EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Four, Monday 19th November 2018.
Tuesday, December 04, 2018
Ian Mann on performances by the Ant Law Quartet, Martin Speake's Charukesi and Nik Bartsch's Ronin.
Photograph of Nik Bartsch’s Ronin sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL,
Day Four, Monday 19th November 2018
ANT LAW QUARTET, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO
For several years now the famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street has been running free lunchtime sessions on the weekdays of the Festival. It’s pretty much a given that attendees should eat, but the quality of the music is worth the price of the meal on its own.
They may be nominally free but these are serious jazz performances played to listening audiences and the quality of the musicianship is astonishingly high. These sessions are always well attended and have given significant boosts to the careers of young, up and coming British jazz musicians as well as European artists seeking to make an impact on the UK jazz scene.
It’s also common for already established musicians to perform here, such as guitarist Ant Law, well known for his work with saxophonist Tim Garland and a bandleader in his own right with a steadily growing reputation.
Law has recently released “Life I Know”, his third solo album and his first for Edition Records. Featuring his regular working band of Mike Chillingworth (alto sax), Ivo Neame (piano), Tom Farmer (double bass) and James Maddren (drums) it’s arguably his strongest and most accessible recording yet. My review of “Life I Know” can be read here;
However the band that Law brought to the Pizza was not his working group but a one off international quartet featuring Belfast based pianist and composer Scott Flanigan, double bassist Ferg Ireland and French drummer Marc Michel.
I was expecting what seemed like an ad hoc ensemble to perform a largely standards based set but instead the focus was on the original writing of Law and Flanigan with much of the material being sourced from Law’s recent album.
Law and Flanigan originally met at an artist’s retreat, quickly establishing a rapport that encouraged them to continue working together. The Irishman is a bandleader himself with two albums to his credit.
Law’s strummed intro ushered in “Searching”, the second track on his new album, a piece with a song like structure and here featuring a beguiling, sustain heavy solo from its composer.
“Stract”, from his début album “Entanglement” (2013) exhibited similar qualities with Law now favouring a cleaner, classic jazz guitar sound that was well suited to his fluent, elegant soloing. Flanigan and Ireland also featured as soloists, as did Michel with a dynamic series of drum breaks towards the close.
From the new album “Aquilinus” proved to be something of an epic as it emerged from an atmospheric introduction to embrace solos from all four musicians during its considerable length.
The first set concluded with “She Has Music”, a tune by the Irish singer Sue Rynart selected by Flanigan. Announced by the pianist as a “London première” the piece included features for Ireland and Law, the latter contributing a lengthy solo as the group went into guitar trio mode.
After a short break the second set began with Law’s solo guitar performance of the tune “Pure Imagination” written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and famous for its inclusion in the film “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”. The lyric “There is no life I know, that compares to pure imagination” gives Law’s album its title. As on the album his performance here saw him making effective use of his various pedals to create a spacious, shimmering, ethereal soundscape.
The rest of the quartet returned to the stage with Flanigan now taking over the spotlight with an unaccompanied piano introduction to his composition “Overgrowth”. It has to be said that for a ‘one off’ group the quartet were remarkably tight and focussed throughout today’s performance, something that was a tribute to their sight reading skills as they tackled the often complex compositions of Law and Flanigan with confidence and acumen. This piece included an extended drum feature for the excellent Michel who attacked his kit with an obvious relish.
Flanigan also selected a Law composition for the quartet to play, the spacious “Thirteen Moons”, another tune from the “Entanglement” album, the title a subtle nod to Jan Garbarek, perhaps? Its slow, drifting melody acted as the vehicle for lyrical solos from Ireland and Flanigan plus a series of gently rippling exchanges between the pianist and the composer.
Law’s “Zero Sum World” album was the source of the more complex “Trivophobia” which yielded more forceful solos from Ireland and Flanigan plus an explosive drum feature from Michel, underpinned by Law’s rapid guitar comping.
Law has always possessed a fondness for unusual time signatures with “Laurvin Glaslowe” from his current album a case in point. The recorded version includes a konnakol (vocal percussion) intro from guest artist Asaf Sirkis but today’s performance of the piece was ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Law. Ireland and Michel tackled the rhythmic challenges of Law’s writing with considerable aplomb and entered into a series of thrilling three way exchanges with the composer, these paving the way for a closing Michel drum feature.
A large audience at the Pizza Express responded well to this programme of largely original music. Law’s music may be complex but it’s also readily accessible and I was very impressed with the guitarist and his colleagues. Law introduced the music with warmth, charm and a ready wit and came over as a really nice guy. My thanks to both him and Scott Flanigan for speaking with me afterwards.
One suspects that this quartet has the chemistry and the potential to continue working together so I will continue to keep an eye open for future collaborations. In the meantime Flanigan’s solo recordings should also warrant further investigation.
MARTIN SPEAKE’S CHARUKESI
During the Festival week Cadogan Hall hosts its own series of free performances. The ‘Round About Two Thirty Series’ takes place in the foyer at Cadogan Hall and the first event of the week featured Charukesi, a new quartet led by the acclaimed alto saxophonist and composer Martin Speake.
Charukesi reflects Speake’s interest in ‘world music’ forms including Indian, African and Middle Eastern influences. It represents an updating of his Fever Pitch project, the seven piece ensemble that recorded the album of that name for the Village Life label back in 1997.
Apart from Speake none of the original members of the Fever Pitch group remain, Charukesi consisting of a younger crop of musicians and featuring Alyson Cawley (tenor sax, clarinet), Rob Luft (guitar) and Will Glaser (drums).
I arrived in time to hear Speake delivering an uncharacteristically hard blowing alto sax solo on the tune “Sweet Seventeen”, a piece based around a seventeen beat rhythmic sequence.
The leader explained that this new band was inspired by the earlier Fever Pitch project, the name of the earlier group having been borrowed from Nick Hornby’s book at a time before Martin, like so may of us, fell out of love with Premier League football. Nevertheless the title track of the “Fever Pitch” album was played here, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tenor sax from Cawley and with the beguiling Indian rhythms generated by Glaser and Luft underpinning Speake’s own alto solo.
“Maqam Jega” introduced a Turkish influence with Cawley playing clarinet on the intro before switching back to tenor sax. There was an authentic Middle Eastern feel about the music as Speake and Cawley entered into an engaging alto / tenor dialogue as Luft and Glaser sat out, returning only when Cawley returned to clarinet for a set of lively ensemble passages, these followed by a richly inventive guitar solo from Luft. With Cawley back on tenor once more the closing ensemble passages proceeded to generate more steam than a Turkish bath.
The momentum was maintained on “The Journey” with the two saxophonists trading solos, Speake going first. The twin reeds were followed by a colourful drum feature from the excellent Glaser. This piece was the title track of the 2004 album that Speake recorded with the Indian musicians Dharambir Singh (guitar) and Sarvar Sabri (tabla, ghatam). The composition “Charakeshi”, which presumably gives this current group its name, also appeared on this recording.
Like Law’s group this was essentially a new band, but was again one with enormous potential. Speake is an acclaimed educator who likes to work with younger musicians and his colleagues here certainly brought out the best in him.
Speake has said of the Charukesi project;
“I felt I wanted to play music that is very immediate for audiences and is simple harmonically, groove based and the improvising consists of primarily melodic and rhythmic development rather than based on chord changes”.
On the evidence of today’s performance he has succeeded brilliantly. This was music that was both exotic and accessible and was superbly played by a highly accomplished quartet. The audience remained engaged and attentive throughout and gave the Charukesi band an excellent reception. Again, it will be interesting to see how this band develops, hopefully with their music being documented on disc at some point.
NIK BARTSCH’S RONIN, RONNIE SCOTT’S JAZZ CLUB
My second visit of the Festival to Ronnie Scott’s was courtesy of publicists Manners McDade who handle Nik Bartsch’s publicity in the UK, so my thanks to them.
Swiss pianist and composer Bartsch has been a regular visitor to EFG LJF with his bands Ronin and Mobile but it was a brief solo piano performance from the man at Daylight Music event at the Union Chapel, Islington (part of the 2017 EFG LJF) that really opened my ears to his music.
I subsequently reviewed his latest release “Awase” (ECM Records 2018), made with the Ronin group, and found myself both understanding and enjoying his music more and more. Some of the following biographical details are sourced from that review.
Nik Bartsch, born 1971, is a Swiss pianist and composer based in Zurich. He studied piano and clarinet as a child before concentrating on linguistics, philosophy and musicology during his time at a student at Zurich University.
Strongly influenced by minimalist and avant garde composers such as Steve Reich, John Cage and Morton Feldman Bartsch formed his first group, Mobile, in 2001, releasing the album “Ritual Groove Music” on the Tonus Music record label, the first of six recordings for the Bern based company.
In 2006 Bartsch signed to the prestigious Munich based label ECM which increased his profile considerably and transformed him into a significant presence on the international jazz scene. “Awase” is his sixth album for the label and represents a continuation of the unique musical path he has been exploring since 2001.
Bartsch’s music operates at the interface of jazz and contemporary classical music with minimalism a clearly discernible influence. The title of that first album, “Ritual Groove Music”, is both highly descriptive, and something of a mission statement. There’s a strong air of spirituality about Bartsch’s music, which has sometimes been described as “Zen Funk”. His compositions evolve slowly and organically, making use of recurring, but subtly mutating, grooves and motifs. Nothing is rushed, giving the music a meditative quality that many listeners find to be strangely beautiful.
Bartsch’s main creative outlets are the groups Ronin and Mobile, the two outfits representing different ways of interpreting Bartsch’s compositions. Ronin is the “Zen Funk” outlet and currently features the enigmatically named Sha (born Stefan Haselbacher) on alto sax and bass clarinet, Thomy Jordi on four string electric bass guitar and the long serving Kaspar Rast, who has worked with Bartsch since the début, on drums. Previous members of the group, hitherto a five piece, have included Bjorn Meyer on electric six string bass and Andy Pupato on percussion.
Meanwhile Mobile is a wholly acoustic unit that currently includes Sha and Rast plus percussionist Nicolas Stocker. The group sometimes operates as Mobile Extended with the addition of a string quintet featuring two cellos. As the shared personnel might suggest there are many similarities between Ronin and Mobile with several of Bartsch’s pieces being interpreted by both groups. Indeed Bartsch himself has said;
“We’ve always taken the position that the compositions can be played by both groups-Mobile or Ronin- to bring out different aspects of the music”. Some pieces have been recorded by both groups.
Bartsch’s “modular” approach to music is reflected in his titles, each piece is a “Modul” with its own specific number. This ascetic, intellectual, purely functional approach to tune titling is designed to focus the listener’s attention on the structure and spirituality of the music with the composer eschewing descriptive titles that might affect the interpretation of the music, presumably by both his fellow players and his listeners.
Meanwhile the album title “Awase” is a term derived from the martial art of Aikido and means “moving together”, an apt description of Ronin’s collective ethos.
Tonight at Ronnie’s Ronin consisted of Bartsch, Sha and Rast with Bjorn Meyer returning on six string electric bass in place of an unwell Thomy Jordi, who is now hopefully fully recovered. For long standing fans of the group, and there were many at a sold out Ronnie Scott’s, the return of the popular Meyer actually represented something of a bonus.
The band had flown to London from the previous night’s show in Oslo and took to a dimly lit stage, with Bartsch immediately reaching under the lid of the piano to instigate the building blocks from which the first piece would be developed. As he was joined by the sound Meyer’s guitar like electric bass the mood was profoundly spiritual, with that trademark minimalist influence apparent from the start. I’m fairly certain this was “Modul 58” from “Awase” and as the momentum of the piece began to build the stage lighting became brighter. One could see where the “zen funk” label so often attached to Bartsch’s music comes from, the rhythms generated by the band were hypnotic and mesmeric, akin in many ways to the rhythms of contemporary electronic dance music but in a primarily acoustic context. All around the club heads were nodding as listeners immersed themselves in this ‘ritual groove music’. Neither last year’s solo piano performance or listening to the “Awase” album had quite prepared me for the sheer power of Ronin’s music in a live setting. The wiry, dynamic Rast hit his drums with a power and precision that reminded me of the late, great Jaki Liebezeit. Meanwhile Bartsch’s work ‘ under the lid’ was equally compelling, his use of the interior of the instrument was the most comprehensive I have seen since that made by Johann Bourquenez of fellow Swiss outfit Plaitow, another group strongly influenced by the sounds of electronica. Meanwhile Sha impressed with a powerful and incisive alto sax solo, having moved to the instrument from bass clarinet.
Although Bartsch spoke to the audience to introduce the band and to explain the circumstances behind Meyer’s return to the band no tune or “modul” titles were announced. One suspects that Bartsch probably likes it this way, descriptive titles can effect people’s perception of the music, in Bartsch’s world he prefers his listeners to absorb themselves totally in the playing. The next piece also began under the lid with Bartsch producing some Oriental style sounds from the innards of his instrument as he plucked and scraped the strings. Again Meyer’s high register bass harmonics came into play as Sha sketched a wispy alto sax melody, before gradually ramping up the intensity, his playing underpinned by an implacable low end piano / electric bass rumble and the sound of Rast’s sizzling cymbals, the music coming to a thunderous crescendo before fading away as Bartsch, still working under the lid, embarked on a duet with Meyer’s electric bass, the latter’s tone still in the upper registers and sounding very guitar like. Meyer offered further evidence of his immense virtuosity with an unaccompanied electric bass feature. Meanwhile Sha had switched to bass clarinet with Bartsch moving to electric keyboards as the band began to simmer, and finally come to the boil once more with some intensely rhythmic playing and with Sha producing some brutally guttural sounds on bass clarinet during the course of his solo.
Set Two was to be a single unbroken performance, a segue of pieces that I think included Sha’s composition “A” at the start of its duration. Sha himself moved constantly between bass clarinet and alto sax in a performance that again began under the lid, the initial quietness of the piece a total contrast to the intensity of much of the first half, particularly the playing of Sha himself on this most song like of compositions. A short drum feature from Rast then led to Meyer setting up-an electric bass groove and again entering into a duet with leader Bartsch, the leader again hitting the interior strings of the piano with a drum stick. Meyer’s sound was still reminiscent of the melodic bass playing of Steve Swallow but his use of the thumb on his subsequent solo showed that he could be Jaco, too. The music now built to a climax with Sha moving from bass clarinet to alto, his solo underpinned by staccato piano and bass motifs and Rast’s increasingly dynamic drumming. Having peaked the music faded away to leave only Bartsch’s gentle unaccompanied piano motif, this gradually fading into silence.
Although Bartsch has played at EFG LJF before he’s previously only done so in concert halls and churches and before this evening I wasn’t sure how his intense, but fiercely intellectual, music would fit into a jazz club environment. I needn’t have worried, there aren’t many acts that receive a standing ovation at Ronnie Scott’s, but that was exactly what Ronin got as all that intensity and tension was finally released.
A deserved encore saw more under the lid orchestrations from Bartsch and sepia toned bass clarinet from Sha as the quartet gradually wound things down to finish in the same way as they had begun the evening, in semi-darkness. Again the crowd got to their feet to voice their approval.
Any misgivings that I might have had were totally groundless. This performance was a triumph for Bartsch and his colleagues with the audience demonstrating a real love of this extraordinary and unique music. Only witnessing Ronin in live performance can give the listener a true appreciation of both the power and the subtlety of Ronin’s music, plus the extraordinarily high standard of musicianship of those involved. Their performances are totally immersive, much like those of The Necks, but achieving the effect from a totally different position and methodology.
My review of “Awase” met with the approval of Nik Bartsch himself and we have since exchanged email correspondence, It was therefore particularly pleasing to meet with him and Sha after the gig as the pair signed CDs and chatted to fans. For all the intensity of the music they are very warm and welcoming guys.
Bartsch has carved out a unique place in contemporary music and this performance was very much a Festival highlight. There were many others who clearly felt the same.
Support came from a quartet led by Scottish drummer and composer Alyn Cosker but as I was to witness a full length performance by this band at the Pizza Express the following day I’ll write about them in my next feature.
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