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Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/05/2018.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Saturday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 05/05/2018.

Ian Mann enjoys a varied day of music with performances by Trondheim Jazz Exchange, Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Seun Kuti, Jason Moran, Beth Hart, Jim Black and Evan Parker.

Photograph of Jim Black by Tim Dickeson


SATURDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 05/05/2018

JAZZ EXCHANGE: TRONDHEIM & BIRMINGHAM, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

The popular Jazz Exchange project features the playing and writing of students from two of Europe’s leading music education establishments. The Jazz Courses at the Trondheim and Birmingham Conservatories have both acquired substantial reputations and many graduates from both institutions have gone on to become respected professional jazz musicians.

Annual exchange visits are arranged between the two institutions with the students subsequently showcasing their work at the Cheltenham, Trondheim and Molde Jazz Festivals. Each year six students from each establishment pool their resources to form three quartets with each band containing two members from their respective countries. Prior to this performance at the Parabola the students had spent two days in intensive wood-shedding and rehearsals as they worked out their ideas. The three ensembles had also performed in public in Birmingham at the free early evening session held on the evening of Friday May 4th at the Café Bar in the foyer of Symphony Hall.

2018 marked the tenth anniversary of the project and it was therefore appropriate that this year’s event was arguably the best and most consistent to date with all three ensembles delivering excellent performances.

Ensemble One featured the Norwegian musicians Vilde Aakre Lie (vocals) and Havard Aufles (piano) together with Birmingham’s Harry Weir (tenor sax) and Shivraj Singh Matwala (double bass).

They commenced with “Cycles” a song written by vocalist Lie with evocative English lyrics relating to the subject of “taking things for granted – or not”. Lie delivered her words in a fragile vocal style sometimes reminiscent of other Scandi singers such as Bjork or Solveig Slettahjell with Weir providing the instrumental solo and revealing his skills as a tenor sax balladeer.

Nest we heard a two part composition by Matwala on the themes of “frustration” and “action without words”, the work introduced by the composer’s unaccompanied bass. Lie played a more peripheral role adding wordless vocal melody lines to what was essentially an instrumental piece. Weir demonstrated his versatility with a very different solo, the ‘cry’ in his tone supplemented by some avant garde style harmolodics and pecking in a freely structured section. More conventional jazz solos came from Aufles at the piano and Weir again on tenor as the piece progressed. Meanwhile Matwala himself impressed both with his composing and his assured and fluent bass playing.

The final piece, “Money”, was composed by pianist Aufles but was again introduced by a passage of solo bass from the excellent Matwala. The composer then added rippling piano arpeggios as Lie provided a wordless vocal melody. But ultimately it was Aufles himself who stole the show with a thrillingly idiosyncratic solo that borrowed from Thelonious Monk while alluding to stride elements from an even earlier jazz vintage. The piece resolved itself with a closing passage featuring Weir’s tenor sax and Lie’s wordless vocals doubling up on Aufles’ melodic theme.

Overall I was highly impressed with this ‘chamber jazz’ ensemble whose music contained plenty of interesting ideas and aimed, and succeeded, at presenting more than mere ‘prettiness’.

Ensemble Two presented a more conventional instrumental configuration with the line up featuring the Norwegian musicians Ask Morris Rasmussen (tenor sax) and Georgia Wartel Collins (double bass) plus the Midlands pair of guitarist Aidan Pope and drummer Charlie Johnson.

Collins’ bass introduced her own tune “Mania”, setting up a motif cum groove which was augmented by the chatter of Johnson’s sticks on rims. Next Pope’s pure toned guitar was added to the equation and finally the edgier sound of Rasmussen’s tenor.  The collective group sound suggested the influence of the New York Downtown scene as the quartet progressed through a freely structured passage, with Rasmussen’s tenor prominent, into a closing section incorporating a chunky, riff based theme.

Pope handled this group’s announcements and his own tune, called, I think, “Gazza” was up next. This featured an unaccompanied guitar introduction with Pope deploying his FX pedals in atmospheric fashion. Next breathy tenor sax entered the equation with Johnson adding to the ethereal atmosphere by wielding shakers. Rasmussen’s subsequent tenor solo was Garbarek like in tone as the tune took on an anthemic quality, a property encouraged by the plaintive cry of the sax.

Rasmussen’s own “Grasshopper” closed the set with the composer stating the theme on tenor prior to Pope’s coolly elegant guitar solo, this complemented by Johnson’s exquisite cymbal accompaniment. Collins impressed with a melodic bass solo, underscored by Johnson’s brushes, prior to a final theme statement and solo from Rasmussen on tenor.

This was another strong set with the musicians again impressing with both their writing and their playing.

But it’s probably fair to say that the best was still to come. The third ensemble was actually a five piece with three Birmingham based musicians, trumpeter Christos Stylianides, alto / soprano saxophonist Lewis Sallows and tenor saxophonist Ollie Stanton forming a mini horn section. They were joined by the Norwegian pair of Magnus Skaug (guitar) and Elias Ostrem Tafjord (drums). Stanton had been added to the group as Sallows will be unable to make the return visit to Trondheim due to prior gigging commitments. Thus Stanton was brought into the fold and will go to Norway.

It’s normal for all the groups at this event to be quartets but the addition of an extra instrumental voice to this ensemble really worked and Stanton fitted in superbly. It sounded as if the quintet had been playing together for years and as Peter Slavid, reviewing the event for London Jazz News, commented after the show “I’d pay good money to see that band!”

The extra saxophone added weight to the ensemble’s sound and the three horns worked effectively together throughout. They were complemented by two highly imaginative and inventive players in Skaug and Tafjord.

Indeed Skaug introduced the first piece with a highly individual passage of solo guitar packed with choppy chords and abrasive scratching, entering into dialogue with his compatriot at the drums before engaging in a further duet with trumpeter Stylianides. Stanton and Sallows (on alto) were later added to the equation with the three horns blowing full on skronk over Skaug’s angular guitar chording and Tafjord’s hypnotic drum grooves. A solo trumpet cadenza from Stylianedes was followed by a powerful solo in more conventional fashion before the piece resolved itself with Skaug again playing solo electric guitar. The tune was Skaug’s but I missed the Norwegian title.

Not that the Lanarkshire born Stylianides was any easier to understand as he announced a segue of two tunes, the second of which I’m fairly sure was entitled “Dell”. In any event this was another musical tour de force ushered in by Stylianides’ breathy, unaccompanied trumpet, his sound electronically treated by a range of pedal generated FX.  Skaug also made effective use of electronics as he added atmospheric ‘Twin Peaks’ style guitar. The first orthodox solo came from Sallows on soprano who danced lightly above the sound of Skaug’s FX laden guitar scratchings. The clarion call of Stanton’s tenor seemed to usher in the next section, his horn sound underpinned by an organ like drone generated by Stylianides’ pedals and the rustle and rattle of small percussion from Tafjord. The music continued to unfold via some chunky, math rock style riffing featuring Skaug’s guitar and the three pronged attack of soprano, tenor and trumpet with Stanton subsequently launching into a powerful, increasingly guttural tenor solo. The riff subsequently returned before Tafjord rounded things off with a dynamic drum solo.

This ensemble’s music was powerful and arresting and owed much to the cutting edge jazz scenes in London, Oslo and New York. Often complex and continually evolving this was challenging but vital music and the quintet’s combination of power and precision was remarkable considering that they’d only been playing together as a band for a few days.

I was impressed with all three ensembles today but the third group moved things on to another level. I assume that this was the oldest group of the three, possibly final year students, and I suspect that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the individuals concerned.

It almost seems invidious to single musicians out but this event usually throws up names that have gone on to bigger things. Stylianides and Skaug certainly caught the eye in the final group while Aufles and Matwala impressed earlier on, as did many others. Well done to all the musicians involved and to the tutors at both the Birmingham and Trondheim Conservatoires.

BILL FRISELL & THOMAS MORGAN, CHELTENHAM TOWN HALL

The remarkably quick and efficient changeovers at the PAC meant that I was able to see all of the Jazz Exchange event and still be at the Town Hall in plenty of time for this duo performance by guitarist Bill Frisell and double bassist Thomas Morgan at Cheltenham Town Hall.

Frisell, born in Baltimore in 1951, has been recording as a leader since 1983, initially with ECM but latterly with other labels including Nonesuch and Okeh. As well as recording nearly forty albums under his own name he has also been a prolific collaborator with both jazz artists (Paul Motian, Mike Gibbs, Charles Lloyd) and more mainstream figures such as Paul Simon and Elvis Costello.

Along the way he has created a unique guitar style that draws on elements of jazz, rock, ambient and Americana. Frisell’s sound, with its distinctive guitar ‘twang’ is instantly identifiable, making him one of the most recognisable instrumentalists around.

Frisell recently returned to ECM to record the duo album “Small Town” with bassist Thomas Morgan, one of the rising stars of the jazz firmament.

Morgan, born in 1981, has also recorded prolifically across a variety of jazz genres with a ride range of American and European musicians. He has established a healthy relationship with ECM thanks to his appearances on the label on albums by trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, guitarist Jakob Bro and pianists Craig Taborn and Giovanni Guido among others. He has worked on Frisell’s solo albums and is currently a member of the guitarist’s trio, alongside drummer Rudy Royston.

Given Morgan’s familiarity with Frisell and his work it is not surprising that the pair were able to record successfully as a duo with ECM releasing “Small Town” in 2017. Some of today’s material was sourced from the album but one suspects that much of the duo’s performance was entirely improvised.

A large audience packed into the Town Hall to hear this most intimate of duo performances. Hardly a word was spoken by the pair, either to the audience or each other, as the duo let their playing do the talking in an unbroken musical conversation lasting some seventy five minutes.

Frisell has always maintained a fascination for pop songs and his lengthy career has seen many distinctive interpretations of such material. Today’s performance began with the familiar melody of “Moon River” with the duo subtly exploring and subverting the theme. Frisell’s playing was typically succinct and unhurried, he seems to understand and utilise the spaces between the notes so well and like nobody else - and when he did utilise his various effects, including live looping the process seemed wholly natural and organic, almost inevitable.

Morgan proved to be the perfect foil, responding quickly and sympathetically to Frisell’s every move as the conversation unfolded and displaying an impressive technique of his own with much of his best and most melodic work being done up around the bridge of the instrument. Neither should one underestimate the physical and mental demands of playing double bass non-stop for seventy five minutes in a performance with no breaks for tune announcements.

The audience were totally immersed in the duo’s ongoing dialogue, their silence only disturbed by the hum of the venue’s air conditioning. The performance included most of Frisell’s trademarks, the ‘twangy’ Americana guitar sound, ambient live looping, the occasional excursions into darker fuzz toned territory with Morgan responding to his partner’s every move with taste and acumen.

Every now again a familiar tune hove into view including Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” and the closing “Goldfinger”, a tune from the “Small Town” album. Here the guitarist gave the bombastic Bond theme tune the classic Frisell treatment, transforming it into something melancholy, mysterious and beautiful.

This represented the end of the scheduled performance with Frisell speaking only to introduce the even more self effacing Morgan. The duo exited the stage only to be called back by the highly appreciative audience. The deserved encore was a take on the old Petula Clark hit “Downtown”  with Frisell embellishing the familiar melody accompanied by Morgan’s underpinning bass. The performance brought out the full sadness of the lyrics but contained an element of humour too. I recall drummer Bill Bruford’s band Earthworks (the edition with Iain Ballamy and Django Bates) recording a slowed down version of this tune many years ago and achieving a similar effect. However, I digress.

This was one of the most spellbinding jazz duo performances that I’ve seen, bettered only by pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton at the Barbican back in 2007. It was in no way soporific with Frisell keeping any potential longueurs at bay with his characteristic changes of direction and the intelligent and timely use of his various effects. Not that the contribution of Morgan should be overlooked, this genuinely was a conversation of equals.

I appreciate that this performance may not have been to everybody’s taste. There are some who would dismiss Frisell’s playing as ‘clichéd’, but his is a style that he has developed entirely by himself and is much imitated. At the age of 67 one can forgive him for any mannerism that might have crept in.

For myself and many others this intimate performance represented something of a Festival highlight.

SEUN KUTI & EGYPT 80, HENRY WESTON’S BIG TOP

Following the quiet eloquence of Morgan and Frisell this colourful, exuberant, high energy show in the Weston’s Cider sponsored Big Top couldn’t have been more different.

Thirty five year old Seun Kuti is the youngest son of the Nigerian afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Kuti and has inherited the leadership of his father’s band, Egypt 80. Kuti and his band are currently touring in support of their latest album “Black Times” which mixes fiery afrobeat music with similarly incendiary political commentary. Seun has inherited both his father’s talent and political activism. The album includes guest appearances from jazz and rock luminaries including pianist Robert Glasper and guitarist Carlos Santana.

This show saw Kuti fronting a large ensemble featuring lead and rhythm guitars, electric bass, drum kit, two percussionists, two trumpets, tenor sax, baritone sax and two female backing vocalists/dancers. Kuti himself sang lead vocals and played alto sax and occasional keyboards.
Kuti did introduce his bandmates but the names were impossible to pick up and aren’t available from the Festival website.

The band took to the stage first with one of the trumpeters handling the vocals and one of the percussionists acting as MC as Kuti made the grand entrance toting his alto and clad in a loose fitting ensemble emblazoned with images of saxophones. He certainly proved to be an energetic and charismatic performer who was given excellent support by a tight, highly rhythmic and well drilled band.

But ultimately it was all about the leader who sang with power and authority, soloed forcefully and effectively on alto sax and generally exuded an air of confidence mixed with defiance. The early Saturday afternoon world music show seems to have become something of a staple at Cheltenham in recent years but most of these have been ‘get up and party’ sort of affairs. For all his energy (and that of his band) Kuti had more important things on his mind and bigger fish to fry.

Kuti sings in English, which makes it all the easier to get his message across to international audiences. “Africa – no freedom, Africa don’t unite” he sang during “Basa Masa” before extolling the virtues of pidgin English - “proper English is VERY expensive”.

The deep grooves of “African Dreams”, which almost crossed over into Jamaican dub, dismissed the ‘American Dream’ and the way in which the US and the former European colonial powers have tried to enforce their economic model upon Africa. “The African Dream is to build our own communities” declared Kuti.

“Struggle Sounds” posited that Africa was involved in a class war rather than a racial war as Kuti debunked the ‘elitist narrative’ of the Western powers and expressed his solidarity with other minorities including the gay community, all this to the accompaniment of a rasping baritone sax riff.

The rhetoric continued with Kuti declaiming that the African people had been fed ‘fake news’ for over 400 years. Even as a schoolboy in Lagos Kuti had been taught that the Scottish explorer Mungo Park had ‘discovered’  the River Niger, despite Kuti’s ancestors living on its banks for thousands of years.

The closing song “Rise To Be Free” epitomised Kuti’s message as the singer stripped of his shirt to reveal his rangy tattooed torso – for all the political content he’s still a showman at heart.

Although not previously particularly familiar with Kuti’s work I rather enjoyed this passionate and energetic set and positively welcomed the highly salient political content. Music should be capable of making you think as well as dance and for me Kuti’s polemic made a welcome change from the usual “get up and party” fluff. In fact Kuti didn’t encourage the crowd to get to their feet at all, which was actually rather disappointing as I was jigging around in my seat to this powerful and highly rhythmic music – and I’m usually a very reluctant dancer.

The leader was undoubtedly the star of the show and most of the instrumental solos came from him but essentially this was a collective effort musically with every member of the thirteen piece ensemble carrying out their jobs effectively. This was energetic, powerful music with a very pertinent political message.

JASON MORAN and the BANDWAGON, CHELTENHAM TOWN HALL

Following Frisell and Morgan the Town Hall hosted another big American name in the shape of pianist and composer Jason Moran and his trio the Bandwagon.

Born in Houston in 1975 Moran first came to prominence in 1997 as part of a band led by alto saxophonist Greg Osby. He made his leadership début in 1999 and has recorded consistently since, currently for the prodigious Blue Note label. Also a prolific sideman he has performed and recorded with many other leading jazz artists and had previously visited Cheltenham as a member of the all star Overtone Quartet featuring bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland back in 2011.

Today’s performance saw Moran accompanied by Tarus Mateen on electric bass and the brilliant Nasheet Waits, one of my favourite drummers, at the kit. Introducing his colleagues Moran informed us that they had spent nineteen years together as a band and rhythm section for hire.

The trio kicked off with Mateen’s “Another One”, a busy, energetic Thelonious Monk inspired piece that saw Moran swarming all over the keyboard of the Town Hall’s grand piano during a dazzling opening solo. Mateen was playing an electric contrabass and the instrument was sometimes buried a little too deep in the mix,  truly only emerging from the mud during the composer’s solo.

Next up was a ballad, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano that was sometimes reminiscent of Keith Jarrett. Waits deployed brushes as Mateen took a solo on electric bass, his highly individual sound on the instrument vaguely reminiscent of that of Anthony Jackson or Steve Swallow. Moran’s piano solo introduced a subtle gospel element to the proceedings.

Announcements were kept to a minimum as the quartet concentrated on playing. As with Enemy the previous evening there was a real sense of the band moving up and down the gears.
The next piece was introduced by a dramatic passage of solo piano that alluded both to Monk and earlier jazz piano developments and was packed with dramatic dynamic contrasts, these being a feature of the set as a whole with Waits moving between brushes and sticks.

The drummer was excellent throughout and his solo features little short of stunning - artfully constructed and ranging from the delicate to the thunderous,  but always imbued with an essential musicality.  Meanwhile Moran’s piano solos were positively turbo charged as Mateen and Waits laid down the grooves.

It was only towards the set that Moran revealed that much of the music the trio had played had been written by his mentor Jaki Byard (1922 -99 ), Byard himself having played with the late, great Eric Dolphy.

Waits introduced the final number of the set at the kit with a typically intelligent and virtuosic piece of solo drumming encompassing sounds ranging from delicately shimmering cymbals to brutally struck toms. Moran’s piano initially offered something more reflective before leading up to a final tumultuous dialogue between pianist and drummer underscored by Mateen’s electric bass groove.

As with Frisell and Morgan this set delivered a lot of music and precious little talking but was none the worse for that. Despite the occasionally indistinct bass sound there was much to enjoy here and from the reaction of the Town Hall audience this performance will also represent a Festival highlight for many.

Like the earlier Frisell and Morgan concert this performance was recorded for future transmission on BBC Radio 3’s flagship jazz programme ‘Jazz Now’. Both of these Town Hall
performances are going to be well worth hearing again.

BETH HART, HENRY WESTON’S BIG TOP

An unfortunate piece of scheduling saw the Moran group performing at the same time as two of my favourite contemporary British jazz acts, Portico Quartet in the Jazz Arena and the revamped Roller Trio, with new guitarist Chris Sharkey, at the PAC. I could quite gladly have been in three places at once.

I chose the American option in the hope that I’ll get other opportunities to see the other two, particularly as Roller Trio are due to release a new album on Edition Records in the summer and will hopefully be touring it in the autumn. From what I’ve heard their performance at the PAC was brilliant with the restlessly inventive Sharkey breathing fresh life into the band.

I’ve no regrets about choosing Moran, particularly as this also gave me the opportunity to witness another energetic and highly entertaining performance by the American blues singer, instrumentalist and songwriter Beth Hart and her band in the Big Top.

Hart’s music has been highly recommended to me by a blues loving friend and this represented my first chance to check her out, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Born in Los Angeles in 1972 Hart commenced her solo career in 1993 but she is also well known for her high profile collaborations with guitarists Joe Bonnamassa, Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck, not to mention Slash of Guns’n’Roses fame.

But Hart is more than just a voice, she writes virtually all of her material and also plays piano and occasional guitar. This Festival date was just the second of a mammoth world tour in support of her latest album “Fire On The Floor” released on the Dutch Provogue label.

She brought with her her regular touring band featuring guitarist Jon Nichols, bassist Bob Marinelli and drummer Bill Ransom, a tight, road hardened unit, although the album was actually recorded with the cream of LA’s session musicians including some familiar names to those of us who are habitual close readers of album credits, think of guitarists Waddy Wachtel and Dean Parks and drummer Rick Marotta among others.

Hart has a powerful and effective white blues voice and is a talented songwriter whose evocative lyrics embrace both a streetwise toughness and a highly personalised vulnerability. Like Eric Gales, who had played the Festival two days previously she has had her issues with drinks and drugs but doesn’t shy away from talking about them. Again like Gales she was totally candid with her audience about these matters and it’s this openness that makes her such a great communicator. Her fan-base can identify with her and many of them were amongst the audience this afternoon, alongside neophytes such as myself.

Hart quickly got her audience onside courtesy of both the quality her songs and her inclusive on stage banter. “I Can’t Let It Get Me Down” extolled the power of positive thinking while “Love Gangster” honoured Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits and added a dash of warped cabaret to her sound. Both songs included concise and fluent guitar solos from Nichols, with whom Hart has worked for twenty odd years.

Hart moved to the piano for the dramatic slow blues “Take Care Of You” with Nichols again impressing on guitar. The powerful and effective “Bottle Of Jesus” addressed Hart’s alcohol problems and subsequent salvation via her Christian faith. “Putting My Foot Down” embraced old school boogie with Hart still at the piano.

Hart dedicated “Falling In Love With You More Every Day” to her husband, the song another slow blues with a distinct gospel undertow and which saw Hart adopting an organ sound on her electric keyboard.

Another highly personal song, “Sister Heroine”, was dedicated to the memory of Hart’s late sister Sharon, who succumbed to the same drug and alcohol problems that almost claimed Beth. Nichols’ searing guitar solo helped to complement the very real pain in Hart’s vocal.

Hart then returned to centre stage for a further batch of songs including the upbeat “Delicious Surprise”, another song placing the emphasis on accentuating the positive and another composition inspired by a family member, this time her other sister, Susan. Hart’s voice has routinely been compared to that of Janis Joplin and here she was at her most Joplin-esque here, the metallic power of the song hammered home by the band as Hart cavorted around the stage engaging the crowd in a little audience participation.

Hart sat to perform the slow blues “Tell Her You Belong To Me” , a song addressed to her estranged father’s lover and sung from the point of view of an abandoned daughter. Like Gales Hart puts a lot of self into her material.

Hart picked up a guitar for the only time to join with Nichols in a duet embracing elements of rockabilly and the swamp rock of Credence Clearwater Revival with Marinelli and Ransom kicking in midway though the song.

As her band left the stage Hart closed the set seated alone at the piano to deliver an emotive reading of “Leave The Light On”, one of her oldest and best loved songs.

As somebody totally new to Hart’s music I was highly impressed with both her singing (and to a lesser degree her playing) and also the quality of her often highly personal writing. Her band offered solid support with Nichols, who also added backing vocals, the outstanding instrumentalist and very much her ‘right hand man’ in this context. But it wasn’t just the music, Hart is a gritty and charismatic performer who knows how to work an audience.

If I’ve got any of the song titles wrong then I apologise to the Hart faithful, but I can promise that she’s an artist whose work I will most certainly be exploring further. This was an event that turned out to be an unexpected Festival highlight.

JIM BLACK’S MALAMUTE, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
Originally from Seattle the drummer and composer Jim Black lived for many years in Brooklyn where he became a vital presence and a key player on the New York jazz and experimental scene.

In recent years he has moved to Berlin, another city with a cutting edge music scene. Malamute is his new group and features musicians from both sides of the Atlantic including the Icelandic saxophonist Oskar Gudjonsson, German keyboard player Elias Stemeseder and electric bassist Chris Tordini, Black’s old mate from Brooklyn.

The group’s eponymous début album appears on the Zurich based Intakt record label and features thirteen comparatively brief Black compositions that switch mood and style abruptly in an attempt to replicate something of the restlessness of modern life. It’s an aesthetic that ties in with the concept of playlists and mixtapes with Black commenting;
“the band simply hears music unfolding this way, our generation raised on so many different types of equally moving music and sound”.

Black has always incorporated elements of rock and other contemporary musics in his projects and Malamute is no exception with electronics playing an important role in the group’s sound. Stemesder’s keyboard set up was entirely electronic while Black deployed a tiny, highly touch sensitive Roli Seabord sound machine which he kept mounted on his floor tom. It was the kind of electronic advice that one could imagine Leafcutter John deploying with Polar Bear.

Tordini proved to be an adaptable and sometimes forceful presence on electric bass while Gudjonsson was the melodic foil, roaming around the stage with his hooked up tenor sax and cutting an impish figure that sometimes reminded me of Van Der Graaf Generator’s David Jackson.

It’s quite possible that Malamute played their way through their début album, sheet music was in evidence, but I suspect that there was rather too much ‘ in the moment’ improvisation for that. The set was divided up into two lengthy segues with the music ranging from the gently atmospheric to the loud, brash and abrasive with Black and Tordini laying down some muscular but elastic grooves while Stemeseder provided dark and unsettling keyboard textures and Gudjonsson added snatches of melody.

Black was a restless, puckish figure behind the traps, hammering the hell out of his kit in a virtuoso drumming display that embraced jazz and rock rhythms and a dizzying array of time signatures.

The lengthier second segue embraced typically frenetic drumming and tenor sax freak outs with more reflective passages. Some of the more energetic sections embraced rock rhythms and song like structures, but these were from the more complex end of that spectrum, reminiscent of King Crimson or VDGG.

This part of the performance included major features for Gudjonsson, Tordini and Stemeseder,  the keyboard player entering into an enthralling dialogue with the leader’s drums as Tordini underpinned everything from the bass. Finally the four musicians coalesced for an anthemic closing section that left a rapturous PAC audience baying for more. It wasn’t to be but the affable Black was more than happy to chat with fans in the foyer after the event.

I’ve been a fan of Black’s playing since his involvement with the trans-Atlantic Big Air project back in 2009, an Anglo-American quintet featuring British musicians Chris Bachelor (trumpet), Steve Buckley (saxes) and Oren Marshall (tuba) together with the Americans Black and Myra Melford. This line up subsequently played at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Black was back in the UK again in 2013 for a one off collaboration with the Welsh musicians Huw Warren (piano) and Huw V Williams (bass) at Brecon Jazz Festival. Billed as ‘Wales Meets Brooklyn” this event was arguably the best gig of the entire weekend.

With all this in mind it was great to see Black play again and it was almost impossible to divert one’s eyes away from his performance, his drumming was a daring and compulsive blend of power, intelligence and musicality.

For me this was again one of the gigs of the Festival, the only downside being that Gudjonsson’s tenor sax seemed to be too low in the mix. Several other commentators have remarked on this, some suggesting that the Icelander’s style isn’t the right fit for this group and suggesting that Malamute needs a more forceful and powerful saxophonist in the mould of Donny McCaslin.

But could it be that Gudjonsson’s sometimes diffident approach is just what Black is looking for, a contrast to his own dynamic playing and a humanising voice amidst all the electronics.
On Friday night it was the contrast between Lydia Cadotsch’s relatively straight forward singing and the avant garde explorations of bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist Otis Sandsjo that gave the Speak Low trio their unique appeal. Maybe Black is after something similar but the jury is still out on Gudjonsson’s contribution. A storming gig though, nevertheless.

EVAN PARKER’S TRANCE MAP +, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

After a busy and intense day of music the interim between the last two performances of the day at the PAC finally allowed me the chance to grab something to eat courtesy of a quick visit to the chippy near the bus station. I know how to live.

Suitably fortified I settled back in my seat to enjoy this fascinating wholly improvised set from free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker and his Trance Map + project.

Born in Bristol in 1944 Parker has been recording albums since 1970 and has amassed an enormous discography of mainly improvised recordings. He is a musician with an international reputation and has recorded for ECM and other leading European labels. He also runs his own imprint, Psi.

In recent years Parker has increasingly collaborated with electronic musicians and in 2011 released the album “Trance Map”, a duo recording made with electronic musician and turntablist Matthew Wright.

Some years prior to this, 1999 to be precise, Parker had also collaborated with the electronic musicians John Coxon and Ashley Wales, collectively known as Spring Heel Jack. This evening’s project brought Coxon and Wales together with Wright to form Trance Map + with the ensemble further boasted by double bass player Adam Linson.

The stage at the PAC contained three tables groaning under the weight of a sea of electronic equipment with both Wright and Coxon equipped with turntables and Wales a more modern CD sampler in addition to numerous other pieces of sonic gadgetry. Parker sat gnomically centre stage, specialising exclusively on soprano sax on this occasion, with Linson and his bass hovering just behind his shoulder.

The Trance Map + project developed out of a weekend festival held in 2017 in Hull celebrating the life and work of the British drummer and composer Basil Kirchin (1927-2005) with whom Parker once worked.

Tonight’s uninterrupted performance developed from a pre-recorded sample of birdsong but was otherwise comprised solely of real time acoustic and electronic improvisation. As befitted the late night setting the music was suitably atmospheric and, indeed, trance like with Parker’s bird like piping on soprano neatly complementing the sampled avian noises and other ambient sounds.

Parker is renowned for his phenomenal circular breathing technique and there were several examples of this throughout the set together with pecked sounds and layered multiphonics that threatened to envelop the listener.

For all this Parker is also a master of restraint and there were lengthy periods where he simply sat, eyes closed in reverie,  listening intently to his colleagues. The contributions of the three electronic musicians were harder to pigeon-hole but between them they generated sounds ranging from ambient ‘deep sea’ noises to edgy, glitchy electronica to sampled church bells, strings and choirs as the initial bird song samples faded as a reference point.

Meanwhile Lister proved to be a perfect foil for both Parker and the electronic artists, subtly shadowing the saxophonist and providing a counterpoint to the multifarious electronically generated sounds as he switched seamlessly between pizzicato and arco techniques. The combination of grainy arco bass with a particularly glitchy passage of electronica from Wright was particularly effective.

Much of the time it it was difficult to pinpoint where any specific sound was coming from, other than the easily identifiable soprano sax or double bass, but this was part of the fun and helped to keep the audience engaged. This was the most challenging, ‘out there’ music of the day but as a live performance it was oddly compelling and strangely beautiful.

But having said even though the programme was being recorded by Radio 3 for the Jazz Now programme due to be broadcast on the 25th June 2018 it’s still not necessarily something I’d choose to listen to in the home environment, an observation that I’d make about most ‘free music’.

Nevertheless after only having previously seen Evan Parker guesting with others, notably on tenor with Dedication Orchestra, it was good to see him leading his own project at last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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