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Sunday at Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival 2011.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

An excellent afternoon's music froma very different "quartet of trios".

Sunday at Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival

Lichfield Rugby Club, 26/06/2011.

If Saturday’s programme had been an eclectic but entertaining mixture of musical styles then Sunday’s had more of a real jazz focus. Festival Director Brian Pretty presented four very different examples of the “art of the trio”, a “quartet of trios” as he described it. There were two very different takes on the organ trio from bands actually led by a drummer (Asaf Sirkis) and a guitarist (Nigel Price). Trumpeter Steve Waterman explored the history of his instrument with a drummer-less trio and pianist John Law gave a thrilling performance with the current edition of his Opt Trio.
As with the corresponding Sunday in 2010 this was the hottest day of the year to date and the temperature in the festival marquee was positively sweltering. However this didn’t detract from the high quality of the music performed by four very different bands.


Israeli born drummer Asaf Sirkis is one of the most in demand drummers on the UK jazz scene. A player of tremendous technical ability he is a busy sideman but also finds time to lead his own guitar/bass/drums trio with Tassos Spiliotopoulos and either Yaron Stavi or Patrick Bettison (a line up which appeared at the 2010 RAJB) plus The Inner Noise, his organ combo featuring Steve Lodder and guitarist Mike Outram.

The Inner Noise offers a very different take on the jazz organ trio. The music is strongly influenced by progressive rock with Lodder deploying a distinctive church organ sound and historically the band have both recorded and played in churches- perhaps this gig should have been re-located to Lichfield Cathedral!

As it was Lodder coaxed a remarkably authentic church organ sound from his Yamaha Motif ES7 keyboard. With Outram also deploying a range of effects via an array of foot pedals and hand operated switches the band was able to conjure up an impressive array of sounds and textures. There are moments when the whole Inner Noise concept can seem totally pretentious and overblown but an equal number where they invoke an impressive Gothic grandeur and totally nail it. The band’s two sets here contained the almost inevitable longueurs but there were some magnificent moments too.

The material was drawn from across the band’s three albums, “The Inner Noise”, “We Are Falling” and the most recent, and for me the pick of the three, “The Song Within”. The trio commenced with the title track from this latest record with Lodder and Outram introducing their signature sounds above the bedrock of Sirkis’ precise but powerful drumming.

“Life Itself” from the previous album saw Outram skilfully deploying his range of effects   followed by a Lodder organ solo and an explosive drum feature from the gifted Sirkis. From the same album, “Galactic Citizen”, a tune written by Sirkis to celebrate the award of his British citizenship, calmed things down a little. Essentially a ballad the piece was introduced by a lengthy passage of solo organ from Lodder with an authentically churchlike feel and was followed by a floaty Outram solo punctuated by Sirkis’ use of either brushes or soft head sticks.

The first set closed with “Miniature”, one of The Song Within’s most attractive pieces and a showcase for Outram’s spacey Pink Floyd style guitar which soared into the ether above a backdrop of Lodder’s organ soundwashes.

Although a long way removed from orthodox jazz the distinctive sound of The Inner Noise drew considerable acclaim from the Lichfield faithful and their second set, later in the day, was to be even better.

The second half began with the controlled atmospherics of “Ida & Dactyl” (they’re asteroids in case you were wondering) from the “We Are Falling” album. Next came the magnificent “Nothingness First” from the most recent album. Described by Sirkis as “raucous” this was The Inner Noise at their best, full of dense organ chording, stratospheric guitar that variously recalled Dave Gilmour and Carlos Santana and powerhouse drumming from leader and composer Sirkis, the latter capping his performance with a final drum flourish. This was the trio at their best, a thrilling blend of jazz and progressive rock that achieved a grandiose magnificence.

This set’s “ballad”, “Desert Vision” from the trio’s eponymous first album featured an Outram solo of choked intensity and generally simmered with an air of Gothic menace. That atmosphere carried over into the next (unannounced) item, notable for the dialogue between organ and drums.

The trio closed with “Hymn” from their latest album, another showcase for Outram’s soaraway,  sustain heavy guitar soloing. Outram’s Muse T shirt went some way to explaining where he’s coming from, essentially a rock player in a jazz setting his blend of rock dynamics and jazz chops is both moving and impressive.

Again the trio were generally well received although there were one or two dissenters. The group’s combination of fusion guitar and church organ helps to give them a unique sound. It’s probably fair to say that it’s a bit of an acquired taste but this first course of Sunday’s musical buffet was clearly enjoyed by many.


After the high octane, high volume atmospherics of The Inner Noise trumpeter Steve Waterman’s trio came as a complete contrast. Waterman’s latest album “Buddy Bolden Blew It” traces the history of the trumpet from jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden to modern day explorers such as Kenny Wheeler. 

The album features both the trio, with Waterman joined by Anthony Kerr (vibes) and Alec Dankworth (double bass), plus a quintet with guitarist Chris Allard and drummer Dave Barry augmenting the group on some numbers. Waterman brought the core trio to Lichfield and the performance was almost entirely acoustic, especially in view of the fact that the motor for Kerr’s vibes was malfunctioning. As a result he was somewhat lost in the ensemble passages but sounded fine on his solos.

Most of the tunes followed the same format with the trio playing the head before embarking on individual solos with Waterman generally going first on either trumpet or flugel followed by Kerr and finally Dankworth. Kerr used the four mallet technique which is always fascinating to watch and Dankworth is one of the most musical bassists around so there was always plenty of interest going on. Waterman is a technically gifted trumpeter, bright and agile on the faster numbers and suitably soulful on ballads where he often switched to the warmer toned flugel.

Nonetheless for all the skill involved I must confess to finding the first set a little dull, a little like repertory with pretty much every tune following the same format. In the second half they seemed to catch a spark from somewhere and the whole performance just seemed a whole lot more dynamic with the crowd reacting accordingly.

The two sets featured compositions by some of the most important players in the history of jazz trumpeting. We heard Clifford Brown’s “Sandu”, Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower” (with Waterman switching to flugel) and Roy Eldridge’s “Little Jazz” the latter featuring an intriguing trumpet/vibes duet.  Tom Harrell’s “Sail Away” was notable for the group’s focus on the beauty of the gorgeous melody with Waterman once again on flugel. Clark Terry’s “Haig and Haig”, a musical   observation on the late bebop pianist Al Haig’s fondness for whisky, demonstrated Waterman’s dazzling technical prowess and ended a low key first half on a high note.

Dankworth’s propulsive bass intro to the trio’s spirited version Miles Davis’ “All Blues” immediately raised the bar for the second set. Bix Beiderbecke’s ballad “In A Mist” with Waterman on flugel was particularly lovely and Kenny Wheeler’s typically quirky and clever tango “Gigolo” produced the trio’s most inspired soloing thus far with Waterman’s trumpeting particularly impressive.

The trio closed an all too short second set with Waterman’s own Buddy Bolden dedication “Red Vest Man” a tour de force of New Orleans style trumpet with Waterman making extensive use of the mute to get that distinctive vocalised Crescent City growl. The subsequent solos by Kerr (who was suffering with a heavy cold) and Dankworth rivalled their leader’s for excellence and the trio earned a great reception from the Lichfield audience. It was only time constraints that prevented them taking a deserved encore.


I saw pianist John Law’s Opt Trio earlier in the year at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, a show reviewed elsewhere on this site. The Abergavenny appearance was thoroughly enjoyable but slightly spoilt by the fact that Law was obliged to use an electric keyboard rather than a proper acoustic grand piano.

The name of the Opt Trio is a play on words with “Opt” standing for “other people’s tunes” as Law moves away, for the moment at least, from the original material presented on his previous “Art Of Sound” series of solo piano and trio recordings.

The Opt Trio has a a fluid line up with either Tom Farmer or Yuri Golubev on double bass and with Asaf Sirkis and Daoud Merchant alternating in the drum chair. With Sirkis already present at Lichfield with his own Inner Noise outfit he was an obvious presence behind the kit. Golubev had played bass at Abergavenny and it was therefore interesting to see Farmer take on the role here. But best of all Law had a proper piano to work with and the results were spectacular. If Abergavenny had been good this was to be even better.

The Opt Trio’s repertoire consists of innovative, shape-shifting deconstructions of both jazz standards and pop tunes. It’s similar to the approach taken by Brad Mehldau, one of Law’s acknowledged influences, but Law’s group bring plenty of their own ideas to the table and the Opt Trio is a fine band in its own right.

The musicians took to the stage to their taped intro music of Tom Waits’ version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story. The idea was that the sound engineer would fade it down and the trio take over with their own instrumental version. Unfortunately he forgot to do so which saw Law gesturing frantically at him from the stage. I don’t know quite why they persist with this, it didn’t really work at Abergavenny either.

This minor quibble aside the first set was totally riveting from first to last. The Opt Trio really get inside their chosen material, changing direction and meter with the blink of an eye and thoroughly examining the interior architecture of these tunes. Whereas many of the other acts we’d seen had produced a string of (very good) solos this was a genuine three way musical conversation with a remarkable degree of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication. Law is a technically brilliant pianist with the ability to think on his feet and his two colleagues were equally receptive. Farmer, perhaps best known for his membership of Empirical, is a bassist with a huge, meaty tone and is a dexterous, fluent and imaginative soloist. He exuded confidence and also injected an element of humour into the performance with his array of facial expressions. Sirkis proved his versatility by drumming in a very different mode to the sometimes bombastic style he deploys with The Inner Noise. He too was excellent, and in playing four sets on the hottest afternoon of the year definitely deserves an award as the hardest working man in Lichfield. Not that the heat appeared to phase him in the slightest.

The trio’s version of “Somewhere” included strong opening solos from Law and Farmer and some exquisite cymbal work from Sirkis. A high energy romp through Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” introduced an element of humour with feverish solos from law and Farmer and a thrilling series of piano and drum exchanges.

Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” features one of his prettiest melodies and this provided the springboard for another sophisticated example of group dialogue with fine individual contributions from Law and Farmer. No matter how deeply the trio probe they never lose site of the melody and for all its adventurousness the trio’s music never becomes “difficult”.

Two more interpretations of jazz standards closed a thrilling first half. Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” was a reflection of the fact that Law, like, Brubeck likes to take liberties with time signatures and does so brilliantly. “Autumn Leaves” was proof that the Opt Trio have the ability to wring something new out of even the hoariest of all jazz standards. Following typically excellent solos from Farmer and Law Sirkis’ spectacular drum feature ensured that this first set closed on a high. A rapt Lichfield crowd gave them a tremendous reception. Musically this was the highlight of the festival thus far.

If the trio’s second set didn’t quite match the intensity of the first it was still very fine. Law told me afterwards that the humid conditions were causing the piano to go out of tune but frankly I don’t think any of the audience members, including myself, actually noticed.

Chick Corea’s “You’re My Everything” was essentially a piano showcase, Nick Drake’s “Way To Blue” saw Law placing objects on the piano strings to achieve a “prepared” piano sound.

Kenny Wheeler’s modern day standard “Everybody’s Song But My Own” and Oscar Levant’s ballad “Blame It On My Youth” were both lovely and the trio closed with a slyly funky version of Miles Davis’ “So What” from the classic “Kind Of Blue” album. Law revealed that he had imposed the chord structure of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the latter in a typical display of inventiveness. A spirit of musical mischief making imbues much of the Opt Trio’s repertoire but they also have a real love and a deep understanding of the material they cover. This second set was peppered with more fine individual contributions from Law, Farmer and Sirkis with the drummer again enjoying a final flourish on “So What”.

Once again I was hugely impressed with Law, who still remains criminally underrated. This was keenly intelligent, but still eminently accessible, music superbly played by three master technicians.
Much of this music is available on an unofficial live album that Law is currently selling at gigs. It’s an excellent documentation of the group’s methodology and deserves to be more widely available.


Finally came a different take on the sound of the organ trio. Former soldier Nigel Price is something of a late addition to the professional musician ranks but the guitarist is quite clearly a natural with an easy going stage manner and a high level of technical skill. Price has played with James Taylor, perhaps the UK’s best known Hammond player, as part of JTQ but one senses that his favourite musical role is that of leader of his own organ trio.

Price’s latest album, a live recording reviewed elsewhere on this site, attracted considerable critical acclaim and was the winner of a 2010 Parliamentary Jazz Award, an achievement of which Price is justifiably proud. The personnel on that album is the same as that featured here today with Price on guitar, Matt Home at the drums and Pete Whittaker at the keyboard of a genuine Hammond organ complete with an array of foot pedals and a rotating Leslie cabinet. The beast makes a marvellous noise and Price and his colleagues played two sets of soulful, swinging jazz that again went down a storm with the Lichfield crowd.

Price’s trio offer a completely different perspective on the guitar/organ/drums configuration to that of The Inner Noise. Less concerned with innovation Price’s trio are unpretentiously about having a good time and are rooted in the tradition of the soul jazz organ combos of the fifties and sixties. With Price as leader the emphasis is on tunes by other guitarists, with Wes Montgomery representing a particular favourite, but it’s Whittaker’s Hammond that helps to give them their distinctive flavour.

The trio kicked off with “Bock To Bock” written by Wes Montgomery’s brother Bud, which swung slyly and featured excellent opening solos from Price and Whittaker with Home’s immaculate time keeping driving the tune forward.

“Road Song”, one of Wes Montgomery’s most celebrated compositions was next with solos again coming from Price and Whittaker. Sit down guitarist Price is a very different player from the rock influenced Outram. Price favours a clean, pure “jazz guitar” sound and his playing is a mix of darting single note lines and crisp jazz chording. Wes Montgomery is clearly a major influence, as indeed he was on Pat Metheny.

Price paid tribute to the late Emily Remler (1957-90) with an adaptation of her take on the Blossom Dearie tune “Sweet Georgie Fame”. The music was better than the title might suggest with Whittaker and Price taking the solo honours. The trio have been touring the UK with the support of Jazz Services and their playing was slick (but not annoyingly so) and accomplished.

Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s innovative arrangement was used for the trio’s version of Cole Porter’s ” Love For Sale”. Turrentine’s version originally appeared on the live album “Up At Minton’s” Price introduced the tune with a burst of Jim Mullen style thumb picking before soloing in more orthodox fashion. Whittaker’s pedal generated bass lines were impressive and Home’s use of sticks on rims added another distinctive element. Following Price’s solo, all fleet fingering and choppy chords, came Whittaker’s fire breathing Hammond and finally a drum feature for the excellent Home. 

The trio closed the first half with a spirited romp through Wes Montgomery’s “S.O.S” , keeping the solos sharp and pithy and culminating in a series of drum breaks. The second set picked up where this left off with the trio positively tearing through the opening “Blues For Herb”.

Like Law Price relishes experimenting with old material. His ballad “All In” was based on the structure of the famous standard “Body And Soul” and featured an elegant, boppish solo guitar intro before Price let Whittaker take over.

Fellow guitarist Kenny Burrell is clearly another touchstone for Price and it was his arrangement of “God Bless The Child” that was up next. After another solo guitar intro Whittaker really dug in with his most gospel inspired playing of the set.

A final dip into the Wes Montgomery repertoire came with Price’s arrangement of Montgomery’s “Four On Six”. In terms of time signatures Price chose to emphasise the latter and this tricky piece was the vehicle for solos from Whittaker at the Hammond and then for Home who produced an ebullient drum feature over combined organ/guitar comping.

The set closed with Price’s heavily mutated version of a standard which came out as “It’s Not All Right” but there was nothing wrong with the music with both Price and Whittaker delivering dazzling final solos.

Only this time they weren’t final. With things running more punctually than the day before there was time for an encore and this popular trio returned to breeze through Price’s tribute to Kenny Burrell “KB Blues”, inspired by Burrell’s “Live At The Village Vanguard” album. All three trio members were on fire with Whittaker hitting Hammond overload and Home turning in an explosive drum feature. Great stuff.

I’ll stand by my original quote about this trio, as reproduced in the festival programme “unpretentious swinging fun played with skill and verve”

After a long hot day full of excellent music we decided not to hang around for closing act King Pleasure And The Biscuit Boys. I saw the Midlands based jump jive act back in the 90’s at Lichfield Guildhall and I doubt if they’ve changed all that much. I remember that night being good fun and there’s no doubt that they’re excellent at what they do. I’m sure that those who remained, and indeed those that showed up later just to see them, had a great time. However after the heat and with a long drive home I was beginning to wilt and decided to leave on a high note. Each of the “quartet of trios” had been excellent in it’s own way with Law taking the honours by a short head from Price. Another excellent day’s music and, once again, terrific value for money. Numbers were a little down on the Saturday but at least the World Cup didn’t affect attendances this year. Lichfield RAJB is still a little gem of a festival. Let’s hope there are many more to come.


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