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Sunday at Brecon Jazz, 11/08/2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Sunday at Brecon Jazz, 11/08/2013.

Ian Mann enjoys four superb performances featuring some real heavyweights of the music.

SUNDAY AT BRECON JAZZ, 11.08/2013


Photograph of Jim Black by Peter Gannushkin sourced from http://www.breconjazz.com


Note for note Sunday was arguably the strongest day of the festival with your correspondent seeing four excellent performances featuring some real heavyweights of the music. Some of these were predictably excellent, others came as a delightful surprise. All were united by the sheer quality of the playing and by the reaction of the delighted and (from the festival organisers’ point of view)  pleasingly substantial audiences.


WORLDWIDE WALES 2 -  WALES MEETS BROOKLYN

The second of two international collaborations featuring artist in residence Huw Warren this lunchtime event took place in the surroundings of the newly refurbished Castle Hotel, now happily restored as a festival venue.

This rare meeting between Welsh pianist Warren and the Seattle born, Brooklyn based Jim Black promised to be one of the most interesting events of the festival. The versatile Warren moves easily between the worlds of jazz and folk and was scheduled to appear again later in the day alongside jazz saxophonist Iain Ballamy and folk diva June Tabor as part of the trio Quercus. Warren has also been a key member of the group Perfect Houseplants and has also produced a series of quirky but enjoyable solo albums for the Babel label including “A Barrel Organ Far From Home” and “Hundreds Of Things A Boy Can Make”. He has paid homage to the great Brazilian maverick composer Hermeto Pascoal on the album “Hermeto +” (Basho Records).

Black meanwhile, is one of the leading lights of New York’s “Downtown” scene, a serial collaborator who has worked in bands fronted by trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonists Tim Berne and Ellery Eskelin as well as leading his own groups Pachora, Human Fell and the celebrated AlasNoAxis. I’m most familiar with his playing from his work with another Transatlantic collaboration the Anglo-American group Big Air featuring a British contingent of Chris Batchelor (trumpet), Steve Buckley (reeds) and Oren Marshall (tuba) together with American duo of Black at the drums and Myra Melford on piano. The quintet’s splendid album for Babel is reviewed elsewhere on this site as are Big Air performances at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and London’s Vortex Jazz Club. I saw the Cheltenham show and was hugely impressed by Black’s contribution so I was particularly keen to see him play again. It seemed I wasn’t alone, the ballroom at the castle was commendably full with many musicians present in the audience including Iain Ballamy plus drummers Mark O’Connor and Lloyd Haines, both of whom were eager to catch a glimpse of a man they look up to and regard as one of the best in the business.

I’m pleased to report that Black didn’t disappoint. This turned out to be one of the best gigs of the festival, an event made all the more enjoyable because nobody knew exactly what to expect. Warren and Black were set up facing each other, the stage layout facilitating the free exchange of ideas. These two experienced improvisers were accompanied by the young double bassist Huw V Williams, a recent graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I’ve seen Williams perform before with the RWCMD big band and also in a variety of small group contexts but nothing had prepared me for the enormity of his contribution here. On what must have been a very big gig for him he acquitted himself superbly, not only acting as the anchor between Black and Warren but also bringing plenty of himself to the proceedings.

The pre gig publicity offered “an eclectic mix of original tunes and impro”  and the first item combined both featuring a free form intro of scraped percussion and interior piano scrabblings before the spacious melody of Warren’s “The Beginning Is Also The End” emerged, this later combined with Hermeto Pascoal’s exuberant “San Antonio”, the latter the vehicle for a joyously tumbling Warren solo that certainly grabbed the audience by the lapels. Williams’ bass feature retained their attention, fluent and inventive it was far more than just a token cameo. Meanwhile Black’s drumming was pleasingly idiosyncratic with the American’s distinctive grooves frequently driven by the unusual combination of one stick and one brush. Black is a puckish figure who takes great delight in his playing and rarely plays the obvious thing. Like Anton Eger of Phronesis he’s a busy but innately musical drummer who often finds himself the centre of attention, a role he clearly relishes. Black is relentless, but in a good way, he’s always looking for new ideas, sounds, textures and rhythms. Warren later revealed that he’d played with both Black and Williams before but that this was the first time they’d actually worked together as a trio. This seemed almost impossible to believe such was the level of interaction and instant rapport between the members of the trio.

Inspired by the writing of Irvine Welsh Warren’s “Where The Debris Meets The Sea” from his “Hundreds Of Things…” album was just as fine, the dialogue between Warren and Black like an animated conversation between two old friends, lively, sparky, sometimes confrontational but always conducted with total mutual respect. Over the course of what are in fact two interlinked pieces we heard Black’s imaginative use of hand drumming techniques above Warren’s insistent piano arpeggios, moments of bone crunching low end piano dissonance and finally a ballad like coda with Williams soloing above Warren’s hymn like chords and Black’s subtle drum colourations exemplified by the inventive use of cymbal ticks.

Black’s output as a leader has been distinguished by his innovative use of Balkan and other world rhythms plus his imaginative use of electronica. His tune “Protection” was a good example of his fiercely intelligent music with Warren’s delicate solo piano introduction gradually mutating into a fiery three way conversation full of rhythmic and harmonic complexities. 

On agreeing to Warren’s request to be part of this trio one of Williams’ conditions was that one of his own tunes should be included in the festival set. His piece, simply entitled “Glyn” more than held its own in this company. The composer introduced the tune on solo bass combining both pizzicato and arco techniques before soloing in more conventional jazz style above Warren’s delicate high register, almost glockenspiel like, piano. However there was more to this piece than mere prettiness as the trio gradually increased the tension laying down accreting layers of greater rhythmic and physical intensity and creating a juggernaut that was only appeased by an unexpectedly lyrical coda. This was an impressively mature piece of writing that drew more great playing from this exceptional trio and which was extremely well received by a highly appreciative audience.

The next piece was unannounced and it’s possible it may even have been fully improvised with Warren laying down a rapidly repeating piano figure with Black offering eloquent commentary from every corner of his highly personalised drum kit, his cymbal work strikingly intelligent and imaginative. More conventional features for piano and drums followed as the trio maintained their high standards.

Black’s “Terror Toe” closed the set on a surprisingly lyrical and melodic note with Williams being featured extensively on the bass. 

A delighted audience called the trio back for a well deserved encore, Warren’s “All Is Sound”, which saw them ending as they began first exploring the avant garde with Williams’ grainy arco bass and Warren’s impromptu “prepared” piano. Black’s drumming varied from furtive brushed shufflings to full on explosions and also incorporated the eerie sound of bowed cymbals, something of a Black trademark it would seem. At one point both Black and Williams were using bows on their respective instruments, not something I can recall witnessing before. Once the storm had played itself out Warren played the set out with a luminous solo piano coda.

With its mix of strong tunes from all three participants, superb playing all round and a genuine sense of fun and experimentation this was a set that fulfilled its promise and more. The unconventional but hugely imaginative Black was a revelation and his Welsh colleagues rose to the challenge magnificently. I’d been quietly hopeful but the quality of this performance easily exceeded my expectations. Definitely the highlight of a very good day and right up there with Phronesis as gig of the festival. I might just give this the nod as it came as such a delightful surprise.

Note to self; must check out more of Jim Black’s recordings, especially his albums as a leader.


JOHN SURMAN TRIO

Devon born saxophonist and composer John Surman has been a leading figure on the UK jazz scene for more than forty years having emerged on the London scene in the late 1960’s. One of the few British jazz musicians with a truly international reputation he has recorded prolifically and has had a long relationship with the prestigious Munich based ECM record label for whom he has recorded a series of “special project” albums. Surman also plays keyboards and synthesisers as well as a variety of reed instruments and his latest offering, the well received “Saltash Bells”  was a totally solo project with Surman playing all the instruments.

As enjoyable as Surman’s solo albums have been it’s also good to see him interacting with other musicians in live performance. This trio set at a sold out Brecon Cathedral saw him collaborating with two of his most long standing associates, bassist Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall, both of whom came to prominence at roughly the same time as Surman. Laurence has been a prolific jazz sideman as well as becoming a respected double bass soloist in the sphere of classical music. Marshall meanwhile has comfortably straddled the worlds of jazz and rock with high profile stints with Nucleus, Soft Machine and Eberhard Weber’s Colours band.

Today’s concert was being recorded for BBC Radio 3’s “Jazz Line Up” programme and the music should be well worth hearing again. Surman is a prolific composer and much of the music was new and untitled, presumably written specifically for this line up. The opener was one such piece, ushered in by Marshall’s drums and featuring remarkable unison melody lines played by Laurence’s arco bass and Surman’s bass clarinet. Laurence then switched to the more familiar (for jazz)  pizzicato technique as he soled fluently above Surman’s bass clarinet motif. Meanwhile Marshall’s exquisite cymbal touch compared favourably with that of Jim Black.

The cyclical “No Finesse”, the title a play on a French colleague’s mispronunciation, saw Surman switching to baritone sax, the instrument with which he is perhaps most closely associated. His solos on the instrument are a miracle of both fluency and inventiveness and sheer physical resourcefulness, qualities that were shown here alongside Laurence’s feature on the double bass. However what was really most impressive here was the tenderness and lyricism Surman brought to the baritone, an instrument sometimes thought of as ungainly. More than any musician since Gerry Mulligan Surman has transformed the big horn into a truly expressive instrument.

The next piece was largely improvised with Surman beginning proceedings on recorder before later moving back to his more familiar baritone sax. Laurence’s exquisite high register bowing was a reminder of his classical touch and technique. He later put down the bow as he and Marshall laid down some propulsive grooves for Surman to solo over with the saxophonist also including some scintillating exchanges with the drummer. Surman’s live work is sometimes surprisingly fiery, well removed from the rarefied atmosphere of much of his ECM output.

Having said that the pretty and lyrical “Where Fortune Smiles” would sit well in the ECM environment with Surman on airy soprano sax, an instrument he rarely deploys with the trio. With Marshall understated on brushes Laurence’s bass sometimes carried the melody line and he moved between techniques during the course of his solo. As Surman soloed on soprano the reflective atmosphere of the piece was enhanced by the warm colours of the late afternoon sun streaming through the Cathedral’s stained glass windows.

The acoustics of the cathedral were also well suited to the trio’s music and nowhere more so than on the next lengthy piece that saw Surman back on baritone for a solo intro that saw him producing sounds ranging from foghorn like blasts to stunning high register trills. Laurence and Marshall eventually entered the proceedings with both taking solos, Marshall’s drum feature providing a bridge into the second half of the piece. Surman had now switched to soprano and delivered a marathon solo featuring innumerable twists and turns that resulted in tumultuous applause from the capacity audience.

Despite his international profile and the fact that he now lives in Norway Surman is still a West Country lad at heart. He’s never lost his Devonian accent and actually plays up to his “Wurzel” image, he even used the phrase “proper job” at one point. The title “Going For A Burton” summed up this side of his character, the tune being a baritone tear up over an arco bass groove and effectively an encore in this context.

This was another excellent performance with a good balance of light and shade, a touch of West Country humour and some absolutely terrific playing from three of the best jazz musicians Britain has ever produced. In fact Surman makes it all look so easy it’s easy to underestimate just how good he really is, particularly on the baritone. More terrific stuff.


THE IMPOSSIBLE GENTLEMEN

This Anglo-American alliance between the British musicians Mike Walker (guitar) and Gwilym Simcock (piano) and the Americans Steve Swallow (electric bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums) was originally assembled by Walker in 2010 and was probably expected to be a one off project. However the rapport quickly established by the four musicians plus the overwhelmingly favourable reception to their exciting live shows ensured that this was a project with legs. The formal group name was only adopted on the release of their eponymous d�but album, a wonderful recording that by now must surely be the biggest seller in the Basho Records catalogue. The group have just released their second album “Internationally Recognised Aliens”, an equally imaginative piece of work that promises to do just as well and I’m pleased to report that the quartet have stayed loyal to Basho. I’ll be taking a look at the album itself in due course.

I’ve been lucky enough to see TIG three times previously, twice in Swansea and once in Much Wenlock and all three shows have been excellent. Today however represented something significantly different, not only in the preponderance of new material but also the presence of an entirely different American contingent. With Swallow busy promoting his latest solo project and also working with his partner Carla Bley his place was taken by Steve Rodby playing double bass. Rodby has depped for Swallow before and is also the producer of the new album, adding extra bass to a couple of tracks. He’s best known for his extended stay with the Pat Metheny Group which he joined in 1982 and is also a highly experienced producer. In the temporary absence of Nussbaum the drum chair was occupied by Mark Walker (no relation), best known as the percussionist of the group Oregon. Both Steve and Mark brought plenty of themselves to this one off edition of TIG with the use of stand up bass subtly altering the group dynamic as Rodby really got stuck into the grooves, very different to Swallow’s singing, lyrical, melodic approach to the bass.

Unusually for a Trans-Atlantic group it’s the British guys who are essentially the leaders with Mike and Gwilym taking most of the composer credits. Today’s performance at Theatr Brycheniog showcased material from both albums and began with the funky but intelligent fusion of “Modern Day Heroes”, a Simcock/Walker composition from the new record here with features for guitar, piano and drums.

From the first album came Simcock’s “You Won’t Be Around To See It”, an imaginative subversion/re-write of the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” with further features for guitar, piano and drums with Mike Walker making effective use of his array of guitar FX.

Simcock’s “Just To See You”, a tune from the new album found the group at their most Metheny-ish, the gentle melody introduced by a lovely duet between Simcock and Rodby. In the Metheny Group Rodby’s role was essentially functional, holding down the bottom end while other soloists, notably Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays took the plaudits. Today he was allowed a lot more space and contributed several excellent double bass solos. The youthful Simcock grew up idolising the Metheny Group and here he was sharing a stage with one of his boyhood heroes. Nice one.

Mike Walker’s “The Clockmaker” is one of the stand out tunes on the group’s first album and the guitarist was insistent that it should be played here. The piece was written for the father of Mike’s close friend and musical colleague the saxophonist Iain Dixon, the latter currently earning a crust as part of Bryan Ferry’s touring band. Walker opened the piece with an impressive display of solo guitar before picking out the familiar melody. One of the group’s most attention grabbing numbers it included further solos from Rodby and Simcock plus an inspired guitar and piano duet.

The opening track of the new album, the jointly composed “Heute Loiter” also opened with a burst of solo guitar, this time much more obviously rock influenced. This continued into Walker’s incandescent solo, fuelled by the slamming funk grooves generated by Rodby and Mark Walker.

“Ever After”, a lovely ballad from the new album penned by the absent Swallow calmed things down again with one of the composer’s most elegant melodies well served by Simcock’s thoughtful and lyrical solo piano introduction, Mark Walker’s delicate brushwork, Rodby’s lyrical but resonant double bass and Walker’s tastefully understated guitar. The Manchester based guitarist is a wonderfully versatile musician capable of playing with total abandon or with admirable restraint across a variety of musical genres -jazz, rock ,blues and pop and readily admitting the influence of these various music forms.

The entertainment was completed by Simcock’s “Barber’s Blues”, a piece based on methods deployed by the classical composer Samuel Barber and utilising a strong, highly rhythmic left hand piano ostinato and a forceful right hand melody. Simcock has mutated the tune into a 16 bar blues with the solos passed around the band with Rodby going first followed by Mike Walker and then Simcock with Mike supplying in intriguing counter melody. Finally Mark Walker enjoyed an extended drum feature, circumnavigating his kit above the insistent rumble of Simcock’s left hand piano figures. I’d only been aware of Walker previously from his wok with Oregon, today’s show revealed that he’s also a masterful kit drummer.

With Simcock and Mike Walker handling the announcements with their understated and occasionally rambling English charm and with some great playing from this probably one off combination this was an excellent show. Rodby and Mark Walker slotted seamlessly into the Gents’ aesthetic and the quartet earned a terrific reception from a full-ish Theatr (by now it was early Sunday evening and some fans had already headed for home). Business at the CD and T Shirt stall was incredibly brisk “It’s the first time I’ve been in a band that’s had T shirts” quipped Simcock self deprecatingly from the stage, and the new design by Basho’s Max Steuer is a bit of a classic with some equally self deprecating British humour. Check it out along with the album.

The Impossible Gentlemen will be touring the UK more extensively in the Autumn with Rodby continuing on bass and Nussbaum returning to the drum chair. See http://www.impossiblegentlemen.com for details.   


JOHN ETHERIDGE’S BLUE SPIRITS TRIO

From one great British guitarist to another and John Etheridge leading his Blue Spirits trio at the Castle Hotel. Etheridge is if anything even more versatile than Walker having played with everybody from Soft Machine to Stephane Grappelli. I first heard his playing on the underrated 1974 album “Night Music” by Wolf, the band led by ex Curved Air violinist Darryl Way, a recording that even preceded his well publicised stint with Soft Machine.

In recent years I’ve witnessed Etheridge perform with the Soft Machine Legacy Band but I’ve seen him more often with his jazz hat on, either in solo performance or playing gypsy jazz in various combos, many of them featuring violinist Chris Garrick.

However tonight’s line up represented a new context for Etheridge’s music, certainly as far as I was concerned. Blue Spirits lies somewhere between jazz and rock and offers a glimpse into the more blues orientated side of Etheridge’s playing. Essentially Blue Spirits is an organ trio with Pete Whittaker on keyboards, a Crumar Mojo complete with Leslie speaker cabinet, and the powerful mark Fletcher at the drums. Their enjoyable set embraced jazz, blues, funk and more and was well received at yet another well attended event.

The trio kicked off with Etheridge’s “Stitched Up”, a lively opener incorporating both funk and blues with solos for both guitar and organ and with both Etheridge and Whittaker exchanging choruses with the fiery Fletcher.

Another Etheridge original, “The Venerable Bede”  turned out to be a simply constructed but low down and dirty blues that generated earthy and powerful solos for organ and guitar.

The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” became the vehicle for some more earthy funk blues with Etheridge’s adopting a downright filthy wah wah guitar sound reminiscent of that on Steely Dan’s “Haitian Divorce”. His splendid rock/funk/blues solo was complemented by a typically hard hitting Fletcher drum feature.   

The trio’s version of Denzil Best’s “Wee” saw the music taking a more jazzy, boppish turn albeit with Etheridge retaining a more contemporary guitar sound. This was tricky, fast moving energetic stuff, again climaxed by a Fletcher drum solo.

At this point Etheridge allowed his colleagues a rest as he played a couple of solo items, these representing a welcome change of style and pace. Both pieces have been regular features of Etheridge’s solo guitar repertoire and feature the subtle use of live looping effects. First we heard Charles Mingus’ beautiful elegy to Lester Young “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and then a joyous take on Abdullah Ibrahim’s township jazz classic “M’ Sanduza” with its chiming multi tracked lines.

Whittaker and Fletcher returned for the trio’s version of Stevie Wonders “‘Cos We’ve Ended As Lovers”, Etheridge putting an optimistic slant on the title and making extensive use of his tremolo arm prior to Whittaker’s gospel tinged organ solo. 

Etheridge is a big admirer of the song writing of the Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa and the trio turned in a gently soulful version of his tune “gentle rain” with the guitar and organ solos receiving brushed accompaniment.

Etheridge’s “Distant Voices” featured guitar playing that ranged from delicate semi acoustic to the stratospheric either side of a gospelly Whittaker organ solo.

The trio rounded off by playing what the loquacious Etheridge described as “a funk groove we like”. This proved to be Nat Adderley’s “Sweet Emma”, a last chance to appreciate sparkling solos from Whittaker and Etheridge plus a final thrilling series of guitar and drum exchanges. This was a good way to bring the curtain down on a hugely enjoyable festival and the trio’s efforts were very well received.

This was an unpretentious, good natured set featuring some excellent playing and it’s a tribute to the quality of the performances I’d seen elsewhere that this was actually the weakest set of the day � and it was still bloody good!


OVERVIEW

As I said in my Friday coverage Orchard seem to have got the festival back on track. I’ve heard that ticket sales were 30% up on last year and certainly every event I attended on Saturday and Sunday was very well subscribed. Overall the music was excellent with a string of fine performances on both Saturday and Sunday and I also liked the fact that the festival now seems to be fully integrated with the town once again. Equally importantly it has become a focus for the Welsh jazz scene once more after rather eschewing this vital role under the previous administration. Phronesis and the Warren/Williams/Black trio get the nod for gigs of the weekend with John Surman, Julian Siegel and the Impossible Gentlemen running them very close. My thanks to Tim Powell of Orchard for organising my press tickets. A great weekend but still with the potential for even better things in 2014.
 

Ian’s Star Ratings;

Wales Meets Brooklyn 4.5 stars

John Surman 4 Stars

The Impossible Gentlemen 4 Stars

John Etheridge 3.5 Stars

Overall 4 Stars    


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