by Ian Mann
December 06, 2015
Ian Mann on a long day of jazz including performances by Michelson Morley, Greg Cordez Quintet, Royal Academy of Music Big Band, Fat Suit, Perfect Houseplants, BABs and Wolf Off.
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2015, SECOND SATURDAY, 21/11/2015.
Photograph of Perfect Houseplants sourced from http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.co.uk
MICHELSON MORLEY / GREG CORDEZ QUINTET, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO
This early afternoon ticketed event presented a double bill of groups from the thriving jazz scene in Bristol.
Michelson Morley are a relatively new band led by saxophonist Jake McMurchie, best known as a member of Get The Blessing, a longer running Bristol based outfit and one with a national reputation.
The group name is derived from those of two late 19th century / early 20th century American physicists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, whose work clearly holds an ongoing fascination for McMurchie.
In 2014 Michelson Morley, then a trio, released their début CD “Aether Drift”, an album reviewed very favourably on The Jazzmann. Since then McMurchie (sax, electronics), Will Harris (double bass) and Mark Whitlam (drums, electronics) have been joined by guitarist Dan Messore, of Indigo Kid fame, to form a quartet. It was to be this line up that took to the stage first in front of a large and supportive crowd at Pizza Express.
The group’s material is composed by McMurchie but allows ample scope for improvisation. It is also distinguished by the frequent use of electronics with McMurchie continuing the experiments with electronica that have gradually also become an increasingly important part of Get The Blessing’s music. He receives great support from Whitlam whose drum kit is enhanced by a variety of electronic percussive devices while Messore deploys the usual range of guitar FX pedals. It all leaves Harris on double bass as the essential humanising element of the group.
Much of today’s performance featured new material beginning with “Amageddon” which began with the sound of Morley utilising the keys of his saxophone as a percussive device while Messore tapped the strings of his guitar with a drum stick and later deployed other extended techniques. Inevitably these sounds were subject to electronic manipulation as the music evolved and the group embarked on a process of hypnotic soundscaping with a gradual accretion of sounds and ideas. McMurchie’s sax was hooked up with a bug mic and he also deployed a floor mounted FX unit plus an array of foot pedals that delivered effects including echo and delay. “Most of my tunes are about rampant sentimentalism, scientific claptrap, or death” dead-panned Morley. As with Get The Blessing an element of humour was never away, the running joke for the afternoon was whether McMurchie, Cordez or Whitlam should be considered the true leader of the Bristol Jazz Composers Collective.
Some pieces remained unannounced including a second piece that included thrilling GTB style riffery and included a powerful rock influenced solo by Messore and some correspondingly full on tenor blasting from McMurchie.
The third piece was more atmospheric with the band using its electronic resources to develop a lattice of interlocking rhythms around which were draped the eerie sounds of an arco bass drone and the shimmer of glissando guitar as Messore went all Daevid Allen on us.
The atmospheric “The Last Of Me” featured Whitlam supplementing his kit with the sound of a Roland drum machine and McMurchie making effective use of echo effects on his long, drawn out sax melody lines.
“End Of Age”, sourced from the group’s début album was described by McMurchie as “a lament for an old family friend”. Following the electronically generated atmospherics of the previous two pieces it represented a complete contrast, being played entirely acoustically with McMurchie’s bug mic switched off and often with only Harris’ bass to accompany the tender simplicity of his playing.
Following this charming and effective interlude it was time to plug in again for the big finish. “Rice Rage”, the opening track of “Aether Drift” is another of those tunes that owes a big debt to McMurchie’s ‘other band’ with it’s powerful, chunky GTB style riffing and with Messore making extensive use of his tremolo arm on a solo whose power and attack was pure rock. Whitlam’s stark, powerful drumming represented the perfect foil for both this and McMurchie’s gargantuan sax blasting as the performance ended on a high energy note that clearly delighted the crowd.
I’d been waiting a long time to see Michelson Morley play live and I’m pleased to report that they didn’t disappoint with this involving and often exciting set. The band’s second album, this time with the excellent Messore on board, will be eagerly awaited.
GREG CORDEZ QUINTET
McMurchie and Whitlam returned to the stage, this time minus most of their numerous electronic gizmos, to perform as members of a quintet led by bassist and composer Greg Cordez and also featuring pianist Jim Blomfield and trumpeter Nick Malcolm.
Cordez, born in the UK but raised in New Zealand is a fairly late entrant to the jazz world following a distinguished career as a session musician playing in a variety of genres. He was launching his newly released album “Paper Crane”, a strong and imaginative collection of original compositions. The record will also get another launch in Bristol at the Hen & Chicken on the evening of Sunday December 6th 2015.
I’d encountered Corder’s bass playing once before when he was part of a hastily assembled Bristolian trio hired to accompany singer Sarah Ellen Hughes at a Black Mountain Jazz event in Abergavenny in 2013. The ad hoc trio, also featuring pianist Dale Hambridge (now of Moonlight Saving Time) and drummer Andy Tween did a terrific job at what proved to be a very enjoyable gig.
And so to today’s event which began with “Brown Bear”, the opening track from the “Paper Crane” album which began with a dialogue between Cordez on bass and Blomfield at the piano, it was good to witness the latter playing the Pizza’s Steinway grand after usually seeing him play an electric at the Queens Head in Monmouth alongside saxophonist Kevin Figes and others. The horns eventually stated the theme with subsequent solos coming from McMurchie on tenor sax and Blomfield on piano as the latter renewed his conversation with Cordez’s bass.
“Real and Imagined” also began with the sound of piano and bass with Whitlam’s cymbal scrapes adding to the atmospherics. Strong melodic themes and song-like structures define Cordez’s writing which skilfully avoids most of the jazz clichés. This tune was no exception and included some excellent ensemble playing with the leader’s own solo on double bass a particular highlight.
The tune “Eight Minutes and Twenty Three Seconds” had an insistent, almost anthemic quality and included rock rhythms, engaging trumpet and tenor sax exchanges, a passage of solo piano and some electronic wizardry from Malcolm and Whitlam. Meanwhile McMurchie placed his bug mic inside the lid of the Steinway to allow Blomfield to produce prepared piano sounds.
“1000 Paper Cranes”, effectively the title track, is inspired by Japanese culture and proved to be one of Cordez’s most beautiful compositions. The lyricism of the leader’s bass teamed with Blomfield’s piano and Whitlam’s atmospheric mallet rumbles was complemented by Malcolm’s plaintive, occasionally plangent, trumpet and McMurchie’s keening tenor sax before Blomfield concluded the piece with a passage of solo piano that owed something to Steve Reich and the Minimalist school.
Cordez announced that he was returning to “old faithful” as he strapped on an electric bass for “Cherry v Des Moines”, a tune inspired by a late 19th century legal case concerned with the freedom of the press. Locking into a groove with drummer Whitlam his playing helped to fuel some punchy unison horn lines and a powerful tenor sax statement from McMurchie.
However the performance ended on a gentler note with the ballad “Camilla Rose”, a tune that began life as a compositional exercise when Cordez was studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and drama in Cardiff. Introduced by a passage of solo piano the piece possessed delightful melodic theme that provided the basis for a tender tenor sax solo from McMurchie before Malcolm introduced a greater sense of urgency with a trumpet solo that incorporated some audacious vocalisations.
Following this very well received and successful gig I spoke briefly with Greg Cordez who was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Paper Crane”. It’s a highly sophisticated début recording that sounds superb in the home listening environment and I hope to take a look at the album in greater depth in due course. In the meantime if you get the opportunity to see his quintet perform live please take it, this is a highly talented group playing high quality original music that is well worth hearing. “Paper Crane” reveals Greg Cordez to be an excellent composer as well as a highly accomplished bassist.
ROYAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC BIG BAND, CLORE BALLROOM SOUTHBANK CENTRE
Following my afternoon at Pizza Express I made my way to the Southbank to capture something of this free performance by the Royal Academy of Music Big Band conducted by Nick Smart. The RAM Big Band were joined by the French musicians and composers Benoit Sourisse and Andre Charlier (drums) to perform a series of pieces by French and Belgian composers, a programme made more poignant by the terrorist events in Paris on November 13th.
At one point Stan Sulzmann made an appearance as guest soloist playing soprano saxophone. The Clore was extremely crowded again and it was difficult to pick up Smart’s announcements of soloists or tune titles, especially as the latter were mostly in French anyway. So I decided to just enjoy the music which was of the high quality we’ve come to expect from this band and with Sourisse and Charlier both making strong contributions. It was good to see Alex Hitchcock, who I’d met at the Green Note the night before, featuring as a soloist on tenor sax. The ensemble also included Nerija bassist Inga Eichler and lead trumpeter Louis Dowdeswell.
FAT SUIT, CLORE BALLROOM
The final act to grace the Clore stage this Saturday was Fat Suit, a high energy fourteen piece band from Glasgow who began as a Snarky Puppy tribute band but now play their own material. Named Fat Suit because they are “a big outfit” the group includes two guitarists, two keyboard players, two violinists, electric bass, drums, percussion and a four strong horn section. Like their initial inspiration Fat Suit are loud, sassy and brassy and the Clore audience absolutely loved them.
The band first came together at the University of Strathclyde and are co-led by guitarist Dorian Cloudsley and saxophonist Scott Murphy, the latter acting as on stage spokesman. Over the course of two albums and a justifiable reputation for their exciting stage shows they have accrued a considerable following.
Fat Suit draw on many genres including jazz, funk, rock and folk and this was a performance to enjoy rather than analyse. With some dynamic grooves, crunching, razor sharp ensemble playing and some sparky solos from all sections of the band this was a technically proficient but above all very exciting performance, Fat Suit are a great live band who are likely to appeal to a very broad constituency, not just hard core jazz fans. They work at their presentation but there’s no sense of them ‘dumbing down’ their music for their audience.
At the heart of the group’s music was the brilliance of their two keyboard players, Alan Benzie being one of them (Fat Suit employ a pool of around twenty five musicians and I suspect the other one may have been the Ukrainian born Gustav Lal). I’d seen Benzie at Kings Place a week before leading his highly accomplished acoustic piano trio but here he was in his other role as ‘wizard of the synth’. He’s a little guy with a huge talent and this gig was a further demonstration of his prodigious ability and versatility.
PERFECT HOUSEPLANTS, THE VORTEX
Next back to the Vortex for this eagerly awaited reunion gig by Perfect Houseplants, their first public performance for over fifteen years. The quartet was one of the most popular groups to be formed in the wake of the demise of the first edition of Loose Tubes with former LT members Mark Lockheart (saxes) and Martin France (drums) linking up with Huw Warren (piano) and Dudley Phillips (bass) to form a highly productive band that released a total of five albums during the 1990s .
Warren and Lockheart have both worked extensively with the folk singer June Tabor and the Houseplants music has always had a strong folk element about it. I’ve always loved their sound and recall seeing them for the only time in 1994 at a frankly less than crowded pub in Llangollen as part of the town’s then annual jazz festival. That particular LJF was more trad/mainstream orientated and the Houseplants were probably a bit too far out for that audience of the time. I remember Huw Warren’s three young sons acting as unofficial ‘roadies’ for their dad, one of them Zoot, now plays drums in the old man’s trio.
Two decades on I was greatly looking forward to seeing the Houseplants again. The passage of time has only enhanced their reputation and the Vortex was packed to the rafters for this one with the ‘House Full’ signs up. The idea for the gig came from the Vortex’s Oliver Weindling and it was good to see him being rewarded by such a great turnout. It was particularly heartening as the Vortex had been burgled the night before and a substantial amount of cash comprised of Friday’s door and bar takings stolen, a severe blow to the club’s finances after a highly successful festival night. The Vortex is a not for profit organisation staffed by volunteers so this was particularly cruel. Should anyone reading this wish to make a donation to help the club please visit http://www.vortexjazz.co.uk
Tonight’s line up included founder members Lockheart, Warren and Phillips, the group’s composing axis, with Tim Giles at the drums. “It wouldn’t have happened for another couple of years if we’d waited for Martin” said Weindling referring to the highly in demand France. Even at Llangollen twenty one years ago the drummer had been replaced by Mike Pickering.
Giles proved to be the perfect substitute, a highly experienced player who was already familiar with the material and whose style I’ve always felt to have similarities to that of France. He fitted the group’s music like a hand in a glove.
The performance began with Lockheart’s “Strictly For Dancing” the opening track on the group’s third album “Snap Clatter”. With its adventurous but infectious rhythms and with Lockheart moving between soprano and tenor saxes this was an excellent start and a superb example on the Houseplants’ very British take on the jazz tradition. Many of the first wave of ex Loose Tubes solo projects had this uniquely British sense of whimsy and eccentricity about them – think Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Steve and Julian Arguelles, it was almost a ‘Canterbury Scene’ for the 90s.
Memory can be a funny thing, Warren announced the next tune as being “Pig” from “Snap Clatter”, a piece inspired by a Roald Dahl story. According to the album cover Lockheart’s tune is called “Rag” and is inspired by the silent movie era stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton! Either way it proved to be a fast moving piece with a serpentine soprano sax melody and enjoyable solos from Phillips on electric bass, Warren on piano and Lockheart on soprano.
“Dunwich By The Sea” came from 1997s “New Folk Songs”, a collaboration by the group with the recorder virtuoso Pamela Thorby. This charming piece featured an unaccompanied piano introduction plus further solos from Lockheart on tenor, Warren at the piano and Phillips back on double bass.
The first set concluded with two tunes from the group’s second album “Clec”, released in 1995. “And The Kitchen Sink” featured Phillips’ arco playing on the introduction plus further solos from Warren on piano and Lockheart on tenor.
Warren’s title track, the name approximating the Welsh word for ‘gossip’, began with the admirable Giles at the drums and also featured Warren’s interior piano scrapings. Subsequent solos came from Phillips on electric bass, Warren on piano and Lockheart on soprano as the group continued to deliver innovative and varied music.
Set two began with a segue of the tunes “Moving On” and “Holding Back”, both of them sourced from the “New Folk Songs” album and featuring Lockheart on soprano sax and Phillips on electric bass.
“EE” was Warren’s tribute to Edward Elgar (as opposed to ee cummings) and again featured Lockheart on soprano with Warren again reaching into the piano’s innards during a more freely structured episode in the middle of the tune.
“Baskerville Hall” was the sole new composition and a world première but collapsed into a good natured breakdown which was instantly forgiven by the crowd. Once they’d got back on track Lockheart’s warm toned tenor solo and Warren’s lyrical piano solo were both a delight and the piece as a whole was well up to the standard of past glories. Oh, and Baskerville Hall is a real place, a country hotel in Clyro near Hay on Wye which stages regular live music events.
The next tune was unannounced but began with piano and drums establishing a rhythmic urgency on a piece that saw Phillips on electric bass and Lockheart moving between tenor and soprano. The featured soloist here was Warren who was clearly relishing the occasion.
“The Lighthouse”, another tune sourced from the “New Folk Songs” album found Warren utilising prepared piano sounds as he soloed above the electric bass and drum grooves generated by Phillips and Giles with Lockheart later weighing in on tenor.
I’ve always harboured a particular fondness for the Houseplants’ eponymous début album and was pleased that they decided to finish with the opening tune from that record, Warren’s “These Foolish Times”. The piece combines the group’s archetypal whimsy with an innate joyousness, it really is an invigorating piece of music that delights with its quirkiness. With Warren’s piano accelerating above Giles’ briskly brushed grooves and with Lockheart soloing more expansively on tenor than on the recorded version this was a great way to conclude a reunion gig that exuded goodwill between musicians and audience throughout. The group also played a brief encore but by this stage I was happy to just absorb myself in the music rather than taking notes but I do recall that Lockheart moved back to soprano for this.
A great event, glad I was there more than twenty years on from the last time.
LOOP COLLECTIVE LATE, THE VORTEX
As we were already at the Vortex we decided that we may as way stay on for the Loop Collective’s late double bill featuring two trios, the electro-improvising outfit BABs and the slightly more conventional Wolf Off.
First up was BABs, the group name an acronym sourced from those of its members, double bassist Olie Brice, bass clarinettist James Allsopp and electronics artist Alex Bonney. In 2014 the trio recorded a limited edition album for Loop titled “The Vulture Watches” which contained six relatively short fully improvised pieces.
Tonight’s performance consisted of a single full length improvisation with Bonney processing the sounds of his colleagues in real time via an on stage lap top. The set was performed in near darkness with the flickering of candles adding to the atmosphere. The music was often unsettling with grainy arco bass and deep bass clarinet sonorities being manipulated into doomy, glitchy processed textures by Bonney.
Both Brice and Allsopp used extended techniques on their instruments, the use of drum sticks on the bass strings, the rushes of breath through the bass clarinet, and even these sounds were subject to some pretty extreme electronic processing. There were moments when Brice’s bass sounded almost subsonic, a deep threatening rumble that threatened to shake the Vortex to its foundations. At the other end of the scale Allsopp’s bass clarinet delivered clarion like blasts and at other moments produced seemingly impossible high register noises that sounded almost like a human cry. Meanwhile Bonney deployed his array of electronic devices to produce percussive sounds, thereby giving the piece a rhythmic impetus to complement the rich sonic texturing. The piece resolved itself with the sound of Allsopp’s bass clarinet soloing above Brice’s deep arco bass drone.
This wasn’t easy music to listen to but it was adventurous, uncompromising, and in its own way highly effective, qualities enhanced by the atmosphere generated by the semi darkness and flickering candlelight.
CROWLEY / SIMMONS / DE ROSE
The second trio from the Loop stable featured saxophonist George Crowley, trumpeter Rory Simmons and drummer Dave De Rose. Trading under the collective name Wolf Off these three also delivered a single improvised piece in what was only their second gig as a trio.
Although the tenor of Crowley and the trumpet of Simmons were both miked up and with Simmons also conducting a fair degree of electronic processing this was a relatively more conventional trio than BABs and the musicians performed with the lights up.
Where BABs dealt with texture, atmosphere and nuance Wolf Off were far more direct and aggressive, ‘in your face’ almost, thanks Crowley’s belligerent tenor sax and De Rose’s powerful drumming. The performance began with trumpet and saxophone with Simmons soundscaping the sounds of the instruments in a manner that reminded me of another of his bands, Eyes of a Blue Dog featuring the Norwegian musicians Elisabeth Nygaard-Pearson (voice) and Terje Evensen (drums, electronics).
Things soon took a more animated turn with De Rose’s aggressive drumming complemented by Simmon’s monstrous synthesised bass lines and Crowley’s stentorian sax blasting, ranging from r’n'b style honking to foghorn like booming. With Simmons adding echo and reverb to the sound of the horns something of a dub element was also present in the mix.
Although this was very much a collective performance there were still moments of individual brilliance including a solo passage of trumpet and electronics from Simmons and a couple of solo drum episodes from the hard hitting De Rose who was sporting a fluorescent orange hat. Crowley’s sax solos were slightly more conventional but also subject to a degree of electronic manipulation.
The intensity levels built throughout the set to climax with a passage featuring garrulous tenor sax, electric era Miles muted trumpet and hard hitting drums, the malevolent riffing appearing to peak, then fade away before returning like the monster in a horror movie. After peaking for a second time the piece resolved itself by ending as it began, with a final passage of ambient soundscaping featuring saxophone, trumpet and electronics.
Wolf Off’s punk jazz style of improvisation was very different to BABs’ more impressionistic electronic soundscaping but both performances were equally satisfying in their own ways. The two performances had been billed as something of a ‘battle of the bands’, a contest that for my money ended in an honourable draw.
Unfortunately it kicked off half an hour late at midnight, mainly due to the time taken setting up Bonney’s sophisticated electronics system. I did enjoy it all but it had been a long day and frankly I was absolutely knackered by the end. I’m not quite sure if I’ll choose to cover quite such a late night session again next year.
From Will Harris via Facebook;
I like being described as “the essential humanizing element” of Michelson Morley in this lovely review of our London Jazz Festival show at Pizza Express Jazz Club last month… Thanks Ian Mann for the review!
Look out for our upcoming album to be released on Babel Label
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