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EFG London Jazz Festival, Monday November 13th 2017.

Monday, November 27, 2017

EFG London Jazz Festival, Monday November 13th 2017.

Ian Mann on musical performances by Zoe Rahman, Skint, Phelan Burgoyne and Devin Gray plus the jazz art of Gina Southgate.

Illustration of Skint by Gina Southgate


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, MONDAY NOVEMBER 13th 2017


ZOE RAHMAN, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO


For the past few years the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street has hosted lunchtime jazz events during the Festival period. Although free of admission preference is given to diners and we’ve got used to eating our way through the Pizza Express menu during our annual Festival pilgrimage.

You have to hand it to Joseph Paice who programmes the jazz events at the Pizza, the quality of the performances is consistently excellent and unfailingly interesting. These free lunchtime shows typically feature a mix of British and European jazz artists and are invariably fully booked. They represent a valuable showcase, particularly for European acts and emerging British performers. In recent years Swiss band Plaistow and the Danish group Girls In Airports have gone on to bigger things since making their UK débuts at the Pizza lunchtime series in 2014.

For the lunchtime slot the venue is not afraid to present cutting edge artists, these are no cosy ‘jazz as background music’ events. This is a series of performances that attracts serious listeners and seriously good musicians.

Even so it still came as something of a surprise to see such an established performer as pianist and composer Zoe Rahman appearing in the Monday lunchtime slot. Understandably this was an event that was fully booked up a long way in advance, particularly as it represented a rare opportunity to see Rahman present a solo piano performance in support of “Dreamland”, her most recent album and her first in the solo piano format. Rahman is now the mother of young children and has cut back on her touring schedule so this lunchtime concert may have been ideal for her in her current circumstances.

I’ve seen Rahaman in concert many times, usually leading her fiercely interactive trio featuring bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo. Sometimes the band has been expanded to a quartet with the addition of Zoe’s brother Idris on saxophones and clarinets. I’ve also witnessed her playing in a duo with multi reed player Courtney Pine, which featured rather too much Courtney and not enough Zoe in my opinion, but I digress.

This opportunity to see Rahman as a solo pianist was simply too good to miss, particularly as she was playing the Pizza’s wonderful Steinway grand piano. The Rahman family were out in force with brother Idris in the audience along with sister Sophia, a classical pianist with several recordings to her credit, and the siblings’ mother, who was celebrating her birthday, as coincidentally was my wife. A chorus of “Happy Birthday”, led by Zoe from the piano was inevitable, and represented a nice touch from this most charming of artists. Rahman was introduced as “a legend of the piano and a wonderful human being” which summed things up rather nicely.

It almost goes without saying that Rahman was totally convincing as a solo pianist, treating the instrument as on orchestra and exploring wide ranges of musical styles that borrowed from jazz, the classical music of her youth and the music of her Bengali heritage. Her classical honed lightness of touch was apparent from the outset but she wasn’t afraid to introduce elements of dissonance, sounding almost Cecil Taylor-ish at times, in an adventurous programme that featured startling dynamic contrasts, a broad range of colour and texture and considerable emotional depths.

The programme included Rahman originals alongside compositions by other musicians and writers who have inspired her. The gentle, simple lyricism of Rahman’s own “Fast Asleep”, a delightful lullaby written for her young son contrasted well with the complexities of Jessica Williams’ spiky “Ashake” with its interior scrapings and vaguely Monk-ish passages.

The slow, elegant progress of a composition written by the poet Rabindranath Tagore dipped into Rahman’s Bengali heritage, a subject explored by the pianist in conjunction with brother Idris on the 2008 album “Where Rivers Meet”. It was a delightful piece of music, but even Zoe couldn’t remember what it was actually called!

From the “Dreamland” album the lively “Zantastic” incorporated darting, scurrying right hand runs above a Jarrett like gospel vamp. Rahman’s music is always intensely rhythmic, but without resorting to the obvious patterns - there’s always a sense of fun, adventure and daring in her playing.

“This gig is in a jazz club at a jazz festival, so I guess I’d better play a jazz standard” said Rahman as she announced an ornately decorated version of “My Foolish Things”.

Global sounds were again explored in a segue incorporating Rahman’s own “J’Berg” with Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Sunset In Blue” and Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal Of A Rose”. Idris Rahman could be seen rocking in his seat as his sister played the infectious township rhythms. Incidentally Abdullah Ibrahim was scheduled to play the Festival himself at the Royal Festival Hall the following evening.

After name-checking her family and making particular reference to Idris’ Youthsayers project Rahman rounded off her performance with two final unannounced items. I’d stopped making notes by now and was happy just to absorb myself in some wonderful music making.  The capacity audience at the Pizza gave Rahman a great reception, even if one or two were disappointed that Idris hadn’t brought his horns along for a surprise duo performance.

That might have been nice but this was still a brilliant solo recital from one of the UK’s most talented and popular jazz musicians, delivered by Rahman with characteristic skill and charm. My thanks to Zoe for speaking me with afterwards and also to Sophia Rahman who told me something about her involvement with the London based Jigsaw Players project which stages concerts at various venues in South West London. The programme, which, includes a performance by Zoe Rahman at Christ Church, West Wimbledon on 2nd February 2018 can be viewed here http://www.jigsawplayers.co.uk


SKINT, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

The first of a series of excellent early evening shows in the performance space at Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road featured the young trio Skint, led by alto saxophonist and composer Phil Meadows.

This high energy three piece opened for Donny McCaslin at Rich Mix at the 2016 EFG LJF and impressed with their boisterous blend of ‘punk jazz’. Today’s show featured a slightly different line up but the trio’s MO remained the same as they clattered their way through six pieces inspired by “dance music across the globe”. Meadows featured on alto and soprano saxes plus keyboards and drummer Harry Pope also augmented his kit with various items of electronic percussion as the trio augmented their core sound with imaginative splashes of electronica. Arthur O’Hara, Pope’s colleague in the rhythm section of Worldservice Project, came into the band, replacing Joe Downard who had appeared at Rich Mix.

With all three members of the group sporting baseball caps to emphasise the urban origins of their music they kicked off with the urgent “Bleep”, a piece featuring real time and pre-programmed beats as Meadows augmented his alto with keyboards and Pope deployed various items of electric percussion as O’Hara ground out funky, muscular electric bass grooves.  O’Hara took the first solo and this was followed by a drum feature from Pope against a backdrop of layered keyboards. Finally there was a powerful alto solo from Meadows as the trio swiftly blew any early evening cobwebs away on a piece so called because “it has a lot of bleeps”.

Elements of drum ‘n’ bass, afro-beat and hip hop informed “Metropolis” which featured a similar mix of electro-acoustic sounds on a piece introduced by Pope’s drums and featuring the raunchy, treated sound of Meadows’ alto sax. O’Hara’s electric bass solo incorporated guitar like sounds that made him sound like a punk Steve Swallow while Pope’s drum feature evolved into a spiky dialogue with his leader’s alto.

“Kraken” saw Meadows moving to soprano to deliver one of his most incisive solos of the night, his piercing sax sound augmented by a touch of echo as Pope and O’Hara complemented his fiery playing with a propulsive hip hop style groove.

The next piece was unannounced but saw Meadows returning to the alto, his unaccompanied sax intro leading into a punchy, riff based number that kept the energy levels bubbling.

There was no let up with the next item which introduced dub elements to the alto sax and drum exchanges and culminated in an energetic drum feature from the dynamic young Mr. Pope.

The drummer’s own “Which Is Bitch” - or even “Witches’ Bitch” concluded the performance and even introduced a more impressionistic element on the intro with keyboards, electronics and treated sax presaging a final explosion of energy with Meadows’ searing alto solo augmented by O’Hara’s hypnotic bass groove and Pope’s dynamic drumming.

As I remarked when reviewing the trio’s 2016 performance at Rich Mix the trio’s energetic blend of punk jazz is reminiscent of Acoustic Ladyland in their heyday with traces of Led Bib thrown in for good measure. Meadows is engaged in more thoughtful projects elsewhere including the Phil Meadows Project and Engines Orchestra, the latter playing a sold out Festival show at Milton Court in a collaboration with the mighty Phronesis. However it’s clear that he has great fun playing with this trio and Skint’s rowdy, irreverent approach communicates well with audiences with the group enjoying a great reception for this barnstorming early evening set. They’re yet to record, let’s hope they get the opportunity to do so soon.

My enjoyment of the performance was enhanced by having the opportunity of watching music painter Gina Southgate in action as she illustrated the band. Southgate is a popular and well known figure on the London jazz scene as she paints her large scale canvases of musicians as they perform. She’s an improviser too, but with brushes and paints rather than with horns, pianos , drums etc. and her impressionistic images capture the spirit and energy of her subjects. It was fascinating to see her work take shape as Skint played and to see the finished image at the end of the performance.

I also took the opportunity of chatting with her and we were to meet Southgate again several more times during the Festival week at a variety of venues. I’m indebted to her for giving me permission to utilise her images to illustrate my articles, such as the image of Skint presented here.

Further examples of Southgate’s work can be seen at The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston and on her website http://www.artistginasouthgate.weebly.com and Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/gina.southgate.5

PHELAN BURGOYNE QUARTET / DEVIN GRAY TRIO, THE VORTEX

My first visit to the Vortex during the 2017 Festival found me witnessing two performances by groups led by drummer/composers.

PHELAN BURGOYNE QUARTET

In a genuine double bill the young Briton Phelan Burgoyne appeared first leading a quartet featuring alto saxophonist Martin Speake, guitarist Rob Luft and guest bassist Anders Christiansen. Burgoyne’s début album “Unquiet Quiet”, featuring the trio of himself, Speake and Luft was released in 2016 on Speake’s own Pumpkin record label.

Like Luft Burgoyne is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music where Speake is a professor and it was at the Academy that the trio was first formed in 2014. Burgoyne now divides his time between London and Basel, Switzerland where he also studied. He is involved with a number of projects featuring both British and Swiss musicians including a quintet led by acclaimed vibraphonist and drummer Jorge Rossy. Further details of Burgoyne’s various musical activities can be found at his website http://www.phelanburgoynemusic.com

Prior to this evening I’d not actually seen Burgoyne play but had been sufficiently impressed by numerous youtube clips to investigate his contribution to this intriguing double bill.

“Unquiet Quiet”, allied to the evidence of this evening’s performance, reveals that Burgoyne is not only a talented drummer but also a highly proficient and individual composer. As a writer he is more concerned with creating colour, atmosphere and texture, his thoughtful and evocative compositions aspiring to be far more than vehicles designed to showcase his drumming technique.

Few of the pieces were announced by name, and although some may have been sourced from the album I suspect that most of the original material was more recent, as is often the jazz way. The first item featured a keening alto sax melody from Speake underpinned by Luft’s atmospheric guitar sound-washes and Burgoyne’s delicately brushed cymbal work. Although Speake’s alto was the lead instrument his contribution wasn’t a jazz solo in the conventional sense, this was music more concerned with the overall ensemble sound, one distinguished by Luft’s textured guitar work and Burgoyne’s deft colorations with Christiansen’s bass filling out the sound.

The Danish bassist composed the following piece, “Roskilde”, which was named after a major music festival held annually in his homeland. Here the bassist came more into his own as the tune was introduced by a duet between himself and rising star guitarist Luft. Speake’s alto subsequently picked out a folkish melody which was underscored by Burgoyne’s delicate bare hand drumming, the patter of toms and shimmer of cymbals reminding me of the work of great colourist drummers such as Jon Christensen and Paul Motian. Luft’s playing then came to the fore with the guitarist making effective and atmospheric use of his FX pedals before Speake’s pure toned alto returned for a final theme statement.

Ironically I’d just written Motian’s name down in my notebook when Burgoyne called a Motian tune with the quartet delivering a beautifully delicate reading of the late, great drummer/composer’s “Once Around The Park”.

The next piece saw the quartet exploring more orthodox jazz territory with a bebop flavoured piece that may well have been a standard even though I couldn’t identify it. It certainly presented a different angle of the group with Luft adopting a more orthodox jazz guitar sound, albeit with a degree of reverb, as he shared the opening solos with Speake. Burgoyne brought things to boiling point with a closing solo that really rattled the tubs and proved that he can play with great fire and power when he wants to. As both a drummer and composer he reminds me a little of a young Seb Rochford.

This excellent set ended with a new Burgoyne original called “Chaos”, a title that totally belied the beauty and intelligence of the music. Introduced by Luft’s guitar and featuring Christiansen’s melodic bass allied once more to the patter of Burgoyne’s hand drumming this was a piece that developed slowly and organically. Speake, who had shone with Jim Rattigan’s Pavillon band at the Pizza the previous day continued to impress in this very different context with a solo underpinned by the fluid rhythmic flow of Burgoyne’s drumming - shades here perhaps of Jon Christensen again, or even Jeff Williams. Burgoyne and Luft then provided appropriate commentary during Christiansen’s bass solo before the guitarist took over with a solo reminiscent of the great Bill Frisell. An anthemic closing section featuring Speake’s soaring alto over a strong rock rhythm evoked a highly positive response from a listening Vortex audience.

I was highly impressed with Burgoyne as both a drummer and a writer. This was a highly mature young musician and composer who has already fashioned a highly distinctive style of writing and playing. He was well served by an excellent band with Christiansen adding weight and depth to the sound of an already well balanced trio.

At 34 minutes in length “Unquiet Quiet” represents a promising début and is good calling card for Burgoyne. A more substantial second album is hopefully somewhere in the pipeline and should help to enhance this highly promising young musician’s reputation yet further.


DEVIN GRAY TRIO

On the other side of the Atlantic another young drummer and composer is steadily making a name for himself. Originally from Maine Devin Gray is now based in New York and is an increasingly influential figure on that city’s ‘Downtown Scene’.

The trio that he brought to London featured two highly experienced campaigners in Chris Speed (tenor sax, clarinet) and Drew Gress (double bass), both well known as members of the Claudia Quintet but also bandleaders in their own right as well as being in demand sidemen with dozens of recordings to their collective credit.

Gray’s approach was more dynamic and free-wheeling than Burgoyne’s had been, less pastoral and more urban, more ‘American’ if you will. Although the musicians were playing from sheet music the actual sound suggested that much of the music was freely improvised.

The first piece, “Transatlantic Transitions” sought to illustrate the perils of jet-lag with hard blowing passages featuring solos from Speed and Gress alternating with more impressionistic interludes incorporating breathy tenor, extended bass techniques and cymbal scrapes.

The next item was unannounced but saw Speed moving to clarinet to solo above Gress’ rapid, muscular bass walk and Gray’s skittering drum grooves as the trio generated a considerable head of steam. This was followed by a more impressionistic episode featuring Speed’s clarinet murmurs and Gray’s brushed drum commentary.

“Microdose”  found Speed moving back to tenor on a quiet intro that found his sax in dialogue with Gray’s drums as Gress’ bass provided the necessary punctuation. Speed then embarked on a more conventional tenor solo, his playing becoming increasingly garrulous while Gray’s busy drumming
positively bristled with power. A muscular, written, riff based climax brought a roar of approval from the Vortex audience.

Next up was “RelativE ResonancE”, the title track from the 2015 recorded by Gray, Speed, bassist Chris Tordini and pianist Kris Davis and sometimes also used as a band name. It would seem that Davis is a reluctant tourer who has rarely performed in the UK, her presence at the Vortex would have represented a considerable bonus. Nevertheless the trio more than did justice to a more obviously written piece that featured Speed soloing above a backdrop of busy bass and simmering drums.

Gress introduced the next piece on double bass as Gray added commentary via the deployment of a number of small percussive devices. Initially this was a more atmospheric offering featuring Speed’s long mournful tenor melody lines before the momentum began to build with the saxophonist soloing more forcefully against a backdrop of Gress’s mesmeric bass groove and Gray’s sizzling cymbals as the trio moved up and down the dynamics.

The evening concluded with Speed’s tune “Ain’t That Cunning” featuring the composer’s slow burning tenor above Gress’ muscular groove while Gray continued to deliver an impressive array of sounds from his drum kit, his playing as distinctive in its own way as Burgoyne’s had been.

The different approaches adopted by these two drummer led bands made for an interesting, stimulating and enjoyable evening of music making.

 


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