by Ian Mann
November 23, 2016
Ian Mann visits another new venue and witnesses performances by the Nick Costley-White Trio, Mark Lewandowski Quartet, Shez Raja Collective, Plaistow and Vyamanikal.
Photograph of Shez Raja by Tim Dickeson
EFG London Jazz Festival 2016
Day Two, Saturday 12th November 2016
NICK COSTLEY-WHITE TRIO / MARK LEWANDOWSKI QUARTET, IKLECTIK ART LAB, WATERLOO
Saturday afternoon found me at another venue that was new to me, Iklectik Art Lab tucked away behind Waterloo Station. Founded in 2014 Iklectik is a haven for jazz and improvised music plus other branches of the arts and is the home of several jazz organisations including Jazz Nursery, LUME and Jazz New Blood, all of whom hosted events at the venue during the Festival period. Like Jazz Café POSK it also has its own grand piano, having acquired the old instrument from Café Oto when the Dalston venue took the decision to upgrade.
Located in a building that looks as if it may once have been a school Iklectik is a pleasingly Bohemian looking space furnished with an appropriately eclectic selection of chairs, benches and sofas. It serves beer, wine, coffee and snacks and even on a chilly November day was warm and welcoming. It may be a home for artistic outsiders but it’s certainly not exclusive and I was made to feel very welcome by proprietor Edward and by Dom James of Jazz Nursery, the latter also the clarinettist with the Dixie Ticklers, a young sextet who put a modern twist on classic trad jazz and New Orleans material (as heard on the 2013 album “Standing Pat”, reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann).
Today’s Jazz Nursery double bill began with a trio led by the guitarist Nick Costley-White, also a member of the Dixie Ticklers. Costley-White has been heard in more modern contexts too including saxophonist Tommy Andrews’ Quintet and the Pete Hurt Jazz Orchestra. Today he was focussing on the music of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter in the company of bassist Conor Chaplin and drummer Dave Ingamells with the performance being recorded by Alex Bonney with a view towards a possible future album release.
An introductory passage of unaccompanied guitar ushered in Porter’s “I Love You” with Chaplin also impressing with an articulate double bass solo as Ingamells provided subtly brushed drum commentary. The event was also being filmed and Costley-White wore a hooped Breton shirt of the type once favoured by Pat Metheny, almost certainly an influence on the young guitarist I’d say. Meanwhile Chaplin and Ingamells preferred more traditional ‘young fogey’ attire.
“The Last Time I Saw Paris” represented the first of two Jerome Kern tunes with Costley-White and Chaplin sharing the solos. The guitarist then stretched out further on “Yesterdays” and also entered into an engaging dialogue with fellow soloist Chaplin. Ingamells was also featured at the kit as this second Kern piece drew to a close.
The Porter ballad “I Concentrate On You” was given a particularly beautiful and carefully controlled reading with the combination of cleanly picked guitar, melodic double bass and delicately brushed drums earning a particularly warm reception from the small but discerning audience.
Next up was a change of pace and a ‘contrafact’, an original by Costley-White based upon the chords of Porter’s “All The Things You Are” and retitled “Apparition”. Despite an initial false start this was arguably the most exciting performance of the set with its tricky, boppish theme and Costley-White’s agile, fleet fingered soloing as he tackled the slippery bebop lines accompanied by Chaplin’s fast paced bass walk and Ingamells’ rapidly brushed drums, the latter subsequently reverting to sticks as the music continued to gather momentum before decelerating again for Chaplin’s bass solo.
The trio concluded their set with a straight ahead rendition of Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things” with features for all three musicians.
This was an enjoyable, if slightly low key set. The premise had been that the trio would explore some of the lesser known compositions of Kern and Porter and somehow I’d been expecting something a bit more subversive or radical. With the exception of the contrafact “Apparition” the trio played things pretty straight ahead throughout. Nothing wrong with that and I’m certainly not casting aspersions on the musicianship but it’s nonetheless true that I’ve seen and heard all three of these musicians playing more adventurous material elsewhere.
The young trio were followed by a more experienced quartet assembled by double bassist Mark Lewandowski. Joining the leader were pianist Liam Noble, tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer Jeff Williams, the latter replacing the advertised Gene Calderazzo who was playing elsewhere later that evening with Partisans.
Lewandowski’s group chose to explore a series of compositions inspired by or associated with the late pianist Paul Bley (1932-2016) who died in January, his passing rather undermined by that of David Bowie.
Challenger’s whinnying tenor sax fanfare introduced Lewandowski’s Bley inspired “Breathing Space”, a piece that toyed with freedom and structure and saw the quartet immerse themselves in some knotty collective improvising punctuated by solo and duo features such as a passage of unaccompanied piano from Noble followed by his absorbing dialogue with drummer Williams. Following his initial salvo Challenger seemed happy to take a back seat, returning only towards the end following some pretty rigorous trio improvisations.
Bley’s 1965 album “Closer”, a trio set recorded with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer/percussionist Barry Altschul proved to be something of a touchstone for Lewandowski.
This ground-breaking album was comprised primarily of compositions by Bley’s ex-wife Carla Bley and we were to hear two of these in close succession.
First up was “And Now The Queen” which was introduced by Lewandowski’s unaccompanied arco bass which featured dramatic bowing in both the instrument’s upper and lower registers When the bassist eventually picked out the distinctive melody Challenger doubled it on tenor to the accompaniment of Williams’ mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. In time Noble took over from Challenger and the saxophonist seemed lost in poetic reverie as the trio probed deeply into the contours of Carla’s melody. When Challenger returned he released his pent up energy with a full blooded tenor solo accompanied by the powerful drumming of Williams who had, by now, traded mallets for sticks.
Also from “Closer” came “Batterie”, a piece that has also been performed by Carla’s various large ensembles. Ushered in by Challenger’s tenor the initial collective improvisations gave way first to further dialogue between Lewandowski and Williams and later to another intense solo from Challenger, again fuelled by Williams’ explosive drumming plus Noble’s thunderous block chords. There was little respite in Noble’s extraordinarily percussive piano solo that was reminiscent of first Thelonious Monk and then Cecil Taylor. While this was going on Challenger sipped a coffee, returning only for the final theme restatement.
The set closed with another Lewandowski original “Nina At Monterey”, a piece inspired by Nina Simone’s legendary appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Nominally this was a ballad and although Challenger adopted a softer tone than previously during the opening stages he was to
re-emerge later on in the piece with a declamatory solo that seemed to signify Simone’s inner strength. Elsewhere Lewandowski’s plucked bass solo was given only the sparsest of accompaniment but Noble’s piano feature saw him making extensive use of the instrument’s innards and treating it like a complete entity.
This was an intense, adventurous and often challenging set but it was one that was ultimately highly rewarding and one that I very much enjoyed as the quartet got right inside the material and stamped their collective personality upon the music.
It’s always a pleasure to watch these four musicians perform, whether individually or collectively, and I was to catch up with all of them again in different contexts later in the Festival period. In the meantime this was an excellent start to the day at another excellent new venue.
SHAZ RAJA COLLECTIVE, CLORE BALLROOM, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL
After wending our way back to the Southbank via the back streets of Waterloo we timed our arrival perfectly to catch a performance on the Clore Ballroom free-stage by the Shez Raja Collective, part of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line Up programme which had earlier featured music from bassist Misha Mullov Abbado, tuba player Oren Marshall and rising star pianist/vocalist Kandace Springs. As far as I’m aware at the time of writing it’s not yet been broadcast, but should be well worth hearing when it is.
Raja is a British Asian electric bass specialist, originally from the Wirrall but now based in London. He formed his Collective in 2007 and has released a total of five albums, two of which “Soho Live” (2014) and “Gurutopia” (2016), have been reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.
The albums have featured appearances by illustrious guests such as Andy Sheppard, Gilad Atzmon, Shabaka Hutchings, Denys Baptiste, John Etheridge, Oren Marshall, Claude Deppa, Jay Phelps and Soweto Kinch. “Gurutopia” even found him collaborating with the leading Americans Mike Stern (guitar) and Randy Brecker (trumpet).
However today’s performance saw Raja fronting his core band comprising of violinist Pascal Roggen, keyboard player Alex Stanford, drummer Chris Nickolls and saxophonist Vasilis Xenopoulos. Polish born vocalist Monika Lidke also added her soaring wordless vocals to a couple of numbers.
Although I’ve enjoyed Raja’s albums I’ve always felt that the live environment would be the best place to appreciate his band. This high octane, crowd pleasing performance certainly confirmed that hypothesis as the charismatic, white clad leader guided his band through an energetic set combining elements of jazz, funk, Indian music and more with the emphasis firmly on the groove. Raja’s own playing combines an enormous technical accomplishment with a sense of showmanship and is clearly inspired by such electric bass giants as Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke and the late, great Jaco Pastorius. Constantly whipping up the crowd he’s a charismatic front man and an absolute nightmare to photograph - “he never stands still” complained respected professional snapper Tim Dickeson, although he did manage to capture the rather fine image that illustrates this feature.
With Raja at the helm his band are a well drilled unit and the set included inspired solos from Roggen, Xenopoulos and Stanford as well as the leader with Nickolls laying down some tight and tasty grooves from the kit, aided and abetted by Raja and Stanford.
The combination of infectious grooves and mercurial solos ensured that this was a gig for letting oneself get absorbed in the moment and simply enjoying the music rather than aiming for some sort of detailed analysis. Young children were dancing to the music, adults were swaying, hand clapping and foot tapping and everybody seemed to get swept away by the energy of it all. Highlights included the driving Indo-Funk of “Maharajah” with its combination of seductive Indian melodies and ferocious funk grooves and the Caribbean flavoured “Freedom” with its utopian message.
Having enjoyed covering two of Raja’s albums it was a real bonus to get the opportunity to witness the man strutting his funky stuff in front of a live audience, a performance that was followed later in the week by a ticketed show at The Forge in Camden Town.
PLAISTOW / VYAMANIKAL, HALL TWO, KINGS PLACE
The second double bill of the day was a Match & Fuse presentation featuring the Swiss piano trio Plaistow teamed with the British duo Vyamanikal featuring Kit Downes and Tom Challenger, the latter playing his second gig of the day.
In 2014 Plaistow gave a hugely impressive EFG LJF performance at one of the free lunchtime showcase events at the Pizza Express Jazz Club and it came as no surprise to see them invited back on the more formal concert programme.
I covered that show at the Pizza and was thoroughly blown away by the trio’s performance and their distinctive take on the art of the piano trio. Named after the Squarepusher track “Plaistow Flex” the band blur the boundaries between electronic and acoustic music more effectively than just about anybody else. This is still acoustic music but its heart and key influences have their roots entirely in electronica. Darker and heavier than the UK’s own much vaunted (and very good) GoGo Penguin there’s a vague air of menace about Plaistow’s music that ensures that despite their similarities both bands sound very different. Plaistow have carved out their own unique niche in the overcrowded world of the piano trio.
Meanwhile Vyamanikal is the successor of Wedding Music, the duo featuring Downes and Challenger that teams the sound of church organ with Challenger’s tenor and soprano saxes. Released earlier in 2016 on the new Suffolk based boutique label Slip the Vyamanikal album featured a series of organ and saxophone duets recorded in a variety of Suffolk churches as part of an Aldeburgh Festival “Open Spaces” commission. There’s a strangely calming and timeless quality about the music on this oddly compelling and often very beautiful album.
Tonight’s event was introduced by the irrepressible Debra Richards, a long term champion of the jazz scene in Switzerand through her involvement with the Swiss Vibes website http://www.swissvibes.org.
It was Richards who compiled the recent excellent Swiss Jazz compilation CD given away with the November Jazzwise magazine featuring tracks by Plaistow, Vein and many others. More recently she has been involved with publicising the Match & Fuse movement and its spirit of international co-operation, something that’s even more desperately needed in this post referendum era.
Richards informed us that on the afternoon of the gig she’d taken Plaistow, the band, on a pilgrimage to Plaistow, the place. Richards was actually born in Plaistow but hadn’t returned for many years, the Swiss trio had never previously been to the place after which they were named. One got the impression that the visit represented something of an education all round for everybody concerned.
And so to the music with Plaistow taking to the stage first to perform music mainly sourced from their most recent album “Titan”, a semi-conceptual affair with all fourteen of the relatively short pieces named after the moons of Saturn.
The Geneva based group features pianist Johann Bourquenez, double bassist Vincent Ruiz and drummer Cyril Bondi. Bourquenez has said of their music “lets pretend we are just a jazz trio, but we are actually filled with techno and noise walls, let’s make that music but with acoustic instruments”. It’s a quote that sums up their approach particularly appositely.
Tonight’s performance obviously lacked the shock factor that accompanied my first sighting of them at the Pizza two years ago. Nevertheless although I now had some idea of what to expect their all too brief set still proved to be totally immersive, in both auditory and visual terms.
The first thing that struck me at the Pizza was the way in which Bourquenez approached the piano as an ‘entire instrument’ making extensive use of prepared piano and other ‘under the lid’ techniques in one of the most comprehensive displays of its type that I have seen. His approach is far more than just a token rummage around the instrument’s innards.
Such had been Bourquenez’s dominance at the Pizza that I’d assumed him to be the group’s leader. However the Plaistow of 2016 seemed to be a far more democratic unit (all the pieces on “Titan” are jointly credited to the whole group) with the dread-locked drummer Bondi an increasingly musically important and visually compelling presence.
As well as their acknowledged electronic and dance music inspirations Plaistow also draw on the influence of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich. The trio are not afraid of repetition and use it as a particularly successful arranging tool with Bourquenez’s rumbling piano arpeggios a key component in the group’s distinctive sound. Meanwhile Bondi sometimes resembled a human metronome with his implacable drum grooves, shades of a Klaus Dinger or Jaki Liebezeit.
One of the most distinctive facets about Plaistow’s music is that they’re not afraid to slow things down. They largely eschew the frantic rhythms of most electronic dance music and at times decelerate almost to a crawl, the resultant effect is dark, brooding and hypnotic with the smallest of musical gestures speaking volumes.
They are also masters of tempo and dynamics, effectively contrasting busy hip hop rhythms and industrial strength grooves with more impressionistic passages featuring eerie bowed bass, scraped cymbals and sepulchral interior piano rumblings.
Plaistow played uninterrupted for around forty minutes, linking together themes from the “Titan” album, some of which I recognised but don’t intend to try naming here. My review of the album can be read at;
At the close the audience, who had been totally absorbed throughout, erupted in rapturous applause prompting Debra Richards to call the band back for a deserved encore. Here the band upped the energy levels with a rapid, ferocious groove as Bondi let slip the ghosts of Dinger and Liebezeit to release his inner Billy Cobham. The audience loved it and the band seemed to find it positively therapeutic following the tightly focussed dynamism of the first forty minutes. I’m fairly certain that this final piece was “Kari”, the twelfth track on “Titan” and the album’s most extrovert offering.
Plaistow were followed by Vyamanikal whose set proved to be equally absorbing albeit in a very different way. I think I’m right in believing that tonight’s set represented something of a first for this duo and was the first time that they’d performed with Downes utilising the sound of two Indian classical harmoniums to replicate the organ drones and sonorities that characterise the “Vyamanikal” album. Given that the album title, plus the names of some of the individual tracks, are sourced from Sanskrit mythology this seemed somehow appropriate.
Like Plaistow the duo played without tune announcements, again linking several distinct segments together to create an equally immersive all round experience. Vyamanikal’s music was less dynamic and more fragile than Plaistow’s had been but was no less absorbing. This time there was little that I recognised directly from the album but I suspect that it’s in the nature of Vyamanikal’s music for it to be more fully improvised.
Whether deploying church organ or harmonium Vyamanikal’s music is highly distinctive. Speaking to Downes afterwards he told me that although the combination of church organ and saxophone is still comparatively rare they’d deliberately avoided listening to other exponents of the format such as the albums “Aftenland” by Jan Garbarek and Kjel Johnsen or the less well known “Conway Suite” by Dave Stapleton and Deri Roberts. And my old favourites Hugh Banton and David Jackson of Van Der Graaf Generator who first piqued my interest in the organ/sax pairing many years ago weren’t even in their frame of reference.
With the focus of this half of the event stated to be on “atmosphere” the lights were discretely dimmed as Downes and Challenger commenced their performance with the other-worldly drone of the harmoniums punctuated by the breathy whisper of Challenger’s tenor.
Elsewhere Challenger deployed a more piercing sound, sometimes reminiscent of the famed Nordic saxophonic ‘cry’ pioneered by Garbarek, at other times the music took on the meditative qualities of plainsong or Gregorian chant.
The strangely relaxing qualities of the music meant that this was a sound to immerse oneself in, albeit in a different way to some of the other performances during the Festival period. The ethereal qualities of Downes’ layered harmonium drones promised to transport the listener to deep space or certainly to a parallel universe. The deployment of the two instruments represented a considerable technical challenge to Downes but it was one that he rose to with typical confidence and aplomb.
It was perhaps the closing sequence that best epitomised Vyamanikal’s approach with Challenger’s tenor whispering plaintively above a cavernous harmonium drone that sounded authentically church like. As the final echoes died away the duo received a similarly exultant reaction to Plaistow from an audience that had evidently been totally transported by this strange, unorthodox and hauntingly beautiful music.
Debra Richards returned briefly to the stage to introduce the “Fuse” element of the evening as the members of Plaistow returned to the stage to perform in conjunction with Vyamanikal. Often at
M & F events the resultant ‘mash up’ is little more than a glorified jam but this collective improvisation proved to be very different, as once again “atmosphere” seemed to be the primary focus.
Things began in appropriately sensitive fashion with the sounds of Bourqenez’s dampened strings and the tentative scraping of Bondi’s snare as Downes added an underpinning harmonium drone. Gradually the newly convened quintet developed a cohesive and compelling group improvisation as Bondi added cymbal shimmers and delicate hand drum patterns, these picked up on by Ruiz who utilised them as the basis for an insistent plucked bass motif, this in turn providing the platform for a powerful Challenger tenor solo. Once the saxophonist had developed his ideas to a peak the piece resolved itself as Bourquenez and Bondi wound things down with some archetypal Plaistow arpeggiated patterns. Despite being entirely improvised the piece had a strong narrative arc and unfolded logically and organically. It almost felt as if it could have been pre-composed but instead was the sound of five outstanding musicians creating beauty in the moment.
My thanks to Debra Richards, Kit Downes and Tom of the Slip record label for speaking with me after the gig. Downes and Challenger have recently issued a new recording for the label, “Black Shuck”, a release available only on cassette and download. The new work features one side by the Vyamanikal duo and one by a septet featuring Downes (on piano) and Challenger plus Emma Smith (violin), Liam Byrne (viol), Lucy Railton (cello), Daniel Bradley (percussion) and Alex Bonney (electronics). This promises to be a fascinating listen and I hope to take a look at this in the near future.
Tonight’s double bill was an enjoyable and fascinating event with both groups acquitting themselves well both individually and collectively. Initially I was more than a little surprised to find the two acts pitted against a similarly attractive double bill in Hall One where the British pianist Andrew McCormack played a solo set opening for the Michael Wollny Trio. I could just as gladly have gone to this and it did seem a little perverse to have two of Europe’s leading piano trios in a ‘fixture clash’ within the same building. However a subsequent perusal of the Kings Place brochure suggested that the Plaistow/Vyamanikal show was a late addition to the programme. I suspect that it was initially intended that this event should have taken place in a church but that no suitable sacred space was available, hence the harmoniums and the move to Kings Place. The decision was certainly justified by an evening of fascinating and enjoyable music. But I’d have loved to have seen Wollny and McCormack too.
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