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EFG London Jazz Festival 2013, Part Two.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

EFG London Jazz Festival 2013, Part Two.

The second instalment of Ian Mann's 2013 EFG London Jazz Festival experience including performances by Jeff Williams, Moss Project, Nicolas Meier, Damon Brown, Laura Jurd and Peter Johnstone.

WEDNESDAY 20th NOVEMBER


EZRA COLLECTIVE

For tonight’s free music showcase I selected a different venue for an enjoyable performance by Ezra Collective a multi-racial young quintet drawn from the ranks of the Jazz Warriors programme. Ray’s Jazz Café was the venue for a group led by drummer Femi Koleoso and featuring trumpeter Dylan Jones, tenor saxophonist James Mollison, pianist Joe Armon Jones and bass guitarist T J Koleoso. Guitarist Femi Tomowo was scheduled to appear and although I was initially disappointed by his absence any lingering regrets were quickly banished by the spirited playing of this talented young band.

Much of the material was original, coming from the pen of the group’s young drummer with well chosen covers including tunes by such seminal figures as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Fela Kuti. The unannounced opener mixed jazz and reggae grooves and featured fine solos from youthful trumpeter Dylan Jones and pianist Joe Armon Jones.

T J Koleoso set up a funk/Afrobeat groove on Fela Kuti’s “Colonial Mentality” which underpinned fiery solos from Mollison on tenor sax, Armon Jones on both electric piano and piano and Jones on trumpet as the tune segued into Shorter’s ubiquitous “Footprints”.

T J was at it again on Femi Koleoso’s “Enter The Jungle” with solos from Mollison on tenor, Jones on trumpet (sliding a quote from Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” into his feature)  and Armon Jones at the electric piano.

Next up was a bustling, boppish item, unannounced but featuring further fine solos from Armon Jones, Mollison and Jones and with Femi Koleoso coming in like a young Art Blakey.

Hancock’s “Eye Of The Hurricane” began with teasing snippets of bass and drums before opening out to include solos for trumpet and piano with Femi Koleoso struggling out of his jacket prior to delivering a storming drum feature.

Other material included Femi Koleoso’s “Shades Of Scarlet” which featured every member of the group and this irrepressible young band of entertainers signed off with Fela Kuti’s classic “Zombie” with Femi Koleoso encouraging maximum audience participation.

A packed out Ray’s gave these young warriors a terrific ovation and it came as no surprise to learn from the Tomorrow’s Warriors website that Ezra Collective had picked up prizes as “Best Jazz Band” at Music For Youth events in both London and Birmingham. Expect to hear a lot more from these excellent young musicians. They played with genuine youthful vitality, a good deal of skill with Femi Koleoso’s writing also impressing with its maturity. An excellent start to a chilly Wednesday evening.


JEFF WILLIAMS QUINTET

I’ve been an admirer of drummer Jeff Williams’ playing since his 1970’s work with saxophonist Dave Liebman (particularly Liebman’s Lookout Farm group), bassist Frank Tusa and pianist Richie Beirach. These days Williams maintains homes in both New York and London and his ocean hopping lifestyle engenders that he works with musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, among them British saxophonist Martin Speake.

In recent years Williams has also emerged as a significant composer and has released two albums on Whirlwind Recordings featuring his “American Quartet” of trumpeter Duane Eubanks, alto saxophonist John O’ Gallagher and bassist John Hebert. After reviewing both albums and also covering a live performance by the quartet in Birmingham I was keen to check out Williams’ British band, a quintet featuring the twin horns of Josh Arcoleo (tenor sax) and Finn Peters (alto sax, flute) , the guitar of Phil Robson and the double bass of Sam Lasserson. This line up has also just been documented on CD, a limited edition live album entitled “Concert In The Amazon” recorded at the Amazonas Jazz festival in Manaus, Brazil in July 2013. As far as I’m aware it’s only available from Jeff at gigs or from his website http://www.willfulmusic.com

The UK quintet’s annual appearances at The Green Note in Camden have become something of an LJF institution. I discovered this wonderfully intimate little venue at the 2012 festival and although an infrequent visitor I consider it to be one of my favourites. Williams obviously loves playing there and the tiny music room was absolutely crammed for this year’s pilgrimage. As at Xoyo the previous evening it was standing room only for all but the very earliest arrivals and once again note taking proved difficult but this hardly seemed to matter as I absorbed myself in the music with the top quality UK band propelled by Williams’ fluid and colourful but often highly dynamic drumming. His rolling, elastic grooves, grounded by Lasserson’s supple bass pulse provided the jumping off spot for fiery, impassioned horn solos by Arcoleo and Peters, these contrasting neatly with the coolly elegant guitar runs of Robson.

Williams subtly dictated proceedings from behind his kit. He’s a wonderfully versatile drummer, a colourist in the context of a piano trio, a more dynamic and forceful presence when leading a more blowing orientated band such as this. His accents and promptings acted as subtle cues for the soloists who all responded magnificently to what Time Out New York memorable referred to as “Williams’ supple rhythmic flow”. Many of the tunes were announced but virtually all included solos by Robson, Arcoleo and Peters, the latter sometimes switching to flute to provide welcome additional colour and variation.

The first set included “She Can’t Be Spy”, one of the most memorable items from the American Quartet’s studio album “Another Time” and live recording “The Listener”. Tonight’s version included a blistering alto solo from Peters alongside features for Robson and bassist Sam Lasserson.

“Hermeto”, Williams’ tribute to the great Hermeto Pascoal was inspired by the Quintet’s visit to Brazil and this time featured peters on flute alongside Arcoleo and Robson. 

A very good first set was topped by the second. The quintet hit the ground running with a ferocious piece that featured the squalling saxes of Arcoleo and Peters both individually and collectively alongside Robson’s heavily distorted guitar, the whole lashed on by Williams’ furious drumming. “That was about airport security”, remarked Williams laconically as the sound of the last cymbal crash died away. As a man who probably has to put up with such nonsenses more frequently than most you could appreciate the anger and frustration expressed in the music.

The following “Meeting A Stranger” adopted a gentler approach with Peters excelling on flute but energy levels were restored with a rousing blues that included powerful solos from Peters on alto, Arcoleo on tenor and Robson on guitar.

The next piece was unannounced but was ushered in by Williams’ imaginative and colourful hand drumming, this leading to a beguiling blend of flute and tenor presaging solos from peters, Robson and Lasserson.

However the very best was left until last. Williams left the stage as the quartet of Arcoleo, 
Peters, Robson and Lasserson began “Lament”, a heartfelt and often beautiful dedication to one of Williams’ former drum students who went through unimaginably dark times before his tragic and premature death in a traffic accident. In the hands of the quartet the piece became a bitter sweet threnody, exquisite beauty inspired by the most tragic of circumstances. When Arcoleo (who had so impressed the previous day with Narcissus) began to solo, his tenor sax a cry of hurt, Williams slipped back on stage and commenced drumming in dramatic and dynamic fashion as the two reeds squalled angrily. Williams cymbals crashed and sizzled, his playing a manifestation of the hurt and frustration he felt about the needless loss of a life.

After this very personal slice of catharsis there was to be no encore but nobody present could complain about the quintet’s lack of commitment. This had been an excellent show, occasionally poignant but more often highly exciting with some exceptional playing all round. However it was Williams intelligent writing and perceptive prompting from behind the kit that set the tone for the performance.

Speaking to Williams afterwards he explained that he sees the UK group as different but equal to the American one and views both bands as coming from the same pool of talent. I also got to talk to Phil Robson and to vocalist Christine Tobin and pianist Ivo Neame who were present in an audience that also included Martin Speake.

Williams be touring the UK in 2014 as part of a trio led by Speake that will also feature guitarist Mike Outram. I’ll be covering their date at Shrewsbury on January 11th. The full itinerary can be found on Jeff’s website http://www.willfulmusic.com

So, another memorable night at the Green Note and another excellent live performance from Jeff Williams. I shall be seeing Jeff again soon enough and hope to return to the Green Note during next year’s LJF.


THURSDAY 21st NOVEMBER


DAMON BROWN’S INTERNATIONAL QUINTET


British trumpeter Damon Brown’s playing is rooted in the bebop/hard bop tradition but he’s also open to more contemporary influences as the music to be found on his various solo albums and with the band Killer Shrimp, co-led with saxophonist Ed Jones, has revealed.

These days Brown spends much of his time in Seoul, South Korea and has made profitable alliances with both Korean and Japanese musicians. His International Quintet for this free lunchtime performance at the Pizza Express Jazz Club consisted of Japanese pianist Yutaka Shiina, Korean drummer Kim Min Chan, British bassist Tim Thornton and French alto saxophonist Pierrick Pedron who replaced the advertised American, Bob Martin.

Despite Martin’s absence this was a classy ensemble who gave an excellent lunchtime performance at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in the heart of Soho. This was a free show but with the proviso that audience members partook of a meal -  well you’ve got to eat sometime and I’m quite partial to a pizza as well as being an admirer of Brown’s playing so this was the place to be. Gratifyingly a substantial number of other hungry jazz fans agreed with me and this early afternoon session was a considerable success with some excellent playing from Brown’s all star band.

I’d seen Brown fairly recently when he gave an excellent performance with the house band at the inaugural wall2wall Jazz festival hosted by Black Mountain Jazz at the Swan Hotel in Abergavenny and it was good to see him again so soon, especially in such stellar company. The programme consisted mainly of standards, plus a smattering of originals from the pens of Brown and Pedron.

The performance commenced with Brown’s “Roughneck Blues”, a rousing call to arms featuring solos from Pedron, Brown and Shiina. Brown revealed that he’d actually met Shiina in France via Pedron and that Thornton was filling in on bass for Adam King who was experiencing problems with his hands, yet another occupational hazard for bass players. We at The Jazzmann wish Adam well and hope he’s back up on the bandstand again very soon.

The standard “Star Eyes” included solos from Brown, Pedron and Shiina plus a feature for the versatile and adaptable Thornton who’d also been at that festival in Abergavenny, again filling in at short notice with Gilad Atzmon’s trio.

The next two tunes were unannounced, almost certainly standards, but ones whose titles eluded me .
The first featured dazzling high register trumpet from Brown and a series of dynamic drum breaks from Chan as he traded bars with trumpet, sax and piano. The second was a lyrical ballad featuring gently brushed drums and thoughtful solos from Pedron, Brown, Shiina and Thornton with the pianist’s offering highlighting his delicacy of touch at the keyboard.

Brown’s original “Jousting In Three”, a souped up waltz that sounded like a Blue Note era standard, closed the first set with exuberant soloing from Brown (also on scat vocal), Pedron and Shiina. A barnstorming conclusion to an excellent first half.

The second set kicked off with the standard “If I Should Lose You” with features for each member of the group.

Brown dedicated his original tune “Kit Kat” to his sister Katrina and the piece also featured his wordless vocals alongside his trumpet, Pedron’s probing alto sax and, finally, Chan’s drums.

The standard “Like Someone In Love” was delivered in swinging fashion with features for Shiina, Brown and Thornton.

An excellent afternoon of music concluded with Pedron’s “Waltz For A King”, dedicated to Britain’s giant of the alto saxophone, the great Peter King. Naturally the composer’s alto was well to the fore with Brown and Shiina also producing cogent solos.

Brown is a superb technician and a highly accomplished soloist and these two unpretentious and swinging sets were hugely enjoyable. Pedron, Shiina and Chan were all significant new discoveries for me and names to keep a future eye on. Thornton was a superb dep, as usual.

A good afternoon’s work all round. 


LAURA JURD ENSEMBLE

Yet more trumpeters at the free early evening show at The Front Room. Trumpeter and composer Lara Jurd, a recent graduate from the Trinity Laban School of Music has already earned herself a considerable reputation as both a player and composer. Her début album “Landing Ground”(2012) was an astonishingly mature blend of jazz and contemporary classical music featuring some remarkable writing for strings and is arguably the most outstanding UK jazz début for many years.

A founding member of the Chaos Collective Jurd is involved in a variety of other projects and her star continues to rise. It’s indicative of the esteem in which she is held that she was selected as one of the twenty one young composers commissioned to write new music for the 21st Birthday of the London Jazz Festival. Jurd presented the new work tonight, a piece divided into six movements and played by an unusual instrumental configuration featuring herself and her former tutor Chris Batchelor on trumpets, regular associate Corrie Dick at the drums, Alex Roth on guitar, Mick Foster on the rarely seen bass saxophone and the Irish pair of Colm O’ Hara (trombone) and Lauren Kinsella (vocals).

Kinsella, leader of the group Thought Fox (of which O’Hara is also a member) adds a distinctive voice to the ensemble sound. She’s an adventurous vocalist influenced not just by Norma Winstone but also by more experimental vocalists such as Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nichols - and even Bjork -  and is very much part of the group sound, an additional instrument if you will. Her contribution also included the singing of Jurd’s lyrics but in the context of a one off performance in a less than perfect acoustic space I’m not going to attempt any analysis of the words.

However there was still much to savour not only through Kinsella’s “voice as instrument” but also from the musicians themselves, not least Jurd herself who added wah wah effects to an arresting early solo. Batchelor was also an effective soloist, sometimes combining with Jurd to form a twin trumpet front line. Roth’s guitar was often used as a textural device, his sounds ranging from guitar drones to malevolent rock influenced chording. O’ Hara’s trombone was often used in similar fashion between occasional bouts of more orthodox jazz playing. The young Irishman is a musician who seeks to extend the vocabulary of his instrument and who can be heard elsewhere as the leader of the group ReDiviDeR. In a bass-less group Mick Foster did a remarkable job of holding down the bottom end (and more) on the mighty bass sax. His remarkable agility and musicality on the largest member of the saxophone family reminded me of Oren Marshall’s similarly prodigious feats on the tuba.

Jurd’s suite included a setting of W B Yeats “O Do Not Love Too Long”  movingly sung by Kinsella. The Irish poet is obviously an important touchstone for Jurd who forms part of the quartet Blue Eyed Hawk (the band name taken from a line in another Yeats poem) which also features Kinsella, Roth and Dick. The group has signed to Edition records and are due to release their début album in Autumn 2014. it’s possible that some of today’s music may appear on that record albeit in a pared down context.

Jurd and her colleagues received a tremendous ovation from a packed Front Room for this adventurous new music. Personally I found it all a bit much to take in on first hearing and Kinsella’s vocals are definitely something of an acquired taste. However should it ever find its way on to disc this is music that I’d like to hear again and subject to further analysis. I’ll certainly await the Blue Eyed Hawk album with much interest. 


MOSS PROJECT

One of the most unusual releases of 2013 has to be “What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?”, the second album by Moss Project, the band led by Manchester born guitarist and composer Moss Freed.  Released on the enterprising Babel record label the album is a brilliantly successful fusion of the worlds of music, art and literature.

Having written the music for the album bibliophile Freed contacted a variety of authors, many of them highly distinguished and widely known, and asked them to write short stories based on the images that the music suggested to them. The results were stunning, beautifully crafted literary vignettes that complemented the music perfectly and vice versa. The album packaging is akin to a hard back book with the stories printed in full and complemented not only by the accompanying CD but also by evocative artwork from a variety of illustrators. It’s a beautiful package that brings three strands of the arts together in a brilliantly recognised whole.

The album itself is reviewed elsewhere on this site but I was particularly keen to see the music performed live, particularly as the playing was to be augmented by the presence of three of the six contributing authors who would punctuate the musical performances by reading from their works. My eagerness to see the band was also informed by two splendid performances at the nearby Green Note at the 2012 LJF when Zawadzki fronted her own band and Freed was part of the skronk jazz outfit Let Spin, whose début album for Efpi Records is due in early 2014.

Tonight’s event took place at The Forge in Camden and the occasion marked my first visit to the venue. A friendly and comfortable home to jazz and other aspects of the performing arts the venue is attached to the Foundry Restaurant and Wine Bar with the separate performance space resembling a small arts centre. It’s a good place to listen to music and overall I was very impressed.

The line up of Moss Project differed slightly to that heard on disc. Album personnel Moss Freed (guitar), Alice Zawadzki (voice and violin) and Marek Dorcik (drums) remained with Joe Stoddart (electric bass) and George Crowley (reeds) replacing Ruth Goller and Shabaka Hutchings respectively. The authors present for this performance were Laurence Norfolk, James Miller and Hanan al-Shaykh -  the album also includes writing by Naomi Alderman, Joe Dunthorne and Colum McCann.

Stoddard’s electric bass introduced “Freud And Jung Ride The Tunnel Of Love” which featured Crowley moving between bass clarinet and tenor saxophone and soloing on the latter. Zawadzki’s soaring wordless vocals and violin are an integral part of the Moss Project sound and were prominently featured here. On album the piece is complemented by the prose poem of Joe Dunthorne.

However the first author to take to the stage tonight was Lawrence Norfolk who read his short story “Caravans”, an enigmatic tale of mobile homes, pub quizzes and Oxfordshire’s Rollright Stones. The accompanying tune, actually written by Ruth Goller, was a brief, freely structured affair, equally enigmatic in its own way.

The richly atmospheric"Anniversary” featured Zawadzki’s ethereal, wordless Norma Winstone like vocals, Stoddart’s liquid electric bass and Crowley’s rich and woody bass clarinet.  The album package also features the economic but effective writing of Colum McCann. 

James Miller was next to stand at the author’s lectern to deliver his prose poem “What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?”, also the premise/question upon which the whole album was based and conceived. All of the readings were highly effective with each author’s voice providing additional gravitas to their words with the audience paying rapt attention. However I couldn’t help noticing that the writers were provided with a red carpet to stand on but the musicians were not!

The corresponding music, and title track of the album, closed the first half with Crowley moving between clarinet and tenor and with Zawadzki’s virtuoso wordless vocals invoking the wail of the muezzin. 

The second set began with “Lose Ourselves”, the only song on the album to possess lyrics, these presumably written by Freed. The piece acts as a kind of postscript on the album but worked effectively as a set opener here with Zawadzki playing pizzicato violin and delivering the words with instrumental solos coming from Crowley on tenor and Freed on guitar.

The lights were dimmed as the Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh read her haunting tale “The Angel”. Al-Shaykh is also the author of the acclaimed memoir “The Locust and the Bird” and has adapted “One Thousand And One Nights” for both page and stage. Introduced by Dorkic’s drums and featuring some exquisite ensemble playing led by Zawadzki’s violin the music was as haunting and captivating as the story.

The first author Freed approached with regard to this project was his cousin Naomi Alderman, author of the novels “Disobedience”, “The Lessons” and The Liar’s Gospel”. Her surreal story “The Bubble”, read by Alderman herself,  was heard on tape as the band launched into the tune of the same name, their final song of the night. On record the piece is a rousing and spirited opener, tonight it concluded a thought provoking evening on a high note with Zawadzki demonstrating her scatting ability and with Freed and Crowley cutting loose on guitar and tenor sax. Hitherto Freed had been content to remain a low key, but focal, part of the ensemble, here he relished the opportunity to let go of the reins and rock out in a style reminiscent of his other band Let Spin.

Having played the album in full there was no scope for an encore. I thoroughly enjoyed this unique evening of words and music but would add a couple of caveats. The crowd was smaller than at other festival events and despite including both musical and literary types the audience buzz that transforms a good gig into a great gig wasn’t quite there. I also felt that Zawadzki’s violin wasn’t given sufficient prominence in the mix and was too often crowded out. This is not to cast aspersions on the musicianship with everybody playing well. I knew what to expect from Freed and Zawadzki but was impressed by Crowley’s command of clarinet, bass clarinet and his preferred tenor sax. In a live context Dorcik and Stoddart were new discoveries, both impressed and represent two more names to keep a future eye on. 

As for the authors their involvement in this project is likely to prompt me to check out some of their full length works. Of the six only McCann is presently a known quantity to me thanks to his superb novel “Let The Great World Spin” with its vivid depictions of life in both New York and Dublin.

Thanks to Moss for speaking with me after the gig and for supplying me with a review copy of the forthcoming Let Spin album which I’ll be taking a look at in due course.   
 

FRIDAY 22nd NOVEMBER


PETER JOHNSTONE TRIO

Twenty three year old pianist and composer Peter Johnstone, a native of Glasgow, was named as the Scottish Young Jazz Musician of the Year for 2012. Mentored by Tommy Smith he is involved with a number of projects including his own organ quartet and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra but brought his trio to London for this free lunchtime show at the Clore Ballroom.

Johnstone began studying classical piano at the age of five and his classical background can be heard in the lightness of touch he brings to his music, a blend of contemporary jazz rooted in the European tradition pioneered by the ECM label. Johnstone had two excellent collaborators in double bassist Brodie Jarvie and drummer John Lowrie, both of whom seemed perfectly attuned to the pianist’s aesthetic.

The set began with Johnstone’s “Simple Things”, a beautiful tune that summed up the trio’s delicate strengths to perfection. As a drummer Lowrie is a colourist with an eye for delightful small details, a percussionist from the Paul Motian/Jon Christensen school.  Bassist Jarvie is also a fine composer as was demonstrated by the following “Another Sad Song In Three”, another piece that delighted an attentive audience with its fragile beauty. Jarvie also leads his own septet (including Johnstone) and appeared elsewhere at LJF as a member of the SNJO.

Johnstone’s “Sun Song”, inspired by a trip to Greece, lightened the mood and included exceptional features for bass and drums. Jarvie’s composing skills were then given another airing on the gorgeously romantic “Memory”.

Finally Johnstone gave his jazz chops full rein on a fine trio rendition of George Shearing’s classic composition “Conception”. The young Glaswegian almost seemed overwhelmed to be playing in London. The trio certainly won themselves a lot of new friends, that’s for sure.

I was very impressed with Johnstone and his trio, all of whom displayed exceptional technique and a collective maturity that belied their tender years. I think I’m correct in believing that Johnstone has signed to Tommy Smith’s Spartacus record label and hopefully a début album will surface in 2014.

In the meantime Johnstone can be heard on the the free CD featuring Yamaha Jazz Scholars given away with the December 2013 edition of Jazzwise Magazine. The Johnstone track is a version of “Simple Things” played by a different trio line up featuring bassist David Bowden and drummer Corrie Dick. It sounds as good as I remember it at the Clore.

And finally, if this piano trio thing doesn’t take off the multi talented Johnstone can always take a step sideways and resume his playing of jazz and classical trumpet. He studied the instrument to a high standard and once harboured ideas of playing trumpet professionally before finally deciding to opt for the piano. Clever chap, I think we’re destined to hear a lot more from Peter Johnstone.


TOMORROW’S WARRIORS

Friday’s early evening free event at the Front Room featured an ensemble of young musicians from the Tomorrow’s Warriors stable, a mixed race, mixed gender aggregation that included trumpeter Dylan Jones from the Ezra Project. He was joined by saxophonists Cassie Kinoshi (alto) and Nubya Garcia (tenor), guitarist Shirley Tetteh, vibraphonist David Mrakpor, bassist Inga Eichler and drummer Patrick Boyle. There were also contributions from vocalist Cherise Adams- Burnett and dancer and choreographer Tyrone Isaac-Stuart.

The programme included original compositions by the group members plus pieces by Charles Mingus, however the Mingus connection wasn’t as extensive as the pre gig publicity would have had us believe.

Kinoshi’s song “Problems” featured the voice of Adams-Burnett, a promising young soul/jazz performer. Both saxophonists impressed with their solos as did young trumpeter Jones. However the backbone of the band, appropriately perhaps given that this event had been described as a Mingus tribute, was bassist and composer Inga Eichler, a driving force from behind the bass and also a highly accomplished soloist. Her original composition “Three Blind Mice (should get off the road or they’ll be crushed by a tank)” boasted a Mingus like title and quoted cryptically from the nursery rhyme while framing excellent solos for bass, tenor sax and trumpet.

Mingus’ own “So Long Eric”, a heartfelt Dolphy tribute, was arranged by alto saxophonist Kinoshi and included fine solos both from herself and her tenor sax colleague Garcia. However their thunder was stolen by a dazzling four mallet solo from vibraphonist David Mrakpor who fulfilled the Bobby Hutcherson role to perfection.

The final piece “Shake It Like Stavin Chain” drew on early New Orleans style jazz and featured the dance moves of Isaac-Stuart as he acted out the risqué lyrics. From the back of the hall I couldn’t see him too well but can confirm that he expended a lot of energy and that the crowd loved it. Musically I was captivated by Dylan Jones’ exuberant plunger muted vocalised trumpet solo and Eichler’s vigorous arco playing. A fun end to an enjoyable set of music from this extremely youthful group of rising stars.

The Tomorrow’s Warriors project is to be granted charitable status in January 2014 which should assist the future development of the programme.


NICOLAS MEIER GROUP

Friday evening saw me back at The Forge in Camden for a performance by the Swiss born, London based guitarist and composer Nicolas Meier. Prior to tonight’s event I had only seen Meier perform as a sideman as part of drummer Robert Castelli’s Boom Quartet at the 2009 Brecon Jazz Festival. However I’ve enjoyed and reviewed a series of albums issued under Meier’s own name and I was delighted to take this opportunity to see him perform live as a leader.

Tonight’s event represented the official album launch of Meier’s latest CD “Kismet” which is credited to his Trio+. The plus is percussionist Demi Garcia who tonight joined Meier and his regular trio members Kevin Glasgow (electric bass) and Laurence Lowe (drum kit).  Tonight’s performance was also scheduled to include an appearance from Turkish guitar virtuoso Cenk Erdogan who guests on the album but he was stranded in Istanbul and unable to make it. Instead Meier drew on the considerable talents of violinist/vocalist Lizzie Ball, his colleague from the group Eclectica. Sharing the front line with Meier the versatile Ball made a substantial contribution to the success of the evening.

Arriving at The Forge I found the venue laid out in a different style to the previous evening. On Fridays the Forge and the Foundry collaborate to offer a jazz and dining option and the room was set out in part cabaret style with the stage re-located. At first it seemed as if things were going to be rather quiet again but a sudden influx swelled the numbers considerably with some audience members taking advantage of the upstairs gallery seating. In the end the enthusiasm of the crowd plus the excellent playing of the musicians made for a memorable night of music with Meier and the group visibly growing in confidence as the evening progressed. 

Meier has an ongoing fascination with the music of Turkey and the Middle East, an enthusiasm nurtured by his Turkish wife Songul. The current edition of the group also includes a strong flamenco influence, something encouraged by the presence of percussionist Garcia, once of bassist Alec Dankworth’s wonderful Spanish Accents group. 

The evening began with the unaccompanied sound of Meier’s semi acoustic Godin six string guitar, a distinctive looking instrument that produces a similarly distinctive sound. He was subsequently joined by bass, drums and percussion on the tune “Yuz” (from the Turkish, meaning “Face”), a piece that formed the title track of a 2007 Meier album and which was reprised on the 2009 trio recording “Breeze”. Meier took the first solo “proper”, his virtuoso note bending technique setting the standard for the evening. Ball followed him, the violinist engaging in absorbing dialogue with Garcia before the percussionist took over for his own visually arresting feature on a kit that included udu and darbuka.

Also from the “Breeze” album the waltz tune “Lavender” featured Ball’s violin above Lowe’s brushed drum grooves and Garcia’s flamenco style hand clapping ( or palmas). On the opening number Ball’s violin had been less than prominent and initially I feared that she was going to be submerged in the mix in the same way as Alice Zawadzki with Moss Project the previous evening. Fortunately this problem was remedied fairly quickly and Ball sounded great here and continued to do so for the rest of the evening. Meanwhile Glasgow excelled on six string electric bass, his solo melodic, inventive and highly musical.

Ball left the stage as the quartet sprinted through the title track from “Kismet” with Meier giving a brilliant performance on his Godin manufactured glissentar, an eleven string fretless guitar designed to sound similar to the oud, the lute like instrument common throughout North Africa and the Middle East. His flights of fancy were propelled by Glasgow’s driving electric bass and the exotic rhythms of Garcia and Lowe.

“Yemin” dates back to the “Yuz” album and tonight represented a tour de force for Ball, her fiddle pyrotechnics including the use of an echo effects pedal and her frantic bowing resulting in a spectacular festooning of split hairs. This was dizzying stuff that climaxed with a series of thrilling exchanges with Meier’s guitar.

The first set concluded in similarly frenetic fashion with “October in Ankara”, a breathless Turkish dance tune sourced from the new album “Kismet”. Meier’s fleet fingered six string soloing was followed by a barnstorming drum feature from Lowe as the first half concluded on an energetic high.

Set two began with the core trio of Meier, Glasgow and Lowe playing an instrumental arrangement of a song written by Meier and jazz vocalist Gabrielle Ducomble (called, I think, “Le Sol De Paris”-or something similar). In this version the interplay between the twelve strings of Meier’s guitar and Glasgow’s bass was intimate, intricate and totally engrossing.

From “Kismet” came “Reflections”, a piece jointly credited to Songul and Nicolas Meier with the guitarist expanding upon his wife’s beautiful melody. Meier is a self confessed admirer of the music of Pat Metheny although he’s consciously distanced himself from the American’s influence over the years. Nonetheless this tune is Metheny-like in scope if not in style and the combination of violin and guitar was particularly impressive.

The enduring “Aduguzel” was the first piece Meier wrote that had an acknowledged Turkish influence and it’s a tune that he’s recorded more than once and keeps coming back to. Tonight’s energetic version included solos from Ball on violin, Meier on guitar and a hugely impressive bass feature from Glasgow. The dazzling ensemble passages also caught the ear and were worthy of considerable admiration.

The Eclectica group combines jazz and classical influences and also includes the singing of the multi talented Ball. Here she added sultry vocals to that old chestnut “Besame Mucho” (an instrumental version appears on “Kismet”). It’s a tune I’d normally run a mile from but here it was both impressive and effective as Ball reclaimed the true sensuality of the lyrics.

Officially the second set finished there but the group remained on stage for two “encores”, both sourced from the new album. Meier’s “Not For Me” saw the composer strapping on his electric for the first time and rocking out over Glasgow’s funky electric bass undertow, his guitar sound constantly evolving thanks to the use of a variety of foot pedals.

An arrangement of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” followed with Meier back on semi acoustic and making Reinhardt’s most famous composition his own, aided and abetted by Glasgow’s bass.

This concluded an excellent evening of highly varied music making by a very classy band. Speaking to Meier afterwards it didn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that he and Ball have been touring with rock legends of the standing of Jeff Beck and Brian Wilson with further work with Beck still to come.

My only caveat is that I would like to have heard rather more of the glissentar which was only used on one piece.


 
   

 


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