by Ian Mann
November 29, 2016
Ian Mann enjoys four brilliant performances from the Soren Bebe Trio, Ezra Collective, Skint and the Donny McCaslin Band.
Photograph of Donny McCaslin sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website
EFG London Jazz Festival 2016
Day Five, Tuesday 15th November 2016
SOREN BEBE TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB
In 2014 the famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street began hosting free lunchtime jazz events on week days during the Festival period. Obviously there’s an obligation to eat but these performances have proved to be extremely popular and the music has generally been of a very high standard.
The acts presented have encompassed a variety of jazz genres and nationalities and the series has proved to be a particularly good showcase for up and coming European bands hoping to introduce themselves to UK audiences. The Swiss piano trio Plaistow, who made a big impact in 2014 returned to London this year on the concert programme while the Danish quintet Girls In Airports who also appeared in 2014 have accrued something of a cult following plus a recording contract with the British label Edition Records.
The 2016 programme saw Sue Edwards, manager of Phronesis and a champion for Danish jazz in general, bringing the Copenhagen based Soren Bebe Trio to the Pizza. Pianist and composer Bebe is a well established figure on the Danish jazz scene with several recordings to his credit and has also made inroads in the US where he and his long standing drummer Anders Mogensen recorded the trio album “Eva” with the great American bassist Marc Johnson.
Bebe, now aged forty, is still relatively little known in the UK and this first ever London performance turned out to be a triumph for the likeable Dane and his trio. The majority of the material was sourced from the group’s recent album release “Home”, a collection of Bebe originals initially recorded in Copenhagen before being mixed and mastered by the great recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo.
Bebe, Mogensen and double bassist Kasper Tagel, who joined the trio in 2014, commenced their performance with “The Path to Somewhere”, the opening track from the new album. Bebe’s tentative, searching melodic snippets were augmented by Mogensen’s mallet rumbles and Tagel’s almost subliminal bass pulse. On the Pizza’s Steinway grand Bebe’s classically honed lightness of touch was immediately apparent, he’s a supreme technician who cites ECM label artists Keith Jarrett and Tord Gustavsen as key musical influences. It therefore comes as no surprise that Bebe asked Kongshaug to master his album.
Meanwhile I was also impressed with Bebe’s improvisational fluency as the opening tune segued via an unaccompanied bass passage into the Jarrett inspired blues of “Country Road”, a tune sourced from the 2012 trio album “A Song For You”.
Returning to the “Home” repertoire the trio next performed the delightfully melodic “Tango for T”, a dedication to Tord Gustavsen. Not a true tango but a lovely composition and performance featuring Bebe’s limpid and lyrical piano and Mogensen’s delicately brushed drums.
The piece “Heading North” was originally written for the trio album with Marc Johnson but its melodic beauty ensured that it was a perfect fit with the “Home” material, including the lovely title track with its folk inspired melody, which again featured Bebe at his most Gustavsen like.
Until now the trio’s performance had largely been notable for its pensive, fragile lyrical beauty, qualities that were greatly appreciated by a commendably attentive audience. Bebe and the trio decided to lighten up and increase the energy levels as they concluded an excellent first set with a playful take on a standard (“How About You”), if memory serves, which included latin and gospel flourishes plus extended features for both bass and drums.
The second set maintained the same high standards and commenced with “Haarlem Landscape”, inspired by a Dutch ‘Old Master’ in the Danish National Gallery rather than the New York skyline as a verbal rendition of the title might suggest. Although lyrical and impressionistic at first the piece later gained greater muscularity thanks to the contributions of bass and drums with Tagel featuring as a soloist.
Mogensen’s contribution with the pen was the beautiful ballad “For L.R.P.” which was written for the “Eva” album. Here Tagel took the role of Marc Johnson with a wonderfully melodic bass solo accompanied by the gentle rustle of the composer’s brushes. It’s perhaps no surprise that Bebe chose to record with Johnson, a musician who once worked with the great Bill Evans, surely another profound influence on the Bebe trio and their music.
The melodic and impressionistic “Trieste” was written by Bebe following a successful appearance at a festival in the city two years ago. It’s a particularly delightful homage to the place and its people.
Bebe informed us that the Keith Jarrett version of “The Old Country”, a composition by Nat Adderley, is hugely popular in Denmark following its use in a TV advertisement. Fat chance of anything like that happening here I suspect, but we can always hope. The trio had fun here with Bebe stretching out in lively fashion buoyed by Mogensen’s crisply brushed grooves and with additional features for bass and drums.
The trio kept things up tempo with “Remembering B”, Bebe’s homage to the late, great American saxophonist Michael Brecker. With its blues and gospel inflections the piece had the feel of a modern day standard and featured Bebe soling expansively above Tagel’s walking bass lines.
The performance ended with “Tak”, meaning “Thank You” and probably the one word of Danish that the average British person knows thanks to ‘Scandi-Noir’ programmes like “The Bridge”. Lyrical and hymn like the piece had an unmistakably valedictory feel and ended an excellent trio performance on an elegiac note.
Bebe and his colleagues got a terrific reception from a rapt, and pleasingly substantial audience. CD sales were correspondingly brisk and this lunchtime show represented a hugely successful gig for Bebe and his trio. It may well be that they, too, will return on the full concert programme at a future EFG LJF.
My thanks to Soren Bebe, Anders Mogensen and Sue Edwards for speaking with me afterwards and to Soren for the gifts of both the “Home” and “Eva” CDs. Both albums are highly recommended and “Home” was recently the subject of a highly favourable review by Adrian Pallant on his AP Reviews website https://ap-reviews.com/tag/soren-bebe/
The Pizza Express free lunchtime programme continues to deliver delightful musical surprises with this gig representing a genuine Festival highlight.
EZRA COLLECTIVE, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S
Ezra Collective are a young mixed race quintet who emerged out of the Tomorrow’s Warriors scheme. At the 2013 EFG LJF, while still in their teens, they played an excellent set in the Café at the old Foyle’s store. Tonight in the new performance space at Foyle’s new Charing Cross Road location they gave notice that they’ve really come of age as they played a barnstorming set to a sell out audience. This is a band that has clearly accrued a loyal following, and on the evidence of this highly skilled and thrillingly energetic show I’m not surprised.
The line-up of Ezra Collective has remained stable since 2013 and still features the brothers Femi Koleoso (drums) and T J Koleoso (electric bass) in the engine room with front line duties shared between saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Dylan Jones with pianist Joe Armon Jones filling all spaces in between. The group’s influences include jazz, reggae, afro-beat and hip-hop and their music is a wildly exciting collision of all these styles and more.
In the three years since I last saw them the members of Ezra Collective have matured both individually and collectively. They were good then but in the intervening years they’ve honed their chops and now play with an impressive confidence and swagger. This is a group that has grown up together and now have the assurance of a band that ‘know that they are good’.
A loud reggae soundtrack had already got the audience in the mood even before T J Koleoso picked out the opening grooves of “The Philosopher” on electric bass, subsequently joined by piano and drums as the group constructed a propulsive rhythmic framework to fuel the fluent and fiery solos of horn men Mollison and Jones plus Armon Jones’ latin flourishes on an equally lively piano solo. There were even outbreaks of spontaneous dancing within the highly supportive audience.
“Enter The Jungle” was introduced by Femi Koleoso’s implacable drum grooves and again featured Mollison and Jones soloing with youthful brio. Armon Jones had switched to funky Fender Rhodes and managed to squeeze a quote from Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” into his solo. Mollison then entered fiery dialogue with Femi’s drums, the piece concluded with an explosive percussion feature which further delighted the partisan crowd.
Armon Jones introduced “Chasing The Square” at the piano, a piece that saw staccato unison riffing punctuated by more soulful, lyrical passages. The first solo came from the pianist prior to a series of thrilling trumpet and tenor exchanges propelled by the driving beats of the Koleoso siblings.
With Femi Koleoso handling the announcements the title of “People In Trouble” hinted at the Collective’s political sympathies. A spacey solo trumpet intro, subsequently augmented by shimmering Rhodes and mallet rumbles eventually morphed into an electric bass groove that coaxed powerful solos from Jones and Mollison prior to a virtuoso passage of solo piano from the talented Armon Jones. The piece then ended as subtly as it had begun with a soft and gentle horn chorale.
Unfortunately I had to leave at this point as I had to make way across town to East London to see the Donny McCaslin Band at Rich Mix. As I descended to Charing Cross in the Foyle’s lift I could hear the Ezra lads tearing into a Sun Ra tune and more than doing it justice.
This event was the launch of Ezra Collective’s debut EP “Chapter 7” but due to my early departure I was unable to get hold of a copy. If you want it reviewed lads you know where to send it, hint, hint.
SKINT / DONNY McCASLIN BAND, RICH MIX
It’s been well documented by now that the quartet led by New York based saxophonist Donny McCaslin appeared on the final David Bowie album “Black Star” after Bowie saw them playing at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.
The Bowie connection ensured that this was one of the hottest tickets of the festival and a sold out Rich Mix was absolutely rammed for this performance. The appearance on “Black Star” has brought McCaslin’s music to a whole new demographic and here dyed in the wool jazz fans rubbed shoulders with adventurous rock listeners in a crowd with an appropriately broad age range.
I first encountered McCaslin’s playing in 2009 when he appeared as part of trumpeter Dave Douglas’ band at that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I’ve subsequently seen him in the international City Of Poets Quintet co-led by American trumpeter Jason Palmer and French pianist Cedric Hanriot and also as one of the star soloists in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Indeed it was the Schneider connection that first led Bowie to McCaslin following Schneider’s collaboration with the Thin White Duke on “Sue”, one of the first pieces to be recorded for the “Black Star” album.
Obviously McCaslin’s involvement with Bowie helped to pique my interest with regard to tonight’s show but as a long term admirer of his playing in a more obvious jazz context I was more excited at the prospect of him leading a band of his own for the first time – particularly as it was the band that appeared on the excellent 2012 release “Casting For Gravity”. Since then the same quartet have released the new albums “Fast Future” (2015) and “Beyond Now” (2016), recordings I have yet to hear.
But before McCaslin and his colleagues hit the stage the Rich Mix audience had the chance to enjoy a short but dynamic set from the young British trio Skint led by saxophonist and composer Phil Meadows. It was my second sighting of Meadows in two days having already enjoyed a performance by his new four piece Project earlier in the week at Foyle’s.
Where the Project played thoughtful, melodic contemporary jazz Skint was much more about ‘in your face’ aggression as the trio presented their take on ‘dance music from across the globe’. If this phrase implied a kind of world music dilettantism the reality was very different. Yes, the music was loud and highly rhythmic but the trio’s approach owed more to the ‘punk jazz’ movement and bands like Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down and The Comet Is Coming with the focus very much on energy. There were also moments when the combination of Meadows’ barking alto, Harry Pope’s pummelling drums and Joe Downand’s churning electric bass reminded me of Led Bib.
With Meadows also deploying keyboards and electronics the trio augmented their core sound with pre-programmed beats, Hammond and Rhodes sounds and various electronic effects. In this kind of club environment tune announcements were at a premium (although in other contexts Meadows can be an articulate, witty and informative interlocutor) as the trio tore through four fairly brief, tightly focussed pieces during their short forty minutes or so support slot.
The hard hitting opener featured Meadows on keyboards as well as alto and culminated in a hard hitting drum feature from the hyper active Pope, also the current drummer for WorldService Project.
Elsewhere Meadows featured on soprano, Pope augmented his arsenal with a smattering of electronic percussion and Downand ground out some truly filthy sounding electric bass. The focus was consistently on bludgeoning riffs, hard hitting grooves and surging beats with Meadows’ alto honking and blasting away in a manner that was often reminiscent of punk jazz pioneer Pete Wareham.
Skint invested their performance with passion, energy and no little skill and their performance was very well received by a capacity Rich Mix crowd. I think I’m correct in saying that the band have yet to record but this gig was a good one for them and will have introduced their name to a whole raft of new listeners as they acquitted themselves admirably.
The versatile and likeable Meadows is one of the most promising emerging jazz talents that we have and is surely a musician worthy of greater recognition. He later told me just how much he and the band had enjoyed this set at Rich Mix saying; “it was a complete fan boy gig for us. Donny McCaslin is my favourite saxophonist and Mark Guiliana is Harry’s favourite drummer. I still can’t believe that we were lucky enough to get the chance to open for them”.
After a short break the McCaslin quartet took to the stage to deliver an even more blistering set. The leader on tenor sax was joined by what has come to be known as the ‘Black Star Band’ with Guiliana on drums, Jason Lindner on keyboards & electronics and Tim Lefebvre on electric bass.
McCaslin has cited the influence of electronic artists such as Aphex Twin on his current music and this was immediately apparent on the commencing piece “Shake Loose”, the opening track on the recent “Beyond Now”. If Lindner’s banks of keyboards and other devices brought an element of electronica to the group’s music the overall sound was still rooted in jazz as McCaslin demonstrated with a barnstorming solo that embraced the full range of the tenor saxophone from baleful low register growls to startling high register shrieks.
This was a band that exuded confidence and were clearly on top of their game. Almost overnight the tall, gawky fifty year old McCaslin has suddenly emerged as the coolest saxophonist on the planet and he and his band have adopted a corresponding swagger accordingly. But in his between tunes announcements McCaslin still exhibited the kind of all American ‘aw shucks’ charm as that other famous jazz Bowie collaborator, Pat Metheny.
With Lefebvre holding down the groove on the title track from “Beyond Now” outbreaks of dancing could be detected in the audience and the roars of approval that greeted the brilliant drum feature from Mr. Perpetual Motion Mark Guiliana were almost as deafening as the music. Guiliana, who once guested and recorded with Phronesis, is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world right now, and like McCaslin draws considerable inspiration from contemporary electronic and dance rhythms.
In a hot, sweaty club atmosphere this was a gig to enjoy as much as to analyse and When McCaslin paused to pay verbal tribute to Bowie the place just erupted. This was followed up by a stunning instrumental version of “Lazarus” from the “Black Star” album with McCaslin’s tenor sax replicating Bowie’s vocal melody and with Lefebvre’s bass feature presaging an incendiary and anthemic finale. From the same album came “I Can’t Give Everything Away” with McCaslin and Lindner shouting the final eponymous refrain above Guiliana’s motorik style drum grooves. A superb interpretation of “Warszawa”, recorded by the quartet for the “Beyond Now” completed a brilliant Bowie trilogy.
Elsewhere “The Word” was a feature for Lindner, a more reflective offering incorporating dense, chiming layered keyboard textures.
But despite the undoubted excellence of the other musicians it was ultimately very much McCaslin’s show as he soloed with a restless inventiveness and fluency and an astonishing degree of physical stamina, other than for the carefully delineated set pieces from his colleagues he was playing all the time with fire, skill and unbounded imagination. This was embodied by his soloing on the title track from “Fast Future” which closed a brilliant, largely high energy set and also included another dazzling drum feature from the equally astonishing Guiliana.
The drummer sat out the first part of the deserved encore as he recovered from his exertions. This began with the eerie electronic textures generated by Lindner and Le Febvre, the latter utilising a floor mounted effects unit, as McCaslin played long, mournful melody lines. When Guiliana finally returned to the fray the music soared to an anthemic magnificence to send the crowd home uplifted and enraptured at an event that very much had the feel of a rock gig – but with some of the best jazz ‘chops’ that you’ll see just about anywhere.
Afterwards there was a mass scrum at the merch stand as McCaslin greeted his adoring public. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Donny on a couple of occasions, he’s a genuinely nice guy who even gifted me my copy of “Casting For Gravity”. Tonight I stayed well out of it to let others take their turn, although it did mean I missed out on getting hold of copies of “Fast Future” and “Beyond Now”, a situation that I must correct very soon.
This was a magnificent and hugely exciting gig and a definite Festival highlight. It rounded off a day of exceptional music, arguably the most consistently successful day of the festival with all four of the bands that I saw really delivering the goods.