family audience. The Market Hall crowd loved them.

CHRIS MORETON

Locally based bluegrass musician Chris Moreton played a successful club night at BMJ in May 2017 when he opened for the FB Pocket Orchestra, themselves veterans of a previous Jazz Alley.

Invited back the guitarist/banjoist/harpist/vocalist was again accompanied by his wife Wendy on double bass. The duo often bill themselves as ‘The Moreton Roadshow’.

Unfortunately today’s shortened set was rather less successful than the earlier club appearance, mainly because of mixing desk problems with regard to Wendy’s bass, which was frequently inaudible.

Nevertheless Chris battled on regardless beginning with “California Blues” which featured guitar, harmonica and vocals – including a bout of yodelling.

Next came “San Francisco Bay Blues” followed by Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” which featured the home made “cymbal bashing machine” aka “Phantom” , a foot operated device.  You can probably imagine how this fitted into the bluegrass style arrangement of this well known and popular piece.

The guitar instrumental “Limerock”, a tune from the Texas tradition was an excellent example of Moreton’s fretboard skills.

“Rock Island Line”, made famous by Lonnie Donegan, never fails to amuse and entertain and for the “Sheikh of Araby” Moreton took a leaf out of the Hungarians’ book when he rummaged in his bag and dug out an Arab headdress!

“King Of The Swingers” (from “Jungle Book”) kept the fun quotient up as Moreton delivered for a non specialist audience. The closing “Black Mountain Rag” delivered a final dose of fretboard wizardry.

The audience seemed to enjoy it all well enough but Moreton’s club appearance had been more satisfying musically and a better demonstration of his all round skills. My review of that performance can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/chris-moreton-duo-fb-pocket-orchestra-black-mountain-jazz-abergavenny-21-05/


KITTY & THE PURRAMOURS

“Miss Kitty” or “Kitty Bevan” appears to be the alias of South Wales based vocalist Bev Gough. Formerly known as the Kitty Bevan Quartet her current band has mutated into Kitty & The Purramours, a quintet containing some of South Wales’ finest jazz musicians including Jim Barber on keyboard, Glen Manby on tenor sax, Donnie Joe Sweeney on bass and vocals and Greg Evans at the drums.

The instrumentalists took to the stage first with Sweeney announcing the arrival of Kitty as the group romped through a jazzed up version of the Steve Miller pop hit “Abracadabra” with solos from Manby on tenor, Kitty on alto sax and Barber at the keyboard.

The rarely heard Billie Holiday song “Spreading Rhythm Around” followed and was suitably bouncy and rhythmic with Sweeney enjoying a double bass feature.

Kitty’s original song “Dog In My Bag”, a swinging prohibition era pastiche, attracted a number of dancers onto the floor. Members of a local dance club they looked very stylish and professional and were undeniably impressive.

I’m used to seeing Manby playing alto sax and today’s outing on tenor was a very unusual occurrence for him. So unusual in fact that he was experiencing technical problems with his instrument and could be seen at the back of the stage frantically trying to fix it. Enter Lyndon Owen, an interested spectator today who lent Manby his own tenor, saving the day yet again! The new horn was heard to good effect on a bluesy “Swing Me Daddy”.

Now back at full strength Kitty & The Purramours proceeded to canter through swinging versions of “Cheek To Cheek” and “Accentuate The Positive” plus Kitty’s flirtatious, self penned “Captain Sugar”.

I’m used to seeing these musicians playing more obviously ‘serious’ forms of jazz and bebop but they seemed to be having a ball playing in this band and there were plenty of good solos to enjoy from Manby (such a rarity to see him on tenor) and Barber plus Kitty herself on alto. However I ultimately found Gough’s contrived “Miss Kitty” persona a bit too shrill and grating. I’ve enjoyed the playing of most of these musicians more in other jazz contexts and the Purramours band isn’t necessarily one I’d wish to listen to at home.

Nevertheless these musicians are highly popular figures with South Wales jazz audiences and Gough’s “Miss Kitty” persona communicated itself well to the non specialist audience. Personal misgivings aside this was another set that was very well received.


BOOGIE PARTY – THE RED STRIPE BAND

Founded by pianist and vocalist Neil Drinkwater (aka ‘Red Stripe’) back in 1994 the seven piece Red Stripe Band has recorded four albums and played hundreds of live shows, including many prestigious festival dates, often supporting some of the biggest names in the music business.

As far as I could ascertain the line up was the same as last year with Drinkwater joined by vocalist Helena May, the horn section of Lee Vivian (trumpet), John O’ Neill (tenor sax) and Erica Clarke (baritone sax) and the rhythm team of bassist Costa Tancredi and drummer Ed Williams.

Om a particularly cold, damp and dismal night audience numbers were down on last year and it took the band considerably longer to warm up the crowd. The dance floor didn’t really become full until the second set, by which time the alcohol was probably taking hold!

The Red Stripe Band’s repertoire includes boogie woogie, rock ‘n’roll and jump jive staples as well as a number of original songs written in broadly the same styles, including the infectious “My Brazilian Neighbour”, which proved to be a first half highlight.

More familiar material included “Blueberry Hill”, Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me” a speeded up “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”.

The second set encouraged more dancers onto the floor including some of the dance club members who’d performed during the Purramours set. Saxophonist Martha Skilton, more used to being up on stage and making others dance could be seen throwing a few shapes as she danced with friends and family. One of the lads in her group impressed with a dizzying display of break dancing! I felt tired, and very old, just watching him!

The music included familiar Red Stripe favourites such as Booker T’s “Soul Limbo”, “Route 66” and a speeded up version of the “Pink Panther Theme”. Less predictable was a version of the Lily Allen hit “Scream” - “ I bet you weren’t expecting that one”, teased May.

By now even the most recalcitrant dancers were on their feet, even me, as the band paraded around the audience while they encored with their signature tune “Red Stripe Boogie”. Even Williams had strapped on a snare drum, tenor man O’ Neill, the group’s most distinctive soloist, was the only musician left on stage.

Once again the Red Stripe Band had delivered the goods, although they’d had to work a little harder than next year. If the Jazz Alley / Boogie Party event is going to be repeated then it might be worth thinking about a change of headliner next time round.

Although the music performed today isn’t what I’d choose for home listening it works very well in the family friendly atmosphere of Jazz Alley and the Boogie Party and helps to bring wall2wall and Black Mountain Jazz into the consciousness of the townspeople of Abergavenny. It remains a highly popular event and one that looks certain to be repeated.

Meanwhile the Friday and Saturday of the Festival, the two ‘serious jazz’ days, threw up some excellent music at the Melville Centre with Ian Shaw, Gilad Atzmon and Shez Raja all delivering memorable performances. There was some great music from the various duo combinations in the bar, too.

The Friday evening review, “1917 And All That Jazz”, complete with Prohibition Bar, also worked very well and another jazz “theme evening” must surely be another possibility.

Congratulations to Mike Skilton, Debs Hancock and the rest of the BMJ / wall2wall team on another successful Festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 02/09/2017.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 02/09/2017.

Ian Mann enjoys a day of wall to music including performances by three of the great entertainers of British jazz, vocalist Ian Shaw, saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and electric bass specialist Shez Raja.

Photograph of Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble sourced from the Black Mountain Jazz website http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk


SATURDAY AT WALL2WALL FESTIVAL, ABERGAVENNY, 02/09/2017.

The third day of the wall2wall Jazz Festival was centred exclusively at the Melville Centre, a former grammar school now converted into a community centre with a particularly strong focus on the performing arts.

Five concert performances were scheduled for the main stage in the Theatre with a series of more intimate duo performances taking place in the more informal bar area. With the duo performances commencing immediately after the concert events had finished this literally was the wall to wall jazz promised by the title of the Festival. 


OLLIE WEST BAND + STRING QUARTET, MELVILLE THEATRE

The wall2wall Festival has always prided itself on supporting and encouraged young musicians and 2017 was to be no exception. The first concert performance of the day featured twenty year old pianist, vocalist and songwriter Ollie West, currently a student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

West’s influences include songwriters Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Dean Friedman, Sting and Prince, Snarky Puppy keyboard player Bill Laurance, and the band Elbow. Although not exactly jazz the music created by him and his band was well received by the lunchtime audience at wall2wall, an impressive feat considering that the ensemble performed a virtually all original programme with just the one cover – of which, more later.

Joining West were his regular band consisting of George Nicola (guitar), Ashley Garrod (electric bass) and Pete Leaver (drums), plus a string section led by violinist Jody Smith and also featuring Raye Harvey (violin), Matt Chadbond (violin) and Elliot Bailey (cello), the last named making his début with the band. The majority of the string players had also been part of the twenty four piece ensemble that recorded the album “Live From The RNCM Theatre” in June 2017.

Most of today’s material was sourced from the album and today’s performance kicked off with the lively, up-tempo “Say No More” which featured funky electric bass, choppy guitar and the staccato patterns and harmonic swells of the strings. West delivered a confident vocal and Garrod was the featured soloist on electric bass.

“Summer Rain”, the B side of the 2016 single “So Far Away”, saw the strings combining with West’s piano on the intro and generally fulfilling a greater role on a more reflective song that also featured Nicola’s melodic guitar work.

“Portraits” features on the live recording and is also due to be recorded for a forthcoming EP at the Blueprint Studios in Manchester. Paced by West’s piano and with the strings adding colour and texture this was the most distinctive offering thus far, a mature and evocative song with something of Coldplay’s plaintive but anthemic lilt about it.

The breezy pop of “So Far Away” itself saw West doubling on synth and soloing briefly on the instrument as the rhythm section laid down a relaxed, subtly funky groove.

The set’s only cover was the Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman” which West dedicated to the memory of the recently departed Glen Campbell. This proved to be surprisingly effective, the song proved to be particularly well suited to West’s voice and the presence of the string players added greatly to an arrangement that also included the sound of Garrod’s languid electric bass.

“Let Me Be”, the song that opens the live album, proved to be something a feature for the string quartet who brought a majestic sweep to the music as they combined effectively with the electric instruments.

The song “Only Love Can Keep Us Together” was written when was only sixteen but is a remarkably mature work that still remains relevant to its composer. The arrangement included the twin violins of Smith and Harvey plus a guitar solo from Nicola.

West readily admitted the influence of Elbow on the song “In Your Eyes” stating that he’d love to hear Guy Garvey sing it. Paced by the composer’s own piano and vocals the arrangement included a violin solo from Smith and the subtle drum colourations of Leaver.

Appropriately the set concluded with West’s “Thank You, And Goodbye”, a gentle valediction featuring just voice, piano and strings.

Although all a little bit too “poppy” for my personal tastes I generally enjoyed this performance from the Ollie West Ensemble which combined youthful enthusiasm with a commendable songwriting maturity and a high standard of musicianship from everybody concerned.

On occasions there seemed to be almost too much going on with West’s voice almost being drowned out at times and it was difficult to derive too much meaning from the lyrics. Ironically the most effective moments were often the quietest ones, featuring just voice and piano and perhaps a little colouration from the strings.

However personal misgivings aside the Ollie West Band + Strings were very well received by the wall2wall audience with a number of copies of the live album being sold. These are talented young musicians who will hopefully have a bright future within the industry. It may well be that we will get to hear a lot more from Ollie West and his friends in the coming years, albeit probably not in a jazz context.

I hear that the band’s transport broke down on the way back to Manchester sparking an impromptu string quartet performance in a picnic area on the A5 while waiting for the RAC came to the rescue. Tough luck guys, but glad you got back safely in the end. Such are the joys and perils of the touring life.


EIRA/SNOW, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR

Eira/Snow is a duo featuring the Monmouth based musicians Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes. 

Initially inspired by the music of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek,  particularly those classic ECM recordings on which Garbarek fused jazz with various folk and world music elements Owen and Downes took their band name from the Welsh word for snow, thereby acknowledging both their own roots and that original Scandinavian inspiration. The band has been in existence for a number of years now and has extended its sphere of influence to encompass the music of Wales, the Mediterranean and the Middle East with Owen playing a variety of reed instruments while Downes lays down the groove on double bass.

In January 2017 Eira/Snow played in the Melville Theatre as part of a double bill with the young Birmingham based organ trio Ferris, Lee, Weir and that rather truncated set, enjoyable as it was, represented something of a taster for today.

The January show saw Eira/Snow going back to basics with Downes sticking to double bass throughout and Owen limiting himself to tenor, alto and soprano saxophones. Ordinarily he brings along more exotic instruments as well, such as the Hungarian taragato and the Armenian duduk, while Downes will also pick up his baritone to end the concert with a double sax barrage.

I’ve witnessed Eira/Snow perform at a variety of locations and the duo have established an impressive reputation for their appearances in sacred buildings and have appeared in many churches, often in remote locations, throughout the Welsh Marches. Eira/Snow’s music is particularly suited to church acoustics and the fact that some of these performances have been held by candlelight has also added to the atmosphere. Prior to today’s appearance they had recently enjoyed a successful performance in the church at nearby Grosmont.

We didn’t get the church ambience today but we did enjoy a complete Eira/Snow performance with Owen performing on his full coterie of reed instruments and also adding a little judicious electronica and percussion.

The duo had already commenced their first tune when we got in from the theatre. As I recall it was the Welsh folk tune “Brodyr pob cerddorion” a title translating as “All Musicians Are Brothers”.  An electronically generated tanpura like drone  provided the backdrop for Owen’s dancing tenor sax melodies and Downes’ deep, propulsive bass grooves.

The supremely catchy “Astrakhan Café” featured Owen on soprano saxophone.  In general  Eira/Snow’s pieces are primarily folk tunes with infectious melodies and strong grooves and an essential simplicity that ensures that they remain accessible, no matter how far the band may push them. 

The next piece, translated from Farsi as “New Year” featured Owen on the distinctive Armenian duduk, a notoriously difficult instrument to play effectively - “always a hard blow” as Owen puts it.

An arrangement of the Welsh folk tune “Pontypridd” found Owen back on the more familiar tenor sax , but treated with a dash of echo to simulate something of the church acoustic so loved by the duo.

The next piece featured Owen playing Arabic music on the Hungarian taragato, an instrument with a particularly distinctive sound and one also played by one of Owen’s great musical heroes, the highly respected German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann.

An Eira/Snow gig always represents something of a musical ‘world tour’ and “Manteca Araba” saw the duo relocating to Spain, albeit a Spain still under the influence of the Moors as Owen moved back to soprano saxophone.

As is usual with an Eira/Snow performance not all the titles were announced. The next piece found Owen treating his clarinet with live looping techniques before improvising over the melodic patterns he had generated.

The following item began with a passage of solo bass from Downes with Owen adding percussive effects by means of a rain stick and other devices, live looping these before probing deeply on tenor sax.

“Thalij”, the Arabic word for “Snow” found Owen playing his alto sax as Downes used the body of his bass to provide percussive accompaniment. Of the alto Owen informed us “she’s an old lady of 1928, but she barks like a dog”. The “old lady” is due to emerge again in 2018 as part of an Ornette Coleman inspired project that Owen is putting together.

“In Praise Of Dreams”, the Jan Garbarek piece that initially inspired the Eira/Snow project found Owen moving back to tenor for a convincing performance of this much loved ECM classic.

One suspected that this was scheduled to be the end of the performance but the duo found time for one final tune, a clarinet item that again included the use of live looping techniques, the electronics enhancing the sound of an instrument that Owen had “bought for ten quid in a charity shop” adding “it’s a good clarinet though”.

Although I’ve seen Eira/Snow perform this music on a number of occasions I don’t find myself tiring of their distinctive blend of world jazz and I found today’s show as absorbing as ever. In general audiences are always appreciative of their music and today was no exception.

Some of today’’s pieces can be heard on the duo’s website http://www.eirasnow.co.uk but they’ve been around as a band for a long time and it really is time that they committed their music to disc. I’d certainly appreciate having a permanent record of this music and I’m sure that any CD release would sell well at gigs. 


BMJ ENSEMBLE, MELVILLE THEATRE

The mysterious non appearance of the South African accapella quintet Africa Entsha created something of a crisis for the Festival organisers. Apparently the group had cancelled other shows earlier in the week, including one in Edinburgh but no official communication had been received explaining their absence.

The trio quickly dubbed ‘The BMJ Ensemble’ was comprised of the only three musicians present on the premises, Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes of Eira Snow and bassist Erica Lyons who was scheduled to play a duo set later in the bar with keyboard player John paul Gard.

The unusual configuration of reeds plus two double basses assembled in the Theatre to play an impromptu gig comprised mainly of jazz standards. Despite being so hastily convened the three musicians performed a consistently interesting set that saw an intriguing tension develop between Owen’s avant garde leanings and Lyon’s more straight ahead inclinations. The discussions between tunes were an entertainment in themselves and the interplay between the two basses was a consistent source of fascination with Lyons often making effective use of the bow.

Owen largely stuck to tenor sax throughout, the constant instrument swappage of Eira/Snow would not have been appropriate in this context. Nevertheless he probed extremely deeply, taking the music right out there in a programme that included Miles Davis’ “All Blues” and Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” and the ballad “Weaver Of Dreams”, in a version inspired by Dexter Gordon. Suitably emboldened they even tackled the Eira/Snow tune “Mutiny In Elsinor”. Some of the interplay between Owen’s tenor, Downes’ pizzicato bass and Lyon’s bowed bass was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s groups featuring arco specialist David Izenzon, a direction that Owen, in particular, was keen to explore.

In this impromptu setting few of the tunes were actually announced and much of what was played was wholly improvised. Owen picked up his alto for one number, which also included another of those absorbing bass duets. The sound of two double basses working together is something that is rarely heard and it made a refreshing change.

Another item saw Downes finally picking up his baritone for a blues infused double sax workout that featured Lyons on arco bass and a solo from Downes on the big horn.

Despite its looseness I rather enjoyed this set which skirted lightly around the boundaries of straight ahead and free jazz and included some excellent interactive playing between all three musicians. The fact that such an interesting and engaging performance could be put together ‘on the fly’ was a good illustration of what jazz is all about.

It was all very different from the advertised event but I suspect that I probably enjoyed this absorbing session rather more than I would the more obviously theatrical Africa Entsha. Hats off to Lyndon, Crac and Erica for stepping into the breach so brilliantly.


ERICA LYONS / JOHN PAUL GARD DUO, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR

If Saturday was turning out to be an unexpectedly busy day for Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes the same applied to Erica Lyons. Following her impromptu set with the BMJ Ensemble she carted her bass into the bar to perform her scheduled duo set with the Bristol based keyboard player John paul Gard.

Best known as a highly talented organist today’s set represented a rare outing from Gard on electric piano, a Roland RD 64. “Erica’s my left leg” explained Gard, “I usually play the organ and play the bass lines on the pedals”.

As an organist Gard is a highly popular artist with jazz audiences and has previously visited wall2wall in this context when he led his trio in a concert performance at the inaugural Festival back in 2013.

Today’s set was comprised of a selection of familiar jazz standards and Lyons seemed happier in this more straightforward context, although she admitted to enjoying the challenge of playing that earlier, less structured set with Downes and Owen.

In the less formal setting of the bar she delighted in a series of playful instrumental exchanges with Gard on a series of standards including such well known tunes as “A Night In Tunisia”, “Take The A Train” and “Take Five”, all tunes that received more than one airing over the course of the Festival weekend.

Lyons has always been a highly accomplished bass player and a consistently engaging soloist and prior to her move to the Welsh Borders was a professional musician on the London scene. She also spent some time in New York studying bass with the great Ray Brown. I’ve seen her perform many times and have always enjoyed her playing.

I was also impressed with Gard as a pianist after witnessing several shows featuring him in his more familiar guise as an organist.

This short, but hugely enjoyable, set from two highly popular musicians was warmly appreciated by the Festival audience.


IAN SHAW / BARRY GREEN DUO, MELVILLE THEATRE

Ian Shaw is one of Britain’s most respected jazz vocalists, but his talent doesn’t stop there, he is also an accomplished pianist and songwriter and a raconteur with a ready, and often salty wit. In other words Ian Shaw is an entertainer – but having said that he’s emphatically not “show business”.

I recall enjoying a solo performance by Shaw at the Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival back in 2011 and being impressed by both his singing and his dazzling repartee. As a vocalist Shaw has a stunning technical facility allied to a jazz improviser’s sensibility, it’s an undeniably impressive combination, but ironically one that may have prevented him from coming to the attention of a broader, non specialist audience. “Of course if I owned some suits and was thin I’d be hugely famous”  he has been known to remark, with more than a little justification.

For today’s performance Shaw was joined by the excellent pianist Barry Green, a supremely versatile player who remains somewhat underrated in the UK despite having recorded with a number of leading American musicians.  The pianist had previously visited BMJ back in 2009 as a member of saxophonist Martin Speake’s ‘Generations’ quartet.

A superb accompanist Green works frequently with singers, including another one time BMJ visitor, Georgia Mancio. Technically gifted and supremely adaptable Green was the perfect foil for Shaw and also helped to keep a check on the singer’s verbal ramblings during this relatively short Festival set.

Like many jazz artists Shaw has a love of the music of Joni Mitchell and the performance began with a rendition of her “In France They Kiss On Main Street” which demonstrated Shaw’s awesome technique, but with the vocal gymnastics never obscuring the brilliant imagery of Mitchell’s lyrics. The faithful Green also impressed with his solo at the piano.

Shaw demonstrated his supremely flexible phrasing on the hipster lyrics of “Small Today Tomorrow” Bob Dorough’s paean to laziness and hedonism. The piece also featured an excellent solo from the impressive Green.

Shaw’s new album, to be released in November 2017 will be called “Shine, Sister, Shine” and will be dedicated to the women who have influenced his life and career.  It will include “All The Days” by the Welsh born singer-songwriter Judith Owen, with whom Shaw, himself a native of North Wales, has performed.

“Dance Me To The End Of Love” came from the pen of another, more famous, songwriter the late, great Leonard Cohen. The song had also been tackled, in a rather different manner, by the band Moscow Drug Club at the Festival Dinner at the Angel Hotel on Thursday evening.

We were also to hear “Wichita Lineman” again, but in an innovative, slowed down arrangement that was very different to the version performed earlier in the day by the Ollie West Ensemble. It’s been surprising to find just how big an influence Glen Campbell has been on jazz artists with Shaw praising him as a vocalist and singling out the clarity of his diction.

Shaw is an artist who looks forward as well as backwards. Acknowledging the influence of Mel Torme “Born To Be Blue” included an example of Shaw’s superior scatting technique as he exchanged phrases with Green at the piano.
Meanwhile his cover of Alicia Keys’ “New York (Empire State of Mind)” showed how up to date he can be. The latter song is to be included on the forthcoming “Shine, Sister, Shine” album.

Humour and tenderness then combined on Shaw’s interpretation of Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?”.

“Carry On World” included a cast of colourful characters and a world weary black humour, plus a dazzling solo from the excellent Barry Green.

Politically active Shaw is an active fund raiser for the charity Side By Side With Refugees and has been a volunteer worker at the detention camps in Calais. After today’s show a bucket collection was held in support of the charity while Shaw’s emotive, self penned song “Keep Walking” addressed the subject with music, the lyrics telling the tale of Sara, an Eritrean refugee currently stranded in Calais. The song will be included on the forthcoming album.

“The Beautiful Life” ended the show on a more optimistic note and the warmth of the audience reaction saw the duo returning for a brief encore of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”.

In between the songs Shaw charmed the audience with his relaxed but streetwise banter,  including details of his Welsh Presbyterian upbringing, the differences in the Welsh language between the North and South of the country – and the time he was employed to play piano in an Amsterdam brothel.

This was an excellent performance from two highly talented musicians and the standard of the singing and playing was exceptional. And like all Ian Shaw shows it was also highly entertaining as well as being musically satisfying. Shaw doesn’t pander to a mass audience but nevertheless he deserves to be far better known to the wider public than he actually is.

After the show I treated myself to two albums recorded by Barry Green in Brooklyn on a visit to New York in January 2014.  Recorded with two separate trios “Great News” features Green with saxophonist Chris Cheek and drummer Gerald Cleaver while “Almost There” features a more conventional piano trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey. Both sets feature a combination of Green originals and a mix of inspired covers ranging from jazz and bebop standards to pop tunes. All are given innovative, sometimes quirky arrangements and a wry musical wit is inherent throughout both recordings with the spirit of Thelonious Monk never too far away. As one would expect from musicians of this quality the playing is excellent throughout and Green more than holds his own in such illustrious company. Both releases are highly recommended and appear on Green’s own Moletone record label.
 

SARAH MEEK / GUY SHOTTON DUO, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR

The duo of vocalist Sarah Meek and pianist Guy Shotton played a successful club date at BMJ in March 2017 when the pair opened for Shotton’s own instrumental trio featuring bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Bob Richards.

That evening came about as the result of a duo performance by Shotton and vocalist Debs Hancock in the Melville Theatre Bar at the 2016 wall2wall Jazz Festival.

Today’s enjoyable standards set included classy interpretations of “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily” plus the Duke Ellington tunes “Take The A Train” and “In A Mellow Tone”.

Arguably the most impressive item was the duo’s adaptation of a tune by Ravel, with lyrics presumably added by Meek.

The qualities that made the duo’s first BMJ performance such a success were evident again with Meek demonstrating an impressive technical facility and a real talent for jazz phrasing. Like her musical partner the singer is a graduate of the RWCMD Jazz Course.

Shotton again impressed as a highly capable piano soloist and as an inventive and imaginative arranger.

This good natured set from a pair of very personable performers was again very well received by the audience in the Melville Centre’s bar area.

To read more about Sarah Meek and Guy Shotton and their previous BMJ visit please go to;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/sarah-meek-guy-shotton-trio-black-mountain-jazz-the-melville-centre-abergav/


GILAD ATZMON & THE ORIENT HOUSE ENSEMBLE, MELVILLE THEATRE

A regular visitor to BMJ Gilad Atzmon drew the largest concert audience of the Festival for this performance featuring his regular working band the Orient House Ensemble comprised of pianist Frank Harrison, bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer Enzo Zirilli.

The quartet were presenting music from their forthcoming album “The Spirit Of Trane”, a celebration of the music and spirit of John Coltrane, the great saxophonist, composer and improviser who died in 1967 but remains a towering influence on contemporary jazz musicians.

The band played next to a panel dedicated to John Coltrane that had been moved into the Theatre from the informative exhibition curated by the National Jazz Archive that had been set up in the foyer for the duration of the Festival.

The album repertoire includes outside material played by Coltrane as well as music actually composed by him. In a neat twist of musical fate Duke Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone”, which concluded the set by Sarah Meek and Guy Shotton was followed by the same composer’s “In A Sentimental Mood”,  which opened the proceedings here. It was introduced by the duo of Harrison on piano and Atzmon on soprano sax but the first real solo of the piece featured Stavi’s melodic and resonant double bass. The recorded version also features the Sigamos String Quartet led by violinist Ros Stephen but in the absence of the additional instrumentation Atzmon was able to stretch out on the soprano, sounding authentically ‘Trane-like’ and inserting a quote from “Resolution” (from Coltrane’s most famous recording “A Love Supreme”) into his solo.

“Invitation”, written by Bronislaw Kaper but indelibly associated with Coltrane, followed. Given a kind of tango arrangement the piece saw Atzmon switching to tenor sax, an instrument not normally associated with him. But as Atzmon explains in his notes to the forthcoming album the tenor was his first horn and it was Coltrane who inspired him to play it. It was the difficulty of transporting the instrument on budget airlines that led to him abandoning the tenor and taking up the smaller alto sax, the instrument with which he is now most commonly associated. It was this recording that saw the saxophonist getting his tenor “out of the closet” but his playing here as he shared the solos with pianist Harrison sounded as if he’d been playing the instrument all his life.

This was even more pronounced on the Atzmon original “Minor Thing”, a tune written in a Coltrane-esque idiom that included a marathon tenor solo that sounded for all the world like prime time, “sheets of sound” era Coltrane, such was the flawless intensity of the playing, with drummer Zirilli responding in a manner that was reminiscent of the great Elvin Jones.
When Atzmon had finally blown himself out Harrison responded with a slow burning piano solo , gradually ramping up the intensity with the aid of Stavi’s omnipresent bass growl and Zirilli’s colourful and increasingly forceful snare and cymbal decorations. 

The ballad “Central Park West” presented the gentler side of Coltrane’s spirit with Atzmon adopting a softer tone on tenor, Harrison providing a lyrical piano solo and Zirilli turning in some suitably sensitive and sympathetic brush work.

Solo soprano sax introduced the next item which was unannounced, but which proved to be “Blue Train” if memory serves. After progressing through a brief duo dialogue with Harrison Atzmon launched into an intense, powerful solo, often with the group in sax trio mode as Harrison sat back before delivering his own sparkling solo.

Introduced by Atzmon as “John Coltrane’s take on Brexit” the OHE’s modal, Coltrane-esque version of the folk tune “Scarborough Fair” originally appeared on the 2013 OHE album “Songs of the Metropolis” . Tonight’s version commenced with Atzmon blowing his soprano directly into the strings of the piano to create a kind of echo effect, the atmospherics enhanced by Zirilli’s cymbal scrapes.  Harrison took the first solo, his expansive wanderings gradually gathering intensity , powered along by Zirilli’s increasingly dynamic drumming. Atzmon then switched to tenor, soloing with a simmering intensity.

All too soon we had come to the final number, another delightful ballad performance that featured the warm, soulful sound of Atzmon’s tenor.  The tune was unannounced but was probably Jimmy McHugh’s “Say It (Over And Over Again” which closes the “Spirit of Trane” album.

Rewarded with shouts for “more!” from a highly appreciative audience the quartet returned for a blistering, free-wheeling, quote stuffed, bop inspired work out briskly ushered in by Zirilli’s drums and featuring some robust tenor and drum exchanges, more dazzling pianistics from Harrison and a final series of volcanic drum breaks from Zirilli.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to see the tunes from the “Spirit of Trane” album performed by the core of the Orient House Ensemble. The album itself sounds very different thanks to Ros Stephen’s magnificent string arrangements. Today’s performance was much more raw and direct and, arguably, closer to the true spirit of Coltrane himself.

Atzmon’s dynamic performances and extraordinary musicianship have made him a hugely popular figure with BMJ audiences and his three band mates in a long running and highly cohesive ensemble are also supremely accomplished musicians and consistently exciting and entertaining performers. In this relatively brief festival slot Atzmon kept the verbals to a minimum, something of a first for him, and let the music do the talking. It spoke with eloquence and conviction, channelling the “Spirit of Trane” to a 21st century audience.


GETHIN LIDDINGTON / DAVE JONES DUO, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR

The final duo performance of the Festival featured two more of South Wales’ finest musicians, Gethin Liddington on trumpet and flugelhorn and Dave Jones at the piano. Both are highly accomplished soloists and both have featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages.

I didn’t get to see as much of this set as I would have liked after being whisked away in the middle to be interviewed about my thoughts on the Festival by Mike Skilton for the wall2wall live-stream broadcast. Frankly I found it a highly discomforting experience, as a journalist I’d far rather be behind a typewriter than in front of a camera!

Getting back to the bar and in severe need of a drink I managed to catch the end of Dave and Geth’s standards based set and remember enjoying their interpretation of “All The Things You Are”, which featured Liddington’s distinctive four valve flugel.

As one would expect from these two vastly experienced musicians this was a very classy set that was correspondingly well received. I just wish I’d managed to hear a bit more of it.


SHEZ RAJA COLLECTIVE with DENNIS ROLLINS, MELVILLE THEATRE

Trombonist Dennis Rollins appeared at the 2016 wall2wall Festival with his own Velocity Trio and enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to be involved again.

This year he was back as a guest soloist with the Collective, the band led by electric bass specialist Shez Raja. The line up of the Collective has always been fluid and Raja positively encourages the involvement of prominent guest soloists, Indeed Gilad Atzmon has collaborated with the group in the past, both live and on record.  Meanwhile Raja’s most recent album, “Gurutopia” features contributions from big name Americans Randy Brecker (trumpet) and Mike Stern (guitar).

Raja is a British-Asian bass player and composer, originally from the Wirral but now based in London.   He  formed his Collective in 2007 and subsequently released three studio albums, “Magica” (2007) “Ten Of Wands” (2008) and Mystic Radikal” (2010).  In 2014 the album “Soho Live” captured something of the energy of a Collective live performance and this was followed by the studio set “Gurutopia” in 2016.

For today’s performance Raja and Rollins were joined by two of the Collective’s core members, New Zealand born Pascal Roggen on electric violin and Alex Stanford on keyboards. The drum stool was occupied by Sophie Alloway, perhaps best known as the drummer with the trio Wild Card, led by guitarist Clement Regert.

Raja lists his key influences on electric bass as being Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and Weather Report era Jaco Pastorius so it’s perhaps not too surprising to discover that much of his music is full of strong, funky grooves that pack a mighty rhythmic punch. But there’s also a degree of subtlety about Raja’s music and an increasingly important element reflecting his Asian heritage.

Like his hero Miller the bassist is a great showman and his live shows are energetic, entertaining affairs with the instrumental virtuosity of the group members balanced by an underlying good humour and sense of fun.

Described by its composer as “a trip to the Punjab” the opening segue of “Shambala”, “Epiphany” and “Get Cosmic” incorporated funky electric bass, and hard driving drumming but also included imaginative solos from Rollins and Roggen plus the leader on his five string bass. In this electric setting the sounds of the instruments were often heavily treated, particularly Roggen’s violin and the leader’s bass. Raja’s second solo of this sequence featured the distinctive sound of the wah wah pedal, just one of Raja’s range of electronic effects. These new tunes are likely to be featured on Raja’s next recording.

From the “Gurutopia” album the frenetic “Maharajah” kept the pot bubbling with its infectious mix of funk grooves and Indian timbres and melodies. Introduced by Raja’s heavily distorted electric bass the piece included solos from the always inventive Rollins and from Stanford on his rack of keyboards (a Prophet synth and a Nord Electro 2), sounding more than a little like the great Bernie Worrall.

From the same album “Song For John” added a folkish lilt via Roggen’s violin solo which floated above the leader’s languorous electric bass groove. Meanwhile Rollins adopted a warm, rounded sound for his trombone solo.

Inspired by Raja’s love of the films of Guy Ritchie “RocknRolla” raised the energy levels once more. Ushered in by Alloway at the drums the piece found Stanford adopting a Hammond organ sound while Raja’s wah wah inflected bass solo and Stanford’s subsequent synth excursion attempted to capture something of the essence of Stern’s high octane guitar work on the recorded version.

Still focussing on the “Gurutopia” material “Sketches Of Space” (great title!) was a feature for the versatile Roggen, a musician capable of playing all styles of music from classical to folk, on either electric or acoustic violin.  He clearly relishes playing in this band and was a good humoured, energetic presence throughout, the perfect foil for his similarly inclined leader.

The dynamic variations of “Rabbits”, the opening track on “Gurutopia” offered Rollins the opportunity to express himself on trombone before Raja, ever the showman, encouraged the audience to clap along to the funky grooves generated by himself and Alloway. With the crowd fully on board the Collective unleashed further solos from Stanford on electric piano, Raja and his ‘mutant thumb’ on virtuosic electric bass, and finally the excellent Alloway at the drums. She had played with power and precision all night – on the evening of her birthday. Her contribution was rewarded by the presentation of a cake from Raja and the rest of the band and a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to You” from both band and audience – she still had to provide her own drum accompaniment though!

Alloway was to feature again on the encore “Freedom”, a tune sourced from the “Magika” album and tonight given a Township Jazz feel as Rollins, Roggen and Raja ventured into the crowd to deliver their solos. The audience loved and this was a great way to bring the curtain down on an excellent days music that had seen wall2wall hosting three of the great entertainers of the British jazz scene, Ian Shaw, Gilad Atzmon and Shez Raja.

Entertainers they may be but they are musicians first and foremost and it was the excellence of their singing and playing that stood out most of all – the rest was just a bonus. For me Atzmon took the award for gig of the day by a very short head, partially because it was such a novelty to see him playing tenor with such brilliance. The only disappointment was that he didn’t get up to jam with the Raja Collective.

Elsewhere the Ollie West Band offered plenty of youthful promise in a set that was eminently enjoyable, if a little outside my current listening zone. The duos in the bar all contributed worthwhile performances that included some first class playing and singing.

Lyndon Owen and Crac Downes emerged as the unexpected heroes of the day, playing a hugely successful Eira/Snow show in the bar before stepping into the breach (together with Erica Lyons) to provide a much needed rescue act following the non appearance of Africa Entsha.

And Lyndon was to save the day again on Sunday – but more of that in that day’s coverage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 31st August and 1st September 2017.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 31st August and 1st September 2017.

Ian Mann enjoys the first two days of the festival and performances by Moscow Drug Club, the Gareth Roberts / Dave Jones Duo, and the musical celebration 1917 & All That Jazz.

Photograph of Liam Dunachie sourced from http://www.liamdunachie.co.uk

THURSDAY AND FRIDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, ABERGAVENNY, 31/08/2017 and 01/09/2017.

Now in its fifth year and established into a settled format the wall2wall Jazz Festival, organised by Black Mountain Jazz Club, continues to deliver its aims of bringing top class jazz to Abergavenny, delighting the aficionados while also bringing the music to the attention of a wider constituency and putting the town itself on the global musical map.

An innovative initiative for 2017 saw six of the headline concert performances at the Theatre in the Melville Centre being live streamed across the internet with Friday evening’s performance attracting over 1000 viewers worldwide, with one fan watching on from Adelaide, Australia.

The Festival commenced on the Thursday evening with the Festival Dinner, held for the second successive year in the ballroom of the splendidly refurbished Angel Hotel,  before moving on for a series of concerts and fringe events at the Melville Centre on the Friday night and all day Saturday.

Sunday saw the third edition of the popular ‘Jazz Alley’, a free family friendly event held within the confines of Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall. With food stalls, a licensed bar and a series of free live performances this well attended event has been successful in raising the profile of Black Mountain Jazz within the town.

On Sunday night the closing “Boogie Party”, a highly popular and successful event in 2016, saw the return of Red Stripe Band to the Market Hall with their dance floor friendly blend of jazz, boogie woogie, jump jive, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and more.

FESTIVAL DINNER feat. MOSCOW DRUG CLUB, THE ANGEL HOTEL, 31/08/2017

The Festival began on Thursday evening with the third annual Festival Dinner. This year’s sell out event saw over 100 diners enjoy a two course meal followed by musical entertainment from Moscow Drug Club, the popular Bristol based band who had previously played two successful concert performances at previous editions of wall2wall.

The Festival Dinner was attended by the Mayor and Mayoress of Abergavenny and has become something of a civic event, a popular occasion that has done much to increase the awareness of jazz in general, and BMJ in particular, within Abergavenny and its environs. 

As I attended this event as a paying customer I don’t intend to give my usual song by song account of the performance by Moscow Drug Club. The Bristol based band describe their sound as coming from “a curious musical place where certain elements of 1930’s Berlin Cabaret, Hot Club de France, Nuevo Tango & Gypsy Campfire meet, have a few to drink and stagger arm in arm into the darkness of some eastern European cobbled street on a mission to find the bar where Django Reinhardt & Tom Waits are having an after hours jam with the local Tziganes”
which sums it all up nicely.

Fronted by singer, and occasional percussionist, Katya Gorrie the group also included accordionist Mirek Salmon, trumpeter Jonny Bruce, bassist Andy Crowdy and guitarist Will Gibbons. The band had performed at the 2014 and 2015 wall2walls at the Festival’s previous home at the Kings Arms.

Their approach remains essentially the same and tonight’s set included many songs that had featured in the group’s earlier performances with tonight’s set including such favourites as “When I Get Low I Get High”, “The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans”, Strip Polka” “The Gypsy With The Fire In his Shoes”, Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love”, and an effective and evocative slowed down arrangement of “Besame Mucho”. As popular with the Abergavenny audience as ever they encored with their signature tune “Moscow Drug Club” with its cold war imagery and witty hook line “Where the Reds play the Blues”.

While Gorrie played the provocative chanteuse the instrumentalists impressed with some quality instrumental cameos with Bruce’s strident trumpet solos threatening to raise the Angel’s exquisitely decorated roof. The trumpeter was to return the following night as part of the ensemble that presented the show “1917 & All That Jazz” at the Melville Theatre.

For more on Moscow Drug Club my review of the group’s 2014 wall2wall appearance can be found in my Festival coverage for that year here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/sunday-at-wall2wall-jazz-festival-abergavenny-31-08-2014/

For 2015 please visit here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/friday-and-saturday-at-wall2wall-jazz-festival-abergavenny-4th-and-5th-sept/

Meanwhile guest contributor Trevor Bannister reviewed a more recent performance by Moscow Drug Club at the Progress Theatre, Reading on 29th January 2016. Trevor’s account can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/moscow-drug-club-progress-theatre-reading-berkshire-29-01-2016/


1917 & ALL THAT JAZZ feat. LIAM DUNACHIE TRIO, JONNY BRUCE, BEN WAGHORN, DEBS HANCOCK, MEGAN THOMAS and NIGEL JARRETT,  MELVILLE THEATRE, 01/09/2017

2017 has been designated as the official centenary of the birth of jazz with “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, originally released in 1917, generally considered to be the first ever jazz recording.

1917 was also the birth date of three of the giants of the music, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. Events have been taking place in jazz clubs throughout the British Isles celebrating Ella, Diz and Monk and earlier in 2017 vocalist Debs Hancock, a BMJ stalwart and one of the forces behind the wall2wall Festival, presented her own “Ella at 100” show which toured in Wales and the West Country and which included a performance at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

The success of that tour, which also included a club date at BMJ, prompted Hancock to put a show together celebrating the centenary of jazz itself. The performance was based around a trio of talented young London based musicians led by Shropshire born pianist Liam Dunachie and featuring rising star bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer David Ingamells. Dunachie had made a big impression at the 2016 wall2wall when he performed on organ with trombonist Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio, deputising brilliantly for the regular incumbent, Ross Stanley.

The core trio were joined for tonight’s performance by two vocalists, Debs Hancock and Megan Thomas, the latter a recent graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff. Thomas had previously impressed at the 2016 Brecon Jazz Festival where she had appeared as part of a quartet led by guitarist Trefor Owen.

Also present and correct were two horn soloists, trumpeter Jonny Bruce of Moscow Drug Club fame and tenor saxophonist Ben Waghorn who had previously visited BMJ in February 2017 as part of pianist Dave Jones’ quartet. Bristol based Waghorn has also played with bands led by trumpeter Andy Hague and has a long term association with pianist Geoff Eales. He and Bruce played together as part of DSQ, the quintet led by pianist, composer and record label proprietor Dave Stapleton. Waghorn has also been part of Stapleton’s more recent project, the group Slowly Rolling Camera.

Hancock later explained to me that she had structured tonight’s one off collaboration around two strong, already existing units, the Dunachie trio and the long running partnership of Waghorn and Bruce. This proved to be an inspired choice as the whole evening ran very smoothly with the musical performances linked by a narrative written and spoken by jazz journalist Nigel Jarrett.

“We are not looking to create a stuffy ‘history of jazz’ lesson, just a celebration of iconic moments, players and collaborations and the influences that they may have had” declared the BMJ website and on an evening that was both relaxed and informative, and packed with great music, this was pretty much what we got.

And before we even got to the performance there were the delights of the “Prohibition Bar” in the Melville’s hospitality area to consider. Here BMJ stalwart Patricia, splendidly and glamorously dressed in 1920’s ‘flapper’ attire dispensed gin and tonics from a teapot into china cups, something that helped to create an authentic period atmosphere and which proved to be enormously popular. There was to be no beer for me tonight as I was driving home while my other half indulged her recently discovered passion for gin!

I was quite happy just to get intoxicated on the music as Jarrett introduced an opening batch of four tunes beginning with George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” which featured the Fitzgerald inspired vocals of Hancock and the piano soloing of Dunachie on an acoustic upright hired for the Festival.

Mullov-Abbado’s bass introduced a modal style interpretation of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” which featured an adventurous and flexible vocal performance from Thomas. On a piece these days more frequently heard as an instrumental the young singer brought an emotional charge to the rarely heard lyrics while also skilfully negotiating the technical demands of the piece.

Bruce and Waghorn then came to the front of the stage to dovetail neatly on the opening of Dizzy Gillespie’s enduring “A Night In Tunisia” before getting the chance to demonstrate their impressive individual ‘chops’. Bruce’s blazing trumpet solo saw him carrying on where he’d left off with Moscow Drug Club. Waghorn, a powerful but fluent saxophonist, was no less impressive and a high energy performance also included a drum feature from Ingamells before the two horns linked up again for a restatement of the familiar theme.

Having paid homage to Diz the ensemble now tipped their collective hats towards Thelonious Monk with a performance of the pianist’s “Well You Needn’t”  which offered a further demonstration of Waghorn’s abilities alongside further solos from Dunachie on the piano, and Mullov-Abbado, a successful composer and band leader in his own right, on the bass.

Jarrett then returned to introduce the next crop of tunes which commenced with the New Orleans stylings of “St. James Infirmary Blues” which began in funereal style with Ingamells’ martial style drums and the dolorous wail of Bruce’s trumpet teamed with Waghorn’s tenor. But in true New Orleans fashion the music soon turned into a celebration with Bruce’s strident, vocalised trumpet solo followed by Dunachie’s honky-tonk style piano solo, accompanied by the clatter of Ingamells’ sticks on rims. Mullov-Abbado again illustrated his virtuosity on the bass prior to another raucously vocalised passage from Bruce on trumpet.

Atmospheric low end piano and Thomas’ wordless vocals ushered in the ballad “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning”, an unscheduled delight that even took Jarrett by surprise which featured the singer’s flexible phrasing on another impressive rendition of the lyric. The tune was adventurously combined with a reading of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” (the first recording to feature a Hammond organ as Jarrett informed us) that featured some adventurous scatting from Thomas and a sparkling solo from Dunachie.

Hancocks returned to sing a swinging version of “Take The A Train” in which she demonstrated her own scatting abilities alongside some lively trumpet and tenor exchanges plus a series of sparky drum breaks from Ingamells.

Unaccompanied drums then introduced a frantic version of Charlie Parker’s bebop classic “Confirmation”  which saw Bruce on muted trumpet and Waghorn on tenor combining effectively on the complex harmonies and slippery, darting melodic phrases. Waghorn took the first solo followed by Bruce and Dunachie before the horns wrapped up an excellent first half by trading fours with Ingamells.

Set two began with Hancock giving an assured and emotive performance of Monk’s “Round Midnight” in a pared down setting featuring just voice, piano and bass.

Jarrett then told us something of the history of jazz recording and of the racial prejudice the music’s black performers suffered during the early days before touching on the ‘Great American Songbook’ and the later attempts to break away from this by adventurous musicians such as Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The next selection of tunes began with Miles Davis’ “So What” which commenced with Mullov-Abbado playing Paul Chambers’ famous bass motif and saw Bruce approximating the sound of Davis’ equally famous trumpet solo. Dunachie’s piano solo saw him singing along with his own melody lines and Mullov-Abbado’s bass feature included some stunning work up around the bridge of the instrument.

Horace Silver’s most famous composition “Song For My Father” included some muscular tenor soloing from Waghorn while Bruce adopted a cooler sound on muted trumpet, but still generating an impressive degree of nascent power. Dunachie’s piano solo offered a more reflective interlude, appropriate perhaps to the song’s title.

Dunachie teased with the infamous “Smoke On The Water” riff when introducing Jobim’s “Triste” which featured another adventurous performance from Megan Thomas who sang the English lyric and added a scat vocal passage that effectively shared the soloing with Dunachie’s piano.

Waghorn featured strongly on John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, a tune from the classic “Blue Train” album. His opening solo was fluent and well constructed, steadily building in intensity while propelled by Mullov-Abbado’s rapid bass walk and Ingamells’ crisp, propulsive drumming. Dunachie’s expansive solo then saw the pianist responding in kind.

Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, written by saxophonist Paul Desmond and sourced from another landmark album, “Time Out” followed.  This was a vehicle for Dunachie who played the famous melody on piano before stretching out and sharing the solos with Mullov-Abbado on a piece played by just the core trio.

Jarrett then returned to introduce a sequence of vocal performances, two of them sourced from the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess”.

But first we heard Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”, selected because the composer himself lived to be more than one hundred. Here Hancock and Thomas shared the vocals, singing alternate lines and stretching the fabric of the song prior to a dazzling solo from Dunachie, arguably his best of the night.
This segued directly into Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy”, this time with the singers sharing verses, and finally into “Summertime” with a jaunty but innovative arrangement featuring Thomas’s vocals and Bruce’s vocalised, plunger muted solo which saw the trumpeter really letting rip. He was followed by Waghorn on tenor sax before Hancock returned to sing the final verse.

Dunachie introduced his own tune “The Elite Pie Land”, the unusual name actually proving to be an anagram for “Help, I Need A Title!”, Played by the core trio the quirkiness of the title was undermined by the gentle lyricism of the performance with the composer’s limpid piano shadowed by Mullov-Abbado’s warm bass purr and the delicate shadings of Ingamells’ brushed drums.

Finally Jarrett returned to introduce the ensemble’s own version of “Livery Stable Blues” which saw them kicking off in the original Dixieland collective polyphonic style before stretching out with the kind of extended solos that developed later in the history of jazz. Jarrett emphasised the importance of the blues in the development of the music, and this was emphasised in the solos of Waghorn and Bruce, the trumpeter first playing with a bucket mute before removing it and emoting more powerfully through the open horn. The solos from the horn men were preceded by a spirited excursion from Dunachie himself.

This opening performance at the Melville Centre was something of a triumph and a vindication of the hard work put in by Debs Hancock and others to organise the event. Despite the familiarity of the material the arrangements and performances were fresh and adventurous and the standard of the singing and playing first rate. Nigel Jarrett did a good job as narrator with a well researched and sometimes humorous script.

GARETH ROBERTS / DAVE JONES DUO, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR, 01/09/2017.

Wall2Wall Jazz has always lived up to its name and during the interval we were entertained by a good natured standards set in the bar area by two of South Wales’ finest jazz musicians, trombonist Gareth Roberts and pianist Dave Jones. Their set included well known tunes such as “Just Squeeze Me”, “In A Mellow Tone” and “Stella By Starlight”, but just like the main event in the theatre these benefited from the freshness and inventiveness of the playing. Both musicians are highly accomplished soloists and composers and bandleaders in their own right. It’s always a pleasure to see both of them play, whether individually or together, and in whatever musical contexts they find themselves.

Roberts regularly plays his trombone at sporting events, hired to encourage and galvanise the crowd. Torn between Glamorgan in the 20/20 cricket finals in Birmingham and the Wales v Austria World Cup qualifier in Cardiff he decided on the local option and the football. A good move as it turned out with Glamorgan bowing out in the semis but the Welsh football team triumphing with a late wonder strike from young Ben Woodburn. I’d like to think that Gareth’s playing contributed in some small way to this vital victory.

 

 

“Jazz Futures” in Brecon and Reading.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

“Jazz Futures” in Brecon and Reading.

Jazz educator Marc Edwards, creator of the "Brecon Jazz Futures" programme at Brecon Jazz Festival, writes about his work promoting the music of young jazz musicians at events in Brecon and Reading.

The following feature was co-authored by Marc Edwards of Brecon Jazz Futures and Trevor Bannister of Jazz in Reading.


About Brecon Jazz Futures.


In August 2016, the long-established and prestigious Brecon Jazz Festival faced closure through dwindling grant aid and funding. The Friends of Brecon Jazz responded to this crisis with the decision to give greater support than ever before, offering voluntary service as first-time promoters in producing the ‘pilot’ Brecon Jazz Futures project, with the full support of the CEO of Theatr Brycheiniog, its staff and all facilities.

Young emerging bands would be selected and booked to mount a series of concerts at the Brecon Theatre (Brycheiniog), to run alongside and to complement simultaneously the newly re-formed Brecon Jazz Festival, as presented in other central Brecon venues by the long-established and very hard-working Brecon Jazz Club.

Reading based Marc Edwards, with a lifetime career in instrumental music education, was appointed curator of the new Futures programme series. He sourced nine bands, mostly from the Royal Academy, London and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, (plus five locally-based groups commissioned by by the team at Theatr Brycheiniog), to fill the weekend with a series of extraordinarily inspiring and high-quality concerts, headlined by leading trombonist Dennis Rollins with his trio Velocity.

‘We were looking to help to keep the flame of jazz in Brecon alive,’ Marc has remarked, ‘firstly in providing a public platform for young emerging bands, and secondly with the intention of appealing to a broader, more youthful audience.’

The success of both the Brecon Jazz Futures event and that organised by Brecon Jazz Club offered encouragement to suggest that Brecon Jazz could survive well beyond expectation. This year, though small in scale, and in spite of the temporary hiatus and loss of momentum in Futures’ progress, the 2017 Brecon Jazz Festival proved to be a ‘small, but beautifully formed’ delight.

**** **** **** **** ****

Meanwhile, Jazz in Reading was making its own strides towards presenting young and emerging jazz talent, with the booking of the Alex Hitchcock Quintet who will play at the Progress Theatre, Reading on 22nd September 2017. Why should they and Brecon Jazz Futures not join forces? It seemed a natural and obvious alliance. With but a few weeks notice, the generous provision of time and support from Marc Edwards and the Jazz in Reading team, and the cooperation of the Progress Theatre, a concert was organised to present the Tom Smith Septet on 18 August 2017.

The rapturous applause of the sell-out audience and cries of ‘MORE’ that greeted the band speak for themselves; this was a memorable and truly successful event. As one member of the audience said, ‘This was the best jazz I’ve heard this year!’
Trevor Bannister’s review of this event can be read in full here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/tom-smith-septet-progress-theatre-reading-berkshire-18-08-2017/

All this bodes well for the future, not just for Brecon, but for UK jazz in general. Marc’s ‘recommended/approved’ list now holds twenty-six bands, based across the country in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Leeds, eager for the opportunity to express themselves in club and concert dates. Brecon and Reading have shown that it can work.

Why not contact Marc at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) to find out more?

Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2017.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2017.

Ian Mann on the final day of the Festival and performances by Hot 8 Brass Band, Sarah Munro, Mode9, Paul Carrack and Denys Baptiste.

Photograph of Denys Baptiste by Tim Dickeson


Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2017.

HOT 8 BRASS BAND

The final day of the Festival offered little in the way of cutting edge or even straight-ahead jazz with saxophonist Denys Baptiste and vocalist Gregory Porter the only recognised jazz performers.

However given their New Orleans roots the Hot 8 Brass Band, who opened the concert programme in the Big Top, still have close ties to the jazz tradition even though their music has moved on to embrace other genres of Afro-American music including soul, funk, r’n’b and hip hop. 

The high octane quartet emerged directly from the New Orleans marching band tradition and boast a line up of two trumpets, two trombones, tenor sax, sousaphone and two percussionists. And Hot 8 is still a genuine marching band,  the two percussionists played standing up, with snare and bass drums their principal instruments, neither sat down at a drum kit and the relentless rhythmic drive that they provided throughout this high energy show was astonishing. These guys made the Duracell Bunny look like a slouch.

Hot 8 are the real deal, survivors of Hurricane Katrina and with a chequered history that has seen the early deaths of several former members of the band as a result of New Orleans’ notorious gang violence. This is a band of brothers who have endured their share of tragedy and more than live up to their group motto “We Brass Hard”.

Led from the back by sousaphone player Bennie Pete and fronted by trumpeter/vocalist B.I.G. Al Huntley Hot 8 proved to be supreme entertainers. They had the almost capacity audience in the capacious Big Top on their feet from the off. Maybe this wasn’t so surprising, when a guy the size of B.I.G. Al tells you to “get on yo’ feet’ you don’t stay sitting down.

Hot 8’s music exploded out of the blocks and they kept the pot bubbling throughout an opening half hour segue showcasing tunes from their latest album “On The Spot”. With lyrics celebrating Mardi Gras and other cultural aspects of their home city Hot 8 delivered a constantly unfolding hymn of praise to the ‘Big Easy’ with the music embracing everything from early field hollers to contemporary hip hop and everything in between.

Having got us on our feet Huntley and the gang kept us there courtesy of their infectious rhythms and regular call and response routines that had the audience singing and lapping along. This wasn’t a show for me to be taking notes, instead I just entered into the whole spirit of the thing, which was essentially just one big party celebrating the music and culture of the ‘Crescent City’.

Pete’s pumping sousaphone bass lines were a marvel and there were individual instrumental cameos for tenor sax plus the trumpets and trombones. The standard of musicianship was uniformly high, but instrumental virtuosity wasn’t really the point. Nevertheless a high standard of technical ability, not to mention extraordinary stamina, must be a prerequisite for acceptance into Hot 8’s pool of players.

Although the focus was on original material the band still played a series of memorable covers including Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Joy Division’s seemingly ineffably bleak “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which the Hot 8 managed to transform into a raucous sing-along party anthem. If Ian Curtis was spinning in his grave nobody would have been able to hear him.

The encore was a splendidly funky arrangement of the most famous New Orleans anthem of them all, “When The Saints”. The only disappointment was that the band didn’t actually parade around the venue.

This was a terrific show and although I wouldn’t necessarily wish to listen to Hot 8’s music at home there was no denying their crowd pleasing energy, attitude and musicianship. These guys are genuine showmen who really know how to work a crowd.

The early afternoon ‘party show’ in the Big Top has become a bit of a Cheltenham tradition and this was the most exuberant yet following previous successful appearances by London based outfits Hackney Colliery Band and Ibibio Sound Machine. Incidentally Hackney Colliery Band are supporting Hot 8 on some dates of the current UK tour.

SARAH MUNRO / MODE9

Another recent Cheltenham tradition is the Bank Holiday Afternoon Showcase event sponsored by the Oldham Foundation. Hosted by John Oldham this always showcases a double bill of emerging local talent with the acts selected having impressed the previous year as part of the Freestage programme. Previous artists who have appeared in this slot and gone on to bigger things include gypsy jazz guitarist Remi Harris and singer/songwriters Hattie Briggs and George Montague.

This year’s artists were Hertfordshire based singer/songwriter Sarah Munro and the six piece Cambridge/London jazz/funk/soul band Mode9. Previously the Showcase has featured locally based artists from the Midlands and the West Country but 2017 saw the performers coming from further afield.

First to appear was twenty year old Sarah Munro who has recently released her début album “Say Hello To You”. Her music has been played on BBC Radio 2, notably by Jamie Cullum, and she has also supported a diverse and impressive range of big names in the live environment, among them Jimmy Webb, Clare Teal and Festival artist Paul Carrack. 

Singing and playing acoustic guitar on the dimly lit stage Munro was accompanied by her sister Alison on keyboards and electronics. Sampled sounds, triggered by Alison attempted to create the impression of a full ban but, for me, this didn’t really work and the performance too often threatened to descend into glorified karaoke.

Nonetheless Munro had a number of fans and supporters in the Live Arena who would doubtless have disagreed with me as Munro opened her set with “I Don’t Know How To Say It Better” before moving on to the acoustic love song “The One”, sourced from her début album.

The breezy “Paint The World” was inspired by the MGM musical “An American In Paris” and featured the sounds of keyboards and sampled brushed drum beats in the arrangement.

Munro’s latest single, “For Eternity”, was written in the style of a jazz standard and has received Radio 2 airplay from Cullum, Jo Whiley and Michael Ball.

The folk tinged “Say Hello To You” featured Alison’s keyboards plus sampled woodwind sounds while “Goodbye Mr. Sunshine” saw Sarah moving temporarily to electric guitar.

The literate pop of “Little Sister” struck a chord with the female members of the audience and would make an excellent second single.

Munro put down her guitar and just sang on the torch song “No One Smiles Like You” as Alison fashioned a musical cloak around her via keyboards and samples but this only reinforced my ‘karaoke’ misgivings.

A cover of Blossom Dearie’s 1959 song “You Fascinate Me So” with its fabulously witty lyrics was much more fun with an increasingly confident Munro delivering a vivacious vocal performance.

Munro concluded her set with a beautiful version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” performed on just voice and acoustic guitar. For me it was the purely acoustic numbers such as this and “The One” that worked best, bringing out the cool fragile beauty of Munro’s voice plus the full poignancy of the lyrics.

Overall I found the music a little too twee and I missed the presence of a live band. Stroud based guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Hattie Briggs brought along her full cast of backing musicians a couple of years ago and her performance was far more convincing and ultimately far more enjoyable.

I don’t deny that Munro has talent and she will surely continue to develop and improve and continue to build a following. Today’s performance didn’t quite work for me but I’d welcome the opportunity of seeing a purely solo show or a full band show rather than this rather unsatisfying halfway house, a real ‘curate’s egg’ of a show that was undeniably ‘good in parts’.

Munro was followed by Mode9, a six piece jazz/soul/funk combo fronted by keyboard player and vocalist Oliie Lepage- Dean. The band also featured trumpet, tenor sax, guitar, electric bass and drums with trumpeter James Brady responsible for the horn arrangements.

Mode9 cite Erykah Badou and Steely Dan as sources of inspiration but Lepage-Dean’s main influence seems to be Jamie Cullum and the band’s set was infused with a surfeit of sub-Cullum vocalising.

“The Play” from the band’s début EP “The Standby” introduced their MO of smooth, Cullum style vocals and funk grooves with the instrumental flourishes coming from tenor sax and echoed trumpet.

Elsewhere we heard many staples of the neo-soul repertoire including “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” (segued here with Gershwin’s “Summertime”), Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”. Most offered pithy instrumental solos for trumpet, tenor or a guitar that was too low in the mix.

Lepage-Dean’s arrangements of “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” were more inventive and less predictable with “Raindrops” getting a particularly favourable reaction from a crowd that clearly also contained a number of this group’s performers.

There were also a couple of items that I took to be original songs with the moody “Other Side Of The City” the pick of these.

I‘m afraid That I found Mode9’s brand of neo-soul to be far too slick and predictable with Lepage-Dean an over-dominant presence. His kind of vocalising doesn’t do much for me and personally I’d like to have heard more from the instrumentalists. The musicians all impressed sporadically but weren’t given enough space to really express themselves. It would be interesting to hear some of them in a more obviously jazz context.

Despite his dominance centre stage I also felt that Lepage-Dean needed to work on his presentation. He didn’t name check his colleagues once and even omitted to introduce himself, which I thought rather perverse.

It pains me say it but this was poorest Showcase event that I’ve seen after having been enjoyably impressed by most of the acts in previous years. Perhaps today’s performers were a little bit too far removed from jazz for my personal tastes. Hopefully next year’s event will be more to my liking.

PAUL CARRACK BAND

From the young hopefuls in the Live Arena to a seasoned veteran in the Big Top.

Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Paul Carrack has enjoyed a long and successful career as a member of the bands Ace, Squeeze and Mike & The Mechanics as well as being a significant solo artist with a substantial back catalogue of his own.

Friends have always touted Carrack as a top live attraction and today was my chance to put their recommendations to the test. To be honest I’ve always found his albums rather too slick and over-produced but today’s highly enjoyable performance did indeed confirm that Carrack is a hugely talented and highly professional live performer.

In the live environment the rough edges remain and Sheffield born Carrack projects a suitably down to earth, journeyman persona. He comes across like an ordinary bloke with an extraordinary talent. 

Of course it helped that Carrack was backed by a crack band including Andy Staves (guitar), Jeremy Meek (electric bass and twin drummers Dean Duke and Jack Carrack (Paul’s son). But perhaps the most distinctive instrumentalist (other than Paul Carrack himself) was Steve Beighton (saxophone, keyboards), whose raunchy r’n’b flavoured tenor sax solos added a genuine element of jazz to the performance.

Carrack and his colleagues kicked off with “Too Good To Be True”, a good showcase for the leader’s white soul vocals and Beighton’s searing tenor.

“Satisfy My Soul” saw Carrack moving from guitar to Hammond organ and diving ever deeper into soul and gospel territory. Carrack also took the instrumental honours with a soulful organ solo. It was great to see areal Hammond being used rather then a modern substitute.

“Late At Night” saw Carrack back on guitar on a tenor enlivened excursion into funk territory. By way of contrast the semi- acoustic “Watching Over Me” featured confessional, autobiographical lyrics and Carrack playing a harmonica suspended in a neck brace.

A move to the piano signalled cheers of recognition from another large crowd in the Big Top as Carrack played the opening chords of “Eyes of Blue” as swirling dry ice complemented this much loved slice of blue eyed soul.

“Better Than Nothing” was a blistering work out that featured extended solos from Carrack on electric guitar, piano and organ together with further features from Meek on electric bass, Beighton on scorching tenor and Staves on equally molten guitar. The sheer length of the solos suggested that they were tailored specifically for a jazz festival audience.

After this both band and audience were in a need of a breather and a brief acoustic set featured Paul Carrack on acoustic guitar and harmonica, Jack on small percussion and Meek on semi-acoustic upright bass. “Borderline” contained evocative Western imagery with its references to the Rio Grande and the “broken promised land”.
Meanwhile “Life’s Too Short” with its message of hope, positivism and living for the moment packed a greater rhythmic drive.

With the full band back on stage Carrack launched into “Tempted”, written by Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford and sung by Carrack during his tenure with Squeeze. This was a huge hit back in the day and was still clearly fondly remembered by the Cheltenham crowd. Carrack joined Squeeze as a replacement for Jools Holland and his Hammond playing here would surely have won the approval of his predecessor.

“Bet Your Life” saw Carrack moving between piano and organ and also included instrumental solos from Beighton and Staves.

Carrack’s song “Love Will Keep Us Alive” was recorded by The Eagles and was tonight dedicated by the composer to the memory of the late Glenn Frey, much to the approval of the Cheltenham audience.

The Mike & The Mechanics hit “The Living Years” was greeted with a huge cheer of recognition and seemed to signal the ‘final lap’ and a romp through some of the biggest hits with which Carrack has been associated.

I’ve still got an old vinyl copy of the Ace album “Five A Side” somewhere so “How Long” was much appreciated not only by me but by the entire audience who sang along gleefully with Carrack’s first hit as the man himself provided authoritative white soul vocals and churning Hammond organ.

At this juncture the band left the stage but I was fully expecting them to return to run through the old Mechanics hit “Over My Shoulder” but sadly this didn’t happen, probably because of the demands of Festival scheduling. The advertised 75 minutes was up by then and the crowd accepted the lack of an encore without any real complaint.

Interestingly the set list that I was able to procure from a kindly (and highly efficient) sound engineer suggested that we’d missed out on “Over My Shoulder”, the last scheduled song of the main set, plus an encore of “What’s Going On” and “Make Your Mind Up”. Up until “How Long” Carrack and the band had followed the set list to the letter. Maybe they overdid the solos on “Better Than Nothing”.

It was a little disappointing not to hear the missing items but overall this was a hugely enjoyable show from a highly talented musician and a hugely accomplished band. Next time my friends suggest going to see Paul Carrack I might just tag along.

DENYS BAPTISTE presents THE LATE TRANE

Saxophonist Denys Baptiste has been a frequent visitor to Cheltenham Jazz Festival and his appearances have included the commissions “Let Freedom Ring” and “Now Is The Time”, extended works inspired by the life and works of Martin Luther King that were premièred in 2003 and 2014 respectively. More than a decade on “Let Freedom Ring” is still performed frequently.

Baptiste’s latest project is “The Late Trane”, an examination and re-invention of music from Coltrane’s later albums, post “A Love Supreme”.

I’d had something of a sneak preview the previous November when Baptiste and his quartet performed some of the pieces at Ray’s Jazz at Foyle’s as part of the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival. Unfortunately I had to cut that visit short in order to move on to another Festival event so I was very much looking forward to seeing a full length performance from Baptiste and his band.

The group that Baptiste brought to Cheltenham was essentially the same one that appeared in London and the one that appears on the recently released “The Late Trane” CD. The saxophonist was joined by pianist Nikki Yeoh and drummer Rod Youngs with bassist Neil Charles replacing Gary Crosby. Charles and Crosby share bass duties on the recording.

For this project Baptiste has re-arranged Coltrane’s compositions adding contemporary bass and drum plus elements of electronica with Baptiste sometimes manipulating the sound of his horn.

Today’s performance began with the title track of the Coltrane album “Living Space”  and was an eerily spiritual tour de force featuring the leader’s breathy, echoed tenor, Youngs’ mallet rumbles and small percussive details and Charles’ evocative arco bass.

Charles flourished the bow once more on the introduction to “Dusk Dawn” in partnership with the patter of Youngs’ hand drumming. But ultimately this was a far more explosive affair with the clarion call of Baptiste’s strident tenor combining with Yeoh’s Tyner-esque piano playing, which was so intense that it almost strayed into Cecil Taylor territory at times. Yeoh recently the award for “Best Instrumentalist” at the 2017 Jazz FM awards and found herself hanging out with the stars at the awards ceremony, including members of the Rolling Stones. 

Baptiste’s approach to Coltrane’s material was perhaps best epitomised by “Ascent” which infused the piece with hip hop and drum’n’bass grooves with Yeoh playing electric keyboards in addition to utilising a laptop. Baptiste’s own solo was suitably intense and he was complemented by the power of Youngs’ dynamic drumming.

“Peace On Earth”  was a duo performance of quiet intensity with Yeoh deploying both acoustic and electric keyboards in conjunction with the leader’s tenor.

Baptiste’s subtle updating of the Coltrane ballad “After The Rain” included Yeoh’s most lyrical acoustic piano solo of the set as she stretched out alongside Baptiste’s equally expansive tenor.

At this juncture Baptiste introduced fellow saxophonist Steve Williamson to the stage. Williamson appears on the “Late Trane” album but I don’t think anybody expected to see him here so this unscheduled guest appearance represented a very welcome bonus. The two tenors evoked memories of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders on the title track of Trane’s “Transition” album. Following a freely structured intro featuring Youngs’ mallet rumbles Charles’ bass motif formed the jumping off point for a deeply probing tenor solo from Williamson. Yeoh’s piano feature mimicked the cadences of a passing ambulance as well as demonstrating the full range of the instrument and she was followed by a monster tenor solo from Baptiste who dug in deeply.

The next piece was unannounced but again featured the two tenors working in tandem and the performance concluded with “Vigil” which featured powerful solos from both saxophonists, a final synth feature from Yeoh, muscular bass lines from Charles and some powerhouse drumming from the excellent Youngs, including an extended solo feature.

The positive audience reaction encouraged Baptiste to perform an encore but this was quashed by Tony Dudley-Evans due to the fact that many audience members also had tickets for Gregory Porter’s impending performance in the Big Top. In retrospect maybe those people should have been allowed to leave and then Denys could have played some more for those of that were left. He certainly seemed keen enough.

Overall I enjoyed this performance but I’m always a little wary of these ‘tribute’ projects that treat jazz as some kind of heritage industry, no matter how inventive the homages and re-imaginings might be. Would you really go out and buy “The Late Trane” when you can listen to the original recordings instead? Good stuff nevertheless, even if I’d really preferred to have heard some more of Baptiste’s original material. His earlier Luther King related commissions have already demonstrated his abilities as a composer of new music. 

But there were more positives than negatives. The appearance of a remarkably youthful looking Williamson was a welcome and unexpected bonus and the playing from everybody in the band was first rate throughout with Youngs impressing with his crisp, agile, powerful drumming.   

FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2017 was a hugely successful event with pleasingly good attendances for virtually every ticketed performance. Audience figures held up remarkably well in these troubled times and the Festival was also a considerable artistic success with Cheltenham’s customary blend of the commercial and the cutting edge. It was a year when the big name Americans really delivered with Chick Corea, Chris Potter, Logan Richardson and Steve Gadd all really doing the business.

The programme at the Parabola was particularly strong this year and audience numbers reflected this. Top quality jazz also figured in the Live Arena and Big Top programmes alongside the more mainstream entertainment attractions.

My personal highlights included the saxophone trinity of Chris Potter, Marius Neset and Logan Richardson who all delivered brilliant performances. I was also impressed by drum legend Steve Gadd and his stellar band and by the spirited prog jazz of Swiss trio Schnellertollermeier.

Veteran pianist Chick Corea twinkled in the Big Top and Yazz Ahmed, Hans Koller and Denys Baptiste delivered strong home grown performances.

Of the more mainstream entertainment events I loved dee Dee Bridgewater’s homage to Memphis, Tennessee, the city of her birth, and also enjoyed the unassuming vocal and instrumental virtuosity of Paul Carrack.

Cheltenham prides itself on delivering ‘something for everyone’ and on the whole the 2017 programme succeeded admirably in this regard. My only reservation would be the lack of genuine cutting edge jazz on the final day, a consequence of the unavailability of the Parabola on the Bank Holiday Monday. Perhaps an alternative venue such as the Playhouse, which has been used in the past, could be considered for the last day of the Festival. 

And, finally, many thanks to Tim Dickeson for giving me his permission to use his excellent photographs to illustrate these articles.

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017.

Ian Mann on performances by Monocled Man, Schnellertollermeier, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chick Corea, Chris Potter and Yazz Ahmed.

Photograph of the Chris Potter Quartet by Tim Dickeson


Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2017

MONOCLED MAN

Another early start at the Parabola Arts Centre saw the day’s music begin with a performance by trumpeter and composer Rory Simmons and his group Monocled Man.

As trumpeter of choice for Jamie Cullum Simmons has been a frequent visitor to Cheltenham, both as a sideman and as a leader of his own projects.  In 2010 he appeared with his now sadly defunct large ensemble Fringe Magnetic.

Among Simmons’ latest projects are the trios Monocled Man and the more song orientated Eyes of a Blue Dog, the latter featuring vocalist Elisabeth Nygaard and Norwegian drummer and sound artist Terje Evensen.

Monocled Man features Simmons on trumpet, flugel, keyboards and electronics alongside Troyka guitarist Chris Montague and in demand drummer Jon Scott. Their 2014 début for Whirlwind Recordings “Southern Drawl” was an all instrumental affair, a powerful collection of material inspired by electric era Miles Davis and by the music of more contemporary trumpeter/composers such as Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu and Arve Henriksen.

2016’s “We Drift Meridian” proved to be a conceptual album  inspired by the German author Judith Shcalansky and her tome “Pocket Book of Remote Islands”, a non fiction work written in the style of a novel and featuring tales of far flung islands and their current or former inhabitants. A number of these stories sparked Simmons’ imagination and an idea for an album began to emerge. 

Simmons has described the concept behind the album thus;
‘We Drift Meridian’ is inspired by the stories of real people who have lived on remote islands across the world. In a broad sense the lyrics, sound world and artwork draws from this narrative of isolation, solitude and landscape of these archipelagos”.
He continues;
“The history of these people and the islands where they lived is alluded to in an abstract and ambiguous way in the music and lyrics of ‘We Drift Meridian’. The stories have many dimensions and are both folkloric and historical in content. They are stories which resonate with social, political and geographical context”.
“We Drift Meridian” is very different to its predecessor and features the singing of guest vocalists Emilia Martensson and Ed Begley. Simmons has a particular affinity for the sound of the human voice and Nygaard has been a part of both the Fringe Magnetic and Eyes of a Blue Dog projects.
Indeed the music to be heard on “We Drift Meridian” is often more reminiscent of that of Eyes of a Blue Dog than it is of “Southern Drawl”.

Today’s performance included guest appearances from both Nygaard and Begley and featured Peter Ibbotson in the drum chair replacing the unavailable Jon Scott. The young drummer had only had a couple of days to learn the group’s music but acquitted himself superbly.

The musical performance was accompanied by a film collated by Simmons depicting life on remote islands, some them tropical, some of them polar, much of it grainy but atmospheric archive footage shot mainly in black and white. The film contained many interesting and evocative images but didn’t relate directly to the music that was being played. In this respect it was somewhat distracting and therefore only partially successful. Nonetheless there was one moment of perfect synchronicity where black and white footage of nuclear testing on a remote atoll combined perfectly with a suitably incendiary Montague guitar solo.

The music itself placed a heavy reliance on electronics with Simmons playing keyboards in addition to his customary trumpet and with Ibbotson deploying sampled beats alongside more conventional humanised drumming. Montague’s guitar was employed as much as a textural device as a lead instrument as he produced deep layers and washes of multi-textural sounds, sometimes ethereal, sometimes threatening, but always deeply atmospheric. That said he was sometimes a little too low in the mix as Simmons amplified trumpet and electronica dominated the group sound with the leader emerging as the principal soloist.

Nygaard was the first of the singers to appear, her voice first employed wordlessly to add greater colour and texture to the music before singing the words of the album title track. Begley joined her for the song “Fiction Afloat” which also featured the sounds of Simmons on flugelhorn. To be honest it wasn’t easy to pick up on the lyrical subtleties in the live environment but this may prove easier when the concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s “Jazz Now” programme later in the year.

That said Begley’s rendition of the words to “Fantasy Will Flourish”, a new song inspired the life and work of the eccentric German adventurer and treasure hunter August Gissler, was easier to understand as the trio provided gentle but atmospheric accompaniment. In the second half of the piece the music became more dramatic as Montague erupted into pedal driven guitar meltdown, accompanied by the images of those billowing mushroom clouds.

Nygaard returned to vocalise in wordlessly ethereal fashion on the closing “Scott Moorman Adrift”  which was performed in front of a blank screen, presumably to emphasise Moorman’s isolation. The song’s subject was lost off the coast of Hawaii and his jawbone subsequently found on the uninhabited island of Taongi several years later. As with all the pieces forming part of the “We Drift Meridian” project the music was inspired by a true story.

Simmons, his band mates and guests were treated to a warm reception by a knowledgeable and pleasingly populous Cheltenham crowd. The performance was never less then interesting and the playing and the singing first rate but as a complete multi-media event it was, in truth, only partially successful, enjoyable as the film with its images of people, wildlife and topography was.
It will be interesting to listen back to the music exclusively when the BBC broadcast is made.

On International Jazz Day Monocled Man’s performance was one of five at the Parabola – the others were by Schnellertollermeier, Amok Amor, Julian Sartorius and Mark Sanders/John Butcher – to be recorded by sound artists Iain Chambers and Pascal Wyse for their “Recomposed” project, the results of their remixing later aired in the foyer area at the Parabola prior to the final performance of the day by trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and her group. 

SCHNELLERTOLLERMEIER

Next up at the Parabola were the young Swiss jazz power trio Schnellertollermeier. The jazz scene in Switzerland is particularly vibrant at present and has spawned a number of innovative single name bands including Rusconi, Plaistow and Vein.

Signed to Cuneiform Records Schnellertollermeier’s uncompromising attitude is reflected in their tongue twisting name. Their first album for the label, simply titled “X”, released in 2015 has attracted a compelling amount of crtitical acclaim and followed their début  “Zorn einen ehmer üttert stem!!”.

Today’s performance was supported by the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, but nearly didn’t happen. An airline mix up found the band in Birmingham and their equipment in Amsterdam and it was only thanks to a superb effort by the staff of Cheltenham Jazz Festival that the trio were able to appear at all, playing on a collection of hastily assembled hired gear.    

Nevertheless there was still a substantial array of Vox and Ampeg amps on the stage, and if the band’s performance didn’t sound quite as they themselves would have liked it was still pretty damn impressive.

Bass guitarist Andi Schnellman, guitarist Manuel Troller and drummer David Meier played with skill, flair and attitude on the hired kit, their music a convincing amalgam of jazz, rock, electronica and contemporary classical music influences. Today’s set included selections from “X”, among them “Massacre du Printemps” with its implied nod to Stravinsky, plus new material from the band’s forthcoming album. Tune announcements were scant, but really this was all about the music.

The repeated figures and interlocking rhythms of the lengthy opening piece suggested the inspiration of both the minimalism of Steve Reich and the beats of contemporary electronic dance music. It was a quiet start, but a hypnotic one, as the music gradually became more layered and complex, the interlocking rhyhtmic and melodic patterns sometimes recalling “Discipline” era King Crimson, something emphasised by the periodic squalls of rock power and math rock riffage that inspired something close to head banging among some members of the audience. The group have toured widely and have appeared in the UK and Ireland before so it’s quite possible that they’ve already acquired something of a cult following on these shores.

Orthodox soloing in the jazz tradition isn’t what Schnellertollermeier are about. Instead the trio comes over as a single conjoined entity, a textural and rhythmic juggernaut. This was epitomised by the second piece which combined Troller’s chiming guitar riffs with the crisp sound of Meier’s sticks on rims. But for all their abrasiveness Scnellertollermeier can also be highly atmospheric, suggesting further influences from the world of ambient or film soundtrack music, as evidenced by Schnellman’s eerily bowed electric bass. Elsewhere there were the now familiar bursts of dynamic drumming and jagged guitar riffing in the style of Crimson or Frank Zappa, with Troller even contriving to throw a few shapes.

The third piece began almost subliminally and featured Troller making use of e-bow alongside Meier’s ethereal cymbal shimmers. Gradually the music began to build in ever accreting layers of sound developing into chunky math rock riffing and an angry, shredding climax.

The well deserved encore was a shorter excursion into the trio’s unique world of prog rock precision and punk rock attitude.

Although one or two jazz purists were less than convinced the general reaction to
Schnellertollermeier was overwhelmingly positive. I was certainly extremely impressed and would love to hear more of this band – sadly no CDS were made available for sale at the Festival. If the trio could sound this good on hired equipment what would they be like utilising their own gear? 
In any event they were definitely one of my Festival highlights.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO

I was tempted to remain at the Parabola for the performance by Amok Amor, the international quartet led by bassist Petter Eldh and featuring virtuoso American trumpeter Peter Evans.

However having reviewed the band’s performance at the Vortex as part of the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival I decided to try something else, bassist and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello’s group at the Pizza Express Live Arena.

I’ll admit to being less than familiar with Ndegeocello’s work but my interest had been piqued by the fact that she was credited as producer on the album “Nihil Novi” by saxophonist Marcus Strickland whose Twi-Life group who had performed an excellent set in the same venue at Cheltenham 2016.

Ndegeocello’s own material turned out to be far more song orientated and her performance was a lot less “jazz” than Strickland’s had been. Playing electric bass and singing she fronted a four piece band featuring guitarist Christopher Bruce, drummer Abraham Rounds and keyboard player Jebin Bruni.

Ndegeocello delivered a mix of original songs and inspired covers, the latter including a radically altered, but very effective, “Suzanne” in which she altered the meter of Leonard Cohen’s song and ended up sounding more like Joni Mitchell in the process. This after the show had opened with a vaguely threatening interpretation of the Maggie Jaffe poem “Continuous Performance”

A funky, soulful interpretation of Nina Simone’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” also worked but in the main I found her original material less convincing.

Ndegeocello is a politicised writer and promised that her band’s music would be “representative of what it’s like to be of colour today in America, we’re going to be loud, we’re going to be brash”. As she spoke the sound of music being played on the free stage leaked yet again into the Live Arena - “let’s drown that out!” exclaimed Ndegeocello.

And to a degree they did but for me the music of the quartet wasn’t actually loud or brash enough as Bruni’s gloopy, glutinous,s syrupy synth sounds too often threatened to overwhelm the music. Bruce and Rounds, who both also contributed backing vocals, performed well enough, as did the leader with some powerful electric bass lines, but too often their efforts were undermined by the sound of the keyboards. Personally I couldn’t get on with Bruni’s playing at all, and judging by the number of early departures I got the impression that I probably wasn’t alone. Not all of the walk outs were due to Festival scheduling and the need to get to the next event.

And despite the promises I found Ndegeocello’s own performance disappointingly low key. The band had flown in from Eastern Europe that morning and had obviously experienced a degree of racism in that part of the world. But their anger at this treatment wasn’t truly expressed in the music, they certainly didn’t react to adversity in the spirited way that Scnellertollermeier had done. This was a decidedly perfunctory performance from Ndegeocello and her band ,one sensed that they didn’t really want to be there.

The self penned material included “Rapid Fire” with its semi-spoken lyrics, plus “Forget My Name” and the closing “Good Day Bad”, both sourced from Ndegeocello’s latest album “Comet, Come To Me”.

There were some who clearly loved this set, but many like me, who were less impressed and an encore was not forthcomimg. Given Ndegeocello’s reputation and her associations with some of the biggest names in music across a variety of genres I was expecting something more from this set and I sensed that the leader has given far better shows than this and that she is an artist with many relevant things to say, but today her ideas didn’t get across, certainly not to me at any rate. Perhaps I should have done more research before committing myself to something different, but sometimes, and particularly at festivals, it’s nice to be surprised by the unexpected.

But if I had my time again I’d have stuck with Amok Amor, who apparently gave a powerful and uncompromising performance at the Parabola during which they also managed to alienate a few listeners of their own. That said I think I’ve had enjoyed them a lot more than this - even now I can’t quite believe that I passed up a chance to see the great Peter Evans in action.

CHICK COREA TRIO

Many of Ndegeocello’s audience had left early in order to catch this much anticipated performance by pianist and composer Chick Corea, at seventy five years old now officially acknowledged as one of the legends of the music.

Corea has amassed a vast back catalogue embracing all genres of jazz from straight-ahead to jazz-rock fusion to breezy Latin to full on free improvisation. It hasn’t always worked but the hits have largely outnumbered the misses and many of Corea’s tunes have become modern day standards. One of the best gigs that I’ve ever seen was his 2007 duo performance with vibraphonist Gary Burton which held a capacity audience at the Barbican totally spellbound for the best part of two hours.

Today’s performance was a celebration of Corea’s back catalogue delivered with great élan by the man himself in the company of a stellar trio featuring Eddie Gomez on double bass and Brian Blade at the drums. Looking at least twenty years younger than his actual age Corea was a sprightly, vivacious presence on the bandstand and immediately engaged the audience as he and the trio tuned up - “give us an A” etc.

The first tune was the enduringly popular Corea classic “500 Miles High” which still sounded as fresh as a daisy. The sound in the Big Top venue was remarkably good with the piano particularly well defined. This first item featured solos from all three protagonists, something that set the template for much of the remainder of the set.

“Alice In Wonderland” acknowledged the influence on virtually all jazz piano players, and specifically on Corea, of the great Bill Evans, with whom Gomez once played. This was introduced by a passage of solo piano that demonstrated Corea’s supreme lightness of touch on the instrument. Corea sounded suitably Evans-like and once more there were features for Gomez and Blade.

Gomez announced the performance of “Work”, a little known Thelonious Monk tune that was played in honour of the centenary of its composer’s birth. This was a playful, splendidly swinging interpretation that included a solo from Gomez and a spirited dialogue between Corea and Blade.

Corea revealed that his own “A Spanish Song” had been written remarkably quickly and there was a similar spontaneity about the instinctive trio interplay and the more expansive individual features, something that continued into the final (unannounced) number.

The encore was a segue of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” (famously adapted by Miles Davis and Gil Evans for “Sketches of Spain”) and Corea’s own early Return To Forever classic “Spain”. Gomez picked out the familiar concerto melody with the bow to great applause, and Corea, ever the crowd pleaser, had the audience singing along to the complex but familiar melodic lines of “Spain”. Gomez also impressed with some agile pizzicato soloing, as he had done throughout, although I have admit that I found his Jarrett like habit of singing along to his solos highly distracting.  Meanwhile Blade’s contribution was widely praised and his playing was superb throughout.

I wasn’t sure whether Corea’s acoustic music would work in such a vast venue as the Big Top but he succeeded admirably thanks to a combination of warmth, wit, excellent material and great musicianship. Sure there was nothing particularly new here but to be in the presence of one of the giants of the music, and one still capable of playing brilliantly, seemed to be enough for most people.

CHRIS POTTER QUARTET

Over at the Pizza Express Live Arena another American musician was to deliver the goods in style in what, for me, was THE gig of the festival.

Saxophonist Chris Potter has quietly developed a hugely impressive reputation, first as in demand sideman and latterly as a leader of his own projects. Also an acclaimed educator Potter performed at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival leading an ensemble of students from Birmingham Conservatoire on a series of performances of pieces sourced from his 2007 album “A Song For Anyone”.

Now signed to ECM Potter has made a series of acclaimed albums for the label including 2012’s excellent “The Sirens”, a semi-conceptual work and his label début. Fast forward to 2017 and Potter has just released another superb ECM record, “The Dreamer Is The Dream”, from which most of today’s material was sourced. 

Joining Potter at Cheltenham were album personnel David Virelles (piano) and Joe Martin (double bass) plus the superb drummer Nasheet Waits, a more than adequate replacement for the album’s Marcus Gilmore.

Potter enjoyed a lengthy stint with guitarist Pat Metheny’s all star Unity Band on on the evidence of the new album something of Metheny’s melodic gift seems to have rubbed off on the saxophonist. Potter’s themes are complex but arresting as typified by the opening “Yasodhara”, a tune sourced from the new record. Introduced by Waits at the drums the piece provided the ideal framework for Potter to demonstrate his remarkable technical prowess and total fluency as a soloist. This was a musician totally on top of his game and in setting the bar high he inspired great things from his colleagues as Virelles responded with a correspondingly imaginative piano solo. Meanwhile Waits’ playing was a consistently rich source of inventiveness throughout the set, his virtuoso drumming performance ensuring that the band remained fired up throughout the performance.

Also sourced from the new album “Memory And Desire” was more relaxed but no less impressive as Potter and Virelles again shared the solos. The Cuban born pianist also appeared on “The Sirens”, sharing keyboard duties with Craig Taborn. He also leads his own groups but for me the most enjoyable sightings of him have been as a sideman, first with Ravi Coltrane back in 2012 and now with Potter.

“Ilimba” opened with the sampled sounds of that instrument, as originally played by Potter. Piano, bass and drums were subtly added before Potter picked out the melodic theme on tenor before embarking on a lengthy solo as the music gathered momentum. He was followed by the excellent Virelles and finally the brilliant Waits with an extended drum feature.

Some of Potter’s solos had been truly epic affairs, but these were marathons that were rich in colour and invention, constantly unfolding and consistently engaging, a true master-class of the improviser’s art. And so, seemingly in a flash, we found ourselves coming towards the end of the performance as Potter announced the title track of the new album before adding “Then we’ll finish with a blues”.

This brilliant segue began with Potter on soprano sax for the beautiful, folk tinged “The Dreamer Is The Dream”. A passage of solo double bass from Martin, previously seen on UK shores as part of a trio led by guitarist Gilead Hekselman, acted as the segue into the blues with Potter now switching to tenor sax. Here the playing of the whole group was a tour de force as both Virelles and Potter stretched out at length with the leader’s barnstorming, free-wheeling tenor solo evoking a suitably volcanic response from the restlessly dynamic Waits.

This was a brilliant, spirited performance, not just from the leader but from the entire band, that, for me, ranked as the best of the whole Festival. Potter is the natural heir of John Coltrane and Michael Brecker and is arguably the best jazz saxophonist in the world right now.

Let’s hope that this event, which was sponsored by Jazzwise Magazine, was also recorded for radio broadcast. If not there’s always Potter’s splendid new ECM album to enjoy. The record offers many moments of beauty but there’s a warmth and vitality about it that transcends the label’s reputation for chilly abstraction.  Thanks to Chris for signing a copy for your rather star struck reporter in the record store after the show.

YAZZ AHMED HAFLA BAND

Back at the Parabola a pleasingly large crowd assembled to see and hear the last Festival gig at the venue for 2017. Trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed appeared with her seven piece Hafla Band, the group named after an Arabic word meaning “a friendly social gathering”.

British born of Bahraini heritage Ahmed has been honing the music of this septet for a number of years and is due to release her new album “La Saboteuse” in May 2017, the long awaited follow up to her 2012 début “Finding My Way Home”.

Although largely raised in The UK Ahmed has spent time researching her Bahraini heritage and her growing fascination with Arabic sounds has been finding its way into her music. Today’s set included material that has been in the Hafla Band’s set lists for some time in addition to pieces sourced from her suite “Alhaan Al Siduri” which was commissioned by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation in 2015.

The regular line up of the Hafla Band features Ahmed on trumpet, flugel and electronics, George Crowley on bass clarinet, Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dudley Phillips on electric bass, Naadia Sheriff on piano and keyboards, Martin France at the drums and Corinne Sylvester on a variety of percussion instruments. It’s a stable line up and consists of musicians drawn from Ahmed’s smaller four and five piece groups.   

The performance commenced with “Jamil Jimal”, a piece that has been in the Hafla Band’s repertoire since at least 2014 when I caught them at The Vortex in Dalston as part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. This introduced the group’s sound, intricate but melodic and underscored by a lattice of underlying rhythms. Hafla is a highly rhythmic band but in very subtle and consistently interesting ways and certainly not at all ‘in your face’. As a percussionist Sylvester is particularly understated, yet still makes a hugely significant contribution to the band sound, for Ahmed the ensemble is paramount.

In 2014 Ahmed was selected as a “Jazzlines Fellow” and her Fellowship commission, Alhaan Al Siduri” was premièred at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in 2015. Based on the work songs of the Bahraini pearl divers the suite included the piece “Parading In” which was featured here with sampled sounds complementing the playing of the ensemble. Here Ahmed gave her musicians more room to stretch out and the piece included solos from Ahmed on trumpet and the impressive Crowley on evocative bass clarinet. Wyld dazzled at the vibes with his four mallet technique and Phillips underpinned an absorbing dialogue between France on kit drums and Sylvester on percussion.

“La Saboteuse”, the title track of the forthcoming album emerged from a freely structured intro featuring Sheriff on grand piano and progressed via solos from Crowley and Ahmed. Crowley’s bass clarinet playing helped to give the music an authentically Arabic feel and he was followed by Ahmed on flugel horn who manipulated her sound electronically by means of her Kaoss Pad, a device described as “ a touchpad sampler, controller and effects unit”.

“Her Light” from the “Alhaan Al Siduri” suite was segued with “2857”, a piece written in honour of Rosa Parks’ historic bus protest. Densely written but eminently melodic the performance included features from Ahmed on trumpet, Wyld on vibes and Phillips on six string electric bass, the latter’s feature acting as the link between the two pieces. Now we heard again from Ahmed and from Crowley on bass clarinet above the busy rhythms generated by France and Sylvester.

Ahmed has worked closely with rock bands such as Radiohead and the Manic Street Preachers and has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership with the group These New Puritans. Ahmed’s arrangement of their song “Organ Eternal” closed the set with the interlocking flugel and bass clarinet lines of Ahmed and Crowley a consistent source of interest alongside Wyld’s lyricism on the vibes.

An unexpected encore, well it was the last gig of the Festival at this venue, came as a considerable bonus. Unannounced it was ushered in France’s drums and again featured the Ahmed / Crowley combination with Ahmed again using electronics to manipulate the sound of her solo. Sheriff impressed with her keyboard solo but her role as a colourist and texturalist throughout was also essential to the success of the music. Finally Phillips underpinned a further dialogue between France and Sylvester prior to a closing ensemble theme statement.

This was an excellent performance from Ahmed and the Hafla Band that was warmly appreciated by the Cheltenham crowd. This is now a highly accomplished ensemble and it’s a shame that advance copies of the new album were not available on the night. Judging by the enthusiasm of the audience reaction they would surely have flown off the shelves.

I’m very much looking forward to the release of “La Saboteuse” and hope to bring you a review of the album at some point in the future. 



 


    

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 29/04/2017.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 29/04/2017.

Ian Mann on a full and varied day of music including performances by Trondheim Jazz Exchange, Phronesis, Orchestra Baobab, Lionel Loueke, Logan Richardson, Steve Gadd and Hans Koller.

Photograph of Steve Gadd by Tim Dickeson


Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 29/05/2017.

TRONDHEIM JAZZ EXCHANGE

A very full day of music began at the decidedly un-jazzlike hour of 11.00 am at the Parabola Arts Centre with the annual Trondheim Jazz Exchange concert, sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy. Introducing the proceedings Tony Dudley Evans informed us that this was the ninth such event and that he very much hoped to be hosting the tenth anniversary in 2018.

The popular Jazz Exchange project features the playing and writing of students from two of Europe’s leading music education establishments. The Jazz Courses at the Trondheim and Birmingham Conservatories have both acquired substantial reputations and many graduates from both institutions have gone on to become respected professional jazz musicians.

Annual exchange visits are arranged between the two institutions with the students subsequently showcasing their work at the Cheltenham and Molde Jazz Festivals. Each year six students from each establishment pool their resources to form three quartets with each band containing two members from their respective countries. Prior to this performance at the Parabola the students had spent two days in intensive wood-shedding and rehearsals as they worked out their ideas. The three quartets also performed in public in Birmingham at the free early evening session held on the evening of Friday April 28th at the Café Bar in the foyer of Symphony Hall.

The first band to appear featured the Norwegian musicians Tore Hodneland (guitar) and Simen Bjorkhaug (tenor sax) together with the Birmingham based rhythm team of Alex Liebek (double bass) and Robert Harper-Charles (drums). They began with the jazz standard “I Love You” which featured the slightly acerbic tone of Bjorkhaug’s probing tenor sax and the elegant runs and sophisticated chording of Hodneland’s guitar.

This was followed by an untitled original from the pen of Hodneland. This was an impressive piece of writing possessed of a decidedly episodic quality. Building from a simple introduction featuring the composer’s guitar accompanied by the hand-claps of his colleagues the piece went through several different phases as Bjorkhaug’s sax picked out the theme before handing over to Hodneland whose dialogue with Harper-Charles’ cymbals led into a melodic but richly atmospheric guitar solo. Liebeck’s bass feature exhibited similar qualities but Bjorkhaug’s powerful tenor sax solo increased the energy levels prior to a closing drum feature from Harper-Charles.

This was an auspicious start with Hodneland’s piece by far the most satisfying of the two items that the quartet played. The guitarist emerged as the most distinctive instrumentalist of the group and his compositional skills also impressed. The Jazz Exchange event always throws up new names to look out for and Hodneland’s is one to add to that list.

It was the general opinion of most of the attendees at this year’s event that Group Two was the pick of the three bands. This quartet featured the Norwegian musicians Agata Ciurkot (piano) and Vetle Larsen (drums) together with their Birmingham counterparts Nick Brown (tenor sax) and James Owston (double bass).

They began with a storming version of McCoy Tyner’s ever popular “Passion Dance” with the impressive Ciurkot suitably ‘Tyner-esque’ and with Brown really digging in on tenor accompanied by busy bass and drums. Larsen enjoyed a closing drum feature before the piece segued via a passage of unaccompanied piano into an original composition by Ciurkot.

This exhibited similar narrative qualities to Hodneland’s piece for the first band as Brown, sounding more than a little like Jan Garbarek, joined Ciurkot for an absorbing piano / tenor sax duet. Owston’s bowed bass and the shimmer of Larsen’s cymbals added an appealing melancholic edge prior to expansive, but consistently melodic and absorbing, features for piano, saxophone and bass. If anything this was even more impressive than Hodneland’s original had been with most listeners picking out Ciurkot, the only female musician to feature, as the star of the entire event.

Band Two completed their impressive set with “Pier 39”, an original by Brown written in a broadly bebop style and featuring further excellent solos from both the composer and Ciurkot.

The third and final group featured Birmingham musicians Alex Stride (trumpet, flugel) and Noah Stone (drums) together with the Norwegians Vegard Bjerkan (piano) and Bjorn Petersson (double bass).

This group’s style was more firmly rooted in the bebop tradition although they began with Bjerkan’s original “New Boat”, a quasi-ballad featuring solos from Stride on flugel, the composer on piano and Ptersson at the bass.

“Tadd’s Delight”, presumably written by Tadd Dameron but played by both Miles Davis and Chet Baker, gave Stride the chance to demonstrate his bop chops on trumpet following Stone’s introduction on the drum kit. Stone was to feature again towards the end of the piece following the piano solo from Bjerkan.

As so often happens the event overran, no surprise really with the changeovers that have to be made, and I made my exit as the band prepared to play an original piece by Petersson segued with Kenny Wheeler’s “We Salute The Sun”.

Reviewing the event for London Jazz News Peter Slavid lamented the preponderance of material rooted in the bebop area and he certainly makes a valid point. The playing was excellent throughout, the students at both institutions are taught to an astonishingly high technical standard, but for me the most interesting pieces were the lengthy, almost cinematic compositions by Hodneland and Ciurkot which really saw the musicians, and the composers in particular, expressing themselves.

Minor quibbles aside the annual Trondheim Jazz Exchange is a great event and one that has become a regular fixture on many people’s Festival calendars. 

DECADE ZERO;
DAVE MARIC, PHRONESIS, & ENGINES ORCHESTRA

Led by the Danish bassist and composer Jasper Hoiby Phronesis recently celebrated ten years as one of the world’s leading jazz trios. Hoiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger have developed a phenomenal rapport over a series of acclaimed studio and live recordings and in 2017 their playing remains as sharp and distinctive as ever.

Initially a vehicle for Hoiby’s compositions the band has become a more democratic unit over the course of its development with Neame and Eger also now bringing compositions to the table. Never afraid to experiment Phronesis have also enjoyed a hugely successful collaboration with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band which saw saxophonist Julian Arguelles arranging a selection of the trio’s compositions for performance by Phronesis and the FRBB conducted by Arguelles. In 2015 the project made its British première at a highly successful show at the Milton Court Concert Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. An earlier performance in Frankfurt was recorded and recently released as the album “The Behemoth”.

Today’s performance represented Phronesis’ latest alliance with a larger ensemble. Hoiby and the contemporary classical composer Dave Maric have been friends for a number of years and Maric was jointly commissioned to write a piece for performance at the Cheltenham, Manchester and London jazz festivals with financial support coming from the PRS Foundation.

The resultant work, “Decade Zero”, was written in response to the challenges of the current political landscape for an ensemble featuring the three members of Phronesis plus eight musicians drawn from the ranks of the Engines Orchestra under the baton of conductor Phil Meadows. Rosanna Te Berg (flute), Katie Bennington (oboe), Gennie Joy (clarinet, bass clarinet) and Lois Au (bassoon) formed the woodwind section while the strings consisted of Katherine Waller (first violin), Scott Lowry (second violin), Alison De Souza (viola) and Zosia Jagodzinska (cello).

There were even band uniforms of a sort with Phronesis dressed all in white and members of the Engines Orchestra clad in band T shirts with an attractive Bridget Riley type design. These were also on sale to the public, so guess who just had to have one.

The first part of the concert featured performances of four items from the Phronesis back catalogue, each one presaged by a short orchestral introduction, each little more than a minute long, written by Maric.

The trio performances by Phronesis were typically excellent with the group exhibiting their tight and instinctive group interplay with Hoiby’s muscular but astonishingly agile bass playing driving the music alongside Eger’s dynamic, extrovert drumming. The group’s music is highly rhythmic with pianist Neame also getting in on the act as well as dealing with the harmonic complexities of the group’s tunes. I’ve written extensively about Phronesis’ recordings and live shows before so I don’t intend to give a blow by blow account of their set here except to say that it’s always a thrill to see the brilliant Phronesis perform and today was no exception, the only quibble being that the sound of Hoiby’s bass was rather muddy as it bounced around the walls of the cavernous Cheltenham Town Hall.The four Phronesis compositions that were played were “67000 MPH”, “A Silver Moon”, “OK Chorale” and “Rabat” with all the pieces sourced from the trio’s most recent studio recording, 2016’s “Parallax”. .

As enjoyable as all this was the two ensembles were acting as separate entities with Meadows actually departing the stage as Phronesis did their thing. The denizens of ‘scribblers row’ gazed bemusedly at each other thinking “is this it?” and wondered why the trio had bothered inviting along the orchestral players just to play a series of very brief introductions, ‘overtures’ would be pushing it, that functioned as little more than sketches.

However all became clear when Hoiby eventually picked up the vocal mic to introduce the five movement work “Decade Zero” which comprised the second half of the performance, clocking in at around the thirty five minute mark. It was only now that the jazz trio and classical octet became truly integrated with the string players deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques as Meadows and the eleven musicians constructed a complex web of interlocking rhythms, colours and textures.

There were moments when the orchestral players took the lead, with Phronesis effectively becoming ‘the rhythm section’. Elsewhere Hoiby’s arco bass joined with the other string players to form a ‘string quintet’.

Maric’s writing was dense but interesting with a strong focus on both melody and rhythm and despite the chamber music elements it certainly wasn’t lacking in energy with Eger’s drums coming to the heart of the music in the final movement as the music built to a climax prior to an unexpectedly sombre coda. 

The piece received a great reception from the audience and Dave Maric came onto the stage to accept the acclaim alongside conductor Meadows and the musicians.

In truth this was a performance that was only a partial success. I suspect that the audience would have got more out of the show if the format had been explained to them at the beginning i.e that there would be a set of Phronesis tunes followed by the Festival commission.

It’s always a treat to see Phronesis play but the real highlight was “Decade Zero” itself which offered something radically different and was never less than interesting. Overall it was less successful than the collaboration with the FRBB and there was very much a ‘first performance’ feel about the whole event. I suspect that by the time of the Manchester and London appearances any teething problems will have been sorted out and that these shows will be even more successful.

However there was still much to enjoy about today’s event and it will be fascinating to hear this music again when the concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s “Jazz Now” programme at 11.00 pm on Monday 8th May 2017.


ORCHESTRA BAOBAB

The next obvious jazz choice would have been the performance by pianist Elliot Galvin and his trio at the Parabola Arts Centre. However as much as I love Galvin’s music I’ve written extensively about his recordings and live performances before and therefore knew roughly what to expect, so I thought I’d try something completely different. The opportunity to experiment is one of the benefits of being part of the aforementioned ‘scribbler’s union’.

Thus it was that I found myself inside the Big Top for the first time at this Festival to see and hear the music of the nine piece Orchestra Baobab. Instigated in 1970 and reformed in 2001 the Senegalese band are a world music institution for their blend of various African musics with the sounds of Cuba and even Portugal.

Boasting a line up of lead and rhythm guitars, electric bass, tenor and alto saxophones, plus the West African kora the band also features two percussionists and a lead vocalist. The Orchestra’s music is colourful and highly rhythmic with the exuberant singers and musicians encouraging the audience to participate in a highly energetic show. These WOMAD regulars are great crowd pleasers and had the audience onside from the off.

Alongside the showmanship there were plenty of fine moments from the instrumentalists with plenty of solos for the more jazz orientated listener to enjoy from the twin saxophonists and from the Orchestra’s kora specialist, his amplified instrument imbued with a particularly percussive sound. However my favourite soloist was the lead guitarist whose spiralling West African flavoured melodic inventions were a source consistent delight. For me he was by far the most imaginative musician in the group’s ranks.

But this was a show to enjoy rather than analyse, even in an unpromising early afternoon slot. One suspects that Baobab’s natural home is the late night ‘party slot’ at WOMAD. The group’s percussionists, including the impressive conganista doubling on drum kit, helped to give the music a formidable rhythmic drive as the hyperactive French speaking vocalist exhorted the crowd to “chant avec moi”. 

The music took in a variety of African styles from Senegal to the Congo but the influence of the sounds of Cuba was particularly strong, as the presence of a specialist conganista might suggest.
The Orchestra’s high energy, exuberant performance, which included an impressive display of dancing from the tenor player, went down a storm with a large and enthusiastic audience in the Big Top and although the music was well outside my usual listening zone I rather enjoyed it. It was hard not to be swept along by the energy of the performance and the enthusiasm of the audience response. 

Orchestra Baobab are currently still on tour in the UK and will appear on the BBC’s “Later with Jools Holland” on Friday May 5th 2017.

LIONEL LOUEKE TRIO

More music from West Africa in the Pizza Express Live Arena where Benin born guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke appeared with his long running trio featuring bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth.

Now based in the USA Loueke studied at the famous Berklee College of Music in the late 1990s where he first met Biolcati and Nemeth. Since settling in the US Loueke has enjoyed a successful solo career and a long association with Blue Note Records, for whom he has recorded several albums. But he is perhaps best known for his sideman credits with artists such as Herbie Hancock and for his membership of the ‘supergroup’ Aziza led by bassist Dave Holland and also featuring drummer Eric Harland and Festival artist Chris Potter.

Loueke’s trio with Biocati and Nemeth is essentially a ‘fusion’ band with a mix of jazz and rock plus the sounds of the leader’s native West Africa. Their most recent recording is the ‘live in the studio’ session “Gaia”, Loueke’s fourth release for Blue Note Records and the source of much of today’s material.

The opening “Dreams” set the trio’s stall out with its mix of tender African vocals and rock influenced effects, the gentleness of the singing contrasting neatly with the ferocity of some of the playing as Loueke cranked up the volume for his guitar solo while deploying a range of effects more commonly associated with the sound of rock.

“Broken”, the opening track on the “Gaia” album juxtaposed contemporary odd meter rhythms with the sound of vintage fusion with Loueke adopting a guitar synth sound.

The plaintive “Veuve Malienee” featured a vocal representing a widow crying for the loss of her husband. Introduced by a passage of liquid solo electric bass from Biolcati the poignancy of the performance was spoiled by the leakage of sound from the Free Stage, a problem that has occurred in previous years but which seemed to be worse than ever this time round. It was a problem that recurred at the Live Arena throughout the weekend and is an issue that really does need to be addressed.

The trio turned up the volume for the rest of the set with Loueke continuing to deploy an array of rock inspired guitar effects. Nemeth’s solo drum introduction to the closing “Even Teens” was particularly impressive, a rousing introduction to a piece in a mind boggling 17/4 time signature that still produced some of the most incendiary playing of the set as Loueke’s guitar went toe to toe with Nemeth’s drums, the leader combining old fashioned bluesiness with futuristic guitar effects. 

Overall I was very impressed with Loueke’s set. He has a well developed understanding with the members of his trio and collectively they negotiated the considerable challenges and complexities of his compositions with ease. The leader’s vocals and West African heritage makes his trio stand out from similarly configured ‘fusion’ bands. Loueke has adopted a highly personalised approach to the music and his unique range of influences virtually establishes him as a sub-genre in his own right.

LOGAN RICHARDSON and SHIFT

Back to the Parabola for this hotly anticipated performance by the American alto saxophonist and composer Logan Richardson and his quartet. The Kansas City born musician had made a big impression at Cheltenham twelve months previously as a member of trumpeter Christian Scott’s group. That was Richardson’s first gig with the Scott band but by November and a sold out London Jazz Festival performance at the Scala venue Richardson was an even more integral part of the Scott ensemble.

Richardson’s work with Scott ensured that there was another full house at the Parabola to see him leading his own band, a quartet that he calls Shift, also the title of his latest album, a record that features the talents of superstar guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Nasheet Waits.

Metheny & co weren’t present of course but Richardson still brought along a terrific band featuring the talents of guitarist Igor Osypov, drummer Ryan Lee and Max Mucha on electric bass.

The quartet commenced with an extended passage of uninterrupted playing and appeared to be a selection of tunes segued together and linked by solo instrumental passages. Richardson achieved a remarkably pure, but still innately powerful, sound on the alto, his lines consistently melodic but never bland. At times Richardson sounded like a 21st century Paul Desmond but this was music that had an unmistakably contemporary, hip hop influenced edge thanks to the efforts of a tightly focussed rhythm section who gave the music an urgent, urban feel with Mucha moving between electric and acoustic bass.

Richardson had an excellent foil in Osypov who undertook several excellent solos of his own and used his range of effects wisely as he complemented the sound of the leader with acumen and imagination. Meanwhile Lee’s drumming was crisp and razor sharp as he negotiated the contours of Richardson’s often complex composition with considerable aplomb. This was one tight band.

The opening segue came to a furious climax via Mucha’s monstrous electric bass groove, Lee’s dynamic drumming and the scorching dialogue between Richardson and Osypov. Only now, more than half an hour into the performance did Richardson speak, his good natured ramblings including a plug for Blue Note recording “Shift”, an introduction of the band members, the influence of Ornette Coleman, and a mention of a recent visit to the Congo that inspired the closing “Pygmy People”. This began in guitar trio mode with Osypov taking the first solo before Richardson cut loose on alto, his most impassioned playing of the set fuelled by the dynamic performances of his band mates. 

Following on from his impressive appearances with Scott this was an excellent performance from Richardson and his colleagues. The stellar line up on “Shift” suggests that Richardson is a talent to watch out for and today’s show more than confirmed that potential. Richardson is currently working on a new album with the putative title “Blues People” from which much of today’s material was sourced. On the evidence of today’s performance this should be a recording well worth looking out for.

Richardson and his band got a great reception from another large crowd at the Parabola and today’s performance was also recorded by BBC Radio 3 for transmission on the ‘Jazz Now’ programme at some point in the future. Keep an eye, and ear, open for that.

STEVE GADD BAND

If Richardson’s performance had been something of a Festival highlight it was rapidly followed by another as drum legend Steve Gadd appeared with his stellar five piece band at the Pizza Express Live Arena.

Revered by fellow drummers for his technique, groove and tastefulness Gadd is one of the most recorded musicians in history, a hugely respected session player who has played a myriad of jazz, rock and pop sessions with some of the biggest names in the business including Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones,Chick Corea, George Benson, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon. My own personal favourite Gadd moment is his explosive performance on the title track of the Steely Dan album “Aja”, which teamed him with the equally venerable Wayne Shorter. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker always did have impeccable taste when it came to sidemen.

Besides his no doubt lucrative session career Gadd has always led his own projects and the superb quintet that he brought to Cheltenham included some of the best musicians on the Los Angeles music scene. This was Gadd’s regular working band and included Michael Landau (guitar), Jimmy Johnson (electric bass), Walt Fowler (trumpet & flugelhorn) and Kevin Hays on piano and keyboards, the latter in a role sometimes fulfilled by Larry Goldings.

My thanks go to Cheltenham Festivals’ press officer Bairbre Lloyd for squeezing me into this sold out gig. A show of hands before the show revealed a high preponderance of aspiring drummers in the audience and they weren’t to be disappointed as Gadd turned in a master-class of the percussive arts. He was greatly assisted by a terrific band and this show was even better than I might have anticipated.

To be honest I wasn’t expecting too much, the kind of fusion that Gadd purveys can sound too slick and over-produced on record but live it was a very different proposition as the legend and his band delivered the goods in spades.

From the outset there was the feeling that this was a real band, not just an all star aggregation of studio whiz kids. Composition were spread around the group with both Landau and Fowler contributing to the writing process.

However Gadd wasn’t afraid to make judicious use of outside material and the band kicked off with a joyous rendition of Keith Jarrett’s country-blues composition “The Wind Up”, using the piece as an introduction to the individual voices of the band with features for guitar, electric piano, flugel, and, of course, drums.

That said Gadd isn’t an egotistical drummer in the style of Buddy Rich. He’s more about groove and feel rather than sheer technique, although he clearly has the latter in shed-loads. Thus Gadd’s playing, impressive as it was, served the tunes and his solo features were concise and succinct, never overstaying their welcome, even though some of the other drummers in the audience might have welcomed more.

Landau’s atmospheric “The Long Way Home” was a subtle blend of funk and Americana with the composer’s Frisell like guitar combining with the subtle funk inspired grooves of Johnson and Gadd. The shades wearing Fowler began on muted trumpet before moving on to solo on flugel with Hays also featuring on electric piano.

Gadd’s own “Green Foam” honoured the material used to muffle the composer’s bass drum at a recording session, allowing him to get the all important sound ‘ just so’. The avuncular Gadd proved to be a pithy and witty between tunes interlocutor. The tune itself was perhaps the most demanding thus far as it moved through several tempo changes while encompassing solos from Hays on electric piano, Landau on blues drenched guitar and Fowler on trumpet as Gadd drummed up a storm behind them, driving each on to fresh heights of inspiration.

The leader’s drums introduced Wilton Felder’s “Way Back Home”, his seductive, insistent brushed grooves subsequently underpinning the solos from Fowler on flugel, Johnson on bass, Landau on guitar and Hays on acoustic piano. The piece ended as it began with a further solo feature from Gadd himself.

Fowler once worked with the late Frank Zappa and the trumpeter introduced his own “Duke’s Anthem”, a hymn not to Duke Ellington but to the recently departed George Duke, another Zappa alumnus with whom Fowler had once worked. This heartfelt ballad featured the warm tones of the composer’s flugel alongside Landau’s blues tinged guitar and Hays’ keyboards.

“Sly Boots” was written by the band’s sometime keyboard player Larry Goldings. This was a complex, angular, very contemporary composition that doubtless offered many technical challenges, which the musicians naturally tackled with ease with features from Fowler on trumpet, Hays on electric piano and Gadd at the drums. Goldings seems to inspire the same awe amongst organists (Ross Stanley is a massive fan) as Gadd does among drummers and Landau among guitarists.

“Blues For ...” was a vehicle for Landau’s expressive bluesiness on guitar as Gadd deliberately played it simple, serving the tune as ever. Hays also featured, this time on acoustic piano.

“We’re too old to walk off and walk back on again” quipped the 72 year old Gadd so the band’s last piece was an effectively an encore. This was something of a surprise, an arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow” which saw the song given a funk / shuffle treatment and featuring a vocal from Hays, who wisely avoided sounding anything like His Bobness. Hays also soloed on keyboards, sharing the honours with Landau’s blues drenched guitar.

Naturally the audience loved it all, especially the drummers, and overall the show was another definite Festival highlight. The playing was impeccable, and frequently inspired, the original writing good and the covers well chosen. And Gadd came across as genuinely nice guy, pleasingly unaffected by all the adulation that his talent has generated. I was encouraged to check out his solo back catalogue and would be more than happy to see this, or any other version, of the Gadd group perform again.

The only quibbles were that some listeners might to have liked to have heard rather more of Fowler as Landau emerged as the most prominent of the front line soloists.


HANS KOLLER QUARTET

Back at the Parabola the last gig of the day saw the German born pianist and composer Hans Koller leading his quartet. Long settled in the UK Koller divides his time between London and Birmingham and holds a teaching post at the latter’s Conservatoire.

Koller was leading a quartet of musicians with strong Birmingham connections featuring Percy Pursglove on double bass, John O’Gallagher on alto sax and Jeff Williams at the drums. Americans O’Gallagher and Williams have strong UK connections and both divide their time between the two countries.

2017 marks the centenary of the birth of Thelonious Monk and Koller’s set saw him honouring the memory of the great pianist and composer. However this was to be more than a mere run through the Monk repertoire as Koller performed his own Thelonious inspired compositions, pieces that he described as “Re-inventions”.

Beginning with a segue of “Re-inventions One and Two” Koller introduced us to the individual voices of the band as the leader shared the solos with the relentlessly inventive O’Gallagher.

Pursglove impressed with his melodic bass feature on “Re-Invention Five” as he followed Koller’s piano solo. Pursglove is also a highly talented trumpeter and has arguably become better known for his playing on this instrument in recent years. It was good to see him back on bass again.
Meanwhile Koller himself is also a multi- instrumentalist, playing valve trombone in the group Thelonious, a London based group also dedicated to exploring the Monk legacy.

“The Wheel” saw Koller duetting elegantly with O’Gallagher as Williams provided the subtlest of commentaries.

“Sixteen”, titled in honour of the Monk piece of the same name was perhaps the most obvious homage of the set with some typically “Monk-ish” piano. It was also the most energetic item in the repertoire and culminated in a blistering alto solo from O’Gallagher with the saxophonist accompanied only by the sounds of Williams’ now volcanic drumming.

“Lou Lou’s Birthday” represented Koller’s dedication to his young son, the piece based on the chord sequence of Monk’s own “Bo Bo’s Birthday”, Thelonious’ own dedication to his then infant daughter. Koller took the first solo followed by another powerful outing from O’Gallagher with Williams again providing vital support. By way of contrast Pursglove’s subsequent bass solo was accompanied by the patter of Williams’ bare hands on the drum kit.

On “Nedin”, a piece inspired by a Turkish poem, the composer’s lyricism at the piano contrasted well with O’Gallagher’s more robust approach on alto.

Also inspired by poetry the brief “Little Knowledge” had something of a valedictory feel but the favorable audience response saw the quartet return to play a tune with a German title translating as “1, 2, 3, 4, Animal”, based on a children’s song and featuring final solos from Koller and O’Gallagher with Pursglove and Williams offering vital support.

This was an enjoyable if rather low key set, arguably a little too academic at times, that included some excellent playing all round with several commentators singling out O’Gallagher’s contribution.

Overall the Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival contained a rich variety of enjoyable and often brilliant music making with my personal highlights the performances by the bands led by Steve Gadd and Logan Richardson. 

 

   

Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017.

Ian Mann on two very different performances at the Parabola Arts Centre by bands led by saxophonist Marius Neset and drummer Seb Rochford.

Photograph of Marius Neset by Tim Dickeson

Friday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2017

The Parabola Arts Centre, part of Cheltenham Ladies College, has become an integral part of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival experience. This intimate venue hosts the more contemporary or ‘cutting edge’ aspect of the Festival programme and 2017 saw the venue hosting a typically diverse and interesting line up featuring musicians hailing from several different countries.

First utilised by the Festival in 2012 the Parabola, is an intimate, but surprisingly capacious, performance space that is ideally suited for contemporary small group jazz, although larger ensembles, such as the Paris based Surnatural Orchestra at the 2015 Festival, have also graced the venue’s stage.

With its excellent acoustics the Parabola has become a favourite with musicians and audiences alike with many fans concentrating their Festival experience at the venue. In short the place has acquired something of a cult following, as Tony Dudley Evans, who both curated and presented the venue’s Festival programme pointed out.

The first two events of the 2017 programme at the Parabola featured groups led by musicians who have enjoyed previous appearances at the venue, Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset and British drummer Seb Rochford.

MARIUS NESET QUINTET

First to appear was Neset who had played a triumphant quartet gig here back in 2013 in the company of pianist Ivo Neame, drummer Anton Eger and bassist Petter Eldh.  I had been expecting Neame and Eger to be part of tonight’s line up but with the pair busy rehearsing for their own event with Phronesis the following day Neset presented a new all British quintet featuring the talents of vibraphonist Jim Hart, pianist Dan Nicholls, bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Joshua Blackmore - still a pretty phenomenal line up and one that responded brilliantly to the complexities of Neset’s music.

Neset made his international début, the aptly named “Golden Xplosion”, on the UK based Edition label before moving on to the Munich based ACT. He’s always worked with British musicians, among them Django Bates, and has also established a strong following in this country. The Parabola was therefore full to capacity as Neset sought to repeat his triumph of 2013.

Now based in Copenhagen Neset is a musician who just likes to play, tune announcements were therefore scarce, but I’m fairly certain that the majority of the material was sourced from his 2015 ACT release “Pinball”, which featured a quintet line up including Hart alongside Neame, Eger and Eldh.

The dense contours of Neset’s writing were evidenced not just by the playing but also by the screeds of sheet music that Nicholls’ unfolded and eventually managed to prop up on the piano. And it was the appositely named title track from “Pinball” that opened the show with the newcomers dealing admirably with the myriad twists and turns of Neset’s music with Hart alternating between vibes and marimba on a piece that juxtaposed a bustling quirkiness with passages of surprising lyricism. The versatile Nicholls, a musician equally at home in the world of electronic music, impressed with his opening solo on piano as Donkin and Blackmore grappled successfully with the dizzying rhythmic challenges of Neset’s writing.  Meanwhile the leader moved between tenor and soprano saxes as the music demanded.

From the same album “Theatre of Magic”, co-written by Neset and Eger, celebrated the long established musical bond between Neset and Hart in a series of dazzling soprano sax and vibes exchanges as Donkin and Blackmore navigated the complexities of the odd meter rhythms. 

After this tune announcements became more sporadic as Neset and his colleagues warmed to their task, the three British newcomers becoming increasingly more assured as the evening wore on. The next, brief, piece offered something of a pause for breath and was positively gentle by Neset’s standards with its soft piano arpeggios, warm toned tenor sax and shimmering vibes.

Hart introduced the next item with a passage of solo marimba before he and the rhythm section introduced something of a world music feel to the piece. Neset’s subsequent tenor solo brought a Coltrane-esque joyousness and intensity to the music as he delivered a powerful solo in sax trio mode accompanied by churning drums and bass. A passage of unaccompanied cymbal work from Blackmore seemed to offer a segue into another piece as the music continued to unfold and develop at an astonishing rate. This time it was Hart who was the featured soloist, swarming all over the vibraphone with four mallets a blur. The piece concluded with the sound of marimba and handclaps, suggesting that this had been a version of “World Song”, the piece that opens the “Pinball” album.

Neset has worked with large ensembles, including the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, and was recently commissioned to write for the Cologne Philharmonie, the subsequent work later being performed in New York. “Prag Ballet” appeared on the recent compilation album celebrating ACT’s silver jubilee and received an airing here. Unsurprisingly the piece had something of a semi classical, chamber jazz feel and was delightfully melodic. One could hear the proverbial pin drop in the Parabola as the audience delighted in a beautifully restrained performance, the very opposite to the harmonic and rhythmic ferment of much of Neset’s other music. The saxophonist himself, playing soprano, sounded at his most Garbarek-like on a piece that was performed in trio format with the leader accompanied only by Nicholls and Hart. At the end Donkin’s spontaneous applause said it all – and the audience absolutely loved it too.

The final item saw the quintet upping the energy levels once more and the piece began with a tour de force passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone from Neset during which he demonstrated his virtuoso circular breathing technique. Marimba, drums, bass and piano eventually entered the fray to establish a vibrant mesh of interlocking rhythms behind the leader. A more impressionistic interlude mid tune featured the leader’s sax teamed with Donkin’s melodic bass followed by the sound of sparse, lyrical piano and bowed vibes. But this was just a breather, soon the momentum was building again and Nerset’s subsequent solo culminated in a jaw dropping sax and drum barrage.

As happened four years earlier the house at the Parabola rose as one to give the Neset band a standing ovation at this early contender for ‘Gig of the Festival’.  It’s not always easy to find words to capture the energy and brilliance of a Marius Neset performance. His music may be busy and complex but the sheer chutzpah and virtuosity of the man’s playing ensures that he is a huge favourite with audiences.

Neset remains a key figure on the European jazz scene and we in Britain are lucky that he seems to have such a strong affinity for the UK and for British musicians.

A great start to the Festival programme at the Parabola.


SEB ROCHFORD / NICOLE MITCHELL / NEIL CHARLES

Drummer and composer Seb Rochford has been a frequent visitor to Cheltenham and I recall memorable Festival performances by the then astonishingly hirsute musician with the bands Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland and Fulborn Teversham and in a wonderful, but sadly never to be recorded duo, with pianist Kit Downes.

Now married to the American saxophonist Matana Roberts Rochford now spends an increasing amount of time in the US so his return to the UK with a new band was an event not to be missed.

Rochford is best known as the leader of Polar Bear, a wonderfully innovative group that remained at the forefront of British jazz for over a decade, continually developing artistically whilst building a genre defying cult following in the process. But, as Tony Dudley Evans informed us, Polar Bear is no more – sad news indeed , although the band have left a particularly rich back catalogue of recordings to dig into, along with a treasure trove of memories of wonderful gigs.

Fast forward to 2017 and Rochford’s famous barnet is also gone and for the Festival the newly shaven headed drummer had assembled a trio featuring British bassist Neil Charles and the American flautist Nicole Mitchell, a solo artist in her own right and a former member of the innovative Chicago based organisation AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). 

Even the mighty Polar Bear would have had their work cut out following Neset’s earlier pyrotechnics and this low key performance by the new trio was one that divided opinion. 
 
For me pretty much everything that Rochford gets involved with is going to be interesting, whether it be his work in a jazz or improvised music context or with more mainstream artists such as Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Beck, Pete Doherty and Brett Anderson.

But on the evidence of tonight’s performance this current trio is still something of a work in progress. Playing on a very dimly lit stage the threesome delivered an hour of uninterrupted music that included passages of written material interspersed with lengthy passages of free improvisation.

The brightest light on the stage was from Mitchell’s music stand and while the subdued lighting may have lent an air of atmosphere and mystery to the proceedings it did make it very difficult to see what was going on – and made it even more of a nightmare for my photographer friends TimDickeson and John Watson.

The performance began with an appealing written melody played by Mitchell on flute and underscored by Charles’ bowed bass and the patter of Rochford’s bare hands on the drums as he fulfilled the role of colourist, something that he continued to do almost throughout.  Only very sporadically did we glimpse a spark of Rochford’s nascent power.

The continuous, low key nature of the performance was superficially similar to The Necks, who were due to appear at the Festival the following day. However the subtle use of live looping and the periodic written interludes were significantly different. Nevertheless the overall feel was similar, this was a performance that was unhurried in nature with the smallest of gestures imbued with great significance.

Mitchell deployed a variety of flutes, with alto and bass presumably among them, but in the semi darkness it was frankly rather difficult to know exactly what was being played and what going on. She linked up particularly effectively with Charles who used the bow almost throughout, making judicious use of electronics to layer his sound in a spacey passage of solo bass. I was particularly impressed with Charles’ arco work, having previously thought of him as something of an electric bass specialist thanks to his work with the trio Zed U.  At times this evening his use of the bow and later deployment of extended techniques was reminiscent of the great Henry Grimes.


Rochford’s drumming was minimal, mostly combined to hand pattering and almost subliminal mallet rumbles, frequently he seemed happy to sit back and listen to the unfolding dialogue between Mitchell and Charles.  The music was highly atmospheric and impressionistic with a noirish, filmic quality. One could readily imagine it finding favour with the Late Junction audience. Interestingly the crowd at the Parabola included Kit Downes and Tom Challenger of the organ/sax duo Vyamanikal who were due to play the Festival the following day and who explore superficially similar musical areas.
An unaccompanied drum passage from Rochford combined atmospherics with glimpses of his latent power but only towards the end of the performance and a return to the written score did he finally cut loose.

This was a performance that divided opinion. I certainly found it interesting and absorbing in a ‘Necks’ like type of way but felt that the music could have used a greater degree of dynamic contrast. The lack of lighting also diminished my enjoyment of the music, it was very difficult to see what was happening on stage.  Reviewing the performance for London Jazz News Jon Turney described both the lighting and the music as ‘crepescular’, an adjective that perfectly encapsulated the performance. It’s perfectly understandable that some of the audience (not myself I should add) drifted off to sleep.

Anything that Seb Rochford get involved in with is going to be interesting, almost by definition, and I’m sure that there’s the potential for better things to come from this trio, assuming it’s not a purely one-off arrangement. That said I can’t deny that I was somewhat disappointed by tonight’s performance, I didn’t hate it, as some probably did, but given Rochford’s illustrious track record I was still expecting something more. Nevertheless Rochford is a musician who is never afraid to experiment, and as any scientist -or musician – will probably tell you experiments don’t always work, especially first time.

The trio also suffered by going on after Neset. Many of the people in another pleasingly large crowd had also been to the earlier gig and comparisons were inevitable. Rochford’s chilled out set might have been better appreciated if it hadn’t had to follow Neset’s incandescent fireworks. In retrospect it might have been better if this evening’s programme at the Parabola had been scheduled the other way round.

 

Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 27/04/2017.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 27/04/2017.

Ian Mann enjoys two performances by artists from the Southern States of the USA, the Marcus King Band and the great Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Photograph of Dee dee Bridgewater by Tim Dickeson


Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 27/04/2017.

My first visit to the 2017 Cheltenham Jazz Festival found me enjoying two performances by artists celebrating the music of the American South.

First guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Marcus King appeared with his six piece band in the Jazz Arena, the venue sponsored this year for the first time by Pizza Express.

Later vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater transported us from the Victorian splendour of Cheltenham Town Hall to the mean streets of Memphis, Tennessee in a glorious celebration of that city’s unique musical heritage.

MARCUS KING BAND

First up was the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Marcus King, a young musician who has already made a big impression on the American music scene. Still only twenty years of age King already has two albums under his belt, 2014’s self released “Soul Insight” and the following year’s “Marcus King Band”, released on major label Fantasy Records. The second album reached no. 2 on the Billboard blues chart and established King as a rising star with a rapidly growing following.

I’ll admit to not having heard him before tonight’s performance but it was immediately obvious from a near capacity Jazz Arena audience that he has already established something of a cult following in the UK. 

If the King band hailed from New Orleans their music could be described as a ‘gumbo’, such is their range of influences which embrace virtually every genre of American popular music, and particularly those of the South. Instead King comes from Greenville, South Carolina and is the son of blues guitarist Marvin King.

Steeped in music from an early age Marcus King’s influences include the Southern Rock of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Texas blues of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Added to this is a jazz/fusion influence, tonight’s set included a couple of instrumental tunes which allowed King’s band mates to demonstrate their considerable chops. On the brief “The Man You Didn’t Know” the sounds of country, or perhaps more accurately Americana, found their way into an already heady mix. 

A stocky figure wearing a trademark hat King bears a striking physical resemblance to the late Skynyrd vocalist Ronnie Van Zant. But King doesn’t just sing with a hoarsely expressive voice he also plays guitar in the spirit of Van Zant’s colleagues Gary Rossington and Allen Collins.

He fronts a tight band featuring keyboardist Matt Jennings, bass guitarist Stephen Campbell, drummer Jack Ryan and hornmen Justin Johnson (trombone, trumpet, tambourine) and Dean Mitchell (tenor sax, flute).

Tune announcements were rare so I don’t intend to give a song by song account but instead to give an overall impression of the performance. First impressions of King were those of a white bluesman in the tradition of Winter and Vaughan, a skilled guitar soloist, though as yet less inspired as his mentors, but arguably a more distinctive and emotive vocalist than either of these.

But soon King was tossing other elements into the mix - soul, funk and even jazz. The second song combined funk rhythms with a Stax inspired soulfulness that recalled Otis Redding. Then there was that short diversion into country with the “The Man You Didn’t Know”.

Next another about face with an extended instrumental piece from the band’s first album that saw the horn players come into their own. Initially Johnson and Mitchell just seemed to be there to provide extra colour, punch and punctuation but Johnson now impressed with a fluent trumpet solo, the most obvious ‘jazz’ moment of the set thus far. He shared the solos with King on guitar and Jennings on organ. The keyboard man was very much King’s right hand man, filling out the group sound with a variety of sounds ranging through Rhodes, clavinet and Hammond while also relishing his opportunities as a soloist. Some of the sounds that he delivered on his solos were deliciously filthy.

King continued to jump around the genres with the next piece featuring a honking r’n’b styled tenor solo from Mitchell before metamorphosing into a slow blues arrangement of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” featuring a soulful and emotive vocal from King who really made the song his own.

And so it continued with stratospheric blues guitar soloing juxtaposed with Stax style horns. The jazz quotient was realised with another instrumental piece that included an impressive electric bass feature from Campbell, his melodic playing making use of full chording in the manner of Back Door’s Colin Hodgkinson.

The single from the new album included an unexpected Mitchell flute solo alongside a typically soulful King vocal and the show concluded with an extended workout featuring funk rhythms and raunchy blues vocals and which also gave the mountainous and splendidly hirsute drummer Ryan the opportunity to pummel his kit.

Overall I enjoyed this first exposure to the music of the Marcus King Band, although his style now lies a little outside my usual current listening zone. This young and highly talented musician has already carved out a distinctive niche for himself as he explores a colourful spectrum of Southern sounds. A powerful and soulful vocalist he’s also a highly capable guitar soloist and an increasingly mature and accomplished songwriter. King has absorbed his influences well but has rapidly established his own identity, one that sits neatly in the lineage of Southern Rock.

In many respects King has it all, expect to hear a lot more from this multi-talented young musician.


DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER

Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater has enjoyed a long and illustrious career and is something of a jazz legend. However Bridgewater is a musician who has always been reluctant to be pigeon-holed and her CV includes forays into other area of music including pop, disco and Broadway musicals.

Tonight’s performance offered another example of Bridgewater stepping out of her jazz comfort zone. Her latest project is a celebration of, and homage to, the music of the city of her birth, Memphis, Tennessee.

Born in the city in 1950 Bridgewater’s family moved north when she was three years of age and the singer was raised in Flint, Michigan. But Bridgewater never lost touch with the music of her original home town and she grew up listening (under the bedclothes - natch) to the music of Memphis on the radio station WDIA, the first station to be programmed exclusively for Afro-Americans. Here she first heard many of the artists whose music was celebrated tonight.

Bridgewater has recorded an album of this music which is due for release in September 2017 and tonight she was joined by a well drilled group that she referred to as the Memphis Soul Band. The core of the group comprised of drummer, backing vocalist and musical director James Sexton, guitarist Charlton ‘CJ’ Johnson, keyboardist Dell Smith and bassist Barry Campbell.  The sound was sometimes enhanced by the horns of Arthur Edmaiston (tenor sax) and Marc Franklin (trumpet, flugelhorn) with backing vocals provided by sisters Shontelle Norman-Beatty and Sharrise Norman.

The evening began with the instrumental “Burnt Biscuits”, originally recorded by Booker T & The MGs and here a vehicle for organist Dell Smith who also acted as MC as he introduced this “Celebration of Memphis” and welcomed Bridgewater to the stage.

The singer bounded on on a pair of crutches, her injuries the result of a backstage fall while on tour in Indonesia. Although she was obliged to remain seated for the performance nothing fazed the energetic and charismatic Bridgewater as she and her band put on a hugely entertaining two hour show featuring a whole raft of classics from Memphis’ rich musical heritage.

The initial vocal number was Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s “Goin’ Slow” which immediately revealed that Bridgewater, that most versatile of singers, is blessed with a terrific blues voice. Backed by the core quartet her powerful and emotive vocal was complemented by a keyboard solo that saw Smith deploying both electric piano and organ sounds.

The Norman sisters came on to the stage to accompany Bridgewater on her rootsy and soulful rendition of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “Givin’ Up”, a song also covered by Luther Vandross. The use of gospel style backing vocals, periodically throughout the set, proved to be highly effective.

The song “I Can’t Get Next To You” was originally recorded by The Temptations but Bridgewater’s interpretation took inspiration from the more rough edged performance recorded by Al Green.  Bridgewater’s between songs narrative ranged from flirtatious banter to autobiography to serious historical fact. Here we learnt that Green’s take on the song was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, owned by producer Willie Mitchell. In a nice touch of serendipity Mitchell’s son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell worked on Bridgewater’s impending Memphis album which was recorded at the same venue. Tonight’s performance of the song featured the entire ensemble including horns and backing vocalists and with a searing guitar solo coming from Johnson.

The only song not directly related to Memphis was “Yes I’m Ready”, an enjoyable slice of soul originally recorded in 1965 by the Philadelphia based singer Barbara Mason.

Gospel music and political comment merged on “Why”, a song written by Pops Staples with a lyric part inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the shameful episode of the “Little Rock Nine”. Bridgewater was quick to condemn the present political situation in the US under the Trump administration but equally quick to praise the work of the charitable Stax Foundation and its work with underprivileged Afro-American youngsters.

A horn enlivened take on the old Carla Thomas hit “B-A-B-Y”, written by the prolific Isaac Hayes, proved to be one of the most popular items of the set with Bridgewater encouraging the audience to clap along to this joyous homage to the classic Stax sound.

The singer then took a well earned breather as the core quartet romped through another instrumental, “Chicken Pox”, presumably another Booker T tune, with solos from Smith on organ and Johnson on guitar.

No homage to Memphis would be complete without a tune associated with Elvis Presley. Bridgewater’s arrangement of “Don’t Be Cruel” brought a welcome blues/soul grittiness to the piece and saw the singer trading phrases with saxophonist Anderson above Sexton’s loose limbed drum grooves.

Another hugely popular item was “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, originally recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis in 1974 by Ann Peebles and later an even bigger hit for Tina Turner, effectively relaunching the latter’s career. But it was the Peebles version that was Bridgewater’s blueprint and the performance even included a sample of the electronic timbales that appeared on the original Peebles recording.

Blues icon BB King, another musician indelibly associated with Memphis, was celebrated with arguably his most famous song, “The Thrill Is Gone” with Johnson excelling on guitar and Smith again weighing in on keyboards.

Encouraged by Bridgewater the Norman sisters enjoyed lead vocal cameos on a segue of blues classics with Shontelle singing “Stormy Monday” and Sharrise “All Night Long”.

Bridgewater reclaimed Lieber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” from Presley and treated it to a far earthier rendition in the style of Big Mama Thornton, by whom it was first recorded. A vicious ‘put down’ of a song Bridgewater recaptured something of the bitterness of the lyrics – alongside some rather theatrical dog like howling.

Equally bitter-sweet was the version of the now little remembered hit Soul Children hit “The Sweeter He Is (The Harder The Pain)”, written by Hayes and David Porter.

The entertainment closed with a stunning version of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”. By this time the enormous personality that is Dee Dee Bridgewater had the audience eating out of her hand and the inevitable encore was the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord”, originally recorded by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson.

I have to say that I was extremely impressed by this hugely enjoyable performance by Bridgewater and her band as she stamped her own personality on these bona fide blues, soul and gospel classics, in much the same way as she does with her more familiar jazz material.

With her astonishingly flexible, expressive and versatile voice and vivacious, extrovert personality she’s a genuine star and the audience absolutely loved this show which maintained the spirit of the original songs but never tipped over into ‘tribute’ slickness or mawkishness. This was a celebration that managed to retain the spirit of the originals, including an essential rawness, but still found something fresh to say about them. Even being on crutches and joking about her ‘bionic leg’ couldn’t detract from Bridgewater’s appeal. I’d guess that plenty of people are going to be looking out for the “Memphis” album when it appears in September.

This was an evening that offered that some great music, even it wasn’t strictly ‘jazz’. Nevertheless an excellent start to this year’s Festival.

   

Surge In Spring Festival, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/04/2017.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Surge In Spring Festival, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/04/2017.

It's good to see a “cutting edge” festival returning to Birmingham again, especially one that is so supportive of young, up and coming musicians.

Surge In Spring Festival, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham, 08/04/2017.

The all day Surge In Spring Festival is the brainchild of musician, composer, band-leader, vocalist, poet and educator Sid Peacock, a key figure on the Birmingham music scene.

Originally from Bangor in Northern Ireland Peacock has been resident in Birmingham since the late 1990s following his graduation from the city’s Conservatoire, an organisation with whom he maintains close links.

Peacock also has close ties with the mac and has performed at the venue many times, often in the company of his brilliant jazz/folk big band the Surge Orchestra, of whom much more later.

A particularly open minded musician Peacock is dismissive of genre boundaries and is active across a broad range of musical and other artistic disciplines. Surge In Spring was conceived as a celebration of the Birmingham artistic scene and included four ticketed concerts in mac’s main theatre space plus free performances in the smaller Hexagon Theatre and in the venue’s bar areas. The sounds heard embraced jazz, improv, folk, world, gospel, electronica and more, with the Surge Orchestra seemingly tackling all of them at once!

Surge In Spring was part of a wider movement, Grow Your Own, an initiative of the Cultural Heritage and Improvised Music in European Festivals (CHIME) research project which has helped to instigate similar events in Sweden and The Netherlands. Peacock was quick to acknowledge the support of CHIME, the Arts Council of England, Birmingham City University and the mac venue.

On one of the sunniest days of the year the weather was perfect for the festival. Although the events were all held indoors neighbouring Cannon Hill Park was full of families of all ethnicities enjoying the unseasonably warm spring weather and that ‘feel good’ factor transmitted itself to the festival itself with almost all of the events being reasonably well attended and with a warmly supportive atmosphere prevailing throughout. The only downside was that the sun had tempted people out in such large numbers that car parking was at a premium – again more on that later!

GOSPEL REVISITED PROJECT with SURGE

Having got lucky in the car parking lottery I was in plenty of time to witness the first ticketed event of the day, a collaboration between Peacock and members of the Surge Orchestra with the Gospel Revisited Project led by Birmingham based drummer and band-leader Ray Prince.

Peacock and Prince have often worked together on community music projects over the years and today’s Festival offered Peacock to realise his long held ambition for Prince’s gospel singers and musicians to collaborate with members of the Surge Orchestra. 

Prince’s band featured himself at the drum kit, his older brother Trevor on guitar, Justin on bass guitar, the enigmatically named CJ on keyboards and twin vocalists Claudia Prince and Deborah Brown. This line up delivered the opening number “God Has A Way Of Working Things Out”, the positivism of the lyrics given a strident and soulful emphasis by the voices of the two singers.

But the music sounded even better with the addition of many of the members of the Surge Orchestra. “Somebody Told Me” benefited greatly from the big band punch provided by the reinforcements in an arrangement by trombonist Richard Foote, during which saxophonist Huw Morgan took the instrumental honours with a Sanborn-esque alto solo.

As if to prove that this was a genuine collaboration Ray and Sid shared the announcing duties and the next song, “Don’t Pass Me By” was a joyously grooving arrangement by Surge guitarist Simon King powered by the organ sounds generated by CJ. King, still sounding remarkably fluent despite a damaged and bandaged right hand shared the solos with the New Orleans flavoured trumpet of Mike Adlington.

“I Just Want To Know You” was introduced by the Surge string section led by violinist Kiki Chen and featured soaring strings and soulful vocals floating above Ray Prince’s solid back beat in a joint arrangement by Chen and Peacock, the violinist dealing with the strings and Peacock the brass and other parts.

Steve Tromans was invited onto the stage to play the venue’s grand piano in an intimate arrangement of “Amazing Grace” featuring just the Surge pianist and the shared vocals of Claudia Prince and Deborah Brown.

Finally we heard another joint arrangement, this time by Peacock with the string parts written by violinist Ruth Angell, of the song “You Are My Saviour” with Angell’s violin and Max Gittings’ flute bringing a hint of Irish folk to the music.

I have to admit to not being particularly familiar with the world of gospel music but I rather enjoyed this, particularly with the additional heft of members of the Surge Orchestra behind the music.  A supportive crowd, including many members of Birmingham’s gospel community gave the ensemble a great reception and one sensed that it was only time constraints that prevented a deserved encore.

CHARCOLE COLLECTIVE

With more than one interim event taking place simultaneously it wasn’t possible to enjoy all of the music on offer. I heard a brief snippet of the CharCole Collective, a young quartet led by saxophonist/flautist Xhosa Cole and featuring keyboardist Tom Harris, bassist Shirjav Singh and drummer Izzy Shibani. What I heard seemed to owe something to the classic Blue note sound but Cole has also stated that his band’s influences also include folk melodies, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian rhythms plus more contemporary urban genres. In retrospect I wished I’d stuck around to hear a bit more of this, but at least I was to witness Cole again later in the day when this talented and versatile young musician performed as part of a group paying homage to the Indo-Jazz Fusions of the late John Mayer. 

SEIKOU SUSSO

Not finding the bar the most conducive space to listen to music I headed into the Hexagon for what was billed as a duo performance by the Gambian born, Birmingham based kora player Seikou Susso and his protégé Dan Wilkins.

I got there to find Susso playing solo and clearly filling in time until Wilkins arrived, singing improvised lyrics and ill-advisedly trying to jolly along a pitifully sparse crowd. As you may have suspected Wilkins had encountered difficulty in parking but eventually arrived and started setting himself up as Susso continued to play.

It was all rather distracting but eventually the duo got to perform a couple of numbers with Susso on kora and Wilkins on guitar. But Wilkins also plays the kora, and I recall seeing him give an impressive solo performance on this instrument at the Hare & Hounds in nearby Kings Heath in 2016 when he supported the group Vula Viel, led by percussionist Bex Burch. Wilkins is a pupil of Susso’s and today’s rather ragged performance concluded with a kora duet, the most satisfying item in a set that had to be truncated at this point to accommodate the next item on the festival programme.

Circumstances had combined to render this a rather disappointing event and all in all I found myself wishing that I’d hung around to hear more of the CharCole Collective, but such are the vagaries of festival life.

At this juncture I took a short break for food and conversation before making my way to the next ticketed event.

FREE JAZZ IMPROV with SID PEACOCK, PAUL DUNMALL, JOHN O’ GALLAGHER, MARK SANDERS, COREY MWAMBA

Birmingham has always harboured a thriving free jazz scene and this was celebrated in this concert featuring four different instrumental collaborations.

The event was introduced by Tony Dudley Evans, who continues to keep the free jazz flame burning in the city through his own TDE Promotions which hosts regular events at the Hexagon. Tony also offers support to the Fizzle series of improvised events curated by pianist Andy Woodhead at the Lamp Tavern in Digbeth.

Today’s event differed from the usual free jazz session not only due to its deployment of a variety of different line ups but also because of the use of spoken word, courtesy of Peacock, during the performances. This idea of combining poetry with freely improvised music had originally been explored by Peacock and pianist Steve Tromans in their “Hydrogen Jukebox” project.   

The first of the four improvisations featured Surge String players Sarah Farmer (violin) and Richard Scott (viola) together with Peacock and drummer Mark Sanders. The eerie timbres of the droning strings were allied to Sanders’ mallet rumbles and cymbal scrapes to create an atmospheric backdrop for Peacock’s poetic incantations, which even included a touch of humour as he concluded his recitation by expressing a wish to “go to the moon in a fucking balloon”.

Peacock is a poet but I’m not certain if those words had been his, I thought I detected something of Charles Bukowski about them, but I may well be wrong. However the poem in the second improvisation featuring Sanders, Tromans, Nick Jurd on bass and Corey Mwamba at the marimba definitely featured the words of Allen Ginsburg as the music entered stormier free jazz waters. Mwamba struggled to make himself heard as he soloed on Surge member Jason Huxtable’s marimba rather than his own customary vibraphone. Meanwhile Tromans came over more strongly as he channelled his inner Cecil Taylor with a torrential, virtuoso outpouring at the piano.

The third improvisation featured the closing stanzas of Jack Kerouac’s classic beat novel “On The Road”, atmospherically intoned by Peacock to a musical backdrop featuring the twin saxes of Dunmall and O’Gallagher, later joined by Sanders at the drums plus the layered, textured strings of Farmer and Scott.

The final – and lengthiest – improvisation featured the quartet of Dunmall, O’Gallagher, Sanders and Jurd with the latter introducing the piece on dramatic unaccompanied arco bass. When Sanders subsequently joined the fray Jurd reverted to the pizzicato technique, combining with the drummer to create the framework for the ferociously intertwined saxophone improvisations and subsequent individual solos of Dunmall and O’Gallagher. The latter, American born, is a frequent visitor to UK and to Birmingham in particular thanks to a part time teaching post at the Conservatoire. A prolific improviser and composer O’Gallagher has also appeared on a number of albums on the Whirlwind record label. Propelled by Jurd’s muscular bass grooves and the relentlessly colourful polyrhythmic flow of Sanders’ drumming both saxophonists made distinctive and authoritative individual statements before coalescing again in garrulous fashion. Sanders then enjoyed an imaginative solo drum feature which saw him making inventive use of the numerous small percussive devices with which he habitually augments his drum kit. A short passage featuring the two unaccompanied saxes then ushered in a final group resolution featuring Dunmall’s guttural tenor, O’Gallagher’s high register alto screeches and squawks and finally the sound of Jurd with the bow as the piece almost came full circle.

Freely improvised music can sometimes represent a daunting proposition but I rather enjoyed this and the rest of the audience also responded with great positivity. The use of voice and words in the opening stages of the event made this performance stand out from the usual improv session and provided considerable additional interest with Peacock playing an unexpected but highly effective role in the process. And, of course, the longer final section incorporated many of the ingredients of classic improv. A highly worthwhile exercise that many people probably enjoyed far more than they might have anticipated .

THE FROE

Once again I made my way to the intimate environs of the Hexagon for an interim concert that proved to be far more successful than the earlier performance by Susso and Wilkins had been.

First to appear on an intriguing double bill were the all female quartet The Froe featuring three members of Surge Orchestra’s string section. This young quartet combined elements of folk, jazz and chamber music and a pleasingly substantial audience at the Hexagon responded well to both the beauty and intelligence of this consistently delightful music.

The Froe featured the voice and violin of Ruth Angell together with Charlie Heys on violin, Helen Lancaster on viola and Emma Capp on cello. The quartet recently released their eponymous début EP on Transition Records, from which much of today’s material was drawn.

I arrived during the course of the first song with Angell’s fragile but pure voice singing the shepherd’s ballad “I’d Rather Be Tending My Sheep” accompanied by the sounds of pizzicato violin and viola and the richly melancholic arco sounds of Capp’s cello.

Heys’ tune “Wolf And The Woodpecker” opens the EP and is essentially its title track.  Here the four strings coalesced to deliver a beautiful blend of folk melody and chamber music dynamics, the music accelerating and adopting a more obviously folk direction in the lengthier second stage of the tune.

“The Four Angels”, the second song to feature Angell’s vocals boasted words by none other than Rudyard Kipling set to a folk melody composed by the guitarist, singer and songwriter Martin Simpson. This allegory, based on the Garden of Eden myth was both beautiful and highly effective and demonstrated the quartet’s mastery of both words and music.

Finally we heard a set of tunes incorporating Heys’ “Phoebe’s Return”, written for the return of a prodigal pet hamster, once missing and presumed dead.  Here Froe delivered an impressive array of sounds from just four stringed instruments as they mixed arco and pizzicato techniques and occasionally deployed the bodies of their instruments as auxiliary percussion. The EP also deploys guitar, harmonium and percussion but essentially The Froe remains a contemporary, genre bending string quartet. I was very impressed with the controlled beauty and delicacy of this performance which worked very well in the context of the Hexagon and which clearly delighted a highly supportive audience.
DRAWLIGHT

The Froe were followed by another unusual quartet led by Aaron Diaz, one of the Surge Orchestra’s twin trumpeters. Performing under the group name Drawlight Diaz’s quartet boasted a highly distinctive instrumental configuration with Esther Swift on harp, Jim Molyneux on accordion and Jack McNeill on clarinet and bass clarinet.

The folk / chamber jazz aesthetic of the music, plus the unusual combination of trumpet, clarinet and accordion, reminded me of the quartet Flea Circus led by London based trumpeter Jack Davies who released their eponymous début album back in 2012. However where Davies made use of double bass Diaz features the even more distinctive timbres of Swift’s harp.

The quartet’s short set first featured their unique ensemble sound on Diaz’s Charlie Parker inspired “The Professional Composer Arranger” followed by a tune with a Swedish title meaning “The Lakes Are Singing”, a piece inspired by the composer’s time spent studying in Sweden. Finally we heard a tune inspired by the rhythms of dripping water in a cistern at a public lavatory in Sandwell!
Eclectic or what?

In Drawlight’s unique sound-world the ensemble sound is key but there were still moments of individual brilliance to enjoy such as the distinctive sound of the leader’s trumpet ‘whisper’, the dialogue between harp and bass clarinet and Swift’s unusual use of the strings of the harp as a kind of percussion. Besides the folk and jazz influences Diaz and Drawlight displayed an obvious love of the avant garde, appropriate perhaps for a man who once led a band called Moon Unit, named in honour of the late, great Frank Zappa.

Drawlight is still very much a work in progress but this short set was unusual and distinctive and exhibited considerable potential for future development. Once again it was well received by the Hexagon audience who had all stuck around for the second part of this intriguing double bill.

JOHN MAYER’S INDO-JAZZ FUSIONS

In the late 1960s the late Anglo-Indian violinist and composer John Mayer (1930-2004) pioneered a then unique fusion of jazz and Indian music featuring a ten piece band, described as a ‘double quintet’, which included musicians from both disciplines. 

This exotic ensemble was co-led by the Jamaican born saxophonist Joe Harriott (1928-73) and the group’s two sixties albums have acquired a cult status. Original copies are worth hundreds of pounds but, of course, the material has been re-issued on both vinyl and CD in a number of different packages over the years.

Following Harriott’s tragically early death from cancer Mayer disbanded the group, only to reform it more than twenty years later, often deploying Birmingham based musicians, recruited as a result of Mayer’s tenure as a teacher at Birmingham Conservatoire. A series of later albums followed and in 2017 Indo-Jazz Fusions is led by John Mayer’s son, the sitar player Jonathan Mayer.

Today’s performance was given by an octet featuring Birmingham based pianist Steve Tromans, a member of John Mayer’s 1990s group and with Mayer Jr. a keystone of the current line up. Other members of the 2017 line up include Mohinder Singh (tabla), Xhosa Cole (flute, tenor sax), Mike Adlington (trumpet), Nick Jurd (double bass), Richard Scott (violin) and Tymoteusz Jozwiak (drums).

The performance began with a Tromans arrangement of “Chhota Mitha”, a John Mayer tune from the 1998 album “Ragatal” on which the pianist played. One was immediately impressed by the breadth of colour of the ensemble sound with regard to both texture and rhythm. Equally impressive were the individual features including solos from Mayer on sitar, Singh on tablas and Cole on flute in addition to the exchanges between Mayer and trumpeter Adlington plus the three-way discussion between Scott, Adlington and Cole. This represented a compelling and enjoyable introduction to the Indo-Jazz fusions sound of 2017.

IJF 2017 is more than just a ‘tribute’ band with members of the ensemble positively encouraged to bring something of themselves to the table. “Mela Mela” represented Cole’s ingenious bringing together of John Mayer’s “Mela Kiravani” from 2001 and Esperanza Spalding’s tune “Mela”. The arranger switched to tenor sax and shared the solos with Mayer Jr.‘s sitar as Adlington deployed the more rounded tone of the flugel horn. Singh’s mesmerising tabla feature acted as the segue between the two segments with Cole making the move back to flute and Tromans emerging as the featured soloist in the second section.

The closing “Multani Thirteens” represented an updating of John Mayer’s tune “Multani” from the 1967 début album featuring Harriott. Revived in the 1990s this complex but hypnotic raga based tune now deploys a thirteen beat cycle and included a compelling star solo from Jonathan Mayer plus a series of captivating exchanges between Mayer and Tromans. Also taking the opportunity of engaging in musical dialogue were Adlington, Scott and Singh with a triple discussion involving trumpet, violin and tabla.

There may only have been three numbers played but these lengthy, multi-faceted musical explorations represented rewarding and highly compulsive listening. Those who had been lucky enough to see the Harriott edition of the group in its 60s heyday (notably Peter Slavid who was reviewing the Festival for London Jazz News) were inevitably disappointed but for first timers like myself this was a fascinating aural experience and something of a festival highlight.

DAN SPIRRETT TRIO

In the bar area I caught a snippet of the trio set performed by the young saxophonist Dan Spirrett, a fourth year student on the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. I remember being very impressed with Spirrett when he performed at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival as part of the annual “Trondheim Jazz Exchange” event.

A prolific composer Spirrett also leads his own quintet and nonet. I suspect that his colleagues today were bassist Sam Ingvorsen and drummer Gwilym Jones, who also constitute the rhythm team in Spirrett’s larger ensembles.

The mac bar represented a less sympathetic listening environment than the Parabola Arts Centre in Cheltenham and to be honest I treated the trio’s efforts as background music as I grabbed a much needed sandwich. Nevertheless Spirrett, aged twenty two, still looks like a name well worth looking out for in the future.

JUGGENAUGHT

The next act to appear in the bar area was the young piano trio JuggeNaught led by pianist and composer Piera Onacko, a recent graduate from Birmingham Conservatoire. Deploying an electric keyboard Onacko was joined by bassist Ben Muirhead and drummer Max Tomlinson for a short set that drew on the E.S.T. / Neil Cowley / GoGo Penguin school of contemporary jazz pianism.

It would be good to hear the trio again in a more sympathetic context and with an acoustic piano. Their Soundcloud page features three tracks, including an instrumental interpretation of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”,  and suggests that this a group with considerable promise.

SURGE ORCHESTRA

The largest audience of the day was reserved for the final ticketed event, a performance by the mighty Surge Orchestra led and conducted by Festival curator Sid Peacock. The mac Theatre was almost full and the audience were hugely supportive of one of Birmingham’s favourite adopted sons.

For the record the Orchestra lined up as follows;

Sid Peacock – conductor, voice

Kiki Chen, Sarah Farmer – violins

Ruth Angell – violin, voice

Helen Lancaster, Richard Scott – violas

Emma Capp – cello

Max Gittings – flutes & whistles

Lluis Mather – alto sax, bass clarinet

Huw Morgan – alto sax

Chris Morgan – tenor sax

Nick Rundle – baritone sax

Mike Adlington – trumpet

Aaron Diaz – trumpet, electronics

Richard Foote – trombone

Steve Tromans - piano

Simon King – guitar

Nick Jurd – acoustic & electric bass

Jason Huxtable – tuned percussion

Alpahdino Elema, Mark Sanders – percussionist

Tymoteusz Jozwiak – drum kit      

Surge, standing for Sidist Utopian Revolutionary Groove Ensemble, was formed in 2004 to perform a commission for Birmingham’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. This saw Peacock working with the recently deceased Paul Murphy, poet, activist and leader and vocalist of the eclectic Birmingham based band The Destroyers, a group that includes numerous members of the Surge line up.

Peacock dedicated today’s performance to Murphy’s memory and the band responded with some terrific playing as they tackled the complexities of Peacock’s material with aplomb and a great sense of fun.

Peacock has publicly acknowledged the influence of Django Bates on his composing and a similar sense of the absurd informs his writing, albeit one filtered through a unique Belfast/Birmingham prism. In 2011 Surge Orchestra released the excellent album “La Fête” which was launched by a memorable performance at the mac featuring Bates as a guest soloist.

The album still stands up well six years later and formed the basis for much of today’s set, beginning with “Hallucinogenic Garden” which combined well drilled ensemble playing with a Loose Tubes like sense of abandon, particularly on the solos, Chris Morgan here taking the honours on tenor. I love the fine line between order and chaos in the Surge sound, something that led to this quote from my review of a 2015 performance by the band at the same venue that seems to encapsulate Peacock’s approach quite neatly;
“Peacock celebrates life and all its absurdities and somehow channels that into music that is both chaotic and disciplined, rowdy but thought provoking, and on occasion capable of great beauty”.

Peacock is a great front man for the band, that sense of the absurd peppering his between tunes anecdotes and bantering, the humour balanced by a more serious political agenda celebrating cultural and musical diversity and the leader’s own left wing roots.

“Molly’s Disco Biscuit” has always included a vocal section and today Peacock incorporated the lyrics of Murphy’s “Shoplifter’s Talking Blues”, a plea on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed,  juxtaposed with joyously buoyant rhythms and invigorating folk melodies courtesy of the massed strings plus Gittings’ flutes and whistles.

“La Fête” itself was a marvellous piece of Bates inspired writing, full of stylistic and dynamic twists and turns and a general air of barely controlled chaos. Along the way we enjoyed solos from Huw Morgan on alto and the injured but still impressive Simon King on guitar.

In 2008 Peacock travelled to Chongquin in China to work with members of the Sichuan Opera. This visit inspired “Chinese Flowers”, one of the gentler and more reflective items in the Surge Orchestra repertoire with pianist Tromans making a particularly beautiful contribution.

By way of contrast “Pixel Carnage” more than lived up to its title with a ferocious electric bass groove courtesy of Jurd and blistering solos from Adlington on trumpet and Tromans on piano, again in Cecil Taylor / Myra Melford mode.

The deserved encore, which in truth was probably less spontaneous than Peacock would have had us believe, was “Bronze Bling”, another composition inspired by that trip to China but very different in mood to the earlier piece and generally more typical of Surge’s wacky output. Gittings soloed on some kind of Chinese flute, Diaz delivered an electronically enhanced trumpet solo (his use of electronics is a particularly distinctive element of the Surge sound) and Sanders, Elema and Jozwiak enjoyed an extended drum / percussion work out, aided and abetted by Tromans’ ominous low end piano rumblings. The piece closed with Peacock, Gittings and members of the string section all blowing Chinese flutes, a typically surreal end to a performance that exhibited all the Surge hallmarks of energy, excitement and eclecticism. It’s high time Peacock got this highly talented combo back into the studio to record another album.

FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

Peacock must have been delighted with this final performance by his own band and by the success of the day as a whole. The majority of the events were well attended (by jazz standards) and the atmosphere was warmly supportive throughout.

Despite the often shared personnel the musical agenda was particularly wide ranging and creative   and every performance that I witnessed offered something of interest. In many ways the Festival reminded me of the similarly structured Harmonic Festival curated by musicians Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove that was last held at the mac back in 2011. I’ve missed Harmonic and it’s good to see a “cutting edge” festival returning to Birmingham again, especially one that is so supportive of young, up and coming musicians.

Funding permitting it’s intended that Surge In Spring will become an annual event. With a Harmonic shaped hole to fill let’s hope that that dream will become a reality. This inaugural event certainly got things off to a great start and I’d like nothing more than to be coming back to this venue at the same time next year for the second genre bending Surge In Spring festival.

Congratulations to Sid Peacock and his team for putting on such a successful and rewarding first event.     



   

‘Jazz on a Winter’s Day’ -  Scott Willcox Big Band recording session, 18/02/2017.

Monday, March 20, 2017

‘Jazz on a Winter’s Day’ -  Scott Willcox Big Band recording session, 18/02/2017.

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister on a "a fascinating day spent at a church near Shepperton, where producer Andy Cleyndert was recording Scott Willcox's ten-piece big band for his Trio label".

JAZZ ON A WINTER’S DAY

SATURDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2017

Photograph of Scott Willcox Big Band courtesy of Lee Alexander Brown Photography

St Andrew’s Baptist Church, a late-Victorian red brick building, is set back from the road through the village of Upper Halliford, amid a beautifully tended garden, where a spread of snowdrops suggested that winter was finally in retreat. However idyllic this setting might seem, it was hard to picture how the ten-musicians of Scott Willcox’s jazz ensemble, their music stands and instrument cases plus microphones and control desk, might fit into the tiny structure for the day’s recording session. The answer was to be found by following a neat pathway to a recently constructed octagonal structure appended to the original church. Modern, sun-lit, and spacious and with an excellent acoustic, this would serve as a recording studio under the guiding hand of Andy Cleyndert, well known as a world class bass player but, on this occasion, the producer for his Trio record label.

This would be quite unlike my only other experience of a recording session. There I had viewed proceedings through a glass panel, as if watching marine life at an aquarium – the musicians tightly squeezed into a bare cell-like room, with the bass player and drummer tucked away in their own separate booths. The music played through speakers. It could have been coming directly from a CD; there was no sense of a live band playing at full-flight.

No such detachment here. Clearly producer Andy Cleyndert intends to capture the sound as if on a live gig. The centrally placed control desk lies only feet away from the musicians. Cables snaked away from the desk to the microphones, set up and ready for the musicians to shortly take their places once fortified by the hospitality of Scott and his wife Anne. ‘Scott takes care of the music,’ Anne remarked. ‘I look after other, more important details, like a steady supply of tea, coffee and chocolate biscuits.’

While Cleyndert attends to the final details of his recording equipment, the musicians amble into the space. Attired in a variety of outfits, ranging from shirtsleeves to padded coats and woollen hats designed to ward off Arctic cold, they take their seats.

Sited to the far left as I view the ensemble from the back of the church, Dave Frankel nods approvingly at the piano; it’s a fine instrument. Bass guitarist Ben Hazelton, stands next to him, barely visible behind the vast grey sheet that shrouds the piano. Gary Willcox cuts an authoritative figure behind his drum kit - he checks his charts and runs through various rhythms on his kit as everyone settles. Martin Gladdish, a one-man trombone section, is sited centre-stage; quiet and thoughtful. Gabriel Garrick and Andy Gibson are seated to his left; a powerhouse trumpet section, which literally heralds the arrival of Julian Costello with a timely fanfare. 

The saxophone section is set up at a right-angle to the brass instruments. Duncan Eagles on tenor, glowing with good health after recent work in Dubai, Julian Costello joins him, also on tenor; Bob McKay and Chris Biscoe are surrounded by an array of instruments: flute, soprano and alto saxophones. Together this formidable line-up comprises the Scott Willcox Big Band.

Scott’s quiet and self-effacing direction leads the band into a run-through of  ‘Rondosonu’. It’s a demanding chart, that maintains a complex West African drum pattern throughout; the sort of thing, as a band member once observed, that might emerge from “a meeting between Stravinsky and George Russell”. It takes time to nail the groove, but once achieved, the explosive force of the band in full flight fills the church with energy and musical colour. “We’ve got the feeling in the room. Let’s go for it. Let’s record it!” Gabriel Garrick declares with excited determination.

As Andy Cleyndert moves quietly about his job, adjusting microphones and setting things up in readiness for the first take, Scott issues instructions; directing Dave Frankel to hold a particular chord for a little longer and asking McKay and Biscoe to run through their parts again so that the sound of the alto and soprano saxes is separated more clearly. Meanwhile, Andy Gibson discovers that he’s got one more bar to everyone else. “That’s because you’re special,” remarks Martin Gladdish jokingly.

To my amazed observer’s senses, the musicians take the glitches of a recording session completely in their stride and after a couple of false starts, come close to producing the “joyous, generous, singing sound” that Scott is seeking. But ‘Rondosonu’ is not quite in the bag.

By now the temperature in the church has dropped noticeably, in line with the energy levels of the musicians; the charts are tricky and demand the utmost concentration. Another take might be a step too far. “How about doing a drop-in?” suggests Gary Willcox. It’s a welcome idea, eagerly taken up. A four bar introduction leads the band into the offending section and this time it’s played to perfection. There’s a moment of silence and audible relief before Scott and his musicians dare to smile.  Yes, ‘Rondosonu’ is in the can. It’s time to move on.

In contrast to the helter-skelter pace of ‘Rondosonu’ with its startling sounds and switches in time and rhythm, ‘Slane’, an interpretation of a traditional Irish melody, is a vision of Celtic beauty. Muted brass, blending with the reeds, and the gentle Latin breeze of Gary Willcox’s brushes provide the background to Bob McKay’s impassioned solo on alto sax, which grows in emotional depth with each take.

The ferocious ‘Bouncing Back’ is another piece full of challenges and potential pitfalls. Numerous takes and the sustaining effects of a splendid buffet lunch are needed before they are all successfully overcome. “It won’t get any better.” declared Gabriel Garrick with absolute finality. “This,” he continued, rubbing his forehead, “is knackered. It’s the counting.”

Scott expressed his delight at the close of ‘Where Next?’ which ran through seamlessly in one take. “That was great!” he said. “We captured the voicings perfectly.” A haunting lamentation, the number opened with the questioning piano of Dave Frankel and provided a platform for an achingly beautiful solo played by Martin Gladdish on trombone.

With Gary Willcox stoking the boiler, the band immediately responded to Scott’s call for ‘heat’ and set ‘All Change’ in motion at blistering pace. Exultant solos from Gibson, Biscoe and Costello, and firm bass lines from Ben Hazelton, added further fuel to the fire. With everyone thinking that the piece was ‘in the sack’, Gary Willcox suddenly confessed that “my part fell on the floor at bar 100 and from then on I was flying blind”. It was one of those moments; another would crop up before the end of the day’s recording at the end of ‘Listen Up’: should you go with what sounded ‘right’, and my ears told me that this did, or should you go with what WAS right i.e. the written score. Scott decided to go with the latter; a four bar intro led into a successful re-take and a thumbs up from Andy Cleyndert.

‘Mixed Feelings’ returned to the enigmatic territory explored earlier in ‘Where Next?’ Tempo was all important; at first it was too slow. “Run it again,” insisted Scott, and sure enough, the almost imperceptible difference in speed, brought the number together, only to fall apart, perhaps understandably, following the second of two totally free passages. Another ‘dovetail’ solved the problem perfectly.

It was a timely moment to take a break for tea. As I studied the clock and wondered how the session could possibly be completed by the deadline of 4 o’clock, Duncan Eagles confidently reassured me that, “It’s usually like this at recording sessions. Actually, we’re doing quite well.”

When recording resumed, two takes safely secured ‘Can’t Complain’, a fascinating piece featuring the trombones of Martin Gladdish, Gabriel Garrick (making his recording début on his second instrument) and guest Dave Horden, with the rhythm section.

‘Listen Up’, a gentle, slightly melancholic ballad, drawing on muted brass and Bob McKay’s expressive flute was also wrapped up in two takes.

I checked my watch again, four-fifteen. As the band launched into the first run-through of ‘African Dance’, I reluctantly took my leave. Over the course of six hours, a dynamic combination of energy, hard earned experience and technical brilliance, seasoned by the remarkable gift of jazz improvisation, had brought the compositions of Scott Willcox vividly to life in wonderful musical colours.

My thanks to Scott and Anne Willcox, the members of his Big Band and Andy Cleyndert.  I can’t wait to hear the finished result ‘on disc’, especially with the addition of Georgia Mancio’s gorgeous voice on ‘Listen Up’ and ‘Don’t Read My Lips’.


TREVOR BANNISTER

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Ten, Sunday 20th November 2016.

Monday, December 12, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Ten, Sunday 20th November 2016.

Ian Mann on the final day of the Festival and performances by the JD Allen Trio, Triforce and Friends, Zenel, Kokoroko and the Liberation Music Orchestra directed by Carla Bley.

Photograph of Carla Bley by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Ten, Sunday 20th November 2016

J D ALLEN TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

The final day of the Festival found me at the Pizza for the last time this year for a ticketed event featuring the American tenor saxophonist J D Allen and his trio. I recalled seeing Allen at the 2013 Festival when he played at Xoyo as part of the electro-acoustic trio led by drummer and composer Jaimeo Brown, a very different kind of gig that featured the use of electronica and samples, these courtesy of Chris Sholar.

But there were many similarities too with both shows having their roots in the blues. Brown’s project, “Transcendence”, incorporated samples of female textile workers singing in Gee’s Bend Alabama, these skilfully woven into the electro-acoustic fabric of the music. Meanwhile Allen’s latest album, “Americana” (Savant Records), featuring today’s trio with Gregg August on double bass and Rudy Royston on drums, is subtitled “Musings on Jazz and Blues” as it, too, takes the blues as the root for the trio’s subsequent improvisations. 

This lunchtime show saw Allen and his colleagues deliver an absolute fire-storm of a performance. An explosive opening featured Allen’s free-wheeling tenor sax improvisations fuelled by August’s busy bass and Royston’s turbo charged drumming. As the trio blazed away and showed no signs of letting up I thought we might be in for a single forty five minute improvisation but a fiery series of exchanges between Allen and Royston finally brought this first piece to a close.

The most obvious reference point for Allen’s playing was John Coltrane, a comparison that had already been made at that Xoyo show. The second piece (no tunes were announced) saw Allen playing in the meditative, spiritual style of the latter day Coltrane but the music was scarcely less intense and featured some dark, but impressive, arco work from August that was reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison.

The next two pieces upped the energy levels again with Allen continuing to channel the spirit of Coltrane. The first of these featured a pizzicato solo from the impressive August, the second a volcanic drum feature from the brilliant Royston. I’d been lucky enough to see Royston play live before in bands led by Bill Frisell and Michael Janisch / Aruan Ortiz, but never quite as hyper-actively as here. Keeping pace with the relentless Allen demanded an enormous degree of dexterity and stamina from his colleagues. Perhaps Royston was merely making up for lost time. He had missed the trio’s late night performance the day before as his flight had been delayed, his place being taken by the London based drummer Sebastiaan de Krom.

As the set progressed, rarely letting up in intensity and with Allen’s off mic wanderings lending a curiously human warmth to the proceedings, the music dug even deeper into the wellspring of the blues. There were further features for both August and Royston and the final piece even saw Allen injecting a little light relief in the form of a quote from “When The Saints Go Marching In”.

But overall this was far from cosy lunchtime jazz as Allen blew away any cobwebs with an uncompromising performance that acquired a sense of spirituality through it’s sheer dynamism. One could argue that it was a little derivative but nobody could deny its raw, elemental power. In his way Allen is the natural heir of John Coltrane, himself a musician steeped in the blues. 

After the 75 minute performance I treated myself to a copy of “Americana”, the source of much of this material. The album performances are more considered but just as impressive in their own way with hidden subtleties that were not quite as apparent in the heat of the moment during the course of a truly blistering set.

Despite the intensity of the music the trio were very well received by a discerning crowd and as I left Allen was debating whether to call his bandmates back for a second set – Royston had already packed his cymbals away at this point. I did consider sticking around but had another event at 4.00pm and also doubted whether the trio could reach such incendiary heights again after such a lengthy break so I decided to move on. A galvanising start to the last day nevertheless. 


TRIFORCE / ZENEL / KOKOROKO, IKLECTIK ART LAB, WATERLOO

My second visit to Iklectik was for this three band showcase presented by JazzNewBlood, an organisation who describe their mission as being “nurturing youth jazz talent”.

It would seem that they are doing a fine job as during EFG LJF they presented no fewer than ten bands and forty two musicians at Iklectik while making audio and visual recordings of all the performances.

The first band to appear were Triforce, a young group with an average age of nineteen featuring Dominic Canning (keyboards), Ricco Komolafe (electric bass) and Benjamin Appiah (drums). These three are students on the Jazz Course at Middlesex University, a hotbed of young jazz talent which has spawned Led Bib among others. These three are normally joined by guitarist Mansur Brown, who was unfortunately absent today but appears on the group’s début EP “Triforce 5ive”.

Triforce may seem an inappropriate name for a four piece band but as Canning informed us the name comes not from the size of the line up but from the band’s shared goals of “creativity, innovation and empowerment” - all lofty and admirable ideals. The band cite the various influences of Thundercat, J Dilla, Austin Peralta and Funky Knuckles as inspirations, which may give you some idea of where they’re coming from.

In truth with Brown absent things didn’t start well as Triforce took to the stage as a trio. The first number, “Banta” was a bit of a mess with a muddy sound and a lack of focus, it felt like a rather lacklustre jam. The lads were clearly missing Brown and the absence of a centre stage presence was all too noticeable.

However salvation was at hand in the shape of guest trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi who gave the band a visual focus and expanded the sound, giving the music fresh colour and impetus. His initial solo began a little tentatively but he soon gained confidence, becoming more and more impressive as his solo evolved. The tune was “Elijah’s Remedy”, a tune from the EP that features a guest appearance by tenor saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi.

Indeed Akinnibi himself joined the band for the next number, an infectious piece titled “Orion” with a rapid funk groove that saw band spokesman Canning encouraging the audience to clap along, which they did enthusiastically. The core trio had clearly gained confidence and inspiration from the presence of the two young horn men and now seemed to be really enjoying themselves. And they weren’t the only ones, I found myself responding more and more warmly to Triforce’s mix of jazz, funk, soul and hip hop. 

Ogunjobi sat out the next piece which was a feature for Akinnibi and saw the talented young saxophonist soloing fluently accompanied by Appiah’s hip hop grooves. There was also a thrilling set of exchanges between the saxophonist and drummer that recalled those of Allen and Royston earlier in the day.
The final piece saw Ogunjobi returning to the stage and impressing with some brassy, high register trumpeting as he shared the solos with Akinnibi. Appiah also impressed with a series of fiery drum breaks and Komolafe laid down some thunderous bass grooves. And although he rarely featured as a soloist it was Canning’s keyboards that were at the heart of the band’s sound with an impressive, and always apposite, range of Rhodes and synth grooves and textures.   

After a shaky start this gig turned out to be a triumph for “Triforce and Friends” as a beaming Canning described them. Triforce seem to be becoming an increasingly ubiquitous presence on the London jazz scene. I was impressed enough to invest in a copy of the EP and can report that it stands up very well in the home listening environment. Triforce and their friends should become increasingly important presences on the London and national music scenes in the years to come.

The next band proved to be even younger, all aged fifteen or sixteen. Zenel is one of those composite band names and the trio consists of Zoe Pascal (drums), Noah Stoneman (keyboards)  and Laurence Wilkins (trumpet, electronics). Zoe is the son of Patricia Pascal of JazzNewBlood, the organiser of today’s and other Festival events.

Like Triforce before them they write all of their own material and also played a five song set beginning with “Ewok Dance” which introduced the evocative blend of Wilkins’ trumpet and Stoneman’s various keyboard sounds with Pascal’s neatly energetic drumming helping to drive the music. Stoneman was the one musician I’d seen before, he had been a finalist in the BBC Young Musician Of The Year, a competition won by trumpeter Alexandra Ridout who had earlier played at Iklectik under the JazzNewBlood scheme. I was particularly taken by Stoneman’s ability to play steady and sturdy bass lines with his left hand while soloing inventively on Rhodes with his right, an impressive feat of musicianship.

“You Could Like Me If You Tried”, with its clipped rhythms added an appealing Canterbury like quirkiness that suggested that these young musicians may have listened to the kind of old school prog that I grew up with. Wilkins impressed here with his authoritative trumpet playing as he shared the solos with Stoneman’s keyboards.

There was more decidedly British quirkiness on “Bubble Leaves” with its odd meter grooves allied to Stoneman’s Django Bates styled keyboard soloing.

The rapid synth pulses and drones of the next piece, allied to Pascal’s skittering drum grooves, suggested the influence of more contemporary electronica as Wilkins’ trumpet cut a swathe through the rhythmic forest created by his colleagues. 

The closing piece included features for all three musicians with Pascal going first followed by Stoneman on Rhodes and Wilkins with a particularly powerful contribution on trumpet.

It’s also been a bonus to listen to the performances by Triforce and Zenel again via the JazzNewBlood website http://www.jazznewblood.org. Only the first three tunes of each set feature, hence the abandonment of titles half way through the reviews! But the music sounds great, and is even more impressive second time round, especially in Zenel’s case. Let’s hope they (Zenel) can get something out there on disc too. A bright future awaits these talented young musicians.

The final band to appear were Kokoroko, a seven piece London based Afrobeat Collective formed in 2014 and with a band name meaning “be strong” in the Urhobo language. The most senior of today’s groups their line up included Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet) and Cassie Kinoshi (alto sax), both of the band Nerija, plus Richie Seivwright (trombone), Oscar Laurence (guitar), Mutale Chashi (electric bass), Onome Edgeworth (percussion, congas) and Israel Shibani (kit drums).

In true festival fashion I had to leave just as they were starting to make my way over to Cadogan Hall for the early evening performance by the Liberation Music Orchestra. Thus I only caught a fraction of the first number, a piece that evidenced the obvious influences of Fela and Femi Kuti but also seemed to have something of a Sun Ra feel thanks to Laurence’s spacey guitar FX.

What I heard sounded very promising and I was hoping to catch a bit more of the show retrospectively via the JazzNewBlood website. Unfortunately at the time of writing there’s still no footage of the Kokoroko performance so I guess I’ll just have to catch them somewhere else at another time.

My thanks to Benjamin Appiah, Ife Ogunjobi, Kaidi Akinnibi and Patricia Pascal for speaking with me and congratulations to JazzNewBlood for the sterling work they are doing to promote and encourage emerging jazz talent.

I have to say that I very much enjoyed both my visits to Iklectik Art Lab. Despite its out of the way location behind Waterloo Station the venue itself is warm and welcoming and there’s a real community/family feel about the place and the sense that this is a space run by music lovers for music lovers. Hopefully Iklectik - and the institutions that use it such as JazzNewBlood, Jazz Nursery and LUME – will continue to thrive. It’s a venue that I would very much like to return to next year.


LIBERATION MUSIC ORCHESTRA directed by CARLA BLEY, CADOGAN HALL

The first incarnation of the Liberation Music Orchestra emerged in 1969 under the leadership of the late bassist and composer Charlie Haden (1937-2014). Conceived as a response to the then ongoing Vietnam War the eponymous début LMO album featured folk/protest songs from the Spanish Civil War and presented them to a new audience via a set of arrangements by the group’s pianist Carla Bley.

That first album was heavily influenced by the free jazz of the 1960s and is an often challenging listen with Bley’s arrangements punctuated by bouts of raucous free jazz improvising by, among others, trumpeter Don Cherry, trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Dewey Redman, many of those names no longer with us. But there’s an energy, vibrancy and righteous anger about the music that renders the record both unmistakably of its time yet simultaneously timeless. Either way it remains essential listening.

Haden was a busy musician who performed in a variety of contexts and formats ranging from duo to big band. However the LMO name was never formally retired and further albums appeared periodically including “Ballad Of The Fallen” (1982), “Dream Keeper” (1990) and “Liberation Music Orchestra” (1999). In 2005 a new edition of the band recorded “Not In Our Name”, a protest about America’s involvement in the war in Iraq.

At the time of his death Haden had been working on an album addressing environmental concerns, a project he had been incubating for many years. Encouraged by Haden’s widow Ruth Cameron Bley continued Haden’s work, completing the project and releasing the album “Time/Life; Song For The Whales And Other Beings” under the LMO name in 2016.

“Song For The Whales” features performances by many of the musicians present in tonight’s line
up which was introduced with great dignity by Ruth Cameron.

For the record the roll call was;

Carla Bley – piano, director

Michael Rodriguez, Seneca Black – trumpets

Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby – tenor saxophones

Laurence Stillman – alto saxophone

Marshall Gilkes – trombone

Vincent Chancey – french horn

Earl McIntyre – tuba

Steve Cardenas – guitar

Darek Oles – double bass

Matt Wilson – drums

Many of these musicians were familiar faces and several had featured in Bley’s own bands over the years.

Under Bley’s leadership the music of the LMO is more considered and less abandoned than it was in 1969. But it is no less wonderful – or indeed relevant - for that, with Bley’s arrangements stunning in terms of both their inventiveness and their beauty.

The performance began with an arrangement of “Blue In Green” the Miles Davis / Bill Evans classic. Bley’s lush, colourful arrangement included solos for Rodriguez and Cheek plus a melodic bass feature for Oles, a former Haden protege now stepping into the shoes of his mentor. The sound was a little indistinct to start but improved considerably as the concert progressed.

Bley’s unaccompanied piano introduced “Not In Our Name” which included further features for Stillman, Cardenas and Bley in an arrangement that managed to sound both angry and uplifting.

The lengthy “Time/Life”, written by Bley, began with the band pared down to a nonet with the temporary withdrawal of Cheek, Stillman and Cardenas. When Malaby commenced his brilliantly fluent and emotive solo the group was reduced even further, operating in quartet mode for a while.  Wilson’s brushed drums then introduced the second half of the piece as the LMO returned to full strength with Cheek, Rodriguez, Black and Malaby making pithy solo statements amid a rousing horn arrangement.

The Bley composition “Silent Spring” also addresses environmental concerns and was inspired by Rachel Carson’s book of the same name. It’s one of Bley’s most enduring compositions and has been recorded by several editions of her band and also by vibraphonist Gary Burton on his 1974 quintet album “Ring”. The stark beauty of the piece was epitomised by an ethereal introduction featuring Oles and Cardenas with the anger coming later via a powerful collective groove and the incisive soloing of Cheek and Rodriguez.

Bley’s arrangement of “America The Beautiful” came closest to the spirit of the original LMO as it mixed solemnity and humour in a free-wheeling arrangement jam packed with brilliant individual solos with Rodriguez, Stillman, McIntyre, Cheek and Wilson all featuring. The final pastiche like section was climaxed by a piercing high register trumpet note from Black as the piece drew the loudest applause of the night.

The momentum was maintained through a similarly rousing, gospel tinged arrangement of “Amazing Grace” with the spirit of the American marching band tradition never far away. Soloists here included Gilkes, Malaby, Oles and a bluesy Cardenas.

The performance concluded with Haden’s “Song For The Whales” with the sound of arco bass, cymbal scrapes and guitar scratchings approximating the sound of whale-song on the intro. Malaby, alongside Rodriguez arguably the night’s most impressive soloist, blew passionately, underscored by Wilson’s relentless drum barrage, on the only true solo in the most open and freely structured arrangement of the evening. The piece ended as it began with bowed bass, guitar and drums as the disembodied voice of Ruth Cameron introduced the band for a final time.

This was a superb performance from a stellar band and a capacity audience at Cadogan Hall were clearly delighted with what they’d heard. The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on the Jazz Now programme on the night of 5th December 2016 and sounded just as good second time around. At the time of writing it is still available to hear at;
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b084cztc

For me, the most outstanding performer was Bley herself. Now approaching eighty she’s arguably playing better then ever and her composing and arranging gifts remained undimmed. Intelligence, imagination and integrity remain at the heart of everything she does. Let us hope that she can continue to make music for many more years to come. 


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

The EFG LJF continues to be a highlight of my personal musical calendar. For me it’s like Christmas come early.

It’s also a hugely significant cultural event that raises the profile of jazz in the city and demonstrates just how vibrant the music can be as it reaches out to an increasingly broad listenership.

The sheer variety of the festival is impressive, both in terms of the musical styles on offer and the venues in which it is played, from imposing concert halls to tiny clubs to suburban high streets.

I saw around forty different performances in a broad range of venues and enjoyed almost all of them, from jazz legends like Carla Bley to emerging talents such as Triforce, Zenel and Kokoroko.

2016 saw me expanding my horizons and visiting new venues around the city. Jazz Cafe POSK, Iklectik Art Lab and the 606 Club all became instant favourites, great places to listen to music that I hope to return to again next year, along with all the other wonderful jazz venues that London has to offer of course.

The EFG LJF is an enormous operation and despite a couple of minor organisational glitches it all ran remarkably smoothly and I was very well looked after everywhere I went. My thanks to Sally Reeves and the rest of the Serious team and also to the owners and promoters at the individual club venues.

Thanks also to photographer Tim Dickeson for allowing me to use his wonderful images to illustrate my Festival coverage. 

Finally in this year of Brexit it was heartening to see the spirit of international co-operation within the music. I estimated that I witnessed performers from at least eighteen different countries during the course of the Festival, proof that music, and jazz in particular, is a truly international language.

 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Nine, Saturday 19th November 2016.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Nine, Saturday 19th November 2016.

Ian Mann enjoys very different performances by the Steve Fishwick / Alex Garnett Quartet, Dinosaur, Daniel Herskedal, The BBC Concert Orchestra, Chris Sharkey and the Charlie Hunter Band.

Photograph of the Daniel Herskedal Trio by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Nine, Saturday 19th November 2016

STEVE FISHWCK / ALEX GARNETT QUARTET, THE ELGIN, LADBROKE GROVE

Saturday lunchtime found me a visiting another new venue, The Elgin, a Victorian pub in Ladbroke Grove. The Elgin has a designated music room and a distinguished musical history with a particularly strong punk pedigree.

It still hosts regular musical performances but isn’t part of the established London jazz circuit. However once a year it hosts BopFest, a strand of the EFG LJF co-ordinated by the vibraphonist Nat Steele and featuring leading British bebop and mainstream musicians.

I think I noticed that the Elgin has its own grand piano but that wasn’t needed today as trumpeter Steve Fishwick and saxophonist Alex Garnett co-led a chordless quartet featuring the New York based musician Mick Karn on double bass and Steve’s brother, Matt Fishwick, at the drums.

However things didn’t start well. The EFG LJF brochure advertised the gig as starting at 1.00 pm, the BopFest leaflet listed it as beginning at 2.00 pm. In order to give ourselves time to eat before the band started playing we arrived shortly after noon and unexpectedly found ourselves with a lot of time to kill. Still it could have been much worse, we enjoyed our food and then whiled away the time enjoying a pint and watching the Man Utd. V Arsenal match on the telly with the locals. As my other obsessions are beer and football I wasn’t too disgruntled about the confusion over the gig scheduling, although it did mean that we could now only stay for the first set. Also with the combined football and jazz crowds the Elgin staff struggled to cope and the service was slow to say the least. 

The BopFest promotional leaflet promised music inspired by the now little known hard bop pioneers Kenny Dorham (trumpet) and Ernie Henry (alto sax). The gig was a run up to a planned recording by the quartet at a London studio a few days later. The majority of the material consisted of originals by Steve and Alex in the hard bop style and the first set kicked off with Steve’s “It’s The Middle Of The Night For Some Of Us”, the title acknowledging the irregular working hours of the jazz musician. The piece was a blues in the classic hard bop style with hard hitting solos by Steve Fishwick on trumpet and Garnett on alto with further features for Karn on bass and Matt Fishwick with a series of fiery drum breaks. It was particularly interesting to watch Garnett performing on alto rather than his customary tenor.

Garnett demonstrated his ability on the smaller horn again as he led off his own Latin flavoured “Rio de Rum” with Steve Fishwick following him on trumpet and Karn on the bass. Matt Fishwick enjoyed a further series of drum breaks and we were also treated to a series of fluent exchanges between the co-leaders.

Garnett dedicated his ballad “52nd Street Dream” to the memory of Ronnie Scott, informing us of how of Scott was so inspired by Art Pepper’s playing at the 100 Club that he took himself off to New York to witness Charlie Parker in the flesh on 52nd Street. On returning to the UK Scott set up his own modern jazz club with the modern Frith Street premises, where Garnett is a regular performer, becoming his towering legacy. This piece featured the lyrical trumpet playing of Steve Fishwick, sensitively accompanied by brother Matt’s brushed drums.

The next piece was unannounced but included a lengthy feature for Karn alongside further solos from Garnett and Steve Fishwick. The quartet then rounded off the first half with the lively “Lickeroo”, a contrafact that saw the two horns working both in tandem and separately as they diverged to take their individual solos.

This was an enjoyable set of hard bop featuring some top quality playing from all four musicians although the familiar head/solos/head format did tend to become a little too familiar after a while. In many respects it was the kind of ‘meat and potatoes’ performance that was perfectly suited to the back room of a pub, even one as elegant and opulent as the Elgin. However the chordless instrumental configuration and the high standard of the musicianship helped to sustain the listener’s interest and any subsequent album by this quartet should be well worth hearing. The performance also demonstrated what a fine all round saxophonist Garnett is, as well as being a salty and witty verbal presence on the bandstand.

Before leaving I was honoured to speak briefly with Nat Steele who was to perform at the Elgin with his own sextet (featuring Steve Fishwick and Karn) in the evening.


BBC CONCERT ORCHESTRA with LAURA JURD and DANIEL HERSKEDAL, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

The EFG LJF is all about contrasts and I made my way from the backroom of the Elgin to the rather more refined surroundings of the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall.

The music was to be different too, instead of fiery hard bop we were to hear two new commissions, one by the young British trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd, the other by the Norwegian tuba player Daniel Herskedal, performed by the composers and their groups in conjunction with the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of conductor Keith Lockhart and led by Michael Anderson Frank.

As a BBC New Generation Artist it was perhaps not surprising that Jurd was commissioned to write a work for jazz group and orchestra. Introducing her piece “Alt. Punk” she described it as being for “Dinosaur and Orchestra”, the quartet Dinosaur also featuring Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (electric bass) and Corrie Dick (drums).

Effectively the work resembled a trumpet concerto with Jurd the featured soloist as her group provided rhythmic impetus and the orchestra context, colour and texture. Performed in two movements the piece featured Jurd’s clear, fluent, precise trumpet soloing, her playing clearly audible above a rich orchestral arrangement that made particularly effective use of strings and woodwind. Galvin, a band-leader in his own right, was also featured as a soloist on his Nord Electro 3 keyboard.

Dinosaur also got to play a piece on their own, presumably one of the tracks from their acclaimed recent album “Together, As One” (I suspect that it may have been “Living, Breathing”). With Jurd also playing synthesiser the group set up a busy groove featuring sequenced synth plus bass and drums above which Jurd and Galvin executed some dazzling, lightning fast unison melodic phrases. Chaplin was given the chance to shine with a liquid electric bass solo and Dick also impressed with his agile and nimble drumming throughout. This was more reminiscent of the last time that I’d seen Dinosaur – in the backroom of the Spotted Dog pub in Digbeth, Birmingham. Oh yes, it’s those contrasts again! 

The American born Lockhart (he’s also the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra), hosted the performance with a confident warmth and a wry wit as he conducted introductory interviews with both Jurd and Heskedal immediately before premièring the new works.

He also put the Orchestra through their paces with renditions of three dance episodes , The Great Lover”, “Lonely Town” and “Times Square Ballet” by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) sourced from the musical “On The Town”, Bernstein’s collaboration with the choreographer Jerome Roberts.

Reviewing this event for London Jazz News Jon Turney found these Orchestra only pieces decidedly underwhelming citing the Orchestra’s inability to ‘swing’ in the jazz sense. Personally I enjoyed them rather more, finding the first and third pieces to be lively and invigorating and contrasting well with the lush and more reflective mood of the second, which also featured a trumpet soloist from within the ranks of the Orchestra. 

Like the previous evening’s event at Rich Mix featuring Oddarrang and Slowly Rolling Camera this was effectively another Edition Records double bill with both Dinosaur and Daniel Herskedal also part of the label’s roster.

Herskedal is a remarkable musician, a true virtuoso on the tuba, an instrument to which he brings an astonishing range of sounds and an even more amazing emotional depth. He’s also a highly skilled composer as evidenced by his two releases for Edition “Neck Of The Woods”, an intimate duo set with saxophonist Marius Neset, and the more expansive “Slow East Bound Train”.

Herskedal’s trio featuring pianist Eyolf Dale and drummer Gerd Nilsson entered the stage suited and booted, fully buying into the classical ethos. The began by plating without the accompaniment of the Orchestra as Herskedal demonstrated his astonishing technique on the tuba producing sounds ranging from deep sonorities to vocalised, multiphonic effects. And if anybody can be said to ‘whisper’ on such a large and lugubrious instrument it has to be Herskedal. Dale also impressed with a sparkling piano solo underscored by the interlocking rhythms of Nilsson’s drums and Herskedal’s tuba bass lines.

In his discussion with Lockhart Herskedal informed us that his commission was a piece in four movements and also expressed his love of oriental music, something already made manifest by the album “Slow Eastbound Train”. He also explained that he had begun as a classical musician and had played with orchestras before although this was the first time that he had actually written for one.

Again Jon Turney was less than impressed with this section of the concert, but for me Herskedal and his colleagues seemed to integrate more fully with the Orchestra than Dinosaur had done, and not just in the visual sense. That said I’m no expert on classical music – despite the presence of a classical conductor in the family!

Herskedal’s new work was untitled, other than “Four Pieces” and the first movement began with a dramatic orchestral intro that included the effective use of dynamic contrasts. Herskedal himself featured on his ‘second instrument’, the rarely seen bass trumpet and Nilssen’s kit drums were supplemented by the sounds of orchestral percussion. An equally dramatic conclusion that replicated the sound of ringing bells which elicited a spontaneous round of applause from what was obviously a predominately jazz audience. Applause at the end of the first movement – shock, horror! It left me musing on the etiquette of clapping and the way it has become so polarised in the classical and jazz traditions.

The second movement featured Dale’s flowingly lyrical pianism cushioned by rich, lush orchestral textures. Herskedal’s contribution on tuba helped to bring a sense of grandeur to the music before the piece concluded with the same air of lyricism with which it had begun.


The third and fourth movements demonstrated something of the Oriental influence that had informed “Slow Eastbound Train”.

Movement three began with a fanfare of brass with Herskedal’s tuba augmented by the orchestral brass players. The use of tuned percussion helped to create that Oriental feel before a final section featuring the trio only with Dale soloing to the accompaniment of Herskedal’s agile tuba bass lines and Nilsson’s crisp drumming. The final movement utilised both pizzicato strings to achieve that Oriental effect.

Once again I had been extremely impressed with Herskedal, as I had been when he led a seven piece ensemble (jazz trio plus string quartet) in a performance of the “Slow Eastbound Train” material at Kings Place as part of the 2015 EFG LJF.

And although it was far from flawless I also enjoyed this afternoon’s event and felt that the positives far outweighed the negatives. I certainly seemed to get far more out of it than Jon Turney did and certainly wouldn’t be averse to hearing Jurd’s and Herskedal’s new works again should they ever get to the recording stage.


CHRIS SHARKEY’S MAKE IT / BREAK IT ENSEMBLE, CLORE BALLROOM, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

There was more music to be heard in the public space of the Clore Ballroom at the RFH.

As part of the Festival’s “Learning & Participation” programme the professional musician Chris Sharkey had been charged with creating a new work to be performed by a large ensemble amateur musicians and singers of all ages, ethnicities and abilities.

The ensemble had only convened that morning and had spent the whole day workshopping prior to this early evening performance.

Sharkey is best known as the guitarist with the bands Trio VD, Acoustic Ladyland, Shiver and others but tonight he largely featured in the conductor’s role as he guided his charges through a near 90 minute piece with a theme of tolerance, healing and integration which made effective use of massed vocal chants alongside the ensemble instrumental passages and individual instrumental solos.

Considering the short amount of rehearsal time the performance was admirably cohesive while simultaneously being heart-warming and uplifting. Some of the more experienced protagonists helped Sharkey along the way but overall this event was a triumph for both the composer and his willing band of musicians and vocalists.

At the end it was clear that Sharkey and the Ensemble had definitely “made it” as they got a great reception from a highly supportive audience.


CHARLIE HUNTER BAND,  RONNIE SCOTT’S

I have to admit that before witnessing this performance I knew precious little about the American guitarist Charlie Hunter other than that he played unorthodox guitars with either seven or eight strings. However I had heard him on the radio and this was enough to whet my appetite.

Arriving at Ronnie’s around 8.00 pm after travelling up from the South Bank I was mildly annoyed to find that I’d missed a support set by a quartet led by British drummer Mark Fletcher and featuring saxophonist Mornington Lockett. I literally caught the last few bars but it did sound good.

However this was quickly forgotten when Hunter and his colleagues took to the stage. Tonight’s gig was part of a short British tour promoting Hunter’s latest album, the provocatively titled “Everyone Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth”, a Mike Tyson quote apparently.

The album deploys an unusual instrumental configuration with Hunter specialising on seven string guitar alongside his long term sparring partner Bobby Previte at the drums. It also features a two man horn section with Kirk Knuffke on cornet and Curtis Fowkes on trombone. Tonight Hunter and Previte were joined by the young British pairing of Yelfris Valdes (trumpet) and Kieran McLeod (trombone). Hunter and Previte had never met their young colleagues prior to this tour but Valdes and McLeod immediately got into the spirit of the music and both acquitted themselves brilliantly.

Hunter’s sound is like a history of 20th century American music with elements of jazz, blues, rock , funk and soul. With Hunter handling the bass functions on his top strings the opening number embraced taut funkiness and blues harmonies while the twin horns added New Orleans jazz flavourings. Hunter shared the solos with the excellent Valdes but it was the leader’s chemistry with Previte that was the most striking aspect of this first number. Set up on stage to face other they were exchanging ideas all night, challenging each other to come up with a response and encouraging Valdes and McLeod to join in the fun. And fun it most certainly was, for all the brilliance of their individual ‘chops’ Hunter and Previte played with smiles on their faces throughout. Indeed the pair were enjoying themselves so much that tune announcements were rather scant, playing with the enthusiasm of children these two just wanted to get on with making music.

We did get the title of the next piece, “We Don’t Want Nobody Sent” which saw McLeod stepping up to the plate alongside Hunter and Previte, his trombone solo packed with bluesy slurs and vocalisations. Hunter sees the current album as being one on which the musicians improvise blues and r’n'b elements rather than jazz harmonies.

Nevertheless there’s still plenty of jazz in Hunter’s music as was typified by the New Orleans flavourings of the next piece which saw Valdes on stunning high register sharing the solos with McLeod.

Hunter’s solo guitar intro to the next piece saw him playing multiple melodic and rhythmic lines in a transfixing display of virtuosity. Valdes and McLeod then added some powerful unison horn lines prior to another bravura solo from Valdes. Hunter’s guitar then took flight again, fuelled by the wiry Previte’s whip smart drumming.

Next up a slow funk groove with Previte achieving considerable power even with brushes as Hunter added a brief vocal before the music took a bluesier turn with Hunter’s guitar heroics matched by the squalling horns in a kind of duel.

Hunter encouraged McLeod to an improvise an intro to the next tune and he responded with some fruity, low register rasping which seemed to satisfy the leader before Hunter and Previte set up a supple funk groove that framed a solo from Valdes that set up a barnstorming solo finale from Previte that featured him on drum kit and tambourine. It was brilliant and totally enthralling and when it was over Hunter made a show of cooling his old friend down by waving a towel at him.

The concluding piece was pure blues and a final demonstration of Hunter’s virtuosity. Yet for me, and probably many others, it was Previte who almost stole the show with a brilliant drumming display that mixed power and precision with an impish improviser’s instinct and a childlike joy in music making. When they’re not on the stand Hunter and Previte spend hours jamming together and their easy but high level rapport was apparent throughout this set. They’ve just released an album of them jamming around a collection of Christmas songs, I haven’t heard it but you just know it’s going to be the coolest Yuletide record ever.

Sadly the set was over far too quickly although the band were due to play to the second house later on. But I was hugely impressed by Charlie Hunter, and also by Previte who I saw play an outstanding but more cutting edge set at Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2008 with his New Bump band. And it was great to see Valdes and McLeod in such great form too, it was an important and hugely successful gig for these two guys who will surely impress a lot of people on this tour.

I watched the show from the bar alongside others on the guest list including the British musician and composer Pete M. Wyer, a personal friend of Bobby Previte. My thanks to Pete and his girlfriend for their company and also for introducing me to Bobby who turned about to be a great guy as well as a phenomenal drummer. And make no mistake in a week of brilliant drum performances – Jeff Williams, Mark Guiliana etc. - this was arguably the best.

It was just a shame that there weren’t any copies of “Everybody Has A Plan…” available afterwards.   

   

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Eight, Friday 18th November 2016.

Monday, December 05, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Eight, Friday 18th November 2016.

Ian Mann on performances by the Elchin Shirinov Trio, Denys Baptiste, Oddarrang and Slowly Rolling Camera. Photograph by Tim Dickeson.

Photograph of Dionne Bennett (Slowly Rolling Camera) by Tim Dickeson.


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Eight, Friday 18th November 2016


ELCHIN SHIRINOV TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

Friday lunchtime found me back at the Pizza to witness two delightful sets of music from the young pianist and composer Elchin Shirinov and his trio. Originally from Azerbaijan Shirinov is now based in London where he leads a trio featuring the English drummer Dave Hamblett and the Italian born bassist Andrea Di Biase.

Shirinov is influenced not only by the American jazz tradition but also the folk music of his native land. The trio’s recently released eponymous début album features a mix of Shirinov originals plus a selection of traditional folk songs and tunes by Azerbaijani composers. The album has won the approval of Brad Mehldau, one of Shirinov’s many influences.

Shirinov’s trio has toured internationally and has played at many prestigious festivals and he has performed with many leading musicians from both sides of the Atlantic including bassists Ben Street and Linley Marthe and drummers Jeff Ballard and Eric Harland. Shirinov’s full biography can be found at http://www.elchinshirinov.com

Today’s show did not begin well with the start delayed due to an organisational error that saw the event originally being advertised as being at The Pheasantry in Chelsea, another venue run by the Pizza Express chain. It was decided to give audience members who had turned up at the wrong venue time to come across town but inevitably some decided not to undertake the journey. By the time the music began there was a respectably sized crowd in but the attendance was nowhere near as much as it had been for events earlier in the week, including the trio led by Danish pianist Soren Bebe. This was a shame for Shirinov and his colleagues whose music definitely deserved a larger audience. It may have been that British vibraphonist Ralph Wylde was the beneficiary, his band Mosaic were performing a free show at the Cadogan Hall, not too far from the Pheasantry, and some fans may have opted for that instead. 

However those of us at the Pizza were delighted by the Shirinov trio’s performance which began with “Not That One”, a tune that mixed beguiling folk motifs with more complex rhythmic figures with Shirinov’s left hand working overtime. The tune proved to be a re-working of a folk melody that Shirinov had learned as a child and which had been used as the theme tune for a comedy programme on Azerbaijani TV.

Shirinov informed us that this current trio had been together for two years and that this was the first time that he had played at the Pizza, despite visiting the venue previously as a fan. Di Biase’s bass introduced the Shirinov original “Muse” which saw the pianist soloing in feverish fashion, combining a classically honed lightness of touch with a true improviser’s imagination. Di Biase also impressed on this piece with the kind of articulate bass soloing that some have likened to the late, great Scott La Faro.

Di Biase was also to the fore on the Shirinov original “Waiting” with its strong melody, dynamic contrasts and folk and classical flourishes. The next piece was named for Shirinov’s home town in Azerbaijan and the trio rounded off an excellent set with the lively “Chica Chica” with its mix of different meters plus a rousing drum feature from the impressive Hamblett. 

A shorter second set placed a greater emphasis on folk material with the opening piece seguing from an abstract opening featuring arco bass, mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers into a more groove orientated arrangement of an Azerbaijani folk tune with a title meaning “Blossom Flower”. This included some inventive soloing from the leader plus a further drum feature from Hamblett underpinned by Shirinov’s insistent piano arpeggios.

Another folk song, with a title translating as “I’m A Mother”, embraced a variety of meters, tempos and colours with Shirinov’s left hand again playing a pivotal role and with features for piano and double bass.

The final piece featured this tight, well integrated trio at their most energetic with features for all three musicians. I suspect that this may have been Shirinov’s arrangement of the Azerbaijani folk song “Durna”.

Ironically I’d seen both Hamblett and Di Biase perform live before but never Shirinov himself. I was hugely impressed by him and he represents an exciting new jazz discovery as far as I’m concerned. The album sounds superb in the home listening environment and is destined for a good deal of airtime in the Jazzmann household. The mix of original and traditional material works extremely well with Shirinov and his colleagues applying a convincing contemporary touch to the folk melodies.

I’ll leave the last word to American bassist Larry Grenadier who offers his endorsement on the album cover alongside band-mates Brad Mehldau and Jeff Ballard;
“Elchin Shirinov has developed a sound and approach all his own. His writing and piano playing echo another time yet resonate with a modernity that is striking. He really pulls a sound out of the piano making possible a whole pallet of sonic colour. It is music worth exploring deeply”.

Quite, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Thanks to Elchin and Andrea for speaking with me afterwards. This is a trio that I’d very much like to see again and I’d urge anyone likely to be reading this to keep an eye open for the highly talented Elchin Shirinov. 


DENYS BAPTISTE & TOMORROW’S WARRIORS – THE LATE TRANE, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

Tonight’s early evening show at Foyle’s was part of the monthly Jazz Salon series, a joint initiative between Foyles and youth jazz organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors. These events combine talk and music in an examination of jazz culture and its implications with guest speakers and musicians augmenting the Jazz Salon house band led by bassist Gary Crosby.

This evening’s event was hosted by journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre and featured guest saxophonist Denys Baptise talking about, and playing, the latter day music of John Coltrane who died of liver cancer in 1967 aged just forty.

Although mainly discussing the period 1963-67 Le Gendre and Baptiste also charted Coltrane’s earlier development as documented on the labels Prestige, Atlantic and Blue Note and such classic albums as “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps”. The latter saw Coltrane exploring complex chord sequences but his move to the Impulse! label saw him experimenting with modal jazz, plus Indian and African elements as he used simpler structures to find “freedom within the space”. Among the examples quoted as representing this were the composition “Impressions” which was constructed around just two chords and the famous thirty five minute version of “My Favourite Things” which featured the refrain only once.

Coltrane’s spirituality and personality were discussed and Le Gendre and Baptiste also speculated as to whether Coltrane would have embraced electric jazz, or ‘fusion’ as it later came to be known. On a lighter note both men remembered first hearing Coltrane on LPs borrowed from their local libraries, an almost alien concept to younger audiences in this digital age. Baptiste also recalled that he had found the music difficult at first and had to work hard to get into it. 

Baptiste offered musical illustrations of these points in the company of a stellar quartet featuring Crosby on bass plus pianist Nikki Yeoh and drummer Rod Youngs.  Baptiste began on soprano saxophone, an instrument that Coltrane embraced in his later years, for a version of “Living Space”, a piece that Baptiste described as a ‘meditation’. The piece began in impressionistic fashion with breathy soprano, the interior scraping of piano strings and the rumble of mallets and rustle of shakers. Yeoh was cast in the role of Alice Coltrane for the opening solo with Baptiste switching to tenor for his own extended feature in an absorbing interpretation of Coltrane’s ‘spiritual jazz’ style.

“Dusk Dawn” was introduced by Crosby’s bass and featured Baptiste digging in on tenor and probing deeply powered by the relentless drive of Youngs’  powerful, Elvin Jones style drums and Crosby’s grounding bass with Yeoh filling in any gaps. The pianist’s own torrential solo channelled the spirit of McCoy Tyner with its left hand rumbles and wilful dissonance. Meanwhile Crosby’s unaccompanied bass feature saw a reduction in volume, but not in intensity.

Again, as on some of the other nights, I had to leave early to get across town for another event. Again I was reluctant leave this mix of stimulating conversation and absorbing, hugely enjoyable music – but needs must.

The event had started late, for the third time this week I think. These early evening shows are great value for money and an important part of the Festival programme but 2017 does need to see a tightening up on the timing. A prompt start is essential given the tightness of the Festival schedule - it wasn’t just journalists like myself who were having to dash off to other things.


ODDARRANG / SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA, RICH MIX

This Edition Records double bill featured two of the most adventurous acts on the label. The Finnish instrumental quintet and the British nu jazz/soul act Slowly Rolling Camera both make extensive use of electronics in their music and this standing gig in the club environment of Rich Mix represented the perfect venue for both bands.

Oddarrang, led by drummer and composer Olavi Louhivuori released their début album “Music Illustrated” on the Finnish Texicalli label back in 2006. There then followed something of a hiatus as Louhivuori toured the world as part of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s ‘Dark Eyes’ quintet, the context in which I first heard the drummer’s playing. Others with whom Louhivuori has collaborated include his countrymen Alexi Tuomarila (piano) and Verneri Pohjola (trumpet)  plus Norwegian bassist Mats Eilertsen.

In 2011 Oddarrang returned with “Cathedral”, their second album for Texicalli and a recording that attracted the attention of Edition label boss Dave Stapleton. The band moved to Edition for the release of the excellent “In Cinema” in 2013 and followed this with the recent “Agartha” (2016).

I was particularly looking forward to witnessing Oddarrang performing live at last after frustratingly being robbed of the opportunity of seeing their show at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff in 2013 due to the illness of my late father. Friends that attended subsequently told me that I’d missed something very special.

Oddarrang’s line up has remained constant throughout the band’s career and includes Lasse Sikara on guitar, Lasse Lindgren on bass and keyboards, Ilmari Pohjola on trombone and keyboards and Osmo Ikonen on cello and vocals. Tonight there was at least one change in the line up with a female cellist/vocalist replacing Ikonen who is also an in demand classical musician. I didn’t catch the young lady’s (presumably Finnish) name, and probably couldn’t have spelt it anyway,  but I was told that she is Louhivuori’s cousin.

The stage was a jumble of wires, pedals, effects units and other electronic devices with the 2016 edition of Oddarrang placing an even greater emphasis on electronic sounds and textures than before. These elements, allied to an already unconventional instrumental line up featuring the unusual combination of cello and trombone ensures that Oddarrang’s sound is very much ‘sui generis’ with the adjective ‘post rock’ routinely being used to describe their music with comparisons to the Icelandic band Sigur Ros already fairly frequent. I’d also compare them with the Norwegian outfit Jaga Jazzist and with the British band Polar Bear led by Sebastian Rochford. For me Louhivuori is very much the Finnish equivalent to Rochford, a gifted drummer/composer leading a unique band with an other worldly sound that is very much the product of the leader’s personality and highly individual musical vision.

It’s no co-incidence that Oddarrang’s oeuvre includes albums with titles such as “Music Illustrated” and “In Cinema”, there’s a strong pictorial and filmic quality to their work with its wide-screen instrumental washes and epic themes. Tonight there was an added abrasive quality thanks to the sometimes harsh electronic textures that permeated the band’s music during the course of four lengthy largely instrumental sequences of music presumably comprised of material from “Agartha” but also containing tunes from the “In Cinema” repertoire.

This was music that evolved constantly, deploying a combination of rock rhythms, heavy grooves, ambient electronica and grandiose anthemic passages incorporating acoustic and electronic instruments plus the effective use of soaring wordless vocals. It was a combination that even provoked bouts of spontaneous dancing in the club environment of Rich Mix.

The use of the human voice among the many electronic elements is a particularly distinctive characteristic of Oddarrang’s music and helps to bring a welcome warmth to their sometimes chilly and forbidding musical soundscapes. The cellist even sang what sounded like English language lyrics on one particularly song like passage. Elsewhere she and her colleagues were screaming fit to bust at the climax of the epic slow-burner “The Sage”, a piece I recognised from the “In Cinema” album.  With several of the group’s members playing keyboards in addition to their regular instruments the sound palette was particularly broad and was further widened by the deployment of voices, including that of Louhivuori himself.

The sounds ranged from wispy guitar impressionism and alternately ambient and abrasive synth   textures through deep cello and trombone sonorities, monstrous bass grooves and full on rock guitar soloing, all of them guided by the drums Louhivuori who sat smiling in paternalistic fashion behind his kit, obviously delighted with the sounds that his colleagues were creating. I’d surmise that Oddarrang’s live shows probably place a greater emphasis on improvisation than the albums.

I very much enjoyed Oddarrang’s performance even though the extensive use of synths and other electronica meant that it was substantially different to what I’d been expecting. Oddarrang created a unique group identity as far back as their début album but its one that is still evolving as they continue to push at and blur the musical boundaries with their kaleidoscopic music.

Louhivuori has also worked with pianist/keyboard player Dave Stapleton, co-founder of Edition Records and co-leader, with vocalist and lyricist Dionne Bennett, of Slowly Rolling Camera. Stapleton studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and following graduation made a substantial impact on the South Wales jazz scene and beyond with his punchy jazz quintet DSQ. Something of a musical polymath Stapleton also experimented with free improvisation plus a rather more formal jazz/classical crossover project as well as founding the hugely successful Edition, now one of the UK’s most respected record labels.

The eponymous début album by Slowly Rolling Camera (SRC) revealed yet another side to Stapleton’s talent, that of songwriter, as he and Bennett collaborated to deliver a collection of songs that borrowed from jazz, soul and electronica, sounding a little like a jazzier version of trip-hop pioneers Portishead. The core of the band also includes drummer Elliot Bennett and sound artist Deri Roberts on electronics. For live work the group expands to a septet with the addition of Ben Waghorn (tenor & soprano saxes), Stuart McCallum (guitar) and Aidan Thorne (electric bass), all of whom make guest contributions to the band’s albums including the recently released “All Things”.

I witnessed an enjoyable performance by SRC at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton in May 2014 but the band’s music worked even better in this club setting where listeners could react physically to the tight grooves, immersive electronics and the soulful vocals of the tall, charismatic Dionne Bennett. Evidence of the breadth of the group’s appeal was demonstrated by the youthfulness of some members of the audience (and no, I don’t think they were music students) this wasn’t a typical jazz crowd by any stretch of the imagination.

This was a set to get absorbed in and dance to so I once more immersed myself in the music and the moment rather than taking copious notes. The bulk of the material was sourced from the recently released “All Things” although the band also dipped into the archives with the songs “Protagonist” and “Two Roads” from their début album and “Into The Shadow”, the title track of their 2015 EP.

Despite her outgoing on stage personality Dionne Bennett’s lyrics, mostly charting the vicissitudes of human relationships, are more introspective and add an agreeably dark and intelligent edge to the band’s music, reinforcing those comparisons with Portishead and Massive Attack. 

Although Dionne Bennett, with her striking looks and powerful voice, was the band’s focal point the instrumentalists also acquitted themselves well as they brought a jazz honed skill and precision to the music. There were no conventional jazz solos as such but there were some dazzling instrumental moments from Stapleton, McCallum and Waghorn. SRC are a highly cohesive unit with all of the musicians long term associates of co-leader Stapleton. Elliot Bennett’s powerful rock beats and hip hop grooves, underscored by Thorne’s electric bass, gave the music an impressive momentum as Roberts combined effectively with Stapleton’s keyboards to give the band an authentically gritty and glitchy urban edge. A light show, almost unheard of at what was nominally a jazz gig, also added greatly to the atmosphere and the band even took to the stage to the sound of the sampled voice of Dee Dee Bridgewater intoning the words “Slowly Rolling Camera”. Recorded at a festival in Poland the sample also graces the group’s latest album.

“All Things” sees the group moving further away from their jazz roots and adopting a harder, more urban edge on songs such as “High Praise”, “The Fix” , “Oblivion” and the haunting title track, featuring the Bridgewater sample, that closed the show. 

This was a hugely impressive performance from SRC, one that got an excellent reception from an appreciative, excited and animated crowd. The seven piece version of the group has developed into a formidable live act and it’s likely that they gathered many new fans here. Their exciting performance certainly justified their decision to go on second. I must admit that in the home listening environment I’d probably find more enjoyment in Oddarrang’s distinctive and essentially instrumental music, but live performance is a very different matter as SRC demonstrated brilliantly here. On the evidence of this show and with the right amount of exposure an increasing degree of mainstream success is a distinct possibility. They are certainly a band I’d be more than happy to see again and to recommend to non jazz listeners, particularly if playing in a club environment such as this.

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Seven, Thursday 17th November 2016.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Seven, Thursday 17th November 2016.

Ian Mann on a day of words of music featuring contributions from Professor Mark Smith, the Mike Fletcher Trio, Nerija, Chico Freeman Quartet and The Cookers.

Photograph of Cassie Kinoshi and Nubya Garcia of Nerija by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Seven, Thursday November 17th 2016

PROFESSOR MARK SMITH / MIKE FLETCHER TRIO, UNIVERSITY OF WESTMINSTER

It had initially been my intention to visit yet another of the free lunchtime shows at the Pizza Express Jazz Club where the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year, Alexandra Ridout had been due to appear with her quintet. However this performance was cancelled and Ridout appeared at a ticketed event on a different day at Iklectik Art Lab instead.

Casting around for a suitable alternative my eyes alighted on the unusual combination of a lecture and a musical performance featuring the academic Professor Mark Smith and the saxophone trio led by the Birmingham based musician Mike Fletcher featuring the exceptional rhythm pairing of Olie Brice (double bass) and Jeff Williams (drums).

The event, which had the strapline “Jazz and Everday Aesthetics”, had been due to take place in the Regent Street Cinema but was moved next door to the board room in the University of Westminster. 

I had been expecting Prof. Smith to talk and the Fletcher trio to illustrate his precepts musically. Instead the Professor spoke first with his lecture being titled “Learning to Listen; Lessons From The American Past”.

Smith is a Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and describes himself as a “sound historian”. Despite his close links with jazz critic and fellow academic Stanley Crouch Smith is, by his own admission, not particularly conversant with jazz, a fact the probably disappointed some members of his audience.

Instead he addressed the subject of “historians and sound” and the concept of the “Sensory Turn” with the use of the phrase “seeing is believing but faith cometh through hearing”.

Of course there is no way of replicating historical sounds and the sound historian has to be able to imagine and project, often using written documents as an aid in the attempt to recapture what historical characters must have heard.

Professor Smith cited the works of fellow academics such as Richard Roth and his book “How Early America Sounded”. Roth speaks of “sonic architecture”, noting that early Episcopalian churches deployed sounding boards to ensure that the wealthy and well off could hear the preacher clearly, while the peasantry at the rear of the church could not. However contemporaneous Quaker churches with their hexagonal design emphasised a greater democracy with the Word of God being made audible for all. Sound can therefore be used as a political tool and a form of auditory control, with church bells often being used for this purpose as explored by Alain Corbin in his 1998 work “Village Bells; The Culture Of The Senses In The 19th Century French Countryside”.

Another specifically American work that the professor referred to was Sarah Keyes’ “Like A Roaring Lion; The Overland Trail As a Sonic Conquest” which imagines the sounds heard by the American pioneers in their wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. The proliferation of place names derived from sounds such as “Echo Valley” and “Steamboat Springs” serves to emphasise the importance of sound to these early pioneers. As a sound historian Prof Smith seemed less than impressed with the usual hierarchy of senses that rates sight as the most important.

The origins of jazz got a mention when the Professor discussed the 2005 work “The Sounds Of Slavery” by Shane and Graham White which emphasises the importance of music in everyday Afro-American culture and the collision and fusion of African and European musical elements in the shaping of jazz and blues. The book also references the famous recordings collected by Alan Lomax in the American Deep South in the 1920s and 30s. Arguably Lomax, and in the UK Cecil Sharp, were among the first ‘sound historians’.

Other subjects raised were the veracity – or otherwise- of sounds used in conjunction with the heritage industry at sites such as colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a huge tourist attraction in the US where, as here, the past is big business. In this context the sense of smell was also evoked,Prof Smith opining that historic battle re-enactments such as Gettysburg and Vicksburg are always doomed to failure in terms of authenticity as the smell of death can never be artificially recreated.

When the Professor asked for questions and opened up the debate some members of the audience tried to steer the conversation more firmly in the direction of jazz with the subject of recording techniques a popular topic, but the music really wasn’t Prof Smith’s forte as he readily admitted.

The points that I managed to scribble down were only a small part of a lecture that although not specifically about jazz was interesting and thought provoking, if occasionally a little too dry and academic at times. A rewarding way to spend an afternoon nevertheless.

The musical performance that followed was essentially totally unconnected to the subject of the lecture. Nevertheless Fletcher maintained the air of academia by discussing his trio’s music between tunes and inviting questions from the audience.

Musically the material was sourced from the trio’s album “Vuelta” which was recorded in 2014 for the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label. Fletcher plays the rarely heard C melody saxophone and deliberately keeps his writing open and his themes simple, positively seeking group interaction and encouraging his colleagues to engage in the improvisation process. The trio is not a regular working group so when they do meet up to play they always find something fresh and interesting to explore within Fletcher’s compositions.

In Brice and Williams he has the perfect partners for this, both musicians are at their best operating in the mystical musical hinterland where composition and improvisation meet. Williams has developed his own unique style of drumming, a trademark “polyrhytmic flow” that shapes and guides the music but never sounds cluttered or overly busy.

The trio opened with the evocative “Aire”, inspired by the light on the Spanish coast, a country where the well travelled Fletcher has sent a lot of time. Introduced by Brice at the bass and featuring Williams’ distinctive cymbal work the tune’s wispy melody positively encouraged the tightly focussed but agreeably open trio interplay that is this group’s hallmark as they swung in a joyous but decidedly odd meter way. A comment from the floor suggested that naming a tune after a specific location was, in its way, a kind of sound history, which tied in with the earlier lecture and raised an interesting point in its own right.

“Her Grace” honoured Alice Coltrane with its solo sax intro later augmented by Williams’ mallet rumbles and hand drumming and Brice’s dark grainy arco bass. Williams’ subsequent drum solo incorporating his ringing cymbal work was the first time that a drum feature had formed part of a performance of this piece. Evidence again of the trio’s commitment to the art of improvisation.

“Fletcher’s Walk”, named for a location in Birmingham was more overtly boppish and featured Fletcher’s inventive sax soloing accompanied by busy bass and volcanic drums.

“Perhaps Sing a Song” was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied bass that saw Brice striking the strings, strumming the instrument flamenco style and deploying various extended techniques. Eventually he set up a motif that formed the backbone of the piece, anchoring it as Fletcher and Williams enjoyed their own features. Fletcher revealed that the tune was inspired by the pace of London life and extolled the healing power of music. This gave Williams the opportunity to quote fellow drummer Art Blakey’s much loved remark “Music washes away the dust of everyday life”.

The set ended with a performance of “In Memoriam”, a piece inspired by the work of the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig (1910-96) and featuring Fletcher’s playing at its most Coltrane-like plus a final Williams drum feature.

My thanks to Mike, Jeff and Olie for speaking with me afterwards and to Olie for the review copy of his latest album “Of Tides”, a live improvised duo recording captured at The Vortex featuring the German pianist Achim Kaufmann. I intend to take a fuller look at this shortly.

Interestingly Fletcher informed me that one of his favourite saxophonists is the American tenor player and composer Billy Harper. Like me Fletcher was due at Cadogan Hall later that evening to witness Harper performing with the all star septet The Cookers, but more on that later.


NERIJA, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

There is currently a bit of a buzz about Nerija, the young all female band that emerged out of the Jazz Warriors programme. I recall seeing some members of the septet at the Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the 2013 EFG LJF as part of a Tomorrow’s Warriors showcase.

Since then the group have come on in leaps and bounds and at the 2015 Festival I covered their excellent performance at The Green Note in Camden. I was then to see them again when they played at the 2016 Brecon Jazz Weekend supporting Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio at Theatr Brycheinog.

Tonight at Foyle’s a sell out crowd turned out for a performance that also represented the official launch of group’s début EP, an excellent recording five compositions by five different members of the band. Like their male counterparts Ezra Collective they have clearly accrued something of a cult following and a highly supportive crowd gave them a great reception.

The mature Nerija are a force to be reckoned with and tonight’s show featured the first choice line-up with the full EP personnel all present and correct. An impressive and powerful four horn front line featured trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, saxophonists Cassie Kinoshi (alto) and Nubya Garcia (tenor) and trombonist Rosie Turton. Guitarist Shirley Tetteh played a key role as did the rhythm team of bassist Inga Eichler and drummer Lizy Exell. Tonight was my first sighting of the impressive Exell, the previous shows that I’ve seen have featured male ‘deps’.

The five tunes on the band’s EP have been in their set list for some time and have been thoroughly played in. Playing “in the round” and buoyed by the support of the crowd Nerija hit the ground running with “Pinkham V”, the Tetteh tune that kicks off the EP. Grounded by Eicher’s sturdy bass and propelled by Exell’s dynamic drumming this rousing opener included fluent, fiery solos from Maurice-Grey and Kinoshi plus the composer on guitar.

Nerija’s music combines jazz with other musical influences from Africa and the Caribbean. Eicher’s “Valleys” introduced an element of South African ‘Township Jazz’ with its infectious horn chorales, African guitar cadences and a joyously barnstorming solo from Turton on trombone.

Kinoshi’s “Redamancy” was more reflective but still innately powerful with solos coming from Tetteh on guitar, Eichler on double bass and the hitherto little heard Garcia with an excellent outing on tenor.

Festival scheduling meant that I missed the beginning of Nerija’s show at Brecon. Here I had to leave before the end, exiting to the sounds of Garcia’s composition “For You”. I was extremely sorry to have to leave as the band were in terrific form, both individually and collectively, playing with skill, verve and confidence. Writing for London Jazz News Geoff Winston, who presumably saw the whole show, was particularly fulsome in his praise for the group.

From Geoff’s review I gather that the group also performed Turton’s “The Fisherman”, thus playing every piece on the EP. It was essentially the same set that I saw at the Green Note last year but with writing and playing of this quality nobody was complaining. The Brecon appearance also revealed that the group also have a number of newer tunes in their locker. Later in the week they were due to support the trio of David Murray, Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington at Cadogan Hall, another triumph for the band I suspect.

Nerija are clearly a band on the crest of a wave and whose star can only continue to rise. Their début EP represents highly recommended listening.


CHICO FREEMAN QUARTET / THE COOKERS, CADOGAN HALL

On the face of it this was an intriguing double bill at Cadogan Hall with the Chicago born saxophonist Chico Freeman making a rare British appearance leading his latest group, the Chico Freeman Plus + tet.

Freeman was opposite The Cookers, a stellar line up of hard bop veterans who have recently attracted considerable acclaim for their fifth album together, “The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart”.

Freeman, now sixty seven, has played both avant garde and more straight ahead jazz. I recall seeing him at an early edition of Cheltenham Jazz Festival, probably some time in the late 1990s so it was good to catch up with him again after all this time.

Journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre introduced the quartet which featured Freeman specialising on tenor saxophone alongside pianist Luke Carlos O’Reilly, bassist Kenny Davis and the impressive young drummer Michael Baker.

Now a comparative elder statesman Freeman epitomised gravitas on the lengthy Coltrane-esque opener, a Freeman original simply titled “Elvin” in honour of Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones, with whom Freeman himself also worked . An opening horn chorale led immediately to a drum feature as the dynamic Baker immediately imposed himself upon the proceedings. Freeman’s own solo probed deeply but it was noticeable that he took a seat when his colleagues were soloing, his bearing initially composed and regal but then becoming more animated as he got deeper into O’Reilly’s expansive and imaginative piano explorations.

“Erica’s Reverie”, a dedication to one of Freeman’s five daughters introduced a more lyrical and reflective atmosphere and featured some engaging interplay between Freeman and Davis and a melodic solo from O’Reilly at the piano. Unfortunately Freeman suffered from a coughing fit during his own solo, turning it into part of the performance as the band laughed. Unfortunately it did somewhat puncture the mood he had created.

The cough didn’t entirely go away during the latin tinged item that followed but Freeman wisely handed over the reins to Davis and O’Reilly with the experienced bassist turning in a delightful solo, one of the highlights of the set.

Freeman recovered his poise on his ballad “To Hear A Teardrop In The Rain” which also included a flowingly lyrical, gospel tinged solo from O’Reilly plus the leader’s anthemic tenor in the closing stages. A word, too, for Baker’s performance, his assured brushwork revealing that he can be delicate as well as dramatic.

The set closed as it began in Coltrane-esque territory with Freeman’s tenor probing incisively in a modal context with Davis again also impressing as a soloist.

There was enough here to suggest that Freeman is a still a presence to be reckoned with and I was highly impressed with all three of his sidemen, names to watch out for in the future. 

Introducing The Cookers Kevin Le Gendre alluded to the illustrious individual histories of the players whose list of credits included collaborations with such departed jazz legends as trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan and drummer Max Roach.

But for me The Cookers failed to live up to their billing, although to be fair there were mitigating circumstances. This was my first visit to the Cadogan Hall when it wasn’t sold out (James Farm and the Maria Schneider Orchestra in 2015, The Liberation Music Orchestra in 2016) and both the atmosphere and the sound suffered accordingly in a hall that was maybe 60% full.

The band boasts a stellar line up with David Weiss and Eddie Henderson on trumpets, Billy Harper on tenor sax, Cecil McBee on bass and Billy Hart at the drums. For this performance album personnel George Cables (piano) and Donald Harrison (alto sax) were replaced by Danny Grissett and Craig Handy respectively.

Things didn’t get off to a good start as a problem with McBee’s bass amp held things up for a good five minutes. As the veteran bassist and the Cadogan’s stage crew struggled to fix the problem the rest of the band stood around nervously and chatted amongst themselves. You would have thought that performers with The Cookers’ amount of collective experience would have done something to engage a restless crowd but, other than McBee’s ironic bow, nobody seemed willing to take charge, not even Weiss who handled the tune announcements when the show finally got under way. 

With the problem finally remedied the band opened with the title track of their most recent album, an episodic piece of writing from Harper that featured a marathon solo from the composer in which he impressed with his Coltrane-esque power, stamina and invention. Weiss added a similarly blistering trumpet solo and the young piano ‘dep’ Grisset also impressed. There were also moments featuring the four horns working in unison that were reminiscent of the power of a big band while Hart’s relentless drumming was a rhythmic juggernaut that fuelled the whole group. I’ve been critical of Hart’s playing in the past, his overly loud drumming too often drowned out the talented young pianist Aaron Parks at a trio gig in Bristol in 2015, but his consistently robust approach, remarkable for a man of his age, was just right for a band like The Cookers.

I’ve long admired the playing of the now eighty year old Cecil McBee on classic recordings featuring Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett and, indeed Chico Freeman. McBee’s “Peacemaker”, a tune that was one recorded by Freeman, proved to be a set highlight with this enduring composition featuring engaging solos by Henderson on trumpet, Handy on alto and McBee himself on double bass, still playing with remarkable dexterity and fluency allied to a huge, rounded tone.

Harper originally wrote “Croquet Ballet” for a 1971 album by Lee Morgan that turned out to be the trumpeter’s last. After the four horn front line had stated the theme Harper shared the solos with Weiss who seemed to relish playing the Morgan role. A tightly arranged outro for the horns only also grabbed the attention.

The underrated Harper has been a prolific writer over the years and his ballad “If One Can Only See” was arranged here as a feature for trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Introduced by a passage of solo piano from Grissett the piece featured the rich blend of Henderson’s trumpet with the other horns as he played with great control and fluency while remaining incisive enough to get to the heart of the music, even introducing a few avant garde flourishes. Grissett also impressed in a dialogue with McBee as Hart put down his sticks and provided sensitive brushed accompaniment.

The set closed with a rendition of the Freddie Hubbard tune “The Corner”, introduced by McBee’s solo bass before he and Hart laid down a scalding beat that framed solos from Henderson and Harper plus an explosive solo feature from the drummer. After the groove was re-established we heard from Weiss who also took the opportunity of announcing the band members for a final time.

The Cookers returned to play yet another Harper composition as an encore with solos coming from Grissett, Harper and Weiss but many members had left by then, a telling comment on what, in truth had been a rather lacklustre and disappointing set. Too often the compositions had become just a string of solos, impressive at first, as one expect from musicians of this calibre, but ultimately a little too predictable. One began to form the opinion that the band members were rather ‘going through the motions’ as the appeal of the ‘head/solos/head’ format began to pall.

In truth The Cookers never really recovered from that false start and the relatively poor attendance and muddy sound balance didn’t help either. Neither did the fact that the air conditioning was turned on for The Cookers’ set, towards the close it was like sitting in an ice box, not a problem that I’ve encountered at any of my other visits to this venue.

I’m told that the “Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart” album is far better than tonight’s performance might suggest, but I have to admit that for me The Cookers never quite reached boiling point and in the end left me feeling distinctly lukewarm at best. 

I wonder what Mike Fletcher thought of it all. 

 

 

 

     

 

 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Six, Wednesday 16th November 2016.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Six, Wednesday 16th November 2016.

Ian Mann on performanecs by Adam Ben Ezra, Maria Chiara Argiro Group, Mammal Hands and Christian Scott.

Photograph of Christian Scott by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Six, Wednesday 16th November 2016


ADAM BEN EZRA, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB

Today’s lunchtime event at the Pizza featured a one man show by the bass player, multi instrumentalist and occasional vocalist Adam Ben Ezra, the man described as a “you tube sensation”.

I have to confess that the prospect of a solo double bass performance didn’t exactly set the pulses racing (had it been Dave Holland or Eberhard Weber it might have been different), but of course Ben Ezra turned out to be far more than “just a bass player”. His one man performance was full of interest and variety and was delivered with charm and a huge degree of musical skill. It was a show that was delivered several times over the course of the Festival at various locations as ABE (as he likes to describe himself) revived the spirit of EFG LJF’s now discontinued “Festival On The Move” strand. 

Born in Israel but raised in the US ABE has now settled in London after marrying an English girl he met on a trip to the UK some six years ago. He also leads a trio featuring percussionist Gilad Dobrecky and guitarist Adam Ben Amitai, both of whom appear on his début album “Can’t Stop Running”. He also performs as one half of Loco Strings, a duo with guitarist Daniel Casares. But it’s Ben Ezra’s remarkable solo shows that seem to have garnered most of the attention and which have earned him an international following.

ABE took to the stage at the Pizza, picked up his bass and introduced himself with a dramatic passage of flamenco style strumming while also using the body of the instrument as percussion, something augmented by the “morris dancer” style bells around his right ankle as he stamped his foot in time with the beat that he had created. It was an arresting beginning.

Rhythm is an integral part of ABE’s performance and the second of a baker’s dozen of short pieces began with the sound of vocal percussion -or beat-boxing if you will- live looped and augmented with the sound of further ‘bass percussion’ as ABE turned himself into a one man rhythm machine. Above this busy rhythmic barrage he delivered bass solos with and without the bow, cherry picking motifs from these and adding further layers to his self created ‘wall of sound’ and climaxing with a squall of angry fuzz bass. This astonishing performance was dramatic and hugely effective.

“India Time” was the first demonstration of the well travelled ABE’s fascination with world music styles as his arco bass intro was live looped to create an authentic sounding drone with the plucked strings of his bass later creating an uncannily sitar like sound. And if all that wasn’t enough he also added konnakol style Indian voice percussion.

ABE’s love of flamenco had been obvious from the very first number and he informed us that he had played both flamenco and bass festivals in London. The piece simply titled “Flamenco” was a further demonstration of his impressive ‘flamenco bass’ technique.

ABE introduced the next item as “my favourite song”. This turned out to be a haunting version of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” played with something of an indie rock sensibility. He accompanied himself with sawing arco bass above a sophisticated layer of looped and layered rhythms, some of them pre-programmed. The song also introduced ABE’s impressive singing voice and featured a guitar like pizzicato bass solo.

Having set up a beat-boxing loop ABE moved to the Pizza’s grand piano for a further demonstration of his skills as a multi-instrumentalist over the course of two numbers, the first lively, the second, a solo piece, initially more lyrical and reflective but later becoming more dramatic with the introduction of some powerful left hand figures. ABE subsequently informed us that he had studied classical violin since the age of five, later moving to piano under the influence of Bach and Debussy and then on to guitar and finally double bass, at which point he began to immerse himself in jazz.

Despite his love of the double bass ABE is still irresistibly drawn to other musical instruments including the oud, which he also plays. The next piece, with a Hebrew title meaning “Prayer” saw him using his bass to replicate the timbres of the oud while again using the body of the instrument as percussion and adding wordless devotional vocals. Again the result was dramatic and effective..

Another flamenco style piece followed before ABE put his gear through its paces as he constructed an edifice of looping featuring the varied sounds of plucked and bowed bass, finger snaps and vocal phrases.

After thanking his regular sound man Luke plus the London Jazz festival and Pizza Express, all this done to a self played musical accompaniment, ABE concluded his show with “Sunshades”, another multi layered piece featuring Indian elements that saw him adding the sounds of flute to the already familiar timbres of bass and voice.

The deserved encore was a tune from the Jewish tradition that introduced yet another instrument as ABE’s clarinet danced above the breakneck rhythms generated by looped pizzicato and arco bass in conjunction with a smattering of pre-programmed beats. Stunning stuff and a great way to end this highly exciting and slickly presented one man show.

I’m not sure if this music would function quite as well in the home listening environment but as a live event it worked brilliantly. This was a hugely enjoyable way to kick off the sixth day of the Festival.


MARIA CHIARA ARGIRO GROUP, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

The early evening event at Foyle’s featured a six piece group led by the Italian born composer Maria Chiara Argiro. Born in Rome Argiro is now based in London following the completion of her studies at the London Centre of Contemporary Music and the jazz course at Middlesex University.

Argiro’s London based band features a mix of British and Italian musicians with Leila Martial on vocals, Sam Rapley on tenor sax & clarinet, Tal Janes on guitar, Andrea Di Biase on double bass and Gaspar Sena at the drums. The group have just released their début album “The Fall Dance” which will be officially launched at a performance at The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, London on the evening of 11th December 2016.

Tonight’s performance was witnessed by a substantial audience seated “in the round” - “a circle of love”, as Argiro charmingly described it.

Mixing jazz and classical elements Argiro’s compositions are nuanced and complex and feature Martial treating her voice as an instrument, often with a little discrete electronic embellishment. The opening piece was introduced by Sena’s brushed drums and was notable for the composer’s piano solo plus the engaging dialogue between Martial’s voice and electronics and Rapley’s clarinet. With respect Argiro’s English still isn’t the best and my Italian is non-existent so I missed some tune titles along the way.

I did however pick up “Dream R” which introduced an angrier side of the band through Martial’s impassioned vocals and forceful solos from Argiro on piano and Rapley on tenor sax.

“Every Now And Then” featured soaring wordless vocal melodies that reminded me of Norma Winstone, and even of Amanda Parsons during her tenure with the ‘Canterbury’ band National Health. At other times Martial’s voice explored more adventurous, experimental areas, think Julie Tippetts, Maggie Nichols etc., or for more contemporary examples Lauren Kinsella or Kerry Andrew. Instrumentally saxophonist Rapley impressed again, both with his tenor solo and his dialogue with guitarist Janes as their instruments intertwined.

“Song For The Silver Family” introduced elements of church and folk music with its hymnal melodies, but also a bout of dissonance with Janes’ clangorous guitar and Di Biase’s dark, grainy arco bass as Rapley moved between clarinet and tenor sax.

The title track of the “Fall Dance” album combined choppy time signatures and passionate, adventurous vocalising with an extended piano trio interlude as Argiro took the opportunity to demonstrate her highly accomplished keyboard skills.

As at some of the other early evening events at Foyle’s I had to leave shortly before the end to make my way to my next ticketed gig. The performance had started slightly late and as I left I’m fairly certain the band were playing their last number, “When the Sea”.

Although it took me a little time to adjust to the distinctive sound of the Maria Chiara Argiro Group, particularly the unusual use of voice and electronics, I soon found myself warming to the band and their adventurous, carefully constructed music. I’ve yet to hear the new album but on the evidence of this performance it should be well worth a listen.


MAMMAL HANDS /  CHRISTIAN SCOTT BAND, SCALA

The Scala on Pentonville Road represented another new venue. A rock venue in a converted cinema it was used at this year’s EFG LJF to host some of the more contemporary ‘club style’ events including tonight’s show headlined by the New Orleans born trumpeter Christian Scott and his band.

The Scala had an authentic rock venue ambience complete with menacing looking doormen, subdued lighting, sticky floor surfaces and fizzy overpriced beer in flimsy plastic glasses but with state of the art sound and lighting systems it worked particularly well for these two bands. I was lucky to get there early enough at this standing venue to get a place on the lower balcony rail and a great view of the stage. I was certainly more fortunate than Rob Mallows who reviewed the show for London Jazz News and couldn’t see a thing. 

First to take to the stage were the British trio Mammal Hands, originally From Norwich but indelibly associated with Manchester thanks their adoption by Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana label. Does that make them jazz’s answer to the Charlatans?

Often compared with label mates GoGo Penguin the trio perform melodic contemporary jazz that draws inspiration from rock, electronica, dance music and more. Brothers Jordan Smart (saxes) and Nick Smart (keyboards) first linked up with Jesse Barrett (drums, tabla) busking on the streets of Norwich before they were spotted by GoGo Penguin bassist Nick Blacka and subsequently signed to Gondwana. They have since released two acclaimed albums for the label, “Animalia” (2014) and “Floa” (2016).

I’d seen the trio play live around eighteen months earlier to an audience of around twenty in a draughty tent in Hay on Wye (come to think of it, it may even have been a yurt) as part of the annual How The Light Gets In festival. Their hour long set was enjoyable enough but the lack of atmosphere rather diminished the occasion as an ‘event’.

Tonight at a jam packed Scala the atmosphere was very different. Mammal Hands played with the verve of a band who were clearly ‘up for it’ with Jordan Smart’s tenor and soprano saxes riding the vibrant grooves laid down by Barrett’s drums and brother Nick’s underpinning keyboards. For a bass-less band Mammal Hands are a surprisingly rhythmic unit and the audience responded well to their soaring, Portico style sax melodies and rousing rock and electronica inspired grooves. There was even a little world music inspired exotica when Barrett temporarily switched to tabla.

I suspect that most of the material was sourced from the album “Floa” but tune announcements were at a premium with the band determined to fit as much music as possible into their brief forty five minute support slot. In any event note taking in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Scala was a physical possibility so I just let myself become immersed in the moment and the music. I did fancy that I recognised the “Floa” album opener “Quiet Fire” though.

Despite the lack of detail from me this was a great gig for the Mammal Hands guys who played their proverbial asses off and went down a storm with the crowd. Performing with such skill and passion to a crowd of this size will surely have enhanced their rapidly expanding fan base. 

New Orleans born trumpeter Christian Scott has been at the forefront of the American jazz scene for a decade now yet is still only in his early thirties. I first heard him on his ground breaking “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” album back in 2010 and have monitored his progress ever since.

I also Scott live for the first time in 2010 when he played a brief support slot opening for Courtney Pine at that year’s LJF. I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed at the time but Scott has honed his stage craft since then and is now one of the most exciting and in demand draws on the international jazz circuit.

A frequent visitor to the UK his 2015 EFG LJF show at Rich Mix was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and sounded absolutely terrific. Hearing it prompted me to attend (as a ‘punter’) his gig at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, a performance that proved to be one of the best of the entire Festival.

That Cheltenham gig was one of the first by Scott’s current band featuring the American musicians Logan Richardson (alto sax), Luques Curtis (bass) and Corey Fonville (drums) plus the Martinique born keyboard player Tony Tixier. The Scala show also featured the talents of the gifted young rising star Elena Pinderhughes, here playing flute – she is also an accomplished vocalist and songwriter.

The sextet were playing material from Scott’s latest album “Stretch Music”, so called because Scott likes to ‘stretch’ the boundaries of jazz, weaving into it other elements of Afro-American music, notably hip-hop. In many ways the trumpeter’s music is highly futuristic but he never forgets his New Orleans roots and the material also embraces a personalised political agenda with roots in the Civil Rights movement and other aspects of black activism and empowerment.

It’s a heady cocktail that makes for a highly exciting live act. The charismatic Scott stalks the stage with his distinctive Dizzy Gillespie styled trumpet with its elevated bell and although there’s no doubt that it’s his gig he also allows his fellow musicians plenty of room in which to express themselves.

Surprisingly there were similarities between this and the Jan Garbarek show at the Royal Festival Hall the previous Sunday. Both performances featured brilliant playing by musicians who were right at the top of their game with lengthy compositional segues punctuated by brilliant solos and set pieces. And as with the Garbarek group the sheer joy that the musicians took in playing together was palpable with Scott clearly taking great pride in the contributions of his colleagues.

Scott, Richardson and Pinderhughes all impressed as fluent, inventive and often fiery soloists. Tixier’s effective use of a variety of keyboard instruments produced a raft of interesting sounds, colours and textures as Curtis and the consistently impressive Fonville laid down some mammoth grooves that pushed the soloists to even greater heights. And the explosive virtuosity of Fonville’s extended drum feature elicited the loudest cheers of the night. 

Unlike Garbarek Scott had plenty to say, arguably too much at times. His extended band introductions contained the same anecdotes that he’d used at Cheltenham and felt unnecessarily long winded. He’s a great communicator but sometimes it would be best if he just let his music do the talking. However we did get to learn that he plans to issue a trilogy of albums in 2017 in honour of the centenary of the first acknowledged jazz recording. Scott promised us jazz past, present and future – a prospect to look forward to.

The minor quibble of the excess verbiage aside this was a terrific gig and the audience in a hot, sweaty Scala absolutely loved it. A superb set ended with Scott paying tribute to New Orleans culture with the superb “The Last Chieftain”, about the only tune title that was actually announced despite all the other chit chat.

In addition to be being a brilliant musician, composer and band-leader Christian Scott is hip, savvy, charismatic and politically engaged, a bona fide jazz superstar for the modern world. Ably supported by a highly competent band he’s a talent to watch out for and looks set for a long and glittering boundary pushing career. 
   

   

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Five, Tuesday 15th November 2016.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Five, Tuesday 15th November 2016.

Ian Mann enjoys four brilliant performances from the Soren Bebe Trio, Ezra Collective, Skint and the Donny McCaslin Band.

Photograph of Donny McCaslin sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website
http://www.efglondonjazz festival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Five, Tuesday 15th November 2016

SOREN BEBE TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB

In 2014 the famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street began hosting free lunchtime jazz events on week days during the Festival period. Obviously there’s an obligation to eat but these performances have proved to be extremely popular and the music has generally been of a very high standard.

The acts presented have encompassed a variety of jazz genres and nationalities and the series has proved to be a particularly good showcase for up and coming European bands hoping to introduce themselves to UK audiences. The Swiss piano trio Plaistow, who made a big impact in 2014 returned to London this year on the concert programme while the Danish quintet Girls In Airports who also appeared in 2014 have accrued something of a cult following plus a recording contract with the British label Edition Records.

The 2016 programme saw Sue Edwards, manager of Phronesis and a champion for Danish jazz in general, bringing the Copenhagen based Soren Bebe Trio to the Pizza. Pianist and composer Bebe is a well established figure on the Danish jazz scene with several recordings to his credit and has also made inroads in the US where he and his long standing drummer Anders Mogensen recorded the trio album “Eva” with the great American bassist Marc Johnson.

Bebe, now aged forty, is still relatively little known in the UK and this first ever London performance turned out to be a triumph for the likeable Dane and his trio. The majority of the material was sourced from the group’s recent album release “Home”, a collection of Bebe originals initially recorded in Copenhagen before being mixed and mastered by the great recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo.

Bebe, Mogensen and double bassist Kasper Tagel, who joined the trio in 2014, commenced their performance with “The Path to Somewhere”, the opening track from the new album. Bebe’s tentative, searching melodic snippets were augmented by Mogensen’s mallet rumbles and Tagel’s almost subliminal bass pulse. On the Pizza’s Steinway grand Bebe’s classically honed lightness of touch was immediately apparent, he’s a supreme technician who cites ECM label artists Keith Jarrett and Tord Gustavsen as key musical influences. It therefore comes as no surprise that Bebe asked Kongshaug to master his album.
Meanwhile I was also impressed with Bebe’s improvisational fluency as the opening tune segued via an unaccompanied bass passage into the Jarrett inspired blues of “Country Road”, a tune sourced from the 2012 trio album “A Song For You”.

Returning to the “Home” repertoire the trio next performed the delightfully melodic “Tango for T”, a dedication to Tord Gustavsen. Not a true tango but a lovely composition and performance featuring Bebe’s limpid and lyrical piano and Mogensen’s delicately brushed drums.

The piece “Heading North” was originally written for the trio album with Marc Johnson but its melodic beauty ensured that it was a perfect fit with the “Home” material, including the lovely title track with its folk inspired melody, which again featured Bebe at his most Gustavsen like.

Until now the trio’s performance had largely been notable for its pensive, fragile lyrical beauty, qualities that were greatly appreciated by a commendably attentive audience. Bebe and the trio decided to lighten up and increase the energy levels as they concluded an excellent first set with a playful take on a standard (“How About You”), if memory serves, which included latin and gospel flourishes plus extended features for both bass and drums.

The second set maintained the same high standards and commenced with “Haarlem Landscape”, inspired by a Dutch ‘Old Master’ in the Danish National Gallery rather than the New York skyline as a verbal rendition of the title might suggest. Although lyrical and impressionistic at first the piece later gained greater muscularity thanks to the contributions of bass and drums with Tagel featuring as a soloist.

Mogensen’s contribution with the pen was the beautiful ballad “For L.R.P.” which was written for the “Eva” album. Here Tagel took the role of Marc Johnson with a wonderfully melodic bass solo accompanied by the gentle rustle of the composer’s brushes. It’s perhaps no surprise that Bebe chose to record with Johnson, a musician who once worked with the great Bill Evans, surely another profound influence on the Bebe trio and their music.

The melodic and impressionistic “Trieste” was written by Bebe following a successful appearance at a festival in the city two years ago. It’s a particularly delightful homage to the place and its people.

Bebe informed us that the Keith Jarrett version of “The Old Country”, a composition by Nat Adderley, is hugely popular in Denmark following its use in a TV advertisement. Fat chance of anything like that happening here I suspect, but we can always hope. The trio had fun here with Bebe stretching out in lively fashion buoyed by Mogensen’s crisply brushed grooves and with additional features for bass and drums.

The trio kept things up tempo with “Remembering B”, Bebe’s homage to the late, great American saxophonist Michael Brecker. With its blues and gospel inflections the piece had the feel of a modern day standard and featured Bebe soling expansively above Tagel’s walking bass lines.

The performance ended with “Tak”, meaning “Thank You” and probably the one word of Danish that the average British person knows thanks to ‘Scandi-Noir’ programmes like “The Bridge”.  Lyrical and hymn like the piece had an unmistakably valedictory feel and ended an excellent trio performance on an elegiac note.

Bebe and his colleagues got a terrific reception from a rapt, and pleasingly substantial audience. CD sales were correspondingly brisk and this lunchtime show represented a hugely successful gig for Bebe and his trio. It may well be that they, too, will return on the full concert programme at a future EFG LJF.

My thanks to Soren Bebe, Anders Mogensen and Sue Edwards for speaking with me afterwards and to Soren for the gifts of both the “Home” and “Eva”  CDs. Both albums are highly recommended and “Home” was recently the subject of a highly favourable review by Adrian Pallant on his AP Reviews website https://ap-reviews.com/tag/soren-bebe/

The Pizza Express free lunchtime programme continues to deliver delightful musical surprises with this gig representing a genuine Festival highlight.


EZRA COLLECTIVE, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

Ezra Collective are a young mixed race quintet who emerged out of the Tomorrow’s Warriors scheme. At the 2013 EFG LJF, while still in their teens, they played an excellent set in the Café at the old Foyle’s store. Tonight in the new performance space at Foyle’s new Charing Cross Road location they gave notice that they’ve really come of age as they played a barnstorming set to a sell out audience. This is a band that has clearly accrued a loyal following, and on the evidence of this highly skilled and thrillingly energetic show I’m not surprised.

The line-up of Ezra Collective has remained stable since 2013 and still features the brothers Femi Koleoso (drums) and T J Koleoso (electric bass) in the engine room with front line duties shared between saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Dylan Jones with pianist Joe Armon Jones filling all spaces in between. The group’s influences include jazz, reggae, afro-beat and hip-hop and their music is a wildly exciting collision of all these styles and more.

In the three years since I last saw them the members of Ezra Collective have matured both individually and collectively. They were good then but in the intervening years they’ve honed their chops and now play with an impressive confidence and swagger. This is a group that has grown up together and now have the assurance of a band that ‘know that they are good’.

A loud reggae soundtrack had already got the audience in the mood even before T J Koleoso picked out the opening grooves of “The Philosopher” on electric bass, subsequently joined by piano and drums as the group constructed a propulsive rhythmic framework to fuel the fluent and fiery solos of horn men Mollison and Jones plus Armon Jones’ latin flourishes on an equally lively piano solo. There were even outbreaks of spontaneous dancing within the highly supportive audience.

“Enter The Jungle” was introduced by Femi Koleoso’s implacable drum grooves and again featured Mollison and Jones soloing with youthful brio. Armon Jones had switched to funky Fender Rhodes and managed to squeeze a quote from Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” into his solo. Mollison then entered fiery dialogue with Femi’s drums, the piece concluded with an explosive percussion feature which further delighted the partisan crowd.

Armon Jones introduced “Chasing The Square” at the piano, a piece that saw staccato unison riffing punctuated by more soulful, lyrical passages. The first solo came from the pianist prior to a series of thrilling trumpet and tenor exchanges propelled by the driving beats of the Koleoso siblings.

With Femi Koleoso handling the announcements the title of “People In Trouble” hinted at the Collective’s political sympathies. A spacey solo trumpet intro, subsequently augmented by shimmering Rhodes and mallet rumbles eventually morphed into an electric bass groove that coaxed powerful solos from Jones and Mollison prior to a virtuoso passage of solo piano from the talented Armon Jones. The piece then ended as subtly as it had begun with a soft and gentle horn chorale.

Unfortunately I had to leave at this point as I had to make way across town to East London to see the Donny McCaslin Band at Rich Mix. As I descended to Charing Cross in the Foyle’s lift I could hear the Ezra lads tearing into a Sun Ra tune and more than doing it justice.

This event was the launch of Ezra Collective’s debut EP “Chapter 7” but due to my early departure I was unable to get hold of a copy. If you want it reviewed lads you know where to send it, hint, hint.


SKINT / DONNY McCASLIN BAND, RICH MIX

It’s been well documented by now that the quartet led by New York based saxophonist Donny McCaslin appeared on the final David Bowie album “Black Star” after Bowie saw them playing at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.

The Bowie connection ensured that this was one of the hottest tickets of the festival and a sold out Rich Mix was absolutely rammed for this performance. The appearance on “Black Star” has brought McCaslin’s music to a whole new demographic and here dyed in the wool jazz fans rubbed shoulders with adventurous rock listeners in a crowd with an appropriately broad age range.

I first encountered McCaslin’s playing in 2009 when he appeared as part of trumpeter Dave Douglas’ band at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I’ve subsequently seen him in the international City Of Poets Quintet co-led by American trumpeter Jason Palmer and French pianist Cedric Hanriot and also as one of the star soloists in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Indeed it was the Schneider connection that first led Bowie to McCaslin following Schneider’s collaboration with the Thin White Duke on “Sue”, one of the first pieces to be recorded for the “Black Star” album.

Obviously McCaslin’s involvement with Bowie helped to pique my interest with regard to tonight’s show but as a long term admirer of his playing in a more obvious jazz context I was more excited at the prospect of him leading a band of his own for the first time – particularly as it was the band that appeared on the excellent 2012 release “Casting For Gravity”. Since then the same quartet have released the new albums “Fast Future” (2015) and “Beyond Now” (2016),  recordings I have yet to hear. 

But before McCaslin and his colleagues hit the stage the Rich Mix audience had the chance to enjoy a short but dynamic set from the young British trio Skint led by saxophonist and composer Phil Meadows. It was my second sighting of Meadows in two days having already enjoyed a performance by his new four piece Project earlier in the week at Foyle’s.

Where the Project played thoughtful, melodic contemporary jazz Skint was much more about ‘in your face’ aggression as the trio presented their take on ‘dance music from across the globe’. If this phrase implied a kind of world music dilettantism the reality was very different. Yes, the music was loud and highly rhythmic but the trio’s approach owed more to the ‘punk jazz’ movement and bands like Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down and The Comet Is Coming with the focus very much on energy. There were also moments when the combination of Meadows’ barking alto, Harry Pope’s pummelling drums and Joe Downand’s churning electric bass reminded me of Led Bib.

With Meadows also deploying keyboards and electronics the trio augmented their core sound with pre-programmed beats, Hammond and Rhodes sounds and various electronic effects. In this kind of club environment tune announcements were at a premium (although in other contexts Meadows can be an articulate, witty and informative interlocutor) as the trio tore through four fairly brief, tightly focussed pieces during their short forty minutes or so support slot.

The hard hitting opener featured Meadows on keyboards as well as alto and culminated in a hard hitting drum feature from the hyper active Pope, also the current drummer for WorldService Project.

Elsewhere Meadows featured on soprano, Pope augmented his arsenal with a smattering of electronic percussion and Downand ground out some truly filthy sounding electric bass. The focus was consistently on bludgeoning riffs, hard hitting grooves and surging beats with Meadows’ alto honking and blasting away in a manner that was often reminiscent of punk jazz pioneer Pete Wareham.

Skint invested their performance with passion, energy and no little skill and their performance was very well received by a capacity Rich Mix crowd. I think I’m correct in saying that the band have yet to record but this gig was a good one for them and will have introduced their name to a whole raft of new listeners as they acquitted themselves admirably.

The versatile and likeable Meadows is one of the most promising emerging jazz talents that we have and is surely a musician worthy of greater recognition. He later told me just how much he and the band had enjoyed this set at Rich Mix saying; “it was a complete fan boy gig for us. Donny McCaslin is my favourite saxophonist and Mark Guiliana is Harry’s favourite drummer. I still can’t believe that we were lucky enough to get the chance to open for them”.

After a short break the McCaslin quartet took to the stage to deliver an even more blistering set.  The leader on tenor sax was joined by what has come to be known as the ‘Black Star Band’ with Guiliana on drums, Jason Lindner on keyboards & electronics and Tim Lefebvre on electric bass.

McCaslin has cited the influence of electronic artists such as Aphex Twin on his current music and this was immediately apparent on the commencing piece “Shake Loose”, the opening track on the recent “Beyond Now”. If Lindner’s banks of keyboards and other devices brought an element of electronica to the group’s music the overall sound was still rooted in jazz as McCaslin demonstrated with a barnstorming solo that embraced the full range of the tenor saxophone from baleful low register growls to startling high register shrieks.

This was a band that exuded confidence and were clearly on top of their game. Almost overnight the tall, gawky fifty year old McCaslin has suddenly emerged as the coolest saxophonist on the planet and he and his band have adopted a corresponding swagger accordingly. But in his between tunes announcements McCaslin still exhibited the kind of all American ‘aw shucks’ charm as that other famous jazz Bowie collaborator, Pat Metheny.

With Lefebvre holding down the groove on the title track from “Beyond Now” outbreaks of dancing could be detected in the audience and the roars of approval that greeted the brilliant drum feature from Mr. Perpetual Motion Mark Guiliana were almost as deafening as the music. Guiliana, who once guested and recorded with Phronesis, is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world right now, and like McCaslin draws considerable inspiration from contemporary electronic and dance rhythms.

In a hot, sweaty club atmosphere this was a gig to enjoy as much as to analyse and When McCaslin paused to pay verbal tribute to Bowie the place just erupted. This was followed up by a stunning instrumental version of “Lazarus” from the “Black Star” album with McCaslin’s tenor sax replicating Bowie’s vocal melody and with Lefebvre’s bass feature presaging an incendiary and anthemic finale. From the same album came “I Can’t Give Everything Away” with McCaslin and Lindner shouting the final eponymous refrain above Guiliana’s motorik style drum grooves. A superb interpretation of “Warszawa”, recorded by the quartet for the “Beyond Now” completed a brilliant Bowie trilogy.

Elsewhere “The Word” was a feature for Lindner, a more reflective offering incorporating dense, chiming layered keyboard textures.

But despite the undoubted excellence of the other musicians it was ultimately very much McCaslin’s show as he soloed with a restless inventiveness and fluency and an astonishing degree of physical stamina, other than for the carefully delineated set pieces from his colleagues he was playing all the time with fire, skill and unbounded imagination. This was embodied by his soloing on the title track from “Fast Future” which closed a brilliant, largely high energy set and also included another dazzling drum feature from the equally astonishing Guiliana.

The drummer sat out the first part of the deserved encore as he recovered from his exertions. This began with the eerie electronic textures generated by Lindner and Le Febvre, the latter utilising a floor mounted effects unit, as McCaslin played long, mournful melody lines. When Guiliana finally returned to the fray the music soared to an anthemic magnificence to send the crowd home uplifted and enraptured at an event that very much had the feel of a rock gig – but with some of the best jazz ‘chops’ that you’ll see just about anywhere. 

Afterwards there was a mass scrum at the merch stand as McCaslin greeted his adoring public.  I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Donny on a couple of occasions, he’s a genuinely nice guy who even gifted me my copy of “Casting For Gravity”. Tonight I stayed well out of it to let others take their turn, although it did mean I missed out on getting hold of copies of “Fast Future” and “Beyond Now”, a situation that I must correct very soon. 

This was a magnificent and hugely exciting gig and a definite Festival highlight. It rounded off a day of exceptional music, arguably the most consistently successful day of the festival with all four of the bands that I saw really delivering the goods.     
   
         

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Four, Monday 14th November 2016.

Monday, November 28, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Four, Monday 14th November 2016.

Ian Mann on the fourth day of the Festival and performances by the Phil Meadows Project, Mark Lewandowski Trio's tribute to Fats Waller and the international sextet Bureau Of Atomic Tourism.

Photograph of Jon Irabagon (Bureau Of Atomic Tourism) by Martin Healey

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Four, Monday 14th November 2016

PHIL MEADOWS PROJECT, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLES

The programme of early evening Festival concerts in the new performance space at Foyle’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road continues to go from strength to strength.

This year’s series commenced with a performance by a new quartet led by the young saxophonist and composer Phil Meadows. Born in Bolton Meadows attended the Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester then Leeds College of Music before moving south to complete his studies at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

Settling in London Meadows swiftly became a regular presence on the capital’s jazz scene and formed a quintet featuring the talents of fellow rising stars Laura Jurd (trumpet), Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (basses) and Simon Roth (drums, percussion). This line up released the excellent album “Engines Of Creation” in 2013.

A frequent award winner Meadows has been been voted “best newcomer” at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards and was also the winner of the 2013 Peter Whittingham Award which, along with support from Arts Council England, helped to finance the recording of “Lifecycles” (2014),  an ambitious and totally convincing suite/song cycle embracing both the jazz and classical traditions. The album featured Meadows’ core quintet alongside the twenty strong Engines Orchestra conducted by Matt Roberts. The 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival saw Meadows première the work at a sold out concert at Kings Place featuring both his quintet and the Engines Orchestra, a performance that I was fortunate enough to witness and review as part of my Festival coverage for that year. 

Tonight was the first appearance by Meadows’ latest Project, a quartet featuring Flo Moore on double bass, Alex Munk on guitar and Will Glaser at the drums. During the course of a remarkably assured début performance the new group played four new compositions written by Meadows specifically for this line up plus new arrangements of a couple of pieces from his earlier albums. It is intended that the new group will record an album and undertake a comprehensive UK tour during 2017.

This evening’s performance kicked off with Meadows’ traditional opener “Fin”, a dedication to Finley Panter, drummer with Beats & Pieces Big Band and the small group Let Spin who is now resident in Berlin. The tune moves through several distinct phases as it attempts to summarise Panter’s complex character and tonight’s performance was linked together by unaccompanied alto sax interludes from Meadows alongside more orthodox jazz solos from Moore, Munk and the composer.

The jagged, angular, occasionally abstract “Fin” contrasted well with the new piece “Five More Minutes”, a paean to the snooze button on the radio alarm. The tune began with the gentle chiming of Munk’s guitar allied to the delightfully delicate filigree of Glaser’s cymbal work. Meadows, now performing on soprano, began his solo in gently melodic fashion, his tone later becoming darker and almost Garbarek-like as the music gradually increased in intensity. Finally Munk’s guitar took flight, his soaring solo a welcome reminder of the talent behind the recent eponymous début album by the guitarist’s band Flying Machines.

Meadows was back on alto for “Thrower”, a composition written in praise of the work of the potter or ceramicist. An atmospheric intro featuring shadowy guitar plus mallet rumbles saw Meadows’ writing making effective use of space with solos coming from Munk on guitar and the composer on alto sax, the latter making judicious use of echo effects. A word too for Glaser’s contribution to the success of the piece with a highly sensitive performance behind the drum kit.

From the “Lifecycles” album “Twice The Man” featured Meadows’ folk inflected soprano plus a delightfully melodic solo from Moore on double bass, her feature accompanied by Munk’s sparse guitar chording and Glaser’s subtle and delicate brushwork. Munk’s subsequent solo saw the music develop in intensity on an arrangement that was, by necessity, substantially different from the recorded version.

A new tune currently named “Untitled No. 1” saw Meadows moving back to alto and enhancing his sound with a degree of subtle electronica courtesy of a floor mounted effects unit. Meanwhile Moore struck up an infectious, almost reggae like, bass groove as she continued to form an effective rhythmic unit with Glaser. Munk’s impressive solo revealed a strong rock influence and worked well but I found the electronic elements distracting when it came to Moore’s acoustic bass feature.

An all too brief set of around an hour concluded with the new tune “Trashlantis”, a title inspired by an art installation fabricated from reclaimed marine detritus on the harbour front in Helsinki, a city visited by Meadows on a recent European tour. This proved to a catchy, groove based piece featuring Meadows’ soprano dancing airily above Munk’s circling guitar motif and Glaser’s busily brushed drum grooves.

It wasn’t the biggest Foyle’s audience of the week but the hundred or so audience members gave the young quartet an excellent reception on what proved to be a very convincing first gig from them and an excellent start to the programme at this increasingly popular venue.

I was to see Meadows play again the following night with his trio Skint, a more rock and dance orientated trio outfit featuring the talents of Joe Downard on electric bass and Harry Pope at the drums. Another recently formed band these three supported the New York based Donny McCaslin Band at Rich Mix in Shoreditch. But more on that later.

In the meantime the Phil Meadows Project is a success in its own right and promises much for the future with a team of skilled players bringing the best out of Meadows’ consistently interesting and engaging compositions.

MARK LEWANDOWSKI TRIO /  BUREAU OF ATOMIC TOURISM, THE VORTEX

Bassist Mark Lewndowski was another musician that I was to see twice in very different contexts during the Festival. At the Iklectik Art Lab on Saturday afternoon he had led a stellar quartet featuring pianist Liam Noble, saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer Jeff Williams through a challenging, but ultimately rewarding and highly enjoyable, series of explorations of tunes associated with the late Paul Bley.

Tonight Lewandowski was to pay homage to a very different type of piano legend, the celebrated pianist, composer, vocalist and all round entertainer Fats Waller. Noble remained from the previous group with the drum chair going to the versatile drummer and percussionist Paul Clarvis.

On the face of it a double bill featuring the music of Waller opposite the more experimental sounds of the international sextet Bureau Of Atomic Tourism (B.O.A.T), led by the Belgian drummer and composer Teun Verbruggen seemed like an odd pairing but in effect it worked very well with the contrasts in styles between the two bands having a positively therapeutic effect upon the listener. And if anything it was Lewandowski’s trio, appearing first and notionally the ‘support act’ who drew the largest audience.

Introducing the evening’s events Oliver Weindling of The Vortex informed us that the performance by the Lewnadowski trio was being recorded with the view to an album release, simply entitled “Waller”, on the Whirlwind Recordings label in 2017.

With the indefatigable Alex Bonney at the recording desk the trio commenced with their version of the Waller classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. I have to say that I was a little surprised by how reverently the trio treated Wallers’ music, especially bearing in mind that Noble is also a member of trumpeter Chris Batchelor’s quartet Pigfoot, a band that puts a decidedly different and often highly subversive slant on traditional jazz, although even here their genuine love and respect for their source material is never in question. Nevertheless Lewandowski’s trio played the music of Waller in a far more straight-ahead manner than I had anticipated.

Next up was an exploration of “Jitterbug Waltz”, one of Waller’s most interesting tunes, and one regularly explored by successive generations of jazz musicians. The highly developed interplay between the trio members was particularly well illustrated here and Lewandowski also impressed with one of his many excellent solos. The tune was introduced by a solo drum passage from Clarvis who interestingly deployed brushes almost exclusively throughout the entire set.

Clarvis again impressed with his lively brushed drum breaks on the lesser known Waller tune “Blue Because Of You” as he shared the spotlight with the leader’s bass.

The ballad “Fair And Square” was treated to a quiet, spacious interpretation that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an ECM recording. Even Clarvis’ eerie wordless singing of the melody enhanced rather than fractured the air of atmospheric fragility.  And credit to the clearly enraptured Vortex jazz public who maintained an immaculate silence throughout, proof if any were needed, that this is a club with a truly listening audience.

As others had pointed out to Lewandowski if he wished to perform a tribute to Waller it really had to include vocals, after all Fats was a wit, bon viveur and genuine all round entertainer. I don’t think Lewandowski will mind me saying that he’s a better bass player than he is a singer. Indeed he initially chose not to tackle a Waller song at all but “Why” by Jelly Roll Morton, a musician that Fats doubtless regarded as a kindred spirit and a key influence. It has to be said that once Lewandowski had manfully tackled the verses of Morton’s song he attacked his bass solo with the air of a man who was glad that his vocal contribution was over.

However he was game enough to have another go on the closing segue of “I’ll Be Glad You’re Dead You Rascal You” and “Susannah Dust Off your Piano” but here he was upstaged by Clarvis who tapped out a solo on the rim of his bass drum using the tap shoes he used to deploy in the pit band for “Riverdance”. At the other end of the musical scale Clarvis is also a trained orchestral percussionist, a brilliant and versatile performer who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything.
I suspect that Clarvis may also have played in the Orchestra on “Strictly” for present in the audience was Ed Balls, a personal friend of Clarvis apparently. I don’t know if Ed stuck around for B.O.A.T but his mere presence at The Vortex certainly put him up in my estimation.

Overall I enjoyed this interesting and entertaining contemporary examination of the Fats Waller songbook and it’s always a pleasure to see the relentlessly inventive Liam Noble play. However if pushed I probably preferred the knottier Paul Bley set on the Saturday, but, as they say, variety is the spice of life.

Whether there was quite enough material in this relatively short set for a full length album is probably debatable. Perhaps Lewandowski and his colleagues will augment it with some studio recordings, perhaps featuring a guest vocalist or two (sorry Mark). I’m certain that despite one or two reservations the finished album will be well worth hearing. 

Bureau Of Atomic Tourism is a sextet led by the Belgian drummer, composer and bandleader Teun Verbruggen, a musician perhaps best known to UK audiences as the leader of the Zappa-esque large ensemble Flat Earth Society. He has also worked extensively with the Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila, both in Tuomarila’s trio and as member of the collaborative quartet Flow.

A visit to Verbruggen’s website http://www.teunverbruggen.com will also reveal that he has a whole plethora of other projects on the go including the bands Chaos Of The Haunted Spire and Too Noisy Fish.  He also runs his own record label Rat Records as an outlet for his material.

Both Flow and the Tuomarila trio have released albums of melodic contemporary jazz on the UK based Edition label. However B.O.A.T, another international collaboration, sees Verbruggen pushing more firmly into avant garde territory. B.O.A.T’s latest album “Hapax Legomena” was recorded in New York and features Verbruggen and his compatriot Jozef Demoulin alongside New York based musicians Hilmar Jensson (guitar), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Andrew d’Angelo (reeds) and Tim Dahl (bass). Featuring seven compositions sourced from within the group the record is an uncompromising, high energy meld of jazz, improvisation and avant rock. 

For this London appearance Verbruggen, Dumoulin and the Icelandic born Jensson were joined by the Scandinavian pairing of Magnus Broo ( Sweden, trumpet) and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (Norway, electric bass) plus the American Jon Irabagon, here specialising on tenor sax.

Many of these musicians have graced the Vortex stage before whether with previous editions of B.O.A.T or with other bands e.g Irabagon with Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Haker Flaten with The Thing and Scorch Trio and both Haker Flaten and Broo with Atomic. Jensson meanwhile has performed with US drummer Jim Black’s quartet AlasNoAxis and guested with the British quartet Outhouse, led by drummer/percussionist Dave Smith. 

This latest edition of B.O.A.T didn’t pull any punches with the incendiary front line of Broo and Irabagon periodically augmented by Jensson’s guitar and Dumoulin’s keyboards as Verbruggen and Haker Flaten toiled in the engine room churning out an unstoppable rhythmic flow of pounding polyrhymic drums and grinding electric bass. Electronics are also a vital part of the Bureau’s sonic arsenal with Dumoulin’s keyboard set up augmented by a variety of electronic devices in addition to Jensson’s array of guitar effects. The harsh electronic textures that augmented the clangorous guitar and hyperactive rhythms of the opening number were proof enough of this. Indeed, in many ways Dumoulin proved to be the group’s most distinctive instrumental component.

Not that the horn men were going to be upstaged, Broo’s trumpet solo on the Jensson composition “Hilsnur” culminated in an ear splitting climax in the instrument’s upper register.

Complex written sections, including some ferocious, turn on a dime, unison avant rock riffing alternated with free wheeling fully improvised sections. Much of the material seemed to be new including an Irabagon composition that saw him take off on a raucous, exploratory solo before reeling the band back in with a shout of “1, 2, 3, 4”, this signalling a shift into a rock influenced Jensson solo over odd meter prog rock grooves culminating in a squall of electronics and the squeal of duelling horns.

Elsewhere Dumoulin’s scheming, textured keyboards provided more impressionistic moments but essentially this was a high octane performance with the interplay between Irabagon and Broo scarcely any less incandescent than the saxophonist’s fiery exchanges with the brilliant Peter Evans at a memorable MOPDTK show at The Vortex some five years back, a performance reviewed elsewhere on this site.

The last piece featured some furious unison horn riffs and a sustain heavy Jensson solo as B.O.A.T made one final frenzied investigation of the hinterland where composition and improvisation and jazz and math rock meet.

I rather enjoyed this relatively short but blisteringly intense set and the album “Hapax Legomena” also stands up well to home listening. On this evidence the current crew of B.O.A.T have much to offer and with a wealth of new material already in the live set a new album is surely set to follow in the not too distant future.


   

 

 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Three Sunday 13th November 2016.

Friday, November 25, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Three Sunday 13th November 2016.

Ian Mann enjoys lunchtime jazz at the 606 Club and a personal Festival highlight at the Royal Festival Hall. Performers include the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, Mark Lockheart and the Jan Garbarek Group

Photograph of Jan Garbarek by Tim Dickeson

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Three, Sunday 13th November 2016

PATCHWORK JAZZ ORCHESTRA, 606 CLUB, CHELSEA

Lunchtime saw us venturing into new territory with a visit to the 606 Club in Chelsea. It’s a venue that I’ve been wanting to check out for a long time having had good reports from friends about the music, food and ambience at this well regarded jazz bastion. Unfortunately SW10 is a long way from our base in Islington but with our hosts otherwise engaged on this particular weekend a lunchtime show seemed to offer the ideal opportunity to finally find out just what “The Six” is all about.

The 606 is a musician owned establishment with proprietor Steve Rubie combining his career as a restaurateur with that of a professional jazz flautist. The club’s name comes from its original address in the Kings Road but it is has been located in the basement of its current premises in Lots Road since 1988 in a former industrial building close to the old Lots Road power station. The area is undergoing extensive modern development with the exclusive Chelsea Harbour complex just a short walk away.

The 606 has always had a policy of booking British or UK based musicians exclusively and today was no exception with a Festival visit from the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, a large ensemble featuring some of the UK’s most talented young musicians playing an all original programme of compositions sourced almost entirely from within the group.

As the band set up we enjoyed a well cooked Sunday lunch and soaked up the atmosphere of the place. The reports were accurate, the 606 has a great ambience and the food was excellent. It’s a highly convivial place to enjoy good, live British jazz.

Many, but by no means all, of the PJO members studied at the Royal Academy of Music and several of them were familiar to me from their work with that institution’s Big Band, an aggregation that also proved to be the basis for the acclaimed Troykestra. Although less zany than the Loose Tubes in their youthful heyday the PJO’s brightly coloured “patchwork” shirts, all of them different, gave the band a distinctive visual identity.

With a classic big band line up of five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, guitar, bass and drums the PJO lined up;

Matthew Herd, Alex Hitchcock, Sam Rapley, Sam Glaser, George Millard – reeds

James Davison, James Copus, Adam Chatterton, Miguel Girody – trumpets & flugels

Tom Green, Tom Dunnett, Jamie Pimenta – trombones

Yusuf Narcin- bass trombone

Rob Luft – guitar

Liam Dunachie – piano

Misha Mullov Abbado – double bass

Scott Chapman – drums

Introduced by Steve Rubie the PJO commenced with Scott Chapman’s tune “Barcarole”, an excellent piece of contemporary large ensemble writing with its colourful textures and rich horn voicings plus a series of compelling solos from (among others) Copus on flugel, Luft on guitar, Rapley on tenor and Millard on baritone.

Mullov Abbado’s enigmatically titled “Hi Rigley” delighted in deep sonorities with the sound of muted trumpets and an inspired dialogue between trumpeter Davison and bass trombonist Narcin.

Herd’s “Complete Short Stories” then featured the stately clarinet of Sam Rapley alongside the trombone of Tom Dunnett plus the composer’s soprano sax. A five man unaccompanied reed chorale also focussed the listener’s attention.

The first ‘outside’ item was trombonist Green’s arrangement of “Endless Stars”, a composition by the American pianist Fred Hersch that was subsequently given a lyric by the English vocalist Norma Winstone. Here complex, interlocking horn lines suddenly burst forth into old style big band lushness prior to solos from Rapley on tenor, Green on trombone and Girody on trumpet.

The first set closed with the prolific Chapman’s Sherlock Holmes inspired “Mind Palace”, a composition loaded with rousing big band charts and a series of fiery solos from Green on trombone, Hitchcock on tenor and Dunachie on piano plus a closing drum feature from the composer. This was potent, intoxicating stuff and ensured that the first half finished on a high note.

There was little let up in the energy levels at the start of the second set with the boisterous New Orleans flavourings of “The Boy Roy” with its vocalised, plunger muted trumpet and trombone sounds. The solos included a rumbustious outing on baritone by Millard plus further features for Chatterton on trumpet plus Hitchcock on tenor.

Dunachie’s “Mr Potter Cakes” was more complex, almost Loose Tubes like at times, and included solos from Herd on alto and Luft, the band’s spokesman, on guitar.

Rapley’s “Promises, Promises” was more reflective, or even ‘serious’ as Luft put it. Herd on alto and Dunnett on trombone were the featured soloists and the piece also featured a more freely structured ‘avant garde’ section incorporating the squalling saxes of Herd and Rapley.

Introducing Mullov Abbado’s “Cross Platform Interchange” Luft revealed that several members of the band were dedicated rail enthusiasts. He rather got derailed with a series of musings on the delights of London transport but the music got the performance back on track with solos from Dunachie at the piano, Glaser on alto sax, Green on trombone and Luft himself on guitar.

The set concluded with an arrangement by absent trombonist Kieran McLeod of the Frank Loesser song “If I Were A Bell” with suitably rousing and exultant solos from Copus, Narcin, Pimenta , Luft and Millard, the last named also entering into a series of exciting exchanges with Copus’ dramatic high register trumpet. The band even threw some Loose Tubes style dance moves into the mix too.

I thoroughly enjoyed the music of the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra. It’s a shame that they haven’t made a recording as yet as this music very much deserves to be documented on disc. In the meantime audiences can check the band out live when they play their next gig at Styx in Tottenham Hale on Saturday 3rd December 2016. Check the band’s website http://www.patchworkjazzorchestra.com for full details.

In closing I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 606 Club experience with the venue scoring highly in terms of food, music and atmosphere. It’s not cheap but it represents good quality and value and overall the venue is a delightful place to listen to jazz. I very much hope to return again next year.

Finally, my thanks to Steve Rubie for the gift of a 606 Club T shirt which will bring back good memories and be worn with much pride. 


MARK LOCKHEART, CLORE BALLROOM. SOUTHBANK CENTRE


Returning to the Southbank Centre we managed to catch the last knockings of a performance on the Clore Ballroom Freestage by the youth band (Im)Possibilities and their guest soloist vibraphonist Orphy Robinson. It’s always a pleasure to see Orphy play, if only very briefly.

(Im)Possibilities were followed on the Clore stage by a performance of a major new jazz and orchestral work by saxophonist and composer Mark Lockheart. Titled “Brave World” this six movement suite was performed by musicians of the Trinity Laban Shapeshifter Ensemble, a mix of jazz and classical players, alongside a stellar jazz quintet featuring Lockheart on tenor & soprano saxes, Liam Noble on piano, John Parricelli on guitar and Lockheart’s colleagues from Polar Bear, Tom Herbert (double bass) and a newly shorn Sebastian Rochford (drums). There was also a female alto sax soloist, presumably a Shapeshifter member, whose name I didn’t catch.

The Clore was packed for this performance and there was a palpable sense that this was something of a special ‘event’. The audience was far more attentive than usual in this public space and although I was seated quite a long way from the stage I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of detail I was able to appreciate in the music. Interested onlookers included musicians Jasper Hoiby, Adam Waldmann, Anton Eger and Emilia Martensson. 

With the ensemble under the baton of conductor John Ashton Thomas the music was an effective mix of jazz and classical elements and was inspired by Lockheart’s very valid concerns about the state of the modern world. The composer moved freely between tenor and soprano sax and contributed some telling solos as did both Noble and Parricelli plus the mystery alto player who proved to be a good foil for Lockheart. Young trumpeter Louis Dowdeswell plus one of the trombonists also impressed during the second movement.

Each movement had its own distinctive character, the third being relatively freely structured but acquiring a greater formality in the wake of Lockheart’s tenor solo. The fourth was darker and more riff based with Parricelli adding a sustain heavy solo alongside the features for alto and soprano saxes.

The fifth movement placed a greater emphasis on the classical musicians in an ensemble that included a harp and two french horns.

Rochford and Herbert ushered in the final movement whose elegiac, folk tinged melody suggested the influence of Polar Bear. Lockheart has also cited Claus Ogerman, Gil Evans and John Zorn as further sources of inspiration.

I was impressed by Lockheart’s writing and playing and the way in which he merged the various jazz and classical elements. Given the setting in which it was performed I found the whole suite very enjoyable but surely a major work of this magnitude and gravitas should have been premièred in a concert hall and not a foyer. This was music that deserved better.

On a more positive note Lockheart hopes to document “Brave World” on disc in 2017. This is an album release that will be well worth waiting for.


JAN GARBAREK QUARTET, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

In a packed out main hall at the Southbank we were treated to a superb performance by the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and his quartet.

Garbarek (born 1947) has one of the most distinctive saxophone sounds in jazz and these days is one of the comparative elder statesmen of the music. It’s been a full eight years since I last saw him in concert (as a ‘punter’ at Warwick Arts Centre) and I’d almost forgotten just how exciting his live shows can be. The live album “Dresden”, recorded in 2007 and released by ECM in 2009, offers excellent recorded evidence of this.

Since those days drummer Manu Katche has been replaced by the Indian drummer/percussionist Trilok Gurtu but electric bass specialist Yuri Daniel remains in place alongside long term Garbarek associate Rainer Bruninghaus on piano and keyboards.

Introduced by pianist and broadcaster Julian Joseph the quartet delivered a near two hour show of almost continuous music. I first saw Garbarek perform live in the 1980s but in all that time I’ve never heard him actually speak to an audience. It’s not that he can’t speak the language – I’ve heard him interviewed by Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and his English is impeccable- but his reticence has somehow become part of his mystique, reinforcing the popular image of the glacial iceman from the Norwegian fjords.

Coldness is a criticism that has been levelled at Garbarek both live and on record fairly consistently over the years but in recent times it’s a complaint that has become less and less relevant. There was a warmth and humanity about tonight’s performance that hasn’t always been associated with Garbarek. As the leader happily clapped along to the infectious grooves laid down by Daniel and Gurtu there was a real joyousness about his demeanour. Hell, he even cracked a smile.

The performance itself consisted of around five lengthy ensemble passages, these including “Molde Canticle”, “Mediaeval” and Garbarek’s arrangement of Steve Winwood’s “Had To Cry Today”,  punctuated by a series of dazzling solos and individual set pieces. There are doubtless those that would claim that it was all a bit too superficial and and overly reliant on ‘smoke and mirrors’ but the sheer joyousness of the performances and the utter brilliance of the playing ultimately undermined such cavils.

I didn’t recognise every piece that was played but Garbarek started out in familiar territory with the enduring “Molde Canticle” from his classic 1990 album “I Took Up The Runes”. The memorable melody showcased the echoed ‘cry’ of Garbarek’s soprano and the Eberhard Weber like tones of Daniel’s bass as the Brazilian born musician approximated the distinctive sound of his predecessor in a duet with the leader. Bruninghaus then moved from electric to grand piano for his solo but the music was soon to take a different turn as Daniel and Gurtu, now playing kit drums, set up a surprisingly funky groove that elicited a similarly surprising response from Garbarek on powerfully earthy tenor. Gurtu then undertook a dazzling circumnavigation of his vast percussive set up, gravitating from kit drums to tabla before a final group collective statement of the grand theme.

The second section began with the shimmer of Bruninghaus’ keyboards but was most notable for Daniel’s bravura bass feature, the other musicians leaving the stage during a virtuoso display that included slap bass techniques as Daniel stamped his own musical personality on the proceedings. Garbarek’s tone on soprano combined North African influences with Western style lyricism but Gurtu’s stunning tabla feature uprooted the music and transported it to the Indian sub continent as he combined phenomenal finger strength, flexibility and stamina with an innate musicality. Garbarek responded to this with a soprano feature that combined the familiar Nordic cry with more obvious Indian elements in an echo of his “Ragas and Sagas” album.

Bruninghaus’ piano solo formed a link into the next section which began in almost ballad mode with Garbarek’s warm toned tenor sax. But in this glittering musical mosaic no mood remained fixed for long and another piano passage from Bruninghaus provided the segue into some furious unison riffing followed by the urgent whinny of Garbarek’s soprano above Daniel’s buoyant bass rhythms. 
Then it was the turn of Daniel and Bruninghaus to exchange ideas, the pair throwing a surprising amount of humour into the process with their staccato motifs. Gurtu than took over the reins with a further drum feature before the section climaxed with a stunning solo piano extravaganza from Bruninghaus that combined classical precision with an improviser’s instinct. It was uncharacteristically percussive and vibrant and included a kind of stride piano pastiche plus a dazzling hammered climax including some ‘under the lid’ plucking and scraping. The audience gave him an equally thunderous reception. It was almost a case of “Rainer steals the show”.

The gentle sound of Garbarek’s breathy tenor sax brought things back down to earth before he stepped back and passed the baton to Bruninghaus and Daniel, the leader clearly enjoying their intimate electric bass and electric piano interplay as much as the audience did.

Following this gentle interlude we went into the final stretch with a solo piano introduction leading to Garbarek’s haunting theme statement on tenor sax, his playing brooding but melodic as he began to to dig deeper, exposing his Coltrane-esque roots with Gurtu on kit drums cast in the role of Elvin Jones. This was followed by an astonishing drum and percussion feature from the irrepressible Gurtu that utilised virtually all of the implements in his vast percussive arsenal in addition to his distinctive ‘konnakol’ vocal percussion. We heard tablas, shakers, bird calls, found percussive items such as a hub cap, the sound of a cymbal absorbed in a water bucket and more. The flamboyance and showmanship plus some of the techniques deployed reminded me of the late Brazilian percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos whose playing once graced earlier editions of the Garbarek group. But Gurtu brought a distinct Indian presence to the music with tablas replacing Vasconcelos’  berimbau and if anything he proved to be even more of a showman as he encouraged the audience to clap along. I’ve never seen that before at a Garbarek show and Jan himself seemed to revel in it, eventually returning to the mic himself wielding a wooden flute to play an enchanting duet with Gurtu. There was humour too with Gurtu slapping his head in time with the rhythms that he had created. Garbarek’s never been exactly noted for being a barrel of laughs but with this group he seems to have finally learned how to have fun, and in a highly democratic, and often fiercely interactive unit, positively encourages his colleagues to do the same.

The reward for this marathon display of outstanding individual and collective musicianship was a 100% standing ovation from a delighted capacity audience and a deserved encore with Garbarek again toting his tenor. This was a bonus to simply enjoy rather than attempting to take comprehensive notes. So I can’t tell you much about the encore, other than it was at least the equal of what had gone before.

I enjoyed this performance just as much as I did that Warwick show back in 2008 and for me it was a personal Festival highlight and despite the occasional dissenting voice I’m certain that a large percentage of the huge Festival Hall audience felt exactly the same way. As he approaches three score years and ten Jan Garbarek is still a musical force to be reckoned with.         

   

 

 
 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Two, Saturday 12th November 2016.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day Two, Saturday 12th November 2016.

Ian Mann visits another new venue and witnesses performances by the Nick Costley-White Trio, Mark Lewandowski Quartet, Shez Raja Collective, Plaistow and Vyamanikal.

Photograph of Shez Raja by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day Two, Saturday 12th November 2016

NICK COSTLEY-WHITE TRIO / MARK LEWANDOWSKI QUARTET, IKLECTIK ART LAB, WATERLOO

Saturday afternoon found me at another venue that was new to me, Iklectik Art Lab tucked away behind Waterloo Station. Founded in 2014 Iklectik is a haven for jazz and improvised music plus other branches of the arts and is the home of several jazz organisations including Jazz Nursery, LUME and Jazz New Blood, all of whom hosted events at the venue during the Festival period. Like Jazz Café POSK it also has its own grand piano, having acquired the old instrument from Café Oto when the Dalston venue took the decision to upgrade.

Located in a building that looks as if it may once have been a school Iklectik is a pleasingly Bohemian looking space furnished with an appropriately eclectic selection of chairs, benches and sofas. It serves beer, wine, coffee and snacks and even on a chilly November day was warm and welcoming. It may be a home for artistic outsiders but it’s certainly not exclusive and I was made to feel very welcome by proprietor Edward and by Dom James of Jazz Nursery, the latter also the clarinettist with the Dixie Ticklers, a young sextet who put a modern twist on classic trad jazz and New Orleans material (as heard on the 2013 album “Standing Pat”, reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann).

Today’s Jazz Nursery double bill began with a trio led by the guitarist Nick Costley-White, also a member of the Dixie Ticklers. Costley-White has been heard in more modern contexts too including saxophonist Tommy Andrews’ Quintet and the Pete Hurt Jazz Orchestra. Today he was focussing on the music of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter in the company of bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Dave Ingamells with the performance being recorded by Alex Bonney with a view towards a possible future album release.

An introductory passage of unaccompanied guitar ushered in Porter’s “I Love You” with Chaplin also impressing with an articulate double bass solo as Ingamells provided subtly brushed drum commentary. The event was also being filmed and Costley-White wore a hooped Breton shirt of the type once favoured by Pat Metheny, almost certainly an influence on the young guitarist I’d say. Meanwhile Chaplin and Ingamells preferred more traditional ‘young fogey’ attire.

“The Last Time I Saw Paris” represented the first of two Jerome Kern tunes with Costley-White and Chaplin sharing the solos. The guitarist then stretched out further on “Yesterdays” and also entered into an engaging dialogue with fellow soloist Chaplin. Ingamells was also featured at the kit as this second Kern piece drew to a close.

The Porter ballad “I Concentrate On You” was given a particularly beautiful and carefully controlled reading with the combination of cleanly picked guitar, melodic double bass and delicately brushed drums earning a particularly warm reception from the small but discerning audience.

Next up was a change of pace and a ‘contrafact’, an original by Costley-White based upon the chords of Porter’s “All The Things You Are” and retitled “Apparition”. Despite an initial false start this was arguably the most exciting performance of the set with its tricky, boppish theme and Costley-White’s agile, fleet fingered soloing as he tackled the slippery bebop lines accompanied by Chaplin’s fast paced bass walk and Ingamells’ rapidly brushed drums, the latter subsequently reverting to sticks as the music continued to gather momentum before decelerating again for Chaplin’s bass solo.

The trio concluded their set with a straight ahead rendition of Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things”  with features for all three musicians.

This was an enjoyable, if slightly low key set. The premise had been that the trio would explore some of the lesser known compositions of Kern and Porter and somehow I’d been expecting something a bit more subversive or radical. With the exception of the contrafact “Apparition” the trio played things pretty straight ahead throughout. Nothing wrong with that and I’m certainly not casting aspersions on the musicianship but it’s nonetheless true that I’ve seen and heard all three of these musicians playing more adventurous material elsewhere.

The young trio were followed by a more experienced quartet assembled by double bassist Mark Lewandowski. Joining the leader were pianist Liam Noble, tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer Jeff Williams, the latter replacing the advertised Gene Calderazzo who was playing elsewhere later that evening with Partisans.

Lewandowski’s group chose to explore a series of compositions inspired by or associated with the late pianist Paul Bley (1932-2016) who died in January, his passing rather undermined by that of David Bowie.

Challenger’s whinnying tenor sax fanfare introduced Lewandowski’s Bley inspired “Breathing Space”, a piece that toyed with freedom and structure and saw the quartet immerse themselves in some knotty collective improvising punctuated by solo and duo features such as a passage of unaccompanied piano from Noble followed by his absorbing dialogue with drummer Williams. Following his initial salvo Challenger seemed happy to take a back seat, returning only towards the end following some pretty rigorous trio improvisations.

Bley’s 1965 album “Closer”, a trio set recorded with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer/percussionist Barry Altschul proved to be something of a touchstone for Lewandowski.
This ground-breaking album was comprised primarily of compositions by Bley’s ex-wife Carla Bley and we were to hear two of these in close succession.

First up was “And Now The Queen” which was introduced by Lewandowski’s unaccompanied arco bass which featured dramatic bowing in both the instrument’s upper and lower registers When the bassist eventually picked out the distinctive melody Challenger doubled it on tenor to the accompaniment of Williams’ mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. In time Noble took over from Challenger and the saxophonist seemed lost in poetic reverie as the trio probed deeply into the contours of Carla’s melody. When Challenger returned he released his pent up energy with a full blooded tenor solo accompanied by the powerful drumming of Williams who had, by now, traded mallets for sticks.

Also from “Closer” came “Batterie”, a piece that has also been performed by Carla’s various large ensembles. Ushered in by Challenger’s tenor the initial collective improvisations gave way first to further dialogue between Lewandowski and Williams and later to another intense solo from Challenger, again fuelled by Williams’ explosive drumming plus Noble’s thunderous block chords. There was little respite in Noble’s extraordinarily percussive piano solo that was reminiscent of first Thelonious Monk and then Cecil Taylor. While this was going on Challenger sipped a coffee, returning only for the final theme restatement.

The set closed with another Lewandowski original “Nina At Monterey”, a piece inspired by Nina Simone’s legendary appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Nominally this was a ballad and although Challenger adopted a softer tone than previously during the opening stages he was to
re-emerge later on in the piece with a declamatory solo that seemed to signify Simone’s inner strength. Elsewhere Lewandowski’s plucked bass solo was given only the sparsest of accompaniment but Noble’s piano feature saw him making extensive use of the instrument’s innards and treating it like a complete entity.

This was an intense, adventurous and often challenging set but it was one that was ultimately highly rewarding and one that I very much enjoyed as the quartet got right inside the material and stamped their collective personality upon the music.

It’s always a pleasure to watch these four musicians perform, whether individually or collectively, and I was to catch up with all of them again in different contexts later in the Festival period. In the meantime this was an excellent start to the day at another excellent new venue.


SHAZ RAJA COLLECTIVE, CLORE BALLROOM, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

After wending our way back to the Southbank via the back streets of Waterloo we timed our arrival perfectly to catch a performance on the Clore Ballroom free-stage by the Shez Raja Collective, part of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line Up programme which had earlier featured music from bassist Misha Mullov Abbado, tuba player Oren Marshall and rising star pianist/vocalist Kandace Springs. As far as I’m aware at the time of writing it’s not yet been broadcast, but should be well worth hearing when it is. 

Raja is a British Asian electric bass specialist, originally from the Wirrall but now based in London. He formed his Collective in 2007 and has released a total of five albums, two of which “Soho Live” (2014) and “Gurutopia” (2016), have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann. 

The albums have featured appearances by illustrious guests such as Andy Sheppard, Gilad Atzmon, Shabaka Hutchings, Denys Baptiste, John Etheridge, Oren Marshall, Claude Deppa, Jay Phelps and Soweto Kinch. “Gurutopia” even found him collaborating with the leading Americans Mike Stern (guitar) and Randy Brecker (trumpet).

However today’s performance saw Raja fronting his core band comprising of violinist Pascal Roggen, keyboard player Alex Stanford, drummer Chris Nickolls and saxophonist Vasilis Xenopoulos. Polish born vocalist Monika Lidke also added her soaring wordless vocals to a couple of numbers.

Although I’ve enjoyed Raja’s albums I’ve always felt that the live environment would be the best place to appreciate his band. This high octane, crowd pleasing performance certainly confirmed that hypothesis as the charismatic, white clad leader guided his band through an energetic set combining elements of jazz, funk, Indian music and more with the emphasis firmly on the groove. Raja’s own playing combines an enormous technical accomplishment with a sense of showmanship and is clearly inspired by such electric bass giants as Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and the late, great Jaco Pastorius. Constantly whipping up the crowd he’s a charismatic front man and an absolute nightmare to photograph - “he never stands still” complained respected professional snapper Tim Dickeson, although he did manage to capture the rather fine image that illustrates this feature.

With Raja at the helm his band are a well drilled unit and the set included inspired solos from Roggen, Xenopoulos and Stanford as well as the leader with Nickolls laying down some tight and tasty grooves from the kit, aided and abetted by Raja and Stanford.

The combination of infectious grooves and mercurial solos ensured that this was a gig for letting oneself get absorbed in the moment and simply enjoying the music rather than aiming for some sort of detailed analysis. Young children were dancing to the music, adults were swaying, hand clapping and foot tapping and everybody seemed to get swept away by the energy of it all. Highlights included the driving Indo-Funk of “Maharajah” with its combination of seductive Indian melodies and ferocious funk grooves and the Caribbean flavoured “Freedom” with its utopian message.

Having enjoyed covering two of Raja’s albums it was a real bonus to get the opportunity to witness the man strutting his funky stuff in front of a live audience, a performance that was followed later in the week by a ticketed show at The Forge in Camden Town.


PLAISTOW / VYAMANIKAL, HALL TWO, KINGS PLACE

The second double bill of the day was a Match & Fuse presentation featuring the Swiss piano trio Plaistow teamed with the British duo Vyamanikal featuring Kit Downes and Tom Challenger, the latter playing his second gig of the day.

In 2014 Plaistow gave a hugely impressive EFG LJF performance at one of the free lunchtime showcase events at the Pizza Express Jazz Club and it came as no surprise to see them invited back on the more formal concert programme.

I covered that show at the Pizza and was thoroughly blown away by the trio’s performance and their distinctive take on the art of the piano trio. Named after the Squarepusher track “Plaistow Flex” the band blur the boundaries between electronic and acoustic music more effectively than just about anybody else. This is still acoustic music but its heart and key influences have their roots entirely in electronica. Darker and heavier than the UK’s own much vaunted (and very good) GoGo Penguin there’s a vague air of menace about Plaistow’s music that ensures that despite their similarities both bands sound very different. Plaistow have carved out their own unique niche in the overcrowded world of the piano trio.

Meanwhile Vyamanikal is the successor of Wedding Music, the duo featuring Downes and Challenger that teams the sound of church organ with Challenger’s tenor and soprano saxes. Released earlier in 2016 on the new Suffolk based boutique label Slip the Vyamanikal album featured a series of organ and saxophone duets recorded in a variety of Suffolk churches as part of an Aldeburgh Festival “Open Spaces” commission. There’s a strangely calming and timeless quality about the music on this oddly compelling and often very beautiful album. 

Tonight’s event was introduced by the irrepressible Debra Richards, a long term champion of the jazz scene in Switzerand through her involvement with the Swiss Vibes website http://www.swissvibes.org.
It was Richards who compiled the recent excellent Swiss Jazz compilation CD given away with the November Jazzwise magazine featuring tracks by Plaistow, Vein and many others. More recently she has been involved with publicising the Match & Fuse movement and its spirit of international co-operation, something that’s even more desperately needed in this post referendum era. 

Richards informed us that on the afternoon of the gig she’d taken Plaistow, the band, on a pilgrimage to Plaistow, the place. Richards was actually born in Plaistow but hadn’t returned for many years, the Swiss trio had never previously been to the place after which they were named. One got the impression that the visit represented something of an education all round for everybody concerned.

And so to the music with Plaistow taking to the stage first to perform music mainly sourced from their most recent album “Titan”, a semi-conceptual affair with all fourteen of the relatively short pieces named after the moons of Saturn.

The Geneva based group features pianist Johann Bourquenez, double bassist Vincent Ruiz and drummer Cyril Bondi. Bourquenez has said of their music “lets pretend we are just a jazz trio, but we are actually filled with techno and noise walls, let’s make that music but with acoustic instruments”. It’s a quote that sums up their approach particularly appositely. 

Tonight’s performance obviously lacked the shock factor that accompanied my first sighting of them at the Pizza two years ago. Nevertheless although I now had some idea of what to expect their all too brief set still proved to be totally immersive, in both auditory and visual terms.

The first thing that struck me at the Pizza was the way in which Bourquenez approached the piano as an ‘entire instrument’ making extensive use of prepared piano and other ‘under the lid’ techniques in one of the most comprehensive displays of its type that I have seen. His approach is far more than just a token rummage around the instrument’s innards.

Such had been Bourquenez’s dominance at the Pizza that I’d assumed him to be the group’s leader. However the Plaistow of 2016 seemed to be a far more democratic unit (all the pieces on “Titan” are jointly credited to the whole group) with the dread-locked drummer Bondi an increasingly musically important and visually compelling presence.

As well as their acknowledged electronic and dance music inspirations Plaistow also draw on the influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. The trio are not afraid of repetition and use it as a particularly successful arranging tool with Bourquenez’s rumbling piano arpeggios a key component in the group’s distinctive sound.  Meanwhile Bondi sometimes resembled a human metronome with his implacable drum grooves, shades of a Klaus Dinger or Jaki Liebezeit.

One of the most distinctive facets about Plaistow’s music is that they’re not afraid to slow things down. They largely eschew the frantic rhythms of most electronic dance music and at times decelerate almost to a crawl, the resultant effect is dark, brooding and hypnotic with the smallest of musical gestures speaking volumes.

They are also masters of tempo and dynamics, effectively contrasting busy hip hop rhythms and industrial strength grooves with more impressionistic passages featuring eerie bowed bass, scraped cymbals and sepulchral interior piano rumblings.

Plaistow played uninterrupted for around forty minutes, linking together themes from the “Titan” album, some of which I recognised but don’t intend to try naming here. My review of the album can be read at;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/plaistow-titan/

At the close the audience, who had been totally absorbed throughout, erupted in rapturous applause prompting Debra Richards to call the band back for a deserved encore. Here the band upped the energy levels with a rapid, ferocious groove as Bondi let slip the ghosts of Dinger and Liebezeit to release his inner Billy Cobham. The audience loved it and the band seemed to find it positively therapeutic following the tightly focussed dynamism of the first forty minutes. I’m fairly certain that this final piece was “Kari”, the twelfth track on “Titan” and the album’s most extrovert offering.

Plaistow were followed by Vyamanikal whose set proved to be equally absorbing albeit in a very different way. I think I’m right in believing that tonight’s set represented something of a first for this duo and was the first time that they’d performed with Downes utilising the sound of two Indian classical harmoniums to replicate the organ drones and sonorities that characterise the “Vyamanikal” album. Given that the album title, plus the names of some of the individual tracks, are sourced from Sanskrit mythology this seemed somehow appropriate.

Like Plaistow the duo played without tune announcements, again linking several distinct segments together to create an equally immersive all round experience. Vyamanikal’s music was less dynamic and more fragile than Plaistow’s had been but was no less absorbing. This time there was little that I recognised directly from the album but I suspect that it’s in the nature of Vyamanikal’s music for it to be more fully improvised.

Whether deploying church organ or harmonium Vyamanikal’s music is highly distinctive. Speaking to Downes afterwards he told me that although the combination of church organ and saxophone is still comparatively rare they’d deliberately avoided listening to other exponents of the format such as the albums “Aftenland” by Jan Garbarek and Kjel Johnsen or the less well known “Conway Suite” by Dave Stapleton and Deri Roberts. And my old favourites Hugh Banton and David Jackson of Van Der Graaf Generator who first piqued my interest in the organ/sax pairing many years ago weren’t even in their frame of reference.

With the focus of this half of the event stated to be on “atmosphere” the lights were discretely dimmed as Downes and Challenger commenced their performance with the other-worldly drone of the harmoniums punctuated by the breathy whisper of Challenger’s tenor.

Elsewhere Challenger deployed a more piercing sound, sometimes reminiscent of the famed Nordic saxophonic ‘cry’ pioneered by Garbarek, at other times the music took on the meditative qualities of plainsong or Gregorian chant.

The strangely relaxing qualities of the music meant that this was a sound to immerse oneself in, albeit in a different way to some of the other performances during the Festival period. The ethereal qualities of Downes’ layered harmonium drones promised to transport the listener to deep space or certainly to a parallel universe. The deployment of the two instruments represented a considerable technical challenge to Downes but it was one that he rose to with typical confidence and aplomb. 

It was perhaps the closing sequence that best epitomised Vyamanikal’s approach with Challenger’s tenor whispering plaintively above a cavernous harmonium drone that sounded authentically church like. As the final echoes died away the duo received a similarly exultant reaction to Plaistow from an audience that had evidently been totally transported by this strange, unorthodox and hauntingly beautiful music.

Debra Richards returned briefly to the stage to introduce the “Fuse” element of the evening as the members of Plaistow returned to the stage to perform in conjunction with Vyamanikal. Often at
M & F events the resultant ‘mash up’ is little more than a glorified jam but this collective improvisation proved to be very different, as once again “atmosphere” seemed to be the primary focus.

Things began in appropriately sensitive fashion with the sounds of Bourqenez’s dampened strings and the tentative scraping of Bondi’s snare as Downes added an underpinning harmonium drone. Gradually the newly convened quintet developed a cohesive and compelling group improvisation as Bondi added cymbal shimmers and delicate hand drum patterns, these picked up on by Ruiz who utilised them as the basis for an insistent plucked bass motif, this in turn providing the platform for a powerful Challenger tenor solo. Once the saxophonist had developed his ideas to a peak the piece resolved itself as Bourquenez and Bondi wound things down with some archetypal Plaistow arpeggiated patterns. Despite being entirely improvised the piece had a strong narrative arc and unfolded logically and organically. It almost felt as if it could have been pre-composed but instead was the sound of five outstanding musicians creating beauty in the moment.

My thanks to Debra Richards, Kit Downes and Tom of the Slip record label for speaking with me after the gig. Downes and Challenger have recently issued a new recording for the label, “Black Shuck”, a release available only on cassette and download. The new work features one side by the Vyamanikal duo and one by a septet featuring Downes (on piano) and Challenger plus Emma Smith (violin), Liam Byrne (viol), Lucy Railton (cello), Daniel Bradley (percussion) and Alex Bonney (electronics). This promises to be a fascinating listen and I hope to take a look at this in the near future.

Tonight’s double bill was an enjoyable and fascinating event with both groups acquitting themselves well both individually and collectively. Initially I was more than a little surprised to find the two acts pitted against a similarly attractive double bill in Hall One where the British pianist Andrew McCormack played a solo set opening for the Michael Wollny Trio. I could just as gladly have gone to this and it did seem a little perverse to have two of Europe’s leading piano trios in a ‘fixture clash’ within the same building. However a subsequent perusal of the Kings Place brochure suggested that the Plaistow/Vyamanikal show was a late addition to the programme. I suspect that it was initially intended that this event should have taken place in a church but that no suitable sacred space was available, hence the harmoniums and the move to Kings Place. The decision was certainly justified by an evening of fascinating and enjoyable music. But I’d have loved to have seen Wollny and McCormack too.   

   

 

 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day One, Friday 11th November 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016, Day One, Friday 11th November 2016.

Ian Mann on the first day of the Festival as he visits a new jazz venue and enjoys performances by -isq and the all star Maciej Sikala Quartet.

Photograph of Maciej Sikala Quartet sourced from the Jazz Cafe POSK website http://www.jazzcafeposk.org

EFG London Jazz Festival 2016

Day One, Friday 11th November 2016

It has become something of a tradition to commence my annual Festival coverage with a few ‘thank yous’, so here goes. First of all to our long standing hosts Paul and Richard, without their generous offer of free accommodation I wouldn’t be able to even contemplate covering the Festival at all.
Also, as ever, many, many thanks to the always courteous and efficient Sally Reeves for the provision of press tickets for myself and my wife.

It’s always been my aim to see and report on as much music as possible, covering a wide range of jazz genres and an equally broad range of venues, from tiny clubs to prestigious concert halls. 2016 was no different and over the ten days of the Festival I was able to enjoy the music (and words) of nearly forty acts at locations right across the city, beginning with;


-isq, CENTRAL BAR, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, SOUTHBANK CENTRE

After travelling down to London in the morning and checking in to our accommodation during early afternoon our first musical port of call was the Freestage at the Central Bar in the Royal Festival Hall complex.

Every Friday at 5.30 pm the RFH hosts a free ‘commuter jazz’ performance in the Central Bar area under the series title “The Friday Tonic”. Tonight’s event was brought under the EFG London Jazz Festival umbrella and featured the talents of the quartet -isq fronted by the Anglo-Italian vocalist, songwriter and lyricist Irene Serra.

Formed in 2012 -isq have maintained a stable line up with Serra joined by bassist Richard Sadler, pianist John Crawford and drummer Chris Nickolls. The group’s eponymous début album appeared in 2013 and was followed by “Too” in 2015.

-isq specialise in original songs, mainly written by Serra and Sadler, and their music incorporates elements of jazz, folk and pop. Serra is an assured and confident vocalist, well enunciated and highly technically adept. She is an effective and glamorous focus for the band and her lyrics are both intelligent and highly personalised, largely dealing in relationship matters but pleasingly free from cliché and over sentimentality.

The singer is well supported by a highly cohesive band that plays with a relaxed tightness honed over four years as a semi-regular working unit. Sadler, once of the Neil Cowley Trio, is the backbone of the group, providing a solid foundation but also acting as a highly effective bass soloist with a big, resonant tone allied to an impressive dexterity and a highly developed melodic sensibility.

Sadler shared the instrumental soloing responsibilities with Crawford, a highly versatile pianist with a thorough knowledge of jazz, Latin and world music styles. Meanwhile Nickolls, a similarly versatile musician who also performs with a number of other groups, provided subtly propulsive drumming, helping to form a highly effective unit in conjunction with his instrumental colleagues.

Amidst the hubbub in the foyer space in the RFH it was difficult to pick up on the lyrical content of the songs and even hearing the tune announcements was problematical. Among the songs performed were “Pictures On My Mind” from the group’s début album and a new arrangement of “Purple Rain”, a tribute to Prince that rather ironically came on the day that Leonard Cohen’s death was announced. Despite the distractions today’s show was an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable performance that was well received by a large congregation of listeners.

Today was the first time that I’d seen -isq perform since February 2013 when they played one of the last jazz concerts to be staged at the Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. For a fuller account of the -isq live experience please visit   http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/isq-the-edge-arts-centre-much-wenlock-shropshire-01-02-2013/

Looking forward -isq are due to release their third full length album in 2017 with a number of singles scheduled in the meantime. This is a group with the potential to reach beyond the usual jazz constituency, a quality emphasised by the impressive pop session credentials of the individual members.

My thanks to Irene Serra and John Crawford for speaking with me during the interval. I intend to take a look at John’s latest solo album “Times and Tides” once my Festival coverage is completed.

Expect to hear a lot more from the talented -isq in 2017.


MACIEJ SIKALA QUARTET, JAZZ CAFE POSK

Tonight was my first visit to Jazz Café POSK which is situated in the basement at the Polish Cultural Institute in Hammersmith. Naturally the venue places a strong emphasis on the music of Polish born musicians but not exclusively so, POSK is also a staunch supporter of British jazz.

I’ve been in fairly regular email and Facebook contact with Peter Kaczmarski who co-ordinates the jazz programme at POSK and it was good for both of us to put a face to the name. Peter and his staff were very friendly and welcoming and I immediately felt at home in this spacious and comfortable venue. Peter informed me that the performance area has recently been extended thanks to the acquisition of the basement space of the former bookshop next door and that the Institute itself, which acts as a focus for the Polish community right across London, also has 300 seat theatre plus a restaurant serving mainly Polish food upstairs. It’s an impressive operation.

Meanwhile the jazz venue, which is staffed by volunteers, sits audiences cabaret style and offers a limited but good value menu. However the primary emphasis is not on food - this is not a supper club like Ronnie Scott’s, Pizza Express or even the 606,- but on the music. POSK is a great place to listen to jazz. The bar is situated at the rear of the club up a short but broad flight of steps and the venue even provides cushions for people to sit on the stairs at busy events, a nice touch. I was also impressed by the décor of the club, particularly the set of framed posters from the Museum Jazz Festival and other jazz events in Poland, all of them highly artistic and excellent examples of contemporary graphic design. But the biggest plus of all is the presence of the club’s own grand piano, an instrument put to excellent use tonight by Frank Harrison.

For their first event of the EFG London Jazz Festival POSK had invited the saxophonist Maciej Sikala over from Poland to play with a stellar quartet of London based musicians. The result was a truly international ‘supergroup’ with Sikala joined by British pianist Harrison, Russian bassist Yuri Golubev and Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis. It was heartening to witness such a spirit of international co-operation post Trump and post Brexit, particularly in the light of the vile racist graffiti, now thankfully removed,  that was sprayed onto the doors of the PCI on the day following the EU referendum result.

Sikala is a highly respected figure on the Polish jazz scene, a prolific sideman who has appeared on more than fifty albums as well as recording five as a leader. He has worked with Polish jazz superstar Leszek Modzder and also with leading Americans such as saxophonists Dave Liebman and Billy Harper, pianist David Kikoski and trumpeters Eddie Henderson and Lester Bowie. Sikala has also collaborated with our own late, great Kenny Wheeler. 

Tonight’s programme could perhaps be best described as ‘modern mainstream’ as the quartet played a selection of Sikala’s tunes interspersed with a number of jazz standards. Sikala’s own writing was very much ‘in the tradition’ and rooted in mainstream and bebop virtues. Specialising on tenor sax it was immediately apparent that the leader was possessed of a big, but warm, tone and that he was an assured and highly fluent soloist. Ironically I was more familiar with the playing of the three sidemen than I was with that of Sikala having seen all of them perform many times in a variety of different contexts. Indeed it was interesting to hear the three of them in a far more straight-ahead context than usual.

Sikala immediately set his stall out with a marathon solo on his own composition “Like Joe”, which I took to be a dedication to Joe Henderson, although this wasn’t actually stated. The leader played with great imagination and authority and he was matched by the feverish inventiveness of Harrison and the stunning virtuosity of Golubev as they took their solos. Many of the pieces were played in the orthodox head/solos/head pattern but with playing of this quality the format never became wearing.

It was the first time that this actual quartet had played together despite the fact that Harrison, Golubev and Sirkis had all worked together before in various combinations. Frantic stage whispering presaged the rendition of Sikala’s tune “Platino” but with sight readers and improvisers of this quality the success of the performance was never in question with Sikala and Golubev again impressing as soloists. A bass feature by the brilliant Yuri Golubev is never, ever boring.

The quartet then undertook a searching examination of the Bill Evans tune “Very Early” with solos for tenor, piano and bass developing organically out of Sikala’s opening theme statement.

Sikala’s original “Little Suzanna”, dedicated to his youngest daughter, was a genuine ballad and included some of the composer’s warmest, most tender playing. There were also delightful contributions from Golubev and Harrison that featured both at their most melodic and lyrical.

The first set concluded with another family dedication, the celebratory and uplifting “Thanks Daddy”, Sikala’s homage to his father, also a musician, who first introduced the young Maciej to jazz. The boppish theme led first to a sparkling, Latin tinged solo from Harrison as Sirkis dropped percussive ‘bombs’ around him. Sikala himself then dug in on tenor before Sirkis finally slipped the leash completely with an explosive drum feature that energised the audience and sent everybody into the break feeling very happy.

The second half commenced with the appropriately titled Sikala original “Autumn Gifts” which saw the tenor man demonstrating a mellow strength on both his theme statement and his later solo. Once again there were also absorbing solo contributions from both Golubev and Harrison.

The quartet flirted with modality on a version of Jerry Bergonzi’s composition “Loud Zee”. The Boston MA based Bergonzi is an acclaimed educator and has had a profound influence on many other saxophone players. He’s certainly one of Sikala’s favourites and the Pole served his mentor’s tune well with some fiery and impassioned tenor soloing either side of the contributions by Harrison and Golubev.

An adventurous exploration of the standard “Body And Soul” included solos from Harrison, Sikala and Golubev plus a series of brushed drum breaks from Sirkis. The piece concluded with an absorbing unaccompanied tenor sax cadenza from Sikala.

Golubev’s bass ushered in another standard, “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, during which both Sikala and Harrison featured prominently.

Sikala handled the announcing duties in halting, heavily accented English and his efforts were warmly appreciated by the audience. However I missed the title of the final piece, another original I believe, which saw the saxophonist moving into Coltrane-esque territory as he soloed powerfully with just Sirkis’ drums for company at one juncture. If Sirkis was playing the role of Elvin Jones then it was left to Harrison to play the part of McCoy Tyner with a dazzling, mercurial piano solo. 

The deserved encore was a version of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” with Golubev opening the soloing followed by Sikala and Harrison and with the saxophonist and pianist also trading fours with drummer Sirkis. A great way to end an evening of superior straight ahead jazz.

A number of the pieces played tonight appear on the quartet album that Sikala was selling at the gig, namely “Very Early”, “Thanks Daddy”, “Like Joe” and “Loud Zee”. The album was recorded at a session for Polish radio in 2011 and features an excellent band of Sikala’s fellow countrymen with Michal Wierba on piano, Mikolaj Budniak on double bass and Sebastian Kuchczynski at the drums. I treated myself to a copy and can reveal that it’s a hugely enjoyable album in its own right as well as a great souvenir if my inaugural visit to Jazz Café POSK.

Interestingly the other album that Sikala had with him was a recording of saxophone and church organ duets which featured the saxophonist playing both tenor and soprano and which suggested a more experimental side to his musical persona.

Sikala and his all star quartet were given a great reception by a sizeable audience and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to POSK. However Peter Kaczmarski did tell me that the club sometimes has a problem attracting large enough crowds, a difficulty that I thought only affected provincial jazz clubs; I certainly didn’t expect there to be problem getting the proverbial ‘bums on seats’ in London. However speaking to jazz fans in Central London later in the Festival week it turned out that very few had found their way out to POSK, but it’s hardly as if its location is remote, the venue is a two minute walk (if that) from Ravenscourt Park tube on the District Line. So come on London jazz fans, support the good people at Jazz Café POSK, it’s a great place to listen to music, and eminently affordable with it. I certainly hope to be able to return again around the same time next year.     

       

‘Jazz Alley + Boogie Party’, Sunday @ Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Market Hall, Abergavenny, 04/09/2016.

Friday, September 09, 2016

‘Jazz Alley + Boogie Party’, Sunday @ Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Market Hall, Abergavenny, 04/09/2016.

Ian Mann on the final day of the 2016 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival featuring performances by KoGo Project, The Singing Club, Baraka and the Red Stripe Band.

Photograph of the Red Stripe Band sourced from http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk


JAZZ ALLEY and BOOGIE PARTY - SUNDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, MARKET HALL, ABERGAVENNY, 04/09/2016.

The final day of the 2016 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival took place in Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall, dubbed ‘Jazz Alley’ for the day.

This was a repeat of the successful strand first staged in 2015 which saw the Festival reaching out to the townspeople with a series of free live musical performances augmented by a licensed bar, a variety of food outlets and a number of other retail outlets including a record stall and a musical instrument shop. Billed as a family event Jazz Alley was a big success in 2015 and helped to bring jazz to an audience who might otherwise not get to hear it while simultaneously raising the profile of Black Mountain Jazz and Wall2Wall within the town.

2016 saw a change of format with events at the Market Hall now forming the sole focus of the Festival’s Sunday programme. In 2015 Jazz Alley had run concurrently with a series of ticketed events at BMJ’s former HQ the King’s Arms. However 2016 saw just one final ticketed event when the Market Hall hosted the final Festival event, a well attended ‘Boogie Party’ featuring the music of the Red Stripe Band. More on that later.

KoGo PROJECT, JAZZ ALLEY

The Jazz Alley event kicked off at twelve noon and I suspect that I may have missed a couple of performances before my 2.00 pm arrival. However I was just in time to enjoy the first ‘main act’ of the Jazz Alley programme, a highly enjoyable performance by the jazz/funk/soul quartet KoGo Project.

As the musicians were setting up I had the vague idea that I recognised some of them but couldn’t quite remember where I might have seen them before. Eventually I twigged that the co-leaders were husband and wife team Kate Ockenden (keyboards, vocals) and Geoff Ockenden (six string electric bass – yet another one!), from just up the road from me in Ludlow Shropshire. I’d previously seen these two playing more of a jazz standards set at one of the Saturday lunchtime ‘Jazz Cafés’ at the Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford billed as the Kate Ockenden Band. I seem to recall that on that occasion they’d been joined by guitarist Lee Jones and local drummer John Cutler.

Trading under the KoGo Project name, an appellation derived from their initials, the Ockendens today gave full rein to their love of 70s soul, funk and fusion on what was actually their first ever gig in this incarnation. Joining them were saxophonist Chris ‘Beebe’ Aldridge, a stalwart of the Birmingham jazz scene, on both alto and tenor saxes and Julian Chambers at the drums. Despite this being the band’s live début Kogo Project has been several months in the planning and the quartet have already released their début album “Do It”.

Mixing jazz, funk and soul classics with original songs in the same vein Kogo Project were well received by a sizeable Jazz Alley crowd. I’d already made a note about Aldridge’s ‘Sanborn style alto’ even before the band tackled David’s “Full House”. As the set progressed Aldridge also proved to be equally adept on tenor.

The other comparison that I jotted down was between Geoff Ockenden and Level 42’s Mark King as Geoff launched into a thumb driven, slapped bass feature which saw him sinking to his knees in a display of unashamed showmanship. Geoff formed a funky and propulsive rhythm team with drummer Julian Chambers who laid down some commendably tight and ‘in the pocket’ grooves.

Kate Ockenden delivered soulful vocals and funky Rhodes on original songs such as “Do It” and “Give And Take”, the latter segued with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.  However the love song “In My Heart”, performed solo by Kate and dedicated to husband Geoff seemed a little out of context with the other material which included the blue eyed soul of Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting”.

We also heard Shakatak’s “Invitations”, it turns out that keyboard player Bill Sharp is a personal friend of the Ockendens, plus the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces” which concluded an energetic and highly enjoyable set which saw some people getting to their feet to dance. The band’s Facebook page pronounces them to be well pleased with this inaugural gig and rightly so. The standard of playing was excellent throughout and their infectious mix of jazz, funk and soul drew a highly positive reaction from the Festival audience.

THE SINGING CLUB

The next performers to take to the floor were the massed, white clad, hordes of the Singing Club,  an amalgamation of four community choirs from Monmouthshire and the Forest of Dean conducted from the keyboard by a former opera singer operating under the single name of Karl.

There were so many singers, both male and female, that I couldn’t count them all but they must have numbered in excess of fifty - although I was later informed that some of the Singing Club’s gigs have featured more than a hundred participants. 

Among the members of the choir was jazz vocalist Debs Hancock, an increasingly in demand performer who had played two small group concerts as part of the festival the previous day. Despite carving out an increasingly successful solo career as a jazz singer Hancock credits the choir with helping her to find her voice and remains fiercely loyal to the institution that gave her her start.

With so many performers it’s not surprising that the choir make a big sound and their voices filled the Market Hall with song as they delivered a good humoured show that warmed the hearts of their audience. No previous singing experience or innate musical skill is needed to join the choir, it’s a true community project, but some of the more musically gifted members of the choir also provided instrumental cameos. Among these we heard a harmonica driven “The Green, Green Grass Of Home” , kazoos on “Bring Me Sunshine” and massed percussion, including saucepans (natch) on the opening “Sospan Fach”.

The rest of the programme included the rousing sea shanty “South Australia” the gospel tune “O Happy Day” sung in the Welsh language, and an arrangement of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”. Initially the latter seemed something of an unlikely choice but then I seemed to remember that Procol Harum performed alongside the Swingle Singers on one of the songs from their “Grand Hotel” album.

We also heard a couple of choir staples in Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” and Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong”, which closed the set. 

Karl presented the performance with a diffident charm and it would take a real churl not to respond to the sheer joy and enthusiasm radiated by the massed performers. Hancock and her friends sang with gusto and no little skill and their efforts were warmly appreciated by both the audience and members of the band Baraka who were setting up behind them. All in all a pleasing and unexpectedly enjoyable event.

BARAKA

Based in Bristol Baraka is a mixed race ‘world music’ band that performs in a variety of musical styles stemming from the African diaspora. The band is fronted by Ghanaian percussionist and vocalist Ben Baddoo and the group also features his countryman Chris Cobbson on guitar. The Caribbean is represented by bassist/vocalist Royston Gage from Dominica who is joined in the rhythm section by Trinidadian drummer Tony Bailey. The Irishman Brendan Whitmore acts as the band’s spokesman and adds a jazz and blues element on a range of saxophones plus flute and harmonica. They have recorded two albums to date, “Poor Man” and “Arms Around Me”, from which I assume the majority of their material was sourced.

Baraka describe their music as “a high energy mix of Hi-Life, Township, Soca, Calypso and Reggae” and it’s hard to disagree with their self appraisal. Like the Kogo Project they also managed to tempt a small group of dancers onto the floor, this time via African and Caribbean grooves. Vocal duties were shared between Badoo and Gage, the latter taking over for reggae flavoured songs such as “Roots” and “Arms Around Me”, the latter not a love song as the title might suggest but a sharp piece of social commentary lambasting the global arms trade.

I rather enjoyed Baraka’s colourful, insightful and highly rhythmic music. There seems to be something of a plethora of this type of band in Bristol, Jazz Alley 2015 had featured the similarly inclined Mankala, a nine piece band featuring two vocalists with its membership drawn from all corners of the globe. I also recall enjoying the music of the Bristol Afrobeat Collective at the Sheep Music Festival in Presteigne a few years back. Let’s hope that the Sunday afternoon ‘world music’ slot remains a Wall2Wall fixture in the years to come.

BOOGIE PARTY – THE RED STRIPE BAND

The afternoon crowd dispersed during the hour and a half hiatus between the end of Jazz Alley and the beginning of the ticketed evening Boogie Party. A pleasingly large crowd of around one hundred turned up for the evening show which featured another high energy performance, this time from the London based Red Stripe Band. 

Founded by pianist and vocalist Neil Drinkwater (aka ‘Red Stripe’) back in 1994 this seven piece band has recorded four albums and played hundreds of live shows, including mant prestigious festival dates, often supporting some of the biggest names in the music business.

Drinkwater has a pool of musicians upon which he can draw and the line up tonight included Cardiff based vocalist Helena May who had appeared at the 2014 Wall2Wall Festival guesting with Tony O’ Malley’s band. Red Stripe also boasts a punchy horn section featuring Lee Vivian (trumpet), John O’ Neill (tenor sax) and Erica Clarke (baritone sax). The line up was completed by bassist Costa Tancredi and drummer Ed Williams.

The Red Stripe Band’s repertoire includes boogie woogie, rock ‘n’roll and jump jive staples as well as a number of original songs written in broadly the same styles. After all these years of performing they’ve delivered a slick, energetic show which never fails to get audiences to their feet. Even I was seen to eventually venture out onto the dance floor, shamed into it by Debs Hancock who was having the time of her life dancing with some of her fellow Singing Club members. 

Over the course of two sets many, many songs were played including original tunes “Be My Guest” and “She’s A Mermaid” among others. May and Drinkwater shared the lead vocals around with the former delivering a particularly powerful performance.

Instrumentally the horn section also impressed with Vivian contributing some dramatic high register trumpeting and a heavily pregnant Clarke blasting away on baritone with remarkable stamina. O’Neill blew some gutsy tenor on “Caldonia” and all three seemed to be having a ball as they goofed around while Drinkwater and May were handling the announcements. Tancredi and Williams kept a lower profile but ensured that the grooves were tight and tasty at all times.

Some of the songs played were very well known and worked very effectively in the Red Stripe style, among them Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”, Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me”  Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright” plus the instrumental “Soul Samba”, originally recorded by Booker T & The MGs and made famous by Test Match Special.

In addition to these sure fire favourites the band also had plenty of floor fillers of their own including Shake, Shake, Boom, Boom” and their signature tune “Red Stripe Boogie”, an energetic call and response piece that had the audience singing along.

At one point Drinkwater strapped on a synth-axe and joined the rest of the band as they paraded around the audience, Clarke’s rasping baritone leading the way.

This wasn’t the kind of gig that lent itself to a song by song, solo by solo analysis and I appreciate that I’ve omitted to mention several of the pieces that were played. But I guess you don’t really need me tell you how the Red Stripe Band sounded, you can probably work that out for yourselves from the above. I can’t say that Red Stripe’s brand of party music is something that I’d particularly want to listen to at home but their energetic and polished performance worked just fine in this context.

The general consensus was that this had been a great way to end what had been a very successful Festival with both the band members and their audience thoroughly enjoying this ‘Boogie Party’.

Well done to Festival organiser Mike Skilton and his team for another successful Festival, one which will hopefully return in much the same format in 2017. In the meantime I’d urge the jazz public of South Wales and the Borders to continue supporting Black Mountain Jazz’s regular Sunday night club events at the Melville Centre. Please visit http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk for further information.

COMMENTS:

From Debs Hancock via Facebook;

“This was a really fun final day of the wall2wall festival.
Thank you Ian Mann”.


From Mike Skilton via email;

“Thanks Ian - three great reviews.
Best
Mike”


 

Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 03/09/2016.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Saturday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, The Melville Centre, Abergavenny, 03/09/2016.

Ian Mann enjoys a day of 'Wall2Wall' jazz with nine different performances including five ticketed concert events.

Photograph of Tango Jazz Quartet by Conal Dunn


SATURDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, THE MELVILLE CENTRE, ABERGAVENNY, 03/09/2016.

The ‘main’ day of the Festival saw five ticketed concerts taking place in the Theatre space of the Melville Centre with another four interim performances by either duos or solo artists taking place in the bar. This was a format that worked extremely well as the Festival literally delivered the ‘Wall2Wall’ jazz promised by its title.

The programme was richly varied, diversity has always been one of the key strengths of this Festival, and also included performances by emerging young musicians. Education and outreach has always been an important part of Wall2Wall as was exemplified by the contemporaneous workshops taking place at the nearby St. Michael’s Centre, some of them hosted by Festival artists notably vocalist Lee Gibson and trombonist Dennis Rollins.

TMC GOSPEL CHOIR

Wall2Wall’s youth friendly policies were epitomised by the opening concert performance of the day featuring the TMC Gospel Choir. This youth choir was established in 2005 under the auspices of Gwent Music and is based at Torfaen Music Centre. Originally conducted by Susie Webb, the vocalist known to local jazz audiences as Bluesy Susie, the Choir has recently come under the baton of the young conductor and musical director Alex Davis and today was their first performance under his stewardship. Rehearsal time had been limited but Davis and the Choir still produced a well drilled performance that was good natured, often humorous and, most important of all, tremendous fun. A supportive audience, including many parents, got right behind the Choir and encouraged them to give of their best.

Over the years the Choir has contained youngsters ranging in age from six to nineteen but I don’t think there was anyone quite as young as six today. Consisting of nine girls and five boys the Choir was directed by Davis from the keyboards and the quality of the both the singing and the arrangements were obvious from the very beginning and the Choir’s take on the Toto song “Africa” with its rich and often complex vocal harmonies.

Next came a medley of tunes from the “Hairspray” film / musical beginning with “Welcome To The Sixties” which saw Choir members Harry, Beth and Alex making brief solo cameos. The tongue twisting lyrics of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” then tested the Choir’s technique to its limits – they weren’t found wanting.

“Joyful, Joyful” saw soloist Molly Pugh in the spotlight while Bill Withers’ choir staple “Lean On Me” saw Alex Courtney again stepping forward before the boys in the band took over with a spot of deep voiced accapella.

The TMC Gospel Choir have performed at a number of prestigious, including the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 2014 Music for Youth School Proms. They have also sung at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff where they performed an arrangement of the Tim Minchin song “Revolting Children” which was written for the musical version of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda”. This was reprised here with the Choir having great fun as they tackled Minchin’s witty and amusing lyrics.

An impressively tender rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” varied the mood but the sound of such young voices (including soloists Jamie and Bethan) addressing the adult themed lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, even in an arrangement inspired by the Jeff Buckley version of the song, seemed a little incongruous. 

Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” seemed a much more appropriate choice and Davis encouraged the members of the audience to clap along with the choir – they needed little second bidding.

Alex Courtney provided the hand-claps and ‘cuppertronics’ for the splendid accapella version of “When I’m Gone” the “Cups” song from the film “Pitch Perfect”.

The Choir were clearly loving it by now, the nerves banished as the members began to revel in a bit of showmanship. This was exemplified by the five lads in the group plus conductor Alex Davis as they breezed their way through an unmiked accapella segue of the Billy Joel songs “The Longest Time” and “Uptown Girl” with all the dance moves down pat.

The choir staple “Higher And Higher” featured soloists Bethan, Chris and Daniel, Chris also having been the most eye catching performer in the Billy Joel sequence as he strutted his stuff.

To close the show all of the choir members were involved in a carefully choreographed version of “Brand New You” from the musical “13”, the hand movements complementing the joyful singing. This went down a storm with the crowd and Davis got the choir to sing it once more, albeit with a slight twist to the arrangement, as part of a deserved encore.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this performance. It wasn’t strictly jazz, it wasn’t strictly gospel but it was great fun with the youthful exuberance of both the singers and their conductor, who didn’t look much older than some of the Choir members, shining through. I’d guess that Davis was probably part of the Choir himself before taking over as leader.

Obviously the parents and other family members in the audience loved it but there was also much for the more detached listener to enjoy as the young singers tackled the technical challenges of the arrangements with considerable aplomb, while still finding time to charm and entertain their audience along the way. Yes, there were the occasional mistakes and the feeling that it might all fall apart at any moment was omnipresent throughout, yet somehow this all added to the excitement and enjoyment.

However the abiding impression was that this was a fine first performance under the baton of the new conductor with Davis singling out new member Megan for special praise on what was her very first performance with the Choir. However it’s invidious to single out individual members too much, this was a great collective performance by a group of young people who were genuinely “all in it together”.

MORLEY & SITHERS JAZZ DUO

The first session in the bar saw the return of young Coren Sithers who had played piano the previous evening as part of a duo led by tenor saxophonist Olly Jenkins.

Today Sithers was playing alto sax alongside pianist Tom Morley who had previously appeared at Wall2Wall in 2014 and 2015 playing keyboards with the five piece RedRug Jazz Band. Meanwhile the seventeen year old Sithers is one of the principal soloists in the Greater Gwent Youth Jazz Orchestra.

An attentive and appreciative audience in the bar enjoyed hearing these two talented young musicians deliver a set of ‘real book’ jazz and bebop standards comprised mainly of familiar tunes.

GARETH HALL & MARTHA SKILTON with guest DEBS HANCOCK

Over in the theatre the next ticketed event featured three prominent local musicians. Cardiff based pianist Gareth Hall is a stalwart of the South Wales jazz scene, a prolific sideman who has performed with a wide variety of instrumentalists and vocalists and appeared several times at Black Mountain Jazz events.

Saxophonist Martha Skilton is the daughter of BMJ and Wall2Wall promoter Mike Skilton. A graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff she has also been a BMJ and Wall2Wall regular and sometimes ventures outside the boundaries of jazz to perform other genres of music.

Billed as Gareth & Martha it was the intention of the pair to play a set of tunes “Reflecting the 40s” as they investigated the music of the war years and beyond. However their plans were nearly scuppered when their guest vocalist Naomi Rae, Skilton’s colleague in the Colibri Soul Band, declared herself unavailable due to a cruise ship booking. Into the breach stepped singer Debs Hancock, already a vital presence at Wall2Wall thanks to her organisational and stewarding skills but now stepping up to the plate as a performer. Hall regularly plays piano in Hancock’s Jazz Dragons group and this ongoing musical relationship was hugely beneficial as the programme that Hall and Skilton had prepared entailed Hancock learning at least six songs that she had never performed previously. As it was the singer rose magnificently to the challenge as the trio delivered an excellent set that came across as extremely well drilled and professional despite the lack of rehearsal time.

Of course the familiarity of the material probably helped as the duo of Hall and Skilton kicked off with instrumental versions of “Take The A Train” and “Lover Man” with Skilton featuring on soprano on the first and alto on the latter.

Hancock joined the pair to add her sassy vocals plus a chorus of whistling to a jovial arrangement of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehaving”, sharing the solos with Hall’s keyboard and Skilton’s soprano.

The saxophonist stayed with the straight horn as the trio breezed through a lively“Fly Me To The Moon” before altering the mood with a slow blues arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” featuring the breathy sound of Skilton’s tenor sax.

An instrumental version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” saw Skilton playing both soprano and tenor either side of Hall’s piano solo.

Hall shared the announcing duties with Hancock and in introducing Leeds based classical composer Bill Kinghorn’s arrangement of the jazz standard “Everything Happens To Me” he suggested that some classic jazz solos were perhaps not quite as spontaneous as listeners have been led to believe - as he demonstrated with this piece for solo piano.

Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” saw the pianist joined by Skilton on soprano with the saxophonist then moving to tenor for a Chet Baker inspired arrangement of “Time After Time”.

Skilton sat out as Hancock joined Hall on a version of “Come Rain Or Come Shine”, a song that the duo had performed on Jamie Owen’s show on Radio Wales to publicise the Wall2Wall Festival. 

Skilton returned to wail gracefully on tenor on a trio version of Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and the set concluded with an effervescent “Blue Skies” sung by a confident, finger snapping Hancock as Skilton again soloed on tenor alongside Hall’s keyboard.

The trio were well received by a supportive local crowd and returned for a deserved encore of “Sunny Side Of The Street”, an ironic choice given the appalling weather in South Wales this afternoon, the rain so heavy that Newport County’s football match just down the road had to be abandoned due to a waterlogged pitch! However the sun was shining indoors at the Melville Centre thanks to the combination of Hall’s piano, Skilton’s clarinet like soprano and Hancock’s playful improvised lyrics.

This was a vivacious performance from the three protagonists that included some fine singing and playing. I’d feared that a whole set of familiar standards might prove to be a bit too predictable but the quality of the arrangements and the brightness of the performances soon banished these concerns. Hall proved to be an excellent accompanist and a highly capable soloist and it was a delight to watch Martha Skilton perform again at a Black Mountain Jazz event. I was pleased to see her feature three different horns which added spice and variety to the arrangements. I think it was the first time that I’d seen her play alto, “I usually just use it as my teaching horn” she later explained, and it was good to be reminded of just how accomplished a saxophonist she is. Meanwhile Debs Hancock did a fine job of slotting into the breach at relatively short notice, her increasing vocal prowess and ‘can do’ spirit very much carrying the day.

LOST LUGGAGE

The next performance in the bar was billed as being by ‘Stainless Steve’. I was expecting another Seasick Steve imitator, Wall2Wall hosted Sicknote Steve last year, but instead we got a highly enjoyable duo featuring ‘Stainless’ Steve Garrett on mandola, mandocello and vocals and Christine Heath on soprano saxophone.

Trading under the band name Lost Luggage the pair performed an engaging series of instrumentals and original songs in a kind of folk/jazz/roots crossover. The original songs tended to have geographically inspired title such as “Paris” or “Moscow Dawn” and one sensed that Garrett’s music has allowed him to travel far and wide.

Garrett normally plays guitar and also has the blues as part of his repertoire and one sensed that today’s performance was specifically tailored for this festival with Heath’s soprano adding an authentic jazz presence to the proceedings.

The standard of musicianship from both players was consistently high throughout and Garrett also impressed with his confident but undemonstrative vocals. All in all a very pleasant surprise from two performers who should be well worth keeping a future eye on , irrespective of the musical context.

CHRISTIAN GARRICK and DAVID GORDON

Christian Garrick is arguably the UK’s foremost jazz violinist, a highly versatile musician capable of playing in a variety of jazz styles, both acoustic and electric. Garrick covers territory ranging from the Hot Club stylings of Stephane Grappelli to the wigged out fusioneering of Jean Luc Ponty – and all points in between, with influences ranging from jazz, folk, pop and classical music.

David Gordon, who plays keyboards with Garrick’s electro-acoustic quartet is a similarly broad minded musician. He also leads his own piano trio, a group that reflects his thorough knowledge of jazz and world music styles, plays accordion with the tango group Zum, and is an acclaimed classical harpsichordist.

The duo’s musical relationship has been forged over a decade or more of performing together although they have yet to record in the two piece format. Garrick has however released duo albums with the guitarist John Etheridge and today’s performance with Gordon captured something of the wide ranging eclecticism of those records. Garrick has always had an ear for a good tune, regardless of its origins or genre, and the music of both the Etheridge and Gordon duos reflects this with both units drawing on a rich well of tradition spanning the various musical boundaries. Perhaps Garrick’s ‘Biffy Clyro’ T shirt should have given us some idea of the duo’s eclectic range of influences.

The pair’s love of classical music was expressed by their performance of Sir William Walton’s “Touch Her Soft Lips And Part” which opened the proceedings., but with the duo tackling it in an emphatically jazz like manner with plenty of room being allowed for collaborative improvisation.

A lively “Afternoon in Paris”, written by pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) took the music into more overtly jazz territory with the duo trading solos with good humour and great virtuosity. With his almost prehensile fingers Gordon rose admirably to the technical challenges thrown down by Garrick.

Even more complex and demanding was “Coffee Time”, written by the late, great pianist John Taylor for the group Azimuth. With trumpeter Kenny Wheeler also gone it’s difficult for jazz fans to reconcile themselves to the fact that vocalist Norma Winstone is the only surviving member of that influential trio. I’ve always loved this tune and I relished the way in which the pair tackled its percolating rhythms and complex but accessible and invigorating melody lines.  Garrick made frequent use of pizzicato techniques throughout the concert but here he played the instrument almost like a guitar, or perhaps more accurately a ukulele as Gordon soled on his Technics P30 keyboard.

The duo continued to range far and wide as Gordon’s arrangement of a piece by C.P.E Bach (son of J.S.) that primarily featured his own keyboards was followed by the Stevie Wonder song “Isn’t She Lovely”. Here Garrick’s violin pyrotechnics were underscored by Gordon’s funky, clavinet like keyboard bass lines – I told you this guy was versatile! 

It was back to more orthodox jazz territory as the duo paid homage to Bud Powell by playing the ill fated pianist’s “Celia” with Garrick improvising with an almost horn like sensibility on violin. This was followed by the Powell inspired original “Last Twelve” which featured the distinctive sound of Garrick’s five string violin alongside Gordon’s piano.

Gordon’s original piece “English Isobars” saw him sketching folk like melodies on the piano as Garrick’s pizzicato strings mimicked the sound of the rain that had been falling on Abergavenny practically all day. When the violinist finally picked up his bow he and Gordon combined to crown the tune with a soaring, anthemic magnificence.

A solo violin introduction paved the way for a very open version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” before the pair tackled the complexities of Chick Corea’s “Spain” with virtuosic gusto as Garrick deployed both pizzicato and arco techniques.

The performance concluded with the duo playing a composition written by Abdullah Ibrahim dating from the time that the pianist was known as ‘Dollar Brand’. I believe it was the song “M’Sanduza”, the township tune often played by John Etheridge as a solo guitar piece. Here Garrick’s pizzicato plucking helped to give the music an authentically African flavour as he mimicked the sounds of a kalimba or mbira.

This had been a hugely enjoyable and entertaining performance that combined superb musicianship with a stimulating and varied programme of music, cherry picked from a wide variety of sources. There was a obviously a great sense of rapport between two players who were prepared to take musical risks and enjoy some real musical fun. Garrick’s humorous presenting style also helped to make this essentially acoustic show a genuine ‘event’. 

BEN CREIGHTON GRIFFITHS

In the bar area Festival goers were entertained by the young local musician Ben Creighton Griffiths who is one of the few musicians to play jazz on the Welsh harp. He also had a keyboard with him and was, at one point, seen to be playing both instruments at once, a feat that impressed both Garrick and Gordon who came in to check him out.

I didn’t see a lot of this set as I had to brave the rain and venture into the town centre in search of something to eat (i.e. the local chippy). However there was method in my madness as Creighton Griffiths will be returning to the Melville Centre on November 27th 2016 when he shares the bill with bassist Aidan Thorne’s group Duski at a Black Mountain Jazz club night - so I’ll get the chance to cover his performance more fully then. In the meantime everybody at Wall2Wall seemed to be impressed with his virtuosity so this bodes well for November.

DENNIS ROLLINS’ VELOCITY TRIO

Trombonist, composer and educator Dennis Rollins first formed his Velocity Trio in 2009 and has gradually developed the group into the highly distinctive and effective unit that it is today. The combination of trombone, Hammond organ and drums is pretty much unique and the line up has stabilised at Rollins, organist Ross Stanley and drummer/percussionist Pedro Segundo, this being the personnel on the trio’s two albums to date, “The Eleventh Gate” from 2011 and 2014’s “Symbiosis”.

Rollins and Velocity played a fondly remembered show at BMJ’s former HQ the Swan Hotel back in 2013. More recently they played at the 2016 Brecon Jazz Weekend with drummer Tim Carter standing in for Segundo. Today it was Stanley who was unavailable and his place was brilliantly and flawlessly filled by Liam Dunachie whose advanced sight reading skills allowed him to tackle Rollins’ often complex music without a single glitch. Some commentators remarked that his performance was probably the most remarkable one of the entire Festival.

Essentially Velocity’s set was the same one that they had delivered in Brecon as they kicked off with the rousing “Utopia” which saw Dunachie immediately impressing as he shared the soloing with Rollins. Meanwhile Segundo, a hugely talented and flamboyant drummer/percussionist also began to impose his own unique stamp on the proceedings.

“Emergence” was inspired by the classic Larry Young album “Unity”, released on Blue Note Records in 1965.  Dunachie continued to make the Hammond chair his own as he channelled the spirit of Young in his fiery exchanges with Rollins. Meanwhile the effervescent Segundo, ever the showman, brought auxiliary elements, such as the legs of an adjacent table, into his sparky drum feature.

During the lifetime of the Velocity Trio Rollins has made increasingly sophisticated use of electronic effects, convincingly adding these elements to his trombone playing. There was evidence of this on his unaccompanied intro to the Bob Marley inspired “Ujamma” with its effective mix of jazz and reggae. Indeed Rollins, a great educator had previously conducted a festival workshop entitled “The Marriage Between Acoustic and Electronic Instruments”.

Perhaps an even better example of Rollins’ use of electronic components was to be heard on the atmospheric “The Other Side” which saw the trombonist live sampling elements of Segundo’s solo drum introduction to create a multi layered rhythmic backdrop , a combination of electronic and acoustic grooves that buoyed Dunachie’s gothic, church like Hammond and Rollins’ anthemic trombone as the piece unfolded mesmerically and with no little grandeur. Inspired by the notion of a plane between life and the afterlife -purgatory, if you will - “The Other Side” is one of Rollins’ most atmospheric and effective compositions, a corner stone of any Velocity Trio set.

Next came the hard hitting “Symbiosis” with its walloping grooves and a further feature from Segundo, the one man rhythm machine with his dizzying array of percussive devices including thunder sheets and rain sticks and a variety of shakers.

Segundo may be something of a showman but so is his leader, as Rollins demonstrated on the now familiar stop-start arrangement of Pink Floyd’s “Money” with Dunachie’s left hand bass lines helping to fuel Rollins’ trombone solo before the dep took over to explore the full scope of his two manual keyboard.

Having got a large and appreciative audience in the palm of his hand Rollins had the crowd clapping along to his arrangement of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance”. Another Velocity ‘set piece’ this saw the trio shooting off on improvised tangents but always returning to the same core beat, the cue for those of us in the cheap seats to start putting our hands together again.

The deserved encore was Rollins’ arrangement of the Amanda McBroom song “The Rose”,  variously a hit for Bette Midler, Elaine Paige and Westlife. With Segundo hanging back on brushes Rollins’ version was gospel tinged and anthemic, the perfect way to close a typically polished show that boasted an exceptional sound thanks to Rollins’ travelling sound engineer.

But of course the music and the playing was terrific too with Dunachie doing a superb job as a dep alongside the extrovert presences of Rollins and Segundo. I’ve seen Rollins deliver the same basic set on a number of occasions but the combination of his irrepressible enthusiasm plus the sheer quality of the music has ensured that I’ve never begun to tire of it. I may have heard it all before but this was still an undeniable Festival highlight.

DEBS HANCOCK and GUY SHOTTON

In the bar the similarly irrepressible Debs Hancock performed her second set of the day, this time accompanied by pianist Guy Shotton, a replacement for the advertised Julian Martin. 

Based in Cardiff Shotton is a fairly new presence on the South Wales music scene having graduated from Cardiff University in 2013.  He is a skilled accompanist and although it was the first time that Hancock had worked with him she was very impressed, as were the audience members who enjoyed this well executed selection songs from the Great American Songbook, including a return visit by Hancock to “Come Rain Or Come Shine”.  It seems likely that the pair may work together again and with Shotton having made many new friends tonight it’s equally possible that he’ll soon be making a return visit to Abergavenny as part of the BMJ club programme.

TANGO JAZZ QUARTET

The final act of the day were Tango Jazz Quartet, a group of musicians from Argentina currently in the midst of an exhaustive European tour, their sixth, that will take them to ten countries.

Formed in 2008 and led by tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Gustavo Firmenich and featuring pianist Horacio Acosta, bassist Federico Hilal and drummer Alejandro Beelmann the group have recorded four albums to date and have been critically acclaimed both in their native Argentina and internationally for their interesting and innovative blend of tango rhythms and structures and jazz improvisation. 

Getting the band to Abergavenny represented something of a triumph for Wall2Wall promoter and ultimately the quartet didn’t disappoint as they delivered a performance that intrigued and excited in equal measure.

Firmenich’s English wasn’t the best and my Spanish is non existent so I’m not going to try and give a tune by tune account of the set which started with a characteristic merging of jazz and tango elements. TJQ have also established something of a presence in the USA and I felt that there was a definite hint of a New York attitude about the opener as Firmenich’s muscular tenor sax shared the solos with Hilal’s six string electric bass and Acosta’s electric piano. You don’t see a six string bass for months then two come along at once, Dudley Phillips had played one with Huw Warren’s Trio Brasil the night before, maybe it’s an instrument that’s particularly suited to South American music.

I have to admit that it took me some time to acclimatise to the tango patterns and rhythms plus the robust, buzzy, sound of Firmenich’s tenor but once I did I soon found myself becoming more and more absorbed by this initially unfamiliar music. 

TJQ don’t feature original tunes but source their repertoire from the tango tradition with that giant of the music, Astor Piazzolla ranking prominently among the featured composers. Others upon whom the group drew were the Piana/Castillo writing team who provided “Tinta Roja”, a piece on which TJQ offered their jazz variations on traditional tango.

The similarly named Leguizamon and Castilla contributed “Balderrama”, a tune that featured Fiemenich deploying a softer tenor sax sound as he shared the solos with Acosta’s piano and Hilal’s lovely, liquid electric bass. 

Periodically Firmenich would set down his tenor and take up the clarinet as the group performed a series of traditional ‘milongas’,  these mainly being short performances without the jazz extrapolations of the longer saxophone led tunes. They provided excellent punctuation and served as brief, tasty ‘palette cleansers’ between the heavier, meatier fare of the jazz/tango crossover pieces.

On seeing my press pass the band were keen to provide me with a copy of their live recording “Tango Jazz Quartet On Tour” PLUS one of their European Tour T shirts, the gift of the latter definitely generosity ‘above and beyond’ – so thank you guys.

The album represents an absorbing listen, as well as being a great souvenir of tonight’s concert it also represents a successful artistic statement in its own right. Plus it gave me some valuable information that I’ve been able to weave into tonight’s review. Most of the pieces on the album I’m fairly sure got played tonight including the lengthy and richly varied exploration of Piazzolla’s “Invierno Porteno”.

There was a good deal of variety within the tango template with some of the gentler, more lyrical pieces representing the equivalents of jazz ballads. But there was plenty of energy too, with the soloing becoming more unfettered as the evening progressed, particularly from pianist Acosta who began to play with increased fluency and improvisational abandon as the set gathered momentum and the audience got more and more behind the band. Meanwhile Hilal’s fluid solos on six string bass seemed to meld together guitar and bass techniques in a style broadly similar to that of the UK’s own Kevin Glasgow.

The evening concluded with a performance of “Libertango”, one of Piazzolla’s most famous compositions and a piece covered by a number of European and American jazz musicians, among them US vibraphonist Gary Burton. Called back by an appreciative audience for a deserved encore TJQ sent us on our way with a final clarinet led milonga.

This wasn’t easy music to describe for a European listener unfamiliar with the nuances of tango but the TJQ sound was one that I found myself more and more drawn into and the audience reaction at the end suggested that many other listeners had undergone the same journey. The “On Tour” album also convinces in the home listening environment and TJQ are certainly a group whose music I’d like to explore further and would certainly go to see again should the opportunity arise.

OVERVIEW

This ‘main day’ of the Festival was an excellent musical experience with all of the concert performers ‘delivering the goods’ in their various different ways in a rich, varied, absorbing, educational and entertaining programme.

The artists in the bar also impressed with audiences showing admirable levels of concentration and restraint in this more informal environment.

Focussing all the events in a single location worked extremely well, particularly on a filthy day weather wise, and I can only agree with Mike Skilton’s assessment that the 2016 event has been the most successful Wall2Wall Jazz Festival to date.

 

Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 1st and 2nd September 2016.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Thursday and Friday at Wall2Wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 1st and 2nd September 2016.

Ian Mann on the first two days of the festival and performances by Lee Gibson and the Dave Cottle Trio, Kevin Fitzsimmons Quartet, Olly Jenkins Duo and Huw Warren's Trio Brasil plus Iain Ballamy.

Photograph of Trio Brasil with Iain Ballamy by Conal Dunn

THURSDAY AND FRIDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL ABERGAVENNY, 1st and 2nd SEPTEMBER 2016.

For the fourth annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival promoter and chief organiser Mike Skilton of Black Mountain Jazz retained the same essential format that had made the 2015 event such a success.

The weekend commenced with the Festival Dinner, this time held in the ballroom of the splendidly refurbished Angel Hotel before the Festival moved on for a series of concerts and fringe events at the Melville Centre on The Friday night and all day Saturday.

Sunday saw the return of the popular ‘Jazz Alley’, a free family event held within the confines of Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall. With food stalls, a licensed bar and a series of free live performances this well attended event has been successful in raising the profile of Black Mountain Jazz within the town. In a slight departure from last year’s model the Market Hall was then used to host a successful ticketed evening event, the ‘Boogie Party’, with music coming from the spirited and entertaining Red Stripe Band.

THURSDAY 01/09/2014, FESTIVAL DINNER, ANGEL HOTEL
LEE GIBSON with the DAVE COTTLE TRIO

The opening event on Thursday evening saw a sell out crowd of 108 people, including the mayor and mayoress of the town, attend the Festival Dinner in the ballroom at the Angel Hotel. Fans enjoyed a two course meal in beautiful surroundings and enjoyed two sets of music from the classy vocalist Lee Gibson, one of the UK’s most accomplished and in demand jazz singers. She was accompanied by Swansea based pianist Dave Cottle and his trio consisting of Alun Vaughan on electric bass and Paul Smith at the drums.

As I was attending this event as a paying customer I don’t intend to give my usual song by song account but essentially it was a set of performances drawn from what has come to be known as the ‘Great American Songbook’ with Gibson displaying the full range of her considerable vocal talents. There were some excellent instrumental moments too, particularly from the impressive Cottle, best known as a pianist but also a talented trumpeter. I also enjoyed the contributions of electric bass specialist Vaughan, a musician whose playing I have always admired.

I’d previously seen Gibson perform at the 2015 Swansea Jazz Festival, an event organised by Dave Cottle, when she fronted the Capital City Jazz Orchestra. That performance demonstrated the astonishing power of her voice so today it was interesting to see her singing in a more intimate context. Yes, there were moments where she really let rip, but there was nuance and subtlety too. Like I said, a class act, and with accompanists to match. The performance was greatly appreciated by the sell out crowd, not all of them necessarily committed jazz fans at what was also something of a ‘civic event’. 

The personable Gibson was to remain in Abergavenny over the course of the weekend checking out the other acts and also conducting a vocal workshop on the Saturday at the St. Michael’s Centre in the town.

Meanwhile the Cottle Trio will return to Abergavenny on September 25th 2016 when they accompany the South African born vocalist Amy Walton at the next BMJ club event at the Melville Centre.

FRIDAY, 02/09/2016, THE MELVILLE CENTRE

KEVIN FITZSIMMONS QUARTET

The first ticketed event at the Melville Centre was a performance by the Essex based vocalist Kevin Fitzsimmons. Billed as “The ‘In’ Crowd; Jazz in the Swinging 60s” this was a selection of arrangements of jazz tunes and other music from the 1960s, including a number of songs from movie soundtracks of the time.

With his cheerful Essex boy wit Fitzsimmons proved to be an engaging stage presence and he was supported by a very classy trio including Leon Greening on piano and Matt Fishwick at the drums with ‘supersub’ Alec Dankworth deputising on double bass for the advertised Adam King. It’s always a delight to see Dankworth play so nobody was complaining too much.

I’ll admit up front that Fitzsimmons’ style of singing isn’t really my favourite genre of jazz but the class of musical company that he keeps speaks volumes for his vocal talents. Greening was very much the singer’s right hand man and I assume that he had a hand in the arrangements and was also acting as musical director. His piano solos on a Roland electric keyboard were consistently engaging and prompted one impressed audience member to comment “he must have lightning in his fingers!”. Meanwhile Fishwick kept the grooves tight and tasty and Dankworth stepped into the breach with his usual aplomb, combining his customary immaculate time keeping with some melodic and highly dexterous soloing.

Introduced by fellow vocalist Debs Hancock the quartet kicked off with a version of “All That Jazz” in an arrangement inspired by Mel Torme. A microphone problem which was mercifully quickly sorted out, hindered Fitzsimmons’ performance but Greening stepped in to save the day with the first of many sparkling piano solos.

“Autumn In New York” was another Torme inspired piece, this one the title track of the ‘Velvet Fog’s’ 1963 album for Atlantic Records. Here Fitzsimmons demonstrated his ability for jazz phrasing alongside a typically assured contribution from Greening on piano.

Fitzsimmons’ elastic phrasing characterised a playful version of the Burt Bacharach / Hal David classic “This Guy’s In Love With You” in an arrangement inspired by Herb Alpert as he interpreted the lyric alongside Fishwick’s brushed drum grooves and Greening’s customary solo.

The singer handed over to Greening and the trio for “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a huge instrumental hit for pianist Ramsey Lewis in the 1960s. Here we heard Dankworth as a soloist for the first time, the ‘dep’ immediately impressing as he shared the limelight with Greening, the whole thing energetically driven by Fishwick’s crisp, swinging drumming. 

60s movie soundtracks proved to be a rich source of inspiration for the quartet with Fitzsimmons returning to sing a ballad interpretation of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” from the film “My Fair Lady”. He also injected an unexpected dash of humour into the proceedings with some improvised lyrics while the instrumental plaudits went to lyrical and melodic solos from both Greening and Dankworth, both of them accompanied by Fishwick’s subtle brush work.

There were more improvised lyrics plus a passage of scat vocalising on a Latin-esque arrangement of “ On Days Like These”, written by Quincy Jones and lyricist Don Black and sourced from the soundtrack of “The Italian Job”.

The Brazilian music boom in the 60s was explored with a blend of jazz and samba on “Desafinado” with Fitzsimmons singing the English lyric and Greening taking the instrumental honours. The trio then took over for “Groovy Samba”, originally written for a New York based collaboration between Antonio Carlos Jobim and saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’  Adderley for the 1962 album “Cannonball’s Bossa Nova”. Here Greening’s feverishly percussive piano solo was followed by an extended drum feature from the impressive Fishwick.

It was Adderley’s version of the Rodgers & Hart song that also provided the inspiration for the quartet’s arrangement of “Little Girl Blue” with Greening’s piano approximating the sound of the raindrops mentioned in the lyrics and embellishing Fitzsimmons’ tender interpretation of the words.
Dankworth’s melodic bass solo was also a highlight with Fishwick providing subtly brushed
accompaniment.

A bossa arrangement of Michel Le Grand’s “Watch What Happens” continued the vaguely Brazilian theme with Fitzsimmons relishing the slightly risqué lyric as Greening tossed in a quote from the inevitable and ubiquitous “Girl From Ipanema” into his piano solo.

The influence of Tamla Motown was acknowledged with an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Working Day & Night” from the “Off The Wall” album. Although not strictly a 60s tune it remained true to the spirit of the project and was given a jazz/blues treatment that worked well with Fitzsimmon’s vocals augmented by a vivacious Greening piano solo.

The influence of The Beatles on the quartet’s chosen decade was too big to ignore and this found expression in the closing number, a jazz arrangement of “Norwegian Wood” which found Fitzsimmons enjoying himself as he stretched the phrasing of the lyrics out of shape and scatted joyously alongside Greening’s final piano solo.

While this wasn’t entirely my personal cup of tea there was certainly much to here enjoy with Fitzsimmons smooth, but often adventurous, vocalising plus his Essex ‘cheeky chappie’ persona endearing him to some of the ladies in the audience. He and the quartet were generally well received even though the early 6.15 pm start meant that this was the lowest concert attendance of the Festival.

My personal highlights were mainly instrumental, there were several enthralling Greening piano solos to relish and it’s always a pleasure to watch Alec Dankworth perform, whatever the context may be.

OLLY JENKINS DUO

Punctuating the main concert events in the Melville Centre’s theatre space were a number of performances in the bar area, thereby ensuring the “wall to wall jazz” promised by the festival’s title. The first of these featured the young tenor saxophonist Olly Jenkins who performed a number of ‘real book’ standards alongside the equally youthful pianist Coren Sithers.

Originally from Chepstow Jenkins is about to embark on a four year Bachelor of Music course at the Royal Welsh Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. Already an accomplished soloist he and Sithers performed an enjoyable set that included such staples as “Misty”, “The Girl From Ipanema” “Autumn Leaves”, “All The Things You Are” and Miles Davis’ “So What”. The playing of the young duo was warmly appreciated by a supportive and listening audience.


HUW WARREN’S TRIO BRASIL plus IAIN BALLAMY

The Welsh born pianist and composer Huw Warren is one of the UK’s most respected musicians. He has worked across a variety of musical genres including jazz, folk and classical. In addition to releasing a diverse range of solo recordings he has also been a member of the fondly remembered group Perfect Houseplants and currently works alongside saxophonist Iain Ballamy and vocalist June Tabor in the folk/jazz hybrid trio Quercus.

In 2009 Warren released the album “Hermeto +” which he described as “a celebration, tribute and musical thank you” to the great Brazilian musician and composer Hermeto Pascoal. The album featured Warren alongside the Austrian bassist Peter Herbert and the phenomenally in demand drummer Martin France on a mixture of Pascoal tunes and Heremeto inspired Warren originals.

More than just a tribute recording it was a successful work of art in its own right and the project proved to be the inspiration for Warren’s ongoing Trio Brasil featuring former Perfect Houseplant Dudley Phillips on six string electric bass and Warren’s son Zoot at the drum kit. Tonight they were joined by Iain Ballamy on tenor saxophone for a thrilling exploration of the music of Heremeto Pascoal and other Brazilian composers.

Although obviously Brazilian in origin Pascoal’s music is very different to the bossa and samba popularised by Jobim and others. Famously eccentric Pascoal has developed an individual sound world that has proved to be incredibly influential to other musicians, among them British bands such as Perfect Houseplants and Loose Tubes, the idiosyncratic large ensemble in which Ballamy first made his name.

That influence could be heard on the opening piece, the title roughly translating as “The Lighthouse”, a composition that Warren described as being “one of Pascoal’s most beautiful melodies”. Introduced by Warren at the keyboard the piece featured Phillips playing the melody on electric bass with Ballamy eventually joining the trio on saxophone. All the elements of Pascoal’s music were here, the beautiful melodies, extreme dynamic contrasts and avant garde flourishes such as competing counter melodies. As well as some stunning unison ensemble passages the solos here came from Ballamy on tenor and Huw at the piano, these fuelled by Phillips’ springy electric bass grooves and Zoot’s crisp, economical drumming. Lee Gibson, who had introduced the band, told us of how she’d spotted young Zoot’s abilities at an early age telling Huw “your boy’s got great time, buy him a drum kit!”. 

I don’t speak Portuguese, even Huw had trouble with it at times, so I didn’t get all of Hermeto’s tune titles but at the end of the day it was the quality of the music and the playing that counted – and both were exceptional. The next piece featured some wonderfully vivacious melodic exchanges between Huw, Ballamy and Phillips as Zoot sparked the playing of his older bandmates with some colourful grooves from behind the kit.

The Afro-Brazilian grooves of the highly rhythmic “Maracatu”, played by the core trio, inspired some more great soloing with Huw and Phillips going first followed by a colourful drum feature from Zoot accompanied by dad Huw’s vigorous comping on piano.

Ballamy returned to duet with Huw on a piece that the pianist described as illustrating the “lush and romantic” side of Pascoal’s writing, the saxophonist soloing with an easy fluency as Huw accompanied him with delightful, bird like keyboard trills.

Huw introduced the next piece with a virtuosic and highly rhythmic piece of solo piano before entering into a series of melodic exchanges with Phillips’ bass. Ballamy’s tenor then picked up the melody and incorporated it into his solo before handing the baton over the trio for Huw’s second excursion.

Next up was a vibrant and colourful tune by the percussionist Joao Bosco played by the trio, although Ballamy couldn’t restrain himself and was clapping along happily by the side of the stage as Phillips and Huw stretched out on bass and piano respectively. I’ve seen Phillips perform on both acoustic and electric bass on a number of occasions, including with Perfect Houseplants, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him solo so frequently and expansively as he did in this set. It was hugely impressive and a delight to see and hear.

The title of “Ginga Carioca” refers to the easy way in which the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro move, the reference to the Olympic City giving Ballamy the opportunity to give a name check to Abergavenny’s Olympic cycling silver medallist Becky James. He also cited the tune’s “bizarre time signatures” while adding that it had a “certain lilt”, the ‘ginga carioca’ of the title presumably. As Phillips and Zoot dealt admirably with the rhythmic complexities of the piece Ballamy and Huw soloed powerfully but fluently on saxophone and keyboard respectively.

Pascoal’s “Santa Katerina” was sourced from Huw’s “Hermeto +” album and was played here by Phillips on solo electric bass, the tune teamed with another piece from Phillips’ forthcoming solo album. Using live looping technology he created an overlapping , multi layered sound, making maximum use of the effects available to him but exhibiting a strong melodic quality and retaining a pleasing degree of human warmth. The new record should be well worth looking out for.

Now it was the turn of Huw Warren to take the solo route as he gave a virtuoso performance of the 1930 choro “Uno Cero” written in honour of a famous Brazilian football victory -something that gave the pianist the chance to reference Wales’ football success in the recent European football championships. Following Greening’s earlier keyboard pyrotechnics here was another pianist ‘on fire’ as Huw dazzled with a dizzying display of melody and rhythm.

The quartet concluded a superb performance with a Brazilian dance tune introduced by Phillips melodic bass solo over Huw’s piano comping and Zoot’s rapidly brushed grooves. Further solos followed from both Ballamy and Huw and there were also a series of engaging drum and bass exchanges with occasional sax and keyboard interjections.

This was a memorable way to close an excellent performances from four brilliant musicians who impressed both individually and collectively and who had made Pascoal’s music very much their own through a combination of adventurousness and sheer virtuosity. This was a highly interactive group that was right at the top of its game, extracting the maximum from its chosen material. They were given a great reception by a knowledgeable and appreciative audiences. Terrific stuff and a definite Festival highlight.

 

Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.

The final day of the Weekend and performances by Dani Sicari & The Easy Rollers, Lieko Quintet, Bahla, Brownfield Byrne with guest Trish Clowes and Celtic Jazz Sounds. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Jamie Brownfield by Bob Meyrick.

Sunday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 14/08/2016.

On the last day of the inaugural Brecon Jazz Weekend the Brecon Jazz Futures programme at Theatr Brycheiniog revolved around a nucleus of students from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. These talented young musicians performed in a variety of permutations across a wide range of jazz genres, impressing audiences with their skill and versatility and winning themselves many new friends in the process. 

Elsewhere Brecon Jazz Club hosted a further series of successful events at the Guildhall and at the new Muse venue and Brecon Cathedral presented a prestigious evening concert by vocalist Jacqui Dankworth and her quintet as well as staging the now traditional annual Jazz Service during the morning.

DANI SICARI & THE EASY ROLLERS

My day began in the Main House at the Theatr with this performance by young vocalist Dani Sicari and her band The Easy Rollers. This group of RNCM students specialise in the music of the 1920s and present the music of their chosen era with verve, showmanship and great technical skill.

There seems to be something of a new ‘trad revival’ at the moment with young musicians such as these and the Old Hat Jazz Band (featuring Nerija’s regular drummer Lizy Exall) embracing the music of the ‘Prohibition Era’ on its own merits, looking at it with a fresh eye unencumbered by the ‘mod v trad’ jazz snobberies of the 50s and 60s. Plus most of them are far better trained than the trad revivalists of those times and the levels of musicianship are considerably higher. As regular readers of this site will know I’m not really a trad enthusiast but when the music is played well it can be both aesthetically pleasing and highly exciting.

Today’s show began with a rousing and lively New Orleans style instrumental as the boys in the band, variously clad in hats, waistcoats and braces reminiscent of the era demonstrated their considerable instrumental skills with Jamie Stockbridge (clarinet) and Aaron Wood (trumpet) showcasing their chops as the featured soloists. The group also included pianist Alex Hill,  guitarist James Girling, bassist Alasdair Simpson and drummer Matt Brown.

Vocalist Sicari, radiant in a white 20’s style flapper dress, now took to the stage to add her sassy vocals to the song “Butter And Egg Man”, which again featured Stockbridge and Wood as the instrumental soloists. Sicari is an interesting character, born in Perth, Australia she is a trained operatic soprano who is currently completing her Masters at the RNCM where she fell in with some of the students on the jazz course to form the Easy Rollers. Her gigging schedule includes operatic, jazz and folk performances. She’s clearly a precocious and highly versatile talent and impressed today with her technical facility, clear diction and confident stage persona while still leaving plenty of space for the instrumentalists to shine.

“Bei Mir Bist Du Shein has become something of a signature tune for the band and saw Sicari’s confident vocals augmented by solos from Wood on muted trumpet, Stockbridge on clarinet and Cox at the piano.

Introduced by the a voice/piano duet a clever arrangement of the slow blues “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” featured Girling’s guitar imitating the sound of a mobile ringtone. Girling, together with Simpson and Brown is also part of the quintet Artephis who recently impressed at a show at a Black Mountain Jazz Club event in Abergavenny and who were also scheduled to perform later on in the day on the Brecon Jazz Futures programme.

The lively “Jack O’ Mellow” featured Sicari’s vivacious vocals alongside a ‘hot’ clarinet solo from Stockbridge, a rollicking piano excursion from Cox and a closing drum feature from the Welsh born Brown.

A slowed down arrangement of “Honeysuckle Rose” saw Sicari seductively emphasising the lascivious nuances of Fat’s Waller’s lyrics on a vocal / bass introduction with later solos coming from Girling and Hill.

Girling also impressed as the band upped the energy levels once more with an effervescent rendering of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing”.  Audience participation was positively encouraged on Waller’s “Flat Foot Floogie”, the nonsense lyrics reminding some listeners of Slim Gaillard’s regular visits to Brecon during the Festival’s early days.

“Don’t Wait Too Long” calmed things down again and even introduced a touch of lyricism thanks to solos from Hill on piano and Webb on trumpet.

A jaunty “All Of Me” featured Sicari’s breezy vocals alongside solos from Stockbridge and Wood and the performance concluded with the inspired silliness of “I Like Pie” with the band turning in a splendidly spirited performance.

A thoroughly deserved encore took us back to New Orleans and the inevitable “When The Saints”. Hill and Girling took care of the solos as Stockbridge and Wood paraded through the audience and Sicari shook a shapely tail-feather.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this performance by Dani Sicari and The Easy Rollers.  The amount of energy that the group delivered at this 11.00 am performance was impressive and quickly blew away any Saturday night cobwebs. The playing was sharp and invigorating with all of the instrumentalists impressing as did the sassy and vivacious Sicari who fronted the band with confidence and good humour and sang with great technical facility.

Later in the afternoon the group reprised much of this material outside the Theatr on the Busker’s Stage with the versatile Hill switching to accordion. They went down a storm there too.

LIEKO QUINTET

Half an hour after that rousing rendition of “When The Saints” five members of the Easy Rollers were back on stage in the very different guise of the Lieko Quintet.

By now they’d ditched the twenties clobber and were back in something more everyday and contemporary, something that reflected the music which was very, very different to what they had just been playing just before.

Led by Hill and featuring Girling, Stockbridge, Simpson and Brown the group features Hill’s original contemporary jazz compositions alongside his intriguing and intelligent arrangements of jazz standards and pieces by composers such as Thelonious Monk. Most of today’s material was sourced from the band’s début recording “Deja Vu”, cut as recently as March 2016 and engineered by the versatile Brown.

The performance commenced with Hill’s stop-start arrangement of Monk’s “Think As One”, the ensemble having fun with the staccato patterns prior to solos from Hill on piano followed by Stockbridge, specialising on tenor sax in this band, and Girling on guitar. 

Hill’s own “Scooch” temporarily revisited the New Orleans flavourings of the Easy Rollers before shading off into something more contemporary with Stockbridge’s plangent tenor leading off the solos followed by Hill on piano and Girling on guitar.

A group arrangement of the Miles Davis / Bill Evans classic “Blue In Green” managed to find something fresh and new to say about a much covered composition. Girling’s elegant unaccompanied guitar bookended the piece with Stockbridge stating the theme on tenor and Hill acting as the other featured soloist. 

“Chang Thang” referenced the Afro-Beat that Hill and the others have played elsewhere with its vibrant grooves and powerful tenor sax soloing as Stockbridge dug in in muscular fashion, powered by Brown’s insistent drumming.

“Deja Vu” put a greater emphasis on melody and lyricism but without sacrificing anything of the band’s adventurous spirit. Indeed the piece gathered considerable momentum as it progressed, its odd meter grooves providing the basis for increasingly intense solos from Girling on guitar and Stockbridge on tenor sax, the latter contributing some characteristically full on and earthy playing as the music built to a climax.

Stockbridge’s tenor also featured prominently, this time in ballad mode, on Hill’s arrangement of the Victor Young composed standard “Stella By Starlight” as he shared the solos with Hill.

Hill invited Sicari back to the stage to perform the song “Life As it Is”, the young vocalist again demonstrating her versatility by singing in a totally different and far more contemporary style to the Easy Rollers output. Here she shared the spotlight with Hill’s piano and Girling’s guitar.

“Jacky” was Hill’s homage to the French born , US based pianist and composer Jacky Terrasson and the composition reflected Terrasson’s own broad sphere of musical influences as Girling’s guitar exhibited a strong rock aspect as he shared the solos with Stockbridge’s tenor and Hill’s piano.

The album closer “Say When” also concluded the performance here with Hill’s funky, fusion-esque original sparking high octane solos from the always elegant and fluent Girling and the more direct and raunchy Stockbridge. 

Although less obviously crowd pleasing than the Easy Rollers there was much to enjoy about Lieko’s Quintet’s set. Once again the playing was top quality and I also found Hill’s compositional output to be both interesting and varied. His arrangements of outside material were also intelligent, inventive and imaginative as he and his bandmates found fresh things to say about even the most familiar of material. The group’s album also stands up very well in the home listening environment.

Girling, Simpson and Brown were also due to appear with Artephis later in the day, this after that visit to the busking stage with the Easy Rollers. These guys were clearly earning their money today having got up at some unearthly hour to drive from Manchester to Brecon.

I predict a bright future for all of this current crop of RNCM jazz students. They’re doing great things already and are only going to get better.

BAHLA

At 4.00 pm I was faced with a difficult choice. The Jazz Weekend programme at Theatr Brycheiniog also incorporated a number of events that did not form part of the Jazz Futures strand. Among them was a performance in the main house by old Brecon Jazz Festival favourites Wonderbrass, the ever popular community band from Cardiff and the South Wales Valleys.

I love Wonderbrass and I’ve written about them before, both live and record, so I know exactly what they do. With this in mind and in in deference to jazz being the ‘sound of surprise’ I decided to take a chance with Bahla in the Theatr’s studio space.

I was intrigued by the write up for Bahla which spoke of the group “sonically painting a picture from the broad spectrum of Jewish music traditions, drawing inspiration for new compositions from liturgical melodies, North African rhythms and Yiddish artsongs”. I think I was expecting some kind of contemporary klezmer with fiddles, clarinets and accordions. The reality was very different.

Led by London guitarist Tal James the quartet also featured Venezuelan born pianist Joseph Costi plus drummer Ben Brown, both of whom had performed the previous day as part of the group Caravela playing the music of the Portuguese diaspora. The presence of Costi and Brown just went to emphasise the sheer versatility of the modern jazz musician. Here they were twenty four hours later playing music from a different tradition totally convincingly and without dropping a stitch. Similar qualities were exhibited by Bristolian bassist Will Harris, deputising for regular bassist Greg Gottlieb and again doing a terrific job. Harris had performed a similar function for the contemporary jazz quartet Asterope the previous day and seemed to be relishing his role as a ‘supersub’.

Another recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Music James first formed the group in 2014, initially performing as a duo with Costi before deciding to add bass and drums to the group’s sound.
The co-founders cite John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and Bill Frisell as influences on the band’s sound but it’s their absorption of Jewish musical culture that makes their sound so distinctive.

Bahla’s music is harder edged and more urban sounding than I’d first imagined with contemporary rock music also bearing an influence. Their sound is intense, urgent and complex and reminded me of the work of New York based Jewish / Israeli musicians such as John Zorn and guitarists Eyal Maoz and Gilad Hekselman. There’s definitely something of that ‘Downtown’ vibe about it and I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer power of the group’s music.

I didn’t get all the Hebrew titles but one piece that translated as “Little Monster” seemed to encapsulate their approach with its fiery guitar and piano solos, including Costi’s use of dampened strings, and powerful, but flexible, rhythmic accompaniment. Incredibly this was Harris’ first ever gig with the band but he seemed totally attuned to this often complex music, rising to the challenge with considerable aplomb.

I don’t want to give the impression that this set was just about sound and fury.  Both James’ and Costi’s originals and their arrangements of traditional Jewish tunes possessed plenty of light and shade and dynamic contrast. The solos by James and Costi, the latter on acoustic upright piano, were imaginative and inventive with the guitarist making judicious use of his range of effects, his spiralling inventions drawing on Jewish traditions and avoiding all the jazz and rock guitar clichés. This was music that sounded refreshingly exotic, vital and original but always retained a strong sense of melody. Some of the traditional tunes upon which the band based their improvisations were downright beautiful. 

I seem to recall that we heard “Yud Beis Bud”, the subject of an excellent video on the band’s website http://www.bahla.co.uk with its brushed drum feature for the excellent Ben Brown. Also the tune “Bahla”, the piece after which the band is named and also a city in Oman.

It’s not easy music to describe but I thoroughly enjoyed this set from this exciting new band who mix elements of jazz, rock and traditional Jewish music together to create something truly distinctive and original. Bahla have yet to record but their début album is one that will be very keenly awaited and one that should make considerable waves on the UK music scene. Others present today at Theatr Brycheiniog seemed to share my opinions and the group were accorded an excellent reception for music that was probably new to most members of the audience and was also well outside the jazz mainstream.

This was the final event that I was able to see on the Jazz Futures programme and I’d like to thank programme curator Marc Edwards for bringing so many excellent new bands to my attention. All in all the programme was a great success with the groups involved all raising their profile as the Brecon jazz public made some exciting new discoveries. Considering that most audience members were probably taking a punt on hitherto unknown talents the attendances were pretty respectable and the audience reactions overwhelmingly positive. Should the exercise be repeated next year word of mouth reactions plus a more co-ordinated publicity campaign should result in larger crowds. I thoroughly enjoyed everything on the Brecon Jazz Futures programme and its success in purely artistic terms was undeniable. Hopefully it broke even financially and will be able to be repeated next year with other music colleges also becoming involved.

BROWNFIELD BYRNE QUINTET with TRISH CLOWES

The young North Wales based duo of Jamie Brownfield (trumpet) and Liam Byrne (quintet) co-lead a quintet steeped in 50s and 60s bebop and hard bop but given a contemporary edge by Byrne’s considerable arranging skills. Both musicians are highly accomplished soloists on their respective instruments and their band, sometimes referred to as B.B.Q. has amassed a considerable following in the North of England, the Midlands, the Welsh Marches and beyond. They are also a particularly popular act at festivals.

The quintet released their début album “B.B.Q.” in 2014, featuring a line up including GoGo Penguin bassist Nick Blacka. The current edition of the band includes long serving guitarist Andy Hulme plus bassist Ed Harrison and drummer Jack Cotterill.   

For this Brecon Jazz Club co-ordinated event at an again sold out Guildhall the core quintet was augmented by guest saxophonist Trish Clowes, now London based but originally from Shrewsbury,  who may well have known Brownfield and Byrne even before the invitation to appear was extended by Brecon Jazz Club’s Lynne Gornall. 

The presence of the classically trained Clowes ensured that the ‘Women in Jazz’ theme of the festival was maintained and it was also interesting to compare the approaches of the two saxophonists in the twin tenor plus trumpet front line.

Apart from a couple of Clowes originals the majority of the material was drawn from the jazz and bebop canon beginning with Gigi Gryce’s “Blue Lights” followed by Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low”. The two tenors blended particularly well on the ensemble passages and both players excelled on the lengthy solo passages with Brownfield, Hulme and Harrison also enjoying their own features as the reliable Cotterill anchored the band.

Byrne’s arrangement of “Mine Or Yours” from the aptly titled Chet Baker / Art Pepper album “The Jazz Playboys” featured his own tenor plus Brownfield’s trumpet prior to further solos from Hulme and Clowes before the whole band traded phrases with Cotterill.

The co-leaders left he stage as Clowes and the trio played two of her original compositions. Clowes recorded output has featured an ambitious mix of jazz and classical styles but for this performance she selected two pieces that she felt would fit well into the format of the evening.

The first of these was “Little Tune” which closes Clowes’s second album “and in the night time she is there” (Basho Records, 2012). Deliberately written in the style of a jazz standard it’s one of Clowes’ simpler pieces and its attractive melody has made it a popular live performance item. Here Clowes introduced the piece in a duo with guitarist Hulme, who had also impressed audiences the previous day when he appeared at the same venue alongside fellow guitarist Trefor Owen. Gently prompted by Cotterill’s brushed drums the piece featured further solos from Clowes, Hulme and Harrison.

Inspired by the lyrics of “Bye Bye Blackbird” Clowes’ second piece, “Pack Up All You Cares And Woes” had a more contemporary feel with the composer probing gently on tenor and sharing the solos with Hulme on guitar.

Brownfield and Byrne returned as the full ensemble played a new Byrne arrangement of “Early Autumn”, a tune made famous by Stan Getz. Described by the arranger a as “Brecon exclusive” the piece featured his breathy ballad playing alongside further solos from Clowes and Hulme.

Energy levels were raised on a high speed romp through Slide Hampton’s “My Blues” with Byrne and Clowes trading solos before a high octane trumpet feature from Brownfield plus a further solo from Hulme.

A well received set concluded with a Jimmy Van Heusen tune (“The Second Time Around”, I think) with features for Brownfield, Byrne,  Clowes and Hulme plus cameos for bass and drums. The well deserved encore was “East Of The Sun , West Of The Moon” with Brownfield and Hulme both featuring strongly.

Although there were no great surprises here, apart from the two Clowes originals mid set, this was still a very enjoyable performance and one that was greatly appreciated by the Brecon Jazz Club crowd. The format and the material may have been a little predictable but there was no denying the quality of the playing from all six musicians. Brownfield and Byrne are admirably fluent soloists and they do what they do extremely well – which is why audiences love them.

Nevertheless it was good to have Clowes around to bring something a little different to the well established BBQ template, her two original pieces were a breath of fresh air and were very well received while her tenor soloing probed deeply and explored some interesting angles within the broadly bop based context. I would imagine that she also relished the opportunity to participate in a good old fashion ‘blowing session’ as a change from some of her more classically orientated ‘chamber jazz’ projects. As for BBQ I’d still like to see them adding some more original material to their repertoire, for variety as much as anything else. All in all though a hugely successful and enjoyable event courtesy of Brecon Jazz Club.

CELTIC JAZZ SOUNDS – MARIA WALSH / CAROLE NELSON / IAN COOPER / HEULWEN THOMAS

The final Brecon Jazz Club event took place at The Muse, the bohemian style arts space created at the town’s old museum. Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz Club likes to bring together musicians who have never worked with each other before to create new, exciting, but ultimately successful collaborations. Friday night’s trio featuring pianist Geoff Eales, bassist Erika Lyons and drummer Romarna Campbell represents an excellent case in point.

Celtic Jazz Sounds fulfilled this remit and also stayed true to the ‘Women in Jazz’ theme of the Weekend with the Dublin based songwriting duo of Maria Walsh (lead vocals, percussion) and Carole Nelson (piano, whistle, vocals) teamed with locally based musicians Heulwen Thomas (violin) and ‘token bloke’ Ian Cooper (electric and acoustic bass).

Under the group name Zrazy Walsh and Nelson have recorded a series of albums embracing both jazz and folk as well as electronica. Openly lesbian many of their songs embrace feminist and political issues but there was little proselytising at tonight’s performance which saw the Anglo-Irish duo (Nelson was born in London) teaming up with violinist Heulwen Thomas and Brecon based musician Ian Cooper.

In deference to this being a jazz audience the material consisted of a mix of original songs penned by Walsh and Nelson interspersed with interpretations of well known jazz standards. Nelson played both piano and penny whistle on the opening song “Amen” with its evocative sea imagery conveyed by the voice of Walsh who also played bodhran.

Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” found Cooper moving from electric to acoustic bass with Walsh now singing and providing additional rhythmic impetus on brushed snare drum. Thomas’ jazz violin solo was reminiscent of her work with the Hot Club influenced quintet 5 Go Swing who I recall seeing at a club date at Black Mountain Jazz in nearby Abergavenny back in 2009. She shared the solos with Nelson, an accomplished jazz soloist here playing an electric keyboard.

Nelson and Thomas also shared the solos on the original song “Rain”, a topical choice given the horrendous flooding that had occurred in Louisiana and Mississippi over the weekend of the Festival, but which had in fact been inspired by an earlier incident in Cincinnati.

“Why Don’t You Do Right” was covered by both Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee and offered further opportunities for Thomas and Nelson to demonstrate their instrumental abilities. This was followed by the original “Private Wars”, another melancholic look at human relationships and a tune that once won a Walsh and Nelson a Billboard songwriting award.

The Zrazy duo clearly have a great love for the songs of Cole Porter and his witty but disturbing tale of romantic obsession, “Night And Day” was up next, introduced by the Dublin duo on voice and piano prior to instrumental solos by Thomas and Nelson and a series of scat vocal / double bass exchanges between Walsh and Cooper.

Another jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves” was given a Latin-esque treatment with Walsh singing and playing cowbell as solos came from Thomas and Nelson with Walsh also adding a scat vocal episode.

At this juncture the fantastically busy Thomas left the stage to play another gig, presumably somewhere on the Fringe Festival circuit. Walsh, Nelson and Cooper continued as a trio with the focus now more firmly on Zrazy’s original material. This included the introspective but ultimately triumphant “Waiting For Me” featuring Walsh’s lyrics about struggling to find her true identity in a repressive Ireland. Many of the duo’s songs are intensely personal and next up was a Nelson song dedicated to the memory of her late father.

Cooper switched back to electric bass for the rather more uplifting “Dream On”, its lyrics about “dancing in the rain” and “going against the grain” representing a hymn to non-conformity.

The closing “Drive” saw Cooper getting his first real solo of the night, sharing the instrumental plaudits with Nelson on piano as Walsh performed on both voice and bodhran.

The deserved encore was a wonderfully emotive version of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child”. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

At a packed out Muse the Celtic Jazz Sounds project proved to be another big success for Brecon Jazz Club with the audience members responding positively to a somewhat eclectic mix of music. The demand for Zrazy CDs after the show was correspondingly brisk. 

If I’m honest the standard of musicianship wasn’t as technically precise as we’d seen earlier in the Weekend with occasional rough vocals and missed instrumental cues but this was genuinely a first meeting between the players and the good natured audience didn’t seem to mind too much. Indeed there was a feel good factor about the whole event, despite the occasional darkness of the subject matter. And technical gripes aside it was the quality of the song writing that counted. Walsh and Nelson have written some very good, if very personal songs. Their lyrics are perceptive, intelligent, sharply observed and genuinely involving. Theirs is a very distinctive world view and one that also embraces an impressively broad range of musical styles.

WEEKEND OVERVIEW

Brecon Weekend represented a very commendable first attempt to rescue something from the ashes of Brecon Jazz Festival. Despite the absence of big international names and a relative lack of nationally known British musicians there was still some excellent music to be seen and heard, not least from the phenomenally talented young musicians on the Brecon Jazz Futures programme. I think it’s fair to say that we were lucky enough to have seen some of the jazz stars of the future over the course of the Weekend.

From an artistic perspective the Weekend was a triumph, and assuming no knight in shining armour rides over the horizon to rescue the Festival in its previous format it’s something I’d love to see taking place again next year.

That said there’s still plenty of room for improvement. More effective advertising and publicity is needed, although I will concede that Orchard’s withdrawal left precious little time for the organisers to co-ordinate their events. Brecon Jazz Club were the first to announce their programme and were rewarded with near capacity audiences for all of their events. Their year round presence in the town no doubt helped with this, Lynne Gornall team have instilled a great sense of loyalty and trust among their supporters with their successful regular club nights throughout the year.

The Theatr programme was consistently interesting but was announced rather late and suffered accordingly with respect to crowd numbers. However I suspect that the positive feedback generated by the audience reactions to some exceptional performances, allied to better advertising and publicity, will lead to increased turnouts next year as the Brecon Jazz Futures programme (and related events) starts to gain a reputation.

The only event I saw at the Cathedral was shamefully poorly attended, scant reward for an excellent performance by the Andy Nowak Trio. The Cathedral’s publicity only advertised the flagship Jacqui Dankworth and Ellington tribute events (both part funded by the Arts Council of Wales),  these presumably drawing larger numbers. The concerts by Nowak and fellow pianist Simon Deeley received precious little publicity and consequently both were very sparsely attended.

If Brecon Jazz Weekend is to flourish in the future there needs to be more co-ordination between the three strands in terms of both publicity and scheduling. There was no unified Festival brochure meaning that it was difficult to establish who was playing when and where. There were also some unfortunate scheduling overlaps, notably with the Tina May and Nerija/Dennis Rollins events on the Saturday with each gig organised by a different promoter. There was a mass exodus of Dennis fans before the end of Tina’s show, while those with tickets to both events who chose to stay missed around twenty minutes of the excellent Nerija. There was certainly scope for Tina’s gig to have started thirty or even forty five minutes earlier, thus eradicating the problem. One got the sense that each body was fighting its own corner, very successfully in Brecon Jazz Club’s case, but some sense of the bigger picture and a spirit of mutual co-operation and co-ordination is needed if Brecon Jazz Weekend is going to succeed as a whole. 

I appreciate that some kind of teething problems were inevitable in this first year, especially given the time constraints the organisers were working under. Overall it was a pleasure and a privilege to be there and I’m already looking forward to a similar, more unified, better co-ordinated event next year. 

   

   

 

Saturday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 13/08/2016.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Saturday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 13/08/2016.

Ian Mann on Day 2 of the weekend and performances by Dowally, GSD Ensemble, Trefor Owen, Asterope, Caravela, Tina May, Nerija and Dennis Rollins' Velocity Trio. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Tina May by Bob Meyrick

Saturday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 13/08/2016

The Saturday of the Brecon Jazz Weekend incorporated performances co-ordinated by the three organisers of the event, Brecon Jazz Club, Theatr Brycheiniog and Brecon Cathedral.

I began my day at the Theatr where there was an all day schedule of concerts, most of them taking place under the “Brecon Jazz Futures” banner, a programme of events featuring talented young musicians curated by music educator and long time Brecon visitor Marc Edwards. 

Edwards had used his contacts at Britain’s leading music colleges and many of the performers were either students or recent graduates of the jazz course at these institutions. Others had been talent spotted by Edwards, often on line, and the result was a richly varied programme encompassing a variety of music styles but with the standard of musicianship universally high. The skills of these young musicians were a credit to their tutors and on the evidence of the Brecon Jazz Futures programme the future of British jazz will remain in safe hands for many years to come.

DOWALLY

The first show of the day began at the early hour of 11.00 am in the Studio suite at Theatr Brycheiniog and featured the young Scottish folk trio Dowally, one of those groups that Edwards had located on line.

Comprised of violinist/vocalist Rachel Walker, guitarist Dan Abrahams and accordionist Phil Alexander the trio presented a mix of songs and instrumentals in a broadly similar format to that adopted by the Anglo-Scottish trio Lau, with whom they share an identical instrumental configuration. I’d wager that Dowally have almost certainly listened to Lau and would very likely cite them as an influence.

The majority of the group’s material is written by Walker and Abrahams and much of today’s set was sourced from the trio’s 2015 eponymous début album which also features the cello of guest musician Graham Coe, unfortunately not present today.

This was essentially a pure folk performance but it was well received by an open minded crowd who appreciated both the band’s instrumental ability and their affable and good humoured presenting style. After opening with a set of traditional sounding folk melodies written by Walker the group stretched out on the curiously titled group original “Horny Turkish Zebra in Croatia”.
Here the Lau influence was most pronounced with Alexander using the body of his piano accordion as an auxiliary percussion instrument while Abrahams’ guitar solo, played over an insistent accordion/fiddle drone exhibited a subtle blues influence. 

“Hear It Ring”, written by the American banjo player Abigail Washburn, was a kind of contemporary spiritual, confidently sung by Walker with the lads joining in on the harmonies.  Despite the earliness of the hour Walker also had the audience singing along with Abrahams and Alexander - “Hear it ring, God’s Great Divine Bell!”.

The original tune “Cosy House” possessed an ethereal beauty that was sometimes reminiscent of an Irish air and was a piece that celebrated the simple joy of being inside in front of a roaring fire on a cold, wet, winter’s day. Lively album opener “Wally Pumpkin” featured Walker’s violin virtuosity alongside some tightly focussed ensemble playing.

Walker had the audience singing along again on the traditional Scottish song “Cold, Haily, Windy Night”, one of those “lover at the window” songs that exist in various incarnations within the Celtic folk music tradition. This was teamed with the traditional instrumental “The King’s Bangs”.

Walker moved to the whistle for an as yet untitled instrumental and asked the audience to name it.  This seems to be something that happens at every gig and despite some good suggestions I get the impression that they’re still looking for a title!

Besides their love of traditional Celtic music Dowally also have a fondness for old time Americana and they included two such pieces, “Sandy River Bell” and Sal’s Got sand Between Her Toes” in a lively set of tunes that also included the original “Chris and Emily’s”. 

A further slice of Americana followed as Walker led the audience through the traditional song “Cluck Old Hen”, which was refreshing in its nursery rhyme like innocence and period rustic charm. Great fun for all.

The trio finished the set with an invigorating instrumental that featured fiddle and accordion simulating the sound of trains, another import from across the Atlantic perhaps? 

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed Dowally’s set with the trio impressing both individually and collectively on an eclectic mix of folk related material. It’s probably fair to say that most jazz listeners, having progressed thus far, are also receptive to other musical styles and this proved to be a successful gig for both the band and the audience. An unexpectedly enjoyable start to the day.

GSD ENSEMBLE

There were more crossover sounds at the next Jazz Futures performance which took place in the main house at Theatr Brycheiniog.

GSD Ensemble are an eight piece aggregation combing a jazz quartet (piano, tenor sax, electric bass, drums) with a classical string quartet. Led by pianist Sam Davies the group also featured bassist Dan Peate, drummer Jon Needham and saxophonist Caitlin Lang plus the string quartet of Beka Reid and Abi Hammett (violins), Will Chadwick (viola) and Polly Virr (cello). 

Like many of the other performers on the Jazz Futures programme the ensemble originated at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music with members of the jazz and classical course coming together to create GSD. The four string players also perform as a self contained entity as the GSD Quartet and were to appear in this format later on in the day, but unfortunately I had to miss that concert. Indeed, due to other commitments I was only able to see around half of the octet’s performance but this was enough to give a feel for their music which is also influenced by the music of the cinema, as evidenced by the nature of the original writing and also by the inclusion in the programme of “Pure Imagination” from the film “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory”.

In 2015 GSD released the EP “Golden Rule” and have recently recorded a full length album, “Wildfire”, which is due for imminent release. I assume that most of today’s music was sourced from there.

GSD’s blend of different strands of music was very much in the ethos of the Jazz Futures programme as a whole. Anchored by Davies’ piano, which often introduced the pieces, the ensemble’s music embraced jazz, classical and folk influences with the band sometimes breaking down into its two component quartets, particularly for jazz solos from Davies and tenor saxophonist Lang. Elsewhere we heard folk style fiddling from the violinists and melancholy, classically inspired cello from Virr.

But mostly the ensemble worked together, often using Davies’ solo piano introductions as the basis for a gradual layering of instruments, the resultant music often taking on a cinematic or anthemic quality. Among the pieces played was “This Way Home”, a tune sourced from the Ensemble’s “Golden Rule” EP.

Although I had to leave early I was impressed with GSD for both the quality of the musicianship and the high level of integration between the jazz and classical players. The group is still a work in progress but they seem to be very much on the right lines. Jazz / classical crossovers are both more common and more successful than they once were with the current crop of string players more versatile, adaptable and open to the process of improvisation than previous generations. I’m informed that the concert by GSD’s string quartet was also excellent with much to engage the jazz audience.

Despite my early departure this is a project that I’ll be continuing to keep an eye on.

TREFOR OWEN QUARTET with MEGAN THOMAS

The second Brecon Jazz Club event was at a sold out Guildhall for a performance by a quartet led by guitarist Trefor Owen. A highly experienced musician Owen also runs North Wales Jazz and today’s concert was a collaboration between this body and Brecon Jazz Club. It’s become something of a tradition for Owen to introduce BJC’ s festival concerts in Welsh, the honour for this falling today to violinist Heulwen Thomas who was to perform with another line up later on in the weekend. 

In some respects this concert was a continuation of BJC’s 2015 Festival programme at the Guildhall which was a celebration of the jazz guitar featuring artists such as Remi Harris, Deirdre Cartwright, Will Barnes and Martin Taylor.

Owen took to the stage with fellow guitarist Andy Hulme and the pair duetted on the standard “Alone Together”, alternating the solos and sharing the rhythm duties between them. This was very much a partnership of equals.

In 2015 Martin Taylor had held a capacity audience at the Guildhall spellbound with a masterful solo guitar performance. Owen and Hulme had a similar effect upon their listeners as you could hear a pin drop during the duo’s elegant renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” and Burt Bacharach’s “Wives And Lovers”, both tunes chosen by Owen for the beauty of their melodies. 

In November 2014 I enjoyed a performance by Owen and his Shades Of Shearing group, also featuring Hulme, at a Black Mountain Jazz club night in Abergavenny. The popular local double bass player (and sometime vocalist) Ruth Bowen now joined the ranks for two tunes from Owen’s Shearing repertoire, the jazz standard “East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon” and the little heard Henry Mancini song “Dreamsville”. The grounding presence of Bowen’s bass gave the guitar duo even greater scope for their compelling six string interplay as they continued to exchange fruitful ideas.

The group was now expanded to a quartet with the addition of classy vocalist Megan Thomas, a graduate of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. It was the first time that I had seen Thomas perform and I was impressed with her poise, technique and versatility on standards such as “A Foggy Day In London Town” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”, which saw her yearning vocal bringing out the full beauty of the rarely heard lyric.

Jobim’s “Triste” found her singing in both English and Portuguese and a lively “Caravan” saw her trading solos with the two guitarists. A hugely successful concert concluded with Thomas singing the standard “I’ll Be seeing You” before a well deserved encore saw the vocalist demonstrating her scatting abilities on an upbeat version of “All Of Me” which also gave Owen and Hulme a final opportunity to display their impressive six string skills.

This was a well paced performance that provided good exposure for young vocalist Thomas and enhanced the already impressive reputations of the other performers. Although there were no real surprises the quality of the performances delighted the capacity crowd at a concert that represented another triumph for organisers Brecon Jazz Club. 

ASTEROPE

Back at the Theatr the next band to perform on the Jazz Futures programme was Asterope, a new quintet comprised of student/graduates from London’s Royal Academy of Music led by saxophonist and composer Tom Barford. The band also featured guitarist Billy Marrows, pianist Rupert Cox and drummer Dave Storey with the experienced Bristolian bassist Will Harris (Moonlight Saving Time, Michelson Morley etc.) deputising for regular incumbent Flo Moore.

The band’s set was formed entirely of Barford’s original compositions and commenced with “Matterhorn” which was centred around a Tyner-esque piano motif and featured Barford and Marrows doubling up on the melody with solos coming from Cox on piano, Barford on tenor and Marrows on guitar.

“Cardio” found Barford’s tenor stating the theme prior to a fluent, spiralling guitar solo from the impressive Marrows. Meanwhile Barford’s own solo included some incisive probing in the tenor’s upper register.

“Malicious Meg” incorporated some appropriately malevolent guitar riffing from Marrows followed by a powerful solo from Cox that featured some mercurial right hand runs and insistent left hand comping. Barford maintained the energy levels on tenor prior to a closing drum feature from Storey above the relentless chime of Cox’s piano figures.

Barford explained that “Real One” was inspired by a friend who was going through rough times. Attractively melodic the piece included a sustain rich solo from Marrows followed by the composer’s mellifluous tenor. But the loudest applause was saved for Harris’ melodic bass solo, being based fairly locally he was probably the only musician in the quintet with whom the audience was previously familiar.

The next piece was unannounced but was introduced by the trio of Cox, Harris and Storey with the drummer initially deploying brushes. However the intensity levels began to build during Cox’s highly percussive piano solo and Barford’s subsequent tenor excursion before Storey, now wielding sticks rounded things off with a powerful drum feature.

Asterope concluded their set with the boppish “Mean It” with Marrows’ guitar solo fuelled by Harris’ propulsive bass and Storey’s sizzling cymbals. Barford and Cox both soloed individually before thrillingly trading phrases and the piece was climaxed by an extended Storey drum solo.

Although there were moments when the tunes felt a little bit like compositional exercises there was much to enjoy about Asterope’s set. The standard of musicianship was very high throughout with Barford, Marrows and Cox all impressing with their solos. Storey also featured strongly and Harris blended into the group superbly. The core of the set featured a blend of melodic jazz with rock elements that sometimes reminded me of the music of Theo Travis, another saxophonist who likes to work with guitar players. However Barford’s physical resemblance to a young Travis may have helped me to form this conclusion.

Asterope have yet to record but it would be good to see this music committed to disc. Barford, a saxophonist and composer with considerable potential, is yet another talented young musician to keep an eye on.

CARAVELA

Caravela are a London based quintet specialising in the music of Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil. Fronted by the charismatic vocalist Ines Loubet the band also features pianist Joseph Costi, guitarist Telmo Sousa, bassist Pedro Velasco and drummer Ben Brown.

The band take their name from the Caravels, the small sailing vessels in which the Portuguese navigators explored the Atlantic, taking them to Brazil, Cape Verde and West Africa.

The songs were sung in entirely in Portuguese so I wasn’t able to get many of the titles but Loubet’s between tunes announcements were conducted in flawless English, which helped to give some valuable insight into the meanings behind the songs. Much of this was already apparent from the passion of her singing, an extraordinary and transcendent vocal performance.

But it wasn’t just about Loubet, the instrumentalists supported her brilliantly with Costi, Sousa and Velasco moving between the acoustic and electric versions of their respective instruments as the music required.

The set opened with Loubet ‘s singing, accompanied only by the sounds of two tambourines played by herself and Costi. Brown’s drums and shakers plus Sousa’s acoustic guitar were subsequently added to the equation as the music began to gather momentum.

The second piece began with a stunning passage of vocal percussion that made me think that the music had temporarily been re-located to India, but clearly this kind of ‘mouth music’ is part of the Afro-Brazilian tradition too.

Based upon the Baio rhythm of North East Brazil Hermeto Pascoal’s “Bebe” with its soaring, wordless Flora Purim style vocals and Costi piano solo probably represented more familiar ground for jazz listeners.

The pianist also featured strongly on a song telling a tale of wife swapping in Brazil (“it doesn’t end well” explained Loubert) that also name checked the Maracana Stadium. 
 
But it wasn’t all about Brazil.  The lovely “Zeta” was written by a Cape Verdean composer in honour of his mother and included a liquid electric bass solo from Velasco. “Farewell” was written from the point of an economic migrant from Cape Verde and featured Loupet encouraging the audience to sing along wordlessly with the lilting, folk like melody.

The original tune “Maraguese” addressed the Portuguese diaspora with Loupet announcing “you can be anywhere in the world but you never forget where you’re from”.

These were just the highlights of a powerful and impressive set that periodically included pithy but sparkling instrumental solos from Costi and Sousa plus a couple of features for drummer Brown who was thoroughly convincing in his mastery of the varying rhythms deployed in this exotic (to British ears) music.

By turns dramatic, beautiful, melancholy, celebratory and incantatory this was a remarkable set with the compelling and technically gifted Loupet commanding the attentive and pleasingly sizeable audience in the Theatr’s Studio space.

I’m no expert on World Music but it struck me that Caravela were very much the real deal with this passionate, emotional and thoroughly convincing performance that mixed technical excellence with a raw, emotive, authenticity.

It seems that others agree with me. Caravela were invited to participate in a late night prom at the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall, a performance that was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Caravela were one of THE highlights of the Brecon Jazz Futures programme. A surprising, but thoroughly deserving festival success.

TINA MAY sings THE MUSIC OF BRAZIL

There were more Brazilian sounds to enjoy at the Guildhall at this Brecon Jazz Club curated performance by vocalist Tina May who fronted an eight piece ensemble featuring both locally based and visiting musicians.

May recalled performing Brazilian inspired music at the same venue back in 1989 as part of guitarist Dylan Fowler’s group Frevo. I remember being present at what was an excellent and memorable gig and like the singer also remember that she was heavily pregnant at the time and sang perched on a stool at the front of the stage. I still have the cassette, signed by Tina, that I purchased at the gig. 

May is a graduate of the RWCMD in Cardiff and has always maintained strong links with Wales. She was joined in a three pronged vocal front line by Cathy Jones, who also played percussion, and Alexa Dene who also featured on the flute. Cardiff based Jonathan Crespo played both trumpet and percussion with RWCMD alumni Aidan Thorne (double bass) and Lloyd Haines (drums)  forming a very capable rhythm section. Keyboard player Pedro Asencio and guitarist/vocalist Gui Tavares added an authentic Brazilian presence to a very talented ensemble.

May and her colleagues played the music of Brazil in a style jazz followers are familiar with, an Anglicised version if you will, and arguably less authentic than the music of Caravela. But for all that it still sounded good as Tavares’ acoustic guitar introduced “A Felicidade”, the first item in a programme of material written by Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. May shared the lead vocal with the impressive Jones, the latter a popular figure with Brecon Jazz Club audiences following a successful visit to the club fronting her own group in March 2015. Also playing a range of held hand percussive instruments Jones was in particularly good voice this afternoon and her performance was highly impressive, more than holding her own in comparison to the nationally known May.

“So Danco Samba” featured the trumpet playing talents of Crespo, a Cardiff based musician who I was seeing perform live for the first time. I was hugely impressed with Crespo’s playing throughout the set, his tone rich and burnished, his playing assured and fluent – and he wielded a mean shaker too! Also featuring as a soloist on this piece was Asencio on electric piano.

Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” was given an English language lyric by the great American vocal artist Jon Hendricks who retitled it “No More Blues”. May demonstrated her class here by singing the lyric first in English and then in Portuguese. Instrumental solos came from the two Brazilians in the line up, Tavares and Asencio.

Dene was featured singing the Portuguese lyric to “Insensatez”, also known as “How Insensitive”, a melody based on a Chopin prelude. The Cardiff based vocalist was primarily deployed as a harmony singer with May and Jones handling the majority of the lead vocal parts but this was a nice feature from her.

Announcing “One Note Samba” May was at pains to point out the origins of samba in the slave trade. Musically the piece included a series of thrilling scat vocal/trumpet exchanges between May and Crespo and a feature from the talented young drummer Lloyd Haines, a musician now making his way on the London jazz scene.

“Bonita” featured Dene on flute and Tavares on guitar and vocals. The latter’s guitar playing was at the heart of many of the arrangements and his singing provided the ensemble with a distinctive fourth voice.

The inevitable “Girl From Ipanema” featured Dene singing the English lyric and exchanging scat vocal lines with Crespo, with Asencio again functioning as the other featured soloist.

“Corcovado” (aka “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”) featured the lead vocals of the impressive Cathy Jones, who also told the tale of her visit to the mountain, getting trapped on the slopes in a storm and having to be rescued by a team of Brazilian firemen! She seemed to be quite excited about that!
Jones’ percussion was also an integral part of the ensemble sound and she was also due to lead a Latin voice/percussion workshop over the course of the weekend.

The concert ended with the whole band playing percussion instruments of one kind or another as they sang a song with a lyric translating as “How Can We keep Our Children safe”, Jobim’s comment on the one time military dictatorship in Brazil. The music sounded tribal and African, a further reminder of the true origins of Brazilian music.

Performed in front of a capacity audience this concert was another triumph for Brecon Jazz Club. Again the standard of singing and playing was commendably high with May, Jones, Crespo and Tavares arguably the most impressive performers. The show was presented in a good natured manner by the effusive May,  one of The UK’s most adventurous and accomplished jazz singers and also a trained actress.

NERIJA / DENNIS ROLLINS’ VELOCITY TRIO

The concert programme at Theatr Brycheiniog concluded for the day with this exciting double bill.
The event was supported by Jazz4Jed, the charitable foundation set up in memory of Jed Williams, the man whose adventurous and visionary programming did so much to put the original Brecon Jazz Festival on the map.

NERIJA

Nerija is the young all female, multi cultural septet that emerged out of the Tomorrow’s Warriors scheme and is now beginning to make waves on the UK jazz scene. I was fortunate enough to cover the band’s performance at the Green Note in Camden Town at the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival and was hugely impressed by the group’s energy and musicianship.

Unfortunately I missed around twenty minutes of Nerija’s set here due to a scheduling clash with the Tina May event at the Guildhall. However all the virtues that made that Green Note show such a success were in evidence again here, qualities that were very much appreciated by the biggest audience of the day in the Main House at Theatr Brycheiniog. The crowd gave Nerija a terrific reception on their first visit to Wales.

I’ll refer readers to my London Jazz Festival coverage of the Green Note gig for the full Nerija experience but here’s something of the flavour of the Brecon show where Nerija performed with their customary verve and skill. The first thing that strikes you about the band is the punchy exuberance of the four woman horn section featuring Nubya Garcia (tenor sax), Cassie Kinoshi (alto), Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet) and Rosie Turton (trombone). These four are all highly accomplished soloists and all got to enjoy impressive individual features during this set. But they’re also highly effective as a unit and came across like a veritable juggernaut during the more forceful and energetic moments of the programme.

The front line were well supported by guitarist Shirley Tetteh, also an accomplished soloist and in many respects the linchpin of the band, and by double bassist Inga Eichler. On drums, replacing the busy Lizy Exell was Olly Sarkar, - like fellow percussionist Jason Long at the Green Note here cast in the role of ‘token bloke’! 

All of the classic Nerija characteristics were here with the band’s music including many of the elements associated with the music of Africa and its diaspora. We heard the West African cadences of Tetteh’s guitar and the joyous, celebratory sounds of South African Township Jazz alongside more contemporary funk/soul grooves and hip hop inspired broken beats. 

Nerija’s members are all writers and their different styles add colour and variety to the group’s sound. It’s not all hammer and tongs, the tunes embrace a range of dynamics and one pensive tenor solo by Garcia was particularly affecting. 
   
The material included Eichler’s “A & R”, Kinoshi’s “Mirrors” and Turton’s “Fisherman”. All of the pieces were characterised by the fluent, powerful and increasingly confident soloing of the horn players allied to the strong but supple and intelligent support of the rhythm section, all of this bound together by the sound of Tetteh’s guitar.

As at the Green Note I had the pleasure of talking with Nubya Garcia after the gig. She gave me the good news that the band’s début album will be released in September 2016, the recording financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is indeed good news, Nerija’s music deserves to be widely heard and the album is sure to be one of the most eagerly awaited British jazz releases of the year.

DENNIS ROLLINS’ VELOCITY TRIO

Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio is an unlikely and probably unique success story, I mean, how many trombone and organ trios are there? Guitar and Hammond – check, saxophone and Hammond – check – but Hammond and trombone?! Yet somehow Rollins and his colleagues make it all work and make it seem like the most obvious instrumental combination in the (jazz) world. 

It wasn’t always this way. When I first saw the Velocity group, admittedly with a different line up, back in 2009 at the Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival it was very much a work in progress. In the years since Rollins has honed his approach and established a stable personnel in the shapes of organist Ross Stanley and drummer Pedro Segundo, these two featuring on both of the trio’s widely acclaimed albums, 2011’s “The 11th Gate” and 2014’s “Symbiosis”.

Velocity Trio is now a commendably tight unit, one that is capable of delivering consistently interesting and entertaining live shows. I’ve seen the trio perform on a number of occasions since that Lichfield gig including club performances at Much Wenlock and Abergavenny and also as part of the Stroller programme at the 2014 Brecon Jazz Festival. Rollins and his colleagues have done the business at all of these performances and tonight was to be no different, even with Segundo absent and replaced by the very capable Tim Carter.

The trio hit the ground running with the animated Rollins’ leading his troops through the rousing “Utopia” with solos coming from Rollins on trombone and Stanley on his KeyB organ, a modern generation instrument capable of generating a remarkably authentic vintage Hammond sound.

“Emergence” was inspired by one of the most influential organists in the history of jazz, the late, great Larry Young (1940-79), and particularly Young’s classic 1965 Blue Note album “Unity”. This featured the wailing and churning of Stanley’s keys plus a series of fiery trombone and organ exchanges.

Inspired by the possibilities of spiritualism the spacey and dramatic “The Other Side” was introduced by a highly musical drum feature from the impressive Carter, a musician who I was previously unfamiliar with. His atmospheric rumbles and filigree cymbal work were looped and treated by Rollins, his soundscaping skills producing a fascinating backdrop of interlocking rhythms, these in turn providing the canvas for solos from Stanley’s keyboards, at times adopting an electric piano sound, and the leader’s trombone. The dry ice that was seeping from the side of the stage seemed particularly appropriate for this piece, which concluded as it began with the sound of Carter’s drums.

Rollins’ rousing and infectious stop-start arrangement of Pink Floyd’s “Money” has long been a favourite item at the trio’s live shows and tonight was no exception. The dry ice swirled again and there was even something of a light show as Velocity paid homage to the Floyd. Carter’s funky grooves fuelled solos from both Rollins and Stanley before the drummer rounded thing off with his own feature.

Another popular set piece has been Rollins’ adaptation of Eddie Harris’ enduring “Freedom Jazz Dance”. “We take the tune round the universe” explained Rollins - “but we always come back to the same beat” he added as he encouraged the audience to clap along to the simple groove that formed the fulcrum of the arrangement. Meanwhile the three musicians did indeed head for the outer limits with solos from Stanley and Rollins plus an extended drum feature for the hard working, sweat drenched Carter.

At the end of a relatively short set the deserved encore was Rollins’ gospel tinged arrangement of Amanda McBroom’s song “The Rose”, written in 1977 and subsequently covered by Bette Midler, Elaine Paige and Westlife! The leader’s sumptuous trombone sounds were complemented by   Stanley’s church like organ and Carter’s gently supportive brushed drum grooves. If jazz ever does lighter wavers this arrangement will be right up there.

Although I’d seen Rollins and the trio perform broadly similar sets before this was still hugely enjoyable. Rollins is a great communicator and always presents his shows with a warmth and charm that has also made him an acclaimed educator. The standard of musicianship was impeccable and I highly impressed by Carter who deputised for the hugely talented Segundo with great aplomb.

The Velocity Trio will be back in Wales on September 3rd 2016 when they appear at the Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny. Please visit http://www.wall2walljazz.co.uk for details.

In the meantime I’ll leave the last word to pianist Andy Nowak who had played with his own trio the previous evening at the Cathedral - “Ross Stanley! - what a badass!”.

Quite, I couldn’t have put it better myself. 


COMMENTS (via Facebook) ;


Jonathan Crespo;
My first review after all this time in Cardiff, thank you sir for your kind words. They mean a lot.


John Anderson;
Thanks Ian, I agree pretty much with your accounts of the events I saw. I particularly thought NÉRIJA were fantastic. Very much a band to follow. Without in anyway wishing to diminish the fantastic efforts of the three organising groups better co-ordination of publicity and programming are areas for discussion for next year, AND WE MUST HOPE THERE WILL BE A NEXT YEAR. Brecon is much too valuable a festival to lose.


Roger Warburton;
Nice review Megan…...

 


 


 

Friday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 12/08/2016.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Friday at Brecon Jazz Weekend, 12/08/2016.

Ian Mann on the start of the first Brecon Jazz Weekend and performances by two very different piano trios led by Geoff Eales and Andy Nowak. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Geoff Eales by Bob Meyrick

FRIDAY AT BRECON JAZZ WEEKEND, 12/08/2016.

In December 2015 the decision of franchise operators Orchard Media to withdraw their support from Brecon Jazz Festival appeared to signal the end of a great musical institution that hosted some of the biggest names in jazz, drew visitors from all over the world and provided an incalculable boost to the local economy.

Understandably the town of Brecon was reluctant to see the Festival die after more than thirty years as one of the biggest and most important jazz gatherings in Britain, a much loved annual event that had helped to put Brecon on the global musical map.

In January 2016 plans began to be made for a jazz happening in Brecon on the traditional mid August weekend that had been a fixture in the diary of so many jazz lovers for so many years. The first group of jazz enthusiasts to take action were Brecon Jazz Club who have been keeping the jazz flag flying in Brecon for the other eleven months of the year for so long.

Under the guidance of Lynne ‘The Indefatigable” Gornall and her team Brecon Jazz Club were quick to organise a series of concert events at popular former Festival venues such as the Guildhall and the Castle Hotel.

Left high and dry by Orchard’s withdrawal and suddenly faced with a blank weekend Theatr Brycheiniog presented a series of concerts by young performers under the generic title “Brecon Jazz Futures”. The programme was curated by musical educator Marc Edwards and proved to be a great success and I’ll be taking a closer look at some of the individual events in the series in due course.

The third strand of the newly christened Brecon Jazz Weekend was a further series of concerts at Brecon Cathedral, another venue that had become closely associated with the Festival. The Dean & Chapter were keen to continue the Cathedral’s association with jazz in the town and were able to secure Arts Council of Wales funding for some of their events, among them a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington and a concert by vocalist Jacqui Dankworth and her quintet. 

With the three different strands in operation there was a commendably wide choice of music to be enjoyed in the town over the course of the first ‘Brecon Jazz Weekend’. True to the Brecon spirit this was music that impressed with its sheer variety as the performers explored a broad array of jazz styles. For me it’s the wide range of jazz and related music that’s been one of the great strengths of Brecon Jazz over the years with every Festival throwing up at least one important new discovery. This year, under new management and a new name, was to be no different.

While the jazz festival was being re-invented the accompanying Brecon Fringe was celebrating its tenth anniversary. One suspects that even without the main festival to hang its hat on the Fringe would have happened anyway with virtually all the pubs in town presenting bands over the weekend. The sounds of rock, blues and covers bands was blasting out all over town and some of them sounded pretty damn good. I’ve attended a few Fringe events in the past and enjoyed them and I’d like to congratulate the organisers on reaching this milestone.

This inaugural Brecon Jazz Weekend centred around the theme of “Women In Jazz” and also placed an emphasis on the virtues of collaboration and well being that are encouraged by the playing of jazz and other musics. The programme included a series of workshops including a number of events conducted by trained music therapist (and talented double bass player ) Erika Lyons.

The Guildhall venue also hosted an exhibition emphasising the role that women have played in the development of jazz in Wales, among them bassist and educator Paula Gardiner and drummer and big band leader Crissy Lea. At the opening reception music was performed by a number of local, predominately female musicians including pianist Jen Wilson, saxophonist Deborah Glenister and vocalists Elissa Evans and Margot Morgan.

Having set the background to the Brecon Jazz weekend I’ll now move on to the main concert programme which commenced with;


GEOFF EALES TRIO, CASTLE HOTEL

This event was part of the programme curated by Brecon Jazz Club and Lynne Gornall and her team were rewarded with a capacity audience, seated cabaret style at the refurbished Castle Hotel.

Pianist and composer Geoff Eales was born in Wales but is now based in London. One of the UK’s most respected jazz musicians he has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages playing music in a variety of styles ranging from chamber jazz to fusion via mainstream and even free jazz. For me his best album remains 2009’s Edition Records release “Master Of The Game”, an aptly titled set of original contemporary piano jazz featuring an exceptional trio including double bassist Chris Laurence and drummer Martin France.

For tonight’s homecoming concert , and in keeping with the theme of the Weekend, Eales was joined by an all female rhythm section featuring the experienced double bassist Erika Lyons and the young Birmingham based drummer Romarna Campbell. 

There were echoes of a 2007 Festival performance in the same room when Eales, plus a different rhythm section, paid homage to the greats of jazz piano by playing in a myriad of styles ranging from Art Tatum through Bill Evans to Keith Jarrett. Tonight Eales, Lyons and Campbell concentrated on the music of four contemporary piano giants in the shapes of Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner - “four great living pianists”, as Eales described them. 

Following its recent refurbishment the Castle Hotel ballroom no longer has a grand piano and Eales was forced to play an electric keyboard but he still sounded good as he soloed in flowingly expansive fashion as the trio opened with Hancock’s much loved composition “Dolphin Dance”. The piece also included a solo from the consistently excellent Lyons, a hugely popular performer on the jazz circuit in Wales and the Borders and once a fully professional musician on the London jazz scene.

Also by Hancock the perennially popular “Watermelon Man” saw the music taking a funkier turn with solos by Eales and Lyons plus Campbell, who had previously exhibited a mature sense of detachment, cutting loose at the drums. “Herbie was only twenty two when he wrote it” explained Eales, “it’s been making him money ever since!”

Introducing Chick Corea’s “Friends” Eales couldn’t resist a dig at the odious Donald Trump. The music was rather more palatable as the trio lowered the temperature with Campbell starting out on brushes and with solos coming from Eales and Lyons. After Campbell finally picked up her sticks Eales second piano excursion found him adopting a more quirky approach and peppering his solo with quotes.

From the album “The Real McCoy” came Tyner’s sumptuous ballad “Search For Peace” which was introduced by a passage of solo piano before Eales was joined by Lyons’ languorous bass purr and the gentle swish of Campbell’s brushes. Lyrical solos came from Eales and Lyons with the latter picking up her bow as the tune drew to a close.

Tyner’s much played “Passion Dance” saw the trio upping the energy levels once more with Campbell introducing the tune with a solo drum passage before helping to power Eales’ solo in conjunction with Lyons’ propulsive bass. A second drum feature helped to ‘top and tail’ the piece and earned Campbell a great reception from the capacity audience.

Keith Jarrett’s “My Song” was one of the tunes played by Eales at that concert back in 2007. It’s one of the composer’s most beautiful melodies and the piece featured suitably lyrical solos from Eales and Lyons, sympathetically supported by Campbell’s brushed drums. I must admit to missing the distinctive sound of Jan Garbarek’s sax though.

The second Jarrett piece was Eales’ trio arrangement of “Memories Of Tomorrow”, better known as part IV of Jarrett’s million selling solo piano album “The Koln Concert”. The trio’s surprisingly robust treatment included solos from Eales and Lyons with the latter again taking up the bow in the closing stages.

Eales decided to include a couple of his own compositions in the set including “Watermill 22”, a piece written to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the Watermill Jazz Club in Dorking. Described by the composer as “a twelve bar blues with altered chords” and as a “a bit Monkish” it was another lively offering with a quote laden solo from Eales plus features for both Lyons and Campbell, the latter trading fours with the composer.

Eales’ “Song For My Mother” originally appeared on the “Master Of The Game” album and has subsequently acquired an additional poignancy following the recent death of the composers mother.
With its gospel tinged lyricism it’s one of Eales’ most beautiful tunes and was introduced here by a passage of solo piano with Lyons then combining to form a duo before the eventual introduction of Campbell. Eales and Lyons both soloed in appropriately sensitive fashion with the bassist again utilising her bow at the close.

Despite probably being unfamiliar to most members of the audience both of Eales’ original tunes were very well received but it was to be Corea’s “Armando’s Rumba” which closed the set. “It’s actually a samba”, explained Eales, “but who am I to argue with Chick Corea?” The piece proved to be something of a feature for Campbell who demonstrated her impressive musicality on an extended drum feature, winning herself a lot of new friends in the process.

The well deserved encore saw the trio again departing from the script with a performance of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” which Eales dedicated to his own father, also Horace, who was present in the audience. A talented pianist himself it was Horace who first encouraged Geoff to play and he was rewarded by this good natured rendition that was ushered in by Lyons at the bass and included solos by herself and Geoff Eales.

This combination of classic jazz compositions and excellent musicianship performed in front of a full house ensured that Brecon Jazz Weekend got off to a terrific start and helped to set the scene for the events to come. It represented a triumph for organisers Brecon Jazz Club who were to be rewarded with capacity audiences all weekend.


ANDY NOWAK TRIO, BRECON CATHEDRAL

Andy Nowak is a pianist and composer based in Bristol. In early 2016 he released his début album “Sorrow And The Phoenix” which featured his regular trio with fellow Bristolian Andy Tween (drums) and London based bassist Spencer Brown.

The trio played a number of dates in support of the album earlier in the year, including one at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergvenny which I was forced to miss. I was therefore determined to catch them this time round and made my way across to this first concert on the Cathedral programme.

Unfortunately in contrast to the sell out events at the Castle Hotel featuring Geoff Eales followed by the Teddy Smith Big Band this concert was very sparsely attended with fewer than twenty people seated in the nave at the Cathedral. It appeared that the Cathedral’s flagship concerts, a Duke Ellington tribute plus a performance by Jacqui Dankworth, had been well publicised but the performances by Nowak’s trio and by fellow pianist Simon Deeley’s trio less so. As a result both Nowak and Deeley suffered from poor attendances.

In Nowak’s case ( I didn’t see Deeley’s performance) this was a pity as the music and playing were both excellent and the sound balance exquisite with Nowak clearly relishing the opportunity to play the Cathedral’s beautiful Bluther grand piano.

Virtually all the music was sourced from the group’s début album and the performance began with set opener “First Light” which featured the trio’s expressive instrumental interplay plus a flowing Nowak solo.  Initially classically trained Nowak exhibited an admirable lightness of touch at the keyboard and he has cited both Bach and Brad Mehldau as significant influences. Less obviously apparent sources of inspiration include Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and Captain Beefheart!

Brown has appeared on the Jazzmann web pages on albums by guitarist Kristian Borring and saxophonist Josh Kemp plus the band Porpoise Corpus. I was reminded of his work with the latter as he switched to electric bass for “We’ve Got To Bring It Down”, an ode to creativity that combined Nowak’s flowing lyricism with a subliminal funkiness and included solos for both Nowak and Brown.

The bassist moved back to the acoustic upright for a version of the standard “But Not For Me” which began with a solo piano introduction prior to Brown picking out the melody on the bass. His resonant but sensitive playing was hugely influential in the success of the music. Nowak’s solo climaxed with him trading fours with Tween, the drummer’s playing occasionally showing flickers of the latent power that once earned him a gig with folk / rock superstar Seth Lakeman. Since quitting the Lakeman band Tween has focussed on jazz and his sensitive and neatly detailed playing is also a key component in the music of this supremely balanced trio.

The album track “In The Leaving” was described by Tween as “a break up song” and featured the composer’s thoughtful, precise and undemonstrative playing on a solo piano introduction and subsequent feature that included the admirably sensitive support of brushed drums and double bass.

Like many contemporary piano trios the Nowak group have been subject to the inevitable E.S.T. comparisons and there was something of this on the busy “Stop” with its alternating fast/loud passages. Introduced by Tween at the drums and featuring Brown on electric bass the piece saw Nowak skilfully building up the tension during his solo before handing over to Brown.

One of Nowak’s primary influences was Oscar Peterson and the trio performed their arrangement of the Peterson hit “Night Train” in his honour with solos from Nowak on piano and Brown on acoustic bass, both propelled by the gentle surge of Tween’s brushes.

Nowak also spoke of his admiration for the Japanese pianist Hiromi after having seen her at a previous Brecon Jazz Festival. That said Nowak’s own more considered approach seemed far removed from Hiromi’s blend of showmanship and phenomenal technique, something emphasised by the delicate probing and brooding of “So Far Away” with the pianist combining right hand lyricism with powerful left hand motifs.

George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” was compellingly reworked by the trio with Nowak’s lyrical solo piano intro followed by an achingly lovely and melodic solo by Brown on acoustic bass. Nowak’s subsequent solo found him stretching out expansively in a manner that was sometimes reminiscent of Keith Jarrett.

Returning to the album “Falling” was inspired by the fall to earth of a sycamore leaf, something that was reflected in the gently spiralling quality of Nowak’s solo. The piece also included a drum feature from the impressive Tween who had manfully been battling the effects of a summer cold (or maybe hay fever) all evening.

I spoke earlier of Nowak’s admiration for the pianist Brad Mehldau. The American has a fondness for de-constructing the work of contemporary songwriters and his version of Nick Drake’s “Riverman” in turn inspired Nowak’s arrangement of a lesser known Drake song, “These Things First”. Beginning with a passage of solo piano the trio’s expressive interpretation found the leader stretching out impressively with Brown also soloing on double bass. I was impressed by the subtle detail of Nowak’s arrangement, like Mehldau he clearly has a great affinity for Drake’s work.

The performance ended with “Raining In Bristol” with Nowak’s piano arpeggios cleverly simulating the patters of raindrops as the vigorous rhythmic interplay again hinted strongly at that E.S.T. influence.

Overall I was very impressed with this performance by the Andy Nowak Trio and also by the album “Sorrow And The Phoenix” which is both intelligent and highly melodic and features an unfailingly high standard of musicianship throughout. It’s an album that deserves to be widely heard.

As did this performance.

 

Jazz Corner - ‘All Those Cultural Links’.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Jazz Corner - ‘All Those Cultural Links’.

Guest contributor Lynne Gornall of Brecon Jazz Club on the spirit of local and international co-operation within the jazz community.

Photograph of Major Swing with Remi Harris by Bob Meyrick.


Ian writes;


The indefatigable Lynne Gornall and her willing team co-ordinate the monthly jazz events held in the Brecon Jazz Club Bar at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon as well as helping with the promotion of jazz in Wales as a whole.


Lynne has recently begun to write a regular column called “Jazz Corner” for the local newspaper, the Brecon & Radnor Express. I’m indebted to Lynne and to Eryl Jones of the Brecon & Radnor Express for allowing me to reproduce the following article which originally appeared in the newspaper on 23rd May 2016 and finds Lynne examining the cultural links and spirit of co-operation between local jazz clubs and the wider international jazz community.

I think that it’s a fascinating read and it’s something that I wanted to share with the Jazzmann readership.


Lynne Gornall writes;


Brecon + Radnor Express
Jazz Corner column (Brecon Jazz Club)


JAZZ CORNER
23 May 2016    


BANK HOLIDAY JAZZ – AND ALL THOSE CULTURAL LINKS

So here’s some good news at last, and hopes of summer weather: a free jazz event and prospect of a relaxing afternoon on Saturday (28 May) from 2pm at the Wellington Hotel, Brecon.

Vocalist Debs Hancock is a favourite at Brecon Jazz Club and her trio sees some of the best-known and respected musicians around to join her – Brecon’s Mike Chappell on piano/keyboards, and South Wales’ Steve Tarner on double bass. Both have played many times at the club, in different lineups. Debs tells us that she is planning a programme with some of the most requested jazz vocal numbers from the ‘Great American Songbook’, the enduring melodies and classic lyrics that we all love. It’s also great to be introducing younger audiences to these great sounds. The music starts at 2pm - so not to be missed.

When the Wellington approached us at the beginning of this year, to discuss a way that they could play their part in keeping jazz alive all year round in town – part of the jazz club’s declared mission – we were delighted. They wanted to build up to the summer jazz festival and show that jazz and ‘Brecon’ were intimately linked.  Great thinking, which we totally support.

It is this kind of co-operation and partnership that has been so evident this year. Debs (Hancock) herself is part of the team at our ‘partner’ jazz club, Black Mountain Jazz over in Abergavenny. We regularly see friends coming over from the ‘Sugarloaf’ direction to our club events, and we get over there too whenever we can. BMJ (organized by Mike Skilton) now run their monthly Sunday gigs from the delightful ‘bijou’ Melville Theatre. Next up is the Manchester band Artephis on Sunday 26 June (8pm, £10/£8). We went over to the club earlier this year (in March) to see their new venue and to hear the amazing Olivia Trummer from Germany, and her vibes player Jean-Lou Treboux (from Switzerland). It was a stand-out gig. Olivia plays jazz in a ‘classical’ way, or to put it differently, she plays ‘classical jazz’. - original compositions inspired by the works of Mozart, Scarlatti and (especially) Bach. And played, as jazz, but in that style. You had to be there to get it!  It was wonderful, and quite a coup for a small jazz club to host such international talents. Debs (Hancock) was there too, not in this case as an accomplished jazz vocalist, but as part of the club team, introducing everyone and helping the evening go smoothly - we also have a great team supporting our Jazz Club. She’ll have her moment in Brecon this Saturday, and we’ll all be there to applaud her, won’t we?

‘Partnership working’ and the kind of mutual support we see amongst the jazz clubs community for example, is typically included in all of the strategic and policy objectives today of most of our public bodies – and lots of progressive commercial companies too. But achieving it is easier said than done. Some of the unsung heroes of this kind of thing – like Debs, Mike and our team - are also volunteers and community agents. So it is with the people who organize ‘twinning’ links between our towns with those in other countries. Whichever way you lean on ‘Europe’, the town-to-town partnerships, where people in business, community, tourism and residence co-operate with each other, learning and sharing ideas, exchanging visits and local data, can only be a good thing.

‘Twinning’ is a relationship for cultural exchange, visits and receptions and aims to promote strong social cultural artistic and sporting links with the twin town. It encourages individual, family and group visits, through staying with host families to make for greater understanding of each other’s way of life. Brecon is also twinned with the city of Saline in Michigan, US, an association that began in 1966. It is a city of some 8,000 inhabitants, and the bonds of close friendship with Wales are such that 4,000 trips by both sets of residents have been to date. Perhaps readers have taken part and will tell us more? Links with Gouesnou are also very active: last year, Breton residents came to walk in Wales, while Brecon residents visited their counterparts for ‘Welsh week’ in Finistère, with folk dancing performance, heritage visits, languages and crafts as part of the cultural offer.

Last year, as Brecon Jazz Club, we were lucky enough to be invited by Margaret Edwards, Secretary of the Brecon-Gouesnou Twinning Association, to meet the visitors who had come over on one of their annual visits. There in St Mary’s Church café, we met Philippe, the leader of the Gouesnou partnership and more than 30 Bretons who had come over for their latest Brecon sojourn. Some had been coming a long time and knew the area very well. One had learned Welsh. There was an exhibition at Brecon Library showing some of the similarities between Breton and Welsh languages in ‘100 words’.  It was all incredibly impressive – such energy, engagement, commitment, camaraderie. Well, partnership really.

Our involvement in this arose when (last year), we invited the group from Brittany, Major Swing, to play at the 2015 Brecon Jazz Festival. We had also attended a wonderful jazz festival in Brittany (at Châteauneuf-du-Faou), where we met the amazing guitarist Jean Guyomarc’h and his friends in the band. Leader Philippe (Cann), also originally from Brittany, and the others of Major Swing now live in Tours, which gives them access to Paris and wider regions for gigs. But they retain their strong regional links: Jean’s father speaks Breton, and they brought gifts over of local foods and wine for people who hosted them here in Brecon. The reaction was very positive. There was also a rather unique drink sent over later by special delivery– alcoholic and made with fermented honey – rather delightful but (like their music) with a special ‘kick’!

Such delightful people, we asked them to include a greeting in Breton at the gigs they played – we organized a special tour for them here. Jean duly consulted his father. Together, and with some help, we came up with a set of phrases - but please dear readers, all corrections on a postcard please! This included an ‘hello’ in four languages -

Kalz plijadur zo ganeomp da vezan deuet e Bro Gembre – Breizh/Breton

A great pleasure with us to have been in Wales - English

Noswaith dda o Gymru, a croeso i’r cyngerdd heno – Welsh

Beaucoup de plaisir est avec nous d’être venus au pays de Galles - French


(Breizh-à-Galles project summer 2015 – ‘Major Swing’)
In July last year, and to help set up this collaboration, we accompanied our friend the guitarist Remi Harris (and rhythm guitarist Caley Groves) on a Brittany Ferries trip to France. We we had arranged for Remi to headline with Major Swing in France, to be followed by a coming together again to perform in Brecon a month later. French festival promoter Trevor Stent of FestJazz wrote after the project, ‘Really pleased Major Swing were such a success over in Wales, am really pleased for them and you who did so much to bring it about. Interested in discussing future partnerships…Remi (Harris) [from UK] is an extraordinary talent and absolutely deserves his rising star status – thank you for bringing him over (to play), and introducing us to him’.

In turn, Aberjazz emailed, after hearing Major Swing at Brecon and then also hosting them in Fishguard as part of the curated tour, ‘it is great for us that we are working with Brecon jazz club, and co-operating in bringing events here by working together. The gig was a tremendous success and everyone we’ve spoken to has asked if we can have them back.’

Working together co-operatively made this ambitious idea easy to realize, and built strong bonds. There is a link here with the Wellington gig coming up on bank holiday Saturday. We last saw bassist Steve Tarner as he set off for Fishguard to play the concert with Major Swing (in the Ffwrn, old bakehouse) organized by our friends at Aberjazz. Steve, ever the professional, and with a long drive involved, arrived early and in very good time, complete with his draft set list, chord sheets and ipad, all ready to rehearse. The band arrived late – very late (but in time for the gig) – distracted and amazed by the beauty of Wales, and unable to resist numerous small detours. We can’t blame them!  They were entranced. They loved Wales and Wales loved them, Major Swing were an outright ‘major’ success in our jazz events calendar. When they returned, they wrote….‘We have been guided and supported by many careful and effective people and organizations…and credit all those we played with…these excellent musicians in this ‘Franco-Galloise collaboration’, organized by Brecon Jazz Club’ - “De riches rencontres humaines et musicales, en haut avec les organisateurs du Brecon Jazz [club], hôtes, et bien sûr les fabuleux musicians gallois!”

Philippe also wrote a diary blog even as they returned to France after the tour, on the ferry home: We…know that this collaboration will continue, and new places and promoters will want to book us as part of a ‘Celtic’ co-operation and exchange. The goal would also be to involve musicians (in both countries) – and perhaps more Breton festivals – in order to give further momentum and identity to this project.  The leading musicians we played with will also perform another event in Wales at the end of the month [28 Aug], to sustain and celebrate the coming together (Philippe Cann, leader of Major Swing, letter to promoters, October 2015 – ref. Breizh-à-Galles project).  He also, once home and on Facebook, created an identity for the creative co-working – ‘Jazz Inter-Celtique’.  We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, or wished for more.

Reviews of the concerts were also excellent, as were audience responses, and the musician-of-musician comments– ‘he has wonderful energy’, Jean Guyomarc’h said of Steve Tarner. Demonstrating that ‘collaboration’ can be objectively evaluated as of high value, reviews confirmed the musical excellence and also innovation by the players – brilliant but improvising and spontaneously developing their musical alliance ‘in concert’.  ‘This freshly assembled quintet had never played together before and the idea to bring them together first came from [the promoters of Brecon Jazz Club - ‘we knew it would work’. And in a programme celebrating the jazz guitar, it was perhaps appropriate that it was these two brilliant soloists [Remi Harris from the UK and Jean Guyomarc’h of France] who made the most lasting impression, with superb instrumental interplay..’ (Jazzmann Review, August 2015).

Having set this up, the mutual compliments by the Welsh/French counterparts, the positive reviews and seeing how the creative partnership between them developed was really rewarding. Of course, it was risky, and involved writing bids, persuading people and organisations, getting musicians and groups on board, and just trusting to instincts that these were amazing musicians who only needed to be introduced to each other for the magic to happen.  It did. So ‘vive’ partnership and co-operation. As the Spanish musician, Arturo Serra, also in a curated tour and visit here, commented in a post-tour interview – ‘I always trust in the new things that can come - collaboration is the only way!’. He went on to say that he is dedicating his life and work to this, a confirmation that he loves and believes in what he does (May 2014).

Next week after the bank holiday, a group are travelling to Brittany from Brecon on a return visit to Gouesnou, where there will be visits, encounters and furthering of the relationships, friendship and partnership between the two civic counterparts.  But before then, there’s just time to catch that great collaboration with Debs Hancock and the Trio at the Wellington. See you there – à bientôt!


Links;

Brecon Jazz Club http://www.breconjazzclub.org

Brecon & Radnor Express http://www.brecon-radnor.co.uk


Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 02/05/2016.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Monday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 02/05/2016.

Ian Mann on the final day of the Festival and performances by Ibibio Sound Machine, Remi Harris Trio, Ben Cipolla Band, Elkie Brooks and Darius Brubeck Quartet.

Photograph of Elkie Brooks by Tim Dickeson


MONDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 02/052016.


IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE

It’s become something of a Cheltenham tradition for the final day of the festival to begin with something of a party in the Big Top featuring energetic, crowd pleasing bands who are able to get audiences to their feet and start the day with a bang. 2014 saw the London Afro-Beat Collective entertaining the crowd and in 2015 it was the turn of the excellent Hackney Colliery Band.

This year saw the Festival organisers turning again to the genre of Afro-Beat with Ibibio Sound Machine, an octet of London based musicians fronted by vocalist Eno Williams, London born of Nigerian heritage. Completing the line up were guitarist Alfred Bannerman, bass guitarist Leon Brichard, drummer Jose Joyette and percussionist Anselmo Netto plus a three man horn section consisting of Max Grunhard (alto sax), Tony Hayden (trombone) and Scott Baylis (trumpet). Hayden and Baylis both doubled on keyboards with synthesisers and electronics playing a substantial part in a group sound that embraced soul vocals, fat funk bass lines, rock influenced guitar and the African percussive exotica of the flamboyant Netto.

As a unit the Sound Machine were commendably tight and the colourfully clothed Williams proved to be a galvanising presence, an energetic front woman who was exhorting the crowd to get to their feet from the off. That she succeeded at one o’clock in the afternoon was a triumph both for her energy and persistence and for the near irresistible grooves generated by her highly competent band.

The bulk of the material came from their eponymous 2014 début album and included the single “The Talking Fish” which brought the crowd to its feet and augmented Williams’ strident vocal with a spectacular duel between drummer Joyette and percussionist Netto plus the first of a series of searing, rock influenced guitar solos by Bannerman. As Williams explained to the crowd the Sound Machine’s music is a blend of Nigerian and Western influences, filtered through a London perspective.

Let’s Dance, with the crowd doing exactly that, was notable for its energy and more excellent work from Netto on a mix of African and Latin percussion that included darbuka, congas and much more. There were occasions when the Sound Machine’s genre blending music reminded me a little of Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart, particularly when Brichard, who occasionally doubled on percussion, laid down a particularly heavy bass line.

The aptly named “Quiet Song” lowered the temperature briefly but still combined a hypnotic groove with a smouldering solo by Grunhard on alto sax. But Williams soon had the audience back on its feet again and singing along with the closing “Trans Dance” with its “The Pot’s On Fire” refrain.

Overall this was an enjoyable gig and nobody could fault Williams and the band for their energy and enthusiasm. But like the London Afro-Beat Collective this was probably the least successful gig of the day in purely musical terms. But there’s no doubt that Ibibio Sound Machine work hard to put on a show and their sound has also been enjoyed by audiences at the WOMAD, Glastonbury and Wilderness festivals.

There were occasions when I thought Williams was perhaps trying a bit too hard, but this was early afternoon and I suspect that audiences at Sound Machine gigs in a later time slot probably need a lot less cajoling to the get into the vibe. Also today’s audience was down on the last two years which meant that the band had to work that little bit harder.

Rather the like the LAC this isn’t music I’d necessarily want to listen to at home but it did get the day off to an invigorating start.

FRINGE SHOWCASE;
REMI HARRIS TRIO & THE BEN CIPOLLA BAND, THE JAZZ ARENA

Another Bank Holiday Monday afternoon tradition at Cheltenham is the Fringe Showcase which features the two most popular acts from the previous year’s Fringe. The event is supported by the charitable Oldham Foundation whose chairman John Oldham introduces the artists each year.

Guitarist Remi Harris proved to be a big hit at the 2014 Fringe, his set being enjoyed by Jamie Callum who featured Harris’ trio on his BBC Radio 2 programme.

Harris has also been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages. Originally from Bromyard, Herefordshire he’s something of a local hero as far as I’m concerned and it’s been a pleasure to watch his career develop over the course of the last six years from playing the back rooms of pubs to sell out performances at festivals, first Brecon and now Cheltenham. 

Still only twenty six Harris began his musical career as lead guitarist with the rock band Mars Bonfire but a growing fascination with Django Reinhardt and the sounds of gypsy jazz saw him undertake a radical change of direction and he rapidly began to forge an impressive reputation on the jazz circuit as a brilliant acoustic guitarist working out of the gypsy jazz tradition.

More recently Harris has diversified and allowed some of his earlier influences to return and his set is now an entertaining mix of various music styles but still with gypsy jazz at its heart.

The personnel of Harris’ trio has undergone a number of changes over the years but now appears to have stabilised with the experienced Birmingham musician Mike Green on double bass and the Australian born Caley Groves on rhythm guitar.

Harris’ stagecraft has improved immeasurably over the years too and he and the trio consistently deliver entertaining, enjoyable and informative sets that always leave audiences delighted. I’ve never seen Harris play a bad gig and although today’s performance was inevitably somewhat truncated due to the ‘double header’ nature of the event he and the trio were still rapturously received by a capacity crowd that was not necessarily previously familiar with his music.

Harris’ wide ranging approach was perhaps best encapsulated by the opening number, an arrangement of the Beatles song “Can’t Buy Me Love”, delivered gypsy jazz style by two acoustic guitars and double bass. This was segued with “Joseph, Joseph”, a gypsy jazz staple that was also a hit in vocal form for the Andrews Sisters.

As evidenced by the Beatles piece Harris is increasingly looking beyond the established gypsy jazz repertoire for inspiration as evidenced by the trio’s brilliant acoustic version of The Meters’ New Orleans funk classic “Cissy Strut” with its feature for the excellent Green on double bass.

Harris’ between song announcements these days contain a wealth of information, that earlier nugget about the Andrews Sisters being an example. Now he explained how he was first influenced by rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Peter Green of the original Fleetwood Mac. Harris now picked up his electric guitar to deliver a stunningly emotive instrumental performance of Green’s “Need Your Love So Bad”, a piece that has increasingly become a high point of his set.

Harris moved back to acoustic guitar for “Oud Elegy”, a fiendishly complicated piece with a 39/16 time signature originally written for the oud by the North African musician Dhafer Youseff. Harris has been relishing the technical challenges of this piece for some time now as he adds world music to the flavours of an already eclectic musical mix.

Finally in this all too brief ‘taster’ of a set the trio moved back to the classic gypsy jazz canon with “Bossa Dorado” but with a Chuck Berry quote thrown in for good measure.

As he thanked the crowd Harris informed us that a new album is imminent which will be released on his own label, a keenly awaited follow up to 2010’s “Live At The Hatch” and 2014’s studio album “Ninick”.

Today’s performance, excellent though it was, offered only a glimpse of what Remi Harris is capable of. Readers are urged to check him out for themselves at a full length performance. Harris is a particularly hard working musician who performs live frequently. Please visit http://www.remiharris.com for details of his schedule.

The Harris Trio were followed by the Ben Cipolla Band, a young group from Swindon fronted by vocalist, songwriter and occasional guitarist Ben Cipolla. As well as impressing at last year’s Cheltenham Jazz Fringe the band also won the award for ‘Best Newcomer’ at the 2014 Marlborough Jazz festival where Cipolla guested with Clare Teal. He has also featured on her Radio 2 programme.

The Cipolla band also played at the 2015 Wall2Wall Jazz Festival in Abergavenny where I was impressed by their blend of musicality, showmanship and mix of original songs and jazz, pop and soul covers.

The line up at Abergavenny was a six piece but today’s show featured the full octet with Cipolla fronting a line up featuring guitarists Jonny Budd (electric) and Isaac Francis (acoustic), bass guitarist Dan Springate and drummer Will Downes-Hall. A full three man horn section featured Lawrence Cooper on trumpet, David Knight on alto sax and Ash Garfitt on tenor and baritone saxes.

Although still so young that their parents have to drive them to gigs the Cipolla band have already released a critically acclaimed EP. “Guest House”, from which some of the songs in an all original programme were taken. A full length album is due for release in 2017 and will doubtless be very keenly anticipated.

Roared on by a large contingent from Swindon the band started energetically with “Mr Chameleon” but a problem with Cipolla’s vocal mic meant that they got off to a shaky start. Wearing the same eye catching blue suit that we’d seen at Abergavenny the confident singer soon got himself back on track and ultimately this concert was a triumph for the band.

The catchy “Felicity Fandango” helped to keep the crowd onside as did the reggae grooves and rousing chorus of “Saskia”. And even in Cheltenham there wasn’t anybody called Saskia in the audience!

Budd impressed on electric guitar on “Stripped Down”, a song sourced from the “Guest House” EP. By way of contrast “Worthwhile” offered a welcome change of pace and dynamics with an assured duet between vocalist Cipolla and acoustic guitar specialist Francis.

Punchy horn lines and funky grooves helped to power “Puppet”, a song from the EP that also had its more reflective moments too.

“Capuccino” was a song written about the band members busking experiences and “Monkey Love” saw Budd abandoning his guitar to pick up a second alto sax thereby creating a four piece horn section. The set ended with the uplifting “Cocoa Butterfly” with the band having to reluctantly refuse the deserved requests for an encore due to festival scheduling pressures.

Once again I was highly impressed with this young band’s standard of musicianship and overall coherence. Although the charismatic Cipolla is very much the leader and front man this is a group that still seems to have a genuine ‘band’ mentality, one senses that they are all good mates off the stand as well. However there’s also a drive and professionalism about the band, a work ethic that will help to ensure their continued progress as they prepare to record their début album.

The Abergavenny performance included covers by well known artists such as Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison as well as the more contemporary singer-songwriters John Mayer and Patrick Duff.  It also included a clutch of jazz standards further complemented by a couple of songs by Cheltenham favourite Gregory Porter, who Cipolla cites as a huge influence.   

But today’s performance was all about the band’s increasingly sophisticated original songs which clearly delighted the members of this capacity audience. I’ll admit that the music of the Ben Cipolla band is rather outside my usual listening area but I do see huge potential in these talented young musicians. Ben Cipolla’s star will continue to rise and I’m certain that we’re going to hear a lot from him and his talented band.

ELKIE BROOKS, THE BIG TOP

From two of the rising stars of the UK music scene to a veritable legend of the business. I first remember Elkie Brooks as a member of the early 70s group Vinegar Joe which she fronted with co-vocalist Robert Palmer. Brooks’ raucous on stage performances routinely upstaged Palmer and it was no real surprise when Vinegar Joe imploded with both singers going on to have successful solo careers. However the band remains in the public eye with Brooks still often to be seen belting out “Proud To Be a Honky Tonk Woman” a staple of BBC 4’s regular pop and rock nostalgia programmes.

In 1977 Brooks had a massive hit with “Pearl’s A Singer”, still the song most closely identified with her and one which established her as a bona fide star after years of scrabbling around the cabaret and second division rock circuits. It also marked a toning down of her music as she became an increasingly mainstream entertainer, moving further away from her blues and rock roots and becoming increasingly ‘middle of the road and AOR. Of course it all led to a plethora of hits and Brooks, true trouper that she is has continued to tour extensively, amassing a large and loyal following in the process.

I’ll admit that I’d rather lost touch with her music over the years but was still more than happy to see one of the great survivors of British popular music in action. Whether Brooks is genuinely a ‘blues singer’ is a moot point but she still has a belter of a voice and the vitality and energy of her performance belied her seventy years.

Still pencil slim and wearing an elegant black dress she fronted a six piece band featuring Rufus Ruffell (guitar), Lee Noble (backing vocals, keyboards), Brian Badham(electric bass) Stevie Jones   (tenor sax) Andrew Murray (keyboards) and Michael Richardson (drums). Initially the musicians kept a low profile with the arrangements seemingly designed to highlight the remarkable power of Brooks’ voice.

I’m not going to describe every song because most of them will be so familiar beginning with “Gasoline Alley”, once a hit for Rod Stewart.

Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”  and Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender” established her soul credentials with powerfully emotive performances and then it was into the hits such as “Fool If You Think It’s Over” , “Sunshine After The Rain” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud”.

Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” was recently made famous for a new generation by Adele but here Brook’s claimed it as her own with her hoarse, bluesy expressiveness. She also started to cut her musicians some slack too with Stevie Jones turning in the first of several effective r’n'b style tenor solos.

Occasionally bombast got the better of her as on a synth drenched “Night In White Satin” that only began to improve with Ruffell’s lead guitar solo that took the place of the flute led instrumental section on the Moody Blues original. And then there was Brooks’ transcendent Daltrey-esque scream at the very end of the song. 

“Lilac Wine” was another well received popular hit and the inevitable “Pearl’s A Singer”, still Brooks biggest hit and presumably inspired by her own cabaret days, brought the house down. “I’ve been singing this for thirty nine years” said Brooks but if she was tired of it it certainly didn’t show.

I’d expected “Pearl” to be the climax of the concert but instead it cleared the way for what, for me, was the best section of the show as Brooks and the band exploded into a turbo charged blues and rock ‘n’ roll medley that reminded me of Vinegar Joe in their hey day. Here Ruffell and Jones really came into their own with some blistering solos as the band really turned on the afterburners behind Brooks’ raunchy vocals. The entire audience in a sold out Big Top was on its feet by now as Brooks and the band romped through a sequence of songs that included the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” and “I’m Tore Down”, a blues song associated with Freddie King and Eric Clapton.

The inevitable encore was Prince’s “Purple Rain”, an appropriate choice but unlike some of the other tributes over the weekend not a spontaneous gesture. Brooks’ bluesy arrangement of the song actually appeared on her most recent album and has been in her repertoire for some time. In the light of recent events it took on a new significance and poignancy here and helped to make this excellent performance even more memorable.

I have to confess that I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this performance by Elkie Brooks. She undoubtedly still ‘has it’, not just the voice but also the personality. Her exuberant non stop performance saw her working the audience and flirting with her band mates but never taking herself too seriously as she skipped girlishly around the stage, danced unselfconsciously and delivered the announcements with a dollop of salty, acerbic, no nonsense, Salford wit. It was clear to see why her audiences love her so much.

For me this was an unexpected Festival highlight.

DARIUS BRUBECK QUARTET

Pianist and composer Darius Brubeck is, of course the son of Dave Brubeck, also a pianist and the composer of “Take Five” and a string of other jazz hits from the 50s and 60s. Rather than resenting living in his father’s shadow Darius seems more than happy to carry on the family name, playing his father’s music with his brothers Chris (bass) and Dan (drums) as Brubecks Play Brubeck.

Based in London since 2006 Brubeck has assembled an excellent band of musicians from the capital’s jazz scene including the experienced saxophonist Dave O’Higgins, rising star bassist Matt Ridley and the South African born drummer Wesley Gibbens.  The repertoire of the band includes well known Dave Brubeck tunes, original compositions from the pen of Darius Brubeck and pieces by South African musicians such as Abdullah Ibrahim.

Brubeck’s connection to South Africa is deep rooted, having spent over twenty years in the country as the Head of Jazz at the University of KwaZulu Natal where he initiated the first degree course in Jazz Studies offered by an African university. He still retains an honorary artist-in-residence post at KwaZulu Natal and returns to South Africa on an annual basis.

Today’s performance saw Brubeck and his quartet performing to a capacity crowd in the Jazz Arena. Brubeck adheres to the sartorial fashions of his father’s time with the leader and his band mates appearing in sharply tailored suits and ties – I’ve never seen O’ Higgins or the spectacularly hirsute Ridley looking quite so dapper. 

The set commenced with a passage of solo piano from Brubeck with Ridley’s bass walk subsequently introducing the main body of the song, an Abdullah Ibrahim tune, the title of which Brubeck failed to announce. This featured a soprano sax solo from O’Higgins and a brushed drum feature from Gibbons over Ridley’s still implacable walk.

Brubeck dug quickly into his father’s back catalogue, eliciting a ripple of applause from the audience in a packed Jazz Arena as they recognised the familiar intro to “Blue Rondo A La Turk”.
O’Higgins filled the Paul Desmond role here, albeit on tenor, and his solo, complete with a quote from “Stranger In Paradise” was followed by Brubeck at the piano. Matt Ridley impressed with a bass solo that combined melodicism and dexterity in equal measure, his feature subtly supported by the patter of Gibbons’ brushed drums before the roles were reversed and Ridley repaid the complement.

Brubeck informed us that the jazz standard “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You” was co-written by Bing Crosby back in 1931 in conjunction with co-composers Ned Washington and Victor Young. The piece was a ballad feature for Brubeck on piano, O’Higgins on warm toned tenor sax and Ridley with another wonderfully melodic bass solo. The performance was crowned by a n impressive but beautiful solo tenor sax cadenza from O’Higgins.

Brubeck is a skilled composer in his own right and four original pieces were to follow, all of them sourced from this quartet’s latest release, 2014’s “Cathy’s Summer”, the album named in honour of Brubeck’s wife and manager Catherine.

The first original piece was “Ravely Street”, presumably named after the London thoroughfare in NW5. This saw O’Higgins probing deeply and intelligently on soprano as he shared the solos with the composer on piano.

Brubeck informed us that he had performed the tune “Before It’s Too Late” on Jamie Cullum’s BBC Radio “ programme. This saw O’Higgins moving back to tenor and again sharing the solos with Brubeck on a mid tempo tune that had something of the feeling of a jazz standard.

The album title track began with a drum prompt from Gibbens which introduced O’ Higgins’ theme statement, this followed in turn by concise solos from piano and tenor sax. But the piece ended as it began with Gibbens, his drum feature over Brubeck’s insistent Latin-esque piano figure garnering a great reception from the Jazz Arena audience.

The last of the original tunes was “Flippin’ The Bird”, a breezy piece based around a catchy and persistent melodic fragment that possessed a distinct hard bop feel and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Blue Note album from the 50s or 60s. The ebullient Gibbens was again in sparkling form as he occupied a prominent place in the arrangement alongside soloists O’ Higgins (tenor) and Brubeck (piano).

Brubeck’s love of South African jazz runs deep and the set concluded with the happy Township sounds of “Baby I Don’t Know”, written by a South African composer whose name I didn’t quite catch. Solos here came from the leader on piano and O’Higgins on tenor sax, the latter dubbed “an honorary Brubeck” by Darius on account of O’Higgins having toured with Brubeck and his brothers.

The audience at the Jazz Arena loved Darius Brubeck and his quartet and as this was the last gig of the Festival at this venue they were able to perform a deserved encore. Almost inevitably this was “Take Five”, Dave Brubeck’s biggest hit, which drew a barrage of applause on the intro and included solos from O’Higgins on tenor, Brubeck on piano and Gibbens at the drums, clearly relishing his chance to play the Joe Morello role.

This was easily the best straight ahead jazz performance of the day, one that I enjoyed very much and which got a terrific reception from the Jazz Arena crowd. The album “Cathy’s Summer” is also a rewarding , if not particularly demanding listen, with a good mix of eight original tunes and three standards, these including “I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You”.

But the award for gig of the day goes to Elkie Brooks for the sheer chutzpah, energy and stagecraft of the singer’s performance allied, of course, to that still extraordinary voice. 

 

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2016.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 01/05/2016.

Ian Mann on a day of richly varied music including performances by Shiver, Julian Arguelles, Meadow, Christian Scott, David Sanborn , Mulatu Astatke, Giovanni Guidi and Melt Yourself Down.

SUNDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 01/05/2016.

Photograph of Giovanni Guidi by Tim Dickeson


SHIVER, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

Shiver is a relatively new project featuring three musicians from the North of England in the shapes of Chris Sharkey (guitar), Andy Champion (electric bass) and Joost Hendrickx (drums). Given Sharkey’s involvement it’s tempting to think of Shiver as the direct descendants of the much missed trioVD,  which featured Sharkey alongside saxophonist Christophe de Bezenac and drummer Chris Bussey.

However Shiver’s music is substantially different. Whereas trioVD tended to perform in short, sharp ‘punk jazz’ bursts, often with a grunge like soft/loud dynamic Shiver prefer lengthy, shifting magnum opuses. Their music is much more about soundscaping with electronics playing a substantial part in the sonic process. It’s less obviously “in yer face” than trioVD and the sound levels at this mid-day performance at the PAC were considerably lower than at trioVD’s incendiary late night performance at the Pillar Room venue at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Not that Shiver lacks dynamism as their gripping performance was about to prove.

Playing a set of entirely new music Shiver commenced with a half hour opening segue of the tunes “Quickstep” and Bounce” beginning in impressionistic fashion with a sea of guitar washes above the rumble of Hendrickx’s mallets and Champion’s further manipulation of the sound via a floor mounted effects unit. Gradually the use of live looping, layering and sequencing saw the group’s sound mutating into something akin to contemporary dance music as Sharkey and his colleagues continued to develop a veritable wall of sound shored up by Hendrickx’s dynamic drumming. Elsewhere tribal sounding drums underpinned a Sharkey solo that sounded like Hank Marvin on very bad acid and there was plenty of the chunky math rock riffage that trioVD used to specialise in while the more ambient episodes were sometimes reminiscent of the soundscapes of Manchester based guitarist Stuart McCallum.

The shorter “Gum Takes Bat” began with a passage of solo guitar from Sharkey that saw him utilising his FX pedals to create layers of sound punctuated by electronic glitches before overlaying this with complex math rock riffing that eventually formed the spur for an impressive solo from Champion on his five string bass guitar. The piece concluded with a veritable riff fest that combined the sophistication of jazz with the power of heavy metal.

By the end of the second piece some fifty minutes had elapsed with this complex but compelling music making the time just seem to fly by. Unfortunately I had to leave at this juncture to move on to my next ticketed event at Cheltenham Town Hall. I was very reluctant to depart on but at least I’d got a handle on Shiver by then and found their combination of jazz, alt-rock and electronica both absorbing and exciting. The band is a worthy successor to trioVD and I look forward to catching up with them again sometime. Hopefully they will get to record a full length album before too long, the group’s début EP “Shiver 3” now being completely sold out. 

JULIAN ARGUELLES with the FRANKFURT RADIO BIG BAND, CHELTENHAM TOWN HALL

It was unfortunate that the Shiver gig overlapped this performance by saxophonist Julian Arguelles who was appearing in the company of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band plus guest performers Django Bates (piano, keyboards) and Steve Arguelles (drums, percussion). A fifteen minute gap between shows is normally slotted into the programme to allow concert goers to move between gigs but the early start for Arguelles and the FRBB was due to the fact that the musicians had to catch a flight back to Germany from Birmingham Airport later in the afternoon. This gig concluded a busy weekend for the members of the FRBB who had accompanied American vocalist Lizz Wright at the same venue the previous evening.

Arguelles has been a frequent collaborator with the FRBB and has recorded two albums with them beginning with “Momenta” an album of big band arrangements of the saxophonist’s original compositions recorded in 2008. In 2015 Arguelles and the Band released “Let It Be Told”, an album featuring Arguelles’ arrangements of tunes written by members of the Blue Notes, the group of South African musicians who were exiled from their homeland in the 1960s and subsequently moved to London where they had a profound and lasting effect on the UK jazz scene. Sadly many of them died tragically early with drummer Louis Moholo Moholo the only surviving member.

Arguelles and his older brother Steve were strongly influenced by the music of the Blue Notes as was Django Bates and it was their enduring love of this timeless music that led to this collaboration. Both Bates and Steve Arguelles appeared on “Let It Be Told” and both played prominent roles in today’s performance.

The Arguelles Brothers and Bates will always be linked with the seminal British big band Loose Tubes but prior to this they had all worked with the Blue Notes’ alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana in his band Zila and Pukwana was to have a significant influence on the work of Loose Tubes. Julian Arguelles has also played in bands led by Moholo Moholo and by the late Blue Notes pianist and Brotherhood of Breath leader Chris McGregor.

Although the music of the Blue Notes has previously been recorded and performed in a large ensemble format by the Dedication Orchestra (an aggregation that initially included Bates) Arguelles’ love of the music was so strong that he wanted to put his own stamp on it. Both today’s performance and the “Let It Be Told” album represent a joyous celebration of the Blue Notes and their legacy. Arguelles is a superb orchestrator and his skilled arrangements plus the marvellous playing of all the musicians involved ensured that for may people this was one of their ‘gigs of the festival’.

I was certainly expecting great things having previously heard and reviewed “Let It Be Told”. I’d also seen the FRBB perform at the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival when they collaborated with the Anglo-Scandinavian trio Phronesis in a wonderful performance at the Milton Court concert hall. The repertoire consisted of simply brilliant big band arrangements of Phronesis tunes by Julian Arguelles who also directed the FRBB as they shared the stage with the members of Phronesis (Jasper Hoiby – double bass, Ivo Neame – piano and Anton Eger – drums). Again this was beyond doubt one of the stand-out gigs of that festival.

Today at Cheltenham Arguelles did more than just direct as he took up his alto saxophone to play the Dudu Pukwana role as he shared the solos with Bates on the opening “Mra Khali”, written of course by Dudu Pukwana. Bates’ piano was initially a little too low in the mix, drowned out by the twin drum kits of Steve Arguelles and the FRBB’s Paul Hochstadter. Happily this was a situation that the sound engineers were able to rectify as the concert progressed.

Next we heard “Mama Marimba” written by Blue Notes bassist Johnny Dyani. This opened with a freely structured chorale out of which the theme subsequently emerged, played by Bates on piano. The featured soloists here were trombonist Christian Jaksjo, a musician who had made a big impression at the Phronesis/FRBB performance, and star tenor saxophonist Tony Lakatos.

“Retreat Song”, written by vocalist Miriam Makeba began with the lonely sound of a sole alto saxophone played by Heinz Dieter Sauerborn before mutating into a melancholy lilt with the first solo coming from Peter Feil on vocalised, plunger muted trombone. There was a brief duo exchange between the Arguelles brothers, Julian on alto and Steve at the drum kit, before a closing solo from Bates on synthesiser, his signature sound evoking memories of Loose Tubes.

The late trumpeter Mongezi Feza’s “You Ain’t Going To Know Me Unless You Know Me” is one of the most enduringly popular tunes to emerge from the Blue Notes stable and we were to hear a very different version of it later on in the day, but I’ll come to that in due course. Here it was ushered in by a delightful and elegant dialogue between Bates on piano and Oliver Leicht on clarinet before the familiar melody eventually emerged. Feza died aged just thirty in tragic circumstances in the mid 1970s but this tune remains a fine and worthy legacy.

A lively horn and percussion heavy arrangement of Pukwana’s “Diamond Express” saw Arguelles revisiting his Dudu role on alto as he shared the solos with trumpeter Axel Schlosser.

The “Let It Be Told” album occasionally includes compositions from outside the immediate Blue Notes circle, a case being the delightful ballad arrangement of one of Abdullah Ibrahim’s best known tunes, “The Wedding” . The combination of lush horn voicings and Bates’ crystalline acoustic piano was further enhanced by the featured soloists, Hans Dieter Saurborn on alto sax and Rainer Heute on bass clarinet. Only one drum kit featured on this tune as Hochstadter sat out entirely and Steve Arguelles confined himself to brushes.

Until this point Arguelles and the FRBB had played the album in its exact running order but the leader now introduced a ‘bonus piece’, a new arrangement of Chris McGregor’s “Sea Breeze”.
“This is the piece I changed the least” explained Arguelles “it’s beautiful just the way it is”. He also cited the particularly difficult part played by the bass trombone. After a percussive, almost funky intro that featured Julian himself on alto sax solos came from Jaksjo on trombone, Lakatos on tenor and Bates at the piano.

It was back to the album repertoire, albeit in a slightly different running order, for “Amabutho”, a traditional song that had previously been adapted by Joseph Shabalala, leader of the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In Arguelles hands the arrangement became an unaccompanied horn chorale for a section including Julian on alto plus clarinet, two bass clarinets and Schlosser on trumpet. 

“Amasi” was another rousing and exciting McGregor tune featuring Rainer Heute on baritone sax and culminating in a thrilling drum battle between Paul Hochstadter and Steve Arguelles.

The concert concluded with “Come Again” co-written by Pukwana and Martha Mdenge, a joyous, celebratory slice of Township Jazz featuring Arguelles on alto, Schlosser on pocket trumpet and Martin Scales on guitar.

Minor sound difficulties aside this had been a magnificent concert and the audience in a packed Town Hall responded with suitable enthusiasm and shouted for an encore. Sadly none was to be forthcoming, I suspect that there were probably no further arrangements and, of course, these gentlemen of the orchestra had a plane to catch.

In any event they’d already delivered the goods with a glorious display of sophisticated and celebratory big band jazz. Well done to all.

MEADOW, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE / CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH, THE JAZZ ARENA

I was unable to obtain press tickets for either of these shows but not wanting to miss out on either of them I stumped up the money and attended as a paying customer.

Although I don’t intend to write a full review of either of them I thoroughly enjoyed these two very different events.

At the PAC the surviving members of Meadow, the Norwegian musicians Thomas Stronen (drums) and Tore Brunborg (tenor & soprano sax) paid tribute to their former bandmate, the late, great British pianist and composer John Taylor who died suddenly and unexpectedly in the summer of 2015.

Meadow had been contracted to play Cheltenham in 2016 and decided to honour the booking, turning the performance into a homage to Taylor. In a programme of new material written by Brunborg and Stronen they were augmented by the bassist Anders Jormin who had played in an early edition of Meadow and who slotted in superbly with the group’s melodic, all acoustic chamber jazz aesthetic. This was a beautiful performance that was a fitting tribute to the great John Taylor.

Over at the Jazz Arena New Orleans born trumpeter Christian Scott’s performance was very different. Fronting his new quintet Stretch Music Scott played with great energy and verve, his sound incorporating elements of hip hop and soul as well as classic jazz. The trumpeter was joined by the Americans Logan Richardson (alto sax), Luques Curtis (bass) and Corey Fonville (drums) plus the Martinique born keyboard player Tony Tixier.

Amazingly this was the quintet’s first gig together but they acquitted themselves superbly playing a mix of jazz standards by Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane alongside Scott’s own compositions. As this stellar group progresses I’m sure that the focus will be entirely on original material.

Heavily miked up the Scott quintet were loud by jazz standards but this only added to the punch and sparkle of the music. Scott is a charismatic front man but he’s also a man of the people, seen fraternising with fans in Montpellier Gardens before the gig as well as jamming at Hotel De Vin later on.

This gig at a sold out Jazz Arena was lauded by many of my fellow commentators as the best of the weekend and I have to say it was right up there. Scott is a musician with genuine star quality and this new band of his is going to be well worth keeping an eye on.

DAVID SANBORN ELECTRIC BAND, THE BIG TOP

From the (comparatively) youthful promise of Christian Scott to the veteran (again, comparatively) saxophonist David Sanborn over at the Jazz Arena. Sanborn’s distinctive alto has been heard on records by Stevie Wonder, Gil Evans, James Brown, Jaco Pastorius and perhaps most famously David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. But he’s also a skilled jazz improviser despite the tendency of some critics to dismiss his music as ‘lightweight’ or ‘smooth jazz’.

Elements of blues, soul, funk and r’n'b have always been central to Sanborn’s sound and at the 2011 London Jazz Festival I saw him give an enjoyable performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the company of a trio featuring the brilliant organist Joey De Francesco plus drummer Byron Langham.

Fast forward to 2016 and Sanborn has assembled a quintet that he refers to as his ‘Electric Band’ featuring Ricky Peterson on keyboards, Nicky Moroch on guitar, Andre Berry on electric bass, Billy Kilson at the drums and studio veteran Karl Van Den Bossche on percussion. They proved to be a highly competent if slightly faceless ensemble, I seem to recall there being rather more chemistry between Sanborn and his 2011 trio.

Things kicked off with Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” which featured some rather unnecessary and irritating wordless vocalising from Peterson and Berry but this was mercifully curtailed by the incisive and distinctive sound of the leader’s alto. The highly entertaining Van Den Bossche was also featured on percussion but he was tucked away at the side of the stage and not really illuminated sufficiently, which was also something of a disappointment.

Sanborn recorded Marcus Miller’s “Maputo” on the album “Double Vision”, a collaboration with the keyboard player Bob James. Tonight’s version featured the flute like sounds of Peterson’s keyboards alongside the leader’s alto.

Miller also had a compositional hand in “Camel Island”, a piece co-written with Sanborn which featured Berry’s slapped bass and Peterson on Hammond with guitarist Moroch also emerging from the comparative shadows.  Van den Bossche was also featured with an extended percussion feature, an impressively energetic display that was rather better lit second time around. But at the heart of it all was Sanborn’s expressive alto - behind the smooth jazz trappings there’s an inspired improviser whose impassioned marathon soloing combines inventiveness with an admirable stamina.

One of the best moments of the set wasn’t even musical as Sanborn launched into an impressively angry rant about the state of American and British politics, declaring himself to be ‘embarrassed’ about the ongoing Presidential campaign and lamenting the way in which the man in the street has generally been ‘fucked over’ by the powers that be. I know that jazz audiences are generally left leaning but I thought that it was pretty brave of him to vent his spleen quite so bitterly in ultra conservative Cheltenham.

All of this was by way of introduction to the tune “Ordinary People”, dedicated to the hard working rank and file on both sides of the Atlantic trying to earn an honest crust in an increasingly hostile and corrupt environment. Some of that anger came out in the music during the course of this slow burning, ultimately anthemic tune, one could sense the indignation rising as Sanborn’s bluesy alto become increasingly impassioned as he blew long and hard over the swell and rumble of Peterson’s Hammond. Moroch’s blistering rock guitar solo climaxed the song and brought the anger into even greater focus. This combination of acerbic social comment backed up by some of the most powerful music of the set was the undisputed highlight of the show.

After the angst and the seriousness it was back to business as usual with the crunching funk grooves of “Chicago Song” with Peterson adopting a clavinet like sound on his keyboards behind Sanborn’s declamatory alto.

“Spanish Joint” began with a feature for Kilson and Van Den Bossche above Berry’s electric bass groove before opening out to incorporate solos from Sanborn on alto, Peterson on Rhodes and Moroch on guitar, the latter also trading phrases with Sanborn in thrilling fashion. 

The performance concluded with “Dream”, the jazz equivalent of a stadium rock anthem with its solid rhythms, slow burning alto solo and wordless vocals from Peterson. It was left to Kilson to end the proceedings with a closing drum flourish.

I know that several people were disappointed with this concert including Peter Jones writing for London Jazz News but overall I enjoyed it as did many others. Yes, there was a sense that the band were sometimes going through the motions and I certainly didn’t like the vocals. Also I didn’t find Peterson’s keyboard playing as convincing as that of Chad Selph in the Marcus Strickland band the previous day.

That said David Sanborn is never likely to play a bad show and I was impressed with his passion and energy at seventy – and not just with regard to that unexpected political rant. Some of his playing was pretty damn impressive too. I also enjoyed Van Den Bossche’s lively and colourful contribution behind his array of percussion. Overall the positives outweighed the negatives, and I’ll remember that verbal outburst for a long time.

MULATU ASTATKE, JAZZ ARENA

I have to admit to knowing precious little about Mulatu Astatke, “the Father of Ethio-Jazz”, before tonight’s performance but the fact that so many leading contemporary jazz musicians have either performed with him or have named him as a significant influence made me think that I really owed it to myself to check him out.

Born in 1943 in the Ethiopian city of Jimma Astatke studied music in both the UK and the US and subsequently developed a unique blend of jazz, Latin music and traditional Ethiopian music that he dubbed “Ethio-Jazz”.

Sure enough Astatke’s band at Cheltenham included some great British players including James Arben on reeds, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Alexander Hawkins on piano, Tom Skinner on drum kit and the great John Edwards on double bass. The line up was completed by cellist Danny Keane and percussionist Richard Olatunde Baker with Astatke centre stage playing vibraphone, congas and other items of percussion.

Naturally this was highly rhythmic music with Olatunde Baker and Astatke himself particularly animated, vibrant and watchable. The leader impressed with his numerous vibraphone solos and percussion features but there were also fiery solos from Arben and Wallen on tenor sax and trumpet respectively.

Astatke was keen to share the solos around the band and Hawkins impressed with an absolutely torrential piano solo while Edwards launched a typically physical assault on his bass as well as providing an astonishing rhythmic drive throughout as he linked up expertly with the three drummers/percussionists.

Arben also featured on flute and bass clarinet while Keane’s cello brought an interesting breadth of colour and texture to the ensemble sound as well as being an effective solo instrument.

Audience participation was encouraged, including the not only the almost obligatory clapping along but also Olatunde leading the audience in an African vocal chant.

The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for “Yerkerma Sew”, Astatke’s composition for the soundtrack of the Jim Jarmusch film “Broken Flowers” which helped to get the audience onside fairly early on in the set. 

Still youthful at seventy three Astatke led his band with élan and considerable charm, an eminently benign figure on the bandstand. His musicians responded with some razor sharp ensemble playing and some outstanding individual solos. This was a band that would have been even better suited to a late night ‘party’ slot but there was still much to enjoy about their playing, even in the early evening.

Once again I had to drag myself away early from this vibrant, colourful music to make my way to the hallowed portals of the PAC for my next event which was;


GIOVANNI GUIDI TRIO, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

The last gig of the 2016 Festival at the PAC was by the international trio led by the young Italian pianist and composer Giovanni Guidi.

Guidi, born 1985, has released two trio albums for ECM, “City Of Broken Dreams” (2011) and “This Is The Day” (2015). He has also issued a number of other albums in different instrumental formats on other labels.

Introducing the trio Tony Dudley Evans mentioned that he had seen them perform at Jazzahead in Bremen in 2015 and thought that they would be ideal for Cheltenham. His judgement was fully vindicated by a brilliantly interactive trio performance that utilised the superb acoustics of the PAC superbly.

The Guidi trio also appear to be a perfect fit for ECM with their effective use of space between the notes a distinctive characteristic of this performance with the notes sometimes seeming to just hang in the air. Portuguese drummer Joao Lobo plays on both of the ECM albums and although it’s the American bassist Thomas Morgan who appears on the records tonight’s trio featuring Danish bassist Nicolai Munch-Hansen was still a finely balanced unit that meshed together brilliantly and intuitively.

The opening piece began in archetypal ECM fashion with pregnant single notes carrying a wealth of information as they floated suspended in the air in a commendably full but hushed PAC. Sparse but dramatic under the lid strumming and eerily bowed cymbals and mallet rumbles added to the atmosphere but Guidi was soon steering the trio into more conventional piano territory with the dialogue between himself and Lobo particularly impressive as Munch-Hansen continued to play something of a holding role. But it would be wrong to think of the Guidi Trio as ‘typical ECM’, the pianist was soon leading his band mates into even deeper, more freely structured waters with the pianist fearlessly executing thunderous Cecil Taylor / Myra Melford like storms full of jagged cross handed runs as Lobo deployed a variety of small percussive devices in the manner of a free jazz drummer. As the music became more and more animated in this lengthy opening section Guidi played with a Keith Jarrett like physicality, contorting his body into a variety of almost impossible shapes on the piano stool as he became more and more immersed in the music. Ultimately this was daring, seat of the pants stuff which was delivered with an astonishing level of technique and dexterity.

The second piece began with a passage of solo piano before the introduction of Munch-Hansen’s bass counter melody and the sound of Lobo’s delicately brushed drums. The piece than developed via a piano/ bass dialogue underscored by Lobo’s cymbal scrapes to again enter more turbulent waters, first incorporating a vigorous interlude for just bass and drums before Guidi rejoined the fray with furiously hammered arpeggios accompanied by busy bass and chattering drums. Finally the piece resolved itself with a return to the earlier lyricism with Munch-Hansen’s bass temporarily taking over the melody accompanied by the gentle patter of Lobo’s hand drums. Guidi’s lightness of touch in this closing passage was a delight and a total contrast to the violence of the tune’s mid section. He is a pianist with technique to burn.

Tune announcements were rare but some pieces were eminently recognisable such as “ I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” which began in almost hymnal fashion before developing something of an avant garde undercurrent as Guidi’s lush melodicism was deliberately undermined by the wilfully ugly sounds of Lobo’s bowed cymbals and harshly scraped drum skins. This was real ‘chalk scraping down the blackboard’ stuff and a process that Luke Davidson writing for London Jazz News memorably described as “the grit in the pearl”. For myself I relished Guidi’s humour and playfulness, characteristics that also distinguish the playing of his compatriot Stefano Bollani, also signed to ECM.

And it was to another Italian that Guidi gleefully dedicated the final tune of the evening (a well deserved encore) as he acknowledged the footballing triumphs of one Claudio Ranieri. The tune was Mongezi Feza’s “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me (‘Cos You think Know Me)”, now sounding very different to earlier in the day when it was played by Julian Arguelles and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

Although I haven’t been totally convinced by Guidi’s ECM recordings I was blown away by this performance which, for me, ranks right up there as one of the best of the Festival. There was everything here that one could wish for in a piano trio performance, flawless technique, melody and lyricism counterbalanced by a corresponding grittiness and a willingness to explore and take musical risks. All this from a highly interactive trio that was not afraid to inject an element of humour into the music. The superb level of the musicianship was perfectly complemented by the immaculate acoustic of the PAC. This was definitely a gig to savour and remember and a fittingly magnificent conclusion to the programme at the PAC for 2016. It is to be very much hoped that Cheltenham Ladies College will allow the Festival to use the venue again next year.

MELT YOURSELF DOWN, SUBTONE

The Subtone is a basement bar on Cheltenham’s Promenade, a nightspot that has been deployed as a venue by the Festival before although it’s been many years since I last went there. That was more years ago than I care to remember and was an afternoon performance by the Hungry Ants, the now defunct band led by pianist/keyboard player Richard Fairhurst.

Tonight’s show was very different to my previous Subtone visit and a total contrast to the hushed, reverential atmosphere of the Guidi gig at the PAC. For this late night show it was standing room only with a large crowd crammed into the hot and sweaty downstairs room to witness a performance by Melt Yourself Down, a sextet led by former Acoustic Ladyland saxophonist Pete Wareham that also featured fellow saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. The group also featured Ruth Goller on electric bass, Satin Singh on percussion and Tom Skinner, playing at least his second gig of the day on drum kit. The band were fronted by vocalist Kushal Gaya, an energetic and charismatic front man who spent much of his time down among the audience.

Signed to the Leeds based Leaf label Melt Yourself Down have released two albums to date, their eponymous début from 2013 and the new “Last Evenings On Earth” (2016). On record their sound is manipulated by electronics artist Leafcutter John, sadly not present this evening, though whether there would have been room for him on an already overcrowded stage is a moot point.

The term ‘punk jazz’ has been widely used over the course of the last ten years or so but ‘jazz punk’ might be more appropriate to describe the music played by Melt Yourself Down. Essentially these are jazz musicians playing punk, short thrashy songs featuring Gaya’s manic, mantra like vocals.

Halfway back in the crowded club it was difficult to see everybody on the stage, apart from the phenomenally tall tenor toting Hutchings who combined with the hat wearing Wareham in a ferocious twin horn assault reinforced by Goller’s thunderous electric bass lines and the double percussive assault of Skinner and Singh. Rhythmically and sonically MYD were a juggernaut, playing at rock volume in the strobe lit, increasingly sweaty club. Gaya bellowed out his vocals, bouncing around the stage , hanging off the rafters and leaping into the crowd to pogo with a raucous and enthusiastic audience.

Note taking wasn’t an option so I can’t tell you exactly what they played but my guess is that most of it was from the new album “Last Evenings On Earth”. This was a band that were perfectly suited to both their environment and the late night time slot. A mostly youngish audience (myself and Tony Dudley Evans helped to push the average age up) loved the frenetically energetic show with MYD just exuding attitude and clearly taking a great delight in their playing. These musicians may perform more complex music in other contexts but they clearly the relish to let their hair down and blow their socks off with MYD.

Despite the lateness of the hour the set flew by in a rush of adrenaline and I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed MYD’s music. The records can appear a bit too simplistic in comparison to either Acoustic Ladyland or Polar Bear, two of the other key bands with which Wareham has been involved, but tonight was the perfect context in which to appreciate MYD’s blend of punk and Afro-Jazz, a turbo-charged slice of energy and attitude that delighted the capacity crowd. It was the first time I’d witnessed pogoing at what was nominally a jazz gig since Acoustic Ladyland played at a similarly crowded Barfly in Cardiff back in 2005, one of the most remarkable gigs I think I’ve ever seen. 

Still exhilarated I exited into the chilly Cheltenham night reflecting that this thrillingly caustic performance by MYD was the perfect way to round off an excellent day’s music with Giovanni Guidi just about getting the nod for ‘gig of the day’.

 

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2016.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 30/04/2016.

Ian Mann on a day of truly international music with performances by Trondheim Jazz Exchange, Jazz Jamaica, Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life, Tim Berne's Snakeoil and Omar Sosa's Quarteto AfroCubano.

Photograph of Gary Crosby of Jazz Jamaica by Tim Dickeson


SATURDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 30/04/2016.

“Today is International Jazz Day” said Tony Dudley Evans as he took to the stage at the Parabola Arts Centre to introduce the first concert of the day “the only music genre to have its own designated date on the calendar”.

It was therefore perhaps appropriate that during a very full day of excellent music I witnessed performances by musicians from the UK, Norway, Italy, Jamaica, the USA, Mozambique and Cuba.

TRONDHEIM JAZZ EXCHANGE, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

It was totally fitting that International Jazz Day at Cheltenham should begin with the long running Trondheim Jazz Exchange concert, the annual collaboration between students of the Birmingham and Trondheim Conservatoires, a project supported by the Norwegian Embassy.

The Norwegian students travel to Birmingham in the week leading up to the festival and ‘woodshed’ intensively with their UK based counterparts. The fruits of their labours are normally premièred at a concert in Birmingham on the Friday evening before being showcased again at Cheltenham in the now traditional Saturday lunchtime slot at the PAC. This year the Birmingham students will be making the return trip to play at Trondheim Jazz Festival.

The usual format is for the concert to present three ensembles, usually comprised of two musicians from each country. First to appear was a quartet featuring the Norwegian front line of pianist Hogne Kleiberg and saxophonist Karl Nyberg plus the Birmingham rhythm team of bassist Aram Bahmie and drummer Gwilym Jones.

They began a little tentatively with an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Friday the 13th” which included a tenor sax solo from Nyberg and a drum feature from Jones. If anything the group seemed more confident playing original material from within its ranks. “Jungle”, written by saxophonist Nyberg was lively and Latin-esque with Kleiberg’s piano vamp forming the basis for a melodic tenor solo from Nyberg that explored the instrument’s upper registers. The piece also included solos from Kleiberg on piano and Bahmie on bass.

Kleiberg announced his own tune “Cooler Than Anticipated”, no doubt written during the ‘woodshedding’ sessions, the title seeming to reference the unseasonably chill British weather. This began as a kind of abstract ballad with melodic tenor sax underscored by brushed drums but began to gather momentum during Kleiberg’s piano solo in which he utilised the entire range of the keyboard. Nyberg then dug in powerfully on his tenor solo and there was also an engrossing unaccompanied double bass interlude.

Ensemble One concluded their performance with a highly contemporary arrangement of McCoy Tyner’s classic “Passion Dance” with Kleiberg appropriately ‘Tyner-esque’ on a tumultuous piano solo lashed forward by Jones’ crisp, hard driving drumming and Bahmie’s energetic bass work. Nyberg matched the fire of his compatriot with a suitably impassioned Coltrane inspired tenor solo and the piece also included a well constructed drum feature from the irrepressible Jones. After a slightly hesitant start the quartet had certainly delivered the goods and they were afforded an excellent reception by the appreciative Parabola audience.

The next ensemble couldn’t have been more different. This drummer-less quartet featured the Norwegian pair of Sondre Ferstad on harmonica and Simon Ovinge on guitar plus the Birmingham students Ben Muirhead (double bass) and the Italian born Vittorio Mura (tenor saxophone).

This was a unique combination of instruments for these series of Jazz Exchanges and certainly the first time that a harmonica had featured at one of these concerts. Indeed I’d go as far to say that I’d never seen or heard this particular instrumental configuration before anywhere.

The music that these four young musicians produced during the course of a single twenty minute performance was extraordinary - haunting and impressionistic with Ferstad’s harmonica right at the centre of the group’s sound. This was music with a strong cinematic quality with a real element of ‘Scandi Noir’ about it. Not that it was in any way bloodless, Muirhead’s powerful double bass playing ensured that the music was surprisingly rhythmic. Conventional solos were rare - apart from one passage of guitar from Ovinge that reminded me of John Abercrombie the focus was very much on the ensemble sound but with one’s ear inevitably drawn to the distinctive sound of Ferstad’s harmonica. 

At least one full time collaboration has come out of these series of exchanges, the group ELDA featuring British pianist Andrew Woodhead and Norwegian vocalist Kari Eskild Havenstrom who first performed together at the 2013 Trondheim Jazz Exchange. ELDA were playing elsewhere on the festival site at the Free Stage over the course of the weekend but it wasn’t a performance that I was able to see.

I’d also like to think that Ensemble Two might think about making their collaboration more permanent. I thought that they were really on to something and that this was a unique line up with the potential to do something really different. Today’s performance was extremely well received by the discerning audience and this tantalising taster made me want to hear more from this thoroughly distinctive quartet.

The third ensemble was more obviously a ‘jazz’ group but featured the relatively unusual combination of alto sax (Trondheim’s Signe Emmeluth) and trombone (Birmingham’s David Sear).
Also featured were Norwegian bassist Bjorn Marius Hegge and British pianist Elliott Sansom, a finalist in the forthcoming BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. At the drums was the slightly older Jonathan Silk, an alumnus of Birmingham Conservatoire who has gone on to become a bandleader in his own right.

They commenced with a tune written by Emmeluth that began with an opening trombone salvo from Sear followed by a more conventional alto sax solo from the composer. Sansom’s piano solo included the kind of hammered clusters most commonly associated with the avant garde and the following dialogue between bass and drums saw Hegge utilising both pizzicato and arco techniques as Silk accompanied him with a series of cymbal scrapes. The tune then mutated in to a playful march which emphasised the unusual alto sax/ trombone combination and ended with a fruitily rasping trombone solo from Sear. Unsettling and humorous by turns this was an intriguing piece of writing that peter Slavid, writing for London Jazz News, compared to that of Carla Bley. I an see where he’s coming from with that one - and I was reminded of our own Django Bates, too.

The second piece was written by bassist Hegge who also acted as the band’s spokesman. The Ornette-ish opening theme again exploited the possibilities of the alto/trombone pairing and Emmeluth’s McLean like alto was also featured in dialogue with the composer’s bass in the aftermath of Sansom’s solo. The piece included an extended drum feature for the excellent Silk before storming out with a rousing Mingus like passage featuring the squalling of the horns and Hegge’s vigorously slapped bass.

This was another excellent group performance that ensured that the 2016 Trondheim Jazz Exchange ended on a high note. I’ve grown to love this event and for several years now it’s been a ‘must see’ on my Cheltenham calendar. The standard of the musicianship is always excellent and the quality of the original writing is also highly impressive, with this year being no exception. 

As Peter Slavid pointed out most of the audience here today would gladly have watched a full set from any of today’s featured bands. Keep an eye on these talented young musicians in the future. There will surely be much more to come from all of them.

CATCH A FIRE: JAZZ JAMAICA ALL-STARS, URBAN SOUL ORCHESTRA and BRINSLEY FORDE, THE BIG TOP

It’s been nearly sixteen years since I last saw Jazz Jamaica at a joyous open air show in the streets of Dolgellau at the 2000 Sesiwn Fawr Festival. That was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion and I was hoping to recapture something of that spirit at this performance in Cheltenham Jazz Festival’s Big Top.

Jazz Jamaica have been touring with their “Catch A Fire” project which represents a celebration of the 1973 album of the same name by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The band played at the first ever Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 1996 and today’s visit represented a very welcome return in the year in which they celebrate their 25th anniversary.

Led by bassist Gary Crosby OBE the Jazz Jamaica ranks included some of the UK’s leading jazz musicians including trombonist Dennis Rollins and saxophonists Denys Baptiste and Jason Yarde, the latter responsible for today’s arrangements. There were younger faces too including tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia from the group Nerija and others who have progressed through the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme. I suspect that Garcia’s Nerija colleagues Cassie Kinoshi (alto sax) and Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet) were also present and correct in the All Stars line up.

On a crowded stage it was difficult to see everybody but the line up appeared to include five reeds, four trumpets and four trombones plus piano, guitar, double bass, drums and percussion. This classic big band line up was augmented by between eight to ten string players ( I couldn’t see them all), the Urban Soul Orchestra led by violinist Stephen Hussey. There were also three backing vocalists playing the role of the I-Threes from Marley’s extended line-up. The ensemble was directed by Kevin Robinson, himself a talented trumpeter, and fronted by vocalist/guitarist Brinsley Forde in the Bob Marley role.

Forde is best known as a member of the British reggae group Aswad and those of us of a certain age may also remember him as a child actor in the 1970s kids series “Here Come The Double Deckers” ! I was certainly impressed with his contribution here, his assured vocals and dapper, confident demeanour made him an ideal front man and naturally he got terrific support from an absolutely stellar band. 

Forde’s Marley-esque vocals combined with Crosby’s unstoppable reggae grooves were a delight in themselves but having the arrangements enhanced by some of the finest jazz soloists around made for an absolutely unbeatable package. And, of course there are Marley’s marvellous songs, as relevant and topical now as when they were written. In short, what’s not to like?

The monster ensemble kicked off with album opener “Concrete Jungle” which included features for piano and percussion alongside Forde’s vocals. Forde was at his most Marley-esque on “Catch A Fire” itself which included features for baritone and alto saxes, the latter played by Jason Yarde. The rousing arrangement concluded in a conflagration of squalling horns, sawing strings and the incantatory vocals of the three female singers.

“Stop That Train” introduced the familiar organ sound that graced many of the Wailers best records while “Baby We’ve Got A Date” saw the music edging closer to ‘Lovers Rock’ territory as Forde celebrated the gentler, less politicised side of Marley’s output in an arrangement featuring the trombone section.

“Kinky Reggae” saw Forde exhorting the audience to get on their feet. They needed no second bidding as Crosby and his colleagues slammed out an irresistibility groove garnished by an alto solo played (I think) by Cassie Kinoshi and a trumpet solo by Sheila Maurice -Grey. 

The “Catch A Fire” project is one that has toured widely and Crosby has habitually augmented the already large ensemble with a local gospel choir. Today it was the turn of the Birmingham Town Hall Gospel Choir who had made the short journey down the M5 to join the band on stage for “No More Trouble” which included an incendiary tenor solo from (again I’m guessing) Denys Baptiste. 

The choir’s soaring voices lifted “400 Years” to another level working in tandem with the strings to provide a lush backdrop for the trumpet and tenor sax solos, the latter definitely delivered by Nubya Garcia.

Trumpet and piano featured on the closing “One Love”, an audience sing along well marshalled by the charismatic Forde who shared announcing duties with bandleader Gary Crosby.

The deserved encore was a joyously bouncing take on “Lively Up Yourself” with Forde again conducting the audience as the instrumental honours went to the band’s other guitarist.

This had been a brilliant performance, the combination of reggae grooves and jazz soloing working supremely well thanks to Yarde’s skilful and colourful arrangements and the superb musicianship and singing of all the performers with Forde acquitting himself particularly well. Considering the size of the ensemble the sound was also excellent so hats off once again to the Big Top sound engineers.

MARCUS STRICKLAND’S TWI-LIFE, THE JAZZ ARENA

Following Jazz Jamaica’s hugely successful fusion of different genres of black music it was across to the Jazz Arena to see the American saxophonist Marcus Strickland attempt to do something similar, albeit in a very different context and on a much smaller scale.

Strickland’s latest album for the Blue Note label, “Nihil Novi” (a Latin phrase meaning ‘nothing new’) brings together various strands of black American music including jazz, soul and hip hop with the late J Dilla named as a significant influence.

Born out of Strickland’s love of DJ beat making “Nihil Novi” has a very contemporary, street wise sound that incorporates elements of electronica alongside the more conventional jazz components. It was produced by Meshell Ndegeocello and features the voice and songs of Jean Baylor who appeared at Cheltenham as a guest alongside Strickland on tenor and soprano saxes, Chad Selph on keyboards, Kyle Miles on electric bass and Charles Haynes at the drums.

The album makes frequent use of sampled sounds and the opening piece featured Strickland on soprano soloing above a sampled speech reflecting on the vicissitudes of life and the power of art. Selph produced a varied array of sounds from his bank of keyboards which included electric piano, a couple of synths and a mighty Hammond C3 complete with its own immaculately veneered Leslie cabinet. Miles and Haynes provided tight, subtly funky support but ultimately I found the sample, which persisted throughout the piece, unnecessary and distracting.

A number of the songs on “Nihil Novi” were co-written by Strickland and Jean Baylor and she joined the band on stage to perform “Talking Loud”, her soulful voice blending well with the sounds of Selph’s Hammond and Strickland’s tenor sax..  The song then segued into an extended instrumental section including crunching passages of unison funk grooves, fiery bass and keyboard exchanges and further powerful incisive solos from Selph on Rhodes and Strickland on bug miked tenor.

“Mingus” began appropriately enough with a passage of solo five string electric bass before expanding to incorporate solos from Strickland on tenor and Selph on keyboards, the latter again conjuring up a fascinating variety of sounds from his battery of instruments.

Baylor returned to sing “Alive”, another jointly written song from the new album with its r’n'b and hip hop style grooves, this again evolving into a lengthy instrumental section featuring Strickland’s declamatory tenor over Selph’s churning Hammond, the latter then taking over to solo dramatically above Miles’ underpinning bass groove.

The charismatic shades wearing Strickland switched to soprano for “Truth”, a dedication to the recently departed Prince, one of several over the course of the Festival week. Again the interplay between sax and keyboards impressed.

The next piece introduced another vocal sample, this one featuring a man asking to be judged “not by the colour of my skin, but by the quality of my work”. Strickland is a politicised musician and the album includes a vocal sample referencing the recent racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. At this point the music took something of a more African turn on a tune that I’m pretty sure was “Sissoko’s Voyage” from the new album, the West African bass and drum grooves combining well with the sounds of tenor and Hammond.

Baylor then returned to join the group for the final number “Inevitable”, a jointly written love song that also appears on the album and which hinted at a gentler side to Strickland’s musical persona.

Despite minor cavils about the use of samples I thoroughly enjoyed this performance overall. Strickland proved to be a charismatic and technically accomplished performer and I also enjoyed the contribution of Selph, particularly his work on the C3. Miles and Haynes were a solid and dependable rhythm team totally in tune with Strickland’s aesthetic while Baylor’s contributions added a welcome change of pace, mood and attitude on three well written original songs. 

“Nihil Novi” brings the various strands of Strickland’s music together in a beguiling, convincing and highly enjoyable manner.


ALEXANDER HAWKINS : ENVIRONMENT MUSIC

The British pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins ad been commissioned by the Festival to write a piece initially designed to be played outside in Montpellier Gardens with small groups of musicians playing in various corners of the Gardens in a kind of ‘pop up’ situation before slowly converging to meet at the Victorian bandstand.

The inclement weather prevented this from actually occurring and instead Hawkin’s ensemble, which included trumpeters Laura Jurd, Percy Pursglove and Nick Malcolm plus students from both the Jazz and Classical course at Birmingham Conservatoire played to entering audiences in both the Big Top, prior to Jazz Jamaica, and the PAC prior to a performance by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil group.

At the Big Top Hawkins’ musicians were pretty much ignored as the incoming crowd chatted among themselves but the Berne audience actually took the trouble to listen to the floating sonorities, the mood of which ranged from the ethereal to the unsettling. An interesting exercise then, and it was unfortunate that it was unable to take place in the initially intended location.

TIM BERNE’S SNAKEOIL, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

Alto saxophonist Tim Berne has been a key figure at the cutting edge of the New York jazz scene since the early 1980s and has released an extensive catalogue of albums, some of them entirely improvised, on a variety of record labels including his own Screwgun imprint.

Initially inspired by fellow saxophonist Julius Hemphill Berne has fronted a variety of different groups during the course of a long and illustrious musical career.

In 2012 he recorded “Snakeoil”, his first album for the influential German label ECM. “Snakeoil” subsequently became the name of the band featuring Berne on alto sax, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electronics and Ches Smith on drums, vibraphone and percussion. The group’s ECM follow up “Shadow Man” (2013) was even better and in 2015 a third release for the label appeared titled “You’ve Been Watching Me”. This latest album saw the expansion of the group to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Ryan Ferreira and it was the five piece edition of Snakeoil that appeared at the PAC this evening. 

Berne’s intention for Snakeoil is for the group to operate at the boundaries of composition and improvisation. Thanks in part to the influence of ECM producer Manfred Eicher there’s a greater emphasis on the composed with Snakeoil than there has been with some of Berne’s previous bands. His often complex music has never exactly been an easy listen but Snakeoil’s sound offers plenty to reward the discerning listener and the group is certainly more accessible than some of Berne’s earlier ensembles.

The programme at the PAC was comprised of four lengthy pieces beginning with “Surface Noise” which opened with a piano and percussion dialogue between Mitchell and Smith these later joined by the complex, coalescent unison lines of alto sax, bass clarinet and guitar. This was uncompromising music with Berne’s astringent alto tone at its heart. Meanwhile Noriega impressed with his inventive bass clarinet soloing as did Smith with his frequently explosive drumming.

The composition “Spare Parts” was sourced from the début Snakeoil album and was again introduced by Mitchell at the piano subsequently joined by Noriega on clarinet and Smith on a combination of drums, vibraphones and gongs. A duo conversation between Ferreira on guitar and Noriega on clarinet was conducted with the utmost delicacy. It was good to be able to hear the guitarist properly, as too often his contribution was lost within the overall sound of the ensemble with his role seeming to be primarily textural. Maybe Berne will begin to cut him more slack as the five piece group develops. After the prettiness Berne’s own alto solo signalled a return to grittier, more challenging territory as normal service was rapidly restored.

The leader’s alto and Noriega’s bass clarinet introduced “The Third Option” with Noriega reaching deep into the depths of his instrument’s range with some startlingly low register sonorities as he and Berne stalked round each other, their dialogue periodically punctuated by Smith’s cymbal scratches. Finally coming together the two horn men delivered some fiendishly complex high speed unison passages before the more reflective dialogue of Mitchell’s piano and Smith’s vibes provided a brief oasis of calm. Once the horn men had regathered their breath the piece climaxed with an impressive combined display of overblowing and multiphonics above Mitchell’s hammered high register piano arpeggios. Stunning stuff.   

Noriega’s bass clarinet was also to the fore on the closing “The Imperfect Ten”, his probing solo followed by the gentler sounds of Ferreira’s guitar. Again this was just the calm before the storm and the harsh multiphonics of Berne’s unaccompanied solo followed by a blistering closing band passage with alto, clarinet and guitar fully in sync, locked in together and working as one.

This had been a challenging, sometimes baffling, but ultimately rewarding and uplifting listen. Berne’s music may be uncompromising but he’s a performer who has gained something of a cult following in Britain, due in part to his frequent visits to these shores . Following their Cheltenham appearance Snakeoil were about to undertake a two night residency at London’s Vortex Jazz Club, a venue that is very much Berne’s spiritual home in the UK.

A partisan but knowledgeable audience at a packed PAC gave Snakeoil a rousing reception. This was my first live sighting of Berne, aside from a very brief cameo with Django Bares’ Delightful Precipice at an earlier Cheltenham Jazz Fest, and overall I was very impressed if occasionally confused. For a man whose music can be somewhat austere Berne presented the performance with a wry, dry New York wit that was almost laugh out loud funny at times.

Snakeoil’s performance was recorded for future transmission on BBC Radio 3’s new Monday night jazz programme “Jazz Now” and I’m already looking forward to taking the opportunity of revisiting this music.

OMAR SOSA’S QUARTETO AFROCUBANO, THE JAZZ ARENA

I’ll confess to knowing precious little about the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa prior to witnessing his group’s exciting performance in front of a full house at The Jazz Arena. Sosa now lives in Barcelona but his touring group, the aptly named Quarteto AfroCubano includes a mixture of Cuban and African musicians including Sosa’s compatriots Leandro Saint-Hill (reeds, vocals) and Lukmil Perez (drums) plus the Mozambique born Childo Tomas on electric bass and vocals.

Like Jazz Jamaica and Marcus Strickland earlier in the day Sosa brings together different musical elements of the African diaspora but this time with the sound rooted in the traditional music of his native Cuba. Sosa has been exploring the musical links between Africa, Cuba and beyond through a series of albums dating back to the turn of the century and culminating in his latest release “Ile” (meaning “Earth”) from 2015.

Sosa is a charismatic and energetic live performer, a genuine showman, and he and Tomas took to the stage first, colourfully and elaborately dressed in garb that emphasised their African roots, something reinforced by Tomas playing a kalimba and singing before finally picking up his five string electric bass. These two were subsequently joined by Perez and Saint-Hill, the latter gradually steering the music more firmly in the direction of jazz with a fluent alto sax solo. Sosa’s own solo was more obviously ‘Cuban’ and the high energy exchanges between the two front line instrumentalists were exciting and exhilarating.

Writing for the Jazz Breakfast Peter Bacon bemoaned the poor sound balance at this concert and there were certainly moments when Sosa’s acoustic piano sounded seriously distorted. Sosa also deployed electric keyboards and even samplers and occasionally there was just a bit too much going on but unlike Peter I preferred to try to ignore the technical shortcomings and just concentrate on the energy, joyousness and vitality of this often spiritual music.

Sosa introduced the next tune with a passage of solo piano before combining with Saint-Hill who had moved to flute. Tomas’ voice doubled on the melody line before Sosa’s opening piano solo diverted the music into pure salsa territory with Saint-Hill taking over on vocals and encouraging the audience to sing along with the “sha sha sha” refrain. 

Saint-Hill proved to be a more than capable vocalist, singing in Spanish as well as delivering high quality solos on alto, soprano or flute as the music required. At other times the vocal responsibility passed to Tomas whose combination of electric bass and vocals occasionally reminded me of the Cameroonian musician Richard Bona.

In the main this was a high energy and very flamboyant performance that quickly drew in the majority of the audience who were more than happy to clap along with the hard driving Afro-Cuban rhythms. Sosa and Saint-Hill continued to deliver wildly exciting solos and were consistently pushed to new heights by the propulsive rhythm team of Tomas and Perez, both of whom enjoyed their own features along the way. 

There were occasional pauses for reflection too, including the gentle introduction to the final number, a combination of acoustic piano, feathery soprano and delicately brushed drums, this followed by an equally subtle dialogue between Sosa on piano and Tomas on electric bass. But Sosa’s showman spirit was not to be denied as his insistent piano vamping triggered an ecstatically anthemic closure to the tune.

This was music to immerse oneself in, to sing and clap along to while simultaneously admiring the high standard of musicianship and the sheer energy of the performers, for make no mistake this was a ‘show’.

But for all the flamboyance there was plenty of subtlety and sophistication behind the bluster and a very clever synthesis of the various styles that have fed into Cuban music. Sosa’s pan-cultural approach was very reminiscent of his compatriot and fellow pianist Roberto Fonseca who played this same venue at the 2012 Festival. I’m not going to be drawn into an argument speculating upon which of them adopted this approach first, it may well have been Sosa, but I’ve got a lot of time for both of them.

Technical misgivings aside I thoroughly enjoyed this exciting performance from Omar Sosa and his band, as did many others. This was a satisfying end to a day of truly international music. 

 

Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2016.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2016.

Ian Mann on two excellent, but very different, performances by Joanne Shaw Taylor and Lianne La Havas.

Photograph of Lianne La Havas by Tim Dickeson


Thursday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 28/04/2016.

It is unusual for me to attend the midweek concerts at Cheltenham Jazz Festival as I’m usually travelling up and down over the entire weekend. However the prospect of seeing two exceptional, but very different, female artists back to back was too good to resist.

First up, at 7.00 pm in the Jazz Arena, was the guitarist and vocalist Joanne Shaw Taylor who was introduced by Festival Director Ian George as “ The Queen of British Blues”.  She was followed in the Big Top by Lianne La Havas, also a singer, guitarist and songwriter but one whose music explores the boundaries of pop, soul and even folk. They may inhabit very different musical areas but both women have achieved their success through a combination of sheer talent and hard work. The music of each has enough of a jazz influence to get them on to the bill at Cheltenham and I thoroughly enjoyed both performances as I threw away my ‘jazz purist’ hat for the evening.

JOANNE SHAW TAYLOR

The thirty year old guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Joanne Shaw Taylor was first discovered by David A. Stewart of Eurhythmics fame and has since gone on to develop into one of the UK’s most talented and popular blues performers. She is a musician with an international reputation with a considerable following on both sides of the Atlantic.

Shaw Taylor was only sixteen when Stewart came calling and was still a teenager when I saw her perform in the backyard of the Bull Hotel as part of Ludlow Fringe Festival many year ago. I remember being highly impressed at the time and although I don’t listen to much blues on record any more it’s still pleasing to see how she has gone on to conquer the world.

Shaw Taylor’s talents as a guitarist were apparent from a very early age and she names Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins as her primary influences. Trace elements of all of these are still readily detectable in her playing. But Shaw Taylor is very much her own woman, she writes high quality original songs in the blues/rock idiom and has released a total of four studio albums plus one live set, the appropriately titled “Songs From The Road”.

Dressed all in black but with a flowing mane of blonde hair the striking figure of Shaw Taylor was joined by the similarly black clad personages of dreadlocked bassist Luigi Casanova and bearded, muscular, tattooed drummer Oliver Perry – this was a band that certainly looked the part.

From the outset it was obvious that they could play the part too as they launched into a sequence of tunes including “Outlaw Angel” and “Wrecking Ball” both sourced, like much of tonight’s material, from Shaw Taylor’s latest studio album “The Dirty Truth” (2014), recorded in Memphis, Tennessee with American producer Jim Gaines.

Shaw Taylor has won the award for Best Female Blues Vocalist at the British Blues Awards and her throaty rasp was well suited to the many energetic, up tempo blues rock songs that peppered her set. But her voice was perhaps at its most effective on slow blues numbers such as the relationship break up song “Tried, Tested and True” where she achieved an almost Joplin-esque level of hoarse, soulful expressiveness.

As a guitarist she was even more outstanding as she delivered a series of searing, scintillating solos packed with audacious runs and licks, the technical mastery again complemented by a corresponding soulfulness. Shaw Taylor also proved herself capable of blasting out chunky, Hendrix style riffs that occasionally edged into the territory of blues metal, appropriate perhaps for one born in the hard rock heartland of the Black Country. 

She was well supported by the hard hitting Perry ,who also added occasional backing vocals, and by Casanova, the latter apparently playing his first gig with the band, although one would never have guessed it. Shaw Taylor seemed to strike up an immediate rapport with the bassist while Perry’s bang on the nail drumming was just what was required to fuel the fiery, molten solos of this genuine guitar heroine. 

Not every song was announced and some of the vocals were lost in a rock volume sound mix so I’m not going to attempt to list every song. Indeed this was music in which to immerse oneself, to shake the head, tap the foot and go with the flow of those scorching guitar solos. Members of Shaw Taylor’s fan base were among the audience in a packed Jazz Arena and the trio’s performance was very well received by the crowd.

Unfortunately I had to leave the show before its conclusion to move on to the next event. The Lianne La Havas gig in the Big Top was due to be broadcast live on BBC Radio 2 and all tickets bore the strict instruction “please be seated by 8.15”. Tempted as I was to stay, which I would normally have done given the scheduled 8.30 start, I didn’t want to risk total exclusion and therefore tore myself away and into the stormy night to traverse the Festival site in time for the next performance.

Shaw Taylor and her trio proved themselves to be an exciting and popular attraction and earned themselves a warm reception from the Cheltenham audience. They certainly helped to get my Festival off to a great start and this is a band that I’d be perfectly happy to see again. I’ll try not to leave it quite so long between gigs next time though.

LIANNE LA HAVAS

Although I’d seen Shaw Taylor once before she’d also been recommended to me by friends who’d seen her more recently, one a blues purist, the other a heavy metal specialist. Another mate, Steve, recommended Lianne La Havas, an artist with whom I was previously totally unfamiliar. Based on his description of her as an excellent live performer I felt that I owed myself to give her concert a try, whilst fearing that I might find it all a bit too poppy and ‘show biz’ for my tastes.

I needn’t have worried, Steve’s assessment proved to be strikingly accurate. Ms. La Havas proved to be a talented and charismatic performer with a stunning voice and a collection of intelligent songs that straddled the boundaries of pop, soul and even folk.

The London born singer, guitarist and songwriter was once a backing vocalist for Paloma Faith who played the Big Top with Guy Barker’s Jazz Orchestra at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Faith’s show certainly had its moments, and was reviewed on this site at the time, but overall this performance by La Havas was far more satisfying. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed myself and afterwards headed to the on site record store to purchase her two albums to date “Is Your Love Big Enough” (2012) and “Blood” (2015).

The event was introduced by Radio DJ Jo Whiley who informed us that La Havas had been nominated in both the Grammy and the Ivor Novello awards as well as playing for Barak Obama and supporting Coldplay at a concert in Mexico City. 

The elegant La Havas took to the stage alone, accompanying herself on guitar to sing a solo version of the song “No Room For Doubt” from her début album. From the outset it was apparent to me that here was a real talent, a singer with a technically accomplished but highly expressive voice, pure and well enunciated but deeply soulful. As a guitarist La Havas may not be a virtuoso player in the Shaw Taylor mould, but her folk influenced finger picking style is ideally suited for her own music. She’s a more than capable player who tellingly played guitar on every number, even after she was joined by a competent and well drilled, if ultimately faceless, backing band (she never did introduce them to the audience)  playing keyboards, electric bass and drums.

La Havas drew on both her albums with the album taking a poppier, more soulful turn with the intelligent pop of “Au Cinema”, also from the first album. La Havas’ lyrics are clever, perceptive and often highly personal, sometimes like a less graphic Amy Winehouse.

Sticking with that first recording the title track saw La Havas exhorting the crowd to clap along, something they did very enthusiastically, presumably being more familiar with the material than I. Nevertheless I readily joined in, La Havas has a knack of writing songs that manage to be immediately accessible and memorable while simultaneously avoiding the witlessness of so much contemporary pop and r’n'b.   

“Tokyo” represented the first dip into the “Blood” repertoire, more intelligent, sharply observed soul pop. This was followed by the autobiographical “Green And Gold” from the same album, a homage to La Havas’ multi-cultural London roots and featuring vocal harmonies provided by the members of her backing group.

Still from the same album came “Wonderful, a love song of sorts with the evocative ‘electricity’ imagery of its lyrics.

In a well paced show the band left the stage periodically allowing La Havas to perform solo. These intimate, unaccompanied episodes represented some of the most compelling moments of the set and included the haunting “Ghost” from the “Blood” album and the humorous “Age” with its ‘May/December’ theme from the début. “A Good Goodbye”, a duet with the group’s pianist explored similar territory and was genuinely moving.

In more upbeat full on band mode the single “Unstoppable” had the audience on their feet clapping and dancing along to the deep funk grooves. “Grow” juxtaposed quiet, folky finger picked guitar passages with heavier, grungy episodes featuring the keyboard player on distorted violin. The rousing “turn up or this love” chorus elicited further audience participation.

“Midnight”, written by La Havas on a visit to Kingston, Jamaica finished the concert on a high note with La Havas being summoned back by an ecstatic audience in a packed Big Top for a deserved encore. Coming out with her piano player she paid tribute to the recently departed Prince (one of several over the course of the Festival) with a beautiful version of the Purple One’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, the title also eliciting a laugh of recognition from the audience in view of the recent weather and the decidedly chilly temperature in the Big Top. Her own song “Gone” was performed in a similar format and was also dedicated to Prince. 

However rather then ending the evening on a sombre note La Havas called the rest of the band back to the stage to perform a rousing version of the song “Forget” which saw the leader strapping on an electric guitar and the audience getting to their feet again.

This had been a superb show and I was delighted that I’d taken a chance on Lianne La Havas. More than just a pop poppet this is a seriously talented young woman who writes her own songs, has a terrific voice and is an assured and charismatic stage performer. She presented her show with considerable personal charm and was helped by an excellent sound mix, one of the clearest and best that I’ve ever heard in the Big Top. My only complaint was that I’d have liked to have known who the rest of the band were, plus their contributions were worthy of proper audience recognition.

Ultimately I preferred this performance to even that of Shaw Taylor. Less idiomatic, more varied and better balanced I was pleasantly surprised at just how good it was.

Sometimes it’s good to step outside your musical comfort zone. But don’t worry readers, there’s plenty of heavy duty jazz to come in the rest of my Festival coverage.   

‘A Journey Into Deep, Deep Peace’ - the music of Johnty Wilks.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

‘A Journey Into Deep, Deep Peace’ - the music of Johnty Wilks.

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister interviews alto saxophonist Johnty Wilks and enjoys a live performance of his mellow, meditative music at the South Street Arts Centre, Reading.

A Journey Into Deep, Deep Peace

Johnty Wilks

Clad in a white shalma kameez, Johnty Wilks could easily have been standing alone on a Mediterranean beach, absorbing the gorgeous warmth of the sun and the sound of the sea gently lapping the shore, while children played in the sand and grown-ups relaxed. No matter that this was not Ibiza, but rather a dreary rain-drenched Valentine’s Day Eve in Reading, that the sun-kissed beach was merely a picture projected on to a backcloth attached to the Studio wall of South Street Arts Centre; the image of a beautiful far-away place was already firmly planted in our minds and as Johnty took up his alto saxophone we were ready to follow him on a Journey Into Deep, Deep Peace.

His sound is cool, instantly captivating and reminiscent of Jan Garbarek and the late Paul Desmond. Eyes tightly closed, he improvises freely; richly melodic phrases flow endlessly from his imagination. Is this really a musician, whose instrument lay abandoned for twenty-seven years, while he pursued a successful career as a research scientist? “Dad that sounds horrible! Horrible! Stop playing it!” his then teenage son remarked as ONLY a teenage son could, when Johnty first resumed playing. After months of practise the sound returned. But there was a difference. The incisive quality of his playing that gave an edge to funk bands in the seventies and eighties had given way to a new mellowness and a slower pace, the perfect voice for playing ballads.

But … how do you make a career playing ballads? Miles Davis is said to have given up playing ballads because he loved playing them so much. Isn’t it self indulgent? Won’t an audience get bored? And what about other musicians? How would you earn their respect or hold them in check if they were in your band?

One night, his instrument at hand, Johnty was sitting with a fellow musician in Ronnie Scott’s, enjoying a late-night set by the trumpeter Jay Phelps. During an interval, and encouraged by his friend, Johnty asked if he could sit-in. “You can play?” Phelps asked. “Yeh, yeh, yeh,” Johnty reassured him.

“It was about twelve o’clock,” he recalls. “The place was packed. I got on stage with these fantastic guys and played The Nearness of You as a duet with Jay. When we came to the end there was complete silence. ‘Hell!’ I thought. ‘They don’t like it.’ Then the clapping started. It got louder and louder, until eventually people stood up. They were cheering. Jay greeted me with a huge smile. ‘That was beautiful,’ he said.
‘Wow!’ I thought. “Perhaps I can make something of this … a niche; playing mellow, relaxing music.’”

This was all a far cry from Johnty’s early days as a DJ and sax player in funk bands, which he combined with full-time study for a PhD at Imperial College, London. “It was a competitive environment,” he recounts. “Seven days a week, twelve hours a day.” Rather than turn to drugs or alcohol to ease his stress, he started to practice meditation. “I took to it straight away. I was a different person, to the point where friends sometimes didn’t recognise me. ‘You’re so different,’ they would say. ‘What’s happened to you?’”

Having tested his mettle at Ronnie’s and in the company of many local musicians, Johnty yearned to really stretch out with his ballad playing. “I met the wonderful tenor player, Scott Hamilton one night at the Pizza Express, Dean Street,” Johnty remembers. “He told me about a gig when he was booked just to play ballads. I was disappointed to learn that it didn’t really work. It was what I wanted to do. Could there be another way?”

Johnty taught himself music production using his laptop and began writing his own music. “I wanted to combine my love of jazz and ballads with something that would overlap into meditation music.” After six months of diligent study most evenings he found that he could lay-down richly-textured tracks; tapestries of electronic sound through which to weave his improvisations.

“It’s enabled me to produce music of real worth and great sound quality without having a band,” Johnty explains. “You can add, you can take away, and each time you listen you find pieces that you weren’t aware of the first time. It’s a process of continual exploration, making it possible to improvise freely without worrying about time or space. I watched an interview with Carlos Santana the other day. ‘You know,’ he said. ‘I listen to some music and start to play along with it. After say, forty or forty-five minutes, I find my own sound. I touch into something unique to me.’ As soon as he said that I realised; that’s exactly what I do. It’s an intuitive process.”

“I had a gig coming up and wondered whether instead of playing three, four or maybe five numbers, I should just play one track; Deep, Deep Peace. I couldn’t face the prospect of people walking away while I was playing so I closed my eyes and kept them tightly shut for an hour. I just played. After ten minutes I felt myself being completely absorbed by the music. I no longer felt as if I was playing. Thought had gone. I’ve asked fellow musicians; trained musicians, great sight-readers and fluent players, what they think about when they improvise. They’ll often come back with some technical answer, like ‘E♭ (E-flat)’ or ‘I’ll try some substitution here’. I was amazed. ‘What do you think about?’ they’ll ask’. ‘Nothing!’ I reply. When I opened my eyes the audience was still there. ‘I can do it,’ I thought. I got a standing ovation and a queue of people waiting to buy my CD.”

Johnty held his audience similarly spellbound at South Street Arts Centre, Reading on 13th February; a tour-de-force performance of free improvisation, supported by the gentle heart-beat of K. Darling’s U-bass and the evocative backing of his electronic orchestra. Deep, Deep Peace and Blissful Moments, with the inclusion of a track laid-down by the funk band Odysseys’ keyboard player,  Hamish Balfour, were certainly relaxing pieces, but don’t be fooled, this was music that demanded attention, sometimes played with heart-wrenching emotion, drawn from the depths of the soul. Angelic Noir explored darker territory, as the change in background scene suggested – with the logos of two prominent banking organizations shining brightly against the night-sky from the lofty heights of Canary Wharf. Could this be a musical comment on their nefarious activities?

A simple rhythmic pattern played on wood-sticks cast the scene for the second set as we set out on an evocation of a Zen monk crossing Africa on foot. Great playing. Some members of the audience took advantage of the meditation mats available and absorbed the music in their own way.

K. Darling brought a touch of romance to the eve of St Valentine’s Day with a delicate Brazilian love song The Girl from Brazil, all the more sensual for being sung in Portuguese. She then took up a berimbau (a single-stringed percussion instrument indigenous to Brazil, with a gourd as a sound-box), from which she extracted some interesting sounds and invited the audience to join in with ‘a little playfulness’; responding correctly, on time, and in Portuguese to her instructions. This led perfectly into the final tune of the evening, Ibiza Swell, a number so full of gaiety and good humour that it could have easily set everyone dancing.

Apart from Johnty Wilk’s natural gift as a musician and his engaging personality, honesty is his great attribute. He gives freely of himself and allows his audience to make of his music what they will. As I write he will be in Brazil with his partner K. Darling, followed by a season in Ibiza. We look forward to a return visit in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, why not sample his playing on   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHfuk_ZnB6g


Trevor Bannister

From the Archives - Dorian Ford.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

From the Archives - Dorian Ford.

Three recently rediscovered early reviews by Ian Mann of recordings featuring the versatile London based pianist and composer Dorian Ford.

Photograph of Dorian Ford sourced from http://www.dorianford.co.uk


DORIAN FORD

“Songs Trio” (2002)

“Grass - Music by Other People” (1999)

“Piano” (2002)


Long term readers of the Jazzmann may recall that I first began reviewing jazz albums and live performances for the 24dash website back in 2006. It’s difficult for even me to believe that I’ve been writing about music for almost ten years.

When 24dash decided to concentrate on its core business as a local government website back in 2008 I was faced with the prospect of either abandoning my budding writing career, which I was reluctant to do as I was enjoying myself so much, or setting up on my own. Hence the launch of The Jazzmann site in August 2008.

One of the consequences of the changeover from 24dash to The Jazzmann was that some of my earliest reviews were lost, including these three recordings featuring the versatile London based pianist and composer Dorian Ford.

Dorian has two new albums in the pipeline which I will be taking a look at in due course.In the meantime I am grateful to his publicist, Sophie Trott, for unearthing these three early reviews and for forwarding the transcripts to me. I have resisted the temptation to edit them so they appear exactly as they did back in September 2006.


Review of “SONGS TRIO”
by Ian Mann, 5th Sept. 2006

“Songs” was recorded in 2002 and is a full-length album which finds Ford in a piano trio with bassist Max De Wardener and drummer Lian Pattinson. Rather than tackle traditional jazz standards the trio prefer to concentrate on more modern material mainly written in the 1960’s/70’s and with roots in American folk and gospel music.

They start with Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”. Next up are Jim Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”. The trio play the songs with a strong emphasis on melody and with a genuine gospel feel and make great use of the spaces between the notes. There is a sense of joy and exploration in their music making. The melodies are unadorned; Ford is not into subverting songs in the manner of Brad Mehldau. However, there is nothing bland about the playing, this is a million miles away from cocktail lounge or elevator music.

The album also features song like compositions from modern jazz composers and instrumentalists. These include Krzysztof Komeda’s “Sleep Safe And Warm” (the theme from Rosemary’s Baby) Gary Peacock’s “Vignette” and Bill Frisell’s “Winter Turns To Spring”.

To complete the ten-track recording John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always On My Mind” are also present together with the hymn “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” which closes the album.

It’s a fascinating mix, superbly played by Ford and his colleagues and their love of the material can be heard in every note. This is certainly the most enjoyable and accessible of the three albums and one that I would recommend to everybody.

Following these wide ranging and distinctive recordings his next move will be awaited with interest. In the meantime get to hear “Songs” if you can.


Review of GRASS - “MUSIC BY OTHER PEOPLE”
by Ian Mann, 5th Sept. 2006

“Music By Other People” was recorded back in 1999 by the group Grass and features Ford together with saxophonist Jack Arnold, bassist Ben Hazleton and a very young Sebastian Rochford on drums, probably one of his earliest recordings.

The group cover four compositions by jazz masters Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. They present an interesting version of these works delivering them in a laid back ECM style, caressing the melodies and rarely getting too animated. Rochford’s drumming is sensitive and tasteful and only rarely does he give a hint of the fireworks he was later to unleash with Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland. Ellington’s “Take The Coltrane” features his most aggressive playing and also contains a probing, percussive solo from Ford.

Elsewhere Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” unfolds slowly with Arnold’s languorous tenor sax, Hazleton’s low register bass growl and Rochford’s sympathetic brush work. Ford takes a gentle but exploratory solo and provides sensitive accompaniment.

A quirky take on Ellington’s “Caravan” manages to cover a range of moods and tempos and shows the flexibility of all the members of the band.

Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” combines the ECM approach with a gospel feel. Arnold’s assured playing is well to the fore, with good support from the rest of the group.

This is an interesting recording which transcends its slightly lo-fi production to reveal something fresh each time you listen to it. At just under half an hour in length it is probably best thought of as a mini album and is a good taster for Ford’s later work and is an interesting snapshot of the early works of Rochford and Hazleton.


Review of “PIANO”
by Ian Mann, 5th Sept. 2006

The album was recorded at St. Margaret’s Church, Putney in October 2001 over the course of a single day and the pieces were played in the same order as they appear on the CD. Besides his jazz training at Berklee College, Boston, USA Ford has also studied classical piano extensively and both these aspects of his playing can be heard here.

The music fulfils Ford’s aims of stillness and purity of atmosphere and although the Jarrett influence is readily apparent Ford also cites Morton Feldman, Persian classical music, John Adams and Paul Bley as inspirations.

There are eight short pieces rather than a sprawling single improvisation a la Jarrett. “Talk To The Chords” is reminiscent of Jarrett’s gospel stylings, whereas “Modern Memory” owes more to contemporary classical composition.

“Trilogy” features the drone of an organ pedal operated by Max de Wardener (who also produces the album). This, combined with Ford’s use of the piano innards adds something of a sepulchral tone to the atmosphere of the church.

The low-key atmospherics of “Piano” are something of an acquired taste but confirm Ford as a highly versatile and individual talent deserving of greater recognition.

For further information on these and subsequent recordings please visit http://www.dorianford.co.uk

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Sunday, 22/11/2015.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Sunday, 22/11/2015.

Ian Mann on the last day of the Festival and performances by Phronesis with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band conducted by Julian Arguelles, Airelle Besson,Thelonious, and Raph Clarkson's Dissolute Society

Photograph of Phronesis with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band by Tim Dickeson


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2015, SECOND SUNDAY, 22/11/2015


PHRONESIS WITH THE FRANKFURT RADIO BIG BAND conducted by JULIAN ARGUELLES, MILTON COURT

It seems almost impossible to believe that 2015 sees Phronesis celebrating their tenth anniversary. The Anglo-Scandinavian trio led by Danish bassist and featuring English pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish drummer Anton Eger can be considered to be one the leading contemporary jazz acts in the whole of Europe.

I’m pleased to say that the Jazzmann spotted the group’s potential very early on, giving a glowing review, one of the band’s first, to their début album “Organic Warfare” way back in 2006. Since then I’ve been delighted to watch their progress through a series of other excellent albums including both studio and concert recordings. Over the years Phronesis have acquired an impressive reputation for the exciting quality of their live shows and I’ve been privileged to report on several of these, including both club dates and prestigious festival appearances.

One of the band’s most original ideas was the “Pitch Black” concert series which found the trio playing with an astonishingly high level of technical precision in total darkness, the concept for the project being the illness of Hoiby’s sister Jeanette and the gradual onset of total blindness that resulted from her condition.

For the trio’s tenth anniversary they decided to invite Julian Arguelles to arrange a number of their pieces for performance by the trio with a big band. Also a superb saxophonist Arguelles has strong links with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and recently released the album “Let It Be Told” with them, a recording on the Basho label that celebrated the music of the Blue Notes, the South African exiles who moved to London in the late 1960s and who so profoundly influenced the British jazz scene.

Milton Court, with its superb acoustics, was perfectly suited to this early afternoon performance, billed as ‘Major Tenth’ which saw a sharply dressed core trio take to the stage as an equally sartorially elegant conductor took to the podium. The sixteen piece Big Band filed on to join them as the performance began with “Untitled”, a tune that has been in the trio’s repertoire for a number of years but which is still searching for a name. From the outset it was apparent just what a fine job Arguelles had done in his capacity as an arranger, the lush horn sonorities complemented the core trio perfectly on a piece that almost seemed to act as an overture. As Arguelles later pointed out most of Phronesis’ tunes are already complex and full of detail so he had to take particular care with the arrangements to ensure that the music didn’t become too cluttered. Here, as elsewhere, he succeeded brilliantly and also managed to find room for the designated solos to express themselves, in this case Phronesis pianist Ivo Neame and the Big Band’s guitarist Martin Scales.

The arrangement of “Seeding” featured the fiery and fluent trumpeting of soloist Axel Schlosser who was complemented by some rousing big band charts and the dynamic drumming of Anton
Eger.

Neame’s composition “Charm Defensive” offered a more impressionistic approach with Hoiby deploying his bow on the intro and with the subtle horn voicings featuring a mix of trumpets and flugels plus Rainer Heute’s bass clarinet. The delicate nuances of the playing and arranging ensured that this was an ensemble that really deserved the title ‘jazz orchestra’ rather than the more prosaic ‘big band’. Neame was one of two featured soloists on his own tune, the other being the excellent Christian Jaksjo on trombone.

Hoiby’s rambling, vaguely surreal but always amusing announcements were not always an exact science when it came to tune titles. The fourth piece featured the crisp, clean guitar sound of soloist Scales.

Next up was what sounded like a segue of pieces beginning with an introductory dialogue between Neame on piano and Oliver Leicht on clarinet with Hoiby’s bowed bass providing additional colour.
Arguelles’ arrangement was again richly colourful but also allowed for a passage featuring just the core trio as Neame delivered a typically imaginative solo. From the big band ranks Stefan Weber weighed in strongly on tenor before a solo drum passage from Eger, an absorbing, well constructed and innately musical sequence that seemed to lead into a fresh piece, but again one that alternated between big band and trio passages, the latter giving both Neame and Hoiby the opportunities to shine as soloists.

There was less difficulty in identifying “Urban Control” which began with Neame’s piano motif embellished by the warm textures of massed flugel horns and trombones. The arrangement was subsequently notable for creating something of a ‘band within a band’ with the core Phronesis trio joined by Weber on tenor, Christian Jaksjo on trombone and Axel Schlosser on flugelhorn to form a sextet, the six musicians playing collectively under the baton of Arguelles as well as delivering individual solos, among them a stunning passage of unaccompanied bass from Hoiby.

Before the final number Arguelles took the opportunity of introducing the band members individually as well as thanking the Big Band’s manager Olaf Stadtler and Phronesis manager Sue Edwards who had both helped to co-ordinate the concert.

A superb set closed with the celebratory “Herne Hill” with Jaksjo again the featured soloist. Hoiby, Neame, Eger and Arguelles then left the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation before returning to play an encore with the Big Band. The trio introduced the piece with the dialogue between Hoiby and Eger particularly impressive. Heinz Dieter Sauerborn was the featured Big Band soloist, his incisive soprano playing revealing a distinct Middle Eastern influence.

This concert was a collective triumph for Phronesis, Julian Arguelles and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and a real Festival highlight. It was their second performance together following the première of the arrangements in Frankfurt a couple of days earlier, a show that was recorded I believe. This was music that was far too good to just vanish into the ether, let’s hope that a live album documenting this vividly re-imagined material will be released in due course.

For the record the Big Band lined up;

Heinz Dieter Sauerborn, Oliver Leicht, Tony Lakatos,  Rainer Heute, Stefan Weber - reeds
Frank Wellert, Thomas Vogel, Martin Auer, Axel Schlosser - trumpets and flugelhorns
Gunter Bollmann, Peter Feil, Christian Jaksjo, Manfred Honetschlager - trombones
Martin Scales - guitar
Thomas Heidepriem - acoustic & electric bass
Jean Paul Hochstadter - drums


AIRELLE BESSON, BARBICAN FREESTAGE

Over at the Barbican Freestage I managed to catch most of the set by a quartet led by the young French trumpeter and composer Airelle Besson. Besson plays electric hooked trumpet and her band makes frequent use of electronic devices with Benjamin Moussay deploying a variety of electric keyboards and with vocalist Isobel Sorling also treating the sound of her own voice via an FX unit. The group line up is completed by drummer Fabrice Moreau, a musician who appeared to have a good knowledge of contemporary rhythms.

The quartet’s music had something of a ‘punk jazz’ mentality about it and was punchy and ethereal by turns with Sorling singing wordlessly as well as in French. Her role was primarily that of ‘another instrument’ but at times she was a little too low in the mix which could be a little frustrating for the listener, particularly in the bustling Freestage environment. Besson’s own sound was bright and sharply defined with an obvious debt to electric era Miles Davis and subsequent developments. The title of one piece, “The Painter And The Boxer” seemed to sum up the band’s approach with space like, impressionistic electronic dream sequences punctuated by hard hitting ‘punk jazz’ passages led by the amplified buzz of Besson’s trumpet.

This was a set that was very well received and Besson announced that the band’s début album will be released next year. Shame it’s not out already, I’m sure they’d have sold quite a few to an appreciative Barbican audience. 

THELONIOUS, THE VORTEX DOWNSTAIRS

At a very crowded but still decidedly chilly downstairs bar at The Vortex I enjoyed a set from Thelonious, a British quartet dedicated to exploring the music of Thelonious Monk.

The band was co-led by alto saxophonist Martin Speake together with Hans Koller, a musician better known as a pianist but here playing his second instrument the valve trombone. The line up was completed by double bassist Calum Gourlay and the young drummer Dave Dyson.

Squeezed in a the very back of the room my visibility was limited and I was sometimes restricted to looking at the images of the musicians reflected in the venue’s windows. Basically this was a good natured jam that had the informal feeling of a free gig about it despite the nominal entry of a fiver which the indefatigable Oliver Weindling of the Vortex came round to collect in a pint pot.

The music itself was bright and swinging with the crisp rhythms of Gourlay and Dyson providing plenty of solo space for Speake and Koller who both took the opportunity to stretch out fluently. It’s been a long time since I last heard Martin Speake play and I very much enjoyed his contribution here, I’d kind of forgotten just what an accomplished musician he is. Meanwhile Koller displayed a remarkable facility on what was nominally his ‘second instrument’. This band have a monthly Sunday afternoon/early evening residency at the Vortex Downstairs and Koller has clearly been honing his skills on the ‘bone. Gourlay and Dyson both acquitted themselves well on their occasional solo features while providing consistently excellent rhythmic support to their colleagues throughout.

The material avoided most of the obvious Monk items and dug deep into his enormous repertoire, Thelonious wrote some great tunes. “I’m not going to bother to announce them all” said Speake - so I’m certainly not going to try to guess. Whatever they were called it all made for damn good listening. Well done all round, gentlemen. 


RAPH CLARKSON’S DISSOLUTE SOCIETY

Trombonist Raphael Clarkson is perhaps best known to UK jazz audiences as a member of WorldService Project, the anarchic quintet led by pianist and composer Dave Morecroft.

Tonight’s performance showed a very different side of Clarkson’s musical personality. Dissolute Society is a very personal project that mixes elements of jazz, classical music and poetry and features a nine piece band including musicians from both the jazz and classical fields including Clarkson’s father Gustav on viola. The line up also includes Fini Bearman (vocals), Alice Zawadzki (violin), Zosia Jagodzinska (cello), Laura Jurd (trumpet), Phil Merriman (keyboards) and Simon Roth (drums). It had also been intended that one of Clarkson’s mentors, the great John Taylor would perform at this concert but the untimely death of ‘JT’ in July 2015 meant that the performance instead became something of a celebration of Taylor’s life and music. The pianist’s role was now filled by guest soloist Huw Warren who had performed in the same room only twenty four hours previously as a member of Perfect Houseplants.

I wasn’t surprised that the Houseplants gig had been a total sell out but I wasn’t expecting the same thing to happen for Clarkson. In fact the Vortex was absolutely rammed again with a huge crowd, many of them fellow musicians, turning out in force to support the young trombonist and his colleagues.

The original words and music that Clarkson had written for this project were intensely personal and often rooted in family history and personal experience. I have to admit to finding the first sequence of linked tunes somewhat impenetrable as Bearman gave voice to Clarkson’s meditations of the effect of the aftermath of World War 2 on his family, a study in grief and loss.  Meanwhile “Reborn 4 A.M.” tackled more personal childhood fears.

The theme of grief and loss was extended to embrace the subject of Taylor who had also taught other members of Clarkson’s band, among them Roth and Merriman. Clarkson invited Warren to the stage and recited his own moving poetic tribute to Taylor to the sound of Warren’s piano accompaniment with Clarkson describing Taylor as “a giving musician” and as “a soul that gives and understands”. The performance also included a moving dialogue between Warren’on piano and Clarkson on trombone. This segued into a beautiful group performance of Taylor’s delightful composition “Windfall” with Merriman’s synthesised bass lines helping to support fluent solos from Warren, Clarkson and Jurd.

Taylor was closely and indelibly associated with another much loved fallen giant of British jazz, the trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler. Wheeler’s tune “Kind Folks” was first introduced to Clarkson by Taylor and the band played that next with Bearman singing words that I presume were written by Norma Winstone, though within the context of this project it’s possible that they have been new. Instrumental solos came from Clarkson and Jurd followed by Warren at the piano in tandem with the string section. Roth’s percussion feature was accompanied by synthesised bass before Warren’s unaccompanied piano outro closed an intriguing first set. I have to admit that I found the more familiar sounds of the Taylor and Wheeler songs more enjoyable than the original material, with all due respect to Clarkson John and Kenny did write some great tunes.

Set two included more original material but this time I found myself enjoying it a lot more, thanks in part to improvements in the sound which made Bearman’s voice more distinct and the lyrics more decipherable. “Find A Way Through” extolled the virtues of a positive approach in times of personal adversity and featured a guest vocal from a young rapper who was invited out of the audience, almost certainly unplanned, and who seemed to disappear almost immediately after his performance. The juxtaposition of rap with a string section was intriguing to say the least.

Clarkson’s piece “And It Ends When It Needs To” celebrated the improvisatory artistry of Keith and Julie Tippetts who taught Clarkson at Dartington College and with whom the trombonist first performed at a very early age. The piece began with an improvised dialogue between Clarkson and Jurd but it was the lyrics speaking of “a couple in spirit” and of “mutton chops and rings” that summed up Keith and Julie perfectly as well as singing the praises of the Devon landscape.

Bearman’s gloriously theatrical performance on “I’m Sorry”, dedicated to that very British characteristic of the unnecessary apology for things that are patently not your fault was a definite set highlight, funny and painfully insightful by turns with Bearman sometimes deploying the kind of extended vocal techniques pioneered by Julie Tippetts and others.

Warren returned for a second John Taylor tune, this one definitely with words added by Clarkson but at this juncture I’m not fully certain as to which piece it actually was. Warren played both piano and accordion on this and we also enjoyed a passage of solo cello from Jagodzinska.

The concert had begun with a piece simply called “Opening”. Appropriately it concluded with “Closing” the drum and keyboard intro leading into jagged unison string phrases that underpinned Bearman’s soaring wordless vocals and a trumpet solo from the impressive Laura Jurd.

In the end this performance was a triumph for Clarkson and his colleagues and they were given a great reception by a still jam packed Vortex crowd. Despite my early reservations this was brave, original music that touched many stylistic bases. The music has been recorded and is due to be issued as an album in March, something that should make for very interesting listening. 


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

EFG LJF is a huge event and once again Serious made a fine job of organising a festival which presented performances in venues ranging from 2000 seater concert halls to the tiniest and most intimate of clubs. Everything that I attended pretty much ran to time and and I was very well looked after throughout in my journalistic capacity, so once again my thanks to Sally Reeves and to all the contacts at the individual venues.

The programme was again commendably broad with a wide range of jazz styles represented and with musicians from many countries proving once again that jazz is a truly international language.

I appreciate that the use of Cadogan Hall was probably the consequence of the refurbishment work being undertaken at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room but it was such a beautiful performance space that it would be good to see it being used again as a Jazz Festival venue in future years.

The EFG London Jazz Festival remains a jewel in London’s cultural crown. Long may it continue to be so.

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Saturday, 21/11/2015.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Saturday, 21/11/2015.

Ian Mann on a long day of jazz including performances by Michelson Morley, Greg Cordez Quintet, Royal Academy of Music Big Band, Fat Suit, Perfect Houseplants, BABs and Wolf Off.

EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2015, SECOND SATURDAY, 21/11/2015.


Photograph of Perfect Houseplants sourced from http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.co.uk


MICHELSON MORLEY /  GREG CORDEZ QUINTET, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

This early afternoon ticketed event presented a double bill of groups from the thriving jazz scene in Bristol.

MICHELSON MORLEY

Michelson Morley are a relatively new band led by saxophonist Jake McMurchie, best known as a member of Get The Blessing, a longer running Bristol based outfit and one with a national reputation.

The group name is derived from those of two late 19th century / early 20th century American physicists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, whose work clearly holds an ongoing fascination for McMurchie.

In 2014 Michelson Morley, then a trio, released their début CD “Aether Drift”, an album reviewed very favourably on The Jazzmann. Since then McMurchie (sax, electronics), Will Harris (double bass) and Mark Whitlam (drums, electronics) have been joined by guitarist Dan Messore, of Indigo Kid fame, to form a quartet. It was to be this line up that took to the stage first in front of a large and supportive crowd at Pizza Express.

The group’s material is composed by McMurchie but allows ample scope for improvisation. It is also distinguished by the frequent use of electronics with McMurchie continuing the experiments with electronica that have gradually also become an increasingly important part of Get The Blessing’s music. He receives great support from Whitlam whose drum kit is enhanced by a variety of electronic percussive devices while Messore deploys the usual range of guitar FX pedals. It all leaves Harris on double bass as the essential humanising element of the group.

Much of today’s performance featured new material beginning with “Amageddon” which began with the sound of Morley utilising the keys of his saxophone as a percussive device while Messore tapped the strings of his guitar with a drum stick and later deployed other extended techniques. Inevitably these sounds were subject to electronic manipulation as the music evolved and the group embarked on a process of hypnotic soundscaping with a gradual accretion of sounds and ideas. McMurchie’s sax was hooked up with a bug mic and he also deployed a floor mounted FX unit plus an array of foot pedals that delivered effects including echo and delay. “Most of my tunes are about rampant sentimentalism, scientific claptrap, or death” dead-panned Morley. As with Get The Blessing an element of humour was never away, the running joke for the afternoon was whether McMurchie, Cordez or Whitlam should be considered the true leader of the Bristol Jazz Composers Collective. 

Some pieces remained unannounced including a second piece that included thrilling GTB style riffery and included a powerful rock influenced solo by Messore and some correspondingly full on tenor blasting from McMurchie.

The third piece was more atmospheric with the band using its electronic resources to develop a lattice of interlocking rhythms around which were draped the eerie sounds of an arco bass drone and the shimmer of glissando guitar as Messore went all Daevid Allen on us.

The atmospheric “The Last Of Me” featured Whitlam supplementing his kit with the sound of a Roland drum machine and McMurchie making effective use of echo effects on his long, drawn out sax melody lines.

“End Of Age”, sourced from the group’s début album was described by McMurchie as “a lament for an old family friend”. Following the electronically generated atmospherics of the previous two pieces it represented a complete contrast, being played entirely acoustically with McMurchie’s bug mic switched off and often with only Harris’ bass to accompany the tender simplicity of his playing.

Following this charming and effective interlude it was time to plug in again for the big finish. “Rice Rage”, the opening track of “Aether Drift” is another of those tunes that owes a big debt to McMurchie’s ‘other band’ with it’s powerful, chunky GTB style riffing and with Messore making extensive use of his tremolo arm on a solo whose power and attack was pure rock. Whitlam’s stark, powerful drumming represented the perfect foil for both this and McMurchie’s gargantuan sax blasting as the performance ended on a high energy note that clearly delighted the crowd.

I’d been waiting a long time to see Michelson Morley play live and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t disappoint with this involving and often exciting set. The band’s second album, this time with the excellent Messore on board, will be eagerly awaited. 

GREG CORDEZ QUINTET

McMurchie and Whitlam returned to the stage, this time minus most of their numerous electronic gizmos, to perform as members of a quintet led by bassist and composer Greg Cordez and also featuring pianist Jim Blomfield and trumpeter Nick Malcolm.

Cordez, born in the UK but raised in New Zealand is a fairly late entrant to the jazz world following a distinguished career as a session musician playing in a variety of genres. He was launching his newly released album “Paper Crane”, a strong and imaginative collection of original compositions. The record will also get another launch in Bristol at the Hen & Chicken on the evening of Sunday December 6th 2015.

I’d encountered Corder’s bass playing once before when he was part of a hastily assembled Bristolian trio hired to accompany singer Sarah Ellen Hughes at a Black Mountain Jazz event in Abergavenny in 2013. The ad hoc trio, also featuring pianist Dale Hambridge (now of Moonlight Saving Time) and drummer Andy Tween did a terrific job at what proved to be a very enjoyable gig.

And so to today’s event which began with “Brown Bear”, the opening track from the “Paper Crane” album which began with a dialogue between Cordez on bass and Blomfield at the piano, it was good to witness the latter playing the Pizza’s Steinway grand after usually seeing him play an electric at the Queens Head in Monmouth alongside saxophonist Kevin Figes and others. The horns eventually stated the theme with subsequent solos coming from McMurchie on tenor sax and Blomfield on piano as the latter renewed his conversation with Cordez’s bass.

“Real and Imagined” also began with the sound of piano and bass with Whitlam’s cymbal scrapes adding to the atmospherics. Strong melodic themes and song-like structures define Cordez’s writing which skilfully avoids most of the jazz clichés. This tune was no exception and included some excellent ensemble playing with the leader’s own solo on double bass a particular highlight.

The tune “Eight Minutes and Twenty Three Seconds” had an insistent, almost anthemic quality and included rock rhythms, engaging trumpet and tenor sax exchanges, a passage of solo piano and some electronic wizardry from Malcolm and Whitlam. Meanwhile McMurchie placed his bug mic inside the lid of the Steinway to allow Blomfield to produce prepared piano sounds.

“1000 Paper Cranes”, effectively the title track, is inspired by Japanese culture and proved to be one of Cordez’s most beautiful compositions. The lyricism of the leader’s bass teamed with Blomfield’s piano and Whitlam’s atmospheric mallet rumbles was complemented by Malcolm’s plaintive, occasionally plangent, trumpet and McMurchie’s keening tenor sax before Blomfield concluded the piece with a passage of solo piano that owed something to Steve Reich and the Minimalist school.

Cordez announced that he was returning to “old faithful” as he strapped on an electric bass for “Cherry v Des Moines”, a tune inspired by a late 19th century legal case concerned with the freedom of the press. Locking into a groove with drummer Whitlam his playing helped to fuel some punchy unison horn lines and a powerful tenor sax statement from McMurchie.

However the performance ended on a gentler note with the ballad “Camilla Rose”, a tune that began life as a compositional exercise when Cordez was studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and drama in Cardiff. Introduced by a passage of solo piano the piece possessed delightful melodic theme that provided the basis for a tender tenor sax solo from McMurchie before Malcolm introduced a greater sense of urgency with a trumpet solo that incorporated some audacious vocalisations.

Following this very well received and successful gig I spoke briefly with Greg Cordez who was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Paper Crane”. It’s a highly sophisticated début recording that sounds superb in the home listening environment and I hope to take a look at the album in greater depth in due course. In the meantime if you get the opportunity to see his quintet perform live please take it, this is a highly talented group playing high quality original music that is well worth hearing. “Paper Crane” reveals Greg Cordez to be an excellent composer as well as a highly accomplished bassist.


ROYAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC BIG BAND, CLORE BALLROOM SOUTHBANK CENTRE

Following my afternoon at Pizza Express I made my way to the Southbank to capture something of this free performance by the Royal Academy of Music Big Band conducted by Nick Smart. The RAM Big Band were joined by the French musicians and composers Benoit Sourisse and Andre Charlier (drums) to perform a series of pieces by French and Belgian composers, a programme made more poignant by the terrorist events in Paris on November 13th.

At one point Stan Sulzmann made an appearance as guest soloist playing soprano saxophone. The Clore was extremely crowded again and it was difficult to pick up Smart’s announcements of soloists or tune titles, especially as the latter were mostly in French anyway. So I decided to just enjoy the music which was of the high quality we’ve come to expect from this band and with Sourisse and Charlier both making strong contributions. It was good to see Alex Hitchcock, who I’d met at the Green Note the night before, featuring as a soloist on tenor sax. The ensemble also included Nerija bassist Inga Eichler and lead trumpeter Louis Dowdeswell.

FAT SUIT, CLORE BALLROOM

The final act to grace the Clore stage this Saturday was Fat Suit, a high energy fourteen piece band from Glasgow who began as a Snarky Puppy tribute band but now play their own material. Named Fat Suit because they are “a big outfit” the group includes two guitarists, two keyboard players, two violinists, electric bass, drums, percussion and a four strong horn section. Like their initial inspiration Fat Suit are loud, sassy and brassy and the Clore audience absolutely loved them.

The band first came together at the University of Strathclyde and are co-led by guitarist Dorian Cloudsley and saxophonist Scott Murphy, the latter acting as on stage spokesman. Over the course of two albums and a justifiable reputation for their exciting stage shows they have accrued a considerable following.

Fat Suit draw on many genres including jazz, funk, rock and folk and this was a performance to enjoy rather than analyse. With some dynamic grooves, crunching, razor sharp ensemble playing and some sparky solos from all sections of the band this was a technically proficient but above all very exciting performance, Fat Suit are a great live band who are likely to appeal to a very broad constituency, not just hard core jazz fans. They work at their presentation but there’s no sense of them ‘dumbing down’ their music for their audience.

At the heart of the group’s music was the brilliance of their two keyboard players, Alan Benzie being one of them (Fat Suit employ a pool of around twenty five musicians and I suspect the other one may have been the Ukrainian born Gustav Lal). I’d seen Benzie at Kings Place a week before leading his highly accomplished acoustic piano trio but here he was in his other role as ‘wizard of the synth’. He’s a little guy with a huge talent and this gig was a further demonstration of his prodigious ability and versatility.

PERFECT HOUSEPLANTS, THE VORTEX

Next back to the Vortex for this eagerly awaited reunion gig by Perfect Houseplants, their first public performance for over fifteen years. The quartet was one of the most popular groups to be formed in the wake of the demise of the first edition of Loose Tubes with former LT members Mark Lockheart (saxes) and Martin France (drums) linking up with Huw Warren (piano) and Dudley Phillips (bass) to form a highly productive band that released a total of five albums during the 1990s .

Warren and Lockheart have both worked extensively with the folk singer June Tabor and the Houseplants music has always had a strong folk element about it. I’ve always loved their sound and recall seeing them for the only time in 1994 at a frankly less than crowded pub in Llangollen as part of the town’s then annual jazz festival. That particular LJF was more trad/mainstream orientated and the Houseplants were probably a bit too far out for that audience of the time. I remember Huw Warren’s three young sons acting as unofficial ‘roadies’ for their dad, one of them Zoot, now plays drums in the old man’s trio.

Two decades on I was greatly looking forward to seeing the Houseplants again. The passage of time has only enhanced their reputation and the Vortex was packed to the rafters for this one with the ‘House Full’ signs up. The idea for the gig came from the Vortex’s Oliver Weindling and it was good to see him being rewarded by such a great turnout. It was particularly heartening as the Vortex had been burgled the night before and a substantial amount of cash comprised of Friday’s door and bar takings stolen, a severe blow to the club’s finances after a highly successful festival night. The Vortex is a not for profit organisation staffed by volunteers so this was particularly cruel. Should anyone reading this wish to make a donation to help the club please visit http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk

Tonight’s line up included founder members Lockheart, Warren and Phillips, the group’s composing axis, with Tim Giles at the drums. “It wouldn’t have happened for another couple of years if we’d waited for Martin” said Weindling referring to the highly in demand France. Even at Llangollen twenty one years ago the drummer had been replaced by Mike Pickering.

Giles proved to be the perfect substitute, a highly experienced player who was already familiar with the material and whose style I’ve always felt to have similarities to that of France. He fitted the group’s music like a hand in a glove.

The performance began with Lockheart’s “Strictly For Dancing” the opening track on the group’s third album “Snap Clatter”. With its adventurous but infectious rhythms and with Lockheart moving between soprano and tenor saxes this was an excellent start and a superb example on the Houseplants’ very British take on the jazz tradition. Many of the first wave of ex Loose Tubes solo projects had this uniquely British sense of whimsy and eccentricity about them – think Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Steve and Julian Arguelles, it was almost a ‘Canterbury Scene’ for the 90s. 

Memory can be a funny thing, Warren announced the next tune as being “Pig” from “Snap Clatter”, a piece inspired by a Roald Dahl story. According to the album cover Lockheart’s tune is called “Rag” and is inspired by the silent movie era stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton! Either way it proved to be a fast moving piece with a serpentine soprano sax melody and enjoyable solos from Phillips on electric bass, Warren on piano and Lockheart on soprano.

“Dunwich By The Sea” came from 1997s “New Folk Songs”, a collaboration by the group with the recorder virtuoso Pamela Thorby. This charming piece featured an unaccompanied piano introduction plus further solos from Lockheart on tenor, Warren at the piano and Phillips back on double bass.

The first set concluded with two tunes from the group’s second album “Clec”, released in 1995. “And The Kitchen Sink” featured Phillips’ arco playing on the introduction plus further solos from Warren on piano and Lockheart on tenor.
Warren’s title track, the name approximating the Welsh word for ‘gossip’, began with the admirable Giles at the drums and also featured Warren’s interior piano scrapings. Subsequent solos came from Phillips on electric bass, Warren on piano and Lockheart on soprano as the group continued to deliver innovative and varied music.

Set two began with a segue of the tunes “Moving On” and “Holding Back”, both of them sourced from the “New Folk Songs” album and featuring Lockheart on soprano sax and Phillips on electric bass.

“EE” was Warren’s tribute to Edward Elgar (as opposed to ee cummings) and again featured Lockheart on soprano with Warren again reaching into the piano’s innards during a more freely structured episode in the middle of the tune.

“Baskerville Hall” was the sole new composition and a world première but collapsed into a good natured breakdown which was instantly forgiven by the crowd. Once they’d got back on track Lockheart’s warm toned tenor solo and Warren’s lyrical piano solo were both a delight and the piece as a whole was well up to the standard of past glories. Oh, and Baskerville Hall is a real place, a country hotel in Clyro near Hay on Wye which stages regular live music events.

The next tune was unannounced but began with piano and drums establishing a rhythmic urgency on a piece that saw Phillips on electric bass and Lockheart moving between tenor and soprano. The featured soloist here was Warren who was clearly relishing the occasion.

“The Lighthouse”, another tune sourced from the “New Folk Songs” album found Warren utilising prepared piano sounds as he soloed above the electric bass and drum grooves generated by Phillips and Giles with Lockheart later weighing in on tenor.

I’ve always harboured a particular fondness for the Houseplants’ eponymous début album and was pleased that they decided to finish with the opening tune from that record, Warren’s “These Foolish Times”. The piece combines the group’s archetypal whimsy with an innate joyousness, it really is an invigorating piece of music that delights with its quirkiness. With Warren’s piano accelerating above Giles’ briskly brushed grooves and with Lockheart soloing more expansively on tenor than on the recorded version this was a great way to conclude a reunion gig that exuded goodwill between musicians and audience throughout. The group also played a brief encore but by this stage I was happy to just absorb myself in the music rather than taking notes but I do recall that Lockheart moved back to soprano for this.

A great event, glad I was there more than twenty years on from the last time. 

LOOP COLLECTIVE LATE, THE VORTEX

As we were already at the Vortex we decided that we may as way stay on for the Loop Collective’s late double bill featuring two trio, the electro-improvising outfit BABs and the slightly more conventional Wolf Off.

BABs

First up was BABs, the group name an acronym sourced from those of its members, double bassist Olie Brice, bass clarinettist James Allsopp and electronics artist Alex Bonney. In 2014 the trio recorded a limited edition album for Loop titled “The Vulture Watches” which contained six relatively short fully improvised pieces.

Tonight’s performance consisted of a single full length improvisation with Bonney processing the sounds of his colleagues in real time via an on stage lap top. The set was performed in near darkness with the flickering of candles adding to the atmosphere. The music was often unsettling with grainy arco bass and deep bass clarinet sonorities being manipulated into doomy, glitchy processed textures by Bonney.

Both Brice and Allsopp used extended techniques on their instruments, the use of drum sticks on the bass strings, the rushes of breath through the bass clarinet, and even these sounds were subject to some pretty extreme electronic processing. There were moments when Brice’s bass sounded almost subsonic, a deep threatening rumble that threatened to shake the Vortex to its foundations. At the other end of the scale Allsopp’s bass clarinet delivered clarion like blasts and at other moments produced seemingly impossible high register noises that sounded almost like a human cry. Meanwhile Bonney deployed his array of electronic devices to produce percussive sounds, thereby giving the piece a rhythmic impetus to complement the rich sonic texturing. The piece resolved itself with the sound of Allsopp’s bass clarinet soloing above Brice’s deep arco bass drone.

This wasn’t easy music to listen to but it was adventurous, uncompromising, and in its own way highly effective, qualities enhanced by the atmosphere generated by the semi darkness and flickering candlelight.

CROWLEY / SIMMONS / DE ROSE

The second trio from the Loop stable featured saxophonist George Crowley, trumpeter Rory Simmons and drummer Joe De Rose. Trading under the collective name Wolf Off these three also delivered a single improvised piece in what was only their second gig as a trio.

Although the tenor of Crowley and the trumpet of Simmons were both miked up and with Simmons also conducting a fair degree of electronic processing this was a relatively more conventional trio than BABs and the musicians performed with the lights up.

Where BABs dealt with texture, atmosphere and nuance Wolf Off were far more direct and aggressive, ‘in your face’ almost, thanks Crowley’s belligerent tenor sax and De Rose’s powerful drumming. The performance began with trumpet and saxophone with Simmons soundscaping the sounds of the instruments in a manner that reminded me of another of his bands, Eyes of a Blue Dog featuring the Norwegian musicians Elisabeth Nygaard-Pearson (voice) and Terje Evensen (drums, electronics).

Things soon took a more animated turn with De Rose’s aggressive drumming complemented by Simmon’s monstrous synthesised bass lines and Crowley’s stentorian sax blasting, ranging from r’n'b style honking to foghorn like booming. With Simmons adding echo and reverb to the sound of the horns something of a dub element was also present in the mix.

Although this was very much a collective performance there were still moments of individual brilliance including a solo passage of trumpet and electronics from Simmons and a couple of solo drum episodes from the hard hitting De Rose who was sporting a fluorescent orange hat. Crowley’s sax solos were slightly more conventional but also subject to a degree of electronic manipulation.

The intensity levels built throughout the set to climax with a passage featuring garrulous tenor sax, electric era Miles muted trumpet and hard hitting drums, the malevolent riffing appearing to peak, then fade away before returning like the monster in a horror movie. After peaking for a second time the piece resolved itself by ending as it began, with a final passage of ambient soundscaping featuring saxophone, trumpet and electronics.

Wolf Off’s punk jazz style of improvisation was very different to BABs’ more impressionistic electronic soundscaping but both performances were equally satisfying in their own ways. The two performances had been billed as something of a ‘battle of the bands’, a contest that for my money ended in an honourable draw.

Unfortunately it kicked off half an hour late at midnight, mainly due to the time taken setting up Bonney’s sophisticated electronics system. I did enjoy it all but it had been a long day and frankly I was absolutely knackered by the end. I’m not quite sure if I’ll choose to cover quite such a late night session again next year. 


COMMENTS;

From Will Harris via Facebook;

I like being described as “the essential humanizing element” of Michelson Morley in this lovely review of our London Jazz Festival show at Pizza Express Jazz Club last month… Thanks Ian Mann for the review!
Look out for our upcoming album to be released on Babel Label


   

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Friday, 20/11/2015.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, second Friday, 20/11/2015.

Ian Mann on performances by Pedro Segundo (solo), Binker Golding & Moses Boyd, Krzystof Urbanski's Urban Jazz Society and Nerija.

Photograph of Nerija sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2015, SECOND FRIDAY, 20/11/2015.

SOLO SEGUNDO, ST. JAMES THEATRE STUDIO

For some time now I have been publicising jazz events at St. James Theatre in the Victoria district of London. The majority of these take place in the Theatre’s Studio performance pace and this solo lunchtime show by the drummer and percussionist Pedro Segundo provided me with the opportunity to check out the venue for myself for the first time.

The Studio is a performance space in the basement of the building boasting its own bar and a very definite jazz club ambience. It’s an informal space and not merely a scaled down version of the main auditorium. Although it was lunchtime and the bar was not actually open it was still readily apparent that this was an excellent place to listen to jazz. As a venue I liked it.

Born to Portugese parents in Mozambique Pedro Segundo is now resident in London and is the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s. I know his playing best from his brilliant contributions to trombonist Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio, a band that I have seen perform live on numerous occasions at club dates and festivals.

The prospect of a solo drum and percussion performance by Segundo intrigued me and I was not to be disappointed. This event was enjoyable, entertaining, educational and informative and surprisingly varied. I once witnessed Jack de Johnette hammering away at a drum kit for fifty minutes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, a vacuous display of admittedly impressive technique that ultimately became tedious – even the greats can be boring sometimes.

By way of contrast this show by Segundo, it would probably be correct to call it a percussion recital, was of roughly the same duration but the time absolutely flew by. The stage was crowded with all manner of drums and percussion as Segundo took us on an admirably varied and stimulating tour of the percussive universe performing music derived from a wide array of cultures and musical disciplines.

Segundo began his performance seated alone at a table amongst the audience. At the table was a knife and fork with which he began, with mock theatricality, to tap out rhythms, it’s the way in which nearly every drummer starts out. There was also a jug of water and a wine glass. Segundo decanted water into the glass which he then manipulated when tapping it with a fork to vary the pitch. Still tapping out rhythms on any available surface he began whistling and took to a stage which was groaning under the weight of several hundredweight of percussion instruments.

Having commenced with what he later called “The Knife And Fork Piece” Segundo now launched into his first ‘proper’ percussive performance as he developed a pattern of increasingly complex rhythmic patterns on a combination of cajon, a cluster of five African talking drums, and the Ghanaian gyl, the xylophone like instrument that is also played by percussionist and bandleader Bex Birch in her group Vula Viel. Segundo augmented these core instruments with an array of smaller percussive devices plus a wordless vocal chant that represented an invocation of the Gods. It was exciting, spectacular and impressive in terms of both its rhythmic complexity and Segundo’s sheer enthusiasm and physical resourcefulness.

The next piece was a commission by the composer Dave Marik who was seated in the audience. “History Of The Future” commenced with Segundo blowing through his cupped bare hands to make bird calls. Using an on stage lap top Segundo looped these sounds to create increasingly complex patterns augmenting these sounds further by similarly looping the sounds of hand claps and foot stomps, the primal sources of human music making fusing with contemporary digital technology, history meeting the future indeed. Eventually kit drums were added to the equation but Segundo got so carried away that the precariously positioned lap top slipped its moorings and crashed to the floor with Dave Marik rushing to its rescue as Segundo played on. Fortunately both man and machine escaped unharmed.

Segundo expressed his sadness at the current state of the world as he moved to the vibraphone for the next piece. Of course the tragic recent events in Paris were on everybody’s minds but “The Miracle Of Freedom” was initially inspired by the ongoing refugee crisis. This was a more sombre affair with Segundo sketching out the mournful melody on vibes using the four mallet technique. The intermittent harsh scraping of a bar was intended to signify the cry of a child, something answered by the sweeter sound of the shimmer of a bell tree.

It was back to kit drums for Segundo’s “Tribute To The Swing Drummers” which saw him pastiching Max Roach, Papa Joe Jones (of Count Basie and Oscar Peterson fame) and Gene Krupa. This was great fun and saw Segundo wandering somewhat off piste as he strapped on a washboard, rattled a tambourine and whistled tunes like “When The saints Go marching In” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” The piece climaxed in explosive Krupa style. Great stuff.

Segundo then paid homage to classical percussionists Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie with his arrangement of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” which he played at the drum kit, the rhythmic patterns he generated being little short of mesmeric.

Segundo studied at the Guildhall in 2007 and his final piece was also drawn from the contemporary classical repertoire. The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’ composition “Rebounds B” was described by Segundo as representing a battle between skin and wood and was played on a set up with bass drum, tom, congas and bongos battling for supremacy with a set of woodblocks in a fiery percussive discourse.

The “Solo Segundo” show had been a residency at St. James and hopefully many more people got to see a performance that, like Chris Montague’s guitar showcase the day before, entertained and educated in equal measure. Segundo presented his performance with wit, enthusiasm and charm and his technical virtuosity was amazing, the man just seems to exude rhythm.

BINKER GOLDING & MOSES BOYD, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

There is currently a bit of a buzz about the young duo consisting of saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd. Their début album “Dem Ones”, a vinyl only release on the Gearbox label has been widely acclaimed and despite the apparent starkness of the sax/drums duo format they have also gained an impressive reputation for their energetic and exciting live shows.

The two twenty something South Londoners, usually billed as simply Binker & Moses,  grew up around the Tomorrow’s Warriors scene and their combined credits include work with bassist Gary Crosby, vocalist Zara McFarlane, pianists Peter Edwards and Andrew McCormack plus the late trumpeter Abram Wilson. They have a musical relationship dating back to 2008/9 and have been working in the duo format for the past two years, something originally forced upon them when they couldn’t find a suitable bassist for a gig and decided to perform it as a two piece, something that worked so well that they decided to continue on a regular basis.

That buzz I spoke of ensured that Ray’s was absolutely heaving this early Friday evening, certainly the biggest crowd that I’d seen here this week and officially a sell out. The duo took the unusual step of playing this concert ‘in the round’ and despite the fact that I thought I’d bagged a good place I spent of the performance staring at Golding’s back! 

That may have been disappointing but the music certainly wasn’t. The pair played a one hour set straight through, which seemed to be largely improvised, and performed with remarkable stamina, imagination, power and invention. Facing each other each member spurred the other on as sparks began to fly from the off. Golding honked and fluttered on tenor and blew the first of several impassioned solos that invoked memories of the great Sonny Rollins. Meanwhile Boyd responded with imagination and conviction, negotiating complex rhythms with ease but also adding light and shade by varying his attack as he variously deployed sticks, brushes, shakers, bare hands and a variety of mallets. Both musicians delivered impressive passages of unaccompanied playing, with Golding switching briefly to soprano at one point,  but it was the sight of the pair working in tandem that provided the most exciting moments, particularly when Golding’s full blooded, declamatory tenor was answered by Boyd’s volcanic, dynamic, polyrhythmic drumming.

Despite the apparent limitations of the format the crowd were with them every step of the way, instinctively responding to the duo’s energy, enthusiasm and enormous technical skill. Yet one never got the sense that the duo were merely showing off, for all the pyrotechnics and instrumental prowess there was an innate musicality about everything they did that ensured that the audience remained onside throughout. Even Golding’s bat like squeaks and harmolodics on soprano seemed to make perfect sense in the overall context of the performance.

By the end the two musicians were dripping with perspiration and the crowd were cheering enthusiastically. Sales of the vinyl were correspondingly brisk. With their combination of youthful enthusiasm, streetwise attitude and enormous musical skill the duo of Binker & Moses appears to be in it for the long haul and the size of their following will surely increase. Impressive stuff.

KRZYSTOF URBANSKI’S URBAN JAZZ SOCIETY / NERIJA, GREEN NOTE, CAMDEN TOWN

The Green Note has become one of my favourite London venues and in recent years I’ve seen memorable performances at the intimate venue by Let Spin, the Alice Zawadzki Band and the Jeff Williams Quintet. And it’s not just me that likes the place, in 2015 the Green Note was voted Favourite Live Music Venue at the annual London Music Awards.

The Green Note hosts live music every night of the week across a variety of genres including jazz, folk, country, Americana and world. The programme for the Jazz Festival was co-ordinated by the young saxophonist Alex Hitchcock and I’m very grateful to him for asking me along to cover this double bill featuring saxophonist Krzystof Urbanski’s quintet Urban Jazz Society and the septet collectively known as Nerija.

URBAN JAZZ SOCIETY

All of the Jazz Festival events here had been sold out and in a crowded Green Note it was Urban Jazz Society who took to the stage first. The Polish born saxophonist Krzystof Urbanski studied at Leeds College of Music but has performed all over the globe. His most recent album “History Of Tomorrow” features a British band including Martin Longhawn (keyboards), Stuart McCallum (guitar), Sam Vicary (bass) and Sam Gardner (drums). Urbanski features in Gardner’s own Samadhi Quintet which released the excellent “The Dance of Venus” album on the F-ire Presents label earlier in 2015.

Tonight’s line up included album personnel Longhawn and Gardner with deps Will Harris (bass) and Hannes Riepler (guitar) coming into the band and doing excellent jobs. Urbanski plays both tenor and alto saxophones and the music of his band can best be described as a kind of ‘melodic fusion’, particularly with Longhawn playing electric keyboards exclusively this evening.

The contemporary jazz sounds of album opener “Neo Residence” opened the proceedings introduced by the chiming of Longhawn’s electric piano and featuring fluently melodic solos from Urbanski on tenor and Rirpler on guitar.

The next item was introduced by Gardner at the drums. Although the piece was unannounced I suspect it may have been “Bouncing Colours”, a tune from the latest album. Urbanski probably didn’t talk enough, although his English is more than adequate. The tune itself combined funk style grooves with more reflective episodes, the latter mainly courtesy of Longhawn’s keyboards. Urbanski soloed in muscular fashion on tenor as Gardner detonated dub inspired percussive bombs around him.

“History Of Tomorrow” began with a solo sax introduction with Gardner manipulating Urbanski’s sound with echo and other effects. This was hard driving, but attractively melodic, contemporary jazz enlivened by solos from Urbanski and Austrian born, London based Riepler. The guitarist and Bristol based Harris were the only two musicians to be reading, the three regular group members trusting to memory and intuition.

The next tune was again unannounced but I suspect that it may have been an arrangement of the the third chapter of Urbanski’s “Yorkshire Tales” suite from the CD. I seem to remember Riepler’s phased guitar part being similar to that by McCallum on the album. Tonight’s version also included solos from Riepler and from Longhawn on electric piano plus a funk outro featuring Urbanski’s sax.

The set concluded with a tune simply titled “Groove” which began with a sax and drum dialogue that was briefly reminiscent of Binker & Moses as Urbanski played short, pecked phrases above Gardner’s drum groove, the latter also fuelling an electric piano solo from Longhawn.

Overall this had been an enjoyable set featuring some strong melodic themes and some excellent playing although it could have been presented with a little more conviction and professionalism. I was impressed enough to acquire a copy of the album and the tunes stand up very well in the home listening environment while revealing fresh secrets along the way.

NERIJA

Like Binker & Moses Nerija also developed out of the Tomorrow’s Warriors scene and I remember seeing some members of the predominately female septet at the Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the 2013 EFG LJF as part of a Tomorrow’s Warriors showcase.

However the band have really kicked on in the last couple of years as evidenced by a live broadcast of them playing at Manchester Jazz Festival earlier in the year. They sounded excellent and it was that Jazz on 3 broadcast that had much to do with me wishing to cover tonight’s event. Nerija delivered a similarly exciting performance and I was not to be disappointed.

Tonight’s line up featured a four horn front line featuring Nubya Garcia (tenor sax), Cassie Kinoshi (alto sax), Rosie Turton (trombone) and Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet, flugelhorn) augmented by Shirley Tetteh (guitar), Inga Eichler ( double bass) and Jason Long (drums), the latter depping for regular incumbent Lizy Exell.  Garcia and Turton had been part of Mak Murtic’s Mimika Ensemble that had played the previous Sunday at The Spice of Life in Soho as part of the EFG LJF.

Most of the members of Nerija are also composers and a dynamic and entertaining set commenced with Tetteh’s “Pinkham V” which featured the African style cadences of Tetteh’s guitar plus the punchy sounds of the four horns. Maurice-Grey took the first solo on trumpet, a little tentatively at first but soon becoming increasingly assured and powerful. Kinoshi followed on alto before entering into an absorbing dialogue with Tetteh’s guitar. Tetteh is probably the best known member of Nerija to the wider jazz public thanks to her work with bassist Gary Crosby’s Groundation band.

The guitarist also featured prominently on Eichler’s “Valleys” with its township inspired horn chorales and rousing solos by Kinoshi on alto and Turton on trombone. It seemed as if the spirit of Loose Tubes was somehow stalking the room. Eichler’s solo bass interlude then provided a segue into the next piece, “Redamancy” composed by Kinoshi and featuring solos from the composer plus Maurice-Grey on flugel. That said the most impressive aspect was the way in which the horns worked together, a veritable ‘Sisterhood of Breath’.

Garcia’s stirring “For You” then showcased her own powerful tenor playing plus some more fine collective work from the ‘sisterhood’.

Finally Turton’s “The Fisherman” brought back something of that Township feel via it’s rousing unison horn lines plus solos from Maurice-Grey on flugel, Tetteh on guitar, Garcia on tenor and Turton herself on trombone, the composer also adding an element of humour to the music. The piece ended with a four horn chorale, which seemed wholly appropriate.

The Green Note crowd loved the spirited and energetic performance which included some invigorating tunes and some excellent playing,both individually and collectively. The deserved encore was “Hypnosis”, a composition written by trombonist Grachan Moncur III, a band-leader himself but probably best known for his Blue Note collaborations with alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. This gave the band a chance to feature the rhythm section with Eichler opening the tune on the bass and Long closing it with a drum feature with Kinoshi taking a solo on alto in the middle. Although the horn players tend to take the plaudits the contributions of Eichler and Long, the latter cast here in the role of ‘token bloke’, were both highly impressive - as was Tetteh, the fulcrum around which much of the music revolved.

My thanks to Nubya Garcia (and her mum) for chatting with me afterwards and providing me with a set list. It really was a hometown gig for Nubya who actually lives in Camden. Thanks to Hannes Riepler and Sam Gardner from Urban Jazz Society, and organiser Alex Hitchcock for finding time to say hello too.

I was very impressed by this Nerija performance. As with Binker & Moses something of a buzz is starting to form around this band. It’s high time they found their way into the studios to document this music on what is sure to be a very eagerly awaited début album. 

 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Thursday, 19/11/2015.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Thursday, 19/11/2015.

Ian Mann on guitarist Chris Montague's Festival Commission plus the Festival's educational outreach. Also a concert performance by Cuban born pianist David Virelles and his band Mboko.

Photograph of Chris Montague by Martin Healey


EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Thursday 19/11/2015.

CHRIS MONTAGUE -  A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COOLEST INSTRUMENT IN THE WORLD, RICH MIX

Fancying a change from eating my way through the Pizza Express menu I elected to visit the Rich Mix on the borders of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green for the first time. I was highly impressed by this modern cinema and arts centre run by a not for profit charitable organisation. The venue has been hosting Festival events for a number of years, often featuring artists at the cutting edge of the music and this year’s programme included performances by Sons Of Kemet, Christian Scott and Kairos 4tet among others.

Festival promoters Serious have always been keen to involve local communities in the Festival while also bringing jazz education to a wide audience. Today’s performance saw Troyka guitarist Chris Montague working with children from two local schools (Marner Primary and Columbia Primary)  on a Festival commission. Around twenty children and their teachers, all of them cradling acoustic guitars, formed part of the audience for this event which was co-ordinated by Katrina Duncan and by Louise Dennison, head of learning for the Serious organisation.

The performance began with Montague and his band performing the festival commission with the schoolchildren. The personable Montague explained that he had worked extensively with the children exploring with them the role of the guitar in areas of music including jazz, blues, rock, flamenco and music for film. The tune he had written for the children to play with his group of Conor Chaplin (acoustic and electric bass), Michael L Roberts (keyboards, vocals) and James Maddren (drums) was the infectious and uplifting “Tower Hamlets Boogie” which featured a mass strum along plus brief solos from pupils Stella and Daisy. Montague soloed at greater length and Maddren tapped out a rhythm with his sticks for everyone to clap along to. This was great fun and both the band and the children got a great reception from the audience at this free lunchtime event.

The rest of the performance was given over to Montague’s personal take on “the history of the coolest instrument in the world”, the electric guitar, and its role in popular culture. It was a very professionally presented show that began with Charlie Christian, the first artist to use pick ups on a guitar and transform into an electric instrument. A black and white photograph of Christian, taken in around 1945/6 was projected onto the screen behind the musicians as they played “Seven Come Eleven”, Christian’s most famous composition written in conjunction with his boss, bandleader Benny Goodman. Christian was something of a bebop pioneer as was demonstrated by Montague’s fleet finger work as he soloed agilely above Chaplin’s propulsive double bass lines and Maddren’s brushed drum grooves. Roberts also impressed with his piano solo on an acoustic upright, sandwiching a quote from “Sweet Georgia Brown” into his feature.

Montague explained that the guitar was essentially a cheap instrument despite becoming increasingly commodified following its electrification. Hence it began as a folk instrument, giving rise to , among other genres, the Delta Blues which mutated into the now more familiar electric urban blues with the economic migration of former slaves from the American South to the industrial cities of the North such as Chicago and Detroit. Montague chose T Bone Walker as his next influential guitarist, a musician who inspired those that followed him, among them BB King, Albert King and Chuck Berry. It was Walker who developed the string bend and pioneered the one musician dialogue between voice and guitar. He was also a great showman who influenced both Berry and Jimi Hendrix, it was Walker who first soloed with the guitar held behind his head, a trick Montague replicated here to great audience acclaim as the band played “T Bone Shuffle”. This was also the first opportunity for us to hear Roberts’ soulful and highly credible vocals with the pianist also delivering a rollicking boogie woogie style piano solo. Two of the little girls who had played guitar earlier turned the area in front of the stage into their personal mosh pit as they executed sharply co-ordinated synchronised moves.

Then it was into the 1950s with Chuck Berry adding the influence of country music to his obvious debt to Walker.  This was more familiar territory for most of the audience with Montague almost inevitably selecting “Johnny B Goode” to illustrate Berry’s music. As others have observed Berry was a great story teller with every song a sharply observed vignette. It was left to pianist Roberts to sing the tale of guitar slinging Johnny.

Next up was another familiar figure, the recently departed BB King who further developed Walker’s ideas of string bending and internal guitar/voice dialogue. As Montague explained King used lighter strings, thereby giving his guitar playing an enhanced vocal quality. “Everyday I Have The Blues”was the chosen song with Roberts handling the vocals and Montague the guitar solos.

The images projected behind the band now changed to colour with the advent of Jimi Hendrix. Montague explained that he been aged nine when he first heard a Hendrix record that was part of his Dad’s record collection. I’m probably old enough to be Montague’s father so hearing him say this made me feel very ancient. In any event it was the catalyst that led to Montague taking up the guitar, something for which the UK’s music fans should be very grateful.

Montague explained that Hendrix was the sum of all the influences we had heard to date plus those of 60s pop, soul and psychedelia. Due to Hendrix’s enormous influence upon him and also due in part to the quality of Hendrix’s ballad writing, an underrated aspect of his talent in Montague’s opinion, we were treated to two illustrations of Hendrix’s talents as “Purple Haze” was fused with “Little Wing”.
Chaplin switched to electric bass and really slammed out the frequencies as Roberts moved to Nord electric keyboard and also demonstrated his fine blues voice. A beaming Maddren (he’d had a grin on his face almost throughout) rattled the tubs with an obvious relish as Montague shredded his axe on “Purple Haze”, only throttling back as the music entered the second half of the segue. Montague had worried that the high decibel sound of Hendrix might frighten some of his young charges but they all seemed to love it. The two little girls danced on.

It was time to up the wattage even further with a brief foray into the world of heavy metal with Eddie Van Halen getting the nod over Page, Iommi, Blackmore etc. It was Van Halen’s innovative tapping method that excited Montague who chose the Van Halen tune “Ain’t Talking About Love” to illustrate Eddie’s methodology. It was left to Roberts to emulate lead yelper David van Roth but he stayed resolutely behind his keyboard and resisted the temptation to perform any centre stage histrionics.

This being a jazz festival Montague decided to finish by paying tribute to a man who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading contemporary jazz guitarists. John Scofield narrowly got the nod over John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, largely because with his obvious blues influences Sco’s music is more of a direct descendant of the artists already featured and puts all of their influences into a jazz context. “Green Tea” featured electric bass with Chaplin turning in a melodic Steve Swallow style bass solo while Roberts deployed an organ sound on his Nord. Montague’s own fluent, blues tinged guitar solo was a fine interpretation of the Scofield sound. Still dancing joyfully the two mini moshers mimed pouring and drinking cups of tea throughout. Sweet.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed all of this. After some of the heavy duty jazz I’d heard in the previous few days it was good to get a shot of good, honest, old fashioned blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Some of these might have been songs that are routinely played by bands at the local pub but it would be unusual for you to hear them played by musicians of this quality.

I suspect that the band loved it too, I spoke briefly to James Maddren afterwards who explained that he’s always played jazz (Maddren was something of a child prodigy) and never served an apprenticeship in a blues or rock band and that he’d really enjoyed having a bit of a bash on these tunes. For Montague I suspect that many of these songs are wired into his musical DNA but that after wrestling with the complexities of Troyka’s music it was probably highly invigorating to play them again.

This had all been a highly worthwhile exercise with children, parents, musicians and audience members alike all enjoying and learning from the musical experience presented by Montague and his colleagues.

In 2013 The Jazzmann was possibly the only journalist to report on percussionist Adriano Adewale’s family show “Catapluf’s Musical Journey”, a lunchtime performance that also featured an audience of children from local primary schools. Adewale’s child and family friendly show has since been presented at the Cheltenham and Brecon Jazz Festivals as well as returning to EFG LJF again this year. I’d like to think my review may have contributed something to its success and I can envisage much the same happening for Montague with this show, should he decide to take the project further.

Rich Mix has its own Indian restaurant, Indi-go attached to the venue and after the performance my wife and I enjoyed a meal there. It made a nice change from pizza.


DAVID VIRELLES’ MBOKO, HALL ONE, KINGS PLACE

I first became aware of the playing of the young Cuban born pianist David Virelles at the 2012 London Jazz Festival when he was part of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s Quartet that played at Ronnie Scott’s. Virelles also appeared with Coltrane at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival and I also enjoyed his contribution on record, playing prepared piano and harmonium, to saxophonist Chris Potter’s ECM album “The Sirens”, also from 2013. Virelles has also worked with saxophonist Steve Coleman and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and has studied composition with Henry Threadgill.

Virelles’ superb contributions to the two Coltrane concerts ensured that I was keen to see him leading his own band at this performance at Kings Place, an event being recorded by BBC Radio for future transmission on the programme Jazz on 3.

My appetite had also been whetted by the release in late 2014 of Virelles’ leadership début for ECM Records, the album “Mboko” which formed the basis for tonight’s performance. Virelles is now based in Brooklyn and the album featured a stellar cast of American musicians including twin bassists Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst plus kit drummer Marcus Gilmore. However the album is based around Cuban ritual music and the record also features Roman Diaz on vocals and biankomeko, a four drum percussive ensemble also incorporating the ekon (metal bell), erikundi (shakers) and itones (wooden sticks). The only reason the album didn’t get a full and positive review on these web pages is due to the site’s largely British focus.

Diaz was the only member of the album line up to appear at Kings Place but it was still an impressive line up with Vicente Archer on double bass and the always impressive Gerald Cleaver at the drums. The performance was introduced by Jazz on 3 presenter Jez Nelson and the concert is due to be broadcast at 11.00 pm on Monday December 14th 2015.

Virelles himself was to say little until the end of a single set performance in which the quartet appeared to play their way through the entire album, which is, in any case, presented almost like a suite. 

Central to the music on the album is the constantly evolving dialogue between Virelles on piano and Diaz on biankomeko, particularly the largest drum of the ensemble, the bonko enchemiya drum.  It is this more than other instrument that tells the story of the Abakua, the Cuban magic/religious male initiation society based on a West African ethno-linguistic identity and famed for its emblematic masked dance performances. “Mboko”, a word meaning “The Divine Voice” in the Abakua culture, is Virelles’ second recording based on explorations of Cuban ritual music following the acclaimed “Continuum” which was released on Pi Records in 2012.

While the interplay between Virelles and Diaz on the album is thoroughly absorbing I found it more difficult to become so fully involved here. In live performance the focus of the conversation moved away from the biankomeko and placed more of an emphasis on Diaz’s singing , not a move that was geared to appeal to somebody who openly admits to preferring instrumental jazz to the vocal variety. The music was substantially different to the album and to my mind didn’t work anywhere near as well.  Archer seemed somewhat distant from the rest of the performers and didn’t seem to get involved too much, perhaps not so surprising considering the role of the two basses on the album where they are used to create a musical drone similar to that produced by a variety of string instruments in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. However I was very impressed by the bright and imaginative kit drumming of Cleaver who complemented Diaz very well while simultaneously bringing plenty of himself to the table.

Virelles himself played with a quiet intensity introducing the performance with a passage of solo piano before he was joined by Archer’s economic bass and Cleaver’s cymbal filigree. The music continued to evolve organically with the addition of Diaz’s shakers and Spanish language vocals. A percussive passage underscored by droning arco bass seemed to represent some kind of invocation and a subsequent solo percussion feature drew a smattering of spontaneous applause from the audience. Virelles’ own solo was highly percussive and led to a closing passage for voice, percussion and kit drums that seemed to signal the end of the first movement.

Archer put down the double bass and picked up a ukulele like instrument for the second phase of the performance, its four low tuned strings still fulfilling the bass role. Virelles’ opening solo was this time initially more reflective and was subtly underpinned by the undulating rhythms of biankomeko and kit drums before becoming more expansive and building to a climax. Archer moved back to double bass as lyrical piano passages were punctuated by the voice and percussion of Diaz before the music began to build again with Virelle’s feverish, highly rhythmic and percussive piano locking in with bass, drums and percussion to create a matrix of hypnotic rhythms invoking images of deep seated primal rituals and perhaps those masked dance performances.

Virelles now acknowledged the applause and name-checked the band before the ensemble played a brief but lyrical encore with the focus still very much on Virelles’ piano playing and Diaz’s percussion and vocals.

John Fordham was clearly impressed with the performance and gave it a four star review in the Guardian. For myself I found it ultimately underwhelming despite the obvious technical prowess of Virelles and for me the live experience was ultimately less satisfying than the album. Yes, there were fireworks at times, particularly towards the end of the second segment but I still felt that a vital spark was somehow missing. I suspect that this was a view that others might have shared. The queue for CD sales after the performance was somewhat sparse in comparison to some of the other Festival events that I had attended. It will be interesting to hear what the music sounds like when it is broadcast on Radio 3 and whether I may be forced to revise my opinion.

It could be that the venue itself was part of the problem, it was far from sold out and the audience atmosphere was somewhat muted in much the same way as it had been when Henri Texier’s group played the same room a few years back. There’s something austere about Hall One at Kings Place and overall I find I prefer the more intimate atmosphere of Hall Two, despite the lack of raked seating. I’ve seen some great gigs at Hall Two over the years including the recent performance by Daniel Herskedal at this year’s Festival.

To be honest if I’d had my time again I would have opted for the duo featuring Czech musicians Emile Viklicky (piano) and ex Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous at Milton Court. Interestingly Hall One and Milton Court are very similar in design but its probably fair to say that during this Festival I felt much more at home at the latter. 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Wednesday, 18/11/2015.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Wednesday, 18/11/2015.

Ian Mann at six performances at four different venues featuring Toy Rokit, Urchin, Yazz Ahmed Quartet, Hiromi, Kit Downes/Robert Landfermann and Peter Ehwald's Double Trouble.

Photograph of Hiromi sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Wednesday 18/11/2015


The Wednesday of the Festival was a very busy day for me as I managed to catch something of six performances at four different venues beginning with;

TOY ROKIT / URCHIN, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB

This free lunchtime double bill at the Pizza featured the music of two new bands, the electro-improvising trio Toy Rokit and Urchin, the latest project from the young guitarist and composer Leo Appleyard.

TOY ROKIT

First up were Toy Rokit, a trio featuring Bill Mudge on keyboards and electronics, Mark Rose on electric bass and Chris Nickolls at the drums. I’ve heard Mudge playing Hammond before and prior to today’s event I was expecting to hear a relatively conventional organ trio. However Toy Rokit are very different to that, their music is much more contemporary and is far more influenced by contemporary dance music and electronica than by Blue Note era classic jazz.

Mudge’s set up included loopers and samplers and various other electronic devices and only a rudimentary keyboard, his role was very much that of sound manipulator. With electric bass and drums in the equation the focus was also very much on groove and rhythm, there was little of the feyness or abstractedness of some other electro-improvising groups.

As Rose later explained the trio’s music is entirely improvised and they began with a twenty minute excursion that began in spacey, ethereal fashion before the interlocking pulses generated by Mudge’s keyboards and electronics and Nickolls’ Roland drum machine coalesced to create a kind of electro-jazz that owed more to Kraftwerk and other bands from the ‘Krautrock’ era than to orthodox jazz sources. The space theme continued with Mudge triggering voice samples of astronauts from the Apollo/NASA space programme before Rose and Nickolls locked into a groove to form the bedrock for a more conventional keyboard solo from Mudge. It hadn’t been what I’d expected to hear but it was interesting and imaginative and also accessible and enjoyable.

As if to emphasise the improvisational nature of the music Rose enquired of his bandmates “who’s going to start this one” as they embarked upon their second improvisation. Following the 70s influences of the first piece the trio now moved on to embrace 80s synth pop with a series of catchy hooks and strong grooves. This second piece lasted around fifteen minutes with the trio upping the ante with some banging grooves that echoed the sounds of house and techno before moving closer to the realm of math rock as the rhythms and grooves became more complicated.

A shorter final piece saw Rose’s bass taking on melodic duties for a while before eventually locking in the Nickolls, a man once famously described on the Jazzmann site as the “groovemeister”, to produce some suitably hypnotic rhythms to accompany Mudge’s flights of fancy and deep space explorations on synthesisers and electronics. Sometimes I was reminded of Hawkwind and maybe Pink Floyd too.

This was improvised music accessible enough to be warmly appreciated by a lunchtime audience who were maybe unsure of quite what they were going to get. I hope I’ve managed to convey something of what Toy Rokit’s music sounded like but this quote from their website http://www.toyrokit.com also summarises it nicely;
“Toy Rokit always launch into the unknown on a mission to take their electronic improvisation to uncharted space. Fuelled by Jazz and experimental music, Toy Rokit’s beats and soundscapes evolve over time, touching down on styles from House to Hip-Hop as they tweak loopers, samplers and any other gadgets they can get their hands on”

URCHIN

Guitarist and composer Leo Appleyard’s début album “Pembroke Road” was released to considerable critical acclaim in 2014. It was very much a jazz record and featured the clean, clear classic jazz guitar sound of the leader. I later saw the “Pembroke Road” quintet give an excellent live performance at The Hive Music and Media Centre in Shrewsbury.

Appleyard’s latest project sees him taking an unexpected turn into the world of song based music and forging closer links with the world of pop and soul with vocalist Agne Moties fronting an eight piece band featuring Duncan Eagles (soprano sax), Piers Green (alto sax), Hoagy Plastow (tenor sax), Paul Jordanous (keyboards) and Holley Grey (bass) with Chris Nickolls returning to the drum stool to play his second gig of the day. Collectively known as Urchin the octet looks set to be Appleyard’s main creative outlet for the foreseeable future. 

Of the above line up only Eagles remains from the “Pembroke Road” band and in general the music of Urchin is more energetic and dynamic than that of the quintet with electric instrumentation more widely used. For all the pop and soul influences there is still plenty of jazz content in Urchin’s music as exemplified by the spirited all instrumental opener which saw the solos shared around the three man horn section.

Motie joined the band for the second tune (I think it may have been called “Right Place”), singing her own lyrics to Appleyard’s original composition with Eagles taking the instrumental honours with a fine soprano sax solo. Appleyard has cited artists such as Cinematic Orchestra, Portico Quartet, Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music and Robert Glasper as influences on his new band’s sound while his own website likens them to the pop/rock band London Grammar but with a three man sax section.

The next piece began more reflectively before gaining momentum with Motie’s soulful vocals augmented by some keyboard work on a two manual instrument by Paul Jordanous, a versatile musician best known for his work as a trumpet player.

Appleyard explained that the song “Sketches” had grown out of jam session at his local pub and his funky rhythm guitar allied to Jordanous’ synth provided the launch pad for an earthy tenor sax solo from Plastow.

Far from the pure guitar sound of “Pembroke Road” Appleyard’s axe was drenched in echo effects on the intro to the next song, a slice of pop melody adorned by solos from Green on alto sax and Appleyard himself on guitar.

An all too short set concluded with a cover of “Show Me Love”, the 1990 clubland hit by the American artist Robin S. Not surprisingly the original is a song that rather passed me by but I thoroughly enjoyed the version by Urchin which again saw Appleyard showing off his lead guitar skills. 

The music of Urchin may be very different to that of “Pembroke Road” but it still has much to commend it. These are young musicians and it’s a perfectly natural process for them to pursue aspects of the pop and dance culture that they’ve inevitably grown up with. It’s less to my personal taste than Appleyard’s more jazz orientated material for quartet/quintet but the Urchin sound has the potential to reach out to a far wider audience. The group was certainly well received by a predominately jazz audience today which suggests that Appleyard will retain a substantial portion of his existing fan base, myself among them. There’s clearly more than one string to Leo Appleyard’s bow (and six to his guitar!), his is a star that will continue to rise. 


YAZZ AHMED QUARTET, RAY’s JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

I first discovered the music of trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival when her septet Family Hafla gave an enjoyable Sunday afternoon performance at The Vortex in Dalston. More recently I attended and reviewed the première of her suite “Alhaan al Siduri”, commissioned by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation, Ahmed being one of three ‘Jazzlines Fellows’ appointed in 2014 with the support of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

Ahmed’s suite was performed at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham by a ten piece ensemble and was an artistic triumph. However today’s show in the new performance space at Foyle’s was very different, the quartet essentially being a scaled down version of the Family Hafla group featuring Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dave Manington on electric bass and Will Glaser at the drums.

Much of the material played tonight also featured at last year’s Hafla show, some of it sourced from her 2011 début recording “Finding My Way Home”, a follow up album is imminent.

Tonight’s show began with “Wah-Wah Sowhawha”, a tune from that first album which featured the sound of Wyld’s bowed vibes on the intro before Manington set up a five string electric bass groove augmented by the shuffling rhythms of Glaser’s drums on a tight, riffy piece that explored Arabic scales and rhythmic patterns. Solos came from Wyld with a dazzling demonstration of the four mallet technique and from Ahmed herself on trumpet, the leader sometimes manipulating her sound electronically via means of a Kaoss pad.

The atmospheric “Whispering Gallery” was part of Ahmed’s EFG London Jazz Festival commission for 2014 and was inspired by St. Paul’s Cathedral and the field recordings captured there by the composer. More reflective than the opener the piece featured Ahmed on flugelhorn , looping and layering the instrument to increase the textural richness of the piece. Wyld and Manington delivered delightfully melodic solos as the piece segued into the ballad “Finding My Way Home” with Wyld again featuring as a soloist. Ahmed informed us that the melody of the second piece was a transposition of an improvised solo by the electric bass virtuoso Janek Gwizdala, one of Ahmed’s collaborators on the “Finding My Way Home” album.

“El Ahmadi” continued the earlier explorations with Arabian rhythms and included solos from Wyld on vibes, Ahmed on electronically enhanced trumpet and Manington on beautiful, liquid, Steve Swallow style electric bass.

I would estimate that this was around the halfway point of the performance but unfortunately I had to leave early to head down to the South Bank for my next event. It was good to see Yazz Ahmed perform live again, especially in a different format to the two previous events I’d witnessed. I shall look forward to the new album with anticipation and hope to capture another full live performance again at some point in the future.


HIROMI, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

The Japanese pianist and composer Hiromi Uehara, known universally simply as Hiromi, is one of the big success stories of jazz, an artist with a huge following that transcends genres, many pop and rock fans are also drawn to Hiromi’s music, hence her headlining the 2000 seater Royal Festival Hall.

I first heard of Hiromi back in 2003. Then aged twenty four she appeared at that year’s Brecon Jazz Festival at an outdoor stage as part of the Stroller programme. Ironically that was the only time I’ve ever missed Brecon entirely, I was obliged to attend a wedding in far off Ramsgate which entailed going away for an entire weekend.

However my friend Sarah attended the Hiromi gig at Brecon and enthused wildly about this astonishing young Japanese pianist. Sarah plays piano herself so I set great store by her words and remembered them a full twelve years later when Hiromi was scheduled to play At EFG LJF 2015.

I must admit that despite Sarah’s recommendation I’d never really checked Hiromi out on disc despite there being some ten albums to choose from, I always got the impression that they might be a bit too fusion like for my current tastes. But it was Hiromi’s technical skill and dynamism as a live performer that most impressed Sarah so I decided that the opportunity to witness this live performance was too good to miss.

Hiromi has released three albums with her current band The Trio Project featuring the veteran American electric bassist Anthony Jackson and the acclaimed rock session drummer Simon Phillips.
Jackson has performed with many of America’s leading musicians across a variety of genres, Phillips has appeared on literally hundreds of albums.

Music technology was to play a significant role in tonight’s event with a mini synthesiser perched on top of Hiromi’s grand piano and with Phillips, looking like a superannuated hippy, almost hidden behind a monstrous drum kit that could have doubled as a percussion showroom. Jackson played his distinctive six string “contrabass guitar” but he was far too low in the mix and the subtleties of his playing were too often drowned out by the forcefulness of his bandmates, particularly the hard hitting Phillips.

Hiromi, with her hair piled high upon her head introduced the first tune “Spark” with a passage of solo piano, subsequently doubling and layering the melody line on synthesiser before her colleagues came in. The music had a rhythmic drive that reminded me variously of E.S.T. and the Neil Cowley Trio and it was apparent from the start that Hiromi is a pianist with a prodigious technique and that she is also an energetic and flamboyant entertainer. A highlight of the first number were her vivid and animated exchanges with the technically gifted Phillips, a monster drummer but ultimately a rock player who, for me, lacked the sympathy and subtlety of the best of his jazz counterparts.

All of the pieces on the Trio Project’s latest album “Alive” sport one word titles. “Player” incorporated a feature for Jackson but even when he was soloing his playing still wasn’t sharply defined enough in comparison with the other instruments. Jackson could still be heard relatively clearly as he played a walking bass line behind one of Hiromi’s few conventional jazz solos as Phillips temporarily sat out. Hiromi’s solo was a typically dazzling affair and even managed to throw in a Thelonious Monk quote to keep the purists happy. A closing section featuring rapid fire arpeggios with Hiromi’s hands and fingers a blur was little short of stunning.

Following a further solo piano introduction the tune “New Indulgence” added a soul jazz element with Jackson playing funk bass lines with his thumb and finding more of a space in the mix.

It was back to the hammer and tongs approach for the set closer, an often thunderous affair that included some dynamic contrast thanks to the dialogue between Hiromi on piano and Jackson on guitar like contrabass. But this was eclipsed by Hiromi’s later solo as she pummelled the keyboard with her fists in another crowd pleasing display that combined showmanship with a prodigious technique. The partisan crowd, which included a high proportion of Japanese nationals was equally excited by Phillips frequently explosive drum feature, another example of phenomenal technical prowess. Following all this expending of energy both band and audience were glad of a rest.

Set two offered no let up in the intensity, but unfortunately no adjustments had been made to the sound and Jackson’s playing remained indistinct. However we began with a real concert highlight as Hiromi came out alone to play a brilliant solo piano version of her composition “Place To Be” that introduced a welcome dose of lyricism and which was absolutely riveting, even the occasional interior scrapings. For some audience members it may have represented a tempting aperitif before Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concert in the same hall scheduled for two nights later.

Jackson and Phillips returned for “Take Me Away”, another piece with an expansive and impressive Hiromi solo and a playful Phillips drum feature but with Jackson too often inaudible.

“Seeker” featured a lengthy solo piano introduction in which I thought a detected an allusion to a reasonably contemporary pop hit although I had no idea what it might have been. As Hiromi and Jackson conversed over a solid Phillips backbeat I noted that Jackson was surrounded by a glass booth, presumably so he could hear his own playing.

The second set closed with the epic “In A Trance” introduced by a piano and drum dialogue and featuring staggering solo features from both Hiromi and Phillips as Jackson again found himself somewhat sidelined. Hiromi’s solo was a tour de force, as a pianist she really is a force of nature. Phillips’ monumental drum solo dated right back to the mammoth hammerings of Ginger Baker and other behemoths of the prog rock era as Hiromi abandoned the piano stool and wandered over to the drummer’s side of the stage so that she could watch her bandmate more intently.

Naturally the audience loved these musical fireworks and summoned the group back for a hard driving encore that included a final feature for Jackson.

I came away with mixed feelings, the show had certainly been a high energy technical tour de force presented with verve and showmanship. I could see why so many people loved it and were so impressed, Hiromi and the trio elicited something like hero worship from some sections of the crowd. But for me it was lacking in real substance, not enough genuine light and shade apart from Hiromi’s solo piano feature on “Place To Be”, for me the real highlight of the performance. And of course the position of Jackson’s bass in the mix was a constant source of irritation throughout. Speaking to other fans after the gig it seemed that many were of the same opinion An interesting experience nevertheless, and one that I’m glad I took the opportunity of enjoying. A rather belated thank you for the tip off, Sarah.


KIT DOWNES and ROBERT LANDFERMANN
PETER EHWALD’S DOUBLE TROUBLE,
THE VORTEX

After the Hiromi gig I hotfooted my way to the Vortex hoping to catch something of the late night double bill featuring the Kit Downes/Robert Landfermann Duo and the band Double Trouble led by Berlin based saxophonist and composer Peter Ehwald.

I arrived in time to hear the very last number from pianist Downes and bassist Landfermann. However it turned out that this wasn’t a duo as the pre-gig publicity had suggested. The pair had been joined throughout by cellist Lucy Railton, Downes’ regular partner in the group Tricko, and for this final number the band had grown to a quartet with the addition of drummer Jonas Burgwinkel.

Instead of the lyrical and delicate piano and double bass duets I’d been expecting this was spiky, full on group improvisation as the quartet extemporised around a Lanfermann composition simply titled “Rot” (or “Red” if you prefer). It was powerful stuff and I was sorry not to have seen more of this.

Landfermann and Burgwinkel were soon to return to the stage as part of Double Trouble, a new quartet led by Peter Ehwald, a musician best known to UK audiences as a member of the Anglo-German group Paragon.

Double Trouble is unusual in possessing two double bass players with Landfermann and Burgwinkel being joined by Andreas Lang in a very busy engine room. The first number “In The Zone” began by featuring Lang playing pizzicato bass and Landfermann arco but this was far from typical. The majority of the time both bassists played pizzicato but passed the rhythmic, melodic and soloing duties around constantly with the roles frequently alternating several times within the course of a single tune. It was fascinating to watch this process in action and to marvel at the rapport between the players, there was very little actual doubling up going on.

Meanwhile the melodic focus was almost exclusively on Ehwald who rose to the challenge magnificently. As evidenced by his work with Paragon his playing always possesses an underlying lyricism no matter how far he probes or digs in on his solos. As a band Double Trouble thus remains accessible even in its most challenging moments. This approach was exemplified by the tune “Double Trouble” itself which began with the two basses dovetailing above the sound of Burgwinkel’s gentle and highly musical mallet rumbles. The drummer and Landfermann already have a well established rapport thanks to their long standing collaboration as members of pianist Pablo Held’s trio. Later during the course of the tune Ehwald soloed expansively on tenor sax as the bassists continued to change roles freely and fluidly.

The next piece also featured a twin bass intro followed by a tight, riffy theme played by Ehwald on tenor sax before he embarked on another freewheeling solo. I suspect that this may have been “Mr Soju”, a a track from the band’s excellent album “Double Trouble Live” recorded at various locations across Germany.

The atmospheric introduction to the next piece, described by Ehwald as a ‘love song’ (I think it may have been “Rain” from the album, Ehwald’s announcements were frequently enigmatic and rarely included actual titles) featured flamenco style strumming on the twin bass intro plus Lang’s distinctive work below the bridge allied to the sound of Burgwinkel’s bowed cymbals. Ehwald moved to soprano for this one, eventually breaking loose to demonstrate his considerable abilities on the straight horn.

Ehwald returned to the tenor for the next item delivering a blisteringly intense solo above the thunderous rhythms generated by Burgwinkel and the two bassists. Burgwinkel was featured as a soloist as was Landfermann who produced some juddering, almost impossibly grainy arco figures. I suspect that this was “Bohdan”, a tune from the album that also features a solo from Burgwinkel.

A tune written by Ehwald about the sense of alienation he felt as his high school reunion introduced an element of quirkiness of the kind I sometimes associate with Paragon with its pecked sax phrases and Landfermann using his bass as an auxiliary percussion instrument.

Finally the new tune “Speed Dating” ended the performance on an energetic note. The emphasis was very much on speed with the quartet delivering some delicious Acoustic Ladyland style skronk with Lanfermann sawing away on his bow as Ehwald honked and hooted and Burgwinkel pummelled his drum kit. Great stuff. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Double Trouble’s performance and later got to speak with the amiable Peter Ehwald plus publicist Lee Paterson. It turned out that in his capacity as a fan Ehwald had been to some of the same gigs as me, turning up to support his friends in Amok Amor at The Vortex on Monday and marvelling at the Maria Schneider Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday. Ehwald had been particularly keen to check out the tenor playing of Rich Perry, the American clearly being a key influence and something of an idol to the young German. However Ehwald has clearly found his own voice on saxophone and looks to become a significant force on the European jazz scene in the years to come.       

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Tuesday, 17/11/2015.

Monday, November 30, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Tuesday, 17/11/2015.

Ian Mann on three very different performances by the Ben Cox Band, Liam Noble solo and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Photograph of Maria Schneider sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Tuesday, 17/11/2015.

BEN COX BAND, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB

Ben Cox is a young jazz vocalist and songwriter and this free lunchtime event at Pizza Express found him singing a selection of jazz standards, imaginatively chosen rock and pop and rock covers and a clutch of original tunes, many of them sourced from his début album “This Waiting Game”, credited to the Ben Cox Band.

Endorsed by vocal talents such as Ian Shaw, Lianne Carroll and Barb Jungr Cox occupies a position that embraces aspects of jazz, pop, rock and soul. Many of the original songs in his band’s repertoire are written in conjunction with the group’s pianist and keyboard player Jamie Safiruddin, a talented songwriter and arranger who is in great demand on both the jazz and pop scenes. Safiruddin currently has a high profile “money gig” playing keyboards in Will Young’s touring band and this lunchtime event found him moonlighting from Young’s current tour.

Cox studied at the Guildhall School of Music and his band includes another former Guildhall student in the shape of Flo Moore who today contributed acoustic and electric bass plus backing vocals. Her partner in the rhythm section was drummer James Pritchard, who was depping for the the band’s regular incumbent Will Glaser. We were also due to hear trumpeter Adam Chatterton but in his absence the group performed as a quartet, opening with the standard “When In Rome”.

The first original song was “This Waiting Game”, the album title track written by Cox and arranged by Safiruddin. The album had been launched at the Pizza Express earlier in the year and today’s performance represented a welcome return by the Ben Cox Band. The highly talented Safiruddin doubled on piano and synthesiser and delivered the first of several excellent solos on the acoustic instrument.

Written by Safiruddin the album track “When Ends Appear” explored the interface between jazz, pop and soul with the composer augmenting Cox’s breezy vocal with a fine solo on electric piano. Safiruddin is a significant talent, it wouldn’t be inappropriate for the band to be billed as a co-led project. 

The Safiruddin original “Slumber” was performed as a voice/acoustic piano duet by Cox and the composer. Moore and Pritchard returned for “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” which featured an exquisite acoustic piano solo from arranger Safiruddin. The album version includes a warm guest vocal performance from Claire Martin, yet another of Cox’s high profile admirers.

The new Safiruddin song “If Only” flirted with pop power balladry before the first set closed with a high energy funk/soul workout with Safiruddin doubling brilliantly on piano and synth.

The second set included a greater number of cover versions beginning with a segue of the standard “In The Wee Small Hours”, a tune indelibly associated with Frank Sinatra, and Joni Mitchell’s beautiful song “River”. 

Equally beautiful was “George”, a song sourced from the album co-written by Safiruddin and Ian Shaw.

Cox summoned guest vocalist Emma Smith to the stage to duet on a good natured, if slightly, ragged, version of the standard “My Foolish Heart”. One got the impression that this was entirely unscripted and that Cox had just spotted Smith in the audience and invited her up to sing.

Two more original songs followed “Kathleen”, and the charming “Round and Round”, the latter effectively a children’s song written by Cox for his young niece.

Next up were a couple of highly effective pop covers, from the 1980s came Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and from a decade earlier Steely Dan’s “Do It Again”. Anybody who includes Donald Fagen and Walter Becker among their favourite songwriters is alright with me.

The afternoon concluded with the gospel tinged strains of “Time Slips Away”, a highly appropriate choice.

Regular readers of The Jazzmann will know that I generally prefer instrumental jazz to the vocal variety but after a few initial misapprehensions I found myself rather enjoying this. Ex NYJO vocalist Cox is an engaging singer and performer and in Safiruddin he has a supremely talented ally. The standards and covers were well chosen and the original songs of both Cox and Safiruddin were skilfully written and arranged and featured perceptive and intelligent lyrics. Moore and Pritchard offered low key but effective support with Moore’s vocal harmonies helping to add depth to the arrangements. I was a little disappointed not to hear Chatterton’s trumpet but the cameo appearance by Smith, another highly promising young vocal talent, was a considerable bonus.

The album, which also features a guest vocal performance by Emily Dankworth and which is produced by Ian Shaw also stands up well in the home listening environment and includes several original songs that were not featured today. With Safiruddin increasingly busy with other projects it remains to be seen if the Ben Cox Band in its present incarnation can stay together, let’s hope so.


LIAM NOBLE / MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA, CADOGAN HALL.

It was back to the splendid architecture and acoustics of Cadogan Hall for an evening of music making headlined by the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Schneider is currently regarded as the finest writer for large ensembles in the jazz firmament, the natural heir to the great Gil Evans. It’s a talent that the Minnesota native has been honing for over twenty years since moving to New York and forming the first incarnation of her Orchestra in 1992. The current line up includes some of the most in demand musicians in the US, a veritable who’s who of contemporary American Jazz.

LIAM NOBLE

However the first part of the evening belonged to the revered British pianist and composer Liam Noble who gave a solo performance of pieces from his latest album “A Room Somewhere”, a recording reviewed and recommended elsewhere on this site.

Noble’s album takes its title from a line in the show tune “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely?”, the first of three lengthy extemporizations played by Noble this evening. Noble’s variations featured him toying with meters and styles, sometimes alluding to ragtime, at other moments recalling Thelonious Monk, a key influence. As a musician Noble is distinguished by both his wit and intelligence and elements of a mischievously wilful dissonance were part of his performance here.

The pianist clearly relished the technical challenges presented by Joe Zawinul’s composition “Directions”, the rhythmic complexities of the piece calling for some demanding work with the left hand. Noble also stood up to play under the lid before eventually seguing into the show tune “The Way We Were”. 

The white shirted Noble thanked “whoever it was who had the idea to put me in this massive place” as he gestured to the sold out, nine hundred strong audience in the magnificent surroundings of Cadogan Hall. His final tune was the much loved standard “Body and Soul” which he played with great tenderness and relatively little embellishment. An knowledgeable audience, one that clearly appreciated that Liam Noble has gradually become something of a national treasure, awarded him with a great reception. It may only have been a brief set but it was eminently enjoyable. Short, but sweet indeed. 

MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA

I was lucky enough to visit New York City in December 1996 and it has always been a regret that I didn’t take the opportunity of seeing the Maria Schneider Orchestra while I was there. The band was then playing a regular club residency but has since risen to be one of the major concert hall attractions on the international jazz circuit.

Tonight’s performance was part of a European tour that had already seen the Orchestra playing two weeks of live dates in mainland Europe before heading to the UK for shows in London and Birmingham.

In 2007 I reviewed and recommended the Schneider Orchestra’s then current album “Sky Blue” describing Schneider as a “painter in sound” and enthusing about “ the power and beauty of her evocative writing and the rich, lustrous textures of her arrangements”.

These qualities were apparent throughout tonight’s performance which was largely sourced from Schneider’s latest album “The Thompson Fields”, named for a location in her native Minnesota. The music on the album is inspired by Schneider’s childhood memories and the landscape of the American Mid West. Also a respected ornithologist (much of “Sky Blue” had an ornithological theme) Schneider’s writing is greatly influenced by nature and landscape and that inspiration can clearly be heard in the music which is lush, spacious, occasionally grandiose, but always full of warmth and humanity. The sophistication of the arrangements is offset by the freedom that Schneider allows for her team of star soloists to express themselves. It’s an almost perfect blend that has won her countless plaudits with many people considering the Maria Schneider Orchestra to be the finest jazz large ensemble on the planet.

Deploying the classic big band line up of five reeds, four trumpets/flugels and four trombones plus piano, guitar, double bass and drums the Schneider Orchestra also included a magical additional ingredient in the form of Gary Versace’s accordion which helped to create that Mid Western sense of big skied openness often heard in Pat Metheny’s music when he chooses to celebrate his birthplace (in his case a little further south in the state of Missouri).
Versace was prominent on the opening piece “A Potter’s Song” which also featured Schneider’s distinctive arranging processes, the mix of trumpets and flugelhorns being particularly effective as she conjured rich, colourful, evocative and distinctive textures from her Orchestra.

“Nimbus” featured the first solo from Schneider’s stellar reed section with Steve Wilson playing powerfully and expansively on his feature and also adding a hint of wilful dissonance to the rich Schneider sound.
   
The title of “The Monarch And The Milkweed”, named for the Monarch Butterfly and the plant on which it feeds epitomised Schneider’s love of nature and the inspiration she draws from it. The flugelhorn of Greg Gisbert and the trombone of Marshall Gilkes embodied the two protagonists of the title, both soloing delightfully but combining even more beautifully in an arrangement that also made imaginative use of flutes, accordion and bass clarinet.

“Dance You Monster To My Soft Song” was inspired by a Paul Klee painting and was sourced from “Evansescence”, Schneider’s début album and a homage to Gil Evans, released in 1994. Trombonist Ryan Keberle and trumpeter Michael Rodriguez were the featured soloists here on a piece that sounded as fresh as it did when it was first recorded over twenty years ago.

The “Thompson Fields” album appears on the Artist Share label and in introducing the title track Schneider took the opportunity to thank two particularly generous sponsors of the project. The song itself was a particularly evocative depiction of Schneider’s childhood home in the Mid West with solos from the excellent Frank Kimbrough on piano and the always tasteful Lage Lund on guitar, again provoking those Metheny comparisons. Schneider felt that it was particularly appropriate that the Norwegian born, Brooklyn based Lund should feature on this track in view of the large numbers of Scandinavian settlers who made Minnesota their home.

From the same album the composition “Home” was commissioned by one Paul James of Birmingham who was present in the audience to hear the warm toned tenor saxophone of featured soloist Rich Perry, one of the most popular and long serving musicians in the Orchestra.

The closing “Birds Of Paradise” was another piece inspired by Schneider’s love of nature and ornithology. Describing herself as a ‘twitcher’ she explained something of the courtship rituals of the birds in the title and the vivid colouring and extrovert ‘dancing’ of the males. Star soloists Donny McCaslin (tenor sax) and Scott Robinson (baritone) represented the displaying males in a face off that saw McCaslin soloing in declamatory, typically marathon manner on tenor before Robinson answered him on baritone, sometimes stretching right up to the top of the instrument’s range and also entering into an absorbing dialogue with pianist Kimbrough. Finally the pair locked horns to the sound of a roaring big band accompaniment. The audience loved it and awarded the Orchestra a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. 

Following the aural fireworks of “Birds In Paradise” Schneider chose to encore with two pieces from the album “Winter Morning Walks”, her award winning cross genre collaboration with the classical soprano Dawn Upchurch plus two separate chamber orchestras. Both pieces were instrumental settings of poems by the American poet Ted Kooser.

The first of these featured Robinson soling effectively on flugelhorn, something that appeared to be unscripted “he’s never done this before!” exclaimed Schneider. However I have an old album by Robinson, “Magic Eye”, a 1993 collaboration with the Czech pianist Emil Viklicky (also performing at the Festival incidentally) which shows Robinson to be an accomplished brass player despite the fact that he’s predominately associated with reed instruments.

The second piece featured a delightful solo by alto saxophonist Dave Pietro over a backdrop of dampened piano strings and the delicate sonorities of muted trombones. Both of these pieces were effectively delightful tone poems, the perfect wind down after the earlier pyrotechnics.

It was a privilege to finally see the Maria Schneider Orchestra perform live, an opinion that seemed to be shared by many other people with several fans and commentators citing this as their “gig of the year”. Schneider not only conducted the orchestra but also handled the announcements, her presenting style a charming mix of elegance and eloquence. It all made a pleasant contrast to the now well documented histrionics of Cassandra Wilson.

I was tempted to purchase a copy of “The Thompson Fields” after the show but felt that the asking price of twenty quid was a bit steep, although I will concede that it must cost a lot of money to keep an Orchestra of this quality on the road. If you’re reading this let me know what you think. 

For the record the Maria Schneider Orchestra lined up as follows; 

Maria Schneider composer/conductor
Steve Wilson reeds
Dave Pietro reeds
Rich Perry reeds
Donny McCaslin reeds
Scott Robinson reeds
Greg Gisbert trumpet
August Haas trumpet
Garrett Schmidt trumpet
Mike Rodriguez trumpet
Keith O’Quinn trombone
Ryan Keberle trombone
Marshall Gilkes trombone
George Flynn bass trombone
Gary Versace accordion
Lage Lund guitar
Frank Kimbrough piano
Jay Anderson bass
Johnathan Blake drums


   

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Monday, 16/11/2015.

Friday, November 27, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Monday, 16/11/2015.

Ian Mann on performances by Sam Coombes Trio, Elliot Galvin Trio, Dice Factory, and Amok Amor featuring Peter Evans.

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, Monday 16/11/2015.

SAM COOMBES TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB

I recently reviewed and recommended “Pace of Change”, the latest album from alto saxophonist and composer Sam Coombes. I was therefore very much looking forward to this performance, one of a series of free lunchtime events being held at the Pizza Express Jazz Club during the Festival week.

Coombes in an interesting character who divides his time between Edinburgh and Caen in Normandy where he has a house. He is an avid Francophile who supplements his musical career with a post teaching French at Edinburgh University.

Coombes has musical associations in both the UK and France and “Pace of Change” features his playing in a saxophone trio configuration with the leader being joined by the highly in demand Paris based rhythm section of Yoni Zelnik (double bass) and Julien Charlet (drums).

Following the terrorist atrocities the previous Friday there was some doubt as to whether Zelnik and Charlet would be able to make this gig but fortunately they did, arriving via a combination of Eurostar and taxi. This was probably just as well as the complexities of Coombes’ writing for “Pace of Change” would have presented a considerable challenge for any “deps”.

With Zelnik and Charlet having to return to Paris later in the day it was agreed that the trio would present their music as a single continuous performance rather than taking the usual twenty minute break between sets. It proved to be an hour and a half of absorbing and surprisingly accessible music making as the trio presented virtually all of the music from the “Pace of Change” album, albeit in a slightly different running order to the CD.

The music on “Pace of Change” is complex, and doubtless sometimes difficult to play, but it remains curiously accessible to the listener, largely due to the strength of Coombes’ highly melodic themes. The gristle is in the rhythmic content as Coombes explains  
“Each composition comprises of a minimum of three non standard time signatures (12/4, 9/4, 11/4, 5/2 etc), hence time is literally of the essence and helps to give ‘Pace of Change’ its title.”

The concept may all sound a little dry and academic but the music sounds anything but and in Zelnik and Charlet Coombes has the perfect partners to interpret his ideas. The pair have the ‘chops’ to handle the complexities of Coombes’ compositions with apparent ease, they are always listening, always receptive, and always in the moment while simultaneously possessing enormous technical skills. This was music that kept both the musicians and their listeners on their toes throughout and was very well received by an attentive and pleasingly sizeable Monday lunchtime crowd. If I was impressed by Zelnik and Charlet on record I was even more so seeing them perform this music in the flesh.

For all its complexities the music on “Pace of Change” is also all about “the groove” with the trio often adopting funk inspired rhythms, as exemplified on album and set opener “perpetual e-motion”.

“Contagion”, the second track from the album exhibited a similar urgency and included solo features for both bass and drums as Zelnik and Charlet offered further evidence of their considerable abilities.

The time signature changes were even more clearly pronounced on the sprawling “In the Interstice”  but the complexities were leavened by Coombes’ own playing, his dry yet pure and always melodic sound granting the music an accessibility that the audience could relate too but without any sense of compromise with regard to his artistic vision.

So far the music had been fairly hard driving with Zelnik’s muscular bass lines helping to propel the music forward. Comparisons with the music of both Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins in trio mode would have been valid. Coombes now presented something more impressionistic and obviously European in origin with the drifting atmospherics of “Mondeville, Juillet 2013”, a reflective depiction of the small industrial coastal town just outside Caen where Coombes lives. One could imagine the mist swirling around the harbour in the early morning as Coombes wispy, long toned melody lines were accompanied by Charlet’s mallet rumbles and delicate cymbal splashes as the drummer adopted the role of colourist.

“Interfacing You”, by contrast was eminently more lively and the piece most obviously rooted in bebop. Here the consistently impressive Charlet generated an impressive amount of power with brushes alone.

Although unannounced I seem to recall that “Fault Lines” was next up, a tune that was reminiscent of the music of both Ornette Coleman and French bassist and composer Henri Texier. This was a piece that moved through several distinct phrases with Charlet moving from mallets to sticks as the music unfolded.

“Pace of Change” itself exemplified the trio’s approach and included improvised solo features from all three group members.

The new tune “Present Continuous” saw Coombes switching to soprano saxophone, an instrument on which he is also highly accomplished. His exchanges with with Zelnik’s bass and Charlet’s brushed drums were consistently gripping and the level of interaction between bass and drums exceptional.

Coombes remained on soprano for “Go re-configure”, an altogether more energetic affair that featured the leader’s incisive soloing above the restless and dynamic polyrhytmic flow of Charlet’s drumming.

Coombes moved back to alto for the afternoon’s only standard, a ballad reading of “Everything Happens To Me” introduced by a saxophone/bass duet and also featuring a melodic solo from Zelnik shadowed by Charlet’s brushes.

Like the album the performance finished with an alternate version of “perpetual e-motion”, an even more overtly funky version of the tune played in a different set of time signatures to the first take.

I’d been looking forward to this performance since reviewing the album and Coombes and his colleagues certainly didn’t disappoint. It was good to hear what could have been perceived as relatively challenging music going over so well with the other audience members too.

Immediately after the show Zelnik and Charlet had to pack up their gear and retrace their steps back to Paris. During the performance Coombes had spoken of the shock that all three musicians had felt with regard to Friday’s events.

On a more personal note the saxophonist was very relieved that he hadn’t been forced to cancel what had been a very successful gig for him. Sam and I have had a degree of email contact over the years and post gig it was good to meet up at last and talk at some length about music and other matters. Sam Coombes is a highly intelligent and genuinely nice guy, let’s hope his musical career can continue to prosper in difficult economic times.

ELLIOT GALVIN TRIO, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

The Café at Ray’s Jazz within the Foyle’s book shop has customarily staged free early evening jazz events during the Festival and at other times of the year.

Following the relocation of Foyle’s to a site just a few doors down Charing Cross Road from the old store a new sound proofed performance space has been created on the top floor, adjacent to, but separate from, the Café. Overall it’s a better place to listen to music with the hubbub of the Café and the roar of traffic in the street outside no longer a distraction.

This time round the Festival events at Foyle’s have been ticketed but with the prices kept very modest (typically around £6.00) and audiences still turned out in impressive numbers beginning with this evening’s performance from the young pianist and composer Elliot Galvin and his trio featuring bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Simon Roth. 

I reviewed a gig by the trio at Dempsey’s in Cardiff in September 2015 and loved every minute of it and once again I found myself enjoying their performance immensely even though the element of surprise or novelty was inevitably less second time around.

I’m going to reproduce a couple of paragraphs from the Cardiff review which give an indication of what Galvin is all about;

Galvin, originally from Rochester in Kent, is a graduate of the Jazz Course at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and is a frequent award winner, a former Yamaha Jazz Scholar and the 2014 European Young Jazz Musician of The Year. Together with trumpeter Laura Jurd he is the co-founder of the increasingly influential Chaos Collective of young musicians. Indeed “Dreamland”, with its brilliant and amusing artwork by Stuart Brough, appears on the Chaos Collective’s own label.

Galvin is a pianist with technique to burn but he’s also a self confessed nerd and gadget fanatic and his performance saw him augmenting the orthodox sound of the piano with a dizzying array of devices and extended techniques. He approaches his music with an impish irreverence that has caused other commentators to liken him to a young Django Bates, and it’s a fair comparison, Galvin really is that good. Like Bates he has ideas to burn and his music is similarly busy, full of sudden shifts and turns and dramatic dynamic contrasts. The restless and often whimsical nature of his music might not suit all listeners but I loved it for its youthful brashness and energy, the sheer joy the trio took in one another’s playing and Galvin’s obvious reluctance to be pigeon holed. This was a three piece that went way beyond the usual conventions of the piano trio, whether pre or post E.S.T., to deliver music that was gloriously original, occasionally challenging, but above all fun.

Today’s show was in the same mould as the Cardiff performance but included exclusively new material which is slated to appear on the trio’s second album, is due to be recorded in early 2016. Opener “Hurdy Gurdy” and second piece “Lions” were both new compositions and featured McCredie deploying both arco and pizzicato techniques on the bass. “Lions” saw Galvin unrolling a length of gaffer tape and integrating the sound of the process into the musical performance. He then used the strip of tape to dampen the string of the piano thereby producing a kind of pizzicato string sound as Roth detonated a series of drum explosions. All very theatrical but delivered with an astonishing degree of musical skill. There are hints of surrealism, Dadaism and performance art in an Elliot Galvin show.

The restless use of devices continued throughout the evening with Galvin variously deploying toy piano, stylophone, kalimba and his home built microtonal melodica, essentially two melodicas in different keys melded together.

He doesn’t use it in this group but Galvin is also an accomplished and original accordionist who deploys this instrument alongside the piano with bassist Huw V Williams’ band Hon.

For all the madcap antics Galvin is also capable of more impressionistic moments such as the new tune “1666” which nevertheless still included use of the piano’s innards plus Roth’s various percussive devices. Meanwhile an innovative arrangement of the standard “Mack The Knife” reclaimed the song from the supper club crooners and welcomed it back to the dark side via Galvin’s doomy piano chording, McCredie’s grainy low register arco bass and Roth’s vaguely sinister tapping out of the melody on a child’s glockenspiel.

“Tippu’s Tiger” was no less unsettling, a musical depiction of an anti-colonialist exhibit housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The item in question is an Indian made musical box and Galvin and his colleagues captured something of that quirky music box sound with the leader playing kalimba simultaneously with the piano accompanied by bowed bass and that glockenspiel again.

“Polare” was more hard grooving, a kind of E.S.T. meets Django Bates approach. “Punch And Judy” began with Galvin manipulating fairground sounds on an old fashioned cassette recorder and incorporated a stop/start finale with more false endings than the track “Nearch” on Egg’s 1974 album “The Civil Surface”. I sometimes wonder if Galvin’s generation have listened to all that Canterbury Scene stuff or just arrived at a similar destination totally independently. On a more contemporary note I also wondered if keyboardist Dave Morecroft’s WorldService Project was also an influence given the association of Galvin and some of his Chaos Collective colleagues with the Match & Fuse movement.

“Cosy” concluded the show with a typical piece of Bates inspired whimsy with Galvin even getting the audience to whistle along with an uncharacteristically simple melody line.

The trio’s music was very well received by a supportive crowd, possibly an audience more familiar with the group’s music than the Cardiff audience had been. Galvin’s scatter-gun approach may not appeal to all listeners but I think he’s a terrific talent (as are McCredie and Roth) and I’m looking forward to the new album with keen anticipation. Meanwhile the début album “Dreamland” remains recommended listening for all fans of contemporary jazz.


DICE FACTORY / AMOK AMOR, THE VORTEX

My first of several Festival visits to the Vortex, still my favourite London jazz club, was to hear this double bill featuring the British quartet Dice Factory and the international four piece Amok Amor led by Danish bassist Petter Eldh.

DICE FACTORY

I very much enjoyed Dice Factory’s eponymous début album for the Babel label released in 2012 and reviewed and recommended it for this site. Founder members Tom Challenger (tenor sax), Tom Farmer (double bass) and Jon Scott (drums) remain but the group has since acquired a new pianist with fellow Loop Collective member Dan Nicholls taking over from George Fogel.

Three years on from the début it was inevitable that tonight’s performance would include a high percentage of new material and the group began with two as yet untitled compositions by drummer Jon Scott which elicited powerful solos from Nicholls and Challenger.

As Oliver Weindling of the Vortex noted in his review for London Jazz News this was a set of quietly simmering intensity and included “Co-incidental Design”, a new composition from Farmer that began with gentle rippling piano arpeggios and included an atmospheric solo drum passage from a mallet wielding Scott before growing incrementally in terms of intensity as it segued into a new Nicholls piece titled “Let The Horse Go”.

Challenger’s composition “Gooch” represented the only selection from the group’s début. The cricket loving saxophonist’s tune references Graham Gooch’s record breaking innings of 333 and is centred around triplets, clever stuff, but like Coombes and Galvin eminently listenable. The solo highlight here was Farmer’s inventive and imaginative double bass feature.

An abstract ballad, I think the title was “AWOL”, featured lyrical piano and lightly brushed drums and represented something of a pause for breath before the set closer, Farmer’s composition “The Eternal Sleep” with it’s soaring tenor sax and highly percussive piano solo rounded off by a powerful drum feature from Scott.

A second Dice Factory album must surely be imminent, and on this evidence should be well worth hearing.

AMOK AMOR

The 2014 EFG LJF included an acclaimed performance at the Vortex by Starlight, a trio led by the Berlin based drummer Christian Lillinger and featuring bassist Petter Eldh and German alto saxophonist Wanja Slavin.

This year the group returned with a new name and a new member, the phenomenal American trumpeter Peter Evans. Now called Amok Amor the new group functions under the nominal leadership of Eldh but is very much an improvising collective – I suspect that the Starlight trio is still operative but with Lillinger at the helm, the relationship is a bit like the one between Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland with shared personnel but different leaders.

As Amok Amor the quartet released their eponymous début album earlier in 2015 on the Austrian Boomslang label featuring compositions by Eldh, Lillinger and Slavin. Tonight’s performance appeared to be predominately improvised with the first sequence lasting half an hour and introduced by the metronomic beat of Lillinger’s drums which provided the platform for some astonishing soloing from Slavin and particularly Evans.

I first encountered Evans’ playing when he was a member of bassist Moppa Elliott’s irreverent quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing and was lucky enough to see the group play live at the Vortex in July 2011. Evans was little short of astonishing, a trumpet player possessed of an extraordinary power and technique and he was no less impressive this evening, almost to the point that he threatened to overwhelm his colleagues despite Lillinger’s robust drumming and Eldh’s highly physical bass playing. Amok Amor was a group that played with a scorching intensity almost throughout, citing a lack of light and shade would be a valid criticism, but one gets the sense that like MOPDTK that isn’t what this group is all about.

Instead it was best just to enjoy the spectacle of this turbo-charged quartet in full flow, the scintillating horn interplay, the driving rhythms, the excoriating solos, particularly from the brilliant Evans, a man capable of generating multiphonic effects without the resource to pedals as Oliver Weindling pointed out. Slavin did his best to keep pace and delivered some impressive solo statements of his own but was frequently overpowered by Evans. A glance at Slavin’s website suggests that he’s a busy musician with a number of other projects on the go and it would be interesting to hear him in a less intense and claustrophobic context. In between the lengthy solos there were staccato unison passages interspersed with free jazz squalls. It was a blisteringly intense but ultimately exhilarating half an hour for musicians and audience alike.

Eldh, wearing a baseball cap, made his announcements in a curious Mid Atlantic accent. He introduced the next piece as a “cover arranged by Peter Evans” but frankly I have no idea what it was. This time Evans, Slavin and Lillinger were all reading music but the group’s methodology seemed much the same, blazing, free-wheeling jazz that was sometimes reminiscent of Evans’ old group MOPDTK. He may have left Elliott’s mob to explore more improvisatory waters but Amok Amor didn’t seem to be too far removed from his old alma mater. Along the way we heard some dazzling set pieces including some brutal drumming by Lillinger, sporting a Morrissey like quiff, the physicality and theatrical nature of his solo feature not dissimilar to MOPDTK’s Kevin Shea. Then there was the stunning horn duet featuring the harsh metallic buzz of Slavin’s alto juxtaposed with the bright, brassy, audacious virtuosity of Evans. Slavin came into his own with a lengthy passage of solo alto before Evans entered into a dialogue with Lillinger that included elements of humour that again evoked memories of that night at the Vortex with MOPDTK four years ago with the incredible Evans also demonstrating an extraordinary circular breathing technique.

Overall the quartet played for around an hour but with such a blistering intensity that neither band nor audience could have taken any more. The group’s album is slightly more formal and features shorter pieces but is still suitably powerful and intense. It stands up well in the home listening environment and is strongly recommended.
 

 

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Sunday, 15/11/2015.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Sunday, 15/11/2015.

Ian Mann on the third day of the Festival including performances by Mimika Orchestra, Helen Sung Quartet and the Marcin Wasilewski Trio with guest saxophonist Joakim Milder.

Photo montage of Marcin Wasilewski and Helen Sung sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Sunday, 15/11/2015.


MIMIKA ORCHESTRA, SPICE OF LIFE, SOHO.

Mimika Orchestra is the brainchild of the Croatian born composer Mak Murtic, now based in London. The personnel includes some of London’s leading young jazz musicians, some of whom were to materialise at other gigs later in the week.

Murtic directs and writes the majority of the material for the band, music that is heavily influenced by the Afro-futurist jazz of Sun Ra as well as by the Slavic folk music tradition. Albums such as “From Scratch To Structure” (2012) and “A Place Glowing A Brilliant Red” (2015) are conceptual affairs which Murtic has described as “sonic dramas”, the latter being a satire about a Martian civilisation in economic decline. Murtic has also collaborated with the Croatian Radio Television Jazz Orchestra on the album “Antarctica And Other Destinations” (2015).

Today’s programme included selected items from “A Place…” plus excerpts from the Orchestra’s current ongoing project “Divinities of the Earth and the Waters” which draws its inspiration from South Slavic folk traditions and the writings of the Russian futurist poet Khlebnikov and his epic poem “Zangezi” which envisions the languages of the Gods, Birds and Humans fusing to form a kind of global onomatopoeia.

There were also two pieces written by other members of the ensemble, saxophonist Seb Silas and trumpeter Andy Hall, in commemoration of former band member David Turay (saxophone) who died at the tragically young age of nineteen in 2014, a little over a year before today’s performance.

Murtic’s visions were given voice by singer Maja Rivic, a captivating performer with a powerful and flexible vocal style and a strong stage presence. The second set also included contributions from guest vocalists Sylvia Schmidt and Aliksandr Ilyukevich, but more on that later.

For the record the band lined up;

Mak Murtic – director

Maja Rivic, Sylvia Schmidt, Aliksandr Ilyukevich – vocals

Andrew Linham (clarinet), Guido Spannochi (alto sax, flute), Rob Milne (tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute), John MacNaughton (alto sax, clarinet), Nubya Garcia (tenor sax), Seb Silas (baritone sax)

Andy Hall, Sam Warner (trumpet & flugelhorn)

Rosie Turton, Hannah Dilkes (trombone)

Tom Kelly (tuba)

Leon Rosten (piano, electric guitar)

James Benzies (six string electric bass)

Oberon King (drums)

Paul Love (percussion)

Tile Gichgi Lipere (live electronics)

Daniel Woodfield (non playing joint musical director)

With twenty one band members and a large and supportive audience the basement bar of the Spice of Life was absolutely rammed, no doubt to the delight of Paul Pace who introduced the band before handing over to Murtic who said a few words of introduction with a particular emphasis on the memory of David Turay.

The first set began with a sequence of pieces from the “A place..” album with the charismatic Rivic acting as both narrator and singer, sometimes assisted by the massed voices of her fellow band members. Audibly influenced by Sun Ra the music included rousing big band passages punctuated along the way by excellent individual solos from MacNaughton (clarinet), Garcia (tenor sax) and Spannochi (alto sax) Turton (trombone) and Milne (bass clarinet).

This was highly theatrical music with spoken word passages linking the individual movements, curiously the spoken episodes evoked memories for me of Hawkwind’s “Sonic Attack” from way back when. The “songs” in this sequence were “Here Is Everywhere”, “Fractal Forests”, “A Place Glowing A Brilliant Red” and the bitingly satirical and laugh out loud funny “The World of Steady Supply”.

The next section of the concert featured the premiers of the two tributes to David Turay. Silas’ “Turay” featured a freely structured horn chorale exclusively for the band’s saxophonists and eventually merged into Hall’s more formal song “The Sun In The Night” with Rivic singing the composer’s words and with Rosten adding a lyrical piano solo. The piece concluded by returning to a more avant garde position as MacNaughton blew solo alto saxophone above the rumble of Rosten’s interior piano scrapings. In view of the sickening events in Paris at the start of the weekend Murtic also dedicated these two pieces to the memory of the victims of terrorism.

Set one concluded with “Sick Rose”, another composition by Hall that featured a highly theatrical performance from Rivic that deployed a series of extended avant garde vocal techniques. Instrumental solos came from Garcia on tenor sax, Linham on clarinet and Warner on flugelhorn.

The second set began with the première of Murtic’s “Divinities of the Earth and the Waters” and featured the three vocalists playing with the concept of language before Benzies’ electric bass groove took over paving the way for solos from Rosten on piano and Warner on trumpet. The singers then returned for a further series of vocal exchanges before MacNaughton delivered a barnstorming alto sax solo towards the conclusion of the piece.

Sylvia Schmidt took over the lead vocals for “Panteon”, one of a series of tunes influenced by South Slavic ritual music, the others being “Zorya’s Possession” and Enter the Yardhe”. This being a suite the tunes segued into each other and it was difficult to delineate exactly where one piece ended another began. Along the way we witnessed a totally bonkers vocal performance from Ilyukevich whose crazed rantings, sometimes doctored by Lipere’s real time electronics, were reminiscent of a Slavonic Captain Beefheart.

Meanwhile Benzies’ electric bass grooves kept things bubbling as the singers encouraged the audience to clap along with some pretty tricky complicated Balkan rhythms. Along the way we heard solos from Love on percussion (including musical saw!), Milne on bass clarinet and Rosten on guitar. Schmidt’s already high pitched vocals were taken to another level by Lipere’s electronic enhancements. For all the wackiness and avant garde trappings this was great fun and bodes well for future performances, and hopefully documentation on disc.

The deserved encore was “The Earthlings”, the final movement of the “A Place…” album with Rivic again fronting the band and with Benzies’ grooves fuelling a memorable solo from clarinettist Andrew Linham who was due to return to the Spice in the evening leading his own large ensemble the Andrew Linham Jazz Orchestra performing new compositions under the generic title “The Theme Music of Anarchic Animals”.

Although not totally convinced by some of the concepts behind the music I still enjoyed this performance from the Mimika Orchestra. Rivic was a compelling focal point and the ensemble playing and individual instrumental solos were of a commendably high standard. I acquired a copy of “A Place…” at the gig and have to say that the both the music and the overall concept stand up very well in the home listening environment. I gather that the band sometimes wear costumes for their performances, although they were pretty much in mufti today, but “A Place..” still works on record even without any form of visual stimulus.

All in all an interesting and entertaining, if decidedly oddball, beginning to the second day of the Festival.

MISHA MULLOV-ABBADO QUINTET, BARBICAN FREESTAGE

My next ticketed event was in the evening at Milton Court so during the interim I made my way over to the Barbican hoping to witness some of the music being performed on the venue’s Freestage. I was particularly keen to catch something of the 4.00 pm set by the young bassist and composer Misha Mullov-Abbado whose highly promising début album “New Ansonia” was recently reviewed on The Jazzmann.

As it was I managed to catch around the last twenty minutes of the performance by a quintet featuring album personnel Matthew Herd (alto sax), Tom Green (trombone) and Scott Chapman (drums) with Liam Dunachie coming in on piano in place of the ridiculously in demand Jacob Collier.

Dunachie acquitted himself very well on the three numbers that I managed to catch, the new tunes “Wallace and Gromit’s Day Out” and “Shantyville” plus the title track from “New Ansonia”.

“W & G” was surprisingly hard hitting bop with a sense of humour while “Shantyville” was more reflective, both offering good examples of the breadth of Mullov-Abbado’s compositional range.  “New Ansonia” added a guest percussionist whose name I didn’t catch and included excellent solos from Dunachie at the piano and Mullov-Abbado himself on big toned but dexterous and flexible double bass. Elsewhere Herd and Green had provided punchy solos of their own and the whole performance seemed much more dynamic than the album. The audience were certainly well impressed and gave the group a terrific reception. Mullov-Abbado was certainly a busy boy after the gig as he sold and signed albums and chatted to fans. Freestage gigs may seem low profile but bands get to play to large audiences and a strong performance such as this can do much to enhance an artist’s career. This gig was something of a triumph for the young bassist and composer and his band.

LAURENT COULONDRE TRIO, BARBICAN FREESTAGE

Following Mullov-Abbado on the Freestage was the French pianist and composer Laurent Coulondre and his trio. Coulondre has supported such rock and jazz luminaries as Sting, Marcus Miller, Avishai Cohen, Chucho Valdes and Dee Dee Bridgewater and appeared here with what I assumed to be his regular working trio featuring bassist Jeremy Bruyere and drummer Pierre-Alain Tocanier.

The threesome were playing music from their latest album “Schizophrenia”, released in September 2015. It could be argued that the title was highly appropriate as the trio delivered a set that borrowed from various jazz genres and featured Coulondre on multiple keyboards (grand piano, organ, synthesiser) while Bruyere played both acoustic and electric bass.

Tune titles were not always easy to decipher but I believe that the first piece was “Sunny Road Trip”, an energetic opener that featured the fusion style sounds of electric keyboards and electric bass and culminated in a drum solo from Tocanier.

The second number was performed acoustically with Coulondre displaying a lyrical touch on the piano as Bruyere moved to double bass. This was followed by a piece that saw Coulondre soloing on both organ and acoustic piano while Tocanier was again featured at the drums.

I was able to pick up the titles of the last two tunes beginning with the appropriately energetic “Bouncing Peanuts” which featured Coulondre on both piano and synthesiser while including a feature for Bruyere on acoustic bass.

The trio closed their set with the title track from “Schizophrenia”, a heavy organ driven piece that also included features for electric bass and drums. Stylistically it reminded me of Medeski, Martin and Wood and the energy of the piece ensured that it was well received by the large crowd surrounding the Freestage.

While there was much to enjoy about this set I still wasn’t totally convinced. Coulondre’s constant switching of keyboards was unsettling and this was busy “butterfly” music that never seemed to settle in one place long enough for me to get a handle on it. Like the 70s prog and fusion that Coulondre clearly loves there seemed to be a lot of technique but a lack of real feeling or substance.
Overall the effect was a little frustrating and I couldn’t help wishing that the time slots allocated to Coulondre and Mullov-Abbado had been reversed.


THEO CROKER, BARBICAN FREESTAGE

The main house at the Barbican had been due to stage a concert by the legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint and his band. However the sudden and tragic death of Toussaint just a few days earlier on November 9th following his show in Madrid engendered an inevitable cancellation.

Toussaint had been due to be supported by the dynamic young American trumpeter Theo Croker and his band. It was decided that Croker should still get to play to a London audience and he closed out the programme on the Freestage.

Croker is the grandson of the late, great trumpeter Doc Cheatham and has also worked with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s band. Born to parents who were active in the Civil Rights movement Croker brings a very contemporary, politically informed approach to his music allied to a formidable technical ability.

His hard hitting quintet featuring Anthony Ware (tenor sax), Sullivan Fortner (keyboards), Eric Wheeler (electric bass) and Kassa Overall (drums)  hit the ground running with “The Right Time” and the infectious deep groove of “Dark Funk”.

Unfortunately I was only able to catch the first two numbers from the Croker band as I was due at my next ticketed event just down the road at Milton Court. However what I saw convinced me that this was an artist worth watching. Croker’s phenomenal ‘chops’ combined with a sense of showmanship and a streetwise, politically savvy attitude suggested that he is a musician whose star will continue to rise as he accrues a strong following. I know of at least one fan who chose to forego the support act at Milton Court and stick with Croker declaring that the young trumpeter’s performance had been ‘brilliant’. Keep an eye open for Theo Croker. 

HELEN SUNG QUARTET / MARCIN WASILEWSKI TRIO with JOAKIM MILDER, MILTON COURT

Tonight was my first visit to Milton Court, the newly built performance venue constructed for the Guildhall School of Music and administered by the Barbican. I was very impressed with this stylish, modern, purpose built, six hundred seater concert venue. With raked seating the sight lines were excellent and the acoustics superb, it was a space perfectly suited to this performance by the Polish trio led by pianist and composer Marcin Wasilewski and their guest, Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder.

First however we enjoyed something of a bonus. The Texan born pianist and composer Helen Sung was something of a late addition to the programme and she delivered an excellent support set accompanied by a stellar American band featuring bassist Josh Ginsburg, alto saxophonist Logan Richardson and drummer E.J. Strickland, the latter once a member of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s band.

Sung studied classical piano before coming relatively late to jazz but she seems to have quickly made up for any lost time by studying with such giants of the music as Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter. Much of the music played tonight was sourced from her latest album “Anthem For A New Day” released in 2014 on Concord Records.

The quartet began with the title track from the album which developed from an atmospheric introduction featuring Richardson’s breathy alto sax, Ginsburg’s bowed bass and Strickland’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. However the tune soon changed piece, becoming more urgent and vibrant and featured some razor sharp ensemble playing plus an incisive alto solo from Richardson. The recorded version features Sung on Fender Rhodes so tonight’s performance with the leader on acoustic piano was significantly different.

“Brother Thelonious”, the opening track on the album not only doffs its hat to Monk but is also the name of a beer brewed in honour of the pianist by the North Coast Brewing Co. of Fort Bragg, California. Some of the proceeds from the sale of the beer and associated merchandise are donated to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz where Sung studied under the tutelage of Ron Carter.
The tune itself proved to be a rousing piece of Monk inspired hard bop with Sung delivering a particularly dazzling solo alongside features for Richardson and Ginsburg.

Sung’s composition “Hope Springs Eternally” was written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and was tonight dedicated to the victims of the events in Paris on the night of November 13th 2015. Following a lyrical solo piano intro the uplifting theme inspired solos from Sung, Richardson and Ginsburg.

Sung and Ginsburg performed Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba” as a duo with Sung introducing a series of classical flourishes that hinted at her musical past as Ginsburg deployed both pizzicato and arco techniques on his bass. Corea may be an obvious influence for Sung but she confessed that she was first turned on to jazz by witnessing a live performance by Harry Connick Jr. in Austin Texas.

Richardson and Strickland returned to the stage for a segue of a Wayne Shorter tune (missed the title, sorry) and Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love”. The sequence began with a dialogue between Sung on piano and Richardson on delicate, almost flute like alto. Richardson subsequently dropped out leaving the group in piano trio mode with Sung’s playing displaying a subtle blues influence as she soloed to the accompaniment of double bass and brushed drums.

The Sung original “Into The Unknown” closed this impressive support set, the tune’s muscular hard bop stylings fuelling excellent solos from Richardson and Sung (including a passage of unaccompanied piano) plus a final drum feature from the excellent Strickland.

Every festival throws up an unexpected discovery and for me this year it was Helen Sung. I have to confess that I’d not encountered this lady or her music before. However I can now confirm that “Anthem For A New Day” is an excellent album that features a stellar line up including saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and bassist Reuben Rogers. A visit to Sung’s website reveals that she has released a number of other albums over the years, all of them featuring some of America’s leading contemporary jazz musicians. As she chatted to fans and signed albums after the show she seemed to be a genuinely charming person too.

As good as Sung’s group was the Marcin Wasilewski Trio took the art of piano jazz to another level. Originally known as Simple Acoustic Trio the axis of Wasilewski (piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (double bass) and Michal Miskiewicz (drums) have been playing together for over twenty years.

They came to wider public attention when they appeared on a trio of albums by the Polish trumpeter and composer Tomasz Stanko (“Soul Of Things”, “Suspended Night” and “Lontano”), all of them released on ECM.  Under the name Marcin Wasilewski Trio they have also released a series of ECM albums of their own including “Trio” (2004), “January” (2007) and “Faithful” (2011), all of them excellent. More recently they have released “Spark Of Life” (ECM, 2014), a recording featuring the saxophone of tonight’s guest Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder, a musician they met when all were working with Tomasz Stanko on a live performance of the trumpeter’s “Litania” project.

The rapport between the three Polish musicians, who have all been playing together since their teens is instinctive and highly developed, they almost seem to function as a single organism. Yet Milder seemed to fit perfectly into their world and there were moments tonight when I was reminded of pianist Keith Jarrett’s great ‘European Quartet’ featuring saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen, a comparison encouraged by Milder’s vaguely Garbarek like tone on pieces such as Wasilewski’s folk tinged opener “Sudovian Dance”. However the Swedish saxophonist still found plenty to say on his account as he stretched out on his solo and his later contributions were to be even more individual.

The Wasilewski Trio is capable of producing music of great beauty but they have a wilder, more exuberant side too that really comes out in live performance. The trio have always excelled at selecting interesting cover versions drawn from the sources of pop, rock, folk and world music. “Spark Of Life” includes an interpretation of Sting’s “Message In A Bottle” which was performed in trio mode tonight and totally transformed as the trio interpreted it in a lively, hard grooving style sometimes reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, I barely recognised it at first. Along the way Kurkiewicz delivered a stunning bass solo that was audacious in its dexterity and made use of the higher registers of the instrument. Wasilewski’s piano solo was no less dazzling and there was also a drum feature from the consistently creative Miskiewicz.

Tune announcements were scarce but really this was a performance in which to immerse one self in the music, rather than concerning oneself with details such as tune titles. It was an almost spiritual experience.

Milder returned for the next item, a sequence that incorporated reflective balladry complete with arco bass, mallet rumbles and spacious piano chording before moving on via a more freely structured episode to embrace some full blooded tenor sax soloing from Milder. 

Wasilewski’s own playing ranged from the exquisitely delicate to a hard grooving joyousness, he’s an intensely physical pianist whose absorption in his music finds him contorting his body and sometimes standing up at the keyboard as he sings along to his melodic outpourings in the manner of a European Keith Jarrett. Which got me to thinking, here was a European act headlining with an (admittedly very good) American one in support. But ultimately the Wailewski group was superior, maybe Stuart Nicholson was right and jazz really has moved to a new address.

For make no mistake, this was distinctively European music, a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” notwithstanding; music that drew on jazz, classical and pop and rock sources to create something unique and personal to this group of musicians, whether the style be spacious, lyrical, beautiful balladry or something more primal and ecstatic.

The level of interaction was almost telepathic with both Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz fully involved in the creative process. Both are superb technicians and their understanding with Wasilewski is almost telepathic, both instinctively making the right choices and with Kukiewicz also proving to be a brilliant and imaginative soloist. For Milder to integrate so seamlessly into their musical world spoke volumes for both himself and the trio.

The luminosity of the quartet’s performance drew a deserved standing ovation from the knowledgeable crowd. This had been a jazz performance on another plane and was, in many ways, the best gig of the festival. Combined with the earlier performance by Helen Sung this was a night of music making at its very best.   

 

           

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Saturday, 14/11/2015.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

EFG London Jazz Festival 2015, first Saturday, 14/11/2015.

Ian Mann on a varied day of music embracing several different styles of jazz and beyond including performances by Dans Les Arbres, Alan Benzie Trio, Daniel Herskedal, and Terrell Stafford/Bruce Barth.

Photograph of Daniel Herskedal sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival, first Saturday, 14/11/2015.

My first full day at the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival. As ever acknowledgements first, beginning with my hosts Paul and Richard who once again agreed to accommodate my wife and I for the entire festival, incredibly my sixth LJF. Thanks also to Sally Reeves of Serious for dealing with my ticket requests with her customary courtesy and efficiency.

DANS LES ARBRES, THE FORGE, CAMDEN TOWN

On then to the music and this early afternoon performance at The Forge by the international improvising group Dans Les Arbres. The quartet consists of three Norwegian musicians, pianist Christian Wallumrod, guitarist Ivor Grydeland and percussionist Ingar Zach, plus the French clarinettist Xavier Charles.

The group was first constituted in 2004 and has recorded two albums for ECM (“Dans Les Arbres”, 2006 and “Canopee”, 2012), both of which managed to slip under my radar both as a fan and also in my capacity as a reviewer. Instead I tend to associate these musicians (particularly Grydeland) with recordings made on the enterprising Norwegian label Hubro and it was this connection that attracted me to this particular gig.

The music of Dans Les Arbres is entirely improvised and although the music on their two albums consists of relatively short pieces (some of these perhaps edited fragments from a larger whole) their performance at the Forge comprised of a single full length Necks style improvisation lasting a around fifty minutes or so.

Dans Les Arbres approach to improvisation is quiet, unhurried and contemplative, similar in spirit to that of ECM label mates Food or perhaps the British improvising quartet Fourth Page. It’s certainly a long may removed from the sonic bluster of the Peter Brotzmann / Mats Gustafsson school of improv.

The single piece evolved gradually and organically through a series of small gestures. Wallumrod played acoustic piano throughout but frequently deployed prepared piano techniques to broaden his sound. Grydeland played much of the set with his electric guitar on his knee, lap steel style, and made use of a variety of extended techniques including use of a bow and the placement of found objects, notably a shoe brush, on the strings. He sometimes adds banjo and sruti box to his arsenal but both of these were notable by their absence today. Zach played an enormous bass drum with remarkable sensitivity, often using soft headed mallets, and also deployed a number of small percussive devices alongside a variety of cymbals, sometimes utilising bowing techniques on the latter. But for me it was Charles who was the most distinctive instrumentalist in the group as he conjured a remarkable variety of sounds from his clarinet ranging from almost subliminal breathy whisperings to an angry buzzing and incorporating a range of slap tonguing and overblowing techniques.

Although the music was largely ruminative it possessed a quiet intensity of its own that was strangely compelling. There were moments of genuine beauty but the performance was far from bloodless with Zach occasionally detonating a series of unsettling drum explosions and deploying chains on the skin of his bass drum. Charles, too, injected elements of dissonance into the collective discourse.

Sadly the gig was rather poorly attended, particularly in view of the impressive reputations of the musicians involved but the small audience of improv diehards gave the group a a genuinely warm reception for their efforts, calling them back for an encore after they had left the stage. Sadly this was not to be with Grydeland informing us that the group had to pack up immediately in order to fly to Switzerland to give another performance, presumably that same evening. This was a little disappointing as it is not uncommon for improvising groups such as Dans Les Arbres to play one lengthy improvisation plus a shorter one, often around fifteen minutes or so, as an encore. I’m sure I wasn’t the only concert goer who felt a little short changed and I couldn’t help feeling, given the group’s other commitments, that the performance should have been scheduled a little earlier, say at 1.30 rather than 2.00 pm.

Nevertheless I enjoyed the music of Dans Les Arbres and hope to check out the music on their two ECM albums at some point in the future.


JAZZ LINE UP, CLORE BALLROOM,SOUTHBANK CENTRE.

A particularly foul cold and wet day in London may have deterred potential listeners from visiting The Forge. However the weather didn’t seem to affect the audience at the Southbank Centre where a huge crowd were gathered in the Clore Ballroom to witness a series of performers taking part in the recording of BBC Radio 3’s “Jazz Line Up” programme. Of course admission was free, proof yet again that the British public are more than happy to listen to jazz as long as they don’t have to pay for it!

During the course of the afternoon presenters Claire Martin and Julian Joseph introduced a number of acts including a duo set by trumpeter Laura Jurd and pianist Elliott Galvin plus a surprise appearance by Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bartsch and his new Mobile Acoustic Trio. I missed both of these and was particularly disappointed not to catch a glimpse of Bartsch who was due to play a concert (this time complete with a string section) at Kings Place later in the evening.

However I did manage to catch the last knockings of a set by the excellent British pianist (and occasional vocalist) Gareth Williams who was leading his “European Trio” featuring the Swedish musicians Martin Sjostedt (bass) and Daniel Frederiksson (drums). The tune I heard was the last of the set, a Wayne Shorter composition called ( I think) “Black Mamba”. I’ve always enjoyed Williams playing and covered his performance at Swansea Jazz Festival earlier in the year. This brief glimpse of his European Trio suggested that this a collaboration with considerable potential.

Next to take to the stage was the guitarist (and again sometime vocalist) Lionel Loueke who was to perform a short solo set. Born in Benin Loueke studied in Ivory Coast before moving to the USA where he was worked with such jazz greats as pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Unfortunately most of his set was drowned out here by the hubbub of the Southbank crowd. Having arrived late I was standing at the back of the Clore Ballroom and couldn’t hear much of what Loueke was playing.
His set featured both his guitar playing and his singing, including examples of vocal percussion, and he also made use of a variety of electronic effects including live looping. Stylistically he covered aspects of jazz, blues and West African music but it was difficult to form a precise opinion of the music due to the extraneous noise all around me. Fans who had arrived earlier and got good seats probably enjoyed it a lot more than I was able to, although I suspect that the subsequent radio broadcast, scheduled for 5.00 pm on Saturday November 28 will probably sound wonderful.


ALICE ZAWADZKI and PERCY PURSGLOVE - WAY IN TO THE WAY OUT, LEVEL 5 FUNCTION ROOM, SOUTHBANK CENTRE

I had intended to watch the set by the Italian pianist Giovanni Gaudi and his trio but feared having to endure the same frustrations that I experienced during the Lionel Loueke set. Instead I headed upstairs to the relative tranquillity of the Level Five Function Room where violinist/vocalist Alice Zawadzki and trumpeter/bassist Percy Pursglove were due to appear as part of the Festival’s acclaimed talk series “Way In To The Way Out”. Previous events in this series have featured Andy Champion/Chris Sharkey and Zoe Rahman/Arun Ghosh.

The series allows its two participants to talk about the influences that brought them to jazz, illustrating their points with recorded examples along the way. Following the Rahman/Ghosh collaboration in 2014 which include a good deal of actual playing an element of live performance is now encouraged and today’s event concluded with a performance of Zawadzki’s festival commission.

Both Zawadzki and Pursglove have appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages in a variety of different contexts and it was interesting to see the two musicians talk about their music and their influences.

Birmingham based Pursglove came directly jazz through the medium of youth big bands. He was also exposed to the British tradition of singing in choirs and both of these strands were brought together in his nine part suite “Far Reaching Dreams Of Mortal Souls” commissioned by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation and the Jerwood Foundation and premièred at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in October 2014 by an ensemble consisting of nine instrumentalists and an eight piece choir, a performance reviewed elsewhere on this site.

Zawadzki’s route proved to be more circuitous and included formal training in classical music and composition. The folk music of her Polish antecedents was also a significant influence and she only came to jazz during her mid teens. She described herself as being part of the Spotify generation with all kinds of music now being freely available and up for grabs, hence the stylistic variety on her acclaimed début album “China Lane”.

As a vocalist Zawadzki was profoundly influenced by her mentor the New Orleans born singer Lillian Boutte who first introduced the young Alice to jazz and subsequently took the teenage Zawadzki on the road as a backing vocalist. For Zawadzki Boutte’s informal approach to teaching represented a welcome and refreshing change to the discipline and rigour of the classical world although she acknowledged that both methods had provided her with long term benefits.

Zawadzki studied classical music in Manchester but at the same time was performing with function bands and immersing herself in the city’s jazz and improv scene while also listening to and learning from vocalists as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Lauren Hill. She eventually moved to London to complete her MA and has thereafter divided her time between the London and Manchester music scenes with musicians from both cities appearing on “China Lane”. 

Musical illustrations from Pursglove’s suite and Zawadzki’s album (the song “You As A Man”) illustrated the points the musicians had made and the cross genre nature of both projects spawned a lively debate about the categorisation of music with audience participation very much encouraged.

The gregarious Zawadzki had done most of the talking so far but Pursglove now took the opportunity of expressing his admiration for the composer and arranger Vince Mendoza who he felt had done much to create a credible and convincing jazz/classical hybrid and whose bands had featured acclaimed jazz musicians such as former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine and those two sadly late jazz luminaries John Taylor (piano) and Michael Brecker (tenor sax).

In recent years Pursglove has also become increasingly involved in the world of free improvisation and spoke glowingly of the influence upon him of the great free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker.

Simultaneously he is completing a PHD in composition and the outside track that he chose to share with us was “Partita For Eight Voices” by the contemporary classical composer Caroline Shaw, a highly rhythmic and accessible piece featuring interlocking human vocal lines and presumably influenced in its turn by the music of Steve Reich.

Meanwhile Zawadzki felt that she couldn’t let us go without sharing something by Lillian Boutte with us, the track selected being “Am I Blue”. Boutte, a one time favourite at Brecon Jazz Festival was described by Zawadzki as a force of nature.

To conclude a stimulating and thought provoking event Zawadzki assembled a group of musicians to perform her Festival Commission, a setting of the WB Yeats poem “Within You There Is A World Of Spring”. Pursglove played bass with Zawadzki on violin and vocals and the group was completed by pianist Phil Peskett, cellist Lucy Railton and Lewis Wright, best known as a vibraphonist, at a scaled down drum kit. The performance was beautiful and offered further evidence that Yeats is very much the ‘go to’ poet for contemporary jazz musicians with vocalist Christine Tobin and the band Blue-Eyed Hawk among those who have recently drawn inspiration from his works.


ALAN BENZIE TRIO / DANIEL HERSKEDAL ENSEMBLE, HALL TWO, KINGS PLACE

This sold event represented the eagerly awaited UK première of music from the acclaimed album “Slow Eastbound Train” by the Norwegian tuba player and composer Daniel Herskedal.

Herskedal first came to the attention of UK jazz audiences with the 2012 release on Edition Records “Neck of the Woods”, a duo album recorded with saxophonist Marius Neset. That album is reviewed elsewhere on this site and shortly after its release I saw the pair give a spellbinding, quietly brilliant duo performance of the music from the album at Dempsey’s in Cardiff.

In 2014 Herskedal returned with “Slow Eastbound Train”, an album of luminous beauty with a strong cinematic quality performed by an ensemble featuring Herskedal on tuba and the less familiar bass trumpet plus a core personnel of pianist Eyolf Dale and percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken. The album also featured members of the Trondheim String Ensemble, Norway’s leading chamber orchestra, and one of their number was present tonight in the shape of cellist Kaja Fjellberg Pettersen who was joined by three talented young students from London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire to form a string quartet (Christin Chian – viola, Olivia Holland and Justin Gasselling – violins).

However before we got to Herskedal’s music we were to enjoy an excellent support set from the young Scottish pianist and composer Alan Benzie and his trio. The Berklee trained Benzie is an emerging talent and I very much enjoyed his début album “Traveller’s Tales” which was released earlier in 2015 and received a four star recommendation from this site. Thus I was very much looking forward to seeing him too.

“Traveller’s Tales” features a trio including bassist and composer Andrew Robb and the Hungarian born drummer Marton Juhasz. Unfortunately Juhasz, now based in Paris, was unable to travel due to the terrorist atrocities that had taken place in the French capital the night before. Juhasz was unharmed but the travel restrictions meant that he had to be replaced by Jon Scott, a supremely versatile musician and in many respects the absolute dream dep. Scott, the only musician to be reading music, had been drafted in at short notice and had not even been able to rehearse with his new colleagues, nevertheless he acquitted himself superbly.

Much of the material was sourced from “Traveller’s Tales” beginning with “Glass”, a highly melodic piece with a pronounced narrative quality. Benzie’s solo piano intro and subsequent development of the melody led naturally to a melodic and highly dexterous solo from Robb at the bass. Benzie’s own solo began prettily before probing more deeply behind the melody and he was also involved in an absorbing dialogue with Scott’s drums and cymbals.

Robb is also a composer and his new composition “Beslan” featured typically mellifluous solos from himself and Benzie plus some exquisitely detailed brush work from Scott.

The playful “Frog Town On The Hill” was introduced by the patter of Scott’s hand drums and featured some delightfully impish exchanges between Benzie and Robb, very much in the mischievous spirit of the tune title. Scott switched to sticks as the piece gained momentum with solos coming from Robb at the bass followed by Benzie in particularly expansive and dazzling form at the piano.

Many of the compositions on “Traveller’s Tales” are inspired by actual incidents or locations - although there is also the elements of the ‘traveller’ in Benzie’s head). “Midnight Café” seemed to draw inspiration from a real life experience with its gauzy, noirish after hours feel and lyrical melodic statements from piano and bass accompanied by softly brushed drums.

An all too short set concluded in more robust fashion with a second composition from Robb, a new piece titled “Dream Snatcher”. Benzie took the first solo and subsequently entered into a lively dialogue with Scott, sparks were already beginning to fly between the inventive young pianist and his temporary drummer. The composer also soloed on bass before a closing feature from the impressive Scott.

The Benzie trio had triumphed in the face of adversity and during the interval album sales were correspondingly healthy with Benzie signing CDS and chatting to fans. It had been an excellent start on what was to develop into a marvellous evening of music and a real festival highlight.

On now to the Herskedal ensemble whose music embodied many of the same qualities as Benzie’s, at least in terms of melodic content and narrative arc. Herskedal’s music is also highly descriptive and capable of generating a real sense of place and possesses a genuinely cinematic quality. The seven piece ensemble was complemented by the presence of August Wanngren at the mixing desk, the Danish engineer responsible for the excellent sound quality to be heard on so many Edition Records releases.

The “Slow Eastbound Train” album possesses an almost suite like quality and during this performance several pieces were segued together such as the opening combination of “Slow Eastbound Boat” and “Rainfall”. In the intimate atmosphere of the smaller of Kings Place’s two performance spaces (Nik Bartsch was playing in the other) with a sold out crowd and with Wanngren at the desk the sound was immaculate from the start with Herskedal beginning on bass trumpet and making use of live looping techniques to sculpt and layer his sound.
Pizzicato strings ushered in the “Rainfall” section of the segue with Herskedal moving to tuba and linking up with Norbakken to provide the vamp that backed the first of several excellent piano solos from the impressive Dale.

The three Trinity students impressed throughout as they combined well with Pettersen and offered great support to the virtuosic Herskedal. The Norwegian is unique with regard to the warmth and emotional depth that he can summon from what some still regard as a comedy instrument. The evocative “Monsoon Coming” featured Herskedal on both tuba and bass trumpet, soloing on each during the course of the piece as Dale directed the strings. The pianist, a perfect foil to the leader throughout, also shone with a memorable solo of his own. 

In the light of recent events it seems almost impossible to credit that Herskedal went travelling in Syria as recently as 2008 where he learned the tune “Bayot” from an oud player who is now a political refugee living in Denmark. The tune doesn’t appear on the album but wouldn’t sound out of place there. It began with Herskedal solo on bass trumpet with Wanngren manipulating the sound with dashes of echo as Norbakken commenced a slow building percussive rumble, subsequently linking up with Dale on piano as the strings sat out. In the trio format both Herskedal and Dale enjoyed expansive solos prior to an exuberant dialogue between Dale and Norbakken that clearly delighted the crowd.

Herskedal moved back to tuba for the tight, riffy “Crosswind Landing” with Pettersen’s cello leading the rapidly bowed strings that formed the intensely rhythmic counterpoint to Herskedal’s solo .

By way of contrast “Slow Eastbound Train” itself initially evoked quiet, wide open spaces with its solo piano introduction before eventually taking on a greater intensity thanks to the dense, interlocking patterns forged by a combination of strings, piano and percussion. Sonorous cello then combined with Herskedal’s bass trumpet as Norbakken’s shakers rattled in the background.

“Mistral Noir”, the album opener, was performed as a solo piece by Herskedal who developed three distinct melodic lines on the tuba and looped them to provide the backdrop for his subsequent bass trumpet solo. The net result was stunningly beautiful.

A second non album track, “Smoking Shisha in Ramala” was another piece inspired by Herskedal’s travels, this time to Palestine. The tune was a showcase for percussionist Norbakken who deployed his full range of frame drums,  cymbals, shakers and what looked like car wheels in addition to a smattering of vocal percussion. His complex rhythms were complemented by a distinctive Middle Eastern drone generated by the string section. Eventually Herskedal joined the proceedings with a solo on bass trumpet before Dale rounded things off with a playfully exuberant piano solo.

The closing piece, “Snowfall”, began with a spectacular solo tuba feature from Herskedal that saw him producing an astonishing array of sounds that included vocalised overblowing that was sometimes reminiscent of throat singing. It certainly wasn’t the first time that Herskedal had seemed to sing through his horn. If the UK’s Oren Marshall is the Jimi Hendrix of the tuba then Herskedal is the Arve Henriksen. Eventually some almost impossibly low end sounds erupted into a propulsive tuba vamp that together with Norbakken’s percussion fuelled a final solo from the excellent Dale.

The audience reaction to all this was ecstatic and the ensemble returned to play an encore of the evocative “Sea Breeze Front”, the final track on the album. The strings created a diaphanous backdrop as Herskedal again demonstrated that the once humble tuba can indeed be an instrument of genuine beauty.

It’s easy to admire Herskedal’s playing on record, particularly on the beautiful “Slow Eastbound Train” which also reveals him to be a composer of genuine stature. But it’s something else to see him perform live, the guy genuinely is a phenomenon and it’s only by seeing him in the flesh that you can grasp the true enormity of his talent.

That said the whole ensemble, including the Trinity students plus Wanngren was quite magnificent. I’d love to hear both Dale and Norbakken again in other contexts, both were highly impressive. But tonight was Herskedal’s night, a genuine triumph and a definite festival highlight.

TERRELL STAFFORD / BRUCE BARTH QUARTET

Following the conclusion of the Benzie / Herskedal concert at 10.00 pm I made my way down to Soho and the Pizza Express Jazz Club for the late night set by a quartet co-led by the American musicians Terrell Stafford (trumpet) and Bruce Barth (piano). This was the last show in a two night residency at the club which saw the two Americans accompanied by the exemplary British/Irish rhythm section of bassist Mark Hodgson and drummer Stephen Keogh.

I arrived at the end of what I judged to be the opening number, Barth’s “Almost Blues” (see what he just did there).

This was a far more mainstream set than we had seen at Kings Place but it was still eminently enjoyable with a number of high quality Barth originals punctuated by the occasional standard. Barth’s “Brasilia” included features for Stafford on trumpet plus the house rhythm section of Hodgson and Keogh.

Stafford’s name was the one highlighted for this gig and it seemed a little strange to find Barth doing all of the talking, on the other hand most of the tunes were his, so why not? An exception was Stafford’s arrangement of the traditional spiritual “If I Perish” which featured his best playing of the night with a bravura trumpet solo that hit some dazzling high register peaks. Barth’s own solo brought a distinctive Latin tinge to the proceedings and Keogh excelled with a series of fiery drum fills.

Stafford then showed his gentler side on an arrangement of the classic ballad “Body And Soul” which began with an elegant solo piano introduction from Barth and included a lyrical solo from Hodgson at the bass subtly supported by Keogh’s deft brush work.

Clifford Brown was a significant influence on Stafford and Barth’s contrafact of Brown’s enduring composition “Joy Spring”, here titled “Joy Fall” paid homage with only its second public airing. Solos here came from Stafford, who captured something of the “joy” in the title with his trumpeting, followed by Barth and Hodgson and finally by Keogh with a particularly well constructed drum feature.

A segue of “Mama Who’s Been Here?” and Barth’s “Wise Charlie’s Blues” completed the set, the first segment an absorbing passage of solo piano from Barth before the piece mutated into a slow blues with Stafford’s barnstorming solo building from bluesy beginnings to embrace dramatic vocalisations - the audience loved it. The vocal quality of Stafford’s playing was reflected in the growl of Hodgson’s bass during his solo before Barth things rounded things off with a piano solo that got right to the heart of the blues.

During the course of the evening Barth had informed us that Stafford was originally from Miami, Florida but was now resident in Philadelphia where he had a teaching post at Temple University. Among Stafford’s main influences was the Philadelphia born trumpeter Lee Morgan so it was particularly appropriate that the encore was to be a version of the classic Morgan composition “Speedball”, a piece that appears on Stafford’s most recent album, a Morgan tribute entitled “Brotherlee Love” (Morgan was fond of similar puns himself). Inevitably the stand-out solo on the encore came from Stafford himself on trumpet. Again the audience absolutely loved it, bringing a successful residency (the early evening show had sold out) to a triumphant close.

For me it had been a varied day of music embracing several different styles of jazz and beyond, with Daniel Herskedal’s performance the undoubted highlight.     


 

 
 

Ray Warleigh (1938-2015).

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Ray Warleigh (1938-2015).

Ian Mann remembers the alto saxophonist and flautist Ray Warleigh who died on 21st September 2015.

R.I.P.
Ray Warleigh (1938-2015)

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of the alto saxophonist and flautist Ray Warleigh. Born in Sydney, Australia Warleigh moved to the UK in 1960 and enjoyed a lengthy career as a professional jazz and session musician based in London.

Warleigh’s session credits were wide ranging, from John Mayall to Nick Drake, from Scott Walker to Stevie Wonder and from Dusty Springfield to Kiri Te Kanawa.

But jazz was Warleigh’s first love and he played with many of the key figures of British jazz that emerged in the 1960s including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, drummer John Stevens, pianist Gordon Beck and saxophonists John Surman, Alan Skidmore and Ronnie Scott.

The sight reading skills that made Warleigh such an in demand session musician were also to make him an invaluable section player in large ensembles such as the Kenny Wheeler Big Band and the Dedication Orchestra. I remember enjoying seeing Warleigh performing live with both these ensembles, the most recent of these being the Dedication Orchestra’s appearance at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival.

However my favourite memory of Warleigh dates back to May 2002 when he appeared at the Booth Hall Hotel in Hereford as a guest soloist alongside a local trio led by Abergavenny based drummer John Gibbon that also featured pianist Phil Mead and bassist Erica Lyons. Gibbon regularly tempted leading soloists from London to come and play a short tour of South Wales and the Borders with Hereford one of the regular venues. Most of the guests seemed to relish the opportunity of escaping the capital for a few days and getting a breath of fresh air in the country. The fact that nearly all the gigs were held on licensed premises may have helped too!

I remember seeing many great musicians on these ‘regional tours’, among them saxophonists Peter King, Duncan Lamont, Mornington Lockett, Danny Moss, Virginia Mayhew, Don Rendell and Dick Heckstall Smith, trumpeters Dick Pearce and Henry Lowther and guitarists Phil Lee and Mike Britton. But the best of all these was the gig with Ray Warleigh who played brilliantly throughout and brought a welcome touch of additional colour with his marvellous flute playing.

It’s unfortunate that Warleigh recorded so infrequently under his own name although he did feature on a number of albums by the fondly remembered Latin Jazz band Paz, led by vibraphonist Dick Crouch. Warleigh cut his first disc as a leader in 1968, the long deleted (but since re-issued on CD) “Ray Warleigh’s First Album” and later co-led a quartet with the hard hitting drummer Tommy Chase, this line up releasing the album “One Way” in 1978.

Warleigh also made incursions into the world of free jazz where his associates included saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist John Edwards and the late drummer Tony Marsh. In 2009 Warleigh and Marsh released the duo album “Rue Victor Masse” which was recorded in Paris and released on Parker’s psi record label. The album was reviewed for this site by Tim Owen who also wrote about a performance at London’s Vortex Jazz Club by the quartet of Warleigh, Parker, Edwards and Marsh at around the same time.

For myself I shall always remember that wonderful gig in Hereford all those years ago. Rest in peace Ray, and thank you for the music and the memories.

For a full overview of Ray Warleigh’s life and career Richard Williams’ obituary for The Guardian represents recommended reading.  http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/sep/24/ray-warleigh
       

Sunday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 06/09/2015.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sunday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 06/09/2015.

Ian Mann on the final day of a hugely enjoyable festival which included performances from Remi Harris Trio, Jamie Brownfield Quartet, Sarah Gillespie Trio and Zoe Schwarz's Blue Commotion.

Photograph of Sarah Gillespie and Ben Bastin by Conal Dunn


Sunday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 06/09/2015.


I set the scene for the 2015 wall2wall Jazz Festival in my Friday and Saturday coverage, detailing the history and format of the festival so on this final day I’ll crack straight on with the music which began early at the free stage in Abergavenny Market Hall, dubbed “Jazz Alley” for the Sunday of the Festival.

“Jazz Alley” hosted a wide array of music from no less than seven different acts and explored a broad variety of jazz genres and beyond. With the music augmented by a number of trade stalls and food outlets the atmosphere was highly congenial and family friendly with many people taking advantage of the good weather and checking out wall2wall, many of them probably for the first time. “Jazz Alley” was an experiment that worked admirably and is almost certain to be repeated in 2016.

REDRUG, JAZZ ALLEY, 06/09/2015.

One of the surprise successes at the 2014 wall2wall was RedRug, a young South Wales based quintet who first came together as part of the Gwent Music youth development stage. The band played a free gig on the Sunday morning of that festival but later found themselves elevated to the concert stage when Brass Jaw were suddenly forced to return hastily to Scotland as the result of a family crisis. The youngsters took advantage of Brass Jaw’s misfortune and acquitted themselves very well in daunting circumstances.

It has always been the policy of wall2wall to support young musicians and this year RedRug were back and playing on the Jazz Alley stage. The core of the group is keyboard player Tom Marley, bassist Joe Archer and drummer Dylan Sluiter and these three were joined by guitarist Dafydd John and a new alto saxophonist whose name I didn’t catch (last year’s line up included trumpeter Rory Gordon).

It was quickly apparent just how much RedRug have developed since this last time last year. Their playing was sharper and more focussed and they had all visibly grown in confidence. With Marley playing electric keyboards and with John’s electric guitar now an increasingly important component of the band they played in what can loosely be described as a “fusion” style but their repertoire included such contemporary jazz classics as Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Speak No Evil”, Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay”. From further back in the jazz canon they played Errol Garner’s “Misty” and Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” while also giving an exciting and imaginative “RedRug” twist to “The Girl From Ipanema”.

Once again I thoroughly enjoyed RedRug’s music and the lads impressed both individually and collectively. They have honed their ensemble sound and each individual member impressed with their respective solo slots. Two of the band members are now studying music full time at Hereford College of Arts and the future looks bright for the RedRug boys. Even in the event that they don’t stick together as a band one can still see the individual members of RedRug continuing to make worthwhile music in the future. Keep up the good work lads!


DONNIE JOE’S AMERICAN SWING, KINGS ARMS, 06/09/2015.

I enjoyed the RedRug performance so much that I delayed my arrival at the Kings Arms to hear Donnie Joe’s American Swing. Donnie Joe Sweeney is an American living in South Wales who I have previously seen performing as an accomplished double bassist in bands led by saxophonist Tamasin Reardon and trombonist Gareth Roberts. But Sweeney is also a skilled guitarist and vocalist and in Donnie Joe’s American Swing he harks back to the sounds of the 30s and 40s to deliver some of the classic songs of the swing era. Many of the pieces he chooses are humorous and he has a penchant for the songs of that wittiest of songwriters, the great Dave Frishberg.

Among those joining Sweeney at Abergavenny were Tamasin Reardon, returning the favour on alto,  and pianist Gareth Hall who had been part of the Made In Wales band that provided such great entertainment at the Festival Supper on Friday night. The line up was completed by South Wales stalwart Greg Evans at the drums and Mike Morgan on an upright electric bass of his own construction - just for a moment I thought Sweeney had signed Eberhard Weber !

I arrived as Sweeney and the band were tackling the jazz standard “I Can’t Get Started” before moving on to the similarly titled “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. Both songs featured instrumental solos by Sweeney and by saxophonist Tamasin Reardon who had played BMJ’s regular club night in April 2015 with her own Ad Lib quartet, a group that also featured Sweeney, Hall and Evans. Reardon’s bright, pithy solos added much to the music of Sweeney’s band as did the contributions of pianist Gareth Hall.

I particularly liked the clever, quick-fire lyrics of Frishberg’s “I Can’t Take You Nowhere” which also featured short instrumental solos from Sweeney, Reardon and Hall.

Sweeney then delivered “A Hundred Years From Now” as a solo voice and guitar piece before summoning back the band for a little known Duke Ellington tune called “Tulip or Turnip” which featured a humorous and inventive lyric by Don George. As Sweeney pointed out they had featured a Count Basie tune earlier in the set, obviously before my arrival, and they felt honour bound to also feature the Duke.

There was more witty humour in “The Best Man”, a song associated with Duke’s namesake, the English born musician and entertainer Ray Ellington of Goon Show fame.

More Basie came with “Sent For You Yesterday” which Sweeney learned from an arrangement by Marty Paich, the father of Toto keyboard player David as Sweeney cheerfully informed us. Swinging and bluesy the piece included some scat vocalising from Sweeney plus solos from Hall and the consistently impressive Reardon.

Rhythm Is Our Business” was the vehicle for a series of band features including brief cameos from Morgan and Evans before the show ended with a short encore of “Cheek To Cheek”.

Sweeney and his colleagues were well received by the festival crowd and although this kind of music isn’t quite my type of jazz I still found much to enjoy in a performance that was presented by Sweeney with great good humour and an infectious enthusiasm.


MANKALA, JAZZ ALLEY, 06/092015.

I made a quick return to the Jazz Alley stage to catch something of the performance by Mankala, a band that the Festival brochure described as being “a unique high energy Pan-African collection of sounds”. Mankala proved to be a mixed race nine piece band based in Bristol but with members originating from all corners of the globe.

Their line up included two vocalists, two guitarists, electric bass, keyboards, saxophone, kit drums and percussion and they were vibrant, rhythmic and colourful. The few numbers that I managed to hear incorporated rhythms from South Africa, Zambia and beyond and included some socially aware lyrics. South African vocalist vocalist Sisanda Myataza impressed both with her singing and her dancing and the audience responded in kind with many getting to their feet to dance to this infectious, highly rhythmic music. Children, in particular, seemed to love this joyous, exotic, brightly rhythmic band.

This was early afternoon but I bet they’d be great at a late night festival party slot. I certainly enjoyed my fleeting glimpse of Mankala and would love to take the opportunity of seeing a full show sometime. They were one of the big hits of the Jazz Alley stage and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of them coming back to wall2wall next year, maybe in a different time slot. 


REMI HARRIS TRIO, KIMGS ARMS, 06/092015.

Guitarist Remi Harris and his trio played a BMJ club night in February 2015 and were so well received that they were nailed on certainties to be invited back for the wall2wall festival.

I first encountered Harris’ playing some five years ago and have charted his progress ever since. Still only in his mid twenties this Herefordshire native is a true rising star in the jazz firmament and following several years of exclusively playing music inspired by Django Reinhardt he has now
re-introduced some of his earlier blues and rock influences and has developed an exciting and varied live show that some commentators have described as “a history of the guitar”.

I’ve seen Harris many times in the last few years in a variety of musical contexts and with a variety of accompanists but he has never disappointed and has always delivered in spades. No two shows have been exactly alike for this is a musician who is consistently honing his talent and always looking to do something a little bit different. Harris may be consistent but he is never complacent.

I have never been disappointed by a Remi Harris performance and today’s show was well up to his usual high standards. The trio this time round featured regular bassist Mike Green and rhythm guitarist Caley Groves, a replacement for Andy ‘AC’ Wood who had appeared with the group in February. Today’s set list was also substantially different although a few favourite items stayed in.

Today the trio started out acoustically playing jazz in the Manouche style typified by Django Reinhardt. First up was “Putting On The Ritz” followed by a gypsy jazz version of the Beatles tune “Can’t Buy Me Love”.

A Reinhardt composed waltz then introduced elements of European folk music before Harris jumped across the pond to play a bluesy version of “Cissy Strut”, a tune by the New Orleans funk outfit The Meters . This included some virtuoso string bending from Harris on his gypsy jazz acoustic plus an excellent solo from the always impressive Mike Green.

The Ray Noble composed bebop standard “Cherokee” represented another opportunity for Harris to exhibit his stunning dexterity but he subsequently demonstrated that his playing isn’t just about showing off his skills as he delivered an emotive ballad version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

If the ballad represented evidence of Harris’ growing maturity then so does the manner in which he now presents his shows. When I first saw him perform a few years ago he barely spoke to the audience and instead murmured rather indistinctly into the mic. Now he speaks with much more assurance and confidence, telling listeners interesting and informative facts about the music and the guitars he plays. It’s both entertaining and highly educational and although I’ve heard the gist of much of it before I always come away learning something new.

Also indicative of this new maturity and professionalism is the way in which Harris structures a show. We had now come to the section where he puts down his gypsy jazz acoustic guitar and picks up a Gibson Les Paul. Harris started out playing rock and blues and still harbours a great love of both genres. A key influence on Harris was former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green whose “Rollin Man”, effectively a re-write of BB King’s “Woke Up This Morning”, was segued with “Hideaway” by Freddie King, another major inspiration for several generations of British guitarists,  among them Eric Clapton.

But Harris isn’t just a jazz and blues purist, he loves all types of music. Neil Young’s “Old Man” now introduced an element of country as Harris deployed a finger slide on the strings of his Les Paul.

“Need Your Love So Bad” was recorded by both BB King and Peter Green but it was the Green version that Harris grew up with and which formed the basis for his performance here.

Another change of instrument saw Harris switching to a classic arch top jazz guitar, the type used by musicians such as Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. With the latter in mind Harris played Montgomery’s tune “Bock Da Bock”, a piece actually written by Wes’ brother Buddy Montgomery. Mike Green was also in great form here, his bass riff anchoring the piece and also providing the launch pad for an exemplary double bass solo.

Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby” was the other piece to be played on the arch top and featured a brilliant virtuoso solo introduction from Harris.

It was back to the acoustic gypsy jazz guitar as Harris regaled us with tales of the annual Samois Festival of gypsy jazz, a still vibrant celebration of the genius of Django Reinhardt. Groves’ rhythm guitar was the driving force behind furiously swinging renditions of “All Of Me”, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Reinhardt’s own “Bossa Dorada”. Harris’ solos on all of these were characteristically dazzling and on the closing piece he seemed to bring all of his influences together with quotes from “The Windmills Of Your Mind” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”.

Once again the trio were accorded an absolutely terrific reception and only time constraints prevented a well deserved encore. For many people this was the “gig of the festival” and it was certainly one of the best attended. It seems as if Remi Harris can do no wrong.


FB POCKET ORCHESTRA, JAZZ ALLEY, 06/09/2015.

Once again I returned briefly to the Market Hall while the changeover at the Kings Arms was completed. By now I was hungry and having vowed to offer my support to the food outlets at Jazz Alley I was concentrating on eating rather than listening to the music of FB Pocket Orchestra, a three piece band from Southampton who specialised in jazz from the 20s and 30s with a kind of vintage/ jug band / tea dance feel. Paul Stevenson, Jenny Russell and Ollie Corbin played a variety of instruments including guitar, banjo, clarinet, cornet, accordion and percussion with Stevenson and Russell handing the vocals.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t really listening too closely but it quickly became apparent that they were hugely popular with the crowd and their set went down a storm. I note that they will be playing a short series of gigs in Herefordshire in December 2015 as part of the Arts Alive programme so I may take the opportunity of checking them out more fully at that time. As far as wall2wall was concerned they were definitely a hit.


JAMIE BROWNFIELD QUARTET, KINGS ARMS, 06/09/2015.

There was more classic jazz, albeit of a slightly later vintage at the Kings Arms as North Wales based trumpeter Jamie Brownfield brought his quartet of Manchester based musicians to the festival. The quartet play together regularly at the Matt & Phred’s club in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

I’ve previously seen Byrne co-leading groups with tenor saxophonist Liam Byrne but today he was joined by pianist Tom Kincaid, bassist Ken Marley and drummer Jack Cotterill. Despite his youth Brownfield is in thrall to jazz of an earlier age and today’s set was largely standards based.

My previous sightings of Brownfield have confirmed that he is a fluent trumpet soloist with an excellent technique and he has also become a confident stage performer and band leader. His performances and recordings with Byrne sometimes include jazz standards dating back to the 20s and 30s but today the focus was on a slightly later era as the quartet kicked off with “Taking A Chance On Love” which gave each member the chance to introduce himself as the solos were passed around the group.

“Bye Bye Blackbird” featured Brownfield on muted trumpet plus further solos from Kincaid on piano and Marley at the bass.

Next up was a modern day standard, Wynton Marsalis’ “Happy Feet Blues”, a composition that was once the theme tune for Jazz Record Requests. Solos here came from Brownfield and Kincaid plus Cotterill at the drums. Staying in the same geographical area “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” featured Brownfield deploying the mute once more as he shared the solos with Kincaid and Marley.

The set continued with “Brotherhood Of Man”, a tune by Clark Terry that the composer used to perform in the company of the Oscar Peterson Trio. After Brownfield had negotiated the tricky opening theme on trumpet we were treated to a rollicking piano solo by Kincaid backed by the propulsive grooves generated by Marley and Cotterill. Further solos came from Brownfield and Marley while Cotterill enjoyed a series of effervescent drum breaks.

The familiar strains of Ellington’s “Caravan” concluded the first half with solos coming from Brownfield, Kincaid and Marley.

Set two kicked off with a lively take on “What Is This thing Called Love?” with solos from Brownfield, Kincaid and Marley.

With his predilection for jazz from several eras before his own it’s tempting to think of Brownfield as the archetypal “young fogey”. It therefore came as something of a surprise when he chose to tackle the Coldplay song “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face”, performing it in the style of a jazz or bebop standard and making it sound like a perfectly natural transition with solos coming from trumpet and piano. How about a bit of Radiohead next time Jamie?

The more familiar sounds of “Bernie’s Tune” came next with Brownfield taking his inspiration from the version recorded by Chet Baker. The leader’s quote laden trumpet solo was accompanied by bass and the distinctive patter of Cotterill’s hand drums. Further solos came from Kincaid and Cotterill.

“Moonglow” began as a lyrical ballad with the gentle sound of brushed drums but gradually built up a head of steam during the solos of Brownfield, Kincaid and Marley.

The quartet visited the Ellington repertoire again for a lively take on “Cottontail” with Marley leading off the solos followed by Brownfield and Cotterill.

Brownfield handed over to Ken Marley and the bassist led the trio through his beautiful ballad “Tender” with the composer sketching the melody on his bass prior to further lyrical solos from Kincaid and Marley with understated brushed support coming from Cotterill. It’s probably a bit harsh on Brownfield but this lovely performance was probably the set highlight for me.

The trumpeter returned for the closing “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” leading his quartet out in style with solos coming from Brownfield and Kincaid. 

This was an enjoyable set but was not particularly well supported which must have been something of a disappointment for both the band and the festival organisers. There’s no doubting Brownfield’s skills as a trumpet soloist and I was also impressed by my first sightings of both Marley and Kincaid. However rather like Ben Treacher yesterday I feel that Brownfield needs to start moving away from the standards repertoire and to begin developing his own writing skills if he wishes to move on to the next level. However he’s a consistent performer who can be relied upon to deliver the goods and it’s more than likely that he’s happy with things just the way they are.


SARAH GILLESPIE TRIO,  KINGS ARMS, 06/09/2015.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie is an Abergavenny regular with two BMJ club appearances behind her plus a memorable gig at the first wall2wall Festival back in 2013. Gillespie has released three widely acclaimed albums “Stalking Juliet”(2009), “In The Current Climate” (2011) and “Glory Days” (2013) plus the conceptual EP “The War On Trevor” (2012).

All of her recordings feature her poetic but streetwise lyrics, laced with exotic imagery and sharp social observation. Her composing is influenced by the giants of literary songwriting, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen plus the works of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Poets.  The instrumental arrangements on her albums are as rich and colourful as the words with Gilad Atzmon playing a leading role in his capacity as instrumentalist, musical director and producer.

Atzmon had been part of the band at Gillespie’s previous performances at Abergavenny but in recent years he’s taken more and more of a back seat as Gillespie has continued to put a greater part of herself into her own music. The gradual withdrawal of Atzmon has coincided with Gillespie’s growing confidence as an instrumentalist and her guitar is now an increasingly integral part of the group sound, particularly in this pared down trio situation that saw her accompanied by pianist Frank Harrison and long standing bassist Ben Bastin. 

Gillespie has recently played a series of shows entitled “The Life Of Bessie Smith” which has paid tribute to the “Empress of the Blues”. Tonight’s set included a number of Bessie Smith songs from that show interspersed with a series of Gillespie original sourced from across all her recordings.

The performance actually began with a new song, as yet unrecorded and untitled but intended for a forthcoming mini-album project. Lyrically rich and packed with allusions to Bob Dylan it was as good as anything she’s ever written and included a sparkling piano solo from Harrison, the first of many.

From the Bessie Smith project came the traditional song “St. James Infirmary Blues”. Gillespie has taken time out following the birth of her first child, a daughter named Susannah Carmen, and it was good to see her back and making music once again. As this song demonstrated the power of her voice is undiminished and she remains a charismatic performer. Gillespie’s virtuoso vocal performance was supplemented by instrumental solos from trusty henchmen Harrison and Bastin.

Nest up was “How The Mighty Fall” from Gillespie’s first album, a song with an irresistible chorus fuelled by Bastin’s phenomenal rhythmic drive on the bass.

It was back to the Bessie Smith repertoire for the lascivious “Do Your Duty” with Gillespie’s salty vocals augmented by solos from both Harrison and Bastin and a dazzling series of instrumental exchanges between the pair.

Bastin then added lusty backing vocals to to the rousing title track of the “Glory Days” album. From the same record came the self mocking humour of “Babies And All That Shit”, a fun way to end an excellent first set. A highly appropriate choice too following Gillespie’s recent change in circumstances.  Many congratulations Sarah, but it’s good to see you back!

The second half began with Gillespie proclaiming a couple of her ‘jazz poems’, the second, “Lonely Hearts Sads” also featuring Harrison on piano as Gillespie entertained us with some laugh out loud funny Tom Waits style wordplay.

Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” has been in the Gillespie repertoire for a long time and helped to sow the seed for the recent Bessie Smith project. Tonight’s version was enlivened by solos from both Harrison and Bastin.

The sensual “Sugar, Sugar” from “Glory Days” was followed by the title track of “In The Current Climate” with its evocative, poetic lyrical imagery plus the bonus of a solo from the estimable Harrison.

The pianist shone again on Gillespie’s rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Big Foot” before the second set was completed by two of the most popular items in Gillespie’s back catalogue, “Lucifer’s High Chair” and the title track from “Stalking Juliet”. Both of these tunes feature rousing choruses and saw Bastin adding his voice to the proceedings.

A well deserved encore of “Million Moons”, another favourite track from the first album saw Bastin demonstrating his arco skills on the intro before the song exploded into vigorous life.

This was a triumphant return to Abergavenny for Sarah Gillespie who played to one of the largest audiences of the day.  Her talent has not been diminished by her time away from the scene and her voice is as distinctive and powerful as ever. I was also impressed with her guitar playing which was at the heart of the arrangements although it has to be said that she received terrific support from Bastin and Harrison, it’s always a pleasure to hear Frank’s playing whatever the context.  It was also good to hear some of the songs from Gillespie’s Bessie Smith venture, especially as I wasn’t able to get to a gig when she toured the project.

A close run thing with the very different performance of Remi Harris for the award of “gig of the day”.


ZOE SCHWARZ BLUE COMMOTION

One of the hits of the 2013 festival was Blue Commotion, the band led by jazz/blues vocalist and songwriter Zoe Schwarz. Schwarz is a versatile former with an extensive knowledge of both the jazz and blues repertoires and she names Billie Holiday as her biggest musical influence.

At wall2wall 2015 Schwarz proved her versatility by performing a well received jazz standards set on the Jazz Alley stage accompanied by her guitarist and life partner Rob Koral, also a highly adaptable and versatile musician. I wasn’t able to attend that gig as I was covering Jamie Brownfield but the feedback I have received was full of praise for the duo’s performance.

For this closing concert of wall2wall 2015 Schwarz was joined for a night of high octane original blues based music by a stellar line up of Koral on guitar, Paul Robinson at the drums and Craig Milverton on organ plus Swansea based Alun Vaughan on electric bass. “I’ve been singing Gershwin tunes all afternoon, now I feel like a bit of a wail” declared Schwarz in a rousing statement of intent.

Schwarz is signed to the 33 record label and Blue Commotion have recorded fairly prolifically and much of tonight’s material was sourced from the band’s latest studio album “Exposed” (2014). From that record came the powerful opener “I Wonder Who My Next Man Will Be” which augmented Schwarz’s soulful vocals with dazzling instrumental solos by Koral and Milverton. The way in which these two traded solos all night reminded me of the guitar/organ duelling of Richie Blackmore and Jon Lord in prime era Deep Purple, praise indeed. It was certainly an eye opener to see Milverton playing organ in this context, I’m more used to seeing him on piano playing straight ahead jazz with the likes of saxophonists Greg Abate and Alan Barnes.

“Smile” with its solo guitar introduction and the heavy blues rock of “The Blues Don’t Scare Me”,  the title track of an earlier album, kept the cauldron bubbling as the band continued to brew up a storm. Paul Robinson is one of the most exciting drummers around, a concentrated ball of energy who was a member of Nina Simone’s band for nineteen years. However I still remember him best for the couple of years he spent with the late Jeff Clyne’s brilliant Turning Point group in the late 1970s. His partner in crime tonight was Alun Vaughan who laid down a terrific groove on electric bass and who had played with the band on their previous wall2wall visit in 2013. His presence freed Milverton of the bass duties normally undertaken with foot pedals by the group’s regular organist Pete Whittaker. The addition of Vaughan allowed Milverton the freedom to swoop and soar around the manuals, a freedom he took full advantage of with some brilliant wailing solos.

In my review of Blue Commotion’s 2013 performance I spoke of Rob Koral’s guitar “heading for the stratosphere” on one particular solo. He was sky-bound again on a slow blues arrangement of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ chilling tale of romantic obsession “I Put A Spell On You” .

Similar territory was explored on “I’ll Be Yours Tonight”, the atmospheric slow blues numbers alternating with rumbustious blues boogie outings such as “I’ll Do Anything” with its scorching organ and guitar solos plus Robinson’s dynamic drumming.

Most of Blue Commotion’s material is written by Schwarz and Koral, a pair of prolific songwriters who commendably manage to find something new and convincing to say in the blues/rock format. Nevertheless one of the stand-out performances proved to be a cover of Lowell Fulsom’s “Sinners Prayer” with Koral and Milverton exchanging solos and complementing Schwarz’s authoritative vocal performance as she delivered Fulsom’s chorus of “Lord Have Mercy On Me” with total conviction.

“Come Home Sweet Baby” was the vehicle for more scintillating guitar and organ solos, “We’ll Find A Way” was a slice of powerful blues balladry and “Feeling Good” was a homage to drummer Robinson’s tenure with Nina Simone.

A high energy set was completed with the autobiographical “Let Me Sing The Blues” with Schwarz’s lyrics alluding to the inspiration provided by her many musical influences including Jimmy Page, James Brown, BB King and Bessie Smith. Among the roll call was Etta James and it was to Etta’s repertoire that the band turned for a deserved encore with “Something’s Really Got A Hold On Me”

Although the attendance for this late night event was a little disappointing it was nevertheless an excellent show with Schwarz’s assured and authentic blues vocalising backed up by some brilliant musicianship from a group of players capable of combining blues/rock power with jazz chops. Blues Commotion is a highly professional outfit which always delivers the goods although I must admit that I did miss the contribution of harmonica player and backing vocalist Si Genaro who was the group’s “wild card” back in 2013, a madcap presence and a real entertainer, but still a brilliant musician.

Blue Commotion have recently released a new live album, “I’ll Be Yours Tonight” which I intend to take a look at in due course.


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

For me wall2wall 2015 was the best so far. The format of centralising events at the Kings Arms worked well and Jazz Alley was a terrific success. I didn’t get to see much at the Blues Stage but the feedback I have received indicates that this was less than satisfactory overall with some attendances disappointing, possibly because the venue was a little remote from the festival hub.

Nevertheless the success of the Kings Arms and Jazz Alley events represents a terrific platform to build on in subsequent years.

Artistically the Festival was a very definite success with several genres of jazz and related music being explored. I love the variety that this festival offers and some of the performances were quite outstanding with Emily Saunders, Remi Harris and Sarah Gillespie all vying for “gig of the festival”. In fact I enjoyed all the music that I saw, wall2wall can always guarantee to serve up music that is both interesting and enjoyable.

Congratulations to Mike Skilton and his team for another hugely enjoyable festival. I now feel that they’ve found exactly the right formula and I hope to be back again in 2016. Well done everybody and thanks for giving me the opportunity to cover the event. 

     

   

 

 


 

 

 

Friday and Saturday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 4th and 5th September 2015.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Friday and Saturday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 4th and 5th September 2015.

Ian Mann on the first two days of the best wall2wall Festival thus far. Performers include The Ben Cipolla Band, Radio Banska, Emily Saunders Band, Ben Treacher Quartet and Moscow Drug Club.

Photograph of the Emily Saunders Band by Conal Dunn


Friday and Saturday at wall2wall Jazz Festival, Abergavenny, 4th and 5th September 2015.


The 2015 wall2wall Jazz Festival was the third such event to be organised by the local jazz society Black Mountain Jazz and to my mind was the most successful festival to date.

This year the Festival was centred at BMJ’s headquarters the Kings Arms where the regular monthly club nights are held. On the two main days of the Festival the Kings function space hosted five ticketed events each day. With only one main stage the audience was concentrated in one location and in general the performers played to reasonably sized audiences. 2014 had deployed three concert stages, two of them outdoors, and the audience was spread too thinly with some events attended by only a handful of people. On reflection the organisers had been a little too ambitious the previous year but by reining things in and using one venue as the focus of the festival they seemed to have found the perfect format for this, and hopefully future, events.

Of course given the “wall to wall” music premise of the festival other venues were still deployed. On both Saturday and Sunday this included a blues stage in the garden at the rear of Y Cantreff Inn featuring largely acoustic blues performances by local artists.

The Sunday also incorporated the “Jazz Alley”, a free stage situated in the middle of Abergavenny’s famous Market Hall with the music complemented by a number of trade stands and food outlets. On the first sunny day for what seemed like weeks this was a great success with very healthy attendances for a diverse music programme that included several genres of jazz, blues and world music. Many of the people enjoying the music in the Jazz Alley were casual visitors, perhaps exploring jazz for the first time. They seemed to like what they heard and will hopefully return to hear more in the future. There was a real festival buzz about the town on the Sunday, something also helped by a further Fringe event at the Hen & Chickens pub located en route from the Market Hall to the Kings. It was estimated that some two thousand people heard some jazz related music over the course of the weekend at the Kings, Y Cantreff, Jazz Alley or one of the Fringe events making the festival a great success in terms of outreach. Of course many of these listeners would have been hearing the music for free and it’s to be hoped that the Festival was able to break even and will return again next year, ideally in a very similar format.

MADE IN WALES, KINGS ARMS, 04/09/2015.

Wall2Wall 2015 certainly got off to a great start on Friday evening with a Festival Dinner at the Kings Arms. The event was a total sell out with Festival organiser Mike Skilton joking that this was the first time he’d been able to use the words “sold out” on the BMJ website in the society’s nine year history!

The theme of the evening was “Made In Wales” with the menu having a Welsh theme and using locally sourced ingredients. Credit is due to the kitchen staff at the Kings for an excellent two course meal which was served prior to the musical entertainment provided by a sextet fronted by Usk based vocalist Debs Hancock. Using the group name Made In Wales this band of local heroes was co-led by tenor saxophonist Andrew Fawcett and also included Ben Thomas (trumpet & flugel), Gareth Hall (electric piano) Erika Lyons (double bass) and Keith Niblett (drums). Essentially this was an extended version of Hancock’s Jazz Dragons group which played at the club in April but with Fawcett and Thomas on board the repertoire was substantially different although still standards based. I don’t intend to carry out a full review as I attended this particular event as a paying customer but can report that it was a thoroughly entertaining evening with both Hancock and her instrumentalists delivering the goods with fine singing and soloing all round. Combined with the high quality, value for money food offering this was an excellent way to kick off the festival and will almost certainly be repeated in subsequent years.


THE BEN CIPOLLA BAND, KINGS ARMS, 05/09/2015.

It has always been the policy of wall2wall to support young up and coming jazz musicians and this was exemplified on Saturday lunchtime by this performance by a young group from Swindon, the Ben Cipolla Band. Still young enough to be driven to gigs by their parents this six piece band was fronted by vocalist and songwriter Ben Cipolla and also featured Isaac Francis on acoustic guitar, Jonny Budd on electric guitar and occasional alto sax, Lawrence Cooper on trumpet, Will Downes-Hall at the drums and his younger brother Brendan Downes-Hall on electric bass. The band sometimes performs as an octet with the addition of saxophonist David Knight and guitarist Paddy Benedict.

The Cipolla Band’s repertoire includes a smattering of original tunes plus a selection of jazz and soul covers. The band won the Brewin Dolphin Award for Best Newcomers at the 2014 Marlborough Jazz Festival (where Cipolla also guested with Clare Teal) and have clearly worked hard on their stagecraft. They took to the stage individually with drummer Will pounding out a rhythm before being joined by brother Brendan on bass and subsequently Francis on acoustic guitar, Budd on alto sax, Cooper on trumpet and finally Cipolla in an eye catching bright blue suit.

The band have already recorded an EP of very good original songs and began with the title cut of this, a song entitled “Guest House”. They followed this with the more reflective “The Puppet”, a song sourced from the same record and the as yet unrecorded original “Saskia”. These last two featured Budd on electric guitar as he put down his alto sax.

A string of covers began with Gregory Porter’s “Hey Laura” and this was followed by “Georgia” which was performed as a duet by Cipolla on vocals and Budd on electric guitar. The band sound had been very full and drowned out Cipolla’s voice at times and I enjoyed the contrast offered by episodes such as this which broke the band down into smaller configurations. This showed real maturity and also brought out the best in the leader’s voice.

A segue of “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Moondance” and “Summertime” inventively united three much loved songs and sweetened the audience for another clutch of original tunes including the new song “Mr. Chameleon” and “Stripped Down” from the EP, the latter featuring a scorching electric guitar solo from the talented multi-instrumentalist Jonny Budd.

Despite the group’s retro jump and jive trappings they also possess something of an indie rock sensibility, something borne out by Cipolla’s revelation that one of his primary inspirations is the Bristol based singer/songwriter Patrick Duff, one time leader of the 90s alternative rock band Strangelove. Cipolla’s song “Concorde Flight” was an evocative allegory of the trajectory of Duff’s life set in a pared down arrangement featuring acoustic and electric guitars plus muted trumpet.

Gregory Porter has been a huge influence not only on Cipolla but on the band as a whole. His “Water Under Bridges” was performed by the duo of Cipolla on vocals and Francis on acoustic guitar, the latter very much the leader’s right hand man.

The band’s Swindon roots suggest that Jamie Cullum may be yet another influence and the original song “Family Train” celebrated Cipolla’s kith and kin back home in Wiltshire. This was another song played almost acoustically with an arrangement featuring just guitars plus a smattering of trumpet.

John Mayer’s “Neon” was another duo performance by Cipolla and Francis. I’m not familiar with Mayer’s work but was impressed with the quality of his writing here and also with the interpretation of this very American song by two young guys from England’s West Country.

A further original song, “Lily White” was the last of the small group numbers featuring just Ciipolla and Budd on electric guitar. It was then time to bring back the whole band for a high energy closing sequence kick-started by the Downes-Hall brothers’ bass and drum grooves on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” with superb instrumental solos coming from Cooper on trumpet and Budd on synclavier style guitar.

The energy levels were maintained on a fast grooving version of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” with Cooper and Budd again taking the instrumental honours. The original song “Maverick Mind” from the “Guest House” EP was equally hard driving and a hugely entertaining set was completed by what Cipolla described as a “Disney classic”, the almost inevitable “King Of The Swingers”. But this was different, I particularly liked the bluesy opening section featuring just voice and acoustic guitar, a neat variation on a song that’s become a bit of a clich�. Eventually the band came roaring in with Cooper and Budd, the latter now back on alto sax forming a mini horn section.

I’ll admit that I had initial doubts as to whether or not I’d enjoy this band but they quickly won me over with their youthful enthusiasm and already very polished musicianship. They’ve clearly worked hard on their stage show and their eclectic mix of original songs and imaginative arrangements of much loved covers is an effective formula that communicated itself well to a supportive lunchtime crowd. Cipolla is a talented vocalist, songwriter and occasional guitarist and he has surrounded himself with a very talented young band. Expect to hear more of the Ben Cipolla Band, both individually and collectively.


MANSEL DAVIES, BLUES STAGE, Y CANTREFF INN, 05/09/2015

I took a walk down to the Blues Stage at Y Cantreff hoping to catch a bit of the set by Mansel Davies before returning to the Kings Arms for the next concert event. The pub proved to be a longer walk away than I’d anticipated and when I got there Davies was on his break. However on learning that there was a journalist in the house, or on the lawn, as the case may be, he agreed to go back on stage early so I could hear something of his music � a nice touch, thanks very much Mansel.

Davies is a guitarist, bassist, vocalist and harmonica player who performs regularly in the South Wales area in line ups ranging from solo to quartet, often under the banner ‘Acoustic Sessions’. He performs covers across a variety of genres including blues, folk, rock and pop.

At Abergavenny I only had time to watch him perform a couple of songs, a cover that I couldn’t put a handle on and an effective original song called “The Edge Of The World” that featured him playing a neck brace harmonica in the style of Bob Dylan or Neil Young. He was obviously a highly competent guitarist with a forceful acoustic technique and a powerful, accomplished vocalist. Brief as it was I enjoyed what I heard and will look out for him again some time. Mansel, if you ever play any gigs in the Hereford area let me know and I’ll try to come along. 


RADIO BANSKA, KINGS ARMS 05/09/2015

Some time ago I received an email from Nina Trott, violinist and co-leader of Radio Banska who was looking for help in her search for gigs. I forwarded it on to Mike Skilton and lo and behold here were the Bristol/Bath based quintet at wall2wall and what a pleasant surprise they turned out to be with their eclectic mix of “music from around the world” (their words).

More words now from the Festival brochure and the description of Radio Banska’s music as ” a jazz infused blend of Levantine mystery, Balkan passion and Latin rhythms”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Radio Banska was formed in 2009 and released the album “The Balkan Courtesan” in 2011. The current line up includes founder members Nina Trott (violin), Dave Spencer (electric guitar) and Tony Barby (acoustic guitar, charango) plus the more recently joined rhythm team of Sol Ahmed (double bass) and Justin Fellows (drums). Most of today’s set was sourced from the album and featured a mixture of original tunes by Spencer and Trott plus a number of inspired covers including tunes by composers as diverse as John Zorn and Richard Galliano.

They kicked off with Spencer’s “La Mezquita”, the opening track from the album, an excellent example of the Levantine side of their music with Trott and Spencer exchanging solos above a powerful but fluid rhythm section anchored by Barby’s rhythm guitar.

The band’s imaginative and colourful arranging skills saw them taking French accordion virtuoso Richard Galliano’s tune “Chat Pitre” and transforming it into a strange new hybrid that Spencer described as “Moroccan Reggae”. I loved this unlikely marriage of Middle Eastern melody and dub groove and the imaginative solos from Spencer’s distinctive solid bodied Ibanez guitar and Trott’s violin.

The new tune “Suleiman’s Dance” marked a return to the Levant with it’s tight knit rhythms incorporating the use of arco bass ,and the soaring solos from Trott on violin and Spencer on guitar, the latter making extensive use of his instrument’s sustain pedal. Despite the ethnic roots of much of their music Radio Banska are not afraid to harness modern musical technology, this really is a very modern brand of world jazz.

That sustain pedal use was put to good use again as the music moved to another continent for a performance of a tango by Astor Piazzolla. Another highlight here was Trott’s violin solo above the patter of brushed drums.

Spencer’s original “Hound Of The Baskervilles” then introduced something of a contemporary rock influence before an excellent first set concluded with Trott’s lively “Emo Latino”, a tune sourced from the album and featuring the joyous swoops of her violin above the loose limbed rhythms laid down by her colleagues.

Set two saw Barby taking up the eight stringed charango on an inventive arrangement of John Zorn’s “Ravayah”, a version of which also appears on the album.

Spencer’s “Hounslow East” then offered something “more obviously jazzy” before the group delivered something “more mellow” with a tune called “Countrywide” with solos for guitar and violin above Fellows’ brushed drum grooves.

The title track from “The Balkan Courtesan” saw Ahmed making effective use of the bow on the intro before the music erupted into a seething cauldron of Balkan rhythms.

The band composition “Isfahan”, not to be confused with Billy Strayhorn’s jazz standard of the same name, sounded suitably exotic with a series of high energy exchanges between Trott’s violin and Spencer’s oud like guitar.

From the album the tune “We’re Not In Kansas Now” was mentioned by Spencer as being “surreal” and represented another example of what Listomania’s Charley Dunlap memorably described as “a kind of Levantine Zeppelin”.

They rounded off two excellent sets of music with the album track “Cinnabar”, another high energy offering that even saw the band’s two sit down guitarists getting to their feet, “I never thought I’d get to the age where I get applauded just for standing up” remarked Spencer.

Joking apart I thought Radio Banska were terrific with their imaginative and exotic compositions and arrangements combining with some excellent musicianship from some very experienced players. This was consistently exciting stuff and the excellence of the live performance is also reflected by the “Balkan Courtesan” album which makes for an enjoyable, satisfying and thoroughly convincing listen.

A great gig from the surprise package of the festival.


EMILY SAUNDERS BAND (ESB), KINGS ARMS, 05/09/2015

London based vocalist Emily Saunders has won considerable critical acclaim for her albums “Cotton Skies” (2011) and “Outsiders Insiders” (2015). Saunders is inspired by the music of Brazil, particularly that of composers Airto Moreira and Hermeto Pascoal, and describes her own music as being “Brazilian inspired but with a London twist”.

“Cotton Skies” contains a mix of original songs and covers but on the more recent “Outsiders Insiders” the material is all Saunders’ own and her blending of Brazilian flavours with a contemporary London sensibility adds up to something fresh, exciting and original.

In May 2015 I saw Saunders perform a standards set at Brecon Jazz Club in the company of Swansea based pianist Dave Cottle and his trio. That gig helped to confirm Saunders as an adventurous vocalist with a high degree of technical ability and an extensive knowledge of the classic jazz repertoire. Entertaining though that was it wasn’t as exciting as today’s performance which saw Saunders bringing her London based quintet, the Emily Saunders Band (or ESB) to Wales. This all star line up featured the experienced trumpeter Byron Wallen, a contributor to both of Saunders’ albums, plus Chris Jerome on electric piano, Paul Michael on electric bass and Gary Willcox at the drums. In this company Saunders enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, frequently using her voice as an instrument and integrating thrillingly with the other members of this stellar band.

Things kicked off with a dazzling version of Airto Morira’s “Mixing”, a tune that features on Saunders’ d�but album. Here Saunders demonstrated just how skilled an improviser she is with some of the most inventive scat singing I’ve ever heard, a little bit of scat can sometimes go a very long way but Saunders turns it into an art form. With Michael’s springy electric bass groove providing the perfect launch pad the singer shared the solos with Wallen on trumpet, Jerome on electric piano and Willcox at the drums. A thoroughly exhilarating start.

Saunders is also a perceptive lyricist as she revealed on the title track from “Outsiders Insiders” with its quick fire lyrics which conjured up images of a kind of jazz/Brazilian “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The instrumental honours here went to Jerome with a feverish electric piano solo and Wallen with a vocalised trumpet feature.

Wallen sat out for “You Caught Me”, a shimmering ballad performed by the remaining quartet with solos from Jerome on piano and Michael on liquid electric bass.

The trumpeter returned for Chick Corea’s “You’re Everything”, a song initially composed for the very first edition of Return To Forever, the band that featured Airto on percussion and the vocals of Flora Purim. Like so many other Corea tunes it’s become a modern jazz classic and Saunders and her colleagues more than did it justice with Emily’s singing vying for excellence with solos from Wallen, Jerome and Michael.

The Saunders original “You’re With Me” marked a return to ballad territory and was again performed by a quartet of voice, piano, bass and (eventually) drums.

“Daze”, from “Cotton Skies” brought a sudden injection of pace with the driving rhythms of Michael and Willcox fuelling a brilliant solo from Wallen plus a series of dazzling exchanges between the trumpeter and Saunders. Following further solos by Jerome and Michael the singer returned to deliver some more astonishing scat vocalising.

From the most recent album the hypnotic and atmospheric “Descending Down” introduced a more sombre element to the proceedings but was nevertheless highly effective as Saunders’ voice combined with the burnished tones of Wallen’s trumpet.

“Summer Days” included more virtuoso scatting alongside features for trumpet and electric bass.  The more vigorous “Sunshine On Cloudy Days” then featured a solo from Jerome followed by some more terrific interplay between Saunders and Wallen.

Another pause for breath with the quartet ballad “Reflections” from “Outsiders Insiders” before a grandstand finish with Airto’s “Xibaba”, this featuring some more astonishing vocalising including Saunders singing in Portugese and delivering yet more amazing scatting.  With final bravura solos also coming from Wallen, Jerome, Michael and Willcox this was a scintillating end to a great gig that delighted the Abergavenny audience. There’s clearly something of a buzz about Emily Saunders and she drew the largest crowd of the day, none of whom were left disappointed.

This was probably the best gig of the day, it was certainly the most adventurous as Saunders revealed herself to be a highly original vocal talent, not only supremely technically accomplished but also prepared to take musical risks. Her original writing was also excellent and her rapport with an equally accomplished band was terrific. The presence of Wallen represented a considerable bonus and I liked the way Jerome deployed his keyboard, deliberately adopting the classic Rhodes sound rather than trying to be an acoustic piano substitute.

My thanks to Emily for speaking with me afterwards and also for the gift of a copy of the excellent “Cotton Skies”, an album I’d not previously heard. I’m also grateful to her for introducing me to Byron Wallen, a musician whose playing I have admired for many years in bands led by Courtney Pine, Denys Baptiste, Gary Crosby and others. 


BEN TREACHER QUARTET, KINGS ARMS, 05/09/2015

The young alto saxophonist Ben Treacher has been a frequent visitor to BMJ. A graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music in Cardiff he first appeared in Abergavenny as a member of the RWCMD Big Band before returning to appear at both of the first two wall2wall festivals.

In 2013 he co-led a quintet with tenor saxophonist Martha Skilton (promoter Mike’s daughter) and delivered an enjoyable standards based set. In 2014 he returned leading a trio featuring bassist Aidan Thorne and drummer Ollie Howell for a performance that channelled the spirit of the great Sonny Rollins with Treacher also doubling on tenor.

Treacher has now moved to London and the quartet he brought back to Wales today featured some of the capital’s young rising jazz stars in the shapes of pianist Will Barry, bassist Flo Moore and drummer Will Glaser, the latter recently heard on “Fabled”, an EP release by reeds player Sam Rapley.

The alto remains Treacher’s main horn and in the company of his talented young colleagues he delivered an enjoyable standards based set that contained just one original composition. Treacher has always been a highly competent musician but with the move to London he seems to have sharpened his technique even more, I overheard several comments about how much he had “come on” since his previous wall2wall appearances. His 2014 performance had taken place on an outside stage and had been rather poorly attended. Today Treacher was rewarded by a more substantial and very supportive audience, this was a good gig for him.

Treacher and Glaser kick started an engaging take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” with the leader taking the first solo followed by Barry and Moore plus Glaser with a series of brushed drum breaks.

A glitch with the lead to Moore’s bass amp led to a short delay while she switched to a new cable but the quartet were soon up and running again with Clifford Brown’s “Sandu” with Treacher leading off the solos with some forceful alto blowing followed by Barry at his Nord Electro 3 keyboard and former Royal Academy of Music Big Band member Moore at the bass. Moore is also making her mark on the London jazz scene with smaller units such as the Phil Meadows Group and Stoop Quintet.

The jazz standard “But Not For Me” was played hard and fast with a soloing order of Treacher, Barry, Moore and Glaser. It has to be said that despite the excellence of the playing the use of virtually the same format for every tune did get a little bit too predictable after a while.

Treacher spent some time studying in Holland, a country for which he still holds considerable affection. The sole original tune was “Spijplank”, a Dutch word meaning “chopping board”! This piece was also played by last year’s trio and was far more contemporary in feel than the items from the standards catalogue even though the solos still came in the predictable order, culminating in a drum feature for the impressive Glaser.

“On The Sunny Side Of The Street” closed the first set performed in an interesting New Orleans/parade ground style arrangement with some exciting keyboard and drum exchanges bookending solos from Treacher and Moore. 

The taking of a short break was arguably ill advised with the quartet having to cut their second set short as the festival running order was slipping slightly behind schedule. A high octane “Donna Lee” kicked the second half off with the young tyros tackling the complexities of Charlie Parker’s tune with great panache. This time Barry led off the solos at the keyboard followed by Treacher on alto and Glaser at the drums. Barry’s playing had visibly and audibly grown in confidence throughout the set and he also acquitted himself well on “There Is No Greater Love”, sharing the solos with Treacher.

The quartet rounded things off by romping through Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with Barry again leading off the solos followed by leader Treacher.

Although less adventurous and ultimately less satisfying than the set by the Emily Saunders Band there was still much to enjoy here with Treacher and his young colleagues getting a good response from a supportive Festival crowd. The comments I heard were universally positive and the quartet’s brand of well played straight ahead jazz went down very well. For me Treacher needs to start adding more of his own material to his repertoire if he wishes to move on to the next level. A good and very enjoyable gig nevertheless. 


MOSCOW DRUG CLUB, KINGS ARMS, 05/09/2015. 

The Bristol based band Moscow Drug Club were one of the big successes of wall2wall 2014 drawing a large crowd to the Kings Arms for their late Saturday night performance. Many of those audience members were back to see the band again in 2015, again playing at the Kings in exactly the same time slot. This really was a band that was “back by popular demand”.

Fronted by the charismatic vocalist Katya Gorrie Moscow Drug Club also includes some of the South West’s leading instrumentalists namely guitarist Denny Ilett, accordionist Mirek Salmon, bassist Andy Crowdy and trumpeter Jonny Bruce. With the exception of the last named all of them also sing and although the main focus of MDC’s music is the songs, both their own and other people’s, there are always some terrific instrumental moments during an MDC show. These gentlemen can play.

MDC’s music is a blend of gypsy jazz, cabaret, East European folk music, klezmer and tango, a heady brew that has proved extremely popular with audiences and would probably get a nod of approval from Tom Waits. The group has accrued something of a cult following for its performances which are delivered with humour and a remarkable degree of energy given the fact that apart from bassist Crowdy the performers remain seated throughout.

With Gorrie in the role of exotic chanteuse MDC artfully recreate the atmosphere of 1930s Berlin cabaret, a world that is simultaneously both glamorous and dangerous. In 2015 all that’s missing is the smoke!

Looking back on my review of last year’s show I note that although the group’s MO remains essentially the same 2015’s set list was substantially different, albeit with some old favourites, particularly the “novelty songs”, inevitably appearing.

This time round they kicked off with “Missy Lou” with Gorrie augmenting her singing with the playing of small items of hand held percussion. The instrumental solos here came from Salmon on piano accordion and Bruce on trumpet. I’ve always admired Bruce’s playing since his days with the Dave Stapleton Quintet and he brings a real jazz presence to MDC’s music.

The old swing tune “When I Get Low I Get High” combined a knowing lyric with excellent solos from Bruce, Ilett, Salmon and Crowdy.

The lesser known Peggy Lee song “The Gypsy With The Fire In His Shoes” is an MDC staple with its evocative lyrics and inventive flamenco style arrangement that makes great use of the “palmas” of Gorrie and the rest of the group.

The original tune “The Voodoo Queen Of New Orleans” evoked the spirit of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, also immortalised by the band Redbone in their 1971 hit “The Witch Queen Of New Orleans”. Laveau has also been the subject of numerous other songs by a number of other artists, among them, almost inevitably, Dr. John. The main instrumental solo was by Bruce on muted trumpet.

Salmon then took the instrumental honours on another original song, “Senorita” which also featured a number of humorous band vocal exchanges.

The old Nana Mouskouri hit “Over And Over” seemed an unlikely choice but it fitted the band perfectly with Gorrie bringing out the full pathos of the lyrics. However it was bawdy humour that was the order of the day on “The Strip Polka” with Gorrie’s risqu� lyrics complemented by the vocalised growl of Bruce’s plunger muted trumpet.

A hugely enjoyable first set ended with “It’d Better Be Tonight”, a song from the soundtrack of the Pink Panther film with Bruce again on muted trumpet and Gorrie delivering the lyrics in Italian.

Set two commenced with the tune that the band had earlier used for their sound check, the old Andrews Sisters song “Bei Mir Bist du Schon”, something of a novelty number but enlivened by excellent instrumental features from Salmon, Ilett, Crowdy and Bruce still wielding that plunger mute.

“Two Guitars”, a Russian folk tune with lyrics added by none other than Charles Aznavour featured Gorrie’s most emotive singing of the night, the singer augmenting her impassioned performance with a series of theatrical but effective hand gestures.

Jacques Brel has long been a favourite songwriter of the band and last year’s set included included his song “Funeral Tango”. This time round it was the equally literate and evocative “Jackie”, sung by Gorrie with the accompaniment of Crowdy’s bass only.

The songs of Kurt Weill and Bertoldt Brecht are obvious source material for MDC and they tackled “The Alabama Song”, a piece previously recorded by artists from Lotte Lenya to The Doors to David Bowie. With its whisky bar imagery this song was perfect for MDC with Bruce impressing on cup muted trumpet.

The original song “Nomads” introduced an element of pertinent social comment and included an excellent solo from guitarist Ilett, a frequent associate of Bristol’s best known jazz export, saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Oh yes, and it also contains that immortal line “we don’t give a shit”!

The mood now changed with the comedy song “Istanbul Not Constantinople”, another MDC staple with its theatrical trumpet and accordion exchanges and exaggerated diminuendos and climaxes � plus an element of audience participation.

This went down a storm and the group were summoned back for a well deserved encore, their signature tune “Moscow Drug Club” with its Cold War imagery and memorable hook line of “where the reds play the blues”. Crowdy produced a great bowed bass solo and accordionist Salmon led the band in some Russian style singing. A great way to end another exciting performance from this highly talented and accomplished band.

Overall I found this second Moscow Drug Club show even more enjoyable than the first. Last time round I enjoyed their energy and technical skill but still felt that somehow it all seemed to be a bit contrived and something of a pose. This time I found it all rather more convincing, yes the novelty songs are still there and will always be an integral part of their performances - but this time I thought there was a bit more meat on the bones, particularly in the second set with the Brel and Weill.

Once again the audience loved them. I wouldn’t bet against them being back in the same room at the same hour in twelve months time.   

   

Music and ... the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Music and ... the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).

Ian Mann is informed, educated and entertained by this talk / musical performance presented by sound artists and instrument builders MortonUnderwood together with theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina.

Photograph of Leon Theremin with the young Lydia Kavina sourced from http://www.lydiakavina.com


Music and ...the Theremin, The Left Bank, Hereford, 30/07/2015
(part of the Three Choirs Festival).


This fascinating event, part talk, part musical performance was part of Three Choirs Plus, a welcome adjunct to the main Three Choirs Festival. The “Plus” programme included an extensive series of talks, lectures, exhibitions, demonstrations and workshops plus less formal street performances of music across a variety of genres.

I’ve always harboured a secret love for the eerie sounds of the theremin, probably because of its use on sci-fi and horror movie soundtracks and because of my mistaken belief (more on that later) that it was featured in the arrangement of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”.

More recently my fascination with the instrument was piqued by a performance by the jazz/avant rock trio Blueblut, a Vienna based band featuring drummer Mark Holub (more familiar as the leader of the group Led Bib), Austrian guitarist and producer Chris Janka and theremin specialist Pamelia Kurstin. In November 2014 I enjoyed a performance by Blueblut in the unlikely setting of the Town Hall in the small Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle (apparently Kurstin has family connections in the area) and my review of that concert also takes a look at Blueblut’s dbut album “Hurts So Gut”, a slightly self indulgent but largely very enjoyable and convincing release. Kurstin has also collaborated with the British drummer Sebastian Rochford with whom she released the duo album “Ouch Evil Slow Hop” in 2011, a recording reviewed for this site by Tim Owen who also covered a live performance by the duo at London’s Caf Oto at around the same time.

Today’s event took place in a function room at Hereford’s newly re-opened Left Bank complex, a venue overlooking the picturesque Old Bridge and the beautiful River Wye. It was hosted by the Worcestershire based sound artists and instrument builders MortonUnderwood together with theremin virtuoso Lydia Kavina.

David Morton and Sam Underwood have a workshop in rural Worcestershire where they manufacture weird and wonderful musical instruments, some of them large scale commissions for installations in cities such as Birmingham and London. They have a particular interest in low frequency sounds, perhaps the natural extension of Underwood’s tuba playing he regularly performs as part of an improvising trio alongside saxophonist Colin Webster and turntable artist Graham Dunning.

Among MortonUnderwood’s recent commissions was a ‘Giant Feedback Organ’ built from huge air duct pipes for the South Bank’s “Pull Out All The Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the organ at the Royal Festival Hall. It can generate some seriously low frequencies. The duo also describe themselves as “sonic graffiti artists” due to their fondness of leaving recording and playback gadgets in the wild for other people to find. 

However it’s arguable that perhaps MortonUnderwood’s greatest triumph has been the creation of the “If Wet…” series of events which they hold regularly at Callow End Village Hall near Worcester.  At these events they invite fellow musical mavericks and inventors along on a “show and tell”  basis to present both their instruments and their music. Conceived in 2013 as an antidote to the endless p