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Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2011. 01/05/2011

Friday, May 06, 2011

Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2011. 01/05/2011

More reviews of performances at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival featuring Kit Downes, John Taylor, Django Bates, Tord Gustavsen, Stian Westerhus, Overtone Quartet and Big Air.

Sunday At Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2011.
01/05/2011

Photograph of Chris Batchelor of Big Air by Tim Dickeson.

KIT DOWNES SEXTET

There can be no doubt that the Mercury Music Prize nomination that young pianist and composer Kit Downes received for his début trio recording “Golden” gave his career a tremendous kick start.
This was evidenced by the sell out show that Downes and his trio with bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren gave in the Pillar Room at roughly this time last year, one of the highlights of the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Now Downes was back in the same room, with another capacity crowd and with a new album, “Quiet Tiger”, under his belt. The new record represents a major step forward, even from his auspicious début. “Quiet Tiger” exhibits a greater compositional maturity and an expanded line-up that has enabled Downes to bring a wider variety of colours and textures to his writing.

This eagerly awaited festival appearance, part of an extensive national tour, saw the Downes group expanded to a sextet with the addition of album personnel James Allsopp on bass clarinet and tenor sax plus the French cellist Adrian Dennefeld. The young tenor saxophonist Josh Arcoleo expanded the group to a sextet, augmenting Allsopp who doubles up on the recording.

The extended group played material mainly sourced from the “Quiet Tiger” album alongside one or two newer pieces. They opened gently with the rich but subtle textures of “Quiet Tiger” itself,  an ensemble piece acting as a kind of calming overture before the leaping, celebratory exuberance of the Keith Jarrett inspired “Tambourine”. Here Downes soloed joyously above the grooves laid down by Gourlay and Maddren with the bassist also featuring as he soloed above a set of circling horn configurations. Not that everything was sweetness and light, Downes also threw in a hint of wilful dissonance in acknowledgement of Jarrett’s sixties and seventies avant garde credentials.

In live performance Downes like to link his tunes together. Next came a segue of the contrasting pieces “With A View” and “Frizzi Pazzi"with Allsopp switching to tenor sax as Arcoleo initially sat out. Following Downes’ solo piano intro “With A View” featured the sonorous textures of the rarely heard combination of cello and tenor sax with Allsopp also featuring as a soloist. There was also another chance for bassist Calum Gourlay to again demonstrate his considerable soloing ability.
“Frizzi Pazzi” was another celebration, named after a type of Austrian sherbet it was as fizzing as the title suggests with Downes effervescent at the piano and Arcoleo delivering a raucous, honking tenor solo. It was climaxed by a thrillingly inventive drum feature from the excellent Maddren.

A new tune, titled “Jan Johansson” in honour of the late Swedish pianist (who was among the first to incorporate Scandinavian folk music into jazz) proved to be a feature for cellist Adrian Dennefeld. The textures and colours created by Dennefeld and Gourlay, both playing arco above Maddren’s implacable drum groove, were spellbinding-once more you could literally hear a pin drop. The piece played out over Maddren’s extended groove and the slap tonguing of Allsopp’s bass clarinet. The sombre mood of the piece was a total contrast to the joyousness of “Tambourine” or “Frizzi Pazzi” and offered ample evidence of Downes’ growing maturity and versatility as a composer.

Another new piece, the punningly titled “Mad Wren” was a tribute to the band’s drummer, and honoured the hours Maddren had put in behind the wheel driving the trio all over the country (apparently Gourlay can’t drive and Downes has only just passed his test). The tune itself was suitably quirky with a brilliant opening dialogue between Downes’ piano and Allsopp’s bass clarinet. The second half of the tune was more groove based with Downes soloing above the subtle propulsion of Maddren’s drums.

Inspired by David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” films “Owls” was suitably spooky with grainy ensemble textures featuring bass clarinet and the twin bowing of Dennefeld and Gourlay shadowed by Maddren’s underlying drum groove.

Another tribute closed the set, this one a blues simply titled “Skip James” in honour of the veteran Mississippi bluesman. James was an often tragic figure but Downes tune is a real celebration of the man and his music and was a fitting way to close a second triumphant Cheltenham Jazz Festival appearance. Once again Downes and his colleagues had delivered a real festival highlight.

JAZZ LIBRARY with JOHN TAYLOR and ALYN SHIPTON

During my visit to the 2010 London Jazz Festival I attended a couple of recordings of Radio 3’s “Jazz Library” programme hosted by the urbane jazz journalist Alyn Shipton, also of The Times. I found these extremely interesting and informative and with a window in my schedule decided to attend this event at the Cheltenham Playhouse venue. This small but intimate theatre was the ideal venue for Shipton who was the epitome of cool professionalism as he interviewed pianist and composer John Taylor, covering a good cross section of Taylor’s illustrious career from the late 60’s to the present.

Shipton and Taylor discussed the pianist’s long term musical relationship with saxophonist John Surman (they met through trombonist Malcolm Griffiths) with Shipton selecting John Warren’s composition “Premonition” from the Surman album “How Many Moons Can You See” to illustrate this first phase of Taylor’s career.

From Taylor’s first solo album “Pause And Think Again” came “Pause” itself played by a sextet featuring Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Stan Sulzmann (reeds), Chris Pyne (trombone), Chris Laurence (bass) and Tony Levin (drums). Many of these went on to become long term Taylor associates with the recent death of Tony Levin making the choice particularly poignant. Taylor spoke of the influence of Herbie Hancock on his music at that time and drew attention to the beautiful playing of Kenny Wheeler on this selection.

Taylor and Wheeler also formed part of the trio Azimuth alongside singer Norma Winstone. Azimuth’s quiet but innovative brand of chamber jazz was featured on a series of ECM albums in the late 70’s and early 80’s with Taylor also sometimes playing organ and synthesiser. Shipton selected the 1978 track “Sea” as a highly descriptive example of the trio’s work.

Wheeler enjoyed a long and productive relationship with ECM and Taylor and Winstone both appeared on his “Music For Large & Small Ensembles” (1990) with the large ensemble piece “Know Where You are” being chosen by Shipton to illustrate this period.

Taylor’s various trio recordings were discussed extensively. In the 90’s he appeared on four ECM albums as a member of a trio led by drummer Peter Erskine and also featuring bassist Palle Danielsson. Shipton’s selection was the trio’s version of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” from the 1992 album “You Never Know”.

Meanwhile Taylor was also working in a duo with John Surman which resulted in the classic “Ambleside Days” album, a collection of Lake District inspired Taylor compositions commissioned by Derek Hook of the famous Zeferelli’s restaurant and jazz venue in Ambleside. Released on Nick Purnell’s Ah Um label the album included both the title track (played by Taylor in the Pillar Room only yesterday as part of his duo performance with saxophonist Julian Arguelles) and the evocative “Drystone”, Shipton’s selection here.
Taylor finally made his ECM début as a leader in 2002 with the album “Rosslyn” recorded with American musicians bassist Marc Johnson (once a sideman with the late, great Bill Evans) and drummer Joey Baron. Inspired by the baroque chapel near Edinburgh that was to later gain even greater fame in the book and film “The Da Vinci Code” this was an album that helped revitalise Taylor’s career. Recorded at Oslo’s famous Rainbow Studio this was a fine example of the ECM sound with Taylor revealing that Baron’s lightness of touch behind the traps was enhanced by his playing the kit with chop sticks! “We’d scoop up armfuls of them whenever we went for a meal at a Chinese restaurant” he revealed, “they were very fragile”. Shipton’s choice to illustrate the album was the lovely Taylor composition “Field Day”.

Taylor’s solo album “Hand Made” was an exploration of extended piano techniques with Taylor exploiting the whole body of the instrument and incorporating much work under the lid. He’d applied some of these techniques to the version of “Ambleside Days” in yesterday’s performance with Arguelles. Shipton chose the strange but engrossing “In Sight” as a good example of the more experimental side of Taylor’s work.

Taylor hooked up with bassist Palle Danielsson again with Martin France taking over at the drums for two excellent trio recordings for the Italian Camjazz label, “Angel Of The Presence” and “Whirlpool”. I saw this trio give a brilliant performance at St. George’s in Bristol two or three years ago. “Angel” gets the nod for me but Shipton chose the Kenny Wheeler composition “Nicolette” from “Whirlpool” , not that I’d wish to argue with that.

Shipton and Taylor touched on Taylor’s twenty year musical relationship with Arguelles, dating back to the saxophonist’s début as a leader, “Phaedrus”, released on Nick Purnell’s label back in 1990 and sadly no longer available. Their new quartet album “Requiem For A Dreamer” (with France and Danielsson) has only just come out and therefore wasn’t available for the programme. I saw a performance of this in Bristol too, it’s a record that can only enhance Taylor’s reputation still further.

Thus it was that Shipton ended with the title track of Taylor’s other latest recording “Blissful Ignorance”, a stunning album recently released on Edition Records by the Anglo/Norwegian trio Meadow which teams Taylor with saxophonist Tore Brunborg and drummer Thomas Stronen. Most of the tunes are Brunborg’s and the record is sure to be among the forerunners for album of the year.

Now in his late sixties John Taylor is still at the peak of his creative powers. A modest and quietly spoken man he perhaps hasn’t always generated the popular acclaim his talents deserve, particularly at home where there’s a temptation to take him a bit for granted. Nonetheless Taylor is one of the UK’s greatest musical exports, a player with an international reputation who has worked with some of the best musicians in the world. This musically illustrated conversation was a fascinating insight into a long and distinguished career. I’ll be tuning in to Radio 3 to listen again when the programme gets transmitted and would recommend all those reading this to do the same.


DJANGO BATES’ BELOVED BIRD

2011 seems to shaping up as being the year of Django Bates, well for me anyway. After not seeing him play for many years I finally caught up with him in March at Birmingham’s Midland Arts Centre where he was guesting with Sid Peacock’s big band Surge.

Hot on the heels of that very enjoyable gig (reviewed elsewhere on this site) here he was playing his second gig of the weekend at Cheltenham- the first with his new octet the TDE’s is included in our Saturday coverage.

Bates’ “Beloved Bird” trio is a longer running project and features Bates on acoustic piano alongside the Danish rhythm team of bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun. Both are much younger than Bates and I suspect that they are former students of his-Bates now lives in Copenhagen where he is a professor at the city’s Rhythmic Music Conservatory.

The trio released their “Beloved Bird” album in 2010 and have toured it extensively. The album pays tribute to the great Charlie Parker, an unlikely childhood hero of the youthful Bates, and this concert featured unique arrangements of Parker tunes alongside a couple of Bates originals. The concert was being recorded by Jazz On 3 for transmission in July and once again this should be well worth hearing.

As Bates puts it the idea is to “take Parker tunes and do crazy things with them”. No arguments there, Bates takes Parker’s themes by the scruff of the neck and does outrageous things to them, many of them are tricky enough already but Bates complicates them even more, juggling with harmonies and time signatures and putting his own stamp on the proceedings. He was all over the keyboard in a dazzling display of pianistic pyrotechnics, a second demonstration in as many days of just how good an acoustic pianist he really is. Eldh and Bruun offered competent, unspectacular support to the proceedings, just keeping up with Bates is a challenge in itself without having to bring too much of your own to the party.

First up Bates and his colleagues tackled the Parker tune ” Confirmation” before moving on to a seriously skewed version of “Star Eyes”, which featured a solo from Eldh with the bassist playing high register notes close to the bridge of the instrument. Then it was turn of “Moose The Mooch” to receive the patented Bates makeover, a style Django describes as “playing Parker’s music with respect, contemporary sensibility and joy”.

Bates own ballad “Sadness All The Way Down” represented a total contrast to the bustling energy of the Parker tunes with it’s brooding low end piano notes and atmospheric tympani style drumming.

Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes” was given an exuberant Latin treatment, an acknowledgement perhaps of Parker’s musical partnership with Latin jazz pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Then came Bates’ own quietly bustling “Plasticity” followed by a hectic and joyous “Billie’s Bounce” .

One of the most radical re-inventions of the Parker material was of the normally mercurial “Ah-Leu Cha” which Bates slowed down to transform it into a melancholy lament for piano and his own wordless vocal.

Humour is a constant presence in Bates’ music, manifesting itself both in his surreal but very British announcing style and also in the music itself. The next piece (sorry but the title escaped me) was climaxed by a string of tantalising false endings. The trio then closed the show with a bravura, signature bending take on that old Parker favourite “Scrapple From The Apple”.

This had been an intriguing performance that showcased Bates’ powers of imagination as both a composer/arranger and performer. Overall I found it less enjoyable than his performance with the TDE’s octet the previous evening but it was still a very welcome reminder of his talents. Bates may be going a bit thin on top these days (OMG, even the Loose Tubes are fifty) but his creative powers are as strong as ever. Bates and his former colleagues may not be young lions any more but they’re no pussy cats either. 

The Beloved Bird concert was recorded by Radio 3 and is due to be aired on Jazz Line Up in July.

TORD GUSTAVSEN ENSEMBLE

Another theme at Cheltenham in this and in previous years has been the presence of Norwegian musicians on the programme. This is partly a celebration of the links between the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire and its counterpart in Trondheim with several young Norwegian jazz stars of the future coming over to Cheltenham to play with their British colleagues.

However the link, also fostered by the Norwegian Embassy, has also encouraged more established Nordic jazz figures to visit the festival. Among these was pianist and composer Tord Gustavsen, an ECM recording artist with four hugely successful albums behind him. Originally operating in the piano trio format Gustavsen has now added the talents of tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg to his Ensemble. The current four piece line up recorded Gustavsen’s latest album “Restored, Returned”  in 2009 alongside guest vocalist Kristin Asbjornson.

It was the four piece that appeared in the Main Hall performing a set of compositions specifically commissioned for the festival alongside a few old favourites. I’m an admirer of Gustavsen’s music and I’ve seen him live before, witnessing trio performances at Lichfield and Much Wenlock plus the quartet in Bristol, with the intimacy of the Wenlock performance making it the pick of these. Perhaps it was because of this or maybe just the fact that the show was scheduled at four in the afternoon but somehow I found today’s performance curiously soporific. If I hadn’t been compelled to take notes I’d probably have nodded off -and no, I hadn’t been drinking. Not that this in any way detracts from the standard of musicianship. Gustavsen has established a signature sound and what he and his colleagues do they do very well, it’s just that sometimes I wish they’d inject a bit more urgency and a wider variety of mood and pace-dynamics in other words.

Gustavsen’s music is derived from the Lutheran church of his childhood, his writing is often hymnal and also sometimes includes hints of American gospel music. It’s highly melodic and easy on the ear but without any suggestion of compromise in the band’s methods. Gustavsen is a highly fluent soloist and the support he receives from bassist Mats Eilertsen (who has replaced previous incumbent, the very good Harald Johnsen) and drummer Jarle Vespestad is sympathetic and close on telepathic in the case of the latter. Vespestad is a fascinating character, a one time member of uncompromising Norwegian electro improvising duo Supersilent he is one of the most versatile drummers around. His lightness of touch and delicate attention to detail, particularly with regard to his cymbal work, is a constant marvel when he plays with the Gustavsen group. He now deploys a larger kit than the ultra minimalist set up he formerly used with the trio but his playing is as tasteful and assured as ever.

The equally versatile Eilertsen seems to have settled into the group remarkably quickly and he contributed a number of excellent solos over the course of the set, all fluent and dexterous and superbly constructed. However the Jan Garbarek inspired saxophonist Tore Brunborg still seems oddly detached from the rest of the group and is used rather too sparingly. Greater involvement from him plus a wider variation of style and tone would have given this music a much needed shot of adrenalin. Occasionally the saxophonist made use of an unusual curved soprano sax which made him sound even more like Garbarek than ever. All in all I think I prefer him with his own Meadow project (with pianist John Taylor and drummer Thomas Stronen) in which he brings far more of himself to the proceedings.

Although Gustavsen is an entertaining announcer of tunes he certainly didn’t name check all of them. The quartet began with the first part of the new suite introduced by Gustavsen’s solo piano and also featuring Eilertsen’s bowed bass plus solos from Brunborg on tenor and Gustavsen at the piano.

“Prelude” rather puzzlingly came second, another sublime piece of chamber jazz featuring many of the same elements. Brunborg stood aside for an unannounced trio piece that was positively hymnal before returning on soprano for the anthemic “Every Corner”.

“Inside” included a lengthy and often brilliant drum feature from Vespestad informed by an inner logic and a strong sense of melody.  This was maybe the quietest drum solo you’ve ever heard with Vespestad playing his kit like tympanis with soft headed sticks. Not the usual drum pyrotechnics then, but still a solo that gripped through its sense of control, narrative and quiet drama.

My reservations seemed to place me in a minority of one. My wife loved this performance as did the rest of a capacity Town Hall crowd, many of whom gave the quartet a standing ovation. I think the gig just came at a bad time for me when I was flagging a bit (I hadn’t eaten all day, it’s a tough life this reviewing lark). The concert is due to be broadcast on Jazz On 3 on May 23rd and somehow I know that I’m going to enjoy it a whole lot more then. There was plenty to recommend here and I certainly still class myself as a Gustavsen fan.

STIAN WESTERHUS

Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus made a big impression at Cheltenham a few years ago when he was part of an incendiary performance by the Anglo/Norwegian group Fraud (led by saxophonist James Allsopp) in the Pillar Room.

As part of the festival’s Norwegian strand Westerhus was back at The Playhouse Theatre to deliver an astonishing solo guitar performance. Westerhus took to a semi darkened stage festooned with a sea of foot pedals, switches and other devices, two electric guitars and a stack of amps. He proceeded to give an hour long improvised “recital” (for want of a better term) incorporating extended guitar techniques and a whole host of electronics. This was definitely an adventure in sound, sometimes a very scary one. 

Westerhus looks more like a rock musician than a jazzer and deploys many of the devices present in the rock genre. His use of the bow on his instrument made Jimmy Page look like a dilettante, at other times the twang of his guitar sounded like The Shadows on very bad acid. I once saw Robert Fripp give a solo guitar performance incorporating his patent “Frippertronics” but Westerhus made the Crimson King look positively bloodless by comparison (admittedly Fripp’s performance was a freebie in Worcester Cathedral so maybe he wasn’t given as free a rein as Westerhus enjoyed here).

Certainly Westerhus deployed every device in his arsenal with explosions of pedal generated noise, the dynamics of the performance ranging from near silence to brutal salvos of thunderous sound. The chiming of Westerhus’ guitar brought to mind a quote I once heard about Bob Mould’s guitar sound in his Husker Du days-“like a tray of glasses dropped in a church”. The total experience was not unlike one description made about Fraud’s Cheltenham performance- “it was like being hit by a train”. No more so was this true than in a barrage of foot generated machine gun noise towards the end of the set, the contrast all the more shocking as it followed the spookily quiet sound of Westerhus picking out folk melodies on his guitar with the bow.

This was by far the most extreme thing I saw all weekend but I still found it fascinating. In its way it was far more successful than the Spin Marvel performance the previous day but Westerhus has clearly done quite a few of these solo shows by now and doubtless knows how to broadly structure such a performance. It’s not necessarily the kind of thing I’d wish to listen to at home but as a live event, like much improv, it was utterly compelling. There appeared to be quite a few Wire readers in the crowd who clearly adored it. And before you ask, my wife hated it. 

OVERTONE QUARTET

Wolverhampton born bassist Dave Holland, although resident in the US since Miles Davis hand picked him for his band in the late 60’s thus elevating Holland to the equivalent of jazz royalty, has always maintained his Midland links with close ties to the Birmingham Conservatoire and in recent years Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Holland was scheduled to appear at this year’s festival as a member of the all star Overtone Quartet but a family illness meant that Holland had to remain in the US, his place here being taken by Larry Grenadier.

Originally known as the Monterey Quartet this jazz supergroup was initially assembled for the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival with a line up of Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, drummer Eric Harland and pianist Gonzalo Rubalacaba. This initial performance was documented on a live album under the Monterey Quartet name (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and the quartet enjoyed playing together so much they decided to keep the project ongoing, somehow squeezing it in amongst their numerous other commitments. Rubalacaba’s appearance was a one off and he was quickly replaced by Jason Moran as the band changed its name to the Overtone Quartet with a stable axis of Holland, Harland, Potter and Moran. Grenadier slotted in perfectly alongside the regular members of the quartet in this memorable Cheltenham appearance.

Even on the 2007 live album the chemistry between the four jazz heavyweights was apparent, the performance rising above the usual strictures of the all star jam. Musically Holland’s absence was hardly noticed at Cheltenham as the quartet turned in a fine set that combined an admirable ensemble tightness with moments of individual brilliance.

The quartet played four lengthy pieces with minimal announcements so titles are rather at a premium (there was at least one Holland piece, entitled “The Four Winds” as I recall) but mostly the quartet just got on with making music. Potter played soprano on the opening number but for most of the set featured on his more usual tenor, his huge, burnished tone establishing him as the natural heir to the late Michael Brecker. But there’s more to Potter than just power and pyrotechnics as his sensitive   playing on Paul Motian’s 2009 ECM album “Lost In A Dream” (recorded live at the Village Vanguard and also featuring Jason Moran) attests.

Moran moved between acoustic and electric pianos and even played tambourine and whistled. His often torrential piano solos were full of wit and invention and he proved to be a highly engaging stage presence.

Master bassist Grenadier, a veteran of both Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau’s groups and a visitor to Cheltenham in 2010 with the excellent Fly trio, was in superb form, locking in immediately to the group aesthetic and soloing brilliantly, particularly on the blues orientated second piece. 

Harland is now established as one of the world’s leading drummers, highly versatile, as evidenced by his performance with Charles Lloyd at Cheltenham a few years back, and with chops to burn. Tonight he played with an almost insouciant brilliance, only really coming alive on a couple of carefully constructed but technically dazzling polyrhythmic drum features.

Most of the quartet’s material was a brand of busy, muscular, intelligent post bop that embraced a range of jazz styles from bebop and the blues to more contemporary hip hop grooves. The final piece even had an anthemic, pop song like sensibility in its closing stages.

There was plenty here to engage the listener even though one gets the impression that the members of the Overtone Quartet are so ridiculously talented that they could do this sort of thing in their sleep. However I guess the true greats do make it look easy and it certainly couldn’t be said that they were coasting. Another capacity Main Hall crowd clearly loved seeing these US jazz superstars in action and gave them a tremendous reception.

BIG AIR

For me this Anglo/American collaboration was the “must see” of the festival. Big Air first came together ten years ago as the result of a commission from the long running BBC radio series Jazz On 3. The resultant suite “Ten Tall Tales” formed the bedrock of the band’s eponymous album which eventually appeared on the Babel label in 2008. I just love this record, which is, of course, reviewed elsewhere on this site.

A combination of economics and logistics has ensured that Big Air’s live appearances have been sporadic, a short UK tour in 2001, a London Jazz Festival appearance in 2005 and a one off show at The Vortex in 2008. Bringing the band’s original line up to Cheltenham therefore represented a major coup for the festival and a keen air of anticipation attached itself to this gig.

Big Air consists of former Loose Tubes members Chris Batchelor (trumpet) and Steve Buckley (reeds) plus the extraordinary tuba player Oren Marshall. The American contingent comprises of pianist Myra Melford and drummer Jim Black, both key figures on the New York jazz scene and band-leaders in their own right.

The “Big Air” album still formed the basis of the group’s set but with composers Buckley and Batchelor also bringing some new material into the equation. They kicked off with Buckley’s “All Good Things”, the carousing horns coming over like a bizarre cross between a mariachi band and demented circus music, with some remarkable low register sounds emanating from Marshall on tuba and Buckley on bass clarinet.

Also by Buckley the rather more accessible “The Wizard” was based around Marshall’s insistent tuba vamp and featured blazing solos from Batchelor on trumpet and the lanky Buckley on alto. At the piano Melford’s extraordinary playing came over like a cross between Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett, her jagged, jangling runs punctuating the music in a unique manner. As I’ve noted previously Melford seems to have been given a free role and yet it’s her contributions that hold the music together.

A new Buckley tune “Sticking In The Mud” merged the calypso rhythms of Sonny Rollins with contemporary sensibilities in a fine piece of writing that included sparky solos from Batchelor on trumpet and the composer on alto.

The prolific Buckley also contributed “True Stories” which began with an unaccompanied sequence from the remarkable Marshall. Playing a floor standing tuba that is almost as tall as he is Marshall not only plays with an incredible physical resourcefulness but also mutates and adapts the sound of his instrument with a range of electronic devices. This side of his playing is perhaps best heard on his extraordinary solo albums (“Time Spent At Traffic Lights” and “The Introduction To The Story Of Speedy Sponda”) but the wah wah sounds he produced here in conjunction with Black’s drum grooves were a pretty good example of his amazing talents. I’ve seen Marshall live before as a sideman in a variety of different line ups but this was my first view of both Black and Melford. The American drummer and bandleader cuts an impish figure behind his heavily customised kit. He plays in a loose, rock influenced style but it all hangs together beautifully in this context, a superlative blend of power and intelligence. His engaging duet with Melford eventually led to a remarkable solo from the pianist. Melford looks fragile and studious but plays the piano with great physicality and bravado, spanning the whole keyboard with vaulting, virtuoso, octave jumping runs.
Astonishing.

Batchelor’s “The Road, The Sky, The Moon” introduced a more nuanced, sombre approach to the proceedings. Substantially re-arranged from the album (where Melford features on harmonium) the brooding textures here came from a combination of trumpet, bass clarinet and tuba with Marshall demonstrating a more sensitive side to his playing.

The next piece was unannounced but was based around an interlocking drum and tuba groove with a searing alto solo from Buckley and some truly volcanic drumming from Black. Listening back to the album it was most likely Buckley’s composition “The Trap”.

The set concluded with yet another new Buckley tune, “One Way Only” which featured the composer on penny whistle, Batchelor on muted trumpet and a final tour de force from Marshall. Here everybody’s favourite tuba player threw some humour into the mix with his vocalisations and incredibly filthy sounding wet slurping and farting noises. You had to laugh. More seriously this was a reminder of Big Air’s ability to make aspects of the avant garde not only palatable but positively enjoyable. The melodic qualities of the writing of both Buckley and Batchelor perfectly offset the avant garde ideas that the Americans bring to the proceedings. It’s a brilliant combination of the accessible and the experimental, all leavened with a welcome touch of humour. The band seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience did, it was just a shame that there wasn’t time for an encore due to the fact that another event was scheduled to take place in the Main Hall at 10.00 pm. I don’t expect the same problem occurred when they played The Vortex the following night.

Nevertheless it was a treat to see Big Air at last, shame there wasn’t just a little bit more of it. 

Ian’s Star Ratings;

Kit Downes 4 Stars
Django Bates 3.5 Stars
Tord Gustavsen3.5 Stars
Stian Westerhus 3.5 Stars
Overtone Quartet 3.5 Stars
Big Air 3.5 Stars

Overall 4 Stars
 

 

 


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