EFG London Jazz Festival, Day Seven, Thursday 22nd November 2018.
Friday, December 07, 2018
Ian Mann on a day of international music with performances by the Al MacSween Trio, Liran Donin's 1000 Boats and Scandinavian 'supergroup' Rymden.
Photograph of Rymden sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Thursday 22nd November 2018
AL MacSWEEN TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO
Back to the Pizza but in this instance not at all certain quite what to expect from a trio led by the young pianist and composer Al MacSween. Advance publicity had suggested that MacSween might also be a vocalist and that he was due to perform with a trio featuring drummer Eddie Hick (Gilad Atzmon, Sons of Kemet etc.) and with the hip hop artist Wonky Logic on synths and percussion.
As it turned out MacSween appeared in a more orthodox piano trio configuration featuring Huw Bennett on double bass and Joost Hendrickx at the drums. However their repertoire was far from conventional with MacSween’s original compositions shaped by his interest in world music styles ranging from India to Cuba to Eastern Europe and from North to South Africa. It was an absorbing and entertaining pianistic journey that far exceeded my expectations. I suspect that I enjoyed this trio rather more than I would have the advertised line up.
MacSween studied jazz at Leeds College of Music but he has also studied Indian classical music plus other world music styles and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians from numerous musical cultures, including the Cuban jazz violinist Omar Puente.
With guitarist Giuliana Modarelli he co-leads the world music collective Kefaya and was also part of the world jazz outfit Grupo X.
Much of today’s performance consisted of new material, much of it still untitled. The trio commenced their first piece in atmospheric fashion with Bennett making effective use of the bow before the music exploded into life with MacSween attacking the keyboard of the Pizza’s Steinway grand with a Neil Cowley-esque relish. Hendrickx, another product of the Leeds jazz scene, expanded a similar energy on his kit during a powerful drum feature and it was left to Bennett’s unaccompanied bass to resolve things.
“Puriya Dhanashari” audaciously fused the rhythms of Indian classical music with those of Cuba, taking the Indian raag as its starting point. It was clear from the outset that MacSween was a pianist of enormous technical facility, a musician with the ‘chops’ to execute his adventurous musical ideas. In Hendrickx and Bennett he had similarly gifted band mates. Hendrickx has been a leading figure on the jazz and experimental music scene in the North of England for a number of years while Bennett led his own sextet at the 2017 EFG LJF, mixing African and Latin sounds with jazz and funk.
The next piece was influenced by the sound of the santoor, the dulcimer like instrument of the Indian sub continent, and by the maqams or modes of Middle Eastern music, the santoor having travelled to other parts of the world. This was a highly rhythmic piece with the leader’s piano combining rhythmically with bass and drums as well as soloing in relatively conventional fashion. Bennett moved between arco and pizzicato bass and his bowed solo was particularly impressive. Not to be outdone the excellent Hendrickx also enjoyed an extended drum feature.
There were more tasty musical fusions to follow as MacSween and the trio combined the sounds of Cuban rumba with Moroccan Gnawa. This piece was introduced solo by the leader at the piano but featured the patter of Hendrickx’s hand drumming during an absorbing dialogue with Bennett’s bass, the latter also using the body of his instrument as a form of auxiliary percussion.
The musical world tour continued as the trio explored the folk melodies of Greece and Albania, with MacSween taking a feverish solo that saw him swarming all over the piano keyboard. Hendrickx again utilised hand drumming techniques as he accompanied Bennett’s bass solo before picking up his sticks for a closing drum feature.
Finally this lunchtime musical odyssey took us to South Africa and the joyous, celebratory township sounds of “Biko’s Dream”, written by the South African pianist Moses Molelekwa, a collaborator of Hugh Masekela, who died tragically young in 2001 at the age of just twenty seven.
Festivals always throw up exciting new discoveries and for me this year it was Al MacSween. This prodigiously talented and adventurous young pianist really does deserve to be better known. Today’s well attended gig will have done his reputation no harm at all. A vibrant, energetic performance that embraced a wide range of global styles was well received by an appreciative audience and it was unfortunate that MacSween had no ‘product’ to sell as business would undoubtedly have been brisk. Let’s hope that he and this excellent new trio can get their music documented at some point during 2019.
LIRAN DONIN’S 1000 BOATS / RYMDEN (BUGGE WESSELTOFT, DAN BERGLUND, MAGNUS OSTROM), QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL
No visit to the Cadogan today as we met up with a family member who was visiting London on business and was the only one who had missed my wife’s birthday festivities the previous Saturday. In some respects this was a shame as I would have liked to see Georgia Mancio singing with her group Quadro, especially as they had been recommended to me by guest contributor Trevor Bannister who saw them at the Progress Theatre in Reading in April 2016. Trevor’s account of that performance can be read here;
LIRAN DONIN’S 1000 BOATS
Turning now to the evening’s events and the appearance by bassist, composer, producer, educator and bandleader Liran Donin and his 1000 Boats ensemble in the ‘support’ slot at the QEH.
Still probably best known to UK jazz audiences as the bassist for the mighty Led Bib Donin released his début solo album “8 Songs” earlier in 2018. It’s a mightily impressive recording that has found its way, and rightly so, into many commentators’ ‘Best of Year’ lists. The Jazzmann gave the album a glowing review back in October which can be viewed here;
On a night that offered an exceptional variety of tempting jazz events all over the capital it was the quality of that album and the presence of the Donin band on the bill that swayed my decision to opt for this one. Having enjoyed the recording so much I just felt I had to see the music played live.
Donin’s band at the QEH featured just one change from the album personnel with tenor saxophonist Alex Hitchcock deputising brilliantly for Josh Arcoleo. Donin’s Led Bib colleague Chris Williams completed a twin reed front line on alto sax, Maria Chiara Argiro occupied the piano chair with the versatile Ben Brown, of the group Bahla, at the drum kit.
“8 Songs” explores the Israeli born Donin’s musical roots in the Middle East and North Africa and demonstrates the leader’s considerable abilities as a composer. It also includes some exceptional playing from a hand picked band, some of them bandleaders in their own right.
Time constraints meant that only four of Donin’s eight songs could be played this evening, but the lack of quantity was offset by the energy and quality of the quintet’s performance. Playing double bass exclusively Donin’s vigorous plucking introduced album opener “I Can See Tarifa”, its North African flavourings distinguished by a powerful ensemble performance featuring the twin reed attack of Williams and Hitchcock and the colourful and propulsive drumming of Brown allied to the quicksilver piano work of Argiro. Crowned by an incisive alto solo from the irrepressible Williams this was an opener that grabbed the audience by its metaphorical lapels and demanded its attention.
The group slimmed down to a trio for “Alma Sophia”, a dedication to Donin’s young daughter, that featured the leader’s melodic bass soloing, this including some stunning high register work around the bridge of the instrument. Argiro supplied sensitive piano accompaniment as Brown added colourful but sympathetic drums and percussion.
“Noam, Sea and Sand” also commenced in piano trio mode with Brown’s briskly brushed drums providing the accompaniment for fluent solos from Donin and Argiro. The return of Williams and Hitchcock pushed the energy levels up as the two saxes dovetailed brilliantly, both wailing forcefully, but remaining complementary at all times as Brown’s dynamic drumming urged them forward. Dynamic contrast was provided by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Argiro at the close of the piece.
An all too brief set conclude with the group in full on quintet mode for a shortened version of “FREE” with Donin and Brown laying down a powerful groove as the twin saxes jousted with each other before Hitchcock stepped forward to solo authoritatively. The piece also included the celebratory wordless vocals of Donin, Williams and Argiro.
1000 Boats enjoyed a rapturous reception from the QEH crowd, of a kind rarely given to a support act. Although doubtless frustrated at not being able to play for longer this gig was still a triumph for Donin. The queue at the merch stand still hadn’t cleared by the end of the interval as we were summoned back into the hall to hear Rymden and Donin came back out again after the main set to sell yet more CDs, they were veritably flying off the shelves. The fact that the new Rymden trio has yet to record and thus had no product to sell may have helped, but nevertheless the audience’s reaction to Donin’s short set was still nothing short of remarkable. My congratulations to Liran for that, and also for the gift of a signed poster featuring the album’s stunning cover image, photographed by Ariel Van Straten.
It was also good to meet again with the ever effervescent Chris Williams and with vocalist Ranjan Ghatak, who guests on the album and was to appear at EFG LJF at Union Chapel, Islington on Saturday November 24th. More on that in a subsequent feature. Donin and Ghatak are due to record an album together in 2019, which will be awaited with much interest.
I’d still love to see 1000 Boats play all eight songs in a full set – hopefully sometime in 2019, maybe at Cheltenham Jazz Festival – hint, hint.
Turning now to the Scandinavian ‘supergroup’ Rymden, a trio featuring the Norwegian pianist and composer Bugge Wesseltoft plus the Swedish rhythm pairing of bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom.
Wesseltoft first came to my attention as a sideman with saxophonist Jan Garbarek but he has also been a prolific solo artist with his New Conceptions of Jazz group helping to shape the future of European jazz with its innovative blending of jazz and electronica. By way of contrast he has also recorded several albums as a solo acoustic pianist.
The names of Berglund and Ostrom will be forever linked thanks to their lengthy tenure as the rhythm section of e.s.t, the innovative piano trio from Sweden that enjoyed huge commercial success, even in America, and influenced a whole generation of piano led bands.
e.s.t came to a tragic end with the death of leader Esbjorn Svensson in a scuba diving accident in 2008. Both Berglund and Ostrom have subsequently led their own projects, delivering enjoyable recordings for the ACT label, also the home of e.s.t.
Both Berglund’s Tonbruket quartet and Ostrom’s various groups have been influenced by the prog rock that they grew up with. Thus for their first joint collaboration with a pianist since Svensson’s death it’s perhaps appropriate that they have chosen to link up with Wesseltoft, a musician adept at blending acoustic and electric sounds.
I’d assumed that the group name Rymden was a Scandinavian variant on the word ‘rhythm’, but it’s actually the Swedish word for ‘space’, so perhaps it should have come as no surprise that some of the music had something of a sci-feel about it.
Electronics were certainly an important part of the group sound with Wessltoft playing acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and synthesiser while Berglund’s bass set up included the full range of FX that he brought to e.s.t.
The trio played in front of a projection, or light show, of sorts, but ultimately this added little to the music. Aspects of the musicians playing in real time formed part of the imagery but in truth the technology deployed here hadn’t really moved on since the days of e.s.t or early Tonbruket and in the main the visuals were somewhat distracting. It certainly didn’t make for the immersive audio-visual experience that Jaga Jazzist’s stunning light show created at EFG LJF 2017.
That said the trio’s music truly was immersive as they began with a lengthy opening segue melding together the tunes “Reflections”, “The Odyssey” and “Pitter Patter”. A gentle intro featuring Ostrom’s effective use of small percussion yielded to a display of rock dynamics as Wesseltoft gravitated between acoustic piano and Rhodes and Berglund soloed powerfully on double bass.
Ostrom handled most of the announcements in immaculate English, first introducing his bandmates to great applause from a partisan crowd and then the tune “The Lugubrious Youth Of Lucky Luke”. The drummer always did have a great way with tune titles, it was Ostrom who named the majority of e.s.t’s pieces, even when Svensson had actually written the music. “Luke” was ushered in by Wesseltoft on unaccompanied acoustic piano, later underpinned by Ostrom’s mallet rumbles, and the piece did have something of an e.s.t feel about it. Meanwhile Berglund’s bass solo, deeply resonant, but flowingly melodic, brought back good memories of the playing of the great Eberhard Weber.
Berglund took up the bow to introduce the next segue of tunes, “Roke”, named after a region of Sweden and “The Celestial Dog”, written in honour of the canine cosmonaut Laika and a piece in keeping with Rymden’s space theme. His melancholy, cello like bowing was joined by the rumble of Ostrom’s mallets and the spacey synth sounds generated by Wesseltoft. Berglund switched to acoustic piano and Berglund to pizzicato bass as the music gathered momentum, Ostrom’s rock style drumming imparted the music with an anthemic quality, these moments punctuated by more atmospheric episodes. Wesseltoft then gravitated back to electric keyboards, his hypnotic synthesiser arpeggios variously reminiscent of Terry Riley or of Pink Floyd setting the controls for the heart of the sun. Elsewhere Wesseltoft attacked his Rhodes with venom, sometimes deploying drum sticks on the unfortunate instrument, Ostrom delivered a drum solo that was both dynamic and mesmeric while Berglund again flourished the bow during the quieter moments of this prog style epic. Occasionally the trio established an e.s.t style groove while Wesseltoft’s doubling on keyboards a la Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson added to the overall ‘prog-ness’ of it all. However it should be noted that there was nothing po-faced about all of this with Wesseltoft, in particular, happy to introduce an element of humour and playfulness into the performance.
The crowd lapped it up and the group returned for an encore, the beautiful, hymn like “Home Grown” which offered a pleasingly simple alternative to what we had heard previously. Featuring Wesseltoft on acoustic piano and with a delightfully melodic pizzicato bass solo from Berglund this was the perfect way to wind down and to round off an otherwise dynamic and energetic performance.
Rymden have played a series of European festivals during the year and the rapport between the group members is clearly beginning to develop. Some have criticised the trio for a tendency to bombast, and whilst they may have a point none of these musicians have ever attempted to hide their musical pasts. Prog and electronica is an integral part of who they are.
Personally I found much to enjoy here and will await the release of the trio’s début album in 2019 with much interest. From what I gather it’s due to surface in February, presumably on Wesseltoft’s Jazzland record label.
Working with another pianist / keyboard player in a trio context represents a big step for Berglund and Ostrom after all this time, but with the support of a loyal and supportive audience it’s a move that looks as if it’s going to pay off.
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Bonsai, the band formerly known as Jam Experiment, will release their first album under their new name on May 31st 2019. They will also be touring extensively in the UK from May to the end of October
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US drummer and composer Robert Castelli, now based in Barcelona, has launched an Indiegogo campaign to help finance his new album and tour. Details attached.
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The Green Note has forwarded its latest newsletter including details of forthcoming musical events.
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