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Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2019.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 04/05/2019.

Ian Mann on performances by Paris / Birmingham Jazz Exchange, Alfa Mist, John Surman's Brass Project, Dan Weiss & Starebaby, Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, Vels Trio, Joshua Redman and Michael Formanek.

Photograph of Joshua Redman by Tim Dickeson.


SATURDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 04/05/2019.


JAZZ EXCHANGE; PARIS and BIRMINGHAM, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

For ten years Cheltenham Jazz Festival has hosted the annual ‘Jazz Exchange’ event featuring students from the Conservatoires of Birmingham and Trondheim. It has become something of a tradition for the ‘Trondheim Jazz Exchange’ to start off the Saturday programme and the event has been particularly well suited to the intimate environs of the PAC.

Many of the musicians that have appeared in these events have gone on to enjoy successful professional musical careers and some of the international alliances that were first formed at these events have gone on to become regular working bands.

This year the Jazz Exchange event was the ‘same but different’ with the Birmingham students collaborating with their counterparts from Paris as opposed to Trondheim. Reading between the lines I suspect that the change may have been enforced by the loss of the financial support of the Norwegian Embassy which always used to sponsor this event, but this represents pure speculation on my part.

Yet, in many respects nothing had changed. The format of the concert was the same with three groups being presented, comprised of two students from each institution and with a focus on original material written by the group members. As in previous years the students had spent two days prior to the performance engaged in intensive wood-shedding and rehearsals as they worked out their ideas.

Prior to the performance Jeremy Price, the Head of Jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire talked of the importance of the institution’s international outreach programme which has seen Birmingham students travelling to perform in the US, Colombia, Germany and Italy and now Paris.

Now on to the performances, and I have admit that I found it no easier to pick up the names of the French musicians from the on stage announcements than I did the Norwegian ones. So I’m indebted to my fellow scribe Peter Slavid, who was covering the event for London Jazz News, for supplying me with the full line up details.

Group One featured Parisians Guillaume Guedin on alto sax and Lucio Tomasi on drums with the British contingent represented by bassist Asaph Jeffrey and pianist Cameron Sheehy.

Their first piece commenced with a lengthy passage of unaccompanied alto from Guedin, a brave, bold and totally unexpected move but one that demonstrated the young saxophonist’s mastery of his instrument, his playing impressively mature and fluent. Guedin was joined by Tomasi’s brushed drums as the Paris students briefly performed as a duo prior to the subsequent edition of bass and drums. Jeffrey took the next solo, combining effectively with Tomasi’s drums before handing over to Sheehy to round out this arrangement of Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies”.

The group’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “From This Moment” commenced at ballad pace with bass, sax and piano initially combining to state the theme before the momentum gradually began to build during Sheehy’s solo. Tomasi then impressed with an unaccompanied brushed drum feature.

The final piece was a rousing slice of bebop / hard bop that sounded like it may have come from the pen of Charlie Parker, although none of the denizens of ‘scribblers corner’ could pin down a title. No matter, the piece still offered plenty for the listener to enjoy with Sheehy sharing the solos with the impressive Guedin. The saxophonist was the star player in this quartet with the two French players appearing to predominate over their Birmingham colleagues, not that the contributions of the two Brits should be overlooked.

On then to group two which offered a far less conventional line up and placed the emphasis firmly on original material. This was a ‘chamber jazz’ quartet featuring the saxophones of Paris based Clementine Ristord (soprano) and from Birmingham Liam Brennan (alto). At the piano was Noe Huchard with James Owston, a former BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year finalist on double bass.

The performance commenced with Ristord’s composition “Loony Puppets” which was ushered in by Huchard at the piano and Owston on bass. Ristord stated the melody on soprano sax, her distinctive tone being strikingly pure and almost oboe like. She handed over to Brennan’s alto before the two horns coalesced effectively. The first full length solo came from Huchard who displayed a pleasingly lyrical touch at the piano. Ristord then probed subtly on soprano, her crystalline tones contrasting well with the more acerbic sound of Brennan’s alto.

Brennan’s own “Clairvoyant” featured an ensemble theme statement prior to solos from the composer on alto and Huchard on piano as Owston’s grounding bass fulfilled a pivotal role in this drummer-less group. Ristord and Brennan then came together for a haunting twin sax restatement of the theme.

Finally we heard Huchard’s composition “Hip”, which was introduced by the sound of Owston’s bass and also included further solos for both bass and piano.

This was a particularly interesting group with the contrasting sounds and styles of the two saxophonists proving to be particularly effective. The contributions of Huchard and Owston were also excellent and I was also impressed by the quality of the original writing.

The final group was led by Birmingham based saxophonist Lewis Sallows, here playing alto alongside his compatriot Matt Holmes (drums). The French contingent featured trombonist Cyril Galamini and bassist Nicolas Jacobee.

This quartet began with an imaginative arrangement of Fats Waller’s “I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” that combined a trad jazz feel with contemporary rhythmic elements. Sallows had based his arrangement on a performance of the tune by Count Basie’s Orchestra and his alto was featured alongside Galamini’s trombone with Holmes enjoying a series of vigorous drum breaks.

Sallows’ own “108 Miles” took its title from the distance between his Hertfordshire family home and Birmingham. Introduced by Jacobee and Holmes the piece also included fluent and fiery solos from both Galamini and Sallows, the pair spurred on by the polyrhythmic flow of Holmes’ dynamic drumming.

Galamini selected the set’s other outside piece, an arrangement of “Soulville” by pianist Horace Silver. “Here’s some proper jazz for you” announced the unnecessarily self deprecating Sallows. This spirited performance rounded off this year’s Exchange event in energetic and good humoured fashion with solos coming from Sallows, Galamini and Jacobee.

This third group maintained the high standards set by the first two quartets. I particularly liked the comparatively rare pairing of alto and trombone, which sometimes reminded me of Jackie McLean and Grachan Moncur III.

This year’s Exchange event was as enjoyable as ever. With the format unaltered only the geographical location of the visiting musicians had changed and the standard of musicianship was well up to the levels of the Trondheim years.

I always enjoy this event and it’s something of an understated gem on the Festival calendar. There’s always plenty of variety and interest, the changeovers are executed quickly and efficiently and the standard of the musicianship is always hugely impressive. Let’s hope that it will continue, in one form or another, for many years to come.


ALFA MIST, JAZZ ARENA

I have to confess to knowing nothing about pianist, composer, producer and rapper Alfa Mist prior to this performance. Having a gap to fill I decided to take a chance on this event after checking him out on Youtube and deciding that there should be enough jazz content in his show to keep me happy.

Mist fronted a band featuring Johnny Woodman on trumpet & flugel, Jamie Leeming on guitar, Kaya Thomas-Dyke on electric bass and vocals and Jamie Houghton at the drums.

Mist’s jazz influences include Miles Davis and Avishai Cohen with the former particularly evident via Woodman’s trumpet playing, which was often reminiscent of Davis’ ‘electric era’. But Mist’s music also included elements of soul, funk and hip hop with the late J Dilla also named as a significant influence.

Mist’s particular brand of nu-jazz was outside my usual listening area but on the whole I rather enjoyed this show which opened with the tune “.44” from Mist’s recent album release “Structuralism”. The piece that included a fluent Harmon muted trumpet solo from Woodman that saw him further manipulating the sound of his instrument via a wah wah pedal. Leeming also impressed as he combined an orthodox guitar sound with a range of more contemporary effects. Mist himself, on electric piano, seemed content at this juncture to play more of a rhythmic and textural role, happy to give his colleagues their head.

From the same album “Naiyti” featured echoed flugel from Woodman that reminded me of Nils Petter Molvaer, while Mist himself cut loose for the first time on Rhodes. He was followed by Leeming and by Houghton with a drum feature.

Two more instrumentals in the same vein followed, “Retainer” and “Nocturne” with Woodman soloing on both trumpet and flugel and again treating the sound of the horns electronically. For “Retainer” Leeming produced an almost synclavier like sound from his guitar while on “Nocturne” he favoured a cleaner, more conventional guitar sound. Meanwhile Mist moved between Rhodes and grand piano but the sound from the latter was often muddy and distorted.

With Woodman projecting a charismatic and brooding centre stage presence it was sometimes difficult to remember that this was actually Mist’s gig. He went some way to addressing this on “Closer” which saw him demonstrating his rapping skills for the first time while simultaneously playing grand piano.

“Glad I Lived” featured more rapping plus the use of sampled voices as Mist moved back to the Rhodes. Woodman’s muted trumpet solo was delivered over the backdrop of Thomas-Dyke’s deeply resonant bass frequencies.

Born in East London of Ugandan heritage Mist dedicated “Jjajja’s Screen” to his grandmother, who only spoke the Luganda language, meaning that music was the only way he could bond with her.
With Mist on grand piano this was another instrumental piece featuring slow burning solos from Woodman on flugel, Leeming on guitar and Mist on piano with Leeming’s carefully constructed solo exhibiting a strong rock influence.

“Falling” featured a lead vocal from Esperanza Spalding look-alike Thomas-Dyke and was a nu soul ballad that also featured shimmering electric keyboards and wispy Harmon muted trumpet.

For the final item, another instrumental Mist moved back to grand piano and opened the piece by duetting with Woodman’s trumpet. The latter moved between muted trumpet and flugel during the course of his solo, propelled by Houghton’s hard driving drum grooves. The band signed off in style with further solos from Leeming and Thomas-Dyke and with Houghton enjoying a closing drum feature.

On the whole I rather enjoyed this performance from Mist and his band at a gig that took me out of my usual listening zone. It may have been a bit on the smooth side for my personal tastes but there was plenty of jazz content here with both Woodman and Leeming impressing with the quality of their soloing and overall this was a highly competent band that responded well to a near capacity crowd in the Jazz Arena. One suspects that Mr. Mist has acquired something of a following for his intelligent and accessible blend of jazz, soul and hip hop. All in all a very worthwhile experience.


JOHN SURMAN,  JOHN WARREN and THE BRASS PROJECT, TOWN HALL

One of the most eagerly anticipated events of the Festival was this performance at the Town Hall of the Brass Project, a venture co-led by the British multi reed player John Surman and the Canadian composer John Warren. Today’s concert was staged as a celebration of Surman’s 75th birthday and marked a return to one of his favourite projects.

In the 1980s Surman conceived the idea of augmenting his regular trio with bassist Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall with a ‘choir of brass instruments’. Collaborating with Warren he recorded a studio album for ECM which was released in 1992 under the snappy title “The Surman Warren Brass Project”. The recording featured compositions from both Surman and Warren with the latter conducting an ensemble featuring the core trio of Surman, Laurence and Marshall plus a brass choir featuring three trumpets, two trombones and, perhaps most distinctively, two bass trombones.  Over the years the Brass Project has featured such British jazz luminaries as trumpeters Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Guy Barker and Steve Waterman and trombonists Mark Nightingale and Malcolm Griffiths.

Today’s ‘brass choir’ featured students from the Birmingham Conservatoire and these young musicians acquitted themselves very well, providing some excellent solos during the course of the performance as well as impressing with the precision of their ensemble work.

As far as I could make out from the on stage announcements the brass section comprised of;

Gareth Howell, Ashton Smith, James Morland, James Gardner – trumpets

Toby Carr, Joe Carnell – trombones

Josh Tagg, Ashley Naylor – bass trombones

Today’s performance consisted of a full performance of “The Traveller’s Tale”, an eight part suite composed by Warren and dedicated to the memory of his grandfather Jack Warren, whose eventful, globe trotting life helped to inspire the music.  A live recording of a performance of this work was made in 1993 and subsequently re-issued in 2017 on the Fledg’ling record label.

The suite commenced with the atmospheric impressionism of “Dawning” which featured the sounds of warm, sonorous brass textures and the woody timbres of Surman’s bass clarinet, these augmented by the shimmer of Marshall’s carefully judged cymbal embellishments.

Part 2, “The Journey Home” proved to be more rousing and up-tempo with a genuine big band feel. Powered by Marshall’s authoritative drumming and Laurence’s vigorous bass the ensemble really took off with Surman on baritone sax sharing the solos with one of the young trumpeters – unfortunately the individual solos weren’t verbally acknowledged by the co-leaders. This piece also included a bass feature for Laurence, whose playing had previously been a little too low in the mix.

Part 3, “Carefree Days” was centred around a groove established by Laurence’s bass and Marshall’s brushed drums with Surman stating the main melodic theme on soprano sax before handing over to one of the young trumpeters for the first solo. Surman later followed suit, still on soprano, and the piece concluded with the kind of brass chorale that had first inspired the Project.

Bassist Laurence also set the tone for Part 4, “Hindustan Nights”, his introductory bass motif joined by the clatter of Marshall’s sticks on rims. Designed to have an exotic quasi-Indian feel the arrangement made extensive use of the distinctive tones of Surman’s bass clarinet as he shared the solos with one of the trombonists with Laurence’s melodic bass motif a recurring presence throughout.

The music segued into Part 5 “Elegy”, a remarkable showcase for the bowing skills of the classically trained Laurence, his arco playing rich and dark, the mood of the music solemn and almost baleful at times. Other passages included staccato bowing that was sharp, spiky and abrasive, seeming to express a barely suppressed anger. Laurence’s remarkable playing was augmented by the grainy timbres of Surman’s bass clarinet.

From here the music segued again, this time into Part 6 “Lay of the Land” where Surman’s soprano was allowed to swoop and soar above the lush brass textures and buoyant rhythms as he shared the solos with a trombonist and a trumpeter.

Marshall’s solo drum feature introduced Part 7 “Resolution”, his chiming cymbals subsequently conjoining with Surman’s bass clarinet as the co-leader commenced his solo, cushioned by the rich sounds of the brass chorale, whose luminous textures added an almost spiritual feel to the music.

A further feature from Laurence, this time on pizzicato bass, paved the way for the final movement “New Horizons” with Surman’s darting, melodic soprano dancing nimbly around Marshall’s military style drum patterns.  As the momentum of the tune began to increase Marshall’s drumming became increasingly dynamic as his powerful playing helped to fuel strident solos from two of the young trumpeters plus a sinuous and incisive soprano solo from Surman.

On the whole this was a show that was well received but nevertheless it was still a performance that divided opinion. Some commentators complained about the sound balance in the cavernous Town Hall, never the easiest of venues for sound engineers. I felt the sound was probably as good as it was likely to get, so no real complaints from me there.

More pertinent perhaps were the comments that the set up on stage was somewhat strange, with co-leader Surman stuck out in the wings, presumably to allow the audience better views of the consistently impressive Marshall and Laurence. With Warren turning his back on the crowd to conduct the brass there was no real centre stage presence, which was somewhat distracting for the audience. Also the lack of announcements made it difficult for the audience to distinguish between the movements and people were uncertain of just when to applaud. Overall though the positives far out-weighed the negatives and the quality playing from such established masters as Surman, Laurence and Marshall was never in doubt with the Conservatoire members also acquitting themselves superbly.

I treated my self to a copy of the “Traveller’s Tale “live album afterwards which stands up well in the home listening environment and was highly beneficial in the writing of this review.

My only regret was that after recently publishing a series of interviews with John Marshall, these conducted by my colleague Trevor Bannister, I wasn’t able to meet up with him myself afterwards due to the tight turnaround schedules for both musicians and reviewers alike. Nevertheless it was a privilege to witness his playing – another time for that meeting perhaps?


DAN WEISS – STAREBABY, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

On then to another master drummer, albeit one from another country and another generation.

New York based Dan Weiss exerts a mastery of rhythm that even drum luminaries such as the UK’s own James Maddren look up to.  As well as being a phenomenally talented kit drummer Weiss is also a tabla master with a thorough command of the Indian classical tradition. He also holds a degree in western Classical Composition, in short Weiss is one talented guy.

His latest project is Starebaby, a quintet that explores Weiss’ love of the heavy metal genre as well as his love of film and TV soundtrack music. Throw in his jazz, Indian and classical influences as well and it makes for a fascinating mix.

The line up of Starebaby is an unusual one in that it features two keyboard players, Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, plus Ben Monder on guitar and Trevor Dunn on electric bass with Weiss leading from the kit.

The crowded stage at the PAC featured Mitchell playing the venue’s grand piano with Taborn situated behind him playing a variety of electric keyboards and associated electronic gadgetry.

It was Mitchell’s low end piano rumblings that ushered in the first piece, accompanied by the shimmer of the leader’s cymbals and Taborn’s electronic texturing. The arrival of Monder upped both the volume and energy levels as the band lurched into some chunky, math rock riffing with Monder’s solo variously recalling those cerebral guitar heroes Allan Holdsworth and Robert Fripp, no wonder he got the call for David Bowie’s Blackstar band.

Dynamic contrast was very much the order of the day with passages of spacey keyboard layering and texturing or solo acoustic piano punctuated by savage onslaughts of metallic riffery.  Mitchell and Taborn sometimes switched roles with the latter moving temporarily to the acoustic. Monder’s guitar was enhanced by a range of FX pedals while Dunn’s muscular but virtuosic electric bass playing was also an essential part of the band’s sound.

Weiss kept to the talking to a minimum as the band navigated their way through three lengthy ever evolving segues with Weiss often appearing to lead from the drums, his pre-written parts with their melodic patterns seeming to act as triggers for the other members of the band. On occasion the group would break down into smaller units with Weiss at various junctures engaging in a series of duo exchanges with Mitchell, Taborn and Dunn, which helped to introduce a degree of variety to the proceedings.

Announcing the final number “Episode 8”, a composition inspired by the television series “Twin Peaks”, Weiss also fired the obligatory barb at Donald Trump, hoping he’d be out of office by 2020.
The piece itself was suitably episodic and included features for Dunn on bass and Taborn on synthesiser, the latter wrenching some truly amazing sounds from the instrument. It was all highly intense with Starebaby coming over as an even more intellectual King Crimson, such was the power and complexity of their metallic edged sound and their frenzied, fractured riffing.

Given the pedigree of this band (Taborn as a solo artist, Mitchell’s membership of the wonderful Claudia Quintet and Monder’s involvement with Black Star) I’d tipped this event as a possible ‘gig of the festival’. I certainly enjoyed it but it wasn’t quite that. At times I found Starebaby’s music overwhelming and although nobody likes a good avant rock riff more than me it was all a little too intense and bombastic, even the quieter, more impressionistic moments featuring Taborn’s keyboards were largely dark and menacing.

Much to admire nevertheless, particularly the phenomenal technique of the leader, and it was good to see Monder playing live for the first time.


ABDULLAH IBRAHIM & EKAYA

Over in the Big Top a legend of the music was leading his long running band.

Now aged 84 the South African born pianist, composer and bandleader remains musically active, his sound still evolving. Working under the name Dollar Brand he pioneered a distinctive style of South African jazz that remains hugely popular with jazz listeners but it’s a style that he’s largely moved on from. Like Duke Ellington (with whom he worked) and Miles Davis Ibrahim is a musician who doesn’t stand still and doesn’t trade in nostalgia, despite this appearance with his long running group Ekaya, the band name meaning ‘home’.

The current edition of the band is comprised largely of American musicians is very different from the one that used to include saxophonists Carlos Ward and Ricky Ford and now lines up as;

Cleave Guyton – alto sax, flute, piccolo
Lance Bryant – tenor sax
Andrae Murchison – trombone
Marshall McDonald – baritone sax
Noah Jackson – double bass, cello
Will Terrill – drums

Ibrahim said even less than Weiss and didn’t speak to the audience at all, preferring to let his music do the talking. I’ve seen him on a couple of occasions previously, a solo piano performance in Birmingham twenty odd years ago and leading his trio at a festival in the Colston Hall, Bristol in 2009. Both were, to be honest, a little disappointing with few variations of mood and pace and generally lacking in variety.

With a larger ensemble things were pleasingly different. I’ve wanted to see Ibrahim with the full Ekaya band for a long time and was delighted to be able to take this opportunity to do so.

The concert began with Ibrahim playing solo piano, the music having a meditative, almost spiritual quality about it. Gradually bass and brushed drums were added to the equation and then the warm, rounded tones of the four horns with McDonald taking the first orthodox solo on baritone, later followed by a full on tenor solo from Bryant. 

Ibrahim also introduced the next piece at the piano but in general he played sparingly, allowing plenty of room for his younger band mates to express themselves. Clad in uniform black the four horn players wandered on and off stage at regular intervals as the individual soloists took it turns to step up to the mic as Ibrahim conducted and directed proceedings from the piano stool. Here the principal soloist was trombonist Murchison.

The septet was regularly broken down into smaller units with the next piece beginning in piano trio mode prior to the addition of Guyton on piccolo. There was a transition into sax trio mode as McDonald stepped up to the plate with vigorous support coming from Jackson and Terrill. Next up was Murchison with a quote laden trombone solo, this followed by a drum feature from the ebullient Terrill.

One particular highlight was the dialogue between Jackson on cello and Guyton on flute with Ibrahim himself providing subtle commentary and punctuation. Likewise Terrill’s unaccompanied intro to a later piece with its carefully constructed melodic drum patterns.

With no announcements the tunes tended to flow into each other with band members continuing to come and go with frequent regularity. The next piece saw Ibrahim again introducing proceedings at the piano before welcoming back the band, the colourful ensemble playing of the horns supplemented by individual solos.

The penultimate item included features for each of the individual band members before a closing duet between the leader on piano and Guyton on flute that had the solemn air of a valedictory.

Although the Big Top was far from full Ibrahim and Ekaya were afforded an excellent reception from those that were there, the leader and his band bowing to the crowd with exaggerated humility.

Again this was a concert that divided opinion. There were some who felt that Ibrahim was rather ‘just going through the motions’ and found the constant stringing together of individual solos rather tedious. For myself I rather enjoyed it, there were some excellent moments from all the individual musicians and the band, and in particular the horn section, did cohere effectively in the numerous ensemble passages. The main complaint was that Ibrahim didn’t play enough himself, and while it’s true that his contribution was rather sparing one should first consider his age and then the fact that what he did play was always pertinent and often very beautiful. Sometimes less is more, as was demonstrated by the concise economy of Ibrahim’s own performance.


VELS TRIO, HOUSE OF FRASER BASEMENT

I made a second trip to the Basement to check out Vels Trio the second act in the ‘Gilles Peterson Presents’ series. The young threesome were originally formed in Brighton but are now based in London, where they are making considerable inroads on the capital’s music scene.

Featuring Jack Stephenson-Oliver on keyboards, Cameron Dawson on electric bass and Dougal Taylor at the drums the Vels boys acknowledge a wide range of influences ranging through jazz, prog rock and funk through contemporary hip hop and electronica. Artists they admire include Robert Glasper, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock Thundercat, Austin Peralta and Canterbury scenesters Soft Machine and Caravan.

I’d add the contemporary bands GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands to that list although Vels Trio’s stylings are more retro with vintage synth and Rhodes sounds a key part of their musical identity. I was also reminded of pianist Dominic J Marshall’s experiments with electronica in his DJM Trio guise.

Vels Trio is evidently a band that has accrued something of a following and the audience was larger than I had expected, not quite as big as for Nubya Garcia the previous evening but generally younger and with plenty of regular followers in evidence.

Arriving relatively late following the Ekaya gig I found myself more than halfway back and could see even less than I could the night before. The only group member visible was the baseball hatted Dawson, the only one who was standing up – and even then I couldn’t see his bass properly.

Instead I just got my head down and surrendered myself to the Trio’s catchy melodic hooks and propulsive contemporary grooves, a cunning mix of the retro and the modern. The only tune title I caught was “Celestial Greens”, but once again this was a band that kept the chat to the minimum, preferring just to kick on and play.

There’s certainly something of a buzz about Vels Trio at the moment and their youthful energy and enthusiasm was certainly infectious but whether their wholly instrumental music constitutes jazz is something of a moot point. They don’t really develop their arresting hooks in the way that true jazz musicians do (or even Caravan and the Softs) and apart from the occasional impressive set piece for bass and drums there was little conventional jazz soloing. In this respect Vels are less sophisticated and less jazz than either GoGo Penguin or Mammal Hands and this lack of harmonic development suggests that they’d be a less rewarding listen than either of these bands in the home environment.

Vels Trio probably won’t hold much appeal for jazz purists but it’s possible that their all instrumental approach will attract new listeners to the music thanks to their appeal to a hip young constituency.

In the main I enjoyed them, but less so than the more obviously jazz orientated Nubya Garcia. In retrospect I would probably have been better advised to check out the twin piano concert by Zoe Rahman and Nikki Yeoh at the PAC instead, a performance that got rave reviews from other commentators. That said I’ve seen solo performances by both Rahman and Yeoh before and written particularly extensively about Zoe, hence the decision to check out something new. Choices, choices, but at least I will get to hear Rahman and Yeoh when their performance is transmitted on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now.

And finally, as at the Garcia gig, I wandered down to the front at the end to check out Stephenson-Oliver’s keyboard set up which on this occasion contained a Samson Carbon 49, a Nord Electro 5 and a Moog Grandmother.


JOSHUA REDMAN TRIO, TOWN HALL

A particularly baffling piece of scheduling found two big name American visitors playing opposite each other with saxophonist Joshua Redman leading his trio at the Town Hall while bassist and composer Michael Formanek led his all star Elusion Quartet at the PAC.

After weeks of vacillating I opted for Redman, mainly on the basis that the Formanek gig was being recorded for BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now and that at least I would get the chance to hear it later. Good call as it turned out, but more on that later.

At the Town Hall, and forming part of the ‘Trios With A Twist’ series, Redman was fronting a trio featuring Reuben Rogers on double bass and Gregory Hutchinson at the drums. Both of these musicians appear on “Come What May”,  Redman’s excellent new quartet recording for Nonesuch Records. The album features seven new Redman originals but in the absence of pianist Aaron Goldberg Redman chose to present more of a standards orientated programme. Perhaps not surprisingly the quality of both the playing and the arrangements ensured that this sounded fresh and vital, this certainly wasn’t a group that was just going through the motions.

First up was a heavily disguised “Mack The Knife” with an innovative arrangement that breathed new life into the old warhorse. Redman introduced the piece with a lengthy spell of unaccompanied tenor sax extemporising, later stretching out even further, his soloing fuelled by Rogers’ vigorous bass and Hutchinson’s explosive drumming. Rogers also featured as a soloist as the set got off to an invigorating start.

The Redman original “Back From Burma” followed, even though it’s not a piece that features on the new record. This was a more atmospheric and impressionistic offering that was introduced by Rogers at the bass with Hutchinson adding mallet rumbles. Redman’s tenor sax melodies were slinky and seductive and his solo was underpinned by Hutchinson’s colourful mallet work, the drummer switching to sticks as Redman’s playing grew in intensity.

The originals “Second Date”  and “Tail Chase” kept the pot bubbling, the latter featuring an infectious, boppish hook and a tenor solo of honking r’n’b flavoured intensity. Redman could then be heard shouting his approval at a Hutchinson drum feature that constituted a superb blending of power and precision.

By way of contrast the standard “Never Let Me Go” demonstrated Redman’s way with a ballad, his playing combining tenderness and fluency but also shading off into something more adventurous as the saxophonist flirted with the avant garde with a series of bat like squeaks.

The final piece saw guest Soweto Kinch joining the group on alto for an unannounced blues that again sounded as if it might have been written by Charlie Parker. The two saxophonists played the head in unison before shading off into their individual solos Kinch going first and peppering his feature with playful quotes. Rogers followed on the bass prior to a series of exchanges between Redman and Kinch, the carousing of the horns fuelled by Hutchinson’s Blakey-esque drumming. Finally the drummer enjoyed his own feature, again provoking a terrific response from the capacity crowd in the Town Hall.

The deserved encore featured the core trio and combined avant garde flourishes such as sax harmolodics and pecking with rousing funk grooves and features for all three protagonists. Kinch then returned to the stage as Redman and his colleagues acknowledged the cheers of the crowd.

Presided over with great charm by the always affable Redman this was an excellent set that combined energy with an element of showmanship, but which most importantly featured some exceptional playing from all the musicians involved. Redman is a superb technician and a highly fluent improviser, and these qualities, combined with an easy going charisma have made him something of a superstar in jazz terms. He’s a musician who consistently delivers and he has developed a superb rapport with Rogers and Hutchinson, musicians he has worked with consistently for twenty years. The excellence of their contributions to this evening’s success should not be overlooked.

Meanwhile the addition of Kinch, still fresh from the triumphant performance of the Sunlight trio at the PAC the previous evening represented a very welcome bonus. Apparently Kinch has interviewed Redman for Jazz Now, leading to the two musicians establishing a Trans- Atlantic rapport. Definitely the highlight of the day thus far.


MICHAEL FORMANEK ELUSION QUARTET, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

Following the conclusion of the Redman gig I hot footed it to the PAC in the hope that the stewards there would let me in to catch something of the Formanek show, even if it meant just standing at the back. As the event was not particularly well attended they were generous enough to allow me access, discretely ushering me to a seat, so my thanks to them for that.

Entering the hall during the applause between numbers I was lucky enough to witness three fairly lengthy compositions performed in full and I was later informed that I’d probably seen over half the gig, which was a bit of a result – plus I’ll get to hear the rest of it on the radio later.

Bassist and composer Formanek was leading his Elusion Quartet, an extension of his earlier Elusion Trio featuring Tony Malaby on tenor & soprano saxophones and Ches Smith on drums, percussion and vibraphone, both leading figures on New York’s experimental jazz scene. The addition of the Canadian born pianist Kris Davies elicited a change of band name with the Elusion Quartet releasing the excellent album “Time Like This” on the Intakt record label in 2018. The majority of tonight’s material was almost certainly sourced from that recording.

The music of the Elusion Quartet is richly evocative and has something of a ‘chamber jazz’ quality about it with the group sometimes breaking down into even smaller units. The first piece that I witnessed included passages in both saxophone trio and piano trio modes with Smith moving between drums and vibes, deploying the four mallet technique on the latter.

Similarly the next piece commenced with an intimate dialogue between Formanek on bass and a mallet wielding Smith at the kit, the drummer also using his feet on the kit, Han Bennink style. Davies’ piano was added to this heady mix, working under the lid to dampen the sound of the strings. Out of these avant garde elements emerged an infectious odd meter groove that formed the backdrop for Malaby’s saxophone solo, the combination of the fascinating rhythms and the harsh bray of Malaby’s tenor sometimes reminding me of the music of Charles Mingus. Heads were nodding around the venue as the music developed an unexpectedly ferocious head of steam.

The final piece was introduced by a stunning passage of unaccompanied piano from Davis that saw her utilising the full range of the instrument from low end rumblings to glacial tinkling,  eventually establishing a series of rippling arpeggios that formed the bedrock of the piece. In time her playing was embellished by the deep resonances of Formanek’s bass and Smith’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. This time round Malaby’s tenor playing was lush and lustrous but even this was upstaged by the flowing piano lyricism of Davis.

Formanek introduced the band one last time, thanked the small but enthusiastic audience and then they were gone.

I was so glad that I got to see some of this. It had been a day that had saved the best until last, the shows by Redman and Formanek being the undoubted highlights. The only disappointment with regard to the Formanek gig was the size of the audience, but it was getting late by now and they would almost certainly have drawn a larger crowd had they played earlier in the day.

In musical terms I couldn’t really fault it. I enjoyed the combination of chamber style delicacy and improvisational rigour and the consistently absorbing and interesting Formanek compositions. I’d seen Formanek, Smith and Malaby perform individually before in other contexts and always been impressed by them but tonight was my first sighting of Davis. I’d heard her before on records by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and enjoyed her contribution but her playing tonight was something of a revelation, particularly her lightness of touch at the instrument. I loved the sparkling, crystalline melody lines that she produced, albeit interlaced with a fierce improvisational instinct. I’m already looking forward to hearing her and the Elusion Quartet again on Radio 3.

 

 


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