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EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Eight, Friday 23rd November 2018

Monday, December 10, 2018

EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Eight, Friday 23rd November 2018

Ian Mann on a day of music dominated by the sounds of Scandinavia including performances by the Thomas Backman Band, the Adam Waldmann Trio, Supersilent and Phronesis.

Photograph of Anton Eger (Phronesis) at Ystad Jazz Festival, Sweden by Tim Dickeson.


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Friday 23rd November 2018


THOMAS BACKMAN BAND, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO


The final free lunchtime event at the Pizza presented the Swedish multi-reed player Thomas Backman and his quartet. The group were promoting their recent album “Did You Have A Good Day David?”, a digital and vinyl only release on the Modern Muzik label.

Backman played alto and baritone saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet and occasional keyboards and he was joined by Josefine Lindstrand on piano, keyboards and vocals, Oskar Schonning on both electric bass and electric guitar and newcomer Julia Schabbauer on drums, vocals and occasional keyboards.

Backman established his own group in 2016 after fifteen years as a cross-genre sideman with a variety of groups on the Swedish music scene. His début album features nine of his original compositions, three of which feature lyrics by Lindstrand. Elsewhere the pianist/vocalist sings wordlessly, using her voice as an additional instrument.

With so much doubling up going on the stage at the Pizza resembled a musical instrument shop as the members of the quartet took to the stage. Unfortunately this was the poorest attendance for a lunchtime event during the week and for once there was a distinct lack of atmosphere at the Pizza.

For the first time there were other events competing for the audience’s attention with Kit Downes performing a recital on the organ at the Royal Festival Hall. I also suspect that other potential listeners elected to go directly to Cadogan Hall to see UK saxophonist Adam Waldmann’s trio. I went on to that later and the place was fuller than it had been all week, absolutely rammed.

Not that the shortage of listeners phased Backman and his colleagues, they played their proverbial asses off, generating an intensity that suggested that playing this music represented an essential cathartic process, particularly for the leader.

I’m fairly certain that the quartet commenced with album opener “Output”, ushered in by Lindstrand’s electric keyboard allied to a collage of sampled voices, these including the line “Did You Have A Good Day David?”. As the music gathered momentum Backman unleashed a blistering alto sax attack, this underscored by Schonning’s ominous bass rumble and the snap and clatter of Schabbauer’s drums. Lindstrand vocalised wordlessly and moved between electric and acoustic keyboards. When the sampled voices returned at the end Backman switched to grainy bass clarinet as Schonning dragged a bow across the strings of his bass guitar.

A song with Swedish lyrics and with a title translating as “Beyond All Doubt” was introduced by Lindstand’s unaccompanied vocals as Schabbauer moved to an auxiliary keyboard, a Korg Ovation 3, situated almost centre stage. Meanwhile Schonning moved to slide on guitar on this atmospheric and effective slice of Nordic melancholy. This, I suspect, was “Bortom all tvivel” which closes the group’s album.

“Pennsylvania” featured the leader on baritone sax, the atmospheric intro also including more bowed bass, spacey electric keyboards and gently brushed drums. Gradually the mood of the piece began to alter as it gathered momentum, Lindstrand’s soaring wordless vocals imparting an anthemic quality that was brutally punctuated by the belligerent squalling of Backman’s free jazz style baritone solo, the saxophonist making effective use of harmolodics.

“Glejs”, originally written for a former trio, was introduced by the looped vocals of both Lindsrand and Schabbauer with the minimalist sounds of Steve Reich a clear influence, The haunting sound of female harmonies was to prove a particularly distinctive aspect of the group’s sound. However as the piece evolved it took on a very different character as Backman unleashed another baritone sax onslaught, generating a glorious, skronksome racket that was reminiscent of the punk jazz of Acoustic Ladyland or Led Bib. And there was to be no respite when Schonning followed him on guitar.

Following the baritone sax assaults of the previous two numbers the quartet now demonstrated a gentler side of their collective character with the as yet unrecorded “Villa”, written for a Spanish village. Introduced by Schonning’s unaccompanied guitar the piece also featured Backman on clarinet, Lindstrand on acoustic piano and some of the most delicate drum shadings I’ve heard this side of Jarle Vespestad’s work with the Tord Gustavsen Trio.

“Jag Sag” featured the arresting vocal harmonies of Lindstand and Schabbauer, lyrics that included words in both Swedish and English and Backman playing both bass clarinet and Korg keyboard.

Lindstrand’s soulful vocals distinguished the next piece, which also included solos from Backman on baritone sax and Schonning on guitar.

Schabbauer introduced the next piece at the drums, eventually joined by electric bass, electric keyboards and alto sax with Backman soloing powerfully and engaging in a three way freak-out with keys and drums. This was followed by a gentler bass clarinet episode which saw the leader duetting with Schonning’s guitar. 

The closing piece, “Mi”, featured the choral voices of Lindstrand and Schabbauer allied to a gently propulsive brushed drum groove that was almost ‘motorik’ in its implacability,  this augmented by strummed electric bass as Backman’s clarinet danced lithely around these rhythmic impulses.

The publicity for this performance had promised a blend of “bebop, free jazz, hip hop, indie pop and chamber music” and it was true that all of these elements had been glimpsed at various moments of the band’s set. I enjoyed their energy and their willingness to mix genres and change direction quickly, thereby creating a distinctive group sound. The imaginative use of vocals added to the individuality of the music and the standard of the playing, particularly from Backman himself, was excellent throughout.  The phrase ‘Indie-jazz’ seemed to sum up their quirky approach best and I was sometimes reminded of the Norwegian group Pixel, themselves previous EFG LJF visitors.

Those that were there seemed to enjoy it a lot and a large percentage of the audience went home with a slice of expensive Swedish vinyl. My thanks to Thomas for speaking with me afterwards and for the gift of said LP, an enjoyable listen and a great help with the writing of this review.


ADAM WALDMANN TRIO, CADOGAN HALL FOYER

The last event in the “Round About Two Thirty Series” featured a trio led by saxophonist Adam Waldmann. Best known as the leader of the acclaimed Kairos 4tet Waldmann was accompanied by the bright young talents of Conor Chaplin (double bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), these days perhaps best known collectively as the rhythm section of the Mercury nominated band Dinosaur.


I caught the whole of a second set mainly comprised of interpretations of well known jazz standards plus the Waldmann original “Kairos Moment”, the title track of the 4tet’s début album.

Still recovering from hand surgery Waldmann chose to specialise on soprano sax and his playing was sublime throughout as he and his highly accomplished young colleagues breathed fresh life into tunes such as the opening “I’ll Be Seeing You” with Dick’s imaginative brushwork framing supremely fluent solos from Waldmann and Chaplin.

“Kairos Moment” was played in response to a half time audience request and worked well in this new trio context, the inventiveness of Dick on drums and percussion again working to the benefit of soloist Waldmann.

Even that hoariest of standards “All The Things You Are” sounded fresh and new in the hands of this superb trio. Dick’s polyrhymic flow encouraged Waldmann’s wonderfully inventive saxophone ruminations as Chaplin weighed in with a delightfully melodic double bass solo. Finally it was the turn of the drummer himself with a neatly constructed solo that fully explored the melodic possibilities of the drum kit.

Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now” was given a wonderfully sensitive reading with delicate brushed drum accompaniment supporting lyrical solos from soprano sax and double bass.

To close Waldmann called John Coltrane’s notoriously tricky “Giant Steps”, adding an extra twist by nominating Dick for the first solo. Following a brief collective theme statement the drummer was thrown in at the deep end, responding with typical skill, wit, invention and sheer musicality. Waldmann and Chaplin followed him with similarly lucid solo contributions.

Despite the familiarity of much of the material this was an inspired and inspiring set that got a terrific reception from a large and attentive audience. Waldmann, Chaplin and Dick brought a fresh sparkle to even the most jaded items in the repertoire, their playing light, airy and consistently imaginative and inventive, always finding something to new to say within each piece. Waldmann played with a rare grace and fluency that helped to bring out the very best in his two younger colleagues. Yet another unexpected festival highlight.

My thanks to Adam Waldmann for speaking with me at length after the performance and talking about his plans for a new Kairos album to be released in 2019. It’s a recording that will be keenly anticipated and should constitute one of THE jazz events of the coming year.


SUPERSILENT / PHRONESIS, QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL

One of the hottest tickets of the Festival was this intriguing double bill featuring two very different Scandinavian bands, the Norwegian electro-improvising trio Supersilent and the Anglo-Scandinavian piano trio Phronesis.

SUPERSILENT

Like the Rymden event the previous evening tonight’s concert was supported by the Norwegian Embassy in London and it was the sponsor’s compatriots who took to the stage first, surrounded by a sea of electronic equipment.

Supersilent is a long running concern having formed in 1997 when the improvising trio of Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Stale Storlokken (keyboards) and Jarle Vespestad (drums) first collaborated with the electronic music artist Helge Sten aka Deathprod. The success of that concert at a Norwegian jazz festival led to the formation of the Supersilent quartet, the group later becoming a trio in 2009 following the departure of Vespestad after twelve years and nine albums.

Supersilent have always maintained a certain mystique, each album is simply designated a number as is each individual track – thus track four on album five is “5;4” and so on. Their album packaging is similarly minimalist, this is a band that doesn’t like to give too much away.

It’s an approach that has won them something of a cult following for music that has ranged from the violently abrasive to the ambiently lyrical, and probably the lyrically ambient as well. In recent years their profile has been raised further by successful live collaborations with former Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, whose former band was another outfit that was adept at retaining a vital air of mystique. Jones seems to relish these electro-improvising situations, having previously collaborated with Brit drummer Martin France’s similarly inclined Spin Marvel outfit.

Supersilent have now recorded fourteen numbered albums plus a series of compilations, an impressive feat considering that their members are also involved in a myriad of other projects, with Henriksen in particular enjoying a successful solo career.

Indeed although I’d never witnessed a Supersilent live performance before my appetite had been whetted by several previous sightings of Henriksen, including performances with sound artist Jan Bang at Hay Festival, with the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and with the Birmingham based electronic duo Dreams Of Tall Buildings at Brum’s much missed Harmonic Festival.  Henriksen has never disappointed and the last named of these collaborations was a superb example of the electro-improviser’s art and the closest performance in spirit to Supersilent themselves.

Tonight’s set was a single improvised performance lasting for the best part of an hour. Things began quietly as whispering trumpet combined with shimmering keyboards and ambient layers of electronics.

This atmosphere of quiet reflection was then splintered by the clarion call of Henriksen’s pocket trumpet which prompted a more aggressive passage incorporating shuddering low frequencies and the creative use of sound glitches as Storlokken generated noises from his three tiered rack of keyboards that variously resembled the crashing of huge electronic waves or the sound of a storm in deep space.

Meanwhile Henriksen’s choir boy like vocals contrasted effectively with the harsh, crackling, dissonant sonic landscapes generated by Sten, with his table full of electronic devices, and Storlokken at his keyboard command module.

I’d been warned that Supersilent, despite their possibly ironic name, could be ear-splittingly loud. Certainly some of their output was abrasive and unsettling but I never found this performance physically uncomfortable in terms of sheer volume. Nevertheless some listeners found it all a bit much to take and headed quietly for the exits, presumably returning for Phronesis in the second half. They were replaced by a stream of inconsiderate latecomers, the to-ing and fro-ing serving to interrupt the atmosphere that Supersilent had so carefully created, both through their music and the old, but effective, visual combination of shadowy lighting and dry ice – that air of mystique again.

In any case Supersilent aren’t exclusively about aural violence. Contrast and dynamics are an important part of their music as they demonstrated with the next passage as the lonely, vocalised cry of Henriksen’s trumpet was cushioned by the gentlest of ambient texturing.

Out of this slowly emerged electronically generated tympanic sounds, at first reminiscent of distant thunder but gradually mutating into a march of impending doom with the dissonant sounds of Storlokken’s keyboards helping to reinforce this aural image of the coming apocalypse. Only the humanising sound of Henriksen’s trumpet offered any kind of softening effect.

The resurgence in intensity continued as the trio generated frequencies ranging from the nerve janglingly shrill to the bone judderingly deep, these towering edifices of sound representing tall buildings indeed. You could feel the sound deep in your chest as Storlokken slammed his arms down on his keyboards during a solo, of sorts, before Henriksen added the sound of eerie, shamanic vocals.

After eventually peaking the trio seemed primed to conclude their performance with a quieter, more ambient closing passage featuring the gentle piping of Henriksen’s trumpet allied to soft focus electronics.

But Supersilent aren’t that predictable, we were still to enjoy a Henriksen vocal set piece, his singing mutating from choir boy like purity to the deep throated sounds of Sami joik before the trio finally concluded this electro-acoustic tour de force with a cathedral like wall of sound.

Despite the occasional longueur this was a truly impressive performance from Supersilent that earned them an excellent reception from the majority of the crowd at a sold out QEH. This was challenging, uncompromising music that proved to be a bit too much for a small minority but it was a compelling performance that was total success on its own terms. For the group’s hardcore fans, such as Tim Owen of the Dalston Sound website, it represented the highlight of the evening. I certainly enjoyed it as an experience, particularly with the frisson of live performance adding an extra dimension to the performance, although I’m not totally convinced that I’d want to listen to the music of Supersilent in the home listening environment on a regular basis.


PHRONESIS

Compared to Supersilent the second act on this double bill were almost conventional. Phronesis sport the classic piano trio line up but are led from the bass by Danish bassist Jasper Hoiby, with Swedish drummer Anton Eger behind the traps. Englishman Ivo Neame, occupying the piano chair, represented something of an interloper at this otherwise all Scandinavian event.

Reviewing the trio’s recent album release “We Are All” (their eighth) my comments included the following phrases. “‘Chemistry’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot with regard to musical ensembles but its one that is particularly applicable to these musicians.  There’s still something special, a real spark in the air, that only happens when the three of them get together as Phronesis.  Despite the considerable individual achievements of its members elsewhere there’s still something very special and unique about Phronesis”.

All of these attributes were in evidence tonight as Hoiby, Neame and Eger delivered a dynamic performance of material largely sourced from the “We Are All” recording. Hoiby’s bass introduced his own composition “Breathless”, an apt opening number for this thrillingly vibrant set. Eger’s brisk brushed grooves offered subtle propulsion to the solos of Hoiby and Neame. The pianist swarmed all over the keyboard in a dazzling display of virtuosity, this contained within a group performance that was more dynamic and intense than the recorded version.

Most of the tunes were unannounced and in any case all mutated in live performance as this inspired trio of improvisers delighted in subverting their own written material. With Neame and Eger now equal partners in both the compositional and improvisational processes Phronesis is no longer ‘Hoiby’s group’ but instead a highly combustible and interactive trio of equals. The next piece upped the energy levels even further with Hoiby’s muscular bass both opening and closing the tune as Neame unleashed another high energy piano solo and the effervescent Eger delivered a flamboyant and dynamic drumming display.

Hoiby has made increasing use of the bow in recent years and it was his arco bass that introduced Eger’s “The Edge”. Neame then soloed fluently above the vigorous bustle of Eger’s brushed drums, the piece eventually developing into a spirited tripartite exchange.

Neame’s piano introduced his own “Matrix for D.A.”, a dedication to the author Douglas Adams. Bowed bass and Eger’s use of small percussion added delightful detail before the pianist embarked on a lengthy solo, joyously bouncing ideas off the responsive and eager Eger. Hoiby followed the pair with a bass solo that teased the audience with a series of false endings before an absorbing coda featuring the sounds of piano and bowed bass.

The fact that we had only heard four numbers might suggest that this was a short set, but the reality was anything but. Being the true improvisers that they are the trio had pulled and stretched at the fabric of the tunes to thrilling effect, bouncing ideas off each other in a way that delivered moments of exhilarating collective interplay allied to a series of brilliant individual solos. The recorded versions of these tunes are by no means short, but tonight they were substantially expanded and developed in the crucible of live performance. This is a group where nobody’s the star but everybody’s a star. Even after ten years Phronesis’ collective walking of the musical tightrope never fails to both enthral and entertain.

A deserved encore was introduced by Hoiby’s arco bass, before he put down the bow to instigate a propulsive pizzicato groove that was embellished by Neame’s pianistic flourishes, these developing into a torrential, barnstorming solo. Hoiby followed on double bass before handing over to Eger, who had already been a dynamic presence, to unleash a final volcanic drum solo. Hands and feet a mere blur the drummer unleashed a positively incandescent drumming explosion that saw him circumnavigate every aspect of his kit in a whirlwind of energy, encouraging the audience to clap along, the crowd pleasing element backed up by a truly stunning display of power, energy and virtuosity. The Eger drum assault has long been a part of the Phronesis live experience but it never fails to excite with its blend of brio and brilliance.

With his bleached blond hair and manic drumming style Eger may represent the group’s visual focus but Phronesis is very much a partnership of musical equals whose unique energy and chemistry is still very much intact, and even now still evolving and developing. Even after more than a decade of existence one senses that there is still much to come from this remarkable trio.

The standing ovation that they earned here was evidence of just how much Phronesis are adored by the British jazz public, but this is a trio with a truly international reputation who have also made considerable inroads in Europe and the Americas, and justifiably so. They remain one of the most exciting acts in the world deploying the classic piano/bass/drums configuration.

 

 


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