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Feature

Rhythms at The Yurt.


by Trevor Bannister

March 30, 2020

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister enthuses about The Yurt at Haddon Acre, the unique and intimate South Oxfordshire music venue run by former recording engineer Chris Hollebone and his wife Sue.

Self isolating during the Covid-19 pandemic guest contributor Trevor Bannister has been digging into his archive and has forwarded the following feature about the unique and intimate South Oxfordshire music venue run by the husband and wife team of Chris and Sue Hollebone.The piece includes Chris and Sue’s memories of previous events at The Yurt and of Chris’s experiences as a recording engineer. My thanks to Trevor for giving his permission to publish this article, which first appeared on the Jazz in Reading website http://www.jazzinreading.com


Photograph of the FB Pocket Orchestra performing at The Yurt courtesy of Chris & Sue Hollebone.


Trevor Bannister writes;


RHYTHMS AT THE YURT
 

At first glance there is nothing remarkable about Sue and Chris Hollebone’s yurt as it sits in the grounds of their home at Haddon Acre in South Oxfordshire. Swathed in a coat of  heavy-duty canvas that bears testimony to the ravages of time and the weather, it resembles a saucepan lid in shape. Only a tiny door, beautifully decorated in traditional patterns of Mongolia, not dissimilar in style to the ‘Castles and Roses’ of British canal folk, offers a clue to what magic might be held within.
 

Wow! The interior is truly breathtaking; a circus big top of brilliant white, lit by the sunlight pouring through the skylight and supported by four central posts and seventy-eight spars, each painted in the same vivid colours and intricate patterns as the door. A thick layer of woollen material lies between the interior sheeting and the outer water-proof jacket. Everything is secured by threads of horsehair; there is no nail or artificial fastening anywhere in the construction, while a tension band holds the entire edifice in place. Can it really be only be twenty-two  feet in diameter – it seems so much bigger?
 

It’s easy to imagine that this would make idyllic ‘glamping’ accommodation – the reason Sue and Chris imported it about twelve years ago. ‘It took a ‘team of fourteen, a day to erect,’ Chris remembers. ‘The nomadic people of Mongolia can do the job in four hours with a team of just three or four. Once upon a time they would have towed it across the Steppes in a yak cart – I guess they would use a 4 x 4 truck today. They would want to get their family and animals safely tucked up inside as quickly as possible and unlike us, not stop for interminable cups of tea.’
 

Located within a few minutes’ walk of Wittenham  Clumps, ancient guardians of a landscape described by the artist Paul Nash as ‘a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten’, the yurt’s ‘glamping’ potential   soon exceeded Sue and Chris’s expectations. Its mystical qualities were also enhanced by its proximity to St Michael’s ley line, linking St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall with Hopton in Norfolk, making it a perfect space for meditation and visits by a Celtic Shaman.
 

Two  local musicians brought a couple of guitars to the yurt  one evening and liked playing in the space. About two years later, one of them suggested using it as a ‘live’ performance venue. When  his interest moved to other activities about three years ago, Sue and Chris took the enterprise on themselves and so was born ‘Rhythms at the Yurt’; vocalist Fleur Stevenson was the first guest and has remained a favourite visitor ever since.
 

The Hollebone’s love of the yurt itself and the local environment is matched only by their love for music. Chris grew up with jazz, though despite his brother’s best efforts, he remained immune to the attractions of ‘trad’, much preferring blues. His perspective changed when he entered the world of professional sound recording as an engineer. ‘As a young man I had the good fortune to work with some legends of jazz – Oscar Peterson, Jacques Loussier, Charlie Mingus – who people warned would ‘skin me alive’ but turned out to be OK, and notably  the absolute giant, Duke Ellington , just six months before he died. I spent most of the gig in Bristol on stage with the band making sure the old devils were still “on mic” when they stood up for their solos. Pretty awesome for a guy of 19 being underneath Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Russell Procope, Harold Ashby and all. The brass players like Cootie Williams, Willie Cook, Money Johnson and co. were less of a problem because they were loud enough and unlike the sax, their bells were more or less in the right direction! For those guys it was all about the performance and the recording didn’t matter so they made it tough. Ellington himself was a very charming man.’
 

“The greatest fun though, was with George Melly, backed by John Chilton’s Feetwarmers at a live session at Ronnie Scott’s in 1972. As somebody said at the time, “A night to remember for those who can. Some can’t”. Unbeknown to us George had a bottle of brandy tucked away behind the piano and by half way through he was slurring his words and totally unintelligible. When we came to play the tape back it was totally unusable. To salvage the project we got George, this time
stone- cold sober, back into Ronnie’s a week later at 11 o’clock in the morning and re-recorded the whole thing, dubbing on the applause and audience effect later – so much for being a ‘live’ album! The result - George’s hit album ‘Nuts’! The rest, as they say, is history. It launched his solo career, which continued unabated until his death in 2007 and also taught him the lesson of not imbibing on recording sessions.”
 

Chris returned to Ronnie’s on many more occasions, including to record the tempestuous drummer Buddy Rich and his Big Band. ‘We somehow stuffed all the equipment in Pete King’s office,’ Chris remembers, ‘pushing his desk to one side. It was a fantastic band, the standard of musicianship was amazing, but Buddy was an absolute b…..d. He paid his band, mostly young guys straight from music college, a pittance as if it was a privilege for them to play with HIM. He would regularly pull the trick of calling a title, setting up an intro on his drums and cymbals, and then at the last moment shouting out for another tune. He fired anyone who couldn’t make it! But what a band!’ 
 

Chris’s subsequent career embraced the less savoury world of ‘punk’, when ‘some of the musicians could hardly play a note’, to the highlights of  recording Queen in Hyde Park and Genesis on tour – the starting point, perhaps, for a future interview on his adventures in the recording industry?
 

To return to Rhythms at the Yurt, though artists from as far afield as Scotland have played the venue, Chris and Sue mine the extraordinarily rich vein of talent that lies on their doorstep in the Thames Valley. ‘We’re very fortunate,’ Chris declares, ‘to have some exceptional people near at hand with a slant towards jazz, blues and ‘Americana’ -  for starters just think of Fleur, Rebecca Poole (AKA Purdy), Hugh Turner, Paul Jefferies and Jez Cook.’ 
 

Chris and Sue realised early on that duos or trios work best. However, Sue recalled a particularly ‘cosy’ evening when vocalist Lea Lyle brought her entire quartet to the venue - including drums! ‘On the other hand,’ Chris added, ‘Edd Keene held everyone spellbound with a solo performance of electronic wizardry. He was completely shattered by the end and said that his “brain had fried”. We had another great night with the FB Pocket Orchestra – there were only three of them, but what an incredible range of instruments they played – everything from a washboard to a tuba!’
 

Space may be limited, but it didn’t in the least inhibit the ‘no holds barred’ exuberance or animation of the irrepressible violinist/pianist/vocalist Ben Holder when he performed at the yurt.
 

Sue recalls one performer, more used to grand concert halls, who feared that closeness to the audience might expose the tiniest flaws in his performance. ‘He needn’t have worried,’ Sue remarked. ‘The yurt worked its special magic and he soon relaxed. After all, what’s a fluffed note when you’re amongst friends?’ The long-term partnership of Tony O’Malley and Keith Fairbairn even surprised themselves when they played the yurt. ‘They set up this great exchange of banter – really quick-witted repartee,’ Sue explains, ‘not just with the audience, but between themselves – something they’d never done before or indeed since!’
 

There are stunning views to enjoy from Haddon Acre in the summer, but Chris and Sue agree that the yurt is at its most atmospheric during late autumn and early winter when it’s lit up with a myriad of fairy lights and interval drinks can be enjoyed standing in the open-air beside the warmth and glow of a blazing fire-pit.
 

Rhythms at the Yurt usually runs from April to December. It can be reached easily by car and there’s ample parking space. Seating, though, is limited to 30, so early booking is always advisable. Once the current crisis is at an end you will be guaranteed a warm welcome by Chris and Sue Hollebone.
 

For full details of Rhythms at the Yurt check out www.haddonacre.co.uk
 
 

by Trevor Bannister

March 28, 2020

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister pays homage to the extraordinary saxophonist Art Themen, who combines a successful career as an orthopaedic surgeon with the life of a prominent jazz musician.

Self isolating during the Covid-19 pandemic guest contributor Trevor Bannister has been digging into his archive and has forwarded the following tribute to the remarkable Art Themen. The piece was first written in May 2019 and remains thoroughly pertinent and topical. My thanks to Trevor for giving his permission to publish this article, which first appeared on the Jazz in Reading website http://www.jazzinreading.com


Photograph by Merlin Daleman


Art Themen : An Appreciation
  

It’s the summer of 1987 and two jazz fans are standing at the bar of a crowded Reading wine bar, soaking up the house red and the delights of the Stan Tracey Quartet. The first turns to his companion and remarks, ‘That was a knock-out solo from Art.’ His friend nods in agreement and adds, ‘Yes, and he did a brilliant job on my knee last month.’
 

An apocryphal story? Perhaps? But to my mind it neatly sums up the remarkable Art Themen, whose unique talents and derring-do enabled him to rise to the highest echelons of two of the most demanding professions one can imagine, jazz soloist and orthopaedic surgeon.
 

Art’s gift for music was evident at a young age when he readily picked out tunes on a penny whistle gifted to him by a relative at his family home in Manchester. He soon progressed to the clarinet. A bright and serious student at Manchester Grammar School, the only blot on his otherwise unimpeachable school career occurred when his pale imitation of Monty Sunshine, the clarinet star with Chris Barber’s Jazz Band,  during a lunch-break incurred a detention; there being no place for ‘the devil’s music’ in the scholarly environs of an institution that stood at the ‘top of the tree’ for academic achievement. Undeterred, a ‘trad’ band was formed which eventually won round the school authorities. Art credits its trumpeter, Barry Dixon, a Bix Beiderbecke devotee, with helping to shape his early steps in jazz.
 

His arrival at Cambridge University to study medicine broadened his musical horizons. By now he had fallen under the spell of tenor sax giants Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins and switched to the instrument himself. He joined the Cambridge University Jazz Band, alongside fellow saxophonist Dave Gelly, bassist John Hart, and with first George Walden and later Jonathan Lynn on drums, each of whom rose to respective success in music/writing, music, politics and acting/writing. At first a rather sedate ‘middle-of-the-road’ outfit, the ‘off-the-wall’ influence of Lionel Grigson changed all that when he took over the piano chair and lifted the band to near professional standard with a swinging hard-bop style that swept the board in the fiercely contested Inter-University Jazz Band Competitions of the early 1960s.
 

Still a student, though now based at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, Art soon found himself drawn into the ferment of the London jazz scene as a member of the Charlie Mingus-styled Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated. Art remembers Alexis as being an indifferent musician, but a ‘mighty leader with tremendous energy’. A cartoon picture penned at the time depicts the band travelling to a gig in a ubiquitous Bedford Dormobile.  Art sits amid the wild, goggle-eyed company of Alexis himself, saxophonists Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond, and drummer Ginger Baker; his attention firmly focused on a copy of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and with a bubble emerging from his head saying, ‘The kneebone’s connected to the thighbone…’ It was all a terrific grounding for a young musician and a vivid insight into life on the road.
 

Having ‘paid his dues’ with Alexis and nearing completion of his medical studies, Art was now on regular ‘call’ in both his professions. He played in the innovative bands of Graham Collier and began an association with Michael Garrick, as a member of his sextet and as a part of ambitious choral works such as ‘Jazz Praises’, which endured until the pianist’s death in 2011. Art’s serpent-like solo on ‘Temple Dancer’ from Garrick’s album ‘The Heart is a Lotus’ is a fine example of his playing from those days.
 

Stan Tracey stands as a monumental figure in Art’s career. Not that he ever got to know the taciturn Stan closely, despite the length of their association which began in 1975. Nevertheless Tracey was someone whose music commanded Art’s utmost respect.


Art recorded with various sized Tracey line-ups, including the one that recorded classic album ‘Captain Adventure’ and travelled extensively with Stan across the world. One trip took the quartet to the Jazz Yatra Festival in Bombay in February 1978 where Art met his idol Sonny Rollins for the first time. It was a brief encounter, but as Art recalls, “It was a measure of the man that when we met again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall three or fours years later, he remembered me and greeted me warmly with ‘Hello Art’. I didn’t get as close to Dexter, but I did play with two of his sidemen, Tete Montoliu and Alex Reill on a date in Barcelona.’
 

Alongside his work with Stan, Art branched out on a free-lance career. Amongst solo guest spots and gigs with fellow protagonists like Don Weller, he played with the Berkshire Youth Jazz Orchestra on many occasions, an inspirational force for young players, such as alto saxophonist Simon Allen, who progressed through its ranks. He maintains an open and supportive ear for young talent, loves playing with Clark Tracey’s ‘finishing school’ for emerging players and plays his own role in encouraging the new generation; star trumpeter Laura Jurd, first came to the attention of many jazz fans as a member of Art’s New Directions Quintet
 

Art stands in awe of the accomplishments of today’s young musicians and believes that the ‘keys for the future are in safe hands’. He counters the old adage that their playing lacks soul with the comment that ‘What passes for soul amongst us oldies, is often no more than a schmaltzy vibrato when the lip goes.’ His advice to young players is similarly succinct, ‘Yes, creating jazz is a serious business and we all aim to grow as players through performance and practice, but the pursuit of perfection can be self-destructive. Nobody wants to see a ‘Po-Face’ on the stand, so let’s always remember that jazz is about having fun. That’s what we want to communicate.’
 

Art has had the good fortune to play with Charlie Rouse, for many years a cornerstone of the Thelonious Monk Quartet, and be-boppers Red Rodney and Al Haig, who both played with Charlie Parker. ‘Working with those guys was like being in church and a touch away from God,’ Art recalls. There was a darker side to the introverted Al Haig however. ‘Al played wonderfully well, but he was alleged to have murdered his third wife. I slept with my bedroom door securely locked when he stayed with me at my then home in Eldon Square. After Al died in 1982, the truth emerged that he was a serial abuser and that the accusations were almost certainly true.’
 

Art’s free-lance career has taken on a new momentum since he retired from medicine fourteen years ago, making him one of the most sought-after musicians on the UK and international jazz scene, with a busy schedule of guest and festival appearances averaging three-to-four a week. As he approaches his eightieth portal in November, his playing is as exciting and adventurous as ever.
 

At the time of writing (May 2019), his diary includes solo dates as far afield as Ilminster and Lincoln, a quartet gig with Gareth Williams, Andy Cleyndert and Clark Tracey in Nottingham, an organ trio with Pete Whittaker, a gig with John Etheridge, a tribute to Sidney Bechet in Holborn and depping for Theo Travis with Soft Machine in Norway. What could amount to a relentless treadmill of activity is leavened by his love of playing, joy in driving around the country in his beloved Mini, a close-season winter skiing break in France and the relaxing surroundings of his riverside home in Henley.
 

Art Themen has brought joy to thousands throughout the course of his astonishing career; the world-class quality of his playing and his personal warmth and generosity a welcome addition to any bandstand. May he continue to do so for many years yet to come.
 

Trevor Bannister May 2019
 

by Ian Mann

March 22, 2020

In these days of isolation Ian Mann, together with an online audience of music fans, enjoys a concert length Livestream broadcast performance by the Fergus McCreadie Trio.

Fergus McCreadie Trio, Livestream, Stephen Henderson’s Kitchen, Dalrymple, Scotland, 21/03/2020.


Fergus McCreadie – piano, David Bowden – double bass, Stephen Henderson – drums, percussion


With all live jazz performances temporarily suspended due to the Covid-19 crisis enterprising musicians have been turning to the internet to present their music and to continue to connect with their audiences in these troubled times.

One such was the young Scottish pianist and composer Fergus McCreadie who gathered with his trio in the kitchen of drummer Stephen Henderson’s house to present a ninety minute ‘Livestream’ performance that was available via Facebook and Instagram.

Advertising the event on his Facebook page McCreadie had emphasised the importance of “connectiveness” and of the importance of music in bringing people together and of the “warmth and oneness” it can generate.

I’m aware that many other musicians have been doing something similar and I’ve always been a bit sceptical and dismissive about watching music on computer – I’ve never found Youtube footage to be a satisfactory substitute for the thrill of a real live performance.

However having recently seen the McCreadie trio give an exceptional performance at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny and with the prospect of no ‘in person’ gigs in the foreseeable future I decided to give this “Livestream” thing a go.

I have to say that despite my reservations I was very glad that I did. Fergus and his colleagues approached the performance with the same seriousness that they’d approach an ‘in person’ show in a jazz club or theatre, playing their all original music with skill, feeling and intensity.

Tonight’s Livestream was a first for the trio and in the true spirit of jazz there was a sense of spontaneity and of doing things ‘on the fly’. This was more appropriate to the camera work rather than the music. The smallness of the location made it difficult for the person behind the camera (Scott Henderson, presumably related to Stephen) to fit all three band members into a single shot. Thus the visual coverage wasn’t quite up to ‘made for TV’ standards but this hardly seemed to matter given the quality of the musical performance and of the sound itself. Even on my tiny laptop the trio sounded absolutely terrific, with an excellent balance between the three instruments. Of necessity McCreadie was obliged to use an electric keyboard on an acoustic piano setting, but even so he sounded totally convincing, soloing with a Jarrett-like intensity and inventiveness.

Of course it was strange to hear no applause at the end of each number, especially when the performances were so praiseworthy, yet there was still the sense of being part of an audience. I was watching on Facebook along with another two hundred or so other people, many of whom offered comments of support as the music progressed, along with the usual ‘like’ and ‘love’ hashtags.

Despite being in isolation I still felt as if I were among friends as a real sense of community developed with audience members bouncing comments, all of them supportive, back and forth between themselves. Indeed some of the other members of this ‘virtual’ audience were known to me, my wife Pam was watching on a separate device and we noticed that our friend Paul Mapp, who was introduced to the trio’s music at that Abergavenny show, was also listening in.

I also recognised the names of several promoters who had hosted the trio at their clubs in more normal times, Jez Matthews of Jazz at The Lescar in Sheffield, Debs Hancock of Black Mountain Jazz and Paul Pace of the Spice of Life in Soho, London.

At the end of ninety or so minutes of marvellous music from Fergus and the trio I really did have the same warm and appreciative feeling that I experience after a good gig, and a sense that time had been suspended for an hour and a half.

In his Facebook trailer for the performance McCreadie observed “ If you can forget where you are for even just a minute and be tied to the moment, then that is an incredibly affirming thing”. And watching this Livestream performance and knowing that I was doing so in the company of like minded people all over the country, and possibly the wider world too, certainly did this for me.

The ballad “An Old Friend” seemed to have particular emotional resonance in the current circumstances. Elsewhere there was some terrific playing that embraced everything from Celtic influenced melody to powerful E.S.T. style dynamics.  The trio had even solicited requests and the performance closed with one of these, the McCreadie original “The Old Harbour”. A call for Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” didn’t materialise, although it would have been interesting to see this highly original young trio tackling a standard.

However I don’t intend this to be a blow by blow account of a Fergus McCreadie Trio live concert performance. You’ll have to go to my review of the Abergavenny show for that. Link here;
https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/fergus-mccreadie-trio-black-mountain-jazz-melville-centre-abergavenny-23-02-2020

Thank you to Fergus, David and Stephen and to all my fellow ‘virtual audience’ members for making my first Livestream Experience so memorable. I’ll certainly be tuning in again when any of my favourite artists are going to be performing in this format and I’d urge anybody likely to be reading this to do the same. Let’s support musicians in this time of crisis by tuning into these Livestreams and by purchasing their music and merchandise on line.

To purchase the McCreadie Trio’s award winning début album “Turas” please go to http://www.fergusmccreadie.co.uk or to https://fergusmccreadie.bandcamp.com/releases

Their full Livestream performance is available to view at McCreadie’s Facebook page and at the time of writing, on the day immediately following transmission, it has attracted an incredible 4.344 views. To watch please visit; https://www.facebook.com/fergusmccreadiepianist/

Tonight, 22nd March 2020,  at 8.00 pm McCreadie is due to undertake another Livestream broadcast alongside vocalist Luca Manning, with the pair doubtless performing songs from their recently released début album “When The Sun Comes Out”. Guess I’ll be tuning in again.

If other musicians wish to send me details of forthcoming Livestream broadcasts maybe I can look at setting up some kind of alternative ‘gigs and events’ page.

In the meantime I’d urge other music fans to give Livestream a go. Thanks to the Fergus McCreadie Trio I’m definitely a convert.

 

 

 

by Ian Mann

March 07, 2020

Jazzmann website designer Phil Dunsford shares his thoughts about the recent upgrading of the Jazzmann website.

Phil Dunsford writes;


New Look Jazzmann Website.


Hello and welcome to the newly designed Jazzmann website! It’s been a long time in the making and long overdue but hopefully it will serve to carry Ian,  his contributors, and you, the loyal readers, forward for many years to come.


My name’s Phil and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ian, and his wife Pam, for over 10 years. It has been a long time since our first meeting in a pub to discuss putting a website together to where we are today. It was an exciting project to be involved with and, for me, the creative aspect of designing and building a website along with Ian’s unique and passionate content, was very appealing.


The site launched back in 2008 and, in terms of technology and devices, a lot has changed during that time. Not least the rise of the smartphone and tablet markets, which we now see as a huge percentage of how people are finding, reading and sharing the content.


Since its launch, http://www.thejazzmann.com has largely remained unchanged. At the time it felt fresh and modern and certain aspects were even featured in some online design publications as innovative and inspiring! Something I took great pride in.


As the years have passed, however, technology and tastes have moved on and while the site has mostly remained functional, I’ve long been aware that an upgrade was of critical importance for Ian and for you, the artists and readers.


Back in October last year, I set out to not only redesign from the ground up but to upgrade the entire back-end system, the results of which are here for you today. It’s a much cleaner and modern look and is now fully responsive across tablets and mobiles. Without getting too technical, the back-end system has also been entirely upgraded which, hopefully, will allow us to keep http://www.thejazzmann.com running smoothly into the new decade.


Over the years, http://www.thejazzmann.com has grown to be a hugely impressive archive of work for artists and readers alike and rightly recognised by Ian’s recent winning of the Jazz Media Award at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards 2019.


It is testament to his hard work, dedication, and above all, passion for the jazz community that I felt it was of such importance and a duty, both to him and to you that the site continues to serve that effort.


We do hope you enjoy the new site and look forward to your continued support and feedback. Please feel free to drop a comment below if you spot anything. There may be a few gremlins yet to iron out but hopefully the reading experience will be much improved.


Thanks again to Ian and his contributors, and you the artists and readers.


Best wishes,

Phil


Ian adds;

I’m very grateful to Phil, and also to James Powis who administers certain sections of the site, for all the hard work they have put in over the course of the last twelve years to help keep the Jazzmann a viable concern.

My computer and technical knowledge is extremely limited and without the help of these two wonderful gentlemen the Jazzmann site wouldn’t function at all. Between them they really are the Jazzmann’s life support system.

The task of upgrading and overhauling the site has been undertaken by Phil alone and despite it all becoming quite stressful at times he has made an absolutely marvellous job of it and the feedback we have received so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

I owe Phil a huge debt of gratitude for the enormous amount of time and effort that he has put in with regard to the upgrading and updating of the site. I’m delighted with the results and it’s now our intention to get the whole of the Jazzmann team together and return to the pub for a few celebratory beers!

by Ian Mann

February 26, 2020

"Rest in Peace". Ian Mann shares his memories of two recently departed musicians closely associated with the ECM record label, American keyboard player Lyle Mays and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen.

REMEMBERING LYLE MAYS and JON CHRISTENSEN


February 2020 brought the sad news of the deaths of two musicians whose playing I have enjoyed listening to for more than forty years.

It was during the late 1970s that I first began my ongoing fascination with the ECM record label, founded in Munich in 1969 by the German record producer Manfred Eicher. With Eicher still at the helm ECM celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, but the passing of two musicians who I will always associate with the label, the American keyboard player Lyle Mays and the Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen represents a sad beginning to this new decade.


LYLE MAYS (Pictured)

Lyle Mays was born in Wisconsin in 1953 and came to prominence as the keyboard player with the hugely successful Pat Metheny Group, led by guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. Mays was a member of the PMG for more than thirty years, and was the co-composer of many of the group’s best loved works.

I first enjoyed his playing on the 1978 ECM release simply titled Pat Metheny Group,  for me the other “White Album” and the record that really put the PMG on the map for thousands of listeners worldwide. I also loved the follow up, “American Garage” (1979), which found Metheny and Mays really rocking out on the title track.

Mays is best known as a player of multiple keyboards and his quasi orchestral approach to composing and arranging brought an almost symphonic quality to the music of the PMG. As writers Metheny and Mays continued to develop their craft on albums such as the duo set “As Fall Wichita, So falls Wichita Falls (1980) and the PMG album “Offramp” (1981), both of which saw Mays and Metheny experimenting more and more with musical technology.

The double live set “Travels” (1982) revealed just how dynamic a live act the PMG had become by this point but it wasn’t until 1983 that I finally got to see Metheny and Mays play live when the PMG visited London for a show at the Hammersmith Odeon. This was a brilliant performance that earned a genuine standing ovation, the intensity of which even seemed to catch Pat and Lyle by surprise.

The PMG seemed to visit England every couple of years and a pattern was established where I would try to catch one show on every visit. Occasionally the band would venture out of London and I remember the 1985 show at the Apollo Theatre in Manchester as a particular high point. The focus here was on the material from “First Circle”, the PMG’s most ambitious, and probably best, album to date but their last for ECM.

The scope of Pat and Lyle’s writing by this stage demanded that the music needed a bigger budget behind it than ECM were able to provide and the switch was made to Geffen. I was sorry to see the band leave my beloved ECM but I have to admit that Geffen did give them full creative rein during their tenure there. Pat’s first release for the new label was “Song X”, a challenging collaboration with Ornette Coleman that nevertheless reached the ears of a large audience with the might of a major label behind it.

Meanwhile Mays was able to release two solo albums for Geffen, “Lyle Mays” (1986) and “Street Dreams” (1988), which highlighted his writing as a solo composer, and which helped to reveal just how much he brought to the sound of the PMG. The music was similar to that of the Metheny group but Pat distanced himself and didn’t appear on either record. Guitarist Bill Frisell was part of an extensive list of contributors that also included bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Alejandro Acuma. Mays even deployed a full orchestra at one juncture on “Street Dreams”. From his début solo album his enchanting composition “Close To Home” also found its way into the PMG repertoire.

At PMG live shows Mays was always surrounded by banks of keyboards, rather like a jazz version of Rick Wakeman, but emphatically less flamboyant. Indeed Mays always seemed a slightly reluctant stage performer, a professorial figure lurking in the shadows with something of the air of the mad scientist about him. Mays’ obsession with technology eventually led to him becoming an innovative software developer as he took a step back from the music scene during the last decade of his life.

Mays’ reputation as a player of multiple keyboards could sometimes detract from his very real capabilities as an acoustic piano soloist. Lyle played some blinding acoustic piano solos with the PMG on tunes like “Phase Dance”, “San Lorenzo” and “Song for Bilbao” and in 1993 released the piano trio album “Fictionary” for Geffen. Recorded with a stellar rhythm section featuring bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Jack DeJohnette this featured Mays on acoustic piano throughout and was a welcome reminder of his ability on this instrument. The sad news of his death prompted me to revisit this work, alongside several PMG classics, and it still sounds remarkably fresh and stands up really well in 2020. Indeed “Fictionary” is probably better than I gave it credit for back in the day.

The early PMG records for ECM all seemed to generate a major step forward with each release but as Metheny and Mays finally found exactly what it was that they were looking for the Group’s albums for Geffen, and later for Warner’s did come to sound increasingly homogeneous.

I still continued to attend the band’s live shows whenever they visited the UK and remember return visits to Hammersmith and Manchester plus Cambridge Corn Exchange in 1995 (the group album “We Live Here”), Shepherds Bush Empire in 1998 (“Imaginary Day”) and the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole in 2002 (“Speaking of Now”). Group personnel came and went but Pat and Lyle were always constants and regardless of the other faces on board the performances were universally brilliant. The only gig I didn’t really enjoy was the one at Shepherds Bush, where I elected to stand rather than sit. I had enjoyed doing this at Cambridge and had got really close to the stage but at a hot and sweaty Empire I could hardly see a thing. I had prime seats for the Poole show though, which more than made up for it.

The Metheny / Mays compositional approach reached its apotheosis with 2005’s “The Way Up”, a long form suite comprised of four contiguous movements. At their 2005 concert at Hammersmith, with the venue by then known as the Carling Apollo, the PMG kicked off the show by playing the whole of the new work in its entirety, earning a standing ovation. This was longer than an entire set from some rock bands, but for the PMG it was just the beginning. This tour de force was followed by ninety minutes of the PMG’s ‘greatest hits’, and this was without the band taking an interval. It was one of the most remarkable gigs I’ve ever seen and the best PMG show since Manchester in ‘85.

As a solo artist Mays was sparsely documented on record. “Lyle Mays”, “Street Dreams” and “Fictionary” were followed in 2000 by “Solo”, which was recorded for Warner Bros. Subtitled “Improvisations for Expanded Piano” it included subtle electronic orchestrations, sourced from the Yamaha Disclavier system. This allowed information from Mays’ acoustic piano improvisations to be recorded on computer and used as the basis for synthesised orchestrations. Essentially it’s a solo piano record but these subtle embellishments work well and add depth, colour and texture to music that is frequently very beautiful. It still stands up well twenty years on and in a sense is the ultimate Lyle Mays record with its discrete merging of acoustic and electric elements and of old and new technology.

May’s only other solo release, and the only one I haven’t actually heard, was released in 2016 but was recorded back in 1993. “The Ludwigsburg Concert” was documented at a German festival and featured Mays leading a quartet comprised of Marc Johnson (bass), Bob Sheppard (reeds) and Mark Walker (drums). The majority of the material was sourced from “Fictionary” but the repertoire also included pieces from other solo albums, plus the Metheny / Mays composition “Au Lait” from the PMG’s “Offramp” album.

It should also be remembered that Mays also co-wrote and appeared on a hit single, “This Is Not America”, the PMG’s collaboration with David Bowie on the soundtrack of the 1985 film “The Falcon and the Snowman”. Bowie’s voice and lyrics were added to a melody written by Metheny and Mays as the PMG enjoyed a brief flirtation with the musical mainstream.

I’m aware that the above reminiscences don’t constitute a complete overview of Mays’ musical career and don’t address his many other sideman appearances,  but they are memories that are very personal to me and I felt a great sense of loss when I heard of Lyle’s passing. The PMG shows of which he was a part represent some of the best live music experiences of my life and those early records for ECM evoke such intense memories of their time, a time when I was first discovering this wonderful music we call jazz. The distinctiveness of Metheny’s guitar sound was equally matched by Mays on keyboards, even now hearing the sound of his Oberheim synth just takes me right back.

Pat Metheny scribbled a couple of autographs for me after the Wolverhampton gig on the “Secret Story” tour in 1993, which remain treasured possessions, but I never actually got to meet Lyle Mays. I guess it’s the nature of music fandom to be so saddened by the death of somebody you didn’t actually know personally, but I felt genuine grief at the news of Lyle’s passing, his music has been a part of my life for so long. The fact that he was only sixty six, a comparatively young age these days, and only five years older than me, made it all the more poignant and shocking. I gather that he had been ill for some time and I hope that he didn’t suffer too much.

Rest in Peace Lyle, and thank you for the music and the memories.


JON CHRISTENSEN

A few days after hearing of the death of Lyle Mays I was saddened once again on hearing news of the passing of the great Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen.

I’ll admit that it didn’t have quite as great an impact on me as Lyle’s passing had done, but that doesn’t make it any the less regrettable.

And when I came to think about it I started to recall what great pleasure I had derived from hearing Christensen’s playing on classic ECM records by such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner,  Eberhard Weber, Bobo Stenson, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal, Ketil Bjornstad and more.

Born in Oslo in 1943 Christensen was ten years older than Mays and first came to prominence in his home city backing visiting American jazz musicians in Oslo’s jazz clubs.  It was here that saxophonist Dexter Gordon advised the young Christensen to play in his own style rather than trying to copy the mannerisms of American drummers.

An association with the composer George Russell then led to Christensen meeting with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and other emerging stars of an increasingly fertile and distinctive Norwegian jazz scene. Many of these young musicians, among them saxophonist Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal and bassist Arild Andersen came to the attention of Manfred Eicher who signed them to his then fledgling ECM label.

Christensen was ‘first call’ drummer for many of these musicians and in this way he began a long and productive association with ECM, ultimately appearing on some seventy albums for the label. As far as European artists were concerned he was essentially the ECM ‘house drummer’,
a supremely adaptable and sympathetic musician with a sensitive approach to the drums that frequently led to him being described as a ‘colourist’.

Christensen’s rolling, flowing,  polyrhythmic style tended to emphasise pulses rather than straight beats and his attention to detail, particularly with regard to his deft and colourful cymbal work was particularly distinctive.

It was Christensen who was the drummer on such ECM classics as Keith Jarrett’s “Belonging” and “My Song”, Garbarek and Stenson’s “Witchi Tai To”, Ralph Towner’s “Solstice” and Eberhard Weber’s “Yellow Fields”. I first heard these albums at around the same time as those early Metheny Group records, and all hold a similar place in my affections.

Of Christensen’s later work I’m particularly fond of “Remembrance”, a 2010 session for ECM led by the pianist and composer Ketil Bjornstad and featuring saxophonist Tore Brunborg. His last recording for ECM was 2018’s “Returnings” when he was part of a quartet led by the Norwegian guitarist Jakob Bro.

The ultimate collaborator and team player Christensen was even more sparsely documented than Mays as a solo artist. In 1976 he released “No Time for Time”, a collaboration with fellow drummer Pal Thowsen for the Pan record label and co-credited to both. The recording also features contributions from bassist Arild Andersen and guitarist Terje Rypdal. It’s an album that I’ve never seen, let alone heard, and is presumably long deleted.

For ECM the only album under his own name came in the retrospective “Selected Recordings” or “Rarum” series from a few years ago. With tracks chosen by Christensen himself this documents his performances on the recordings of others, notably Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, Terje Rypdal and Ralph Towner.

If the title of “No Time for Time” sounds something like a mission statement then how about Christensen’s gnomic liner notes for the “Rarum” collection, in which he outlines four diktats that seem to encapsulate his unique approach to the art of drumming

I.
Band feeling is more important than bravura .
II.
Less is more .
III.
How fast can you play slower ?
IV.
A beat is not always what you think it is .
So good luck!

Jon Christensen

I only got to see Christensen perform live once, way back in 1986 in Birmingham when he appeared with Arild Andersen’s quintet Masqualero. The bassist and drummer were the ‘old heads’ in a group that also included Jon Balke on piano and keyboards and two rising stars in the shapes of Nils Petter Molvaer on trumpet and Tore Brunborg on tenor sax, both very youthful in those days and who have both gone on to enjoy successful solo careers. The date was early on in the tour and in truth was a little disappointing. The group hadn’t really gelled at that point and later gigs were probably more successful. I do recall that is was a Contemporary Music Network tour and on the whole I remember CMN tours with considerable affection. They often featured ECM artists and I remember tours featuring Garbarek, Don Cherry and Oregon among others.

In the days following Christensen’s death I’ve discovered some youtube footage from 1978 which features him playing with Ralph Towner’s ‘Solstice’ quartet alongside Eberhard Weber and a scarily young looking Jan Garbarek, presumably at a concert or festival somewhere in Germany. Together with the records it’s been a great way of reminding myself of Christensen’s unique talent and I’ve really enjoyed seeing this old footage. It also makes one appreciate the brilliance of Towner, Garbarek and Weber.

So farewell too to Jon Christensen, a musician whose influence on younger players will surely be felt for many years to come. In the meantime he leaves behind an archive of highly important recordings. Many of the albums featuring Christensen’s drumming have become absolute classics of the genre.

Rest in Peace, Jon, and again thank you for the music and the memories.


COMMENTS;


From Chris Weavers via email;

Sir
I make a point of looking at your website and have read the piece about the now sadly departed Lyle Mays. An excellent keyboard player. 
I have attended a number of PMG concerts in London and was at one of those at the Shepherds Bush Empire in May 1998 you mentioned. I still have the ticket for the Sunday 10th concert at level 3, sitting in the “gods” I seem to remember with a somewhat distant view of the concert. One of these was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 which I recorded and put onto CD ( for personal use only I hasten to add ).
You mention the Secret Story tour which I saw, I think at the Hammersmith Odeon, Lyle, allegedly, did not want to be on the tour and was replaced by Jim Beard. 
The Ludwigsburg concert CD is well worth getting by the way.
regards
Chris Weavers


Very sad news about Lyle Mays. A beautifully gifted player and composer who has contributed so brilliantly to so many great nights and provided much of the soundtrack to my life. Very sad news indeed!
MARK ALBINI via email


Good to see Lyle Mays being remembered.
STEVE LELLO

That’s a beautifully written piece Ian and brought back so many great memories. I was there in Manchester with you on the First Circle tour.
MARK ALBINI

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

Ian Mann on the final day of the Festival and performances by Led Bib, Asha Parkinson, Tara Cunningham. Isobella Burnham and Eddie Gomez.

Photograph of Eddie Gomez sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Ten, Sunday 24th November 2019.

LED BIB “IT’S MORNING”
RIO CINEMA, DALSTON


2019 proved to be a momentous year for Led Bib, the band led by the American born drummer and composer Mark Holub.


“It’s Morning”, their second album for the London based RareNoise record label represented a radical departure for the band with the first line up changes since its formation in 2004 and the first use of vocals and lyrics on a Led Bib recording.


Led Bib was founded at Middlesex University and the band have always relished their ‘outsider’ status on the British jazz scene. Strongly influenced by John Zorn their music has historically combined the power of rock with a passion for improvisation, resulting in a blend of ‘skronk’ or ‘punk’ jazz that invited comparisons with such bands as Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear and Get The Blessing and which resulted in an expanding cult following.

I’ve been following Led Bib’s music since 2006 after first discovering the band on a hot and sweaty night at the Vortex in North London. The enterprising quintet were curating their own mini festival dubbed the “Dalston Summer Stew”. The series was spread over three nights and I witnessed the first of these shows which featured sets from Led Bib themselves, a solo slot from that remarkable maverick of the piano Matthew Bourne and finally a second sonic attack from Nottingham noiseniks Pinski Zoo. Subsequent evenings featured the bands of Chris Batchelor and Iain Ballamy among others.

Led Bib themselves were loud and uncompromising but I enjoyed what I heard and purchased a copy of their début album “Arboretum”. I was most impressed by this and it remains something of a personal favourite.

In 2007 the band followed this with the equally impressive “Sizewell Tea”, which saw them broadening their range. Indeed every Led Bib album release has seen them building on their initial template and exhibiting clear signs of artistic growth. Initially Holub was the group’s sole composer, with the exception of the occasional inspired cover by the likes of David Byrne and David Bowie, and he has remained its principal writer. However later recordings have seen other group members bringing compositions to the table, expanding the range of the group, albeit within a well defined sonic framework. Interestingly enough “It’s Morning” is the first album to contain the credit “all music by Led Bib”, suggesting a radical change in the group’s working methods.
The first Led Bib album that I reviewed was the 2009 release “Sensible Shoes”, which received a Mercury Music Prize nomination and helped to raise their profile considerably. 2011’s “Bring Your Own” consolidated their position and was their most melodic record to date, while 2014’s “The People In Your Neighbourhood” saw them stretching out once more and placing a greater emphasis on the improvisational side of their music, an aspect explored even more deeply on the limited edition live recording “The Good Egg”.

Something of a hiatus followed with Holub re-locating from London to Vienna and concentrating on other projects, such as the trio Blublut (with Austrian guitarist Chris Janka and American theremin specialist Pamelia Stickney) and his duo with violinist Irene Kepl. The other members of the band also kept themselves busy, with Williams particularly active as a sideman with a broad range of jazz acts and the Israel born Donin forming his own 1000 Boats group, with which he released the excellent 2018 album “8 Songs”.

In 2017 Led Bib re-convened to release “Umbrella Weather”, their first album for RareNoise after a lengthy stint with Cuneiform Records. Suitably rejuvenated the band produced some of their best, and most dynamic, work on an album with a distinct political subtext. In the wake of Trump and Brexit Holub commented “there’s such a shit-storm outside it’s certainly Umbrella Weather”

Over the course of the last two years I’ve spoken to both Williams and Donin at gigs by other artists (Arun Ghosh, Sarah Gillespie, 1000 Boats) and both have told me that Led Bib have been working on something very special and that the next album was going to be very different to anything the band had ever recorded before.

On the evidence of “It’s Morning” one can hardly disagree with their assessment. The departure of the band’s original pianist and keyboard player Toby McLaren has seen the young, maverick talent of rising star Elliot Galvin added to the fold. Galvin had occasionally depped for McLaren and had obviously proved himself a good fit for the band.

Of even more significance is the expansion of the core line up to included singer and lyricist Sharron Fortnam, whose mezzo soprano vocals have been featured on recordings by the North Sea Radio Orchestra (of which she is a co-founder) and the bands Cardiacs and The Shrubbies.

Holub has said of his band’s change of direction;
“Led Bib has developed an identifiable improvisation language over the last fifteen years. After all that time we started to wonder what it might be like to take that language into a whole new area”.

The music of “It’s Morning” represents a collaboration with American film director Dylan Pecora whose concert length movie was projected behind the group as the band played. Originally this afternoon’s event had been scheduled to take place at Led Bib’s spiritual home, The Vortex, but it was felt that the rather splendid setting of the Rio Cinema, Dalston’s proudly independent art deco picture house was more appropriate. Thanks to Lee Haynes of Rolling Press PR for organising tickets for my wife and myself for this event.

“I want our shows to feel like Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests” explains Holub, “I’m hoping people will be transported somewhere else. The experience of just sitting down and being engrossed in something for an hour is a meaningful thing”.

The drummer has also mentioned the influence of ‘psychedelic’ bands such as Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead.  Although there’s little in Led Bib’s music that draws directly from those groups there still remains something of a conceptual link.

As a long time champion of Led Bib and their music, and after everything I’d been told by Williams and Donin I just had to be present at this event. I’d already heard the album of course, and most of the preceding paragraphs have been lifted from my review, but the prospect of experiencing the full package, music AND film was irresistible.

Before we got the main part of the programme we enjoyed another audio-visual experience, the short ten minute film “Picture The Light”, directed by the painter Rebecca Salter and with a soundtrack by Max de Wardener.

I first heard de Wardener’s name when he was the bassist with trumpeter Tom Arthurs’ Centripede group, a band that also featured the talents of saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock.
De Wardener appears on the rather splendid Centripede album released on the Babel label back in 2003. He has since become a composer of some note, operating in the field of contemporary classical and experimental music and his work has been heard on Radio 3’s much missed Late Junction.

De Wardener is a talented multi-instrumentalist and presumably played some of the instruments on the soundtrack. The music featured both Western and Eastern instruments and includes the sounds of the traditional Japanese reed instrument the sho, alongside clarinet, koto and the cello of his long term collaborator Oliver Coates.

His ambient music complemented Salter’s images exploration of the medium of drawing, the artist / film maker taking inspiration from the works of the experimental New Zealand artist Len Lye. Salter’s experiences of living in Japan also found their way into the images, and hence into de Wardener’s music.

Patterns on a white background developed into amorphous humanoid shapes, a bit like the figures on the cover of Steely’s Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy”,  while blocks of colour metamorphosed into images that resembled ancient maps. The musical accompaniment included ambient, electronic keyboard drones, while elsewhere dulcimer like sounds combined with Coates’ melancholic cello, underpinned by pizzicato double bass.

De Wardener’s soundtrack was atmospheric and effective and the blend of Easter and Western instrumentation interesting. It served the visual images well, but ultimately the film itself did little for me, I was far more interested in the music.

To be honest that last observation applies to “It’s Morning” too. Led Bib lined up in semi-darkness in front of the cinema screen with Mark Holub on drums,  Sharron Fortnam on vocals Liran Donin on electric bass and electronics,  Elliot Galvin on keyboards and the twin saxophones of Chris Williams (alto) and Pete Grogan (tenor & alto). The use of tenor saxophone also represents another significant departure for the 2019 edition of Led Bib. Previously the band has been noted for the ferocity of its twin alto sax attack. The addition of tenor, particularly in conjunction with Fortnam’s vocals and lyrics represents a radical change to the group sound.

Today’s event saw Led Bib performing the “It’s Morning” album in full but expanding upon the recorded version via numerous improvised passages. Meanwhile VJ Oli Chilton manipulated the film footage, thus creating a situation where sonic and visual improvisations were being created side by side.

Album opener “Atom Stories” commenced with the sound of Donin’s electric bass in conjunction with Galvin’s keyboards. These two created a wash of spacey, ambient electronica to which Fortnam’s fragile vocals, with their under sea lyrical imagery, were eventually added, together with the gentle piping of the twin saxophones, Grogan on tenor and Williams on alto.
On the screen images of plant life slowly unfurling in time lapse photography were superseded by those of a sleeping, bearded human, in running gear, by a fence.

“Atom Stories” acted as a kind of overture and the band kicked things up a gear with “Stratford East” as Galvin established a glitchy synthesised bass pulse and Grogan and Williams unleashed the familiar Led Bib double sax barrage as Holub finally took the opportunity of attacking his drum kit.  As Grogan soloed on tenor the Led Bib juggernaut kicked into full swing with a malevolent power that was reminiscent of King Crimson at their best. Meanwhile Fortnam’s soaring vocals sang of music, time and memory while the accompanying visual images ranged from swirling waters to electrical circuitry, to bare hands digging in the ground, to a woman apparently suffering from dementia and to the mysterious, bearded Lennon like figure in the woods.

The Title track of “It’s Morning” is in truth little more than a cameo but the lyric “Time is a Haunting Memory” then led us into “Fold”, arguably the album’s centre piece, a meandering, episodic piece that commenced with an atmospheric episode featuring Williams’ alto in conjunction with Galvin’s eerie electronics, the visual images depicting gowned / boiler suited figures in a hospital or laboratory, possibly undergoing some form of therapy or some kind of ecstatic religious experience. Then it was time for Led Bib to stoke the fires and unleash the juggernaut once more before seguing into “Cutting Room” floor, with its lyrics making direct reference to the filmic nature of the “It’s Morning” project.

“To Dry In The Rain” is the most obviously song like piece Led Bib have ever done with Fortnam’s sweet vocal asking “Show me how you saw the light”. On the screen a hand beckoned to the boiler suited figures through theatre curtains, all bar one of whom climbed on to the stage and disappeared, their faces morphing into one as Fortnam sang “I know where you are” and the music itself gained an authentic momentum.

The set played out through the shorter tracks at the end of the album, the atmospheric largely instrumental “O” followed the song “Flood Warning”, which effectively contrasted the purity of Fortnam’s voice with the harshness of the band’s music. Finally we heard the brief, elegiac “Set Sail”.

Musically I enjoyed today’s performance very much. Fortnam’s voice has brought a new dimension to the Led Bib sound but there are still plenty of snarling, full on passages to keep long term fans happy. Central to the success of this current project was the partnership between Donin and Galvin, who were positioned next to each other on the stage and who combined extremely effectively, particularly with regard to their use of electronics. Galvin, the impish ‘mad scientist’ seems to be the perfect fit for this band, an injection of new blood that promises well for the future.

To be honest I didn’t quite know what to make of the film itself and sometimes found it distracting. The links between the music and the visual images weren’t immediately obvious, although one suspects that both the band and Pecora probably wanted it that way, clichés aren’t what either of these artists about, but I did find it hard to make any real narrative sense of the film. Maybe I’m just being thick and somebody will correct or enlighten me. The band themselves played in semi-darkness so it wasn’t always easy to see what was going on musically, despite my having a front row seat. Taking notes was difficult too.

Nevertheless I very much enjoyed what I heard and the song cycle that is “It’s Morning” would work just fine as a stand alone musical work if the band decide to take it out on the road without the visuals. With Fortnam and Galvin on board it will be very interesting to see what Led Bib decide to do next.

JAZZ NEWBLOOD SHOWCASE, WATERLOO CREATIVE STUDIO

Following the Led Bib event I made my way south to Waterloo Creative Studio, the venue also sometimes known as Iklectik.

The Jazzmann has always been highly supportive of emerging British jazz talent and I have always enjoyed covering these Jazz Newblood showcases curated by promoter and photographer Patricia Pascal, founder of the Jazz Newblood organisation.

In truth today was my first visit to one of these events for a couple of years so I’m grateful to Pat for organising my tickets and for making my wife and I so welcome. This 6.00 pm event was the second showcase of the day following a 2.30 pm show that had featured tuba player Hanna Mbuya, saxophonist Dominic Haffner and violinist/vocalist/dancer Saskia Horton, once of the group Nihilism, a band that I covered at a similar event in 2017.

Jazz Newblood has described its mission as being “nurturing youth jazz talent”. , a function it undertakes supremely well. These showcase events offer young musicians an opportunity to demonstrate their talents to appreciative audiences in a comfortable and relaxed venue with good acoustics and lighting. It represents a chance to shine and many of the artists featured here have gone to bigger things.

This evening’s bill presented three female band leaders, saxophonist/vocalist Asha Parkinson, guitarist Tara Cunningham and bassist/vocalist Isobella Burnham.

Between acts an exhibition of photographs by Patricia Pascal and Steve of Funkyfeet Photography on the theme of ‘ Women in Jazz’  provided an interesting diversion during the changeovers.

ASHA PARKINSON

The first artist to appear was the young saxophonist, vocalist and composer Asha Parkinson, a former semi-finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. She is currently studying at the Guildhall School of Music and has performed with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO).

As a composer she embraces the influences of jazz, classical and world music and has written for orchestras and choirs as well as jazz ensembles.

Parkinson is the founder of the Voices Beyond Divisions scheme, a project that she describes as;
“bringing young people from all faiths and none together to sing and make music to promote peace and mutual understanding”.

Today’s performance found her bringing several of her musical influences to the table as she led a quintet featuring Tim Lallement on piano, Joao Menezes on guitar, Harry Pearce on electric bass and Joe Parks on cajon and percussion.

Parkinson has spent time living and studying in Spain and her love of Spanish music and culture was reflected in the choice of her opening tune, “Zyryab”, written by the great flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia.  This impressive slice of flamenco jazz included solos from the leader on alto sax and the Portuguese born Menezes on acoustic guitar, plus a lively cajon feature from Parks, with all three greatly impressing with their contributions.

A passage of unaccompanied piano from Lallement introduced Parkinson’s original ballad “Sidelines”. This saw Menezes moving to electric guitar and the composer to curved soprano sax as the quintet embraced a more conventional jazz sound with the purity of Parkinson’s playing commanding the listener’s attention.

Another original, “Shams”, a word meaning “Sun” grew out of a collaboration with Syrian musicians that had taken place as part of the “Voices Beyond Divisions” scheme. Here Parkinson made use of Arabic scales and modes (or maqams) and effected a more incisive tone on soprano as she shared the solos with Menezes on acoustic guitar. The composer’s aim here was to produce music that was both “spicy and mellow”, and on this evidence I’d say that she’d succeeded brilliantly.

The original “Snowdrift” was inspired by the writings of Omar Khayam and was again notable for the purity and clarity of the composer’s sound on soprano as she shared the solos with Lallement.

“Gracias A La Vida” (literally “Thanks for Life”), written by the Chilean musician Violetta Parra, featured Parkinson singing the Spanish lyrics in highly convincing fashion as she duetted with Menezes on acoustic guitar during the intro. The performance was also notable for a sparkling piano solo from Lallement.

The closing “Alright Then” saw Parkinson doubling on vocals and alto sax on a song that offered an assertive and feisty challenge to vicissitudes of everyday life. The leader’s rapid fire delivery of the lyrics was impressive, as was her soloing on alto as she shared the instrumental spotlight with Menezes on electric guitar.

This short but impressive set saw Parkinson touching several of her musical bases and she impressed with the quality of both her playing and her singing. Her purity of tone on both alto and soprano was genuinely impressive and suggested a classically honed technique, and although it wasn’t heard today she’s also similarly accomplished on tenor. Parkinson was well supported by her young band, with the versatile Menezes arguably the other stand out instrumentalist.

My thanks to Asha for speaking with me afterwards and providing personnel and set list details. I predict a bright musical future for this talented young lady.

TARA CUNNINGHAM

Originally from Bath guitarist and composerTara Cunningham attended the Junior Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music before going on to study Jazz Guitar at Trinity Laban. She plays in a variety of bands across a range of musical genres and also works as a guitar tutor.

Cunningham grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music ranging from opera to Talking Heads and Glenn Miller to Prince. She started out as a violinist before making the move to guitar after falling in love with the music of AC/DC.

Her set today reflected this wide range of influences. Cunningham has already developed a distinctive guitar style that draws on both jazz and avant rock and her original material was genuinely impressive. She was joined by a core trio of Hugo Piper on five string electric bass and Adam Merrell at the drums with Max Winter (keyboards) and Evan Abell (baritone sax) also making contributions.

The set began with the core trio’s remarkable interpretation of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera “Carmen” as arranged by Cunningham. It was introduced by Merrell, with a brilliant exhibition of melodic drumming, sketching melodies on skins and cymbals via a combination of bare hands and mallets, even quoting a melodic fragment from Thelonious Monk at one juncture. This quiet display of melodic sensitivity isn’t what you normally expect from a drummer and this helped to set the tone for Cunningham’s own contribution, her quirky guitar styling the perfect adjunct to Merrell’s idiosyncratic drumming. An intriguing and enjoyable start.

Cunningham’s own John Scofield inspired “Spikey” embraced a more conventional jazz-rock sound and saw the leader making effective use of her wah wah pedal as she shared the solos with the burly Abell on baritone sax.

Another original, the marvellously titled “Ballad of the Jellyfish” saw the group reduced to a trio once more. Cunningham introduced the piece with an atmospheric passage of unaccompanied guitar and the piece was also notable for melodic and dexterous electric bass solo from Piper. This was a distinctive piece of writing, simultaneously quirky and atmospheric, and like so many of these pieces strangely beautiful.

Winter then joined the trio for the closing “Home”, another atmospheric piece that featured more liquid electric bass from Piper and saw Merrell subtly deploying a range of percussive devices including bells, shakers and rainstick, Winter’s keyboards provided additional colour and texture while Cunningham’s guitar solo was notable for the gentleness and delicacy of its timbres. It was all a long way removed from AC/DC, but a subtle rock influence informs Cunningham’s music nevertheless. Besides being impressed with the playing and writing of the leader I was also impressed by the distinctive, and highly musical, contribution made by drummer Merrell.

Once again thanks to Tara for speaking with me and providing set list and personnel details – and later for befriending me on Facebook. She’s another young musician to keep an eye out for and will hopefully be able to document her music on disc at some point in the future. In the meantime check her out at the regular Overnight Oats jazz jam sessions that she runs at the Folklore venue in Hoxton.

ISOBELLA BURNHAM

The last artist to appear was Barbados born bassist, vocalist and songwriter Isobella Burnham, colloquially known as Izzy.  A product of the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme she was leading a sextet featuring such Jazz NewBlood favourites as Benjamin Appiah (drums) and Lorenz Okello Osengor (keyboards) in addition to Richie Aikman (guitar) Joseph Oti (trumpet) and Nathaniel Cross (trombone).

Burnham was already played with a number of leading figures on the UK music scene, again within a variety of genres. As a bassist and vocalist it’s tempting to view her as a British Esperanza Spalding, which represents something of a compliment.

Burnham dedicated today’s show to the memory of her late father and it was obviously a very emotional occasion for her. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for all of it I was booked into another gig uptown at nine and had to factor in some travelling time. Nevertheless I saw enough to be impressed by her soulful vocals and deep bass grooves on the opening “Dusk Till Dawn” and her scat vocals on the following “Dancing Garuda”.

Her instrumental colleagues also impressed with Oti on muted trumpet, Cross on trombone and Okello Osengor on keys all featuring as soloists on the first couple of numbers.

As I reluctantly made my leave Burnham’s electric bass groove was underpinning the Caribbean flavourings of a tune paying homage to her home island of Barbados.

I always enjoy my visits to this venue and these showcase events in particular. My apologies to Patricia for having to dash off early, as has happened before I’m afraid, but thanks for your hospitality and I hope to see you again next year. In the meantime keep up the good work!

EDDIE GOMEZ, PIZZA EXPRESS, SOHO

From a trio of emerging stars to one of the giants of the genre, The American bassist and composer Eddie Gomez was born in Puerto Rico and is perhaps best known for his tenure with the late, great pianist and composer Bill Evans’ trio.

Gomez has played with many of the greats but is also a bandleader and composer. Tonight found him leading an Italian quintet featuring the saxophonists Renato D;Aiello (tenor) and Marco Pignataro (tenor, soprano) plus pianist Tio Ciavarella and drummer Alfonso Vitale.

This late night (9.00 pm) show was the second of the night and the quintet’s thirty first,  and last, of a ten day European tour.

The quintet kicked off with the bassist’s tune “Cheeks”, his dedication to the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, just one of the many jazz legends that Gomez has performed with. This was a piece in the classic hard bop style that included an introductory solo from pianist Ciavarella followed by the trading of tenor solos from the twin saxophonists. Finally we heard a series of lively double bass exchanges between Gomez and Vitale.

Any fears that tonight’s set might become a ‘hard bop by numbers’ show exclusively in the head/solos/head format were dispelled by the imaginative choices of often unfamiliar material. The next piece Gomez called was “Why Cry”, a beautiful ballad written by the late Matt Marvuglio, a jazz flautist and the former Dean of Berklee College of Music. Gomez’s delightfully melodic bass soloing helped to set the tone here and he was followed by fluent statements from Pignataro on soprano, D’Aiello on tenor and Ciavarella at the piano.

The Bologna based Ciavarella also proved to be a composer of distinction as his piece “Arianna”, written for his then young daughter demonstrated. Another ballad the piece appears on the album “Per Sempre”, recorded by Gomez with this group in 2012 but sadly not available tonight. The composer introduced the piece the piece with a passage of solo piano and he was subsequently joined by Pignataro on soprano sax and Gomez on bowed double bass, these two doubling up on the melody. A typically melodic and dexterous pizzicato solo followed to the accompaniment of sparse piano choring and brushed drums. The saxophonists then took over with Pignataro distinguishing himself with his mellifluous sound on soprano and D’Aiello with a skilfully constructed tenor feature. Finally the composer played us out with a lyrical piano solo, enhanced by the leader’s melodic bass accompaniment. A brilliant and beautiful group performance.

A dip into the standards repertoire came with a Gomez arrangement of Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight”. “I’ve tweaked it a bit” explained Gomez drily, “same lady, different lipstick”. A solo bass introduction presaged the sound of the two tenors harmonising together prior to solos from both saxophonists, their statements punctuated by a solo from Ciavarella at the piano.

The pianist was also the composer of a piece named for one of the islands off the coast of Sicily. Introduced by Vitale at the drums the piece had a suitably Mediterranean feel with Pignataro on soprano and D’Aiello on tenor doubling up on the melody prior to a particularly animated piano solo from the composer. Pignataro followed on soprano, soaring above the leader’s propulsive bass groove and D’Aiello’s probing tenor harmonies. Finally the piece came full circle with a closing drum feature.

A segue of Gomez tunes followed, firstly “Forever” from the “Per Sempre” recording and then “Amethyst”, a piece that I remembered from the wonderful 1997 album “If Summer Had Its Ghosts”, made under the leadership of drummer Bill Bruford in the company of Gomez and Ralph Towner. This sequence proved to be show case for the ballad playing of the two saxophonists who both contributed warm, breathy tenor solos with Pignataro also contributing a solo sax cadenza at the close. Along the way we also heard from the consistently impressive Ciavarella while Gomez delivered some of his most joyously melodic and dexterous bass playing, quietly singing along with his solo.

They closed with Ciavarella’s “Grande Teodoro”, which introduced a modal, more contemporary sound. Vitale introduced the piece at the drums while Ciavarella and D’Aiello held a good natured contest to see who could squeeze the most quotes into their solo. Pignataro followed on soprano and Vitale enjoyed a further feature at the close.

A highly appreciative audience, squeezed in cheek by jowl at the Pizza, gave the quintet a great reception and they encored with a gently swinging version of the standard “I Fall In Love Too Easily” ushered in by Gomez himself at the bass. The interplay between D’Aiello on tenor and Pignataro on soprano was a delight as the two horns dovetailed, before eventually taking individual solos. Ciavarella and Gomez also featured as soloists as an excellent evening of music making came to a close.

Based as it was around the “Per Sempre” album this was a performance that was fresh and vibrant and largely free of cliché. The playing was excellent all round with pianist Ciavarella also impressing as a significant composing presence. I’d like to hear him leading his own projects.

I’d heard Gomez on record of course but all the Italian musicians represented exciting new discoveries, even D’Aiello who has been based in London for many years but had somehow managed to slip under my radar, possibly because I’d pigeon-holed him as being more ‘trad’ than this.

All in all this was a terrific way to round off a Festival that had seen some brilliant performances from musicians from all over the globe. Let’s hope that politics doesn’t get in the way and that we can all enjoy similar experiences again next year.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

"Super Saturday". Ian Mann visits five different venues for performances by Daylight Music, Gareth Lockrane Big Band, Jean Toussaint Sextet, Whirlwind Jazz Orchestra and Ben Williams & Sound Effect

Photograph of the Jean Toussaint Sextet by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019,
Day Nine, Saturday 23rd November 2019


For me, the second Saturday of EFG LJF 2019 was “Super Saturday”, as I took in what must constitute a record number of performances in a single day, even for me, as I criss-crossed my way around London to take in shows at five different venues.

DAYLIGHT MUSIC, UNION CHAPEL

Festival Saturdays now traditionally start with a visit to the wonderful space that is Union Chapel to take in one of the regular Daylight Music events.

Now in its tenth season Daylight Music typically presents thirty concerts per year. These pay what you can events (suggested donation a mere fiver) present an eclectic mix of music across a range of genres ranging from jazz to folk to classical. Three different acts are normally presented with interim music also provided as customers avail themselves with tea and cake during the intervals. It really is a wall to wall listening experience.
Union Chapel is a terrific venue, beautiful, spacious, superb acoustics and incredibly warm and comfortable for a church in the middle of winter. It’s a huge building but with no pillars to spoil the sight lines, making it an ideal space in which to enjoy live music.  The tea and cakes offered for sale by the Margins Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping the homeless and the isolated of London, represent a delicious bonus.

ADRIAN COWLEY
Today’s introductory and interval music was provided by Adrian Cowley, a great friend of the Daylight Music series who usually performs as a singer-songwriter.
Today he was wearing a different musical hat as he generated an evocative series of ambient electronic soundscapes. I rather enjoyed these, and like organist Matt Geer who had played a similar role last week at the console of the Chapel’s magnificent three manual Father Willis organ, his contribution added greatly to the success of the overall event.

ROSIE FRATER-TAYLOR BAND

The first act to take to the stage was the band led by the young singer, guitarist and songwriter Rosie Frater-Taylor. She is the daughter of jazz vocalist Josie Frater and big band drummer Steve Taylor, organisers of Ziggy’s World Jazz Club, now based at the Chickenshed Theatre in Southgate, London.

Music is obviously in the genes and Frater-Taylor has recently released her début album “On My Mind”, a collection of songs that has attracted a considerable degree of critical acclaim.

For this performance she was joined by two backing vocalists, Luca Manning and Elsa Hackett, her father Steve Taylor on cajon and percussion and Hugo Piper on electric bass. Frater-Taylor moved between ukulele and electric guitar as well as singing lead vocals.. Her voice combined well with those of Hackett and Manning, the latter a nominee in the “Newcomer of the Year” category in the recent Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

The opening “Umami” included features for Piper on liquid electric bass and Steve Taylor on percussion but, essentially the performance was all about the leader as the ensemble played a total of five songs, among them “On My Mind” and “In A Dream”.

To be honest there wasn’t really enough ‘proper’ jazz content in it to appeal to my ears, despite the occasional scat vocal episode and instrumental cameo. Frater-Taylor describes herself as a ‘singer-songwriter’, which is fair enough, and this was very much reflected in the music. She’s a skilled vocalist and a capable instrumentalist but none of her songs really grabbed me by the lapels. Overall I found it pleasant enough, but a bit twee and inconsequential.

I had no qualms about her involvement with Daylight Music, even though today’s event fell under the EFG LJF umbrella. Diversity is Daylight’s lifeblood and its strength, and some acts are inevitably going to appeal more than others. The format of these events ensures that nobody really outstays their welcome, and in any case Frater-Taylor’s music appeared to be greatly enjoyed by the majority of the audience.

ROBERT STILLMAN / ANDERS HOLST DUO
I had higher hopes for the instrumental duo of the American tenor saxophonist Robert Stillman and the Danish guitarist Anders Holst, who was playing the rarely seen electric twelve string.
Given the combination of instruments I was expecting something along the lines of Jan Garbarek and Ralph Towner, but fiery instrumental interplay was not to be the order of the day.

Instead the duo’s twenty minute single improvisation, inspired by the appearance of a rainbow over London, the beauty of which nobody but Stillman seemed to appreciate, reached deeply into ambient territory.
The soft tones of Stillman’s tenor were further cushioned by Holst’s shimmering guitar arpeggios and spacey, ambient textures. This was gently ethereal music, with traces of jazz and folk elements occasionally twinkling in the ambient haze.

There was genuine beauty in this music, and of course it was particularly well suited to the atmosphere and acoustics of Union Chapel. Nevertheless after a while I found myself craving greater emotional and dynamic variety, willing Stillman to blow some declamatory Garbarek like tenor, or Holst to crank up the volume or add a harder edge to his playing.

The appeal of the fragile beauty and the ambient texturing began to pall after a while and the improvisation as a whole began to feel a little directionless, the emphasis on prettiness and the meditative quality of the music ultimately rendering it passionless and bloodless. The word ‘stasis’ also found its way into my notebook.

Again the duo were well received by the audience as a whole, and there were elements here that I did enjoy, but ultimately I found myself expecting more from this duo than they actually delivered.

JHEREK BISCHOFF
Headlining this week’s Daylight Music was the American composer and multi-instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff, a musician operating in the shadowy hinterland between contemporary classical music and avant pop.

He cut a distinctive on stage figure, his elaborate quiff and somewhat lupine features combining to make him look like an unlikely cross between Elvis Presley and Nick Cave.

He was joined today by a string quartet led by violinist Michael Jones and also featuring Claudia Fuller on second violin, Caleb Sibley on viola and Miriam Wakeling on cello. His first piece established a mysterious, eerie atmosphere as ambient sampled sounds were complemented by the drones of the string quartet.

Bischoff picked up a bass guitar for the next piece, a composition that he described as “a creepy song”. Bischoff used the bass to lay down a plodding rhythm that exuded a palpable air of menace, this enhanced by eerie string textures and drones. Bischoff famously recorded his album “Cistern” in a vast disused water tank somewhere in Washington state, the incredible forty five second reverb resulting in the music having to be radically slowed down, a process that still informs his writing, as demonstrated here.

Much of Bischoff’s early life was spent on his parents’ houseboat, on which many lengthy ocean voyages were undertaken. He remains a keen sailor and has crossed the Pacific. His composition “The Sea Sun” was inspired by an experience on this trip when his vessel became becalmed, the reflection of the stars in the still water making it feel as if he was lost in deep space. The piece was originally performed by an orchestra but was played here by the string quartet with Bishoff conducting, as well as providing delicate traceries of piano melody on the venue’s resident upright. The cadences of the strings seemed to approximate the swell of the ocean on this richly evocative item.

“A Homecoming” found Bischoff back on bass guitar and singing the single phrase “Celebration”, accompanied by the plucked sounds of pizzicato strings.

Bischoff had only met the members of the London based string quartet two days previously but had already established an excellent rapport for them. This was amply demonstrated on “From The Congo” where their aggressive bowing complemented the tribal rhythms of Bischoff’s bass guitar.

Next we heard the title track from the “Cistern” album with its sombre solo cello intro, the melancholy atmosphere enhanced by second violin, viola and electric bass, then offset by Jones’ rapid high register trills.

Bischoff has even released a Christmas album. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk With Me”. This features classic Christmas songs arranged in the style of the “Twin Peaks” soundtrack. To close Bischoff invested “Silent Night” with an air of real menace, playing the melody on bass guitar, his sound cushioned by suitably eerie string textures. Here the ensemble was extended with Terry Edwards soloing on tenor sax and Kym Musgrove adding the sound of Christmas bells. It was a suitably bizarre way to close an already idiosyncratic set.

For all its strangeness – strangeness is good – this was the pick of today’s performances, easily the most varied and consequently the most interesting. Bischoff is a fascinating character and something of a polymath whose work has embraced experimental pop and rock, contemporary classical music, ballet and opera. Of today’s acts he’s the one whose the work I’d like to investigate further.

To be truthful I was a little disappointed with today’s Daylight Music, mainly because there wasn’t as much actual jazz content as there had been at the other show that came under the EFG LJF umbrella the previous Saturday.

But I still love Daylight Music as an institution, it’s unpredictable, which is good,  and it introduces people to new music that may otherwise never discover - and does so at a very affordable price. It encourages listeners to take a chance and to explore the varied delights of its eclectic programme. It’s like a live version of the much missed Late Junction, you won’t like everything, but you’re still guaranteed to find something that you will absolutely love. It encourages listeners to take a risk, that’s what makes it so great. You might be disappointed today, but next week might blow you away.  And of course there’s the tea and cake and the matchless beauty of the venue itself. If I lived in London on a permanent basis I’d probably be there every week.

GARETH LOCKRANE BIG BAND, THE OTHER PALACE, VICTORIA
A quick sojourn on the Victoria Line took me to the Studio Theatre at The Other Palace, the venue previously known as St. James’ Theatre.

I was attempting to squeeze another gig into an already busy schedule and didn’t want to miss a sighting of the current edition of the Gareth Lockrane Big Band. Today’s performance was one of a series curated by promoters JBGB Events at The Other Palace throughout the course of the Festival. I’m indebted to Denise McDonagh of Manila PR for providing my wife and I with press tickets for this event.

I recall enjoying a performance by the Lockrane Big Band at the Spice of Life at the 2012 Festival. Subsequently I reviewed “Fistfight At The Barndance”, their 2018 début release on Whirlwind Recordings.
Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/fistfight-at-the-barndance/

The line up of the Lockrane Big Band is fluid, but always includes a selection of some of London’s leading jazz musicians, their ages spanning the generations. Led from the front by Lockrane on a variety of flutes the ensemble boasts a classic big band line up of five reeds, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, guitar, bass, drums and percussion.

Today’s repertoire was partly sourced from the début album but also included items from earlier small group recordings arranged for big band.

Things kicked off with the title track from “Fistfight At The Barndance”, a suitably rowdy opener featuring an authentically gigantic big band sound that incorporated solos from the young trombonist Harry Moore, Lockrane on flute and Tom Cawley at the piano.

The Clint Eastwood inspired “Do It” saw the music turning towards funk with the bassist moving from stand up to electric. Moore again impressed as a soloist alongside Nadim Teimoori on tenor sax. The piece culminated with a drum and percussion battle featuring the vastly experienced Ian Thomas behind the kit and (I think) Hugh Wilkinson on congas and percussion.

The ballad “Plan B” calmed things down, but only a little. There was still a gently smouldering intensity about the solos from Mike Outram on guitar and Michael Chillingworth on curved soprano sax.

“Lock Up” acted as something of a feature for baritone saxophonist Richard Sheppard who shared the solos with Lockrane on flute plus a member of the trumpet section, that I suspect may have been Robbie Robson. Thomas, also a leading rock and pop session musician was again featured at the drums.

The funky, Latin-esque “Groove Rider” brought an excellent first set to a close and included features for alto saxophonist Alexander Bone, guitarist Mike Outram and trumpeter Steve Fishwick.
Bone is a former BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year and was once a member of the band Jam Experiment,  the group now known as Bonsai. His solo here combined fire and fluency and he was followed by an equally blistering trumpet solo from Fishwick. The soloists enjoyed the punchy backing of the rest of the ensemble and another drum feature from the irrepressible Thomas then paved the way for Outram’s powerful, rock influenced solo, the guitarist sounding truly turbo-charged.

This had been a lengthy set that lasted for well over an hour and which included colourful, vibrant big band arrangements and some truly inspired soloing. Although Lockrane allows himself plenty of soloing opportunities he also like to showcase the talents of the members of his band and all of the soloists in this first set stood up and delivered.

I knew I was tight for time with another performance at Cadogan Hall scheduled at 5.00 pm so I elected to leave at half time rather than sneaking out after just one number of the second set. Arriving late at the Cadogan is not advisable and I didn’t want to risk that.

My apologies to Gareth, and to Denise, for not being able to cover the second set but I was very grateful for this latest sighting of the GLBB, whose vivacious first half performance had represented great value and might have constituted a full Festival set in other circumstances.
My enforced early departure meant that I couldn’t get the full band line up, but I’ve name checked as many members as I can.

JEAN TOUSSAINT SEXTET, CADOGAN HALL

A quick dash to Cadogan Hall for the first of a themed evening of events celebrating the centenary of the birth of the great American drummer and bandleader Art Blakey. Toussaint’s sextet would be followed by a later, separately ticketed, event featuring The Messenger Legacy band, led by Blakey’s protégé, drummer Ralph Peterson and featuring other ex-Messengers, including saxophonist Bobby Watson and pianist Geoffrey Keezer.

Saxophonist Jean Toussaint was a member of one of the later editions of Blakey’s famous Jazz Messengers group, the long running jazz institution that helped to kick start the careers of of many of the jazz greats, among them saxophonists Hank Mobley and Wayne Shorter and trumpeters Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Wynton Marsalis.

Toussaint was born on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and studied at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA before eventually joining the Messengers. He subsequently moved to the UK, becoming an inspirational and hugely popular figure on the British jazz scene as both a musician and an educator.

Toussaint was joined by his Allstar 6tet, an all British line up featuring the talents of trumpeter Byron Wallen, trombonist Dennis Rollins, pianist Andrew McCormack, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Shane Forbes. It’s the same band that appears on his latest release “Live at The Jazz Café” (Lyte Records), a two disc concert recording documented at London’s Jazz Café venue in late 2018. Some of the items had also appeared on the earlier studio album “Brother Raymond”

All of today’s material was sourced from the live album and comprised of compositions in a broadly hard bop, or Messengers, style written by various members of the band. The sextet were introduced by journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre, who wrote the liner notes for “Live at The Jazz Café”.

The sextet kicked off with Toussaint’s composition “Amabo”, dedicated to Barak Obama (it’s the ex -president’s surname backwards) and meaning “I Shall Love” in Latin.
Musically the piece embraced lively African rhythms, courtesy of Casimir and Forbes, who
kick- started it here, underpinning the rich blend of horns, whose free-ish early interplay eventually coalesced on the head before going their separate ways again in a series of lengthy but absorbing solos. It was actually pianist McCormack who ignited the spark in this regard, his fluent solo followed by expansive and powerful excursions from Toussaint, Rollins and Wallen. A rousing and uplifting start.

Wallen’s own “The Gatekeeper” followed, a more introspective piece but still featuring an infectious Afro-Cuban groove, the jumping off point for intelligent, probing solos from Wallen, Rollins and McCormack plus the leader on typically incisive tenor. Casimir, one of the rising stars of British jazz, also featured with an articulate double bass solo.

From the “Brother Raymond” album Toussaint’s composition “Doc” was dedicated to his cousin back in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. An introductory horn fanfare announced a dazzling drum salvo from Forbes before the music took a gentler, more ballad like approach with the beguiling blend of horns leading into a gorgeous Harmon muted trumpet solo from Wallen. Rollins adopted a mellow, rounded tone for his trombone feature, before gradually ramping up the tension prior to handing over to Wallen once more. Next we heard from Toussaint himself, his solo an appropriate tribute to “Doc”. Finally we heard the flowing lyricism of the excellent McCormack, who excelled as both soloist and accompanist over the course of the evening.

“Major Changes” represented Toussaint’s response to the result of the EU referendum and the fractious politics of the current era. The music represents an attempt to adopt a positive attitude in the face of all the hatred, recalling Blakey’s famous quote “music washes away the dust of everyday life”. Afro-Caribbean rhythms were again apparent with Forbes demonstrating his versatility and virtuosity as a drummer as his colourful beats helped to fuel expansive solos from Rollins, Toussaint, Wallen and McCormack, plus a stunning solo bass feature from Casimir.

It was to be the bassist’s own composition “The Missing of Sleep” that was to prove to be one of the highlights of the entire set. Written for his one year old daughter the piece brought a more contemporary feel to the music, but there was to be something of a hiatus before we actually got to hear it. Wallen found that he had left his chart backstage and there was a delay as he ducked behind the curtain to retrieve it, eventually returning to a round of good natured applause.
McCormack introduced the piece with a passage of unaccompanied piano, this followed by a horn chorale underpinned by Forbes’ mallet rumbles. As the piece unfolded it evolved into a beautiful ballad that saw the soloists demonstrating a gentler side of their playing and emphasising their skills as balladeers. Toussaint went first, followed by Rollins on trombone, Wallen on trumpet and McCormack. Finally we heard a delightfully melodic bass solo from the composer, accompanied by the patter of hand drumming then the gentle rumble of mallets. Compositionally this was arguably the most interesting item in the set as Casimir impressed with his writing skills, suggesting a long and distinguished career ahead.

Finally Toussaint paid tribute to the island of his birth with “Mandingo Brass”, a tune co-written with the pianist Jason Rebello, the title taken from the name of the first band the saxophonist ever played in. This was a genuine celebration with its joyous calypso rhythms, effervescent triple horn theme and effusive solos, with Wallen and Rollins going first. Almost inevitably Toussaint’s solo contained a quote from Sonny Rollins’ famous composition “St. Thomas” and he was followed by a similarly spirited solo from pianist McCormack.

Toussaint and his colleagues had effectively played the whole of the “Live at the Jazz Café” album, the only omission being the old Messengers favourite “Moanin’”, written by the group’s pianist of the time, the late Bobby Timmons. Given that this show was billed as a Blakey tribute I’m surprised it wasn’t performed, but possibly this was due to time constraints, the sextet had certainly stretched out extensively on the earlier material. It’s also possible that people had tickets for both of this evening’s Blakey themed shows and that “Moanin’” was left for the Ralph Peterson group.

I’ve seen Toussaint on a number of occasions and his penchant for playing in the classic hard bop head/solos/head format can sometimes become a little formulaic. That said I thoroughly enjoyed today’s show. This current sextet has been together a long time and must rank as one of the best bands that Toussaint has ever had. At a packed Cadogan Hall in front of a highly supportive audience there was a real spirit and energy about the performances and the lengthy solos rarely felt self indulgent. The standard of the playing was exceptional with three highly talented soloists backed by a Rolls Royce of a rhythm section, all of whom grabbed their own moments in the spotlight with both hands.

INGRID & CHRISTINE JENSEN + THE WHIRLWIND JAZZ ORCHESTRA, PURCELL ROOM

In this year of anniversaries (Blakey, Blue Note, ECM) it might have been easy to overlook the tenth birthday of the innovative Whirlwind Recordings label founded by bassist and composer Michael Janisch.

Born in the US but resident in the UK for over a decade the indefatigable Janisch is a musician, composer and entrepreneur. He has always pursued a policy of bringing British,  North American and European musicians together and the Whirlwind label is the embodiment of that spirit of international co-operation with a highly impressive catalogue of around one hundred and thirty recordings. Like Blue Note and ECM an album on the Whirlwind label is a guarantee of quality. Janisch’s own 2009 début “Purpose Built” started it all off, one of the most important and influential British jazz releases of the 21st century. I’ve since covered many other excellent albums issued under the Whirlwind banner and feel proud to have been associated with the label since its inception.

Since it was announced that Whirlwind would celebrate its tenth birthday by assembling a big band comprised of artists associated with the label for a short UK tour I just knew that I had to be a part of it somehow. As the other dates all took place during the week of EFG LJF I had no alternative but to opt for the London show. There was no way I was going to miss this band!

The Whirlwind Jazz Orchestra was assembled around the playing and compositional talents of the Jensen sisters, Ingrid (trumpet) and Christine (alto & soprano saxes). Originally from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island the sisters have established themselves a major figures on the North American jazz scene and have collaborated with trumpeter Clark Terry, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and composer Maria Schneider among others.

Each of the Jensen sisters has established a successful solo career but they also work together and this current collaboration has its Roots in “Infinitude”, their 2016 album for Whirlwind recorded with a quintet featuring guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jon Wikan (Ingrid’s husband). A number of pieces from this recording were to be performed this evening, re-arranged for big band.

Christine Jensen also runs her own jazz orchestra, comprised mainly of Canadian musicians, as well as leading smaller groups. Tonight’s programme also included items from “Habitat”, a 2013 Canadian release by the Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra.

This evenings stellar line up of Whirlwind artists comprised of;

Ingrid Jensen – trumpet, electronics

Christine Jensen – alto & soprano saxes

Andre Canniere, Ryan Quigley, Nick Smart – trumpets & flugels

Rory Ingham, Jacob Cooper – trombones

Richard Henry – bass trombone

Rachael Cohen – alto sax

Josephine Davies – tenor sax, clarinet

Tori Freestone – tenor sax, flute

Alex Garnett – baritone sax

Alcyona Mick – piano

David Preston – guitar

Michael Janisch- acoustic & electric bass

Klemens Marktl – drums

The performance commenced with Christine’s composition “Blue Yonder”, a piece that appears on both the “Habitat” and “Infinitude” recordings. The arrangement was similar to the “Habitat” version and commenced with chorale of trombones, to which were added reeds and trumpets with Ingrid treating her sound via a range of FX pedals. An ensemble passage featuring the sounds of muted trumpets paved the way for powerful solos from Alex Garnett on baritone sax, Ingrid on trumpet and Christine on alto sax. The piece was inspired by the Afro-Peruvian rhythms that Jensen heard in Lima while touring South America with her quartet. These were to find an outlet during the course of a drum feature from the excellent Marktl.

Also by Christine “Starbright” was dedicated to the memory of the late, great trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler, a source of great inspiration to both of the Jensen sisters. Wheeler lived in the UK for so long and became so closely with the British jazz scene that it’s easy to forget the fact that he was actually born in Canada. An atmospheric introduction featuring the sounds of trumpet FX, piano innards and bowed bass led to a multi-faceted composition embracing a wide range of dynamics and which saw the composer moving to soprano sax. Solos came from Ingrid on high register trumpet, Alcyona Mick on piano and Marktl, a veritable ball of energy, behind the drum kit. A quieter, more impressionistic coda then provided the link into Ingrid’s “Hope’s Trail”, a composition included on the “Infinitude” recording. The sound here was at first softer and gentler, with Freestone doubling on flute and Davies on clarinet. A more abrasive element was then introduced via the solos of guitarist David Preston, stepping into Monder’s shoes, and Ingrid on trumpet, her solo developing out of atmospheric, muted FX to blazing, full on magnificence.

The first set concluded with Christine’s composition “Intersection”, another arrangement of a piece from the “Habitat” recording. Announcing the tune the composer dedicated it to the Wheeler family and to vocalist Norma Winstone, all of whom were apparently in the audience. I looked for Norma but couldn’t see her. This typically wide ranging and colourful piece featured the sisters on muted trumpet and soprano sax and provided the opportunity for a series of solos from musicians that in the main we hadn’t heard from in this capacity thus far. Josephine Davies set the ball rolling on tenor, followed by Richard Henry on bass trombone and Nick Smart on flugelhorn. Rachael Cohen followed on alto and then Alcyona Mick on piano, demonstrating another side of her playing with some Melford-esque outpourings that included a series of vigorous exchanges with Janisch and Marktl. This led to a further drum feature from the Austrian, the only mainland European in the line up. Finally we heard from Ingrid with a trumpet solo that twisted and turned, drawing the listener along in its wake.

Set two began with a composition by Josephine Davies that saw the saxophonist coming to the front of the stage to conduct the ensemble in a performance of her piece “Eos”. Atmospheric and skilfully orchestrated the arrangement framed solos for Ingrid on trumpet and Christine on alto.

Christine’s composition “Swirlaround” was sourced from the “Infinitude” album and included the sounds of Ingrid on plunger muted, vocalised trumpet and the composer on soprano sax. Preston’s powerful solo exhibited a strong rock influence as his guitar wailed and soared, eventually giving way to Ingrid’s trumpet once more.

Ingrid’s composition “South East Alaska” featured an orchestration by the late Fred Sturm and saw the trumpeter deploying live looping techniques as she approximated the sound of whale song. The piece also incorporated more conventional big band textures and more orthodox jazz soloing from Ingrid, Michael Janisch on double bass and Christine on biting soprano sax. The piece was distinguished by its dynamic contrasts, perhaps intended to reflect the vagaries of the Alaskan climate, with Marktl’s closing drum feature featuring some truly thunderous playing.

The set concluded with Christine’s composition “Wink”, which saw trombonist Rory Ingham as the featured soloist, using a plunger mute to generate vocalised New Orleans style sounds before soloing more expansively on the open horn. We also heard from more musicians that had previously not featured as soloists as Andre Canniere came to the front of the stage to enjoy a good natured trumpet stand off with Ingrid Jensen. Jacob Cooper was also featured on trombone and lead trumpeter Ryan Quigley delivered some dynamic, high register soloing.

Janisch introduced the band members to rapturous applause and the ensemble returned to play an encore of Carla Bley’s “Lost” in an arrangement by Christine Jensen. The anthemic arrangement of Bley’s memorable tune included features for Ingrid on trumpet and Christine on alto, the pair then trading phrases at the close.

This ended an impressive evening of music making and a real celebration of the Whirlwind label. The writing was rich, colourful and multi-faceted and the playing universally excellent. Naturally the Jensen sisters dominated proceedings, but so many of these musicians are bandleaders in their own right and I’d urge readers to check out their individual projects.

In the comparatively small space of the primarily classical venue that is the Purcell Room the Whirlwind Jazz Orchestra sounded pretty darn loud and it took my ears a while to adjust to the volume and intensity of the music, but once I’d done that I was OK. There was even a light show of sorts too. As a champion of the label it was great to be there and to make the acquaintance of label manager Elaine Crouch.

Thanks to the Whirlwind ‘family’ for a great evening of music.

BEN WILLIAMS & SOUND EFFECT, RONNIE SCOTT’S

And still I wasn’t finished as I made the short hop up the Northern Line to this late night performance at Ronnie Scott’s by bassist, vocalist, composer, songwriter and bandleader Ben Williams and his all star quintet Sound Effect.

I first noticed Williams’ playing when he was the bassist in guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, another stellar aggregation that also featured the talents of saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Antonio Sanchez. Williams has also played with saxophonist David Sanborn’s ‘Acoustic’ band as well as pursuing a successful solo career with the albums “State of Art” (2011) and “Coming of Age” (2015) to his credit.  He is currently working on his third album, a recording that will feature his lyrics and singing for the first time. Items from the forthcoming recording were to feature tonight, with Williams telling us more about the new recording as the performance progressed.

The Sound Effect band featured some of America’s leading contemporary jazz musicians with Williams joined by Marcus Strickland (reeds), Julius Rodriguez (piano, keyboards), David Rosenthal (guitar) and Justin Brown (drums) – quite a line up.

The performance began with the sounds of sampled voices,  Williams on six string electric bass, Rodriguez on electric keyboards and Strickland on bass clarinet. A hip hop style groove bolstered Williams vocals (“You paid the cost of being the boss”) and Strickland’s bass clarinet solo.

Williams’ first vocal album is to be called “I’m A Man”, a title loaded with a political significance dating back to the Civil Rights era, but one that was lost on some of the members of a rowdy late night crowd at Ronnie’s. The title track included samples of speeches from the time,  certainly Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X too. The music brought the struggle right up to date, expressing a very current anger via hard hitting double bass and drum grooves and Strickland’s piercing soprano sax attack. Brown’s dynamic drumming helped to fuel an incendiary guitar solo from Rosenthal, while Rodriguez also blazed on acoustic piano. There could be no doubting the sentiments behind this music.

Williams described “If You Hear Me” as “a letter to God from a Man”, the song serving to showcase the quality of his vocals, he’s actually a highly accomplished singer. Elsewhere we heard from Rodriguez on Korg and full length solos from Strickland on soprano sax and the leader on dexterous double bass.

The third different Radiohead cover I’d heard from jazz acts during the Festival was the little known “Fast Track”, which featured Williams on electric bass and vocals and Rodriguez on synth, with the main instrumental solos coming from Strickland on tenor and Rosenthal on guitar.

A second cover saw the quintet tackling the Liane La Havas ballad “Lost and Found”, introduced by Rodriguez on acoustic piano and featuring an increasingly anthemic solo from Strickland on bass clarinet.

A remarkable extended dialogue between Williams on double bass and the brilliant Brown on drums ushered in the quintet’s celebrated cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a real show stealing moment that was only topped by Williams inviting the previous night’s headliner, trumpeter Keyon Harrold to guest with the band on their final number.
Again this took us all the way back to the Civil Rights era and Williams’ impassioned singing of the story of Emmett Till, the fourteen year old black youth from Chicago who was brutally murdered when visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 and whose white killers were subsequently acquitted. Musically this was effectively a folk ballad set in a jazz framework, with Harrold’s declamatory soloing matching the intensity of anything he had done the night before as he shared the solos with Rodriguez on piano and Strickland on soprano sax. Williams’ singing of the line “His name was Emmett Till” seared itself into the soul of the listener, the effect heightened by sampled voices declaring “Mercy, Mercy Me”. This was dramatic and important stuff, a story that has regrettably acquired a new relevance in the fractured political landscapes of the US and the UK in 2019.

Following this vocal and instrumental tour-de-force it was inevitable that the band, with Harrold still in tow, would return for an encore. This sent the audience home happy as Williams laid down a buoyant funk groove that helped to fuel an r’n’b style tenor solo from Strickland and an answering trumpet statement from Harrold. Williams then switched to electric bass to add even greater momentum to the dynamic trumpet and tenor exchanges.

Like Harrold’s own show the previous night this had been another Festival highlight. The quality of the playing had again been exceptional and the overall attitude sharp,  confident, focussed and politically relevant. But the biggest surprise was the strength, expressiveness and sheer quality of Williams’ singing. I already knew he was a monster bass player but I hadn’t been expecting this. The “I’m A Man” album looks to be ONE of the releases to look out for in 2020.

It was well worth missing the Night Tube for.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys performances from groups led by guitarist Nicolas Meier, vocalist Cherise and trumpeter Keyon Harrold.

Photograph of Keyon Harrold sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website;
http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Eight, Friday 22nd November 2019


NICOLAS MEIER WORLD GROUP, CULFORD ROOM, CADOGAN HALL

Today was my first visit to the free “Out To Lunch” series of events held at midday on weekday lunchtimes during the Festival in the foyer at Cadogan Hall. These events had been particularly well attended with people queuing around the block on Monday for the performance by the celebrated drummer Clark Tracey and his current quintet of young jazz lions.

Things were scarcely less frantic for the visit of Swiss born, London based guitarist Nicolas Meier and his World Group, a quartet that also featured the talents of Richard Jones (violin), Kevin Glasgow (six string electric bass) and Spanish percussionist Demi Garcia. This line up appears on Meier’s latest album “Peaceful”, a recording recently reviewed on the Jazzmann.
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/nicolas-meier-world-group-peaceful/

Meier is something of a Jazzmann favourite and has appeared on these web pages many times, usually leading his own groups but also as part of a duo with fellow guitarist Pete Oxley. He has also worked with cellist Shirley Smart, bassist Nick Kacal’s Guerilla Sound group, drummer Robert Castelli’s Boom Quartet and the genre hopping quartet Eclectica! He also played on, and produced, the 2018 release “Across The Bridge”, the latest album by the Belgian born vocalist and songwriter Gabrielle Ducomble. Most famously he has been part of the band led by rock guitar great Jeff Beck.

Meier has long harboured a fascination for the music of the Middle East, inspired by his Turkish wife, Songul, who acts as his muse and also provides the distinctive artwork that has graced the covers of many of Meier’s recordings. His latest release expands upon this as he explores the music of the wider Mediterranean and beyond, including the sounds of Brazil.

Introducing today’s show, which was largely centred around the material from the “Peaceful” album, Meier promised to take us on a musical journey, and this was exactly what he and his colleagues delivered, with this colourful music taking on even greater vibrancy and vividness in the crucible of a live performance.

From the new album “Manzanita Samba” took us straight to Brazil in a lively performance that incorporated solos from Jones on violin, Glasgow on bass and Meier on guitar, with Garcia also blowing a whistle during his percussion feature, as if to emphasise the authenticity of the tune’s samba credentials. The writing was both episodic and highly melodic, perhaps influenced by fellow guitarist Pat Metheny’s experiments with Brazilian music.

Also from the “Peaceful” recording “Besiktas Café” now transported us to Turkey with a jazz waltz combining Middle Eastern and gypsy jazz influences and featuring a delightful guitar/violin duet and a typically agile six string electric bass solo from Glasgow.

Meier deploys a range of guitars, the majority of them made by the Swiss company Godin. On the beguiling “Caravan of Anatolia” his instrument approximated the sound of the oud, the lute like instrument found in many Mediterranean countries, from North Africa to Asia Minor to the Balkans. His playing was augmented by the atmospheric drone of Jones’ violin and the rustle of Garcia’s percussion. Solos here came from Jones on violin and Garcia with a vigorous percussion feature that showcased his powerful hand drumming in a series of vivacious exchanges with the leader.

“City of the Three Rivers” introduced an unexpected geographical location in the form of a tune inspired by the German city of Passau. Nevertheless the music still maintained something of a Middle Eastern feel, plus a dash of flamenco. Solos here came from Meier on guitar and Jones on violin, the latter combining pizzicato and arco techniques.

An excellent first set concluded with “Riversides”, a tune sourced from Meier’s 2016 album “Infinity”, recorded in the company of American jazz heavyweights Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) and Jimmy Haslip (bass). The album also includes contributions from a number of guest violinists, Jones among them. Today the tune featured Meier playing the eleven string, fretless glissentar, an instrument capable of creating an even more authentic oud like sound. Meier featured as a soloist here, combining the sounds of the Middle East and North Africa with the rock rhythms slammed out by Garcia, other featured soloist.

Set two also began with another excursion to Brazil in the form of “Samba Orfeu”, written by Luiz Bonfa. This commenced with a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Meier and also incorporated solos from Jones and Glasgow, plus a series of drum breaks from Garcia.

It was back to Turkey for Meier’s own “Prince’s Islands”, composed for the small archipelago in the Sea of Marmara, just South East of Istanbul. Again this featured a solo guitar introduction, but with Meier now affecting an oud like sound as he shared the solos with Jones’ soaring violin. Meier and Jones have played together in various ensembles and have established a highly effective musical rapport.

Garcia brings the influence of Spanish music to the group, a fact demonstrated by the flamenco flavourings of Meier’s composition “Water Lilies”. Something of a showcase for the percussionist this featured Garcia on cajon and hand-claps (palmas) and included a series of dazzling guitar/percussion exchanges, with further solos coming from Meier and Jones.

“Tales”, from the “Infinity” album slowed the pace a little and acted as something of a feature for the excellent Jones, who shared the solos with Meier and Glasgow.

A superb second set ended with “Adiguzel”, a tune from Meier’s 2006 album “Orient” that has remained a live favourite ever since, a fast and furious piece that Meier today described as a “Turkish dance”. The leader again adopted an oud like sound on his guitar and his solo also included the inventive use of electronic FX. Jones introduced Celtic folk elements to his violin solo while Glasgow soloed with his customary flair and dexterity. A terrific way to end two sets of excellent music with the band really building up a head of steam after the break.

This may have been a free performance in the less than ideal space of a theatre foyer but it was still one of the most enjoyable shows of the week. Dazzling individual playing was allied to a strong group identity to create a rich and colourful blend of music that skilfully blurred musical genres and geographical boundaries as Meier and his colleagues took us on an exhilarating global musical journey.

My thanks to Nicolas for speaking with me afterwards – and even posing for photographs!


CHERISE / KEYON HARROLD, RONNIE SCOTT’S

My first visit to Ronnie’s at the 2019 EFG LJF saw me checking out the music of the American trumpeter, and occasional vocalist, Keyon Harrold.

Again this was a gig that for me was again something of a shot in the dark. I’d heard a lot ABOUT Keyon Harrold but never really listened to his music. One of the beauties of being a reviewer is being able to check things out on spec, but always with a glimmer of an idea of what to expect. From what I’d read and heard I was expecting great things from Harrold and the man didn’t disappoint.

Harrold and his band were supported by vocalist and songwriter Cherise Adams-Burnett, currently trading under the truncated name Cherise, so I’ll use that as I take a look at her set.

CHERISE

Born in London of Jamaican heritage Cherise is an emerging vocalist, flautist and songwriter. She studied jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire and at Trinity Laban in London. She has appeared in musical theatre and wrote and performed the jazz children’s show “Evelyn and the Yellow Birds”, a popular event at this year’s EFG LJF, the story line inspired by the life of Cherise’s own grandmother.

Cherise has sung with the Birmingham bands Trope and Three Step Manoeuvre and has recently been collaborating with the Afro-Beat / Jazz ensemble Nubiyan Twist. She has been involved with the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme and studied at the Betty Carter Institute at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC.

Cherise is currently working as a solo artist, writing her own material and performing it in a style perhaps best categorised as ‘soul jazz’. Tonight she appeared fronting a band of Birmingham based musicians comprised of pianist Andy Bunting, double bassist Luis Van Westhuizen and drummer Jonathan Silk.

Cherise writes her own material and her lyrics are often confessional and highly personal, she is not afraid to express vulnerability through her songs, “Night” and “Breaking” tonight representing eloquent examples of this. Her voice is a flexible instrument and both of these songs incorporated scat vocal episodes, alongside instrumental soloing from pianist Bunting.

The cabaret style “Violet Nights” then demonstrated a more playful side of her musical persona.

Cherise is set to release her début EP “Paradise” in January 2020, a recording that will feature the talents of trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael.  As part of the burgeoning young London jazz scene Cherise has previously guested with Seed Ensemble, the band led by saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi.

Sourced from the EP “Siren Song” featured Cherise on both vocals and flute, her lyrics again exploring the subjects of love, loss and personal vulnerability.

Cherise informed us that she had first been inspired by soul singers such as Anita Baker, Toni Braxton, Sam Cooke and even Barry White. This was illustrated by a cover of a song from the Baker album “Rapture”, which also gave Cherise the chance to demonstrate her whistling abilities.

The jazz standard “Skylark”, written by Hoagy Carmichael was impressively transformed by Cherise into the song “Felicity”, keeping the original melody more or less intact but featuring a brand new lyric, at one juncture sung with just bass accompaniment only.

A relatively short set concluded with the title track from the “Paradise” EP which also gave the instrumentalists a chance to stretch out, with Bunting and Van Westhuizen both enjoying extended solos while Silk relished the opportunity of a drum feature.

Although this was music that a little outside my usual listening zone I was still impressed. Cherise has a versatile and flexible voice and an impressive technical ability as a singer. It was good to see a young vocalist presenting her own material, and such intelligent and personal material at that, rather then relying on the same old jazz standards. One suspects that she is trying to reach out to a younger and different audience, one beyond the usual jazz demographic, and I wish her well with her efforts. There was considerable promise here and much for the discerning listener to appreciate.

My own enjoyment of this set was reduced by the presence of three noisy punters at the table behind me, often a problem at Ronnie’s I’m afraid. We told them to pipe down more than once, but sadly the relief was only temporary, they just couldn’t help themselves. They weren’t English, and I took some kind of morbid satisfaction in the fact that the British don’t seem to have a monopoly on bad manners. I’d have got a lot more out of Cherise’s performance, and particularly the lyrics, without those three rabbiting on, that’s for sure.

Mercifully a seat became available at the bar during the interval, which is normally where we journos are placed, and I was able to enjoy Keyon Harrold’s set uninterrupted. Just as well because it was an absolute stormer.


KEYON HARROLD

Harrold was born in the now infamous city of Ferguson, Missouri in 1980 and studied jazz at The New School in New York. He made his recording début in 2009 with “Introducing Keyon Harrold” on the Criss Cross record label.

Harrold has also worked intensively with rap, funk, and r’n’b artists and has performed with some of the biggest names in American music. As a result his jazz career was rather put on hold, until the release in 2017 of the acclaimed album “The Mugician”, a recording that combined Harrold’s various influences and included a broad range of guest musicians and vocalists.

“Mugician” is a portmanteau word incorporating the words “musician” and “magician” and was coined by the actor Don Cheadle. Harrold famously played the trumpet parts on the soundtrack to the film “Miles Ahead”, which starred Cheadle as Miles Davis.

The reach of “The Mugician” is so broad that it can’t really be classed as a jazz album as such. It’s also highly politicised, Harrold’s righteous anger fuelled by the senseless killing of Michael Brown by the Ferguson Police.

However tonight’s show, presumably tailored to the jazz club setting, was emphatically a jazz performance. The majority of the material was sourced from the “Mugician” album and the arrangements were primarily instrumental. Harrold isn’t really a singer, hence the presence of the guests on the recording, and his vocalising here was succinct, almost haiku like, his truncated versions of the lyrics still effectively conveying the sentiments of the songs. Despite the limitations of his voice this was a device that worked really well.

However there could be no reservations about the playing. Harrold had assembled an all star band featuring Shedrick Mitchell on piano and keyboards, Nir Felder on guitar, Dominique Sanders on electric bass and ‘Little’ John Roberts at the drums.

Mitchell introduced the proceedings with a passage of solo piano that became the backdrop for “Voicemail”, the opening track of the “Mugician” album, a piece featuring the sampled voice of Harrold’s mother, addressing her son with a message to “never give up, never give in”.
As her voice faded away the charismatic, shades wearing Harrold made his entrance, his first trumpet notes a searing clarion call, a call to action. This marked the transition into the title track of “The Mugician” with its mix of reggae and funk grooves and powerful solos from Mitchell on electric keyboard (a Nord Stage 3) and Felder on guitar, the pair whipped forwards by the dynamic drumming of the brilliant Roberts. Harrold’s own solo was similarly scorching, before he eventually cradled his horn to sing the chorus of the song “Mugicians are the healers, your number one top feelers, We are the Healers”. The recorded version has many more words, but this distilled its message to its essence.

“Love In Tragedy” saw the quintet moving away from the album repertoire but the intensity of the performance remained undimmed. Roberts was featured on both electric percussion and kit drums as he again provided the rhythmic platform for dazzling solos from Harrold on trumpet, Mitchell on acoustic piano and Felder on guitar, the latter a celebrated bandleader in his own right.

From the album came “Her Beauty Through My Eyes”, introduced her by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Felder. Roberts’ syncopated but funky grooves helped to fuel solos from Mitchell on piano and Harrold on trumpet, the latter squeezing in a quote from “My Favourite Things”, following an earlier allusion to “A Love Supreme” during “The Mugician”. Again we heard a brief vocal summation of the song’s chorus, which again proved to be highly effective.

The instrumental “Ethereal Souls”, an anthemic ballad, also appears on the album although tonight Harrold seemed to favour the alternative title of “Spill”. This was ushered in by Mitchell at the piano, accompanied by Roberts’ mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Felder subsequently took up the melody on guitar as this slow burner of a composition gradually began to grown intensity, building via solos from Felder on guitar, Mitchell on piano and Harrold with some bravura trumpeting that culminated in a solo trumpet cadenza.

To close we heard a radical re-invention of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” featured sampled beats and typically powerful soloing from Harrold on trumpet and Mitchell on piano, before eventually seguing into “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

A mere half a dozen tunes may seem like a scant programme for a headlining set but these were lengthy performances that included some truly epic soloing from the trio of Harrold, Mitchell and Felder. All played with a combination of power and intelligence, always finding something interesting to say. Sanders was basically happy to keep the groove, a vital but often overlooked presence in the ensemble. His selfless work gave the dynamic Roberts a degree of freedom. ‘Little John’ was actually a giant behind the kit, his playing busy and inventive, but simultaneously supple and adaptable. I was hugely impressed and would relish the opportunity of hearing him in other contexts, as I would Felder and Mitchell.

I was glad I chose to see Harrold, as this show turned out to be one of the highlights of the Festival. It actually reminded me of the excellent performance given by his fellow US trumpeter Marquis Hill and his Blacktet band in this same room last year. Hill also commenced his set with a recording featuring sampled voices and his music also included elements of rap, soul, funk, r’n’b and other strands of Afro-American music. Both acts also include a strong political message in their music, which in the case of Harrold tonight was expressed in the power of his playing and general attitude rather through lyrical or verbal comment. Even now there’s still a unique element of swagger and attitude about the best American jazz that sets it apart from its British and European counterparts, a quality forged in the uniqueness of the Afro-American experience.

Tonight it was tough call to choose between seeing Harrold or Jaimie Branch, another American trumpeter with a hard hitting playing style and a strong political stance. Her Fly or Die band was at the Church of Sound venue in Clapton and following the recent release of her second Fly or Die album “Bird Dogs of Paradise” I’d have loved to have seen her too. Branch’s music mixes political polemic and an uncompromising attitude with composition and elements of free jazz to create a heady and powerful brew. One time Jazzmann contributor Tim Owen attended her packed out show in Clapton and was hugely impressed, as he had been when she played her first EFG LJF show in 2018. Branch seems to be building something of a following in the UK and Europe and will hopefully return in 2020. With luck I will get the chance to see her then.

Meanwhile I’m pleased that Harrold and his band more than justified my selection.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

"Piano Men". The music of leading British jazz pianist / composers as interpreted by the Sam Leak Trio and the exotic and wide ranging sounds of Palestinian pianist and composer Faraj Suleiman.

Photograph of Faraj Suleiman sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website;
http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Seven, Thursday November 21st 2019


SAM LEAK TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

Pianist and composer Sam Leak is one of the stalwarts of the British jazz scene as both bandleader and sideman. In addition to leading his current trio featuring bassist Simon Read and drummer Will Glaser Leak has released two albums as the leader of the quartet Aquarium (with James Allsopp on reeds, Calum Gourlay on bass and Joshua Blackmore on drums). Both Aquarium recordings are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann.

In 2014 Leak led his own big band in a memorable performance at the Spice Of Life as part of that year’s EFG LJF.  The first set featured arrangements of tunes by composers such as Duke Ellington and Kenny Wheeler while the second featured a suite composed by Leak specifically for the Festival. This was an impressively mature piece of work and an artistic triumph for Leak, but regrettably the music has never been released on disc. My account of that performance, plus a set by the sextet Locus, also featuring Leak, can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/efg-london-jazz-festival-day-three-16-11-2014/

As a sideman Leak has worked with saxophonists Stan Sulzmann, Martin Speake and the late Ray Warleigh, flautist Gareth Lockrane and vocalist Anita Wardell among others. He has also deputised for James Pearson in the house band at Ronnie Scott’s.

For this free lunchtime performance at the Pizza Leak and his trio performed an extended single set paying homage to notable British jazz pianist/composers. It represented something of an extension or variation to the show that Leak, Reed and drummer Dave Storey played at The Vortex at the 2017 EFG LJF when they supported the international quartet Illegal Crowns (Mary Halvorson on guitar, Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet/cornet, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Benoit Delbecq on piano). The Leak trio performed a short selection of tunes written by the leader’s favourite pianists, among them, on that occasion, Keith Jarrett.

First up today was Leak’s arrangement of the tune “Eight Hours”, written by Danish bassist Jasper Hoiby, leader of the acclaimed trio Phronesis, a group that also features the talents of British pianist Ivo Neame. Leak’s version of the tune is a gentler, slowed down version of the Phronesis original and was also featured at the Vortex performance. Introduced by Glaser at the drums today’s performance also included a double bass solo from the highly capable Simon Read.

Leak’s own composition “The Treasure Chest” was sourced from the Aquarium repertoire and was another piece that had also been featured at the Vortex. An unaccompanied piano intro led to an atmospheric passage featuring Glaser’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers before the music began to gather momentum with an expansive piano solo from the leader and a closing drum feature from Glaser.

An arrangement of the Kit Downes composition “Hampstead Place” was particularly vibrant and included further fluent soloing from the leader and another opportunity for Glaser to demonstrate his skills behind the kit. This was a thrilling performance that really got the audience on side and which represented something of a set highlight.

By way of contrast Gwilym Simcock’s arrangement of the hymn tune “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” was sparse, spacious and simply beautiful, with Read playing the melody on double bass prior to a delightful passage of solo piano from the leader. I remember this closing the set at The Vortex, and here, as there, the audience remained transfixed throughout.

Solo piano also introduced the jazz standard “If I Should Lose You”, which also included conventional jazz soloing from Leak and Read plus a series of brushed drum breaks from Glaser.

To conclude we heard a brace of tunes from the second Aquarium album “Places”, released on Jellymould Records in 2013. The segue began with the ballad “February” which featured another atmospheric intro featuring the gentle rumble of Glaser’s mallets. As the music segued into the title track the drummer then set up a Latin-esque groove that provided the backdrop for Leak’s own soloing and Glaser was then featured himself, his solo played exclusively with bare hands, The trio then switched back into ballad mode with a gently anthemic final passage.

This was a highly enjoyable set from one of the comparatively unsung heroes of the UK jazz scene. With more time available to him Leak appeared relaxed and confident as he and the trio expanded upon the promise of the Vortex performance. The mix of Leak originals and an admirably diverse selection of arrangements of outside material made for an absorbing set that included some excellent playing from all three musicians. A little low key perhaps, but very worthwhile.


FARAJ SULEIMAN QUINTET, HALL ONE, KINGS PLACE

I had hoped to catch the six o’clock performance at Foyle’s by Ms. Maurice, the group led by Nerija trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey. However early Thursday evening represented the only chance for us to meet up with Katie, a friend from Brighton who we only get to see once or twice a year, but who attends college in London on Thursdays.

So it was an early evening drink rather than a trip to Foyle’s. It was an enjoyable re-union but I still felt a tinge of regret at missing the opportunity of seeing Maurice-Grey leading her own band.

After an hour or so at the pub we decamped to Kings Place for a performance by the Palestinian born pianist and composer Faraj Suleiman and his quintet

I have to admit that tonight’s concert represented something of a leap in the dark for me. I was aware that Suleiman had played a sold out show at the same venue at last year’s EFG LJF and I’d been impressed by the youtube footage of his playing that I’d sought out, but I’d never actually heard him live or on disc.

Born in 1984 in the village of Ramy in upper Galilee Suleiman is now based in Paris and his current band includes a number of French musicians. Suleiman began playing piano at the age of three and his music draws heavily on his Arabic heritage, drawing on folk forms as well as jazz, rock and even tango. His penchant for Arabic modes and scales ensures that his sound is very different to that of conventional American jazz. For US and Western European ears,  this helps to give his music a mysterious and exotic quality. Suleiman has also composed classical works, from chamber ensembles to full orchestra, and also written music for theatre, poetry and film.

Tonight’s event was organised in conjunction with Marsm (English translation “Easel”), an organisation dedicated to “promoting Arabic alternative and independent music concerts in the UK”. Marsm’s current programme extends until March 2020 and details of forthcoming events can be found at http://www.marsm.co.uk
I’m indebted to Federica of Marsm for providing me with a set list from tonight’s event, which will make reviewing the performance so much easier. Tonight’s performance was also filmed by the London based Al Araby TV, one of the main supporters of Marsm’s autumn programme.

To date Suleiman has released a total of five albums and his next release, “Second Verse”, will feature his voice and lyrics for the first time. There was some singing tonight, but the performance remained predominately instrumental.

Suleiman has clearly acquired a considerable following for his work and Hall One, the larger of the two performance spaces at Kings Place, was again sold out, with many Arabic and French voices heard in the audience.

Suleiman commenced with a solo piano performance of his composition “Eleven and Twelve”, a piece sourced from his 2017 quartet recording “Once Upon a City”. The performance was distinctive for its use of Arabic scales and rhythms and for its bravura melodic flourishes.

The tune “Love City” saw the pianist joined by Come Aguiar on electric bass and Baptiste De Chabaeix at the drums, these two laying down a powerful groove as they underpinned the leader’s piano soloing.

Suleiman continued to add to the ensemble in ‘Talking Heads’ style. A passage of unaccompanied piano presaged the introduction of oud player Habib Hanna who joined Suleiman in the duet that introduced “Beneath The Walnut Tree”, one of the pianist’s most popular tunes and one which appears on both “Once Upon a City” and the 2018 live recording “Toy Box”.

Finally trumpeter Julien Alour joined the ensemble, soloing fluently on flugel on the tune “First Night”, a tune that combined Arabic scales with rock rhythms.

Alour was impressive throughout and also featured strongly “The Trickster Dance” where he shared the solos with Hanna and Suleiman.

The group was reduced to the core trio of Sulaiman, Aguiar and De Chabaeix for “Mountain Street”, which was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano, this followed by the establishment of an E.S.T. style groove as the music gathered momentum, culminating in a series of lively piano and drum exchanges.

Solo piano also introduced “Unsuccessful Lie”, another piece that grew from quiet beginnings to embrace an impressive power, with a returning Alour again shining on flugelhorn.

Alour moved to trumpet for a piece listed on the set list as “Take 5”, but it didn’t sound anything like the famous Dave Brubeck composition of the same name and even included Suleiman’s vocals.

“Issa Jai” included some powerful riffing from the core trio but also incorporated a typically assured flugel solo from Alour plus a drum feature from De Chabaeix.

I suspect that Suleiman wandered a little ‘off piste’ at this point as the rest of the band vacated the stage and the leader gave a solo voice and piano performance of a song that combined French lyrics with a traditional, folk feel. I’m fairly certain that this was “Bad Timing”, a song with lyrics written by Amer Hlehel that appears on the “Toy Box” live album and resurfaces on the forthcoming “Second Verse”. Many of the audience already seemed to know the piece and were encouraged to sing along with the choruses.

The full band reconvened for the final tune of the evening, the fast paced “Naughty Boy”. This was presaged by a passage of solo piano, but quickly took off as Aguiar established a solid electric bass groove which fuelled powerful solos from Alour on trumpet and Hanna on oud, with Aguiar also taking a solo and engaging in a bass / drum stand off with De Chabaeix that introduced an element of humour into the proceedings.

The inevitable encore acted as something of a feature for Hanna who entered into an introductory dialogue with the leader before the music broadened out to incorporate the whole quintet. The piece was also notable for the vigorous exchanges between Suleiman and De Chabaeix as the evening ended on an energetic note.

This performance by the Suleiman quintet was rapturously received by the pianist’s many followers. He’s something of a star in the world of Arabic music, as this sell out show demonstrated. It took me a little while to adjust to the unfamiliar scales and rhythms but I soon found myself enjoying Suleiman’s music, even though the bass and drums sometimes seemed to veer a bit too close to rock for my current tastes. Alour’s playing on trumpet and flugel was genuinely impressive, but although this was billed as “an exclusive quintet performance” we didn’t really hear enough of Hanna and the oud, an instrument that I’ve developed a real fondness for over the course of the last couple of years, thanks to the playing of Anouar Brahem, Stefanos Tsourelis,  Ahmed Mukhtar,Yaz Fentazi and now Hanna.

These minor cavils aside it’s obvious that Suleiman is a huge talent with a broad ranging musical imagination and an impressive technical facility, music just seems to pour out of him. I was impressed enough to treat myself to copies of the “Once Upon A City” and “Toy Box” recordings that both make for interesting and enjoyable listening, as well as acting as excellent souvenirs of tonight’s show. Both are essentially instrumental and feature different line ups. Of tonight’s musicians Hanna appears on the first named and Alour and De Chabaeix on the second. All of tonight’s band feature on the new recording “Second Verse” but I shied away from this due to the presence of vocals, far preferring to hear Suleiman’s talents in an instrumental context.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

Ian Mann on the melodic, contemporary sounds of the Aubin Vanns Quartet, the fiery free improv of the Binker Golding / Elliot Galvin Duo and joyous Township Jazz of Brotherhood Of Breath.

Photograph of Brotherhood Of Breath sourced from the EFG London Jazz festival website
http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Six, Wednesday 20th November 2019


AUBIN VANNS QUARTET, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

Today’s free lunchtime performance at the Pizza featured a quartet led by the young guitarist and composer Aubin Vanns.

Born in Derbyshire Vanns studied at Leeds College of Music and is currently studying for a Masters in Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

In addition to this he has been steadily establishing himself on the London music scene as a member of the bands They Will Flock and Lanterns. Vanns also spent some time living in Sweden and has been involved in a number of projects combining jazz and Scandinavian folk music. He has also maintained his links with the Leeds jazz scene and appeared on saxophonist Matt Anderson’s album “Rambling” (2018).

Earlier in 2019 Vanns released his own début as a leader, the self issued album “Opera”, a recording featuring seven original compositions by the guitarist. The album features Vanns leading a quartet comprised of Alberto Palau on piano, Will Harris on double bass and Jay Davis at the drums. Following Harris’ move back to Bristol he has since been replaced by the versatile and talented Conor Chaplin (Dinosaur etc.).

Vanns describes the music to be heard on “Opera” as “songs without words” and there is a strong emphasis on melody throughout. Many pieces are inspired by the composer’s travels and are rich in terms of texture and atmospherics, often evoking a strong sense of place.

Jazz listeners shouldn’t let the “O” word put them off, this is indisputably a jazz record, albeit one informed by song like structures and folk melodies. There’s no singing.
My antipathy towards “opera” as an art form stems from the disproportionate amount of money that it receives from the Arts establishment as compared to jazz, but this probably isn’t the time for a rant about that old chestnut.

Vanns and his colleagues opted to present their music in a single extended set that lasted for around seventy five minutes. All seven pieces from “Opera” were performed, albeit in a different running order, and these were augmented by a clutch of new originals plus an innovative arrangements of Radiohead’s “Nude” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”.

The quartet began with the brief and gently atmospheric “Aldeburgh”, a piece sourced from the album.  This featured Davis on glockenspiel and Chaplin on bowed bass and, rather appropriately, acted as a kind of overture.

“Death-Devoted Heart”, which actually opens the recording, then introduced a more contemporary feel with its rolling grooves and inventive extended solos. The impressive Palau, born in Valencia but currently based in London, went first, followed by the leader. Vanns favours a clean guitar sound, deploying effects sparingly and moving between plectrum and finger picking techniques. His spiralling solo here exhibited considerable imagination and inventiveness.

The ballad “La Bondat” was dedicated to Vanns’ partner Nora Jorba Soler, Catalan born but now based in London and actively involved in the capital’s music scene in a variety of capacities ranging from performer to administrator. The song written for her was a delightful ballad that featured the melodic bass soloing of Chaplin alongside the leader’s crystalline guitar and Palau’s lyrical piano. In its latter stages the piece gathered momentum, taking on a more anthemic,  celebratory quality and culminated in a feature for Big Bad Wolf drummer Jay Davis.

The laid back mood continued with a second ballad, the wistful “Lonesome Again” with its Metheny-esque melody and effective use of space. Crystalline solos came from Vanns on guitar and Palau on piano.

The jazz standard “Skylark” was treated to an intriguing arrangement that was ushered in by a dialogue between Vanns on guitar and Chaplin on double bass. Following the addition of Davis the performance continued in trio mode with Vanns singing along to the melody as he soloed and Chaplin displaying a remarkable dexterity on his bass feature. Palau eventually joined the party to solo effectively on piano.

Vanns also performs as a solo guitarist and introduced the next piece unaccompanied, that pure, clean unadorned guitar sound still in evidence alongside an impressive technical facility. Although still studying he is himself a guitar tutor, and on this evidence it was easy to see why. I didn’t actually get the title to this piece (I think it may have been “Good and True”), which subsequently involved the whole band and which ultimately had something of a Keith Jarrett ‘country blues’ feel about it.

The continuing fascination with Radiohead’s music by jazz musicians found expression in the Vanns quartet’s atmospheric and evocative interpretation of the moody “Nude”, with Chaplin again featuring strongly as a soloist.

The band picked the pace up again with the fast moving “Pomo Potpourri”, a tune from the album influenced by the style of Kurt Rosenwinkel that saw both Vanns and Palau stretching out above Davis’ skittering drum grooves.

Also from the recording “November” saw the quartet back in ballad mode on another piece that demonstrated Vanns’ gift for melody. A little sombre, but still beautiful, the song embodied the chilly beauty of an autumn day and incorporated gently eloquent solos from Palau on piano and the composer on guitar.

“Edinburgh” was another tune to be inspired by a location and included some of Vanns’ most agile soloing, the guitarist contorting his fingers into almost impossible chord shapes.

As befits a performance with the emphasis so much on melody Vanns and his quartet concluded their performance with “He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven”, the title taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats with the rhythms and cadences of the poet’s words set to music by Vanns. Also the concluding track of the “Opera” album this proved to be limpidly beautiful with guitar, piano, double bass and Davis’ mallet rumbles combining to make music that was both atmospheric and elegiac. Vanns described the piece as being “free folk”, combining the direct beauty of folk melody with the improvisatory inclinations of jazz.

This had been an excellent performance from Vanns and his quartet which combined some superb playing with intelligent, imaginative and often downright beautiful original writing from the leader. Vanns was suffering from the effects of a cold and was a little reticent between numbers, arguably needing to project himself a little more with regard to tune announcements. But this was a minor quibble and the music itself was superb, with the “Opera” album strongly recommended. Fans of Metheny, Rosenwinkel, Frisell etc. will find much to enjoy here.

My wife’s cousin, Carol, who had caught the train in from Essex to join us for lunch is a relative newcomer to jazz but was so impressed by the performance that she bought a CD. It was the beauty of the closing “Cloths” that really sealed the deal for her.

Thanks to Aubin and Nora for speaking with me afterwards. I suspect that the UK jazz audience will be hearing a lot more from this talented young guitarist and composer.


BINKER GOLDING / ELLIOT GALVIN DUO, RAY’S JAZZ at FOYLE’S

Still both young, but a little more established, both saxophonist Binker Golding and pianist Elliot Galvin are bandleaders in their own right as well as both being involved in a myriad of other projects – Galvin is currently a member of Dinosaur, Led Bib and much more besides.

They are are two of the most adventurous young musicians on the UK jazz scene and in recent years both have increasingly been drawn towards the art of free improvisation. Their work as a duo focusses on this area and in early 2019 they released the vinyl only album “EX Nihilo” (meaning “Out of Nothing”) on Byrd Out Records, the boutique label founded by Stephen Vitkovic.

“Ex Nihilo” was documented at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in April 2018 and released in early 2019. It contains six wholly improvised performances that successfully manage to absorb the listener, combining the visceral thrill of live performance with genuine improvisatory flair and intelligence. The pair have established a lively and boisterous rapport and this is a duo that looks to have plenty of improvisatory mileage in it.

Once again the audience were seated ‘in the round’ with Golding, who appeared on both tenor and soprano saxophones facing Galvin, who gave the venue’s resident Yamaha grand piano a thorough going over during the course of a vigorous hour long set that included five separate improvised episodes.

The first offering found Golding on tenor, his whinnying answered by Galvin’s low end rumblings and the sound of dampened strings. As Golding’s playing became more belligerent Galvin answered in kind, hammering at the piano and sometimes crashing his forearms down on the keys. But it wasn’t all sound and fury, this was a piece of dynamic contrasts that also embraced the fluttering of the saxophone keys from Golding and the further use of prepared piano techniques as Galvin coaxed ethereal shimmering sounds from the interior of the piano as he inserted various devices into the instrument’s innards. There’s something of the “mad scientist” about Galvin, a musician who undertakes his sonic experiments with a smile on his face, no matter what musical context he finds himself in. This twenty minute introductory salvo also incorporated passages of solo saxophone and solo piano as each protagonist afforded his counterpart the space to ‘do his own thing’.

Golding moved to soprano sax for the second improvisation, kicking off the proceedings with a passage of unaccompanied playing that encompassed over-blowing techniques and harsh multi-phonics. The watching Galvin, clearly feeling the heat from his earlier exertions removed his shirt, tossing it aside with the exclamation “Let’s get serious!”. Both musicians were now attired in plain white T shirts that seemed to emphasise the ‘blank canvas’ quality of the music they were creating. Golding’s garrulous soprano playing, with its squiggles, squeaks and squawks initially encouraged a Tyner-esque response from Galvin but as the saxophonist embarked on a bout of Evan Parker inspired circular breathing Galvin produced a roll of gaffer tape, tearing pieces off and plastering them over the strings of the piano to radically alter the sound.  All this was done in a highly theatrical manner that essentially became part of the show and which was incorporated into the music itself. His ‘piece de resistance’ was the violent slamming of the piano lid, again somehow incorporating the sound into the overall narrative of the music. It had been a pretty intense ten minutes or so.

There was no let up on the next outing, a shorter five minute excursion that again saw Golding on soprano and once more demonstrating his circular breathing technique in a remarkable feat of physical resourcefulness that for the observer became ever more hypnotic and mesmeric. Galvin responded with some highly percussive playing that incorporated the use of doomy block chords as the music maintained its levels of intensity.

Golding switched back to tenor for the fourth piece as Galvin continued to demonstrate his mastery as a player of the piano as an entire instrument, his ‘under the lid’ excursions giving the music the eerie, spooky feel of a horror movie soundtrack. Subsequently he produced a kalimba, or African thumb piano, from his ‘box of tricks’ beside the piano and his playing of this device inside the piano delivered hypnotic, minimalist style patterns that evoked a response in kind from Golding on tenor. Golding subsequently embarked on a Coltrane-esque saxophone solo that recalled the ‘spiritual’ jazz of the 1960s, as Galvin responded with heavily treated low end patterns.

The last item commenced with a scarily intense squall of sound featuring Galvin’s banging of the piano lid, elbows on keys and the furious, apocalyptic honking and shrieking of Golding’s tenor sax barrage. Then followed a brief moment of reflection before a similarly impassioned joint onslaught brought the performance to a close. This final item lasted around ninety seconds but seared itself into the listener’s consciousness by dint of its sheer ferocity and intensity. There was to be no topping this. “We don’t do that, we’re done” said Golding as the adventurous audience hollered for an encore.

Nevertheless the pair were happy to hang around and talk about their music afterwards. The refusal of an encore had been no mere theatrical gesture, having reached such searing levels of intensity the duo quite rightly wanted to end having reached a dynamic and emotional peak.

Quite what Cousin Carol would have made of this as an introduction to jazz I hate to think. But those of us with a taste for musical white knuckle rides enjoyed it immensely, and for all the intensity and complexity there were plenty of moments of good humour too. There’s more to come from these two, that’s for sure.


BROTHERHOOD OF BREATH, 100 CLUB

Tonight was my first ever visit to the legendary 100 Club, located in a basement at 100 Oxford Street.

These days primarily a rock venue the 100 began in 1942 as a jazz club and hosted many leading British and American jazz musicians throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, becoming a key venue in the trad boom of the early 60s.

In the 1970s the Club turned more towards rock music, including Northern Soul, and eventually became the home of British punk rock, hosting the Sex Pistols, The Clash and many more. It remains strongly associated with the punk movement to this day.

In 2010 it was rumoured that the venue would close due to continuing financial losses but a fund raising scheme, which included a live performance by Paul McCartney at the venue, helped to keep it open.

The 100 Club has never completely abandoned jazz and in the 60s and 70s the venue was also a home to the exiled South African musicians that made up the Blue Notes, among them the late pianist and composer Chris McGregor, founder of the Brotherhood of Breath, so named not only for the high proportion of brass and reed instruments in the band but also for the epithet “the only way to cheat death is to keep breathing”. 2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Brotherhood and tonight’s event represented a celebration of that remarkable milestone. The scene was set for a true celebration.

The Brotherhood, essentially an expanded big band version of the Blue Notes, was initially comprised of a mix of South African exiles and leading British jazz musicians. Many of the originals have left us but the band continues under the leadership of South African saxophonist Frank Williams, paying homage to the repertoire of compositions written by McGregor, Ernest Mothle, Dudu Pukwana, Harry Miller and others.

Tonight’s edition of the band featured;

Frank Williams – tenor sax

Steve Williamson – alto sax

Julian Nicholas – tenor sax, soprano sax

Robbie Juritz-  tenor sax, bassoon

Dave Bitelli – baritone sax, bass clarinet, flute

Dave DeFries – trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion

Claude Deppa, Chris Batchelor – trumpets & flugels

Annie Whitehead, Paul Taylor – trombones

Alastair Gavin – piano

Curtis Ruiz – electric bass

Steve Arguelles- drums

Kofi Basu – percussion

Following the conclusion of the Golding / Galvin gig I made the short walk to the 100 Club and found that it was already rammed, a sign of the affection and esteem in which the Brotherhood are still held within the British jazz community. I met up with several friends who were also in attendance and the scene was set for a night of excellent music celebrating the music of Chris McGregor and the other South African musicians who made their home in London.

I’d been warned that the 100 Club was a standing only venue and advised not to get stuck behind one of the pillars. In deference to the Brotherhood’s ageing audience a number of chairs and tables had been arranged in cabaret style but by the time I arrived there was precious little space and I was obliged to stand. Given the joyous nature of the music this didn’t represent any great hardship and from my vantage point I could see every musician except Annie Whitehead, but even she emerged occasionally from behind the offending (but very necessary pillar).

This wasn’t a night for taking notes, and in any case the South African titles of many of these tunes frankly eluded me. Instead I absorbed myself in the joyousness of the music, a joyousness borne out of struggle. The opening tune, written by McGregor featured a scorching high register trumpet solo from the irrepressible Claude Deppa, a giant on stage personality and one of the ensemble’s leading lights. He was followed on baritone sax by the versatile Dave Bitelli, who doubled on bass clarinet and flute and was also a key part of the band. The presence in the ranks of Steve Williamson represented a considerable bonus and he weighed in with an incisive contribution on alto sax. Finally we heard from the keeper of the groove, electric bass specialist Curtis Ruiz.

Deppa also featured strongly on the next number, McGregor’s “Davashe’s Dream”, his muted trumpet solo full of growling vocalisations as he shared the solos with tenor saxophonist Robert Juritz, who had been on bassoon during the opener.

“Sweet as Harry” was dedicated to the memory of the Barbados born trumpeter Harry Beckett (1935-2010), whose talents once graced the Brotherhood’s ranks. This was a spirited and joyous tribute that included solos from Paul Taylor on trombone, Williamson on alto and Alastair Gavin at the piano.

The next piece was composed by the late Brotherhood bassist Ernest Mothle and saw Bitelli switching to flute with solos coming from Julian Nicholas on tenor and Gavin at the piano, these bisected by an extended outing from DeFries on flugel that was positively dazzling, arguably the best solo of the night.

Ruiz’s propulsive bass groove helped to fuel the final number of an energetic first set with trombonist Annie Whitehead and leader Frank Williams on tenor the featured horn soloists.
The performance concluded with a high spirited drums and percussion feature between Arguelles and Basu, with the seated DeFries also weighing in.

The percussion department also featured on the opening number of the second set as Juritz again started out on bassoon.

McGregor’s “Bakwetha” also saw the percussion section heavily involved and also included impressive solos from Gavin at the piano and Nicholas on soprano sax. Williams acknowledged Nicholas as one of the prime movers of the current edition of the Brotherhood, responsible for much of the ‘donkey work’ of keeping the ensemble together.

“Big G”, written by the Ghanaian born tenor saxophonist George Lee, who moved to South Africa and then to the UK, was a showcase for saxophonists Williamson (alto) and Nicholas (tenor) as the pair thrillingly traded phrases and solos.

A ballad written by McGregor to honour Nelson Mandela brought a welcome change of mood and pace, slowing things down temporarily. The arrangement was notable for an expansive, blues tinged flugel solo from the excellent DeFries.

This represented the calm before a storming finale that featured Williams soloing on tenor alongside section features for the trumpets and trombones, the two ‘departments’ trading phrases before Deppa eventually emerged as a featured soloist. We also heard from Batchelor on trumpet and Bitelli on baritone,  the latter a real cornerstone of the band.

I’m perhaps not the best qualified member of the audience to write about the music of Brotherhood Of Breath. I’ve heard the band on record of course and previously seen its close relative Dedication Orchestra. Nevertheless I know that there are errors and omissions in the above account and will gratefully receive any additions or corrections should somebody be moved to comment.

As I’ve said note taking was difficult at this predominately standing gig. Instead I concentrated on enjoying the music, which featured Township jazz as its most infectious and joyous. Many of the members of this sell out crowd would have been in the audience when the original Brotherhood, led by McGregor, played this room in their 70s heyday. The combination of lilting rhythms and catchy melodies saw scattered outbreaks of dancing around the venue, a rarity at jazz gigs nowadays.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to the 100 Club, The atmosphere inside this historic venue was terrific and the affection with which the institution that is Brotherhood Of Breath continues to be held was apparent throughout.

The band played with great verve and enthusiasm and a good humoured sense of celebration prevailed throughout, although the jollity did seem a little forced at times. In truth some of the ensemble playing was a little ragged on occasion, but given that there was probably very little rehearsal time this was probably to be expected. In the circumstances this was easily forgiven and in a band packed with outstanding individuals there was plenty of outstanding soloing to compensate. It was interesting to note how many one time members of Loose Tubes were in the band’s ranks, a reminder of the strong influence the Brotherhood had on the African elements of the Tubes’ richly diverse and highly inspirational music.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

"It's all about the bass". Ian Mann on the music of two groups led by double bassist / composers, Andrea Di Biase's Escape Hatch and Lars Danielsson's Liberetto III.

Photograph of Andrea Di Biase sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website
http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON FESTIVAL 2019

Day Five, Tuesday 19th November 2019


ESCAPE HATCH, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

Today’s free lunchtime performance came from Escape Hatch, the trio led by the Italian born, London based bassist and composer Andrea Di Biase.

The group made its recorded début in 2017 with the album “Roots of Unity”, released on the Whirlwind Recordings label. It featured a core trio of Di Biase on double bass and Dave Hamblett at the drums, both present and correct in today’s line up, plus Phronesis pianist Ivo Neame. The album also featured a special guest in the shape of the esteemed saxophonist Julian Arguelles and the album was rightly credited to “Escape Hatch featuring Julian Arguelles”.

This was an excellent recording and featured compositions from both Di Biase and Neame. My review of the “Roots of Unity” album can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/escape-hatch-featuring-julian-arguelles-roots-of-unity/

With the consistently busy Neame unavailable the piano chair was filled by Di Biase’s compatriot Alessandro Lanzoni, a rising star of the Italian jazz scene.

As regards his writing for Escape Hatch Di Biase acknowledges the inspiration of such bass led ‘piano’ trios as Phronesis and the Avishai Cohen Trio in addition to pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio. He also cites the influence of such classical composers as Messiaen and Ligeti plus wider inspirations ranging from mathematical principles to current political events.

But perhaps the greatest influence on Di Biase is the late, great trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler, with whom the bassist once studied. Escape Hatch regularly perform with guest artists, the list of previous performers including both Wheeler and Arguelles.

The forerunner to Escape Hatch was another Anglo-Italian alliance, Oltremare Quartet, who recorded the album “Uncommon Nonsense” on the Babel label in 2011. Di Biase was the group’s principal composer and the quartet also included the Italian pianist Antonio Zambrini plus the British musicians Michael Chillingworth (saxes) and Jon Scott (drums).

Di Biase has also worked with pianist Bruno Heinen and the all Italian quartet Dugong, recording with both.

Today’s performance commenced with a Di Biase composition from the Oltremare Quartet recording, a tune dedicated to Kenny Wheeler titled “One Swan”, the name of the piece reflecting Wheeler’s love of wordplay. The music itself had something of Wheeler’s melancholy lyricism, with Hamblett deploying brushes and with Di Biase featuring twice, either side of an expansive piano solo from the excellent Lanzoni.

The rapid pace of “Displaced Ideas” exhibited more of the acknowledged Cohen/Phronesis influences and included a dazzling piano solo from Lanzoni and a lively drum feature from Hamblett.

From the “Roots of Unity” Di Biase’s composition “Today, Tomorrow, Never” was dedicated to the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy vessels, seeking a better life in the composer’s native Italy.
Today it was teamed with a newer piece titled (I think) “Antonymer”. The segue commenced with a passage of unaccompanied piano followed by a more conventional piano solo, with Hamblett moving from brushes to sticks as the music gradually gathered momentum. A solo drum passage provided the link into the second part of the piece with Di Biase’s bass carrying the melody and subsequently improvising around it to the accompaniment of Lanzoni’s piano arpeggios. Having brought this section to a peak the final passage was more lyrical and impressionistic with mellifluous solos from both bass and piano and with Hamblett occupying the role of colourist.

Also from the “Roots of Unity” album the first set concluded with its opening track “Hysterical Revisionism”. Di Biase described his piece as “a long tune, much re-written”, the title constituting a reference to the writing process. Today’s version was ushered in by a passage of solo piano from Lanzoni before expanding to embrace considerable harmonic and rhythmic complexities whilst encompassing further solos from piano and double bass.

Set two commenced with “Twittering Machine”, the title not a reference to the social media giant but instead a dedication to the Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940). I seem to recall that pianist Richard Fairhurst composed a piece with the same title for his Hungry Ants group more than a decade ago, perhaps he was inspired by Klee too.
However, I digress. The music itself featured melodic bass, brushed drums and solos from Di Biase and Lanzoni.

“Martello” was written for Di Biase’s infant son and combined passages of frenetic activity with gentler, more reflective passages, an approximation perhaps of the youngster’s sleep patterns. Along the way we heard lyrical, unaccompanied piano passages alongside an altogether more vigorous drum feature from Hamblett.

From the “Roots of Unity” album Di Biase’s composition “Dust and Moonlight” was presented here as a thoughtful ballad with brushed drums and anchoring bass accompanying Lanzoni’s gently probing piano ruminations.

“Iconocluster” marked a return to the more intense and complex side of the trio’s music with Di Biase and Lanzoni.

An excellent second set closed with the only non-Di Biase composition of the afternoon. This was the beautiful Kenny Wheeler tune “My Gospel”, one of the great man’s final compositions and a piece that remains unrecorded. The original chart was given by Wheeler to Di Biase and the bassist led the performance from a manuscript written in Wheeler’s own hand. The tune proved to be one of Wheeler’s most beautiful pieces and was possessed of what Di Biase described as an “uplifting, even Christmas vibe”. It was reminiscent of one of Keith Jarrett’s gospel infused country blues songs, and of course Wheeler and Jarrett famously collaborated on the trumpeter’s classic ECM album “Gnu High”, released in 1976 – Jarrett’s last ever sideman session as I seem to recall.
Di Biase and his colleagues more than did Wheeler’s memory justice with their delightful rendition of his tune, with Di Biase’s gorgeously melodic bass solo the undoubted highlight.

It’s been three years since “Roots of Unity” first appeared and on the evidence of today’s performance a new Escape Hatch album is surely overdue. The majority of today’s compositions from Di Biase are as yet unrecorded and on today’s evidence they very much deserve to be documented on disc.

I was very impressed by the playing of this trio and by the quality of Di Biase’s writing. Lanzoni represented an exciting new discovery for me and I’d welcome the opportunity of hearing his playing in other contexts. He leads his own trio and performs as a solo pianist. He also appears in bands led by drummers Roberto Gatti and Aldo Romano and his second trio album includes a guest appearance by the great American trumpeter Ralph Alessi.

Like the other members of Escape Hatch Lanzoni is a name to look out for.


LARS DANIELSSON GROUP; LIBERETTO III, WIGMORE HALL.

My account of this evening’s performance at Wigmore Hall by the Swedish bassist and composer Lars Danielsson and his Liberetto group has already been published elsewhere on the Jazzmann site as a stand alone item at the request of publicist Sally Reeves. For the sake of completeness it is reproduced below;

Lars Danielsson Group, Liberetto III, Wigmore Hall, London, 19/11/2019
(Part of the EFG London Jazz Festival)

Lars Danielsson – double bass, composer Gregory Privat – piano, John Parricelli – guitar, Magnus Ostrom - drums


The Swedish bassist, cellist and composer Lars Danielsson has enjoyed a long fruitful association with the Munich based ACT record label, founded by producer Siggi Loch, releasing his first album for the label as a leader in 2004.

The roots of the Liberetto project lay in the highly creative alliance that he formed with the Polish pianist Leszek Modzder, with whom he collaborated on the duo recording “Pasodoble” (2007). The pianist remained for 2009’s “Tarantella”, a quintet recording made under Danielsson’s leadership that featured a stellar international band that also included Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick, British guitarist John Parricelli and American drummer Eric Harland.

The excellent “Tarantella” can be seen as the forerunner of the “Liberetto” series that Danielsson has since recorded for ACT. With Mozdzer concentrating on a highly successful solo career Danielsson assembled a new international group for the first “Liberetto” recording, released in 2012. Parricelli remained in place with the Armenian born Tigran Hamasyan taking over the piano chair as Arve Henriksen replaced his compatriot Eick on trumpet and former E.S.T. drummer Magnus Ostrom came in behind the kit.

The second “Liberetto” album from 2014 saw the group reduced to a four piece following Henriksen’s departure and the quartet format remained for 2017’s “Liberetto III” but with the French pianist Gregory Privat replacing Hamasyan, the second of Danielsson’s pianists to choose to concentrate on a solo career.

Away from the Liberetto group Danielsson has recorded prolifically for ACT as a collaborator or sideman including recordings with trumpeter Paolo Fresu, trombonist Nils Landgren, drummer Wolfgang Haffner, vocalists Caecilie Norby and Youn Sun Nah and many more.

Prior to his tenure with ACT Danielsson, born in 1958, worked with many leading American and European musicians including saxophonist Dave Liebman, guitarists John Abercrombie and John Scofield, pianist Bobo Stenson, drummers Jon Christensen and Jack DeJohnette among many others.

The Liberetto series of recordings have always placed a strong emphasis on melody while seeking to blend the influences of jazz, classical chamber music and European folk music. Danielsson studied classical cello before turning to jazz and picking up the double bass. It was perhaps as a result of these classical leanings that tonight’s performance, part of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival, took place in the refined surroundings of Wigmore Hall, one of London’s leading classical music venues.

The performance began with “Nikita’s Dream”, the freely structured intro featuring the sound of Danielsson’s bowed bass. Ostrom’s brushed drum grooves, Privat’s melodic piano motifs and the glistening textures of Parricelli’s guitar then helped to establish an overall feel of lyricism allied to a sense of Nordic melancholy. Danielsson’s highly developed melodic sensibilities were immediately in evidence on his introductory bass solo, his feature followed by a similarly tasteful guitar solo from Parricelli and a more expansive outing from Privat at the piano.

Dating back to the first “Liberetto” recording “Orange Market” proved to be more sprightly with Privat and Parricelli doubling up on the melody lines prior to Danielsson’s typically tuneful bass solo. As the music gathered momentum Privat’s piano solo became feverishly inventive and it was the Frenchman who proved to be the real discovery of the evening. He was the only member of the quartet that I hadn’t seen or heard before and his playing was a revelation. I’d certainly be interested in investigating his work in other contexts.  Privat leads his own trio and in 2016 released his own album, “Family Tree” on ACT, a recording also featuring the talents of bassist Linley Marthe and drummer Tilo Bertholo. In the meantime “Orange Market” featured further soloing from Danielsson, plus a well received drum feature from Ostrom, who deployed brushes almost throughout the evening.

The next piece was unannounced, beginning in ballad mode with Parricelli’s gentle acoustic guitar introduction, subsequently joined by piano, bass and drums as the piece began to unfold, with the delicate interplay between the instruments consistently absorbing the listener’s attention. Danielsson’s bowed bass solo was both melancholic and beautiful, his tone high pitched (comparatively) and almost cello like.

Dedicated to the Ukrainian city “Lviv” was sourced from the latest album and was clearly a crowd favourite with a smattering of applause breaking out as members of the audience recognised the melody.  Ostrom laid down a busily brushed rhythm that resembled his patented “E.S.T. groove”, this proving to be the perfect jumping off point for Privat’s virtuoso piano pyrotechnics and one of Danielsson’s more muscular pizzicato bass excursions. Ostrom’s final drum flourish then helped to elicit the loudest cheers of the night thus far.

The first set concluded with “Passacaglia”, played here in 4/4 rather than the usual waltz time Privat’s rippling piano arpeggios were accompanied by the keening, eerie textures of Parricelli’s guitar with the Frenchman also featuring as a soloist alongside the leader on dexterously plucked double bass.

I was a little surprised that an interval was called at this venue but maybe it was just as well as the break seemed to galvanise the band and drive them on to even greater heights in the second half. With the exception of Privat everybody had played it relatively cool in the first set but the second half was to feature a greater degree of dynamic contrasts, particularly towards the end of the show when all the musicians seemed to shed their inhibitions.

Set two began began with a new tune titled “Fifth Grade”, introduced by Privat at the keyboard and with Ostrom’s brushed drum grooves fuelling yet another feverish solo from the Martinique born pianist. Also prominent as a soloist was the consistently melodic leader on double bass.

The evening really came alive as an event with Danielsson’s unaccompanied bass extemporisations around the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now”. This was simultaneously technically dazzling and jaw-droppingly beautiful, an irresistible combination that held the Wigmore audience totally spellbound. One could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Danielsson dedicated the beautiful, and eminently hummable, melody of “Agnus Dei” to the memory of his late mother. Propelled by the gently shuffling grooves of Ostrom’s brushed drums the piece reminded me of Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” and incorporated delightfully mellifluous solos from Privat and Danielsson.

Danielsson described the next piece as being “stressful and fast”. I missed the title but from reading other accounts of the show suspect that it may have been called “Up the Tunnel”. In any event it saw the quartet upping both the pace and the energy levels with Ostrom’s increasingly propulsive   drumming leading the way. There were more Metheny-esque elements in Parricelli’s coruscating guitar solo, setting the tone for the leader on bass and Privat with a bravura and highly percussive piano solo.

The intensity was maintained on the final tune of the second set, a piece introduced by the military rhythms of Ostrom’s brushed drums and Privat’s slivers of piano melody. Parricelli’s slow burning solo introduced a subtle and unexpected blues influence before Danielsson’s solo provided the link into a riff based closing section that continued to exhibit a distinct rock feel and attitude. Metaphorically this chamber jazz group had suddenly swapped their matching suits for leather jackets.

This rousing finale had the audience on their feet and an encore was inevitable, with the quartet winding things down again with another gorgeous ballad featuring the melodic and dexterous soloing of Danielsson and Parricelli.

This performance by the Danielsson group has been well received by audience and critics alike. I heard many favourable comments immediately after the show and the online reviews have been universally positive. I was at the very back of the Hall and didn’t have the best view of the players but the music sounded marvellous, with each member of this well balanced, tightly knit all star group making a telling contribution. Danielsson’s best soloing came on “Both Sides Now” but his presence as the composer of virtually all the other material was arguably even more important than his role as a musician. He has a unique approach to composition that has helped to make his music both distinctive and popular, a rare combination. Parricelli grabbed his soloing opportunities with both hands and the effervescent and exuberant Privat impressed throughout, often getting to his feet during his frequently dazzling solos. Also key to the success of the evening was Ostrom, one of the world’s most distinctive drummers, who drove the music with subtlety and inventiveness and an understated power, largely deploying brushes alone, an impressive feat.

Even those who have found Danielsson a little bloodless on record were impressed by this evening’s performance, particularly in the shorter, but less inhibited second set where the matchless beauty of “Both Sides Now” opened the floodgates for a genuinely rousing final section.

by Ian Mann

December 17, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys the cinema inspired solo piano of David Helbock, the punchy, modern sounds of the Arthur O' Hara Trio and "It Must Schwing!", a celebration of the Blue Note label from The Jazz Animals

The Jazz Animals logo sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Four, Monday November 18th 2019


DAVID HELBOCK plays JOHN WILLIAMS, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

Today represented the first of the Dean Street jazz club’s series of free lunchtime performances scheduled on the week days of the Festival. I was to see four of these, eating my way through the Pizza Express menu while enjoying some terrific jazz performances by musicians from the UK and mainland Europe.

Today’s visitor was the Austrian pianist David Helbock who was visiting London as part of a massive European tour promoting his latest album for the German record label ACT.

Helbock’s latest project sees him interpreting the music of the celebrated film composer John Williams in a solo piano context. “Playing John Williams” represents Helbock’s fourth solo piano album and finds him undertaking radical de-constructions of the composer’s well known works, themes well known to generations of cinema goers.

I first became aware of Helbock’s music in 2016 when he first signed to ACT following several years with the Berlin based Traumton label. It was in October of that year that Helbock made a highly enjoyable appearance at Dempsey’s in Cardiff, leading the trio that appeared on his then current album “Into The Mystic”. Although the album focussed on Helbock’s original writing there were also covers of compositions by Beethoven and by John Williams. It was here that Helbock’s love of Williams’ music was first nurtured and the Cardiff performance included a rendition of the “Star Wars” theme among the numerous originals.

Helbock’s output is consistently eclectic. “Into The Mystic” features the unusual sound of Raphael Preuschl’s bass ukulele alongside Helbock’s piano and Reinhold Schmolzer’s drums and percussion. It’s an excellent album and I thoroughly enjoyed the trio’s Cardiff appearance.

If anything Helbock’s other trio, Random Control, featuring brass and reed multi-instrumentalists Andreas Broger and Johannes Bar is even more bizarre. 2018’s “Tour d’ Horizon”, subtitled “From Brubeck to Zawinul” offered a potted history of contemporary jazz piano, albeit via some extremely eclectic arrangements. Personally I found it all a little too whimsical and self consciously eccentric and found myself missing Helbock’s own compositions.

For all its technical excellence the same criticisms apply to “Plays John Williams” and after the success of the widely praised “Into The Mystic”  I’d still like to see Helbock concentrating more on his own material.

However that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy today’s event which saw the combination of Helbock’s imaginative arrangements and his instrumental virtuosity holding the attention of a rapt lunchtime audience, with the subsequent CD sales reflecting the success of the performance.

As ever the gangling figure of Helbock, wearing his trademark beanie hat with its ‘piano key’ design, presented a suitably striking visual image. There’s something of the ‘mad professor’ about Helbock’s appearance and demeanour.

It’s easy to forget how just how may memorable movie themes John Williams has written, among them the “Harry Potter” theme, which Helbock presented in several variations over the course of two lengthy sets. The first ‘dampened’ version saw Helbock deploying prepared piano techniques, including the insertion of a cloth into the innards of the piano to muffle the sound of the strings.

His version of the theme from “E.T.” saw him adopting a more conventional piano sound, but the playing itself was dense and virtuosic.

The classically trained Helbock is blessed with a formidable orthodox piano technique,  a gift that he then supplements and enhances by his imaginative work ‘inside the lid’, treating the piano as an entire instrument. I don’t think I’ve seen a pianist demonstrate such mastery of the instrument’s innards since Johann Bourquenez of the Swiss trio Plaistow.  Helbock’s ballad rendition of the theme from “Saving Private Ryan” again made effective use of prepared piano and dampening techniques while his plucking of the strings was both haunting and highly moving.

In Helbock’s performances the work of his left hand is as important as that of his right and his arrangement of the “Superman March” with its rumbling left hand rhythmic patterns was highly effective.

A second take on “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Potter franchise featured rich interior harmonics with Helbock again demonstrating his command of extended techniques and the interior architecture of the piano.

“Seven Years In Tibet” was delivered in a simpler and more conventional manner and was both atmospheric and genuinely moving.

“Jaws” then featured more vigorous work ‘inside the lid’ with Helbock attacking the strings with mallets at one juncture. Percussive, and rhythmically complex, his playing here exuded a genuine air of menace.

The first set concluded with a flamboyant interpretation of “Escapades” from the Leonardo di Caprio movie “Catch Me If You Can” and featured more sounds sourced from the piano’s innards.

Set two commenced with a “high” version of the Potter theme segued with a rendition of “Jurassic Park” with Helbock’s use of the piano as an entire instrument giving the music an almost orchestral quality.

The pianist described the music for “Schindler’s List” as Williams’ most beautiful theme, his interior work this time again giving the performance a haunting quality.

Helbock returned to his earlier fascination with Star Wars with a rendition of the “Imperial March” before making a final visit to the Potter theme.

Introducing the final number of a shorter second set Helbock revealed that Williams had been a jazz pianist himself before becoming a film composer. A delightful version of “Moonlight” was then followed by the main “Star Wars” theme.

Such was the quality of Helbock’s performance that he was accorded an encore, something of a rare occurrence at these lunchtime events. It’s the only item that wasn’t announced and at this late juncture I’m not able to remember exactly what it was.

Although my reservations about Helbock’s current direction remain this was an enjoyable and highly impressive performance. Helbock’s mastery of both orthodox and extended piano techniques is remarkable and although his arrangements of Williams’ themes were pretty radical, and unfailingly interesting, the highly melodic qualities of the original compositions still shone through, maintaining a degree of accessibility for most listeners and acting as a counter-balance to Helbock’s more avant garde inclinations.

Overall this wasn’t quite as satisfying as his trio performance of original music in Cardiff, but it was still a pretty good way to spend a Monday lunchtime.


ARTHUR O’HARA TRIO, RAY’S JAZZ AT FOYLE’S

It was good to see the six o’clock series return in the performance space at Ray’s Jazz at Foyle’s following a blank year in 2018. I’ve seen may excellent performances in this space in previous years and bands such as Ezra Collective and Nerija have since gone on to bigger things.

The first show of the 2019 season at Ray’s saw a performance from a new trio led by bassist and composer Arthur O’Hara. An electric bass specialist O’ Hara performed at this venue in 2017 with saxophonist Phil Meadows’  high powered ‘punk jazz’ trio Skint. He is also the current bassist with the band WorldService Project, led by keyboard player and composer Dave Morecroft.

O’Hara’s rhythm partner in both Skint and WSP is the young drummer Harry Pope and he was present and correct in tonight’s line up alongside tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael. All three musicians are alumni of the jazz course at Trinity Laban. They cite their influences with regard to this trio as including Thundercat, Sons of Kemet and Kneebody.

The trio played ‘in the round’, as is customary at these sessions, and delivered a set of powerful electric jazz. In many respects the music is similar to that of Skint, but without the electronic embellishments that Meadows brought to that group by his occasional doubling on keyboards. Opener “Losing Your Way” set the new trio’s stall out with Carmichael soling forcefully on tenor.

“Misconception” then saw O’Hara establishing a fat funk groove and also demonstrating his considerable abilities as an electric bass soloist. O’Hara acknowledged the influence on his style of “chordal bass players”, but didn’t actually name names, other than Thundercat.

“Oasis” acted as a feature for the powerful soloing of Carmichael on tenor and the hard hitting of the ebullient Pope behind the kit.

O’Hara’s melodic, liquid bass introduced a tune simply known as “Ballad”, a piece which initially demonstrated a gentler, more subtle side to the band. Carmichael’s tenor sound was softer here but gradually the momentum began to build with the music taking on an anthemic ferocity and climaxing with a dynamic drum feature from Pope.

I had to leave at this point and departed to the sounds of the swampy funk grooves of “Back and Forth”.

I enjoyed what I had heard of the Arthur O’Hara trio and liked the band’s attitude, energy and already highly developed degree of musical skill. An EP featuring the tracks “Finding Your Way”, “Misconception” and “Oasis” can be found on Soundcloud and hopefully the trio can record a full length album at some point in the future. The band also played at Lancaster Jazz festival this year and are an outfit well worth keeping an eye on.


THE JAZZ ANIMALS “IT MUST SCHWING!”, CADOGAN HALL

An important strand of the 2019 EFG LJF was the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the iconic American record label Blue Note, founded in New York City in 1939 by German-Jewish emigres Albert Lion and Frank Wolff, both of whom had nurtured a love for jazz in the clubs and cabarets of 1930s Berlin before fleeing the horrors of the Nazi regime. The American musician and activist Max Margulis was also a co-founder but had little part in the day to day running of the label.

With the anniversary in mind Blue Note had opened a ‘pop up store’ for the duration of the Festival in the new Coal Drops Yard shopping development at King’s Cross and this proved to be a highly popular attraction for discerning Festival goers. I’d visited the store on Saturday afternoon and was thus suitably attired in my new Blue Note T-shirt for tonight’s celebration of the label and its music.

Taking its title from a phrase habitually used by Alfred Lion “It Must Schwing!” was a show co-ordinated by Siggi Loch, founder of the ACT record label, who had assembled a stellar international band for the project, led by the French saxophonist and ACT artist Emile Parisien. The core band also included pianist Yaron Herman, Israeli born but now domiciled in France, and a contingent of leading American musicians in the shapes of trumpeter Theo Croker, trombonist Glenn Ferris, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The evening also included guest slots from German pianist Axel Zwingenberger and a true Blue Note legend, the veteran American saxophonist and composer Benny Golson. The event also included an interview with Kenneth Wolff, nephew of the late label founder, and celebrated photographer, Frank Wolf.

Given that the label was founded by a Lion and a Wolff the name Jazz Animals was a most appropriate name for this all star aggregation.

Of course it would be impossible to tell the whole history of Blue Note in the course of a single evening and many great musicians whose music became synonymous with the label remained unmentioned, including Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean and many others.

Nevertheless the roots of the label were not forgotten. The first musicians that Lion and Wolff recorded were the boogie woogie pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. The German stride and boogie woogie specialist Axel Zwingenberger, who was sporting bright yellow shoes, opened the show playing solo piano in the style of these musicians and in between tunes explaining something about the nature of the music. Zwingenberger’s thunderous left hand rhythms and dancing right runs were genuinely impressive and I found myself enjoying this section of the programme far more than I had anticipated.

Blue Note’s first ever release was Ammons’ “Bass Goin’ Crazy” which was issued in 6th January 1939.  However the label’s first big hit was a recording by Sidney Bechet of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. Parisien joined Zwingenberger to perform a duo version of the tune with the Frenchmen taking the role of Bechet on soprano sax with solos coming from both musicians before Parisien impressed with a closing unaccompanied saxophone cadenza.

This marked the end of Zwingenberger’s involvement and the affable pianist adjourned to tumultuous applause. Parisien was now joined on stage by the other members of the sextet for a version of “Blue Train”, the title track of John Coltrane’s 1958 album for Blue Note, one of the label’s most enduringly popular recordings. Parisien moved to tenor sax and took the first solo, followed by Coker on trumpet and Ferris on trombone.

Next came a medley of Thelonious Monk tunes, which allowed Herman to come into his own as he shared the solos with Croker on trumpet, Ferris on trombone and Parisien on soprano sax.

Ninety year old Benny Golson joined the band for the final item of the necessarily fragmentary first half, playing tenor sax on his own composition “Along Came Betty”, his tone still warm and astonishingly fluent. Parisien, on soprano sax, and his colleagues looked delighted to be sharing the stage with such a venerable figure of the music,  with Martin rounding off the solos on double bass.

The first set had been enjoyable, but the emphasis on historical accuracy meant that it unavoidably lacked cohesion. The second half, which focussed on Blue Note’s classic 50s and 60s heyday saw the core sextet really lightening up and coming into their own, and even more so when Golson joined them again in the later stages.

During the interval items of Kenneth Wolff’s Blue Note memorabilia were on display in the foyer, notably copies of the books of his uncle’s superb, and justly famous black and white photographs of the label’s musicians at work in the studio.

Before the start of the second set Kenneth was interviewed about his memories of Alfred and Frank and of how they had experienced racism in Berlin before emigrating to the US, Frank leaving on the last peace time boat from Hamburg to join Alfred, who was already in New York. He spoke of their mission to document the “black musical legacy” and spoke warmly of Blue Note’s celebrated recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder and about his uncle’s iconic photographs. His reminiscences were warmly applauded by the highly supportive audience.

The music kicked off with a stunning arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia”, introduced by Parisien on soprano, that brought a genuine North African feel to the music. The piece included brilliant solos all round, from Croker’s trumpet slurs and vocalisations, to Herman’s percussive pianistics, to the leader’s impish soprano.

Two pieces composed by Blue Note artists that have become modern day standards were segued together, Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. Martin’s bass introduced Silver’s ballad, this followed by a horn chorale and then a warmly lyrical trombone solo from Ferris with Cleaver playing with brushes. A passage of unaccompanied piano from Herman formed the bridge into “Footprints”, which included fluent solos from Parisien on soprano and Croker on trumpet.

Golson returned to the stage for a delightful arrangement of his ballad “I Remember Clifford”, written for the memory of the brilliant young trumpeter Clifford Brown who was killed in an automobile accident in 1956, aged just twenty six. This version featured a sumptuous trumpet solo from Croker, channelling the spirit of the late Clifford, and a soft and breathy tenor solo from Golson, with the pair later exchanging phrases prior to a concluding solo tenor sax cadenza. Cleaver provided sensitive brushed drum accompaniment throughout.

Inevitably the evening concluded with Golson’s “Blues March”, his best known composition, made famous by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Here Cleaver really came into his own, his military rhythms fuelling the tune and keeping the beat as Golson delivered the first solo on tenor. Further features came from Ferris on rousing, bluesy trombone, Croker on trumpet and Martin on double bass, plus a final Blakey-esque salvo from Cleaver at the drums. Golson lapped it up, saluting the soloists, craning his head into the interior of the piano, the better to hear Herman’s solo, and pacing the stage in suitably martial fashion to the obvious delight of the crowd – ninety years young, a great jazz survivor and an absolute star!

Kenneth Wolff joined the musicians as they took their final bows – no encore was going to top this mighty version of “Blues March”!

With such a stellar line up I’d had high hopes of this evening, but was also wary that all star aggregations don’t always deliver. It’s to the credit of Parisien and the other musicians that this tribute to Blue Note worked extremely well. This might have been a show packed with some extremely familiar (some would say over-familiar) material but the innovative and interesting arrangements, presumably by Parisien, cast them in a new light and ensured that every item remained fresh and interesting.

Zwingenberger’s contribution was a vital reminder of the label’s roots and also worked very well, while the presence of Kenneth Wolff provided a living link to the past and this venerable gentlemen seemed to greatly enjoy the warmth and affection directed towards him by the supportive Cadogan Hall crowd.

As an event the evening really took off in the second half with the members of the core sextet, plus the irrepressible Golson, all performing brilliantly, the playing was absolutely terrific. All in all this was a superb tribute to Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff and the Blue Note legacy from the brilliantly named Jazz Animals. (Love the logo,too!).

by Ian Mann

December 01, 2019

ECM Sunday. Ian Mann celebrates the 50th anniversary of the ECM record label at performances by the Julia Hulsmann Quartet, Crosscurrents Trio and the Jan Garbarek Group.

Photograph of Julia Hulsmann by Tim Dickeson


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day Three, Sunday 17th November 2019


ECM SUNDAY


The first Sunday of the Festival saw the concert programme at the Southbank Centre focussing on the 50th anniversary of the celebrated, iconic even, German record label ECM.

Founded in Munich in 1969 by the German producer Manfred Eicher the label released its first album, “Free at Last” by the American pianist and composer Mal Waldron on 1st January 1970.

ECM has always championed the highest production standards with Eicher himself having literally produced thousands of albums over the course of the last fifty years.

Almost as important as the sound quality has been the graphic design that has graced the packaging of ECM recordings, typically beautiful, if sometimes rather abstract or austere, photographic images. In short ECM has developed a unique recorded sound and an equally distinctive visual image, qualities it shares with the American label Blue Note, celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2019. Although the sound and look of the two labels are very different both have developed a strong aesthetic and are instantly recognisable, these qualities helping to gain both labels a strong, sometimes fanatical following.

ECM pioneered a distinctively European approach to jazz recording but nevertheless many leading American musicians have recorded successfully for the label including pianist Chick Corea, vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Ralph Towner, drummer Jack DeJohnette and, of course, pianist Keith Jarrett, who remains with the label to this day and whose solo piano album “The Koln Concert” remains ECM’s biggest selling recording. The label also made stars of US guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, before each left for ‘major labels’.

Perhaps even more important has been ECM’s role in bringing European musicians to the attention of the international jazz audience. Eicher has found a particular affinity with Scandinavian musicians with the Norwegian musicians Jan Garbarek (saxophones) and Tord Gustavsen (piano) representing two of the label’s most successful artists, in both aesthetic and commercial terms.

But ECM is neither an ‘American’ or ‘European’ label. Eicher’s musical vision knows no geographical boundaries and musicians from Africa, South America and Asia have all recorded for the label, among them Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti and Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain.

I have loved ECM’s music since the late 1970s, almost unconditionally at first, and the label has introduced me to some brilliant artists, many of whom remain favourites to this day, including Jarrett, Garbarek, Burton, Metheny, Towner, Frisell, Gustavsen, bassist Eberhard Weber, pianist Bobo Stenson and many more.

In recent years I’ve harboured more reservations, sometimes feeling that the need to conform to the ECM ‘template’ or the ECM ‘sound’ has sometimes stifled the creativity of some musicians and resulted in needlessly ‘over austere’ or ‘rarefied’ recordings. But I’ve come too far and invested too much love in the label to turn my back on it now and some of my favourite all time recordings have appeared on ECM.

Eicher and his label have been an important part of my life for a very long time and ‘ECM Sunday’ found me celebrating the legacy of the label at three different concerts by artists associated with the imprint.

First I saw German pianist Julia Hulsmann leading her quartet at the Purcell Room before making my way across to Cadogan Hall to see the Crosscurrents Trio featuring Zakir Hussain, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter. Admittedly this was pushing things a bit as the trio’s new album was recorded for the British label Edition, itself named in honour of ECM, whose initials standing for Editions of Contemporary Music. And in any case Hussain, Holland and Potter all have close associations with ECM, all three having enjoyed lengthy tenures with the German label.

Finally I returned to the Southbank for a performance by the Jan Garbarek Group at the Royal Festival Hall. As ECM’s longest serving artist Garbarek has become synonymous with the label and his recordings with the classical vocal group the Hilliard ensemble have brought his music to the attention of a whole new audience.

JULIA HULSMANN QUARTET, PURCELL ROOM

Compared to Garbarek the German pianist and composer Julia Hulsmann is a fairly recent recruit to ECM – and she’s been with the label for more than decade, releasing her first recording for the company back in 2008.

Previously associated with the ACT label Hulsmann’s ECM career has been centred around her long running trio featuring bassist Marc Muellbauer (also her husband)  and drummer Heinrich Kobberling, this line up featuring on the albums “The End of a Summer” (2008) and the superb “Imprint” (2012) and “Sooner and Later (2016).  Other recordings have featured additional collaborators such as the UK born, Berlin based trumpeter Tom Arthurs and the experimental vocalist Theo Bleckmann.
My review of the “Imprint” recording can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/julia-hulsmann-trio-imprint/

Hulsmann’s most recent ECM release, 2019’s “Not Far From Here”, has seen her expanding the group to a quartet once more with the addition of saxophonist Uli Kempendorff. Kempendorff is also a composer and one of the strengths of Hulsmann’s groups is that all its members are writers, helping to give the music additional colour and variety. In addition to the writing of its individual members Hulsmann’s bands have also had an eye for an inspired cover version and the new album is no exception, with two differing takes on “This Is Not America”, written by David Bowie, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

The Purcell Room with its superb acoustics proved to be the perfect setting for the classically trained Hulsmann who brought the best out of the venue’s beautiful Steinway grand piano. The majority of the material was sourced from the new album and the programme featured compositions from all the group members plus the aforementioned cover of “This Is Not America”.

The quartet opened with Hulsmann’s title track from the new recording, a piece introduced in trio mode with crystalline piano, double bass and the gentle patter of Kobberling’s hand drumming. Hulsmann undertook the first solo before handing over to Kempendorff on tenor sax, who had been patiently waiting his opportunity.

Also by Hulsmann and also from the new album “Streiflicht” was written with the aim of depicting the changing images seen from the window of a fast moving train. Hulsmann’s darting piano phrases and effective use of the piano’s interior were heard in dialogue with Kobberling’s drums, the patter of hands on skins again a significant part of the performance. Meanwhile Kempendorff’s tenor solo saw him probing more deeply, bringing a welcome element of grit and rigour to the quartet’s sound.

Kobberling’s beautiful ballad “If I Had A Heart” was introduced by the trio and featured the composer on glockenspiel. Kempendorff adopted a warmer, breathier sound on tenor, sharing the solos with Muellbauer’s melodic double bass and Hulsmann’s lyrical piano, with the leader’s solo incorporating a passage of unaccompanied playing. Kobberling’s own role was that of colourist, demonstrating the subtle side of his often unconventional playing.

A passage of unaccompanied double bass provided the bridge into Muellbauer’s “The Mistral”, written during the time that the quartet were recording the new album in France. This was a more animated piece that included some of Hulsmann’s most expansive and feverish soloing of the set with the pianist playing off Kobberling, their playful dialogue emphasising the importance of the musical relationship between the leader and the drummer. Kempendorff then weighed in with a powerful solo on tenor sax.

Kempendorff’s own “Open Up” brought a different feel to the music in a composition that was dense and knotty, with hints of the American M-Base movement pioneered by saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby among others. Edgy solos came from the composer on tenor sax and Hulsmann at the piano.

Hulsmann proved to be a lucid and informative interlocutor between tunes, with an excellent command of the English language. She described the quartet’s cover of “This Is Not America” as a “political statement”, the song having gained a perhaps unintentional current relevance in the current world climate. The performance began with a dialogue between Hulsmann and Kobberling, before adding layers of complexity with the addition of Muellbauer’s bass and Kempendorff’s sax as the music continued to gather momentum. The music then slowed down, giving the piece the feeling of a lament, before erupting into furious protest with Kempendorff’s garrulous, increasingly dissonant tenor sax solo. The album also includes a solo piano variation by Hulsmann, a lament for a lost America as opposed to the impassioned protest of the quartet version. Today’s interpretation successfully managed to combine both strands in a performance that for many listeners must have been the highlight of an already excellent set.

Hulsmann’s “No Game” featured expansive solos from Kempendorff and Hulsmann, both stretching out expansively, and percussively in the pianist’s case, above the rhythmic ferment laid down by Mullbauer and Kobberling. The bassist was also to feature as a soloist but it was Kobberling’s busy drumming that was at the heart of the performance. His style may be unorthodox but his playing is a natural fit for this quartet, and also for the earlier trio.

Two Kempendorff composition were then segued together, “You Don’t Need To Win Me Over”, a brief saxophone and drum duet that led into the more substantial “Einschut”, meaning “Insert”, featuring Hulsmann on piano.

Mullbauer’s “Wrong Song” began as a ballad, with an introductory passage of solo piano, before becoming more knotty and complex.  The composer’s bass solo proved to be the lift off point for a robust tenor solo from Kempendorff, fuelled by Kobberling’s explosive drumming, the music now miles away from its opening lyricism.

Kobberling’s “Colibri”, named for a species of hummingbird commenced with a passage of unaccompanied drumming followed by more conventional jazz solos from Hulsmann and Kempendorff, these fuelled by hard driving rhythms as the set developed to a climax.

The deserved encore was the second cover of the afternoon, the ballad “The Water”, a jazz waltz written by Leslie Feist that appeared on the album “In Full View”,  the Hulsmann Trio’s album with Tom Arthurs. Gentle and lyrical the piece featured a solo piano introduction from Hulsmann, delicate brush work from Kobberling, a lyrical bass solo from Muellbauer and warm toned, slightly plaintive tenor sax from Kempendorff. It was a delightful way to conclude a superb afternoon of music making.

Although today’s performance was frequently lyrical and beautiful there were also more animated moments that were genuinely exciting. Like many ECM acts the Hulsmann group’s music took on an extra frisson in live performance, bringing a new dimension to the music. Kempendorff has brought a spikier, more improvisatory edge to the group’s sound that serves its music well.

This was a lengthy, value for money show that featured the majority of the pieces from the new album and contained some superb individual and collective playing from a tightly knit and highly skilled ensemble. This was my first sighting of Hulsmann live, having previously enjoyed her music on record, and she and her band didn’t disappoint.


CROSSCURRENTS TRIO; DAVE HOLLAND, ZAKIR HUSSAIN, CHRIS POTTER
CADOGAN HALL

Planned engineering works on the Circle and District lines meant that making the relatively short expedition from the South Bank to Cadogan Hall, a journey that I have made by Tube many times, was a lot more difficult than usual.

Had I known that TFL were going to fuck about with the trains I’d probably have stayed at the South Bank and listened to Joe Lovano. As it was I’d heard both Lovano’s new album for ECM and the Crosscurrent Trio’s for Edition and found that I much enjoyed the latter. Frankly I found Lovano’s “Trio Tapestry”, recorded with pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi rather dull, hence my choice, although I dare say that in live performance it may have sounded very different.

At the time I was somewhat annoyed that TFL had decided to disrupt the transport system on a weekend when a major cultural event i.e. EFG LJF was taking place. But then I suppose that there’s a ‘major cultural event’ of one sort or another taking place every weekend in London and the work has to be done sometime. I suspect that this weekend’s closures were planned around the fact that no Premier League football was taking place in the Capital that weekend due to the international break. However in addition to my personal inconvenience I’m also a great defender of the music, and it did rather seem as if jazz was getting the shitty end of the stick yet again.

Anyway rant over and I did get to Cadogan Hall on time, and back to the South Bank later on, so no real harm was done.

The members of the Crosscurrents Trio, Dave Holland (double bass), Zakir Hussain (tablas, percussion) and Chris Potter (tenor & soprano saxes) have all enjoyed lengthy tenures with ECM and between them they have issued an impressive back catalogue of recordings for the label, so for me this gig genuinely did feel like part of the ECM anniversary celebrations.

The origins of this stellar trio lie in a larger Crosscurrents project initiated by Hussain that involved other instrumentalists and vocalists. As the ‘senior’ musicians of the ensemble Hussain, Holland and Potter quickly established a rapport and found that they enjoyed working together in the more intimate environment of a trio. Holland and Potter were already long term collaborators and it was Hussain’s idea to involve the pair of them in the original Crosscurrents project.

As a trio Hussain, Holland and Potter have toured extensively and in 2018 recorded their début album “Good Hope” for Edition Records, the finished product hitting the shelves in October 2019. This afternoon’s EFG LJF performance at a packed Cadogan Hall was the final date of their latest European tour and with the album material fully ‘played in’ the trio were determined to round their travels off in style.

“Good Hope” is a remarkably democratic record with the compositional credits divided pretty much equally between the three musicians, Hussain contributing two pieces and Holland and Potter three each.

The album repertoire represented the core of today’s set which commenced with Holland’s “Lucky Seven”, introduced by Hussain at the tablas and subsequently joined by Holland on double bass and Potter on soprano sax. The first solo went to the composer on double bass, followed by the incisive sounds of Potter’s soprano sax, dancing in serpentine arabesques above the polyrhythmic patter of Hussain’s tabla undertow.

Potter switched to tenor for Hussain’s “J Bhai”, a composition dedicated to the composer’s one time Shakti bandmate, guitarist John McLaughlin. The saxophonist’s tone was robust but fluent as he again shared the solos with Holland’s bass. The piece also included an extended tabla feature from the composer, who also entered into a series of dazzling exchanges with Holland.

Potter’s own “Triple Cross”, a composition yet to be recorded, was written specifically for the current tour. This saw the composer moving back to soprano sax as the trio engaged in a series of highly interactive collective exchanges, laced with good humour and a high level of instrumental virtuosity.

Holland’s “Mazad” commenced with a delightfully eloquent passage of unaccompanied double bass from its composer that held the audience transfixed. Holland’s bass motifs were subsequently answered by the rustle of Hussain’s various small percussive devices plus a beguiling soprano sax melody, gliding gently above the subtle rhythms. Holland then embarked on a second passage of solo bass, again demonstrating his total mastery of the instrument – no wonder Potter routinely refers to him as “The Maestro”. A quote from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (which also features on the recorded version) raised a smile from the audience before Hussain joined the conversation on tabla and Potter took flight on soprano with a solo that combined power, virtuosity, fluency and a remarkable level of inventiveness.

Solo bass also introduced Hussain’s “Suvarna” which saw Potter picking up his tenor to deliver the first solo. The piece also saw further dazzling rhythmic exchanges between bass and tabla. Hussain’s playing was virtuosic and frequently mesmerising, his levels of rhythmic imagination and inventiveness seemingly limitless. Fully engaged throughout, other than during the unaccompanied bass episodes, his performance also represented a considerable feat of physical resourcefulness.

Potter remained on tenor for his composition “Good Hope”, a piece introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tablas, with Hussain again introducing an element of humour into the proceedings.
Potter’s rousing solo above the rapid patter of Hussain’s percussion was utterly hypnotic, as was Holland’s bass solo and his subsequent exchanges with Hussain, the virtuosity again laced with a good natured element of musical humour. On this final date of the tour the trio were clearly determined to enjoy themselves.

Accorded the opportunity of an encore (something of a rarity at tightly scheduled Festival events) the trio sent the audience home happy with an unannounced, but beautiful, composition that cooled the fires after the white hot interaction of the main set. Delightful.

My words can scarcely do justice to the performance of this superb trio who subtly expanded on the recorded versions of their compositions, gently stretching the fabric of the tunes and probing gently but expansively, with their collective musical intelligence at full alert throughout. All three are virtuosos and their solo set pieces were undeniably impressive, but there was never any sense of grandstanding, everything seemed geared to the needs of the music and the trio performance as a whole.

All in all it was a privilege to be there, and well worth the logistical inconveniences alluded to earlier.


JAN GARBAREK GROUP, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

I’ll level with you here, this wasn’t my first choice show for this Sunday evening. I’d originally decided to go for Herbie Hancock at the Barbican, having not seen the great man live since the late 1970s. However this was sold out well in advance and there was no chance of getting a press ticket. On reflection this was probably just as well given the transport situation.

After perusing the alternatives on offer I finally decided to opt for this performance by the Garbarek group, having enjoyed so much the performance by the same line up in the same venue at the 2016 EFG LJF. It also fitted in nicely with the day’s ECM theme.

Once again saxophonist Garbarek was joined by his regular working group of Rainer Bruninghaus (piano, keyboards), Yuri Daniel (electric bass) and Trilok Gurtu (drums, percussion, voice), another collection of truly virtuoso instrumentalists.

As its longest serving musician and as one of the biggest names in world jazz Garbarek was a natural choice to headline this day celebrating the influence of ECM.

Unfortunately Garbarek and his colleagues opted to deliver almost the same set as they had done in 2016. I’m temped to just cut and paste my review of the previous show, such were the similarities.

Once again this was an unbroken performance, lasting for almost two hours in total, a musical tapestry centred around familiar melodic themes and punctuated by numerous individual ‘set pieces’.

The evening commenced with the sound of rushing wind, above which Garbarek piped plaintive melodic phrases on his distinctive curved soprano. The patented ‘Nordic Cry’ of his sound has been widely imitated but remains instantly recognisable and very much Garbarek’s own, no other saxophonist sounds quite like him.

Bruninghaus’ melodic keyboard motifs guided us into the familiar territory of “Molde Canticle”, the five part suite that forms the centrepiece of Garbarek’s 1990 ECM album “I Took Up The Runes”, one of his most enduringly popular recordings. The suite also opened the 2016 show and the similarities continued as tonight’s performance adopted a very similar overall pattern and trajectory.

The leader moved between soprano and tenor saxes, his soloing on the latter often powerful and full blooded. On occasions the group would devolve into smaller units, such as during an early dialogue between Garbarek on soprano and Gurtu behind an enormous battery of percussion that included kit drums, tablas, cajon and much more besides.

Although basically unbroken the performance could still be divided into discernible sub-sections, the dividing lines offering space for the audience to express their approval through applause.

As with the Hulsmann group Garbarek’s live performances with this current quartet are less rarefied than his recordings and some of the grooves laid down by Daniel on his five string electric bass were positively funky.

For all this Garbarek still remains aloof, playing the part of the Nordic ‘iceman’. I first saw him perform live in the 1980s but in all that time I’ve never heard him actually speak to an audience. It’s not that he can’t speak the language – I’ve heard him interviewed by Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and his English is impeccable- but his reticence has somehow become part of his mystique, reinforcing the popular image of the glacial iceman from the Norwegian fjords.

Instead it’s the irrepressible Indian born percussionist Gurtu who is the showman of the group and he was to feature in a series of set pieces that peppered the set. We had Gurtu on tabla and konnakol, Gurtu on cajon and finally Gurtu on everything else, including the kitchen sink as he altered the pitches of cymbals and gongs by immersing them in a bucket of water. It was all very flamboyant and spectacular and the audience loved it, but even these individual episodes seemed to follow the same patterns as last time, set piece routines that ultimately represented more style than substance, rather like the individual features from the prog rock shows of my youth. Emerson, Lake & Palmer anybody?

But it wasn’t just Gurtu to which these cavils applied. Daniel’s bass feature veered between bravado Jaco Pastorius style pyrotechnics to the melodic melancholy of Eberhard Weber, his predecessor in the Garbarek group. An episode of funky thumbing and slapping triggered a departure into a series of quotes from the song “Afro-Blue”, which I didn’t remember from last time, but essentially his feature too followed the same structure as previously.

Likewise Bruninghaus whose barnstorming solo piano feature again threatened to steal the show as he combined classical technique with the raunch of a vintage stride pianist.

Aside from his distinctive soloing on tenor and soprano the leader’s own ‘set piece’ was represented by the dialogue between himself on wood flute and Gurtu on percussion. Like all the others it came at roughly the same point in the programme as before, adding to that feeling of deja vu.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t appreciate the quality of tonight’s show, because I enjoyed it immensely. The standard of the playing was brilliant throughout and the innate musicality of all four players was always evident. Anybody seeing this show for the first time would have been dazzled by it, as I was in 2016, and at the close there was a spontaneous standing ovation that reflected both the quality of the performance and the affection with which Garbarek is held by his substantial following.

But for me that element of doubt remained. This was too much like a rock or pop performance for me. It’s weird, I still like rock music and when I go to see a favourite rock band I like to sing along with favourite songs (the kind of bands I like don’t tend to have ‘hits’ as such) and revel in the familiarity.

With jazz it’s different, this is music that is supposed to represent ‘the sound of surprise’, and when I go to see a jazz band I’m always looking for something different. That’s why I prefer to hear original compositions rather than the same old standards. There are many jazz acts I’ve seen on multiple occasions and every time the performance has been different, jazz is a creative crucible and by the time most jazz performers are out touring to promote their latest album they’re already performing tunes written for the next.

I was expecting something similar from Garbarek too, but this highly choreographed show with its almost identical running order and with the ‘set in stone’ individual features felt a bit too much like a rock gig, all a bit too clinical and formulaic despite the undoubted brilliance of the musicians involved. That vital spontaneity that defines the best jazz was missing and the musicians didn’t seem to be having quite as much fun as they did last time. This was brilliance, but brilliance by rote.

I’ve been listening to Garbarek’s music for nearly forty years and still consider myself a fan, so I’m hardly going to give up on him now. At seventy two and with a sumptuous, and admirably varied,  back catalogue behind him he’s probably earned the right to rest on his laurels.

On reflection I should perhaps have selected another alternative to the Hancock show. But all this is just me, the reception afforded to the Garbarek group was tumultuous and overwhelming, for many people this show would have been one of the highlights of the Festival – as it was for me first time round.

And apart from maybe Keith Jarrett who else could they have chosen to close a day celebrating the history of ECM. The world would be a poorer place without Manfred Eicher and his pioneering label, that’s for sure.

by Ian Mann

December 01, 2019

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister enjoys a performance of live music from the Stuart Henderson Quintet & a screening of the film ‘Blue Note: A Modern Jazz Story’ written & directed by Julian Benedikt

A Jazz and Film Tribute to Blue Note Records

Progress Theatre, Reading, Berkshire, Friday 22 November 2019

Stuart Henderson Quintet: Stuart Henderson trumpet & flugelhorn, Ollie Weston tenor saxophone; Tom Berge keyboards, Raph Mizraki bass, Simon Price drums

‘Blue Note: A Modern Jazz Story’ written & directed by Julian Benedikt

Like a classic Blue Note album cover, Zoe White’s accompanying image (see above) beautifully encapsulates the spirit and atmosphere of the Jazz at Progress double-headed tribute to mark the 80th anniversary of the Blue Note record label; an amalgam of the label’s distinctive sound as presented by Stuart Henderson’s Quintet and the visual images and voices of the label’s glorious roster of protagonists depicted in Julian Benendikt’s documentary.

Above all, the evening paid homage to the enduring genius of Alfred Lion, a Jewish émigré from Germany who founded the label in 1938 as a practical expression of his love for the blues. He presided over every Blue Note session until the label was sold to Liberty Records in 1966. Musician after musician recounted in the film that Lion could neither dance or keep time, but they marvelled at his innate sense of ‘Schwing’ and when a beaming smile lit up his face, they knew they had hit the groove. He just knew when things were right.

He was quick to pick up on innovative talent and to encourage original writing, providing both Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell with their first recording opportunities as leaders. When 22-year-old Herbie Hancock arrived in New York in 1963 to meet Lion at his office, armed with two blues and a standard as an offering for a prospective début album, Lion dispatched him to come up with some original material. The result - ‘Takin’ Off’ and a hit title in ‘Watermelon Man’.

By 1954 Alfred Lion had aligned a team of supreme talents to work the alchemy of producing jazz records: photographer and business partner Francis Wolf, the fastidious New Jersey based recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who had transformed his parents home into a recording studio, and the remarkable graphic designer Reid Miles, who designed the most outstanding of album covers but had absolutely no interest in the contents; he exchanged the records for classical albums. Blue Note had entered its classic period - cutting edge music that honestly expressed the identity of African-American society at that time. It was firmly rooted in the jazz heritage of blues and gospel, and at Alfred Lion’s insistence would always ‘schwing’, but so challenging that it veered towards the avant-garde.

Lion paid his musicians well. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard used his first pay cheque to buy two new suits and a car. Perhaps, even more importantly, unlike most other record labels, he paid them to rehearse, so that the music was perfectly prepared in advance of the recording.

The same might be said of Stuart Henderson’s brilliant quintet which enthralled the near sell-out audience for the first half of the evening, presenting an astonishing 11 numbers drawn from the ‘golden era’ of Blue Note between 1954 and 1966. Make no mistake, this was no pale imitation of the ‘real’ thing, this WAS the ‘real’ thing. Music of the first order, played with impeccable musicianship and charged with an explosive force of emotional power and creative energy. There were times when, if you closed your eyes, you could have been listening to an original recording rather than a live band.
 
No tribute to Blue Note would be complete without Bobby Timmons’ ‘Moanin’’ and the faithful anthem, mainstay of a thousand jazz compilations opened the set, albeit as a short statement rather than the full-blown tune. Brief it may have been, but Simon Price’s Blakey-ish backbeat couldn’t fail to impress.

The band moved quickly on to ‘Blue Minor’ a number by the sadly short-lived pianist Sonny Clark. It bore all the qualities of great ‘hard bop’; an attention-grabbing theme, searing solos and hard driving ‘schwing’.

Horace Silver’s ‘Split Kick’, once a feature for Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson on ‘The Live at Birdland’ album of 1954, set off at an even faster rate of knots and left one in no doubt about the expressive skills of Stuart Henderson on trumpet and Ollie Weston on tenor or the deft support of the rhythm section.

Horace Silver was a composer of tremendous versatility and his pioneering contribution to ‘Fusion’, the funky cocktail of jazz, blues and Latin rhythms is perhaps under-rated. ‘Cape Verdean Blues’ helped to set the record straight, and simply burst with the joyous vigour of a carnival parade.

In complete contrast, the brooding combination of Raph Mizraki’s bass and Tom Berge’s keyboard painted an unbearably desolate landscape of loss and regret in their introduction to ‘Autumn Leaves’, from the Cannonball Adderley/Miles Davis 1958 collaboration ‘Something Else’. Stuart Henderson sustained the mood to brilliant effect with his closely miked muted solo, while Berge’s coda, echoed by a final cymbal toll by Simon Price, was full of the pathos of what ‘might have been’.

The introverted tenor style of Hank Mobley was a great favourite of Alfred Lion, another case of him sensing something special about a player that escaped the attention of other listeners. Ollie Weston’s warm toned tenor paid a tribute to Mobley on ‘This I Dig for You’, a fine example of understated swing complemented by a tremendous and deservedly well received solo by Raph Mizraki.

In contrast to Mobley’s seemingly straightforward approach, Wayne Shorter expressed his ideas in a much more angular and abstract manner. Someone was heard to mutter ‘Good luck’ before the band embarked on the tricky configuration of ‘Witch Hunt’. They needn’t have worried. They completed the opening theme in masterful fashion and opened up the number to a string of fabulous solos – Henderson’s incisive trumpet, Weston’s haunting tenor and the economic ‘make every note count’ Fender Rhodes effect of Tom Berge’s keyboard. And all this, firmly underpinned by Mizraki’s bass and the propulsive drums of Simon Price.

Like Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock could (and still does) operate across the full spectrum of styles from funk to the most extreme avant-garde without ever losing his identity or musical integrity. ‘Dolphin Dance’, from the 1965 album ‘Maiden Voyage’ is one of his most lyrical compositions. The band, with Henderson on flugelhorn, captured the reflective mood to perfection.

‘Moment’s Notice’, from ‘Blue Train’, John Coltrane’s only outing on Blue Note, is that unique thing; a tune of incredible complexity that remains firmly fixed in your mind as the soloists work through all its possible variations. The band, with Ollie Weston to the fore, rose to the challenge magnificently, generating nail-biting excitement in the process.

Alfred Lion’s role in launching the career of organist Jimmy Smith, and in the process setting up a completely new style of jazz expression, was amongst Alfred Lion’s greatest achievements. With Tom Berge switching his keyboard to Hammond Organ mode, he set the groove for one of Smith’s biggest Blue Note hits, ‘Minor Chant’, a soulful number originally recorded with tenorist Stanley Turrentine on ‘Back at the Chicken Shack’.

And so, to the final number of a fantastic set. What else but Lee Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder’, Blue Note’s greatest hit, and the success of which inadvertently almost bankrupted the company (the dreaded problem of cash flow).

***

As the band cleared the stage and the audience retired for an interval drink, the question came to mind ‘How do you follow that?’ It’s true, nothing could quite match the excitement of the first set, but that shouldn’t diminish the excellence of Julian Benedikt’s 2015 documentary film, ‘Blue Note: A Modern Jazz Story’, screened by kind permission of EuroArts.

Presented as a sharply edited montage of archive film clips, with startling visual images of the Blue Note stars at work on the recording sessions captured in perfect detail by the lens of Francis Wolf’s camera, and personal interviews, riding over a soundtrack of Blue Note recordings. It offered fresh insight into the life of Alfred Lion, especially his formative years in inter-war Berlin, where his imagination was first inspired by the posters for Sam Wooding’s All-Black ‘Chocolate Kiddies’ review and later darkened by the growing menace of Nazism.

If at times, the clips were tantalisingly brief, there were wonderful compensations; a full length cut of Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson in a dazzling display of boogie-woogie piano, a reminder that long before he lent an ear to bebop, Lion’s passion for jazz and inspiration for making records grew from his affinity with the blues.

Freddie Hubbard’s astonishing breath control as he took flight he on ‘Water Melon Man’ on a live date with Herbie Hancock; Tommy Turrentine, Bob Cranshaw and Al Harewood – three stalwarts of the Blue Note label, laughing and joking about Alfred’s inability to dance and his practise of paying by cheque, leaving them with the problem with where to cash it;  shots of the label’s pressing plant - witness to the care that went into the production and packaging of each individual record; Lorraine Gordon’s wistful memories of life as Alfred’s first wife as she promised the ‘best seat in the house’ to a prospective customer in the chaos of her office at New York’s ‘Village Vanguard’ jazz club (clearly filmed long before the advent of TicketSource and their like…). She didn’t elaborate on the reasons for the marriage break-up. She didn’t need to. It was clear from the repeated testimony of musicians, jazz writers and his widow alike, that in ‘Alfred’s life, the music always came first’. ‘He wasn’t interested in making hit records or money,’ they would say. ‘Only great jazz.’ In an ocean infested with sharks, Alfred Lion stood out as a true gentleman.

The glorious chapter in the story of jazz documented in ‘Blue Note: A Modern Jazz Story’, may now be fading into the recesses of history, but the music lives on. The indefatigable figures of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock remain active and as creative as ever and it’s possible to easily download those once elusive albums to a mobile phone at the touch of a button. No doubt you could store the entire Blue Note catalogue on one device? And for those with deeper pockets, there’s always the thrill of seeking an original album and to feast the senses on its sound, the touch of its cover, the visual splendour of the graphics and sleeve notes and the scent of finest vinyl. Blue Note heaven!

Meanwhile, let’s look forward to the Stuart Henderson Quintet cutting an album of Blue Note tracks and making a return visit to Progress for a full gig in the not too distant future. Club promoters and festival organisers please note:  the Stuart Henderson Quintet is as tightly organised, exciting and profound as any band operating on the UK scene … BOOK THEM NOW!!!!

***

Thanks are due to EuroArts, the Progress Theatre for making it possible to stage this unique double-headed event and the House Team for the excellent quality of sound and lighting and for the provision and operation of the projection facilities. And of course, special thanks to the audience for such generous and enthusiastic support.

TREVOR BANNISTER

Trevor’s Star Rating for this event - 4.5 Stars

by Ian Mann

November 28, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys the performances of four different acts at Daylight Music at Union Chapel, Islington and two high energy, hard grooving sets from Wild Card and guests at the Spice of Life, Soho.

Photograph of Wild Card by Dave Tidd courtesy of Clement Regert


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019,
Day Two, Saturday 16th November 2019.

DAYLIGHT MUSIC, UNION CHAPEL, ISLINGTON

featuring

MATTHEW GEER

HELENA KAY & SAM WATTS

KAIDI AKINNIBI & LORENZ OKELLO-OSENGOR

NILS OKLAND

One of my favourite musical discoveries of recent years has been Daylight Music, the weekly event held on Saturday lunchtimes in the beautiful environs of the Union Chapel, Islington, a moderate walk from our Festival base.

Now in its tenth season Daylight Music typically presents thirty concerts per year. These pay what you can events (suggested donation a mere fiver) present an eclectic mix of music across a range of genres ranging from jazz to folk to classical. Three different acts are normally presented with interval music also provided as customers avail themselves with tea and cake during the intervals. It really is a wall to wall listening experience.

Union Chapel is a terrific venue, beautiful, spacious, superb acoustics and incredibly warm and comfortable for a church in the middle of winter. It’s a huge building but with no pillars to spoil the sight lines, making it an ideal space in which to enjoy live music.  The tea and cakes offered for sale by the Margins Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping the homeless and the isolated of London, represent a delicious bonus.

MATTHEW GEER

As we entered we were greeted by introductory music provided by Matthew Geer who was playing the Chapel’s superb triple manual Father Willis organ, an instrument that has previously been graced by the playing of British jazz musicians Kit Downes and Ivo Neame and rock organist Hugh Banton of the group Van Der Graaf Generator.

Geer is an organist, composer and conductor currently studying classical composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and London. More information about his various musical activities can be found at his website http://www.mattgeer.co.uk

Unfortunately the organ console is hidden by the pulpit and it is difficult for audience members to see exactly what those musicians who perform on it are actually doing. Perhaps modern video technology could be deployed in some way with a screen set up so that the majority of the audience can witness the playing of the organists. I appreciate that this may be an expensive business but it would certainly be something worth examining, perhaps with the establishment of a dedicated fund-raising campaign.

That said the comparative invisibility of the musician does add a certain air of mystery to the performance and Geer sounded wonderful throughout his various ‘interval’ slots, his playing rich in terms of atmosphere and timbre. ‘Background’ music has never sounded so good.

HELENA KAY / SAM WATTS DUO

The first ‘proper’ act of the day was the duo of tenor saxophonist Helena Kay and pianist Sam Watts. Scottish born Kay is a former Peter Whittingham Jazz Award winner. In 2018 she released her début album “Moon Palace”, a recording featuring her KIM Trio comprising of bassist Ferg Ireland and drummer David Ingamells. The album received a compelling amount of critical acclaim and My review of the recording can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/helena-kays-kim-trio-moon-palace/

Birmingham born pianist and composer Sam Watts attended Leeds College of Music before moving to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Still based in the capital he performs regularly with many of the rising stars of the UK jazz scene. A bandleader in his own right Watts has led his own octet and my account of a 2016 performance by this group in Birmingham can be found here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/sam-watts-octet/

Today Watts was playing the Chapel’s resident upright piano and he and Kay commenced their performance with a convincing rendition of the title track from Kay’s “Moon Palace” album. Also an accomplished alto saxophonist and clarinettist Kay has since chosen to specialise on the tenor, the instrument she plays throughout the “Moon Palace” recording.

A passage of solo piano from Watts introduced “Unconditional Love”, a composition written by the late, great American pianist and composer Geri Allen (1957-2017). He and Kay subsequently traded further solos as well as interacting vigorously around the complex contours of Allen’s piece.

Solo saxophone introduced a ballad performance of the jazz standard “You’ve Changed”, with the sound of Kay’s tenor enhanced by the resonance of the Chapel’s superb acoustics. She and Watts again exchanged solos before the piece came full circle to end with an unaccompanied tenor sax cadenza.

The duo concluded with a performance of the Kay composition “Golden Sands”, another compelling and convincing piece of original writing.

Kay and Watts impressed with their easy rapport and excellent playing with Watts pianism bringing a subtle Brazilian tinge to some of the music. Apparently Kay has recently moved to New York and her British fans will no doubt wish her well on her American adventure.

Today’s duo performance got this Daylight Music event off to a great start and was the most orthodox ‘jazz’ performance of the three acts. It was certainly well received by the Union Chapel crowd who gave the duo an excellent reception.

KAIDI AKINNIBI / LORENZ OKELLO-OSENGOR DUO

The young musicians Kaidi Akinnibi and Lorenz Okello-Osengor are both products of the increasingly influential Tomorrow’s Warriors programme.

They have also been involved with the Jazz NewBlood scheme, centred at Waterloo Creative Studio and co-ordinated by Patricia Pascal. Indeed I recall first seeing Akinnibi at a Jazz NewBlood showcase event at the 2016 EFG LJF when he guested with the band TriForce and made a very favourable impression.

Meanwhile Okello-Osengor impressed at the following year’s Jazz Newblood showcase when he played keyboards with two different ensembles at the same event, vocalist Kasia Kawalek’s 5tet and the band Nihilism, fronted by violinist and vocalist Saskia Horton.

Okello-Osengor impressed with both groups and plays both acoustic piano and electric keyboards. However today’s event represented the first time that he had played church organ in public. It was revealed that he had visited the Chapel earlier in the week to familiarise himself with the ‘Father Willis’, but nevertheless entering into a twenty minute improvised dialogue still represented something of a challenge, and it was one that he rose to magnificently.

The combination of church organ and tenor saxophone is far from new with the duos of Jan Garbarek and Kjell Johnsen, Dave Stapleton and Deri Roberts and Kit Downes and Tom Challenger all representing recorded examples of the format. At last year’s EFG LJF Ivo Neame and Pete Wareham made a successful one off appearance in this configuration at Daylight Music.

Akinnibi and Okello-Osengor delivered a single improvisation lasting a little over twenty minutes or so. The young musicians quickly came to terms with the format to produce music that was intelligent, imaginative, absorbing and undeniably beautiful.

Since I last saw him three years ago Akinnibi has matured as both a man and a musician and his economical tenor playing was the perfect foil to Okello-Osengor’s colourful keyboard work, which saw the rookie organist deploying the full orchestral and sonic capabilities of the Father Willis, his imaginative use of the three manuals, the pedals and the various stops, including vox humana, helping to give the music an epic grandeur.

I assume that the pair have worked regularly together before, but never in this context, and they quickly established an excellent rapport that suggested that they’d actually been playing in this format for years. This was a genuinely impressive performance that demonstrated an impressive maturity and an innate and instinctive musicality.

Several musicians from the Tomorrow’s Warriors and Jazz NewBlood programmes have gone on to bigger things and I predict similarly bright features for Akinnibi and Okello-Osengor. This was a highly satisfying and enjoyable performance by two young men thrust into an unfamiliar instrumental context, within which they acquitted themselves superbly. Expect to hear a lot more from both of them.

NILS OKLAND

Today’s headliner was the Norwegian violinist Nils Okland, a musician associated with the ECM label whose presence tied in nicely with EFG LJF’s ECM 50th anniversary celebrations. Okland is also associated with the Norwegian Hubro label, both as a solo artist and as a member of the improvising trio 1982.

Okland plays a variety of stringed instruments but has come to specialise on the Hardanger Fiddle, a folk instrument exclusive to Norway that features sympathetic ‘understrings’ in addition to the usual four strings of the conventional violin. These eight (sometimes nine) stringed instruments are often elaborately carved and Okland’s fiddle was no exception.

Okland’s career has seen him blurring the boundaries between jazz, folk, classical and ambient music, bringing the sensibilities of jazz improvisation to what is essentially a folk instrument.

Okland had flown in specifically for today’s performance, a solo show that saw him demonstrate his mastery of both the Hardanger Fiddle and the conventional violin. He had brought three instruments with him, all with different tunings as he subsequently explained.

His first piece, played on the Hardanger Fiddle exploited the sonic capabilities of the sympathetic strings, the possibilities of which have allowed him to collaborate with guitarist Per Stainer Lie and drummer Ørjan Haaland in the ‘psychedelic drone band’ Lumen Drones.

Played on what looked like a conventional violin a piece described by Okland as “an old religious tune” was chosen for its suitability to the surroundings and was both direct and eerily beautiful. A brief “travelling song”, also played on violin, then introduced a more obvious folk element.

To close Okland took up the Hardanger Fiddle once more for a virtuoso performance of “Song Of Wild Horses”, which fused various musical forms and deployed three different rhythms.

Finally Okland called the earlier performers back to the stage for a ‘jam session’. Okello-Osengor took up his place behind the pulpit as Okland, on violin, was joined by Watts at the piano and the twin tenors of Kay and Akinnibi. The subsequent improvisation was atmospheric and genuinely beautiful, a one off triumph that almost sounded pre-composed, concluded by a final piano flourish from Watts.

This was an excellent way to conclude another successful Daylight Music event that had seen superb performances from all three main acts and with all the performers coming together for an effective collective finale. Matthew Geer deserves credit for his contribution to the proceedings too.


WILD CARD, SPICE OF LIFE

Over the years The Jazzmann has covered a number of releases by Wild Card, the group led by the French born, London based guitarist and composer Clement Regert.

The core of the band has always been the ‘organ trio’ of Regert,  Australian born keyboard player Andrew Noble and drummer Sophie Alloway, who appear on all of the group’s albums and at the majority of their live shows. Both the recordings and the live gigs habitually feature the contributions of guest instrumentalists and vocalists and tonight’s keenly anticipated live show was no exception.

Having reviewed the recordings “Everything Changes” (2012), “Organic Riot” (2015) and “Life Stories” (2018) I decided that it was high time that I finally got to check Wild card out in a live situation, an environment that I’ve always felt represents their natural habitat. Once again my thanks are due to Clement Regert for providing guest tickets for my wife and I at this sold out gig at a hot and crowded Spice Of Life. Thanks are also due to Tony from Greenwich for letting us share his table. Tony has great jazz knowledge and is a great supporter of the London jazz scene and we quickly struck up a friendship, meeting up again at several other gigs during the Festival period.

Wild Card were premièring material from their soon to be released fifth album “Beast from the East”, which will be unleashed to the general public on February 7th 2020, but which is already available at gigs.

The new recording features guest appearances by trumpeter Graeme Flowers, trombonist Rosie Turton and saxophonist Tim Garland among others. Turton was also a guest with the band this evening, alongside the Italian born alto saxophonist Roberto Manzin, a regular Wild Card collaborator who was replacing the advertised Paul Booth. Manzin proved to be capable and popular ‘sub’, his powerful and exuberant playing well received by a supportive crowd.

Tonight’s Wild Card quintet delivered two energetic sets featuring a variety of jazz styles including soul, funk and Latin with the core group joined on some numbers by the Brazilian born, London based vocalist Luna Cohen.

The performance began with the curiously titled “The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers”, the opening track from Wild Card’s forthcoming CD. It was ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Regert with the leader subsequently joined by Noble and Alloway. The first solo went to Noble, who conjured an authentic Hammond sound from his keyboard. He was followed by Turton, who delivered the first of a series of rousing solos on trombone, then by Regert on his distinctive Godin guitar. The powerful solos were punctuated by passages of more delicate instrumental interplay that helped to demonstrate a gentler, more subtle side of the band. Guest vocalist Emilia Martensson appears on the recorded version.

The rock band Radiohead remain popular with jazz artists and their songs have provided fertile ground for re-interpretation. Wild Card chose to cover “Exit, Music for a Film”, with Regert picking out the familiar melody on guitar and giving the music a subtle Latiin-esque twist.  Subsequent solos came from the leader and from Manzin on bug miked alto sax, whose incisive, barnstorming solo was followed by an Alloway drum feature.

The title track from “Beast from the East” followed with Regert moving to a more conventional electric guitar as Manzin and Turton thrillingly traded phrases over a shuffling, rocky groove. Later both stretched out further, tearing it up with full blooded solos, the horns followed by Regert’s rock influenced guitar.

Vocalist Cohen joined the group for the samba “Canto de Ossanah”, soulfully delivering the lyrics in Portuguese as she shared the limelight with Manzin’s blistering alto sax.

The jazz waltz “Doctor K” commenced with a solo passage from Regert on his semi-acoustic Godin guitar that incorporated a number of flamenco style flourishes. The first orthodox jazz solo came from Turton on trombone, fresh from her recent TV appearance on Later with Jools Holland with Nerija band. Regert subsequently took over on guitar, soloing effectively and trading phrases with Manzin’s alto.

A highly exciting and entertaining first set concluded with “La Paranthese Enchantee”,, a tune blending marching and samba rhythms and incorporating features for Regert, Turton and the irrepressible Alloway.

The interval allowed me the opportunity of speaking with Clement Regert and I’m also grateful to him for providing me with a copy of the set list, which has made the writing of this review so much easier. Cheers, Clement.

Set two kicked off with Regert and his colleagues giving Irving Berlin’s “Putting on The Ritz” the Wild Card treatment with souped up grooves fuelling buccaneering solos from Noble and Manzin.
Regert and Manzin then traded ideas in animated fashion with drummer Alloway. This was “The Ritz” as I’d never heard it before.

“Favela” took us back to Brazil as Cohen joined the band once more, again singing in Portuguese to the samba rhythms and with solo instrumental features for Regert, Turton and Alloway.

The instrumental “Beat the Beast” introduced a powerful funk groove as Regert and Manzin doubled on the tricky unison melody lines. Noble delivered a blazing organ solo before Manzin encouraged the audience to clap along with his sax solo. Manzin proved to be a great crowd pleaser and the style and power of his playing suggested that he’s a potential Blockhead, should Gilad Atzmon ever decide to relinquish the role.

“Shake It Up” maintained the energy levels, but now at a fast swing tempo with Noble adopting a classic Hammond sound as he again opened the soloing. Turton and Manzin then traded phrases before a more extended solo from the latter. Regert and Manzin had been exchanging verbal banter all night and the Italian included a quote from “The Marseillaise” in his solo in acknowledgement of his leader.

To close “Better Remorse Than Regret” introduced a contemporary Afro-beat feel with solos from Regert and Turton and with a dynamic closing drum feature from Alloway.

The supportive crowd at a sweltering Spice loved this and a deserved encore was inevitable.  For this Regert invited Cohen back to the stage to sing the Portuguese lyrics to “Black Orpheus”. The last two instrumental solos of the night came from guest musicians Turton and Manzin as this good natured and hugely enjoyable show came to a close.

As my previous listening experiences had suggested this was very much the best environment in which to see Wild Card, a small, hot and sweaty club with band and audience in close proximity to each other. The core trio have a well established rapport – Regert and Alloway have played over 200 gigs together – and their guests slotted in brilliantly. Manzin has appeared on previous Wild Card recordings and Turton is present and correct on the “Beast from the East” release.

The energy and bonhomie was complemented by some excellent musicianship as the band effectively explored a variety of jazz styles, keeping their audience engaged throughout. For myself I was delighted to have finally seen Wild Card live for the first time and I intend to take a look at the forthcoming “Beast from the East” album in the New Year.

by Ian Mann

November 27, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys the contrasting musical approaches of Animal Society, Fred Thomas and the Marcin Wasilewski Trio.

Photograph of Joe Williamson of Animal Society by Tim Dickeson.


EFG London Jazz Festival 2019

Day One, Friday November 15th 2019

Just back from a wonderful ten days in London enjoying the delights of the annual EFG London Jazz Festival. As always I have tried to absorb as much music as possible, embracing a broad variety of jazz genres in a similarly wide range of locations, from clubs to churches to concert halls.

The performances that I will be covering will feature music from young emerging jazz talents alongside shows from some of the absolute icons of the music, and all points in between. I enjoyed performances by musicians of many different nationalities, proof that even in these troubled political times that jazz is a universal language,  and a source of great joy and inspiration.
As the late, great Art Blakey once said “music washes away the dust of everyday life”.

As ever my thanks are due to our long suffering hosts Paul and Richard for putting us up (or putting up with us) for another year. Without their generosity and hospitality I couldn’t even begin to contemplate a visit to the Festival, so I’m eternally grateful.

My thanks too to Sally Reeves of Serious for organising the majority of my press tickets, a task that she undertook with her customary courtesy and efficiency.

Also to my contacts at a number of individual venues, namely Kasia Kowalek at Pizza Express Music, Emma Raczkowski at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Louise at Partisan PR, Jenny at the 100 Club, Lee Haynes at Rolling Press, Patricia Pascal at Jazz New Blood and Denise McDonagh at Manila PR. Thank you all for your help and generosity.

Finally thanks to guitarist Clement Regert for putting my wife and I on the guest list for the show by his Wild Card group at the Spice of Life on Saturday 16th November.

And so, on with the music;


ANIMAL SOCIETY, QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL FOYER

My first gig of the 2019 Festival was this free performance in the “Front Room” space in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre.

It was an event that I had very much been looking forward to. Back in May 2019 I enjoyed listening to, and favourably reviewing, the EP “RISE”, the début release by the Glasgow based quintet Animal Society, led by the young guitarist and composer Joe Williamson. The four track recording was loud, brash, energetic and exciting, but also demonstrated a pleasing degree of musical intelligence and compositional sophistication.
EP review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/animal-society-rise-ep/

Animal Society boasts an unusual instrumental line up with two keyboard players, Alan Benzie and Craig McMahon within its ranks. The group also includes Gus Stirrat on electric bass and Graham Costello at the drums.

The band’s music has been described as “jazz with a heavy rock edge” while the Festival brochure promised “cutting edge electric jazz with the uncompromising power of a stadium rock band”. I arrived at the QEH as the quintet were sound checking and it was immediately obvious that they were going to be seriously LOUD. The Front Room space had also been chosen to host a series of late night ‘club’ style events during the duration of the Festival and two huge banks of speakers that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Black Sabbath gig had been drafted in for the purpose. Of course, any band that names Rage Against The Machine as one of its influences was going to take full advantage of these and the young Glaswegians plugged in with an obvious relish.

They kick started their set with “Morning Star”, actually the closing track on their EP, teaming this with “Hieroglyph”, their new single due for release in early 2020. The former was something of a slow burner and saw the quintet setting their stall out, gradually ramping up the intensity with solos coming from the leader on guitar and Benzie on electric piano. Also the leader of his own (very different) acoustic piano trio Benzie is the quintet’s principal keyboard soloist, McMahon’s role being to provide additional colour and texture, in addition to laying down powerful synthesised bass lines.

Introduced by Costello at the drums the hooky “Hieroglyph” represents an excellent choice as a single, combining the power of metal and classic jazz fusion with more contemporary electronic elements borrowing from the realms of modern dance music. Williamson’s soloing, with its combination of jazz intelligence and pure rock power sometimes reminded me of Partisans’ Phil Robson. This crowd pleasing piece also included solo features for Costello at the drums and Stirrat on FX laden electric bass.

“Kingdom”, another new tune and one slated for Animal Society’s first full length release also in 2020, featured jagged, staccato grooves and the fiery guitar / keyboard interplay of Williamson and Benzie. The leader’s solo included some monumental riffing as the band continued to crank up the volume.

Sourced from the EP “Ripples”  fleetingly illustrated a gentler, more impressionistic side of the band with its shimmering guitar arpeggios and with Williamson making effective use of the ‘hammering on’ guitar technique. A virtuosic display of liquid electric bass from Stirrat and a searing synth solo from Benzie provided further delights as the piece gathered momentum and took on a decidedly anthemic quality.

At this juncture I had to leave the QEH and make my way west to Cadogan Hall for my next event and exited to the strains of Animal Society’s final number, the title track of the “RISE” EP.
Here’s what I said about Williamson’s composition when reviewing the recording;
“RISE” itself (the capitals are Williamson’s) opens the album and was also released as a single, attracting a considerable degree of online interest. It sets the template for the EP as a whole as it roars out of the blocks with a barrage of drums and guitars in a manner akin to Deep Purple’s “Speed King”. Williamson then churns out some chunky math rock riffs, underscored by chiming keyboards and Costello’s powerhouse drumming. But it’s not all hammer and tongs, there are more contemplative and atmospheric moments too which help to establish the jazz credentials of the music. The episodic nature of the writing hints at the acknowledged Metheny influence but Williamson’s guitar never sounds like Pat’s, it’s far too raw and too obviously rock and metal influenced for that. Maybe Mahavishnu era John McLaughlin would be a better comparison with Williamson cranking out feverish solos as the band embrace and deliver the “heavy riffs, tight grooves and big guitar moments” that are promised in the press release.

This short but enjoyable set demonstrated Animal Society’s strengths with its combination of skilled, jazz schooled musicianship and rock band attitude. It formed part of a short tour that had already included other English dates in Oxford and Bristol plus further shows in their native Scotland.

Arguably it was rather too loud, with the subtleties of the music sometimes becoming lost, but Williamson, rather like saxophonist Pete Wareham seems to be aiming for a totally different constituency to the usual jazz audience. Animal Society is a band that plays instrumental rock, or fusion if you will, and does so with skill and verve. Other dates on the tour have taken place in rock venues, with the band presumably performing to a younger crowd. It’s an approach that’s likely to see the acquisition of a cult following and a degree of exposure in the rock press.

When Joe first told me that Animal Society would be playing a show at EFG LJF I thought that it might be one of the free lunchtime showcases at the Pizza Express, which last year hosted Scottish drummer Alyn Cosker and his fusion quartet. If Animal Society had played there at this volume they’d have blown the roof of the place, so maybe the boomy acoustic of the QEH foyer was the best choice after all! That said there are plenty of other venues on the EFG LJF circuit that offer a rock club type atmosphere and it is to be hoped that Animal Society can return to one of these for a full length show at some point in the future.

The music of Animal Society probably won’t appeal to older, dyed in the wool jazz fans, but this isn’t necessarily the demographic that the band are after. Instead their glorious racket reaches out to a whole new audience. It will be interesting to continue to monitor their progress and I look forward to hearing their first full length album recording in the New Year.


FRED THOMAS,
MARCIN WASILEWSKI TRIO,
CADOGAN HALL

Over in the more refined environment of Cadogan Hall I enjoyed my first ticketed event of the Festival, a performance by the trio led by the celebrated Polish pianist, composer and arranger Marcin Wasilewski.

For the jazz community 2019 represents a year of anniversaries, among them the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Blue Note record label and the 50th of the equally distinctive European imprint ECM, the home of the Wasilewski Trio.

The Blue Note and ECM anniversaries were a feature of this year’s Festival programming and tonight’s event was the first of several celebrating the latter. 2019 also represents the 25th anniversary of the Wasilewski trio itself, which gave tonight’s event an even greater significance.

Originally known as Simple Acoustic Trio Wasilewski and his colleagues Slawomir Kurkiewicz (double bass) and Michal Miskiewicz (drums) first came to the attention of the wider international jazz community when they appeared with the late, great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko on a series of albums for ECM, namely “Soul Of Things”, “Suspended Night” and “Lontano”, all released between 2001 and 2005.

The trio’s tenure with Stanko also saw them release an ECM album simply entitled “Trio” (2004) and this was followed by their first post-Stanko album “January” (2007).  They have remained with the label ever since, releasing a series of further albums including “Faithful” (2011) and “Live” (2016). Their 2014 album “Spark Of Life” saw them collaborating with the Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder and I was fortunate enough to witness a superb performance by this quartet at Milton Court as part of the 2015 EFG LJF, an event included as part of that year’s Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/efg-london-jazz-festival-2015-first-sunday-15-11-2015/

Some years previously, as a paying customer, I was also lucky enough to see the trio appear with Stanko as part of a double bill with the Charles Lloyd Quartet at the Barbican. When this year’s programme was published I reflected that although I had seen this internationally celebrated trio performing with others I had never witnessed the core band in action. Given the excellence of the previous performances, particularly the one at Milton Court, I decided that this was a situation that I should put right and I was very much looking forward to tonight’s event.


FRED THOMAS, SOLO PIANO

However before the Wasilewski Trio hit the stage we were to enjoy a solo piano performance by Fred Thomas, a musician with a foot in both the jazz and classical camps and with named influences ranging from J.S. Bach to Brian Eno. The contrast with the Animal Society performance couldn’t have been more pronounced.

Thomas is a versatile musician who has worked within a range of genres ranging through jazz and classical to folk and tango. A member of the F-ire Collective his jazz credits include work with drummer Phelan Burgoyne, vocalists Elina Duni and Alice Zawadzki and saxophonist Martin Speake, plus the Polyphonic Jazz Band. As a producer he has worked with musicians across a broad range of genres and he has also composed music for theatre productions.

Displaying a classically honed lightness of touch at the piano Thomas commenced his performance with a Wagner prelude before moving on to his original composition “Gentle Lady”, a piece inspired by a James Joyce poem. Here gentle, folk like melodies were contrasted with occasional low end rumblings and shards of wilful dissonance.

The jazz standard “Stella By Starlight” was teamed with a fragment of the “Love Theme from Tristan und Isolde” and was delivered in the form of a ‘country waltz’. “Stella” represented more familiar ground for the jazz listeners in the audience, who warmed to Thomas’ thoughtful, classically informed arrangement of this old favourite.

Thomas’ performance also included snatches of Mahler and Webern as well as his original composition “Daydreaming”, a piece inspired by Hildegarde of Bingen that incorporated unsettling staccato phrases.

Acclaimed for his re-interpretations of Bach’s music Thomas concluded with a performance of a Johann Sebastian “Sarabande”, a thoughtful arrangement that incorporated avant garde techniques including dramatic keyboard sweeps, the generation of high register harp like sounds and even the placing of a book on the keyboard.

Thomas’ performance was well received by a rapt audience at the Cadogan, although it was probably still a bit too conventionally ‘classical’ for many jazz ears, the version of “Stella” notwithstanding.

I found myself intrigued by Thomas’ original writing but overall the performance lacked the dynamic and stylistic contrasts that define the best jazz. Despite the occasional avant garde flourishes the mood and tempo remained fairly consistent throughout and, for me, the overall approach was lacking in variety and was overly academic. Nevertheless there was still much to appreciate and enjoy here and the standard of the musicianship was impeccable throughout.


MARCIN WASILEWSKI TRIO

The line up of the Wasilewski Trio has remained constant throughout the group’s career. After playing together for a quarter of a century Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz have developed a near telepathic understanding and their intimate, but highly interactive and creative rapport was apparent throughout this excellent set.

The opening piece was untitled, commencing with delicately bowed bass and atmospheric mallet rumbles before Wasilewski joined his colleagues to deliver an example of his usual probing piano lyricism.

“Sudovian Dance”, from the album with Milder, followed, a more up-tempo piece with a hard driving bass and drum groove and an infectious melody that in another reality could easily have fuelled a hit pop song. At one point the impressive Kurkiewicz provided the melodic lead from the bass but it was the dazzling, fiercely interactive tripartite exchanges between the performers that was to prove the most striking aspect of this rendition.

A second as yet untitled composition was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Wasilewski and was subsequently notable for its sparky piano and drum exchanges, with Kurkiewicz’s bass playing an anchoring role. The animated dialogue between Wasilewski and Miskiewicz subsequently evolved into a full on drum feature for the latter, an energetic excursion that drew an enthusiastic response from the supportive crowd.

Unaccompanied piano also introduced the beautiful ballad “Austin”, Wasilewski’s dedication to the late Austin Peralta, the multi-talented young American pianist who died in 2012 aged just twenty two. The Cadogan’s acoustic was perfectly suited to this sensitive performance that featured one of Wasilewski’s most memorable melodies, a gorgeous tune right up there with label mate Keith Jarrett’s “My Song” in terms of pure beauty. Following his high energy virtuosity on the previous piece Miskiewicz was now the epitome of tastefulness and delicacy, deploying a combination of brushes and bare hands throughout.

The opening bars of “Night Train To You” delivered a ripple of applause from the audience for one of Wasilewski’s most popular pieces. The undulating grooves of this aptly named piece gave the tune an unstoppable momentum and helped to fuel the subsequent bass solo from Kurkiewicz and his subsequent dialogue with Miskiewicz. With Wasilewski reaching inside the lid to dampen the sound of the strings on the hard grooving passages this was the piece that most revealed the influence of E.S.T on this long running trio.

Besides their outstanding performances of Wasilewski’s original compositions the trio are also noted for their imaginative interpretations of the works of others. One such example was their arrangement of the Tomasz Stanko composition “Gama”, a piece dating back to 1985, long before the trio’s collaboration with the trumpeter. The acknowledgement of the late, great Stanko (1942-2018) was warmly applauded by the audience, as was the trio’s sensitive performance of his piece. Ushered in piano and bass and with Miskiewicz deploying brushes the trio captured the spirit of Stanko’s melancholy lyricism with beautiful solos coming from the leader on piano and Kurkiewicz on delightfully melodic double bass.

Another favourite item in the trio’s repertoire is their arrangement of the Herbie Hancock tune “Actual Proof”, which was introduced here by the bass but which also included an extended passage of virtuoso hand drumming from Miskiewicz with Wasilewski clapping along. The subsequent interplay between piano, bass and drums was dazzling, with darting melodic piano phrases meshing with interlocking bass and drum rhythms. A barnstorming solo from Wasilewski was followed by a second, more conventional, drum feature from Miskiewicz.

This high energy closing item was greeted by a rapturous reception from the crowd and an encore was inevitable. This saw the trio performing an unannounced piece that began in reflective ballad mode, but with the gorgeous melody subsequently morphing into a strong groove as the trio moved up and down the gears effortlessly and instinctively, the product of a quarter of a century of collective music making.

I’d finally seen the Marcin Wasilewski Trio as a self contained entity and it has to be said that they were highly impressive, getting my Festival off to a great start. If I’m totally honest it didn’t quite match the Milton Court show from 2016 when the impressive Milder added an extra instrumental voice to another fiercely interactive trio performance where the playing of the core trio had, if anything, been even more intense.

Twenty five years in and counting the Marcin Wasilewski Trio remains a world leader in the piano trio format, with the promise of more great music to come.

by Ian Mann

November 01, 2019

A book that offers a fascinating insight into the lives of contemporary jazz women and one that will be read with great interest by jazz enthusiasts of any gender. Intelligent and insightful.

BOOK REVIEW

“Women in Jazz” by Sammy Stein

(8th House Publishing) £19.99

Sammy Stein is an author, reviewer, columnist and radio show writer. She has reviewed jazz recordings and performances for several magazines, newspapers and online jazz blogs and written scripts for radio shows.

Stein wrote for the US radio programme ‘Jazz Bites’ and it was the episode titled ‘Ladies in Jazz’ that helped to inspire this, her fifth book, the follow up to 2017’s successful “All That’s Jazz”.

Subtitled “The Women, The Legends & Their Fight” Stein’s new book begins by examining the historical role of women in jazz and goes on to profile a number of ‘Major Influencers’, mainly from the past.  But the real meat of the book concerns issues facing the female jazz musicians of the 21st century.

Stein interviewed a wide range of contemporary female jazz performers, singers and instrumentalists, both Britons and Americans,  with her perceptive questioning prompting consistently interesting and thought provoking responses from her interviewees. She also spoke to other female professionals involved in the music industry including publicists, promoters, managers and broadcasters.

The result is a book that offers a fascinating insight into the lives of contemporary jazz women and one that will be read with great interest by jazz enthusiasts of any gender. It really is an intelligent, insightful and consistently entertaining read, a book that either be read from cover to cover or dipped into at random. Even the most casual perusal of the work is guaranteed to unearth a nugget that will intrigue, inform and entertain. The book also includes a number of excellent black and white photographs, derived from a number of sources.

Stein’s book begins by taking a look at the history of jazz. The author visited New Orleans to research its earliest beginnings and succinctly details the development of the music to the present day, whilst also taking a brief look at the elements that define and characterise the music.

Chapter Two begins to take a look at the role of women in jazz, a music that was initially dominated by men, and has continued to be so. Some of the comments levelled at female musicians by Downbeat magazine in the 1930s were blatantly misogynist and, by contemporary standards, nothing short of shocking. The old adage of ‘men play jazz, women sing it” was particularly rife in that era when most jazz instruments, other than the piano, were considered to be ‘unfeminine’.
Despite the opportunities offered during World War 2 there had been little improvement by the 1950s; of the fifty seven musicians pictured in Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day In Harlem” photograph of 1958 only three were women – Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams and Maxine Sullivan, all either pianists or vocalists.

The 1960s and 70s saw genuine progress, thanks in part to the women’s liberation movement, and the first Women’s Jazz Festival was held in Kansas City in 1978, while the annual New York Women’s Jazz Festival was founded shortly after.

However even now in the 21st century female musicians are vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, although it has to be said that their numbers are growing and that there are now leading female performers on just about every instrument in the jazz ‘family’ - trumpet, trombone, saxophone, double bass, drums and more. Stein’s book questions whether enough progress has been made, but as a regular observer and reviewer of the British jazz scene I genuinely believe that things are more equal now than they have ever been.

Stein’s third chapter presents profiles of thirteen female musicians that she describes as “Women of the Past – Major Influences”. This ‘baker’s dozen’ are Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Hazel Scott, Maxine Sullivan, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Melba Liston, Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane, Aretha Franklin and Carla Bley, the only one of this stellar cast that is still with us, and still musically active. Some of the names may be predictable, but others offer valuable insight into influential figures whose work has become rather neglected in recent years. The profiles don’t shy away from the racism and misogyny that many of these women faced in the pursuit of their music making.

The next chapter, titled “Women in Jazz Today” tackles the everyday life of women working in the jazz industry head on. Through the responses of her interviewees, allied to her own opinions and her linking narrative,  Stein lifts the lid on everyday sexism and also asks if women have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts. The difficulties of women acting as bandleaders are also addressed, particularly with regard to the attitudes of the men in their charge, and Stein doesn’t shy away from the thorny subject of women deploying their sexuality to their own advantage in an essentially male dominated world.

In general attitudes seem to be improving with male musicians, particularly younger ones, now more accepting of their female counterparts and more prepared to accept them as equals. The women themselves constitute a strong mutual support network, although improvising trombonist Sarah Gail Brand declares that she is not a fan of all female groups, positing that this tends to ‘ghettoise’ women musicians and can also lead to ‘tokenism’. That said the younger crop of female jazz musicians seem to exhibit a spirit of self confidence that previous generations arguably lacked.

The book is quick to praise those men who have been supportive of female musicians, men such as Paul Jolly of the 33 record label, producer and musician Jason Miles and guitarist John Russell, organiser of the frequent Mopomoso free jazz events at London’s Vortex Jazz Club. Stein also has good words to say about the ‘Women in Jazz’ programme co-ordinated by Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall (THSH).

Chapter Five finds Stein’s interviewees recalling how they first became interested in the music and how they broke into the ranks of professional jazz musicians, publicists, broadcasters etc. Many of them have had to show considerable tenacity alongside total dedication to the music – these are truly inspiring tales. They go on to offer words of encouragement and inspiration to young female musicians looking to embark upon a similar path.

The next chapter, titled “Education, Funding & Innovation takes a look at the opportunities for women to study jazz, primarily in the UK but with the US and Australia also getting mentioned.
The history of the growth of formal jazz education is discussed with mention made of Leeds College of Music, Trinity and Guildhall in London and Berklee in the US. The encouragement of student musicians by London jazz clubs such as the 606 and the Vortex is also referenced. The benefits, or otherwise, of a formal jazz education to degree level are discussed at length, always a contentious topic in the jazz world, with several of Stein’s interviewees, whether music graduates or not, offering their forthright opinions.

The funding issue goes hand in hand with this, another thorny subject in these troubled times. Stein mentions the infamous opera v jazz discrepancy and her interviewees offer their own observations on the situation, with Terri Lyne Carrington addressing matters from a US perspective. The necessity for students to be taught about the ‘business’ side of the music industry, and not just how to play, is a consistent observation, with several interviewees emphasising its importance. Interestingly just under half of music students are female, but only 20% go on to undertake professional careers.

Kim Cypher, Wendy Kirkland and the American HR director Gretchen Bennett (wife of musician Daniel Bennett) talk about the balance between their professional and family lives.

Then it’s back to the ‘business’ side of things and the difficulty, for any musician, of selling their music in an era of declining CD sales. The importance of promoting yourself on social media is also briefly discussed. I have to say that from my experience women are probably far more adept at this than men.

Finally the book looks to the future, and on the whole Stein and her interviewees seem cautiously positive and optimistic. The Oxford University Jazz Organisation has just appointed its first female president, more women are coming in to jazz as performers and also attending gigs as fans. In large cities jazz audiences are becoming younger and more mixed, with Stein citing several clubs in London , New Orleans and elsewhere. I would add that although an older demographic is still more usual in the ‘provinces’ jazz club audiences ‘in the sticks’ are from being an all male reserve. The importance of Festivals and of the live music ‘experience’ is emphasised, as well as the fusion of jazz with more modern genres such as hip-hop and electronica.

Stein’s book is wide ranging and any review can only offer a broad snapshot of its contents. I’m loath to quote any of the interviewees directly as doing so would rather ‘steal their thunder’. This is a book that will make for fascinating reading for jazz fans of any gender and of any style of the music. It’s an important book that tackles important issues.

For the record Stein’s interviewees are;

Emma Acton, Arema Arega, Gretchen Bennett, Beverley Bierne, Grace Black, Amanda Bloom, Jane Ira Bloom, Patti Boulaye OBE, Sarah Gail Brand, Jane Bunnett, Terri Lyne Carrington, Trish Clowes, Kim Cypher, Mimi Fox, Debbie Gifford, Jenny Green, Florence Halfon, Jo Harrop, Barb Jungr, Joelle Khoudry, Wendy Kirkland, Georgia Mancio, Claire Martin, Indira May, Tina May, Faye Patton, Carmelo Rappazzo, Anthea Redmond, Alicia Renee aka Blue Eyes, Emily Saunders, Gail Tasker, Ellie Thompson, Camille Thurman, Ruby Turner.

For what it’s worth I think the position of Women in Jazz in 2019 is probably as good as it’s ever been. As a reviewer I’ve never considered female instrumentalists to be in any way inferior to their male counterparts and I’ve reviewed many albums and live performances by female led bands just because of my sheer love for their music.

I’ve been writing about jazz for thirteen year now and there are so many more women in the music now, particularly instrumentalists, than there were when I started. Coming to jazz from a rock background one of the first jazz acts that I became a fan of was Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia. Barbara was a talented player and writer and toured widely, so I got to see her perform many times, and she and her band always delivered. I was never going to have any prejudices about female musicians after that.

Besides the women Sammy has spoken to, several of whom I have reviewed,  there are so many other talented female musicians out there and the Jazzmann has covered many of them, from Ingrid Laubrock to Alison Rayner to LUME founders Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne. I have to admit to being slightly surprised that LUME and Blow The Fuse,  the latter founded by Alison Rayner and Deirdre Cartwright, didn’t get a mention in the book, as both have been highly influential on the London jazz scene.

This minor quibble aside Stein’s book is highly recommended.

 

 

by Ian Mann

October 27, 2019

The music from Steve Tromans' remarkable eleven hour solo 'Piano Marathon' from 2011 has finally been released into the public domain. Here Steve and Pam & Ian Mann remember this unique performance.

Steve Tromans

“Directions In Music”

Digital Box Set, available via Bandcamp https://stevetromans.bandcamp.com/album/directions-in-music-the-complete-harmonic-festival-marathon-solo-performance


On Saturday November 1st 2011 the Birmingham based pianist and keyboard played an extraordinary eleven hour ‘piano marathon’ as part of that years Harmonic Festival. The music from that performance has just been released into the public domain for the first time as a kind of ‘digital box set’ and is available to purchase from Steve’s Bandcamp page (reference above).

The much missed Harmonic was the brainchild of Birmingham musicians Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove and was a laudable attempt to bring a cutting edge jazz and improvised music festival to the city.

It ran for two years, commencing in 2010 when it was centred in the middle of Birmingham with the CBSO Centre as its base. Events took place in the main concert hall and in the foyer space and featured performances from both local and nationally known musicians plus a set from international headliners Claudia Quintet, led by the American drummer and composer John Hollenbeck. The inaugural edition of Harmonic also included events in city centre bars and restaurants, I recall witnessing a performance by an ‘organ trio’ led by guitarist Matt Chandler in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of the Slug & Lettuce!

In 2011 Harmonic moved to the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) adjacent to Cannon Hill Park. This proved to be an altogether more satisfactory location with performances taking place in the Main House, the smaller, more intimate Hexagon Theatre, which proved to be particularly suitable for freely improvised performances, plus the MAC’s restaurant and foyer spaces. There was almost ‘wall to wall’ music, plus the added attraction of Cannon Hill Park itself on an unexpectedly warm and sunny Autumn day.

The second edition of Harmonic, again spread over two days,  featured a similarly diverse range of performers and included exceptional performances by headliners Food with guest guitarist Bjorn Klakegg and Dreams Of Tall Buildings with guest trumpeter Arve Henriksen.

Sadly this was to be the final Harmonic Festival. 2010 and 2011 had both been artistic successes and delivered some great music, but audience numbers were sometimes a little disappointing. A combination of this plus the fact that the musical careers of both Mapp and Pursglove were really beginning to take off led to the cessation of the Festival as the organisers decided to focus more fully on their own playing.

However in recent years something of the spirit of Harmonic has returned in the shape of the annual Surge in Spring Festival, curated by Belfast born, Birmingham based musician, poet and bandleader Sid Peacock. This event also takes place at the MAC and follows a similarly adventurous musical policy, taking in a variety of genres including jazz, improv, folk, gospel and more. Steve Tromans, who plays keyboards in Peacock’s Surge Orchestra, is also a regular performer at this Festival.

Tromans’ remarkable feat of musicality and endurance took place in 2011 at the second Harmonic Festival, an event that I covered comprehensively. The unique nature of Tromans’ performance also encouraged my wife, Pam, to write her own account of this unusual event, her second written contribution to the Jazzmann following her review of the “Pitch Black” performance by Phronesis earlier in the year at Brecon Jazz Festival.

It is not my intention to review eleven hours of solo piano music, which would probably represent an endurance event in itself, but I do feel that it is important to draw attention to the fact that this music is now out in the public domain and is available to be listened to.

Steve’s recollections of his ‘Piano Marathon’ experience, as sourced from his Bandcamp page, appear below, followed by Pam’s account of the performance as experienced by a listener, plus my own thoughts on the event within the context of the Harmonic Festival as a whole. Our accounts have been directly lifted from the reviews first published in 2011.


Steve Tromans writes

Directions in Music: the Complete Harmonic Festival Marathon Solo Performance

The Harmonic Festival was a contemporary jazz and improvised music festival in Birmingham (UK) in 2010 and 2011. The 2011 festival was held at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) and featured a host of top class performers.

As part of the 2011 festival I performed a marathon solo piano concert that lasted the duration of the day’s events on 1 October. I was located in the café area of the arts space for the entire performance totalling just under 11 hours of improvised music-making (with a brief break at the halfway mark after Part IX).

The audience were able to listen to my performance by means of wireless headphones which enabled them to move around the space of the centre and outside in the park at while still listening to the music I was making throughout the day.

This box set allows me to finally be able to document every note of the music that was made that day. And now this music is yours, dear listener.

Credits;

released October 2, 2019

Track listing;


1.
Directions in Music: Part I 29:58


2.
Directions in Music: Part II 30:00

3.
Directions in Music: Part III 30:00

4.
Directions in Music: Part IV 30:00


5.
Directions in Music: Part V 40:00


6.
Directions in Music: Part VI 42:00


7.
Directions in Music: Part VII 40:00


8.
Directions in Music: Part VIII 30:00


9.
Directions in Music: Part IX 26:22


10.
Directions in Music: Part X 30:00


11.
Directions in Music: Part XI 30:00


12.
Directions in Music: Part XII 30:00


13.
Directions in Music: Part XIII 30:00


14.
Directions in Music: Part XIV 35:00


15.
Directions in Music: Part XV 39:47


16.
Directions in Music: Part XVI 25:00


17.
Directions in Music: Part XVII 25:00


18.
Directions in Music: Part XVIII 45:40


Pam Mann writes;


Steve Tromans “Directions In Music”, MAC, Birmingham, 01/10/2011, (part of Harmonic Festival).


I witnessed another unique and enjoyable performance at the Harmonic Festival which was held at the MAC which is situated on the edge of Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham.

Pianist and composer Steve Tromans wanted to deliver a performance that was uncapturable by traditional means. To listen you had to obtain a wireless headphone system from reception. This enabled you to explore the theatre and its surroundings whilst listening to an attempt at an eleven hour piano marathon. Some have compared the experience to that of the increasingly popular “silent disco” phenomenon.

When we first arrived Tromans was setting himself up in a space between the theatre bar and the café. We were due to dive into a ticketed gig straight away and initially had no opportunity to listen. However as we emerged from the gig one of the MAC staff passed us a headset and invited us to have a listen and immediately I was captivated. It was strange to be able to hear the music but not see the performer. Ian immediately went to reception to organise a headset for us and meanwhile I went to watch Steve play. It was equally strange to watch him hammering away at the keys of his electric piano but to hear no sound. He was wearing a headset himself and seemed to be quite oblivious to those watching him. By this time there were a number of people sat at tables and on sofas in the immediate vicinity listening on their headsets.

A lot of the time that I was listening I wasn’t actually watching him play. It was such a glorious day that I chose to sit in the outdoor area at the picnic style tables with my head bobbing away to the music. There were other listeners out there and we acknowledged each other with a knowing smile as if we were sharing something secret. Goodness knows what the other people using the park thought of us but I was enjoying the music far too much to feel self conscious.

We were in and out of gigs all day whilst Steve continued to play but I listened as often as I could, even having the headset playing while we were waiting for gigs in the theatres to start. At one point I was sat on a bench, swinging my legs in time to the music when Steve looked up, caught my eye, and smiled right back. It was as if we were in a secret world, there in the middle of a busy theatre complex with someone I had never spoken to before, a very bizarre feeling.

Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end and after the final ticketed event of the day I went back to to the area that Steve was still playing in, almost eleven hours after he had started, to catch the final moments of his marathon. He seemed to stop quite suddenly which rather took me unawares. The people who were still there broke into a spontaneous round of applause and Steve just said “it seemed right to stop right there”.

He must have been exhausted but had provided some excellent entertainment for those who were listening whilst at the same time receiving some very strange looks from people who had just wandered in from the park.
I would just like to mention the MAC itself, what a super venue with a lovely park on the doorstep,  a café serving good food at reasonable prices, and staff that are genuinely interested in you and keen to ensure that you enjoy your time there. 

Thanks must also go to Steve Tromans for producing a marathon performance that was consistently enjoyable.

PAM MANN


Ian Mann writes;

STEVE TROMANS DIRECTIONS IN MUSIC

While we had been absorbing all the music described above Birmingham based pianist Steve Tromans was sat in the MAC gallery pounding away at the keyboard of an electric piano. Nobody could hear him unless they had hired a set of headphones to listen to Steve’s piano marathon. He played for the best part of eleven hours solid, starting at midday and finishing after 11.00 pm. During the brief breaks between bands on the other stages fans could be seen listening to Steve’s magnum opus unfold, there were lyrical, classically inspired moments, Keith Jarrett gospel style vamps and torrential percussive motifs clearly inspired by Tromans’ love of John Coltrane and his pianist McCoy Tyner. Of course anybody dipping into the performance may have heard something entirely different.

At the end of the evening a small knot of fans and festival staff gave Tromans a hearty round of applause as he lifted his fingers from the keys for the final time and the headphones from his ears. His lugs looked red and raw, his fingers more so. This had been a remarkable feat of both physical endurance and sheer musicality delivered in a unique way. I’d even been out exploring the environs of Cannon Hill Park with Steve’s music ringing in my ears.

It was also odd to hear the music and not have any visual input, the facial expressions, workings of the fingers etc. although some listeners did position themselves in such a way as to ensure they caught this. For me this aspect had parallels with Phronesis’ “Pitch Black” performance at this year’s Brecon Jazz Festival.

I had to head for home at this point but I hope somebody headed for the bar and got him a well earned beer.

IAN MANN

Harmonic Festival links;

http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/harmonic-festival-2010-birmingham-12-03-2010/

http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/harmonic-festival-2010-birmingham-13-03-2010/

http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/friday-at-harmonic-festival-birmingham-30-09-2011/

http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/saturday-at-harmonic-festival-midlands-arts-centre-birmingham-01-10-2011/

Phronesis “Pitch Black” (by Pam Mann) link;

http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/phronesis-pitch-black-project-pemberton-stage-christ-college-brecon-jazz-fe/

 

 

by Ian Mann

September 08, 2019

The final day of the Festival and performances from Tango Jazz Quartet, Renewal Choir and Claire Victoria Duo.

Claire Roberts and Guy Shotton celebrate a successful performance as Claire Victoria Duo. Photograph by Pam Mann.

SUNDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL 2019

1st SEPTEMBER 2019


TANGO JAZZ QUARTET, MELVILLE THEATRE

The final day of the 2019 Festival began with a welcome return visit from Tango Jazz Quartet.

The hard working Argentinian four piece were once more in the middle of an extensive European tour – and this was only their first gig of the day. In the evening they were due to appear at Café Jazz in Cardiff as part of the monthly ‘Hot Club’ series co-ordinated by Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon of Brecon Jazz Club.

Formed in 2008 in Buenos Aires and led by tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Gustavo Firmenich the group also features pianist Horacio Acosta, bassist Federico Hilal and drummer Alejandro Beelmann. TJQ have recorded four albums to date and have been critically acclaimed both in their native Argentina and internationally for their interesting and innovative blend of tango rhythms and structures with jazz harmonies and improvisation. 

TJQ first played Wall2Wall in 2016, quickly winning over the audience with their distinctive amalgam of jazz and tango. The following year Firmenich returned leading the fourteen piece Sotavento Big Band, a saxophone dominated ensemble that alternated arrangements of American big band classics from the likes of Count Basie with traditional Argentinian tangos and milongas. This ensemble also featured the singing of Firmenich’s wife, vocalist Patricia Leguizamon.
Review here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/sotavento-big-band-black-mountain-jazz-melville-centre-abergavenny-10-07-20/

Also in 2017 the alliance between Argentina and Abergavenny was cemented yet further as Firmenich returned once more as he and Beelman co-led the octet Orquesta de Monte, an ensemble linked to the educational facility at  San Miguel de Monte, near Buenos Aires. Essentially this was a student ensemble whose repertoire again moved between the American jazz canon and the folk and tango traditions of Argentina.
Review here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/orquesta-de-monte-black-mountain-jazz-melville-centre-abergavenny-18-09-17/

As before I don’t intend to give a blow by blow account of TJQ’s performance. By his own admission Firmenich isn’t the most fluent of English speakers, and my Spanish is virtually non existent, so most of the tune titles inevitably got lost in translation. I did approach the band for a set list after the show but the combination of the language barrier and the need for them to rush off to Cardiff ultimately precluded this.

As this event’s MC, Nigel Jarrett, observed most jazz is played in 4/4, ensuring that the rhythms and meters of tango initially sound a little strange and exotic to North American and Western European ears. As on TJQ’s previous visit it took me little time to acclimatise to the group’s music, but as before I found myself becoming increasingly drawn into their sound world.

If anything the playing was even better this time round. Firmenich’s tone on tenor was smoother and his soloing more fluent. He also made greater use of the clarinet than I remember from before, and I was particularly impressed by his playing of this instrument.

Hilal and Beelmann formed an effective rhythm team, negotiating the complex twists and turns of the tangos and milongas with practised aplomb. We were also able to enjoy Hilal’s Jaco Pastorius inspired flights of fancy on his six string electric bass, his fluent and melodic solos again inviting comparisons with such British exponents of the instrument as Kevin Glasgow and Dudley Phillips.

But for many listeners it was again TJQ’s pianist Horacio Acosta who represented the group’s star instrumentalist. As previously he began to play with an increased fluency and improvisational abandon as the set gathered momentum, soloing with a feverish and fearsome inventiveness.. 

TJQ focus on arrangements of traditional tangos and milongas plus other aspects of Argentinian folk music. They also play the more sophisticated nuevo tango and the music of the great composer and bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazolla was featured regularly throughout the set.  This included excerpts from the numerous suites in which Piazolla sought to fuse the sophistication of European classical music with elements of traditional Argentinian tango.

Today’s set represented a very welcome return to Abergavenny by TJQ and the standard of the playing was excellent throughout. The group’s fusion of jazz and tango elements is both impressive and convincing and has won them a wide following throughout Europe.

However it was disappointing to see that attendance numbers were well down on the quartet’s previous visit. There were probably several factors at play here, most significantly the 2.00 pm start.  TJQ had enjoyed a prime Saturday night slot on their previous visit and the turn out was significantly higher. The fact that the band and various associated offshoots had visited before may have been a factor, a case of familiarity breeding contempt, and then there was the Cardiff show later on that may have lured some potential listeners. All this plus a choral workshop taking place at the same time that also formed part of Wall2Wall. Overall this was a better musical performance than that of 2016,  but a less successful ‘event’.

In purely musical terms TJQ’s set was arguably the highlight of the day, but the poor attendance put something of a dampener on the proceedings. This sense of disappointment was enhanced by the fact that a percentage of the price from each ticket sold was being donated to BMJ’s designated charity Ty Hafan, the children’s hospice located near Barry in South Wales. However the representative of Ty Hafan who visited the Festival declared herself well satisfied with the money that had been raised from ticket sales and from the collection boxes that had been dotted around the Melville for the duration of the Festival.


RENEWAL CHOIR – WORKSHOP & CONCERT, MELVILLE CENTRE

The Renewal Choir is a community choir from South Bristol that was founded in 2005 and specialises in the performance of gospel music, a strand of music that has appeared at Wall2Wall in previous years with visits from other community choirs plus professional performers such as the 606 Gospel Singers, based at London’s famous 606 Jazz Club.

Prior to Renewal Choir’s public performance in the Melville Theatre they had conducted a rapturously received workshop at the Dance Blast Studio elsewhere in the Melville Centre.

WORKSHOP

Jazz vocalist and BMJ stalwart Debs Hancock, who started her singing career in a community choir, offers her thoughts on the joys of the Workshop experience below;

“I feel good! I knew that you would!” says the infamous song and he must have been talking about Gospel singing.

Community Singing has been scientifically proven to be good for the heart, the soul, the head; and is regaining momentum across the country with TV’s Gareth Malone and the popular Only Men and Only Boys Allowed groups leading the way.

Attracting a large group of mixed aged festival goers, the three hours passed swiftly amid much laughter and energetic singing.

Lead by choral leader Kim and supported by members of the choir, the singers quickly learnt and performed four simple and uplifting gospel songs, with opportunities created for improvisation and soloing, it was great fun.

In the words of James Brown, the festival Renewal Gospel choir workshop delivered the “feel good factor” in spades.

Debs Hancock.

CONCERT

Many of those who had attended the workshop purchased tickets and stayed on for the concert, ensuring that there was a near capacity audience in the Melville Theatre for this event.

In total the Renewal Choir has over seventy members and today seventeen of this number turned up to sing for, and with, the good folk of Abergavenny. Those seventeen voices were conducted by leader Kim Samuels, who occasionally picked up the announcer’s mic to add her own lead vocal to the proceedings. Also vital to the performance was pianist Phil Barclay, whose skilful accompaniment represented the backbone of the music, the framework around which the singers could harmonise and soar.

Today’s group was mixed race and mixed gender, although the male singers, among them Kevin Francis and Glenn Mower were very much in the minority. Samuels explained that the membership of the choir was open to “all faiths or none” and that not everybody in their ranks was a church goer,  but nevertheless one sensed that probably all of today’s performers were committed Christians, and their repertoire very much reflected this.

Eschewing the choral arrangements of pop hits favoured by many other community choirs today’s set list was comprised almost entirely of bona fide gospel songs, which the members of the Renewal Choir probably sing in church.

Opener “It Is Good Praise The Lord” featured joyous gospel harmonies with leader Samuels adding her own amplified lead vocals.

“Every Praise” featured the choir’s few males leading the vocals, and also encouraging the audience to clap along.

“You Are God Alone” and “You Covered Me” continued the gospel theme, the latter straight out of the evangelical tradition.

Next came the first ‘pop’ hit, a song surely familiar to everybody in the audience. This was the Ben E. King hit “Stand By Me”, a song with its roots in an earlier gospel hymn/spiritual and that here featured male lead vocals, female harmonies and even an acapella section.

It was back to the hard core gospel repertoire for “My Life Is In Your Hands” and “Lord I Lift Your Name On High”, the latter enhanced by suitable hand gestures from the massed singers.

Another familiar pop hit came in the shape of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”, which saw Samuels conducting some vigorous audience participation. Those that attended the earlier workshop were more than ready to add their voices to those of the seventeen on the stage. Caught up in the whole experience even I was seen to join in.

“Shackles”, one of the best known gospel songs, featured more audience participation and a lead vocal (with microphone) from Astrid Glover Rand.

A stirring “Total Praise” preceded the last of the ‘secular’ songs, “Lovely Day”, another hit for Bill Withers. More audience participation here, with the men holding that famous sustained note as the ladies harmonised around them. The arrangement also featured alternative ‘gospel-ised’ lyrics.

I have to confess to being a devout unbeliever and normally this wouldn’t have been my cup of tea at all, but it was hard not to buy into the enthusiasm of both the choir and its audience, the majority of the latter having also been workshop attendees.

Finally a song that conjured up childhood memories for me, and I suspect many others, a rousing rendition of “O Happy Day”, complete with more audience participation.

This was an amateur community choir and not a professional troupe, so it’s probably fair to say that I’ve heard gospel music performed more slickly elsewhere, but there could be no doubting the success of today’s performance as an event. Seated at the back of the hall I was something of a detached observer but nevertheless was still able to tap in to the excitement of others and enjoy the experience overall.

The inevitable encore was an intensely devotional rendition of the gospel song “He Gave Me Everything”

My thanks to Kim Samuels for speaking with me afterwards and for providing me with a set list and other useful information.

Renewal Choir have recorded a full length album and a charity single. Kim also informed that on November 30th 2019 they will perform a special early Christmas concert at St. George’s Arts Centre in Bristol.

Please visit http://www.renewalchoir.org for further details of this and of the choir’s other activities.


CLAIRE VICTORIA DUO,  JAZZ LOUNGE,  THE KINGS HEAD

A successful Wall2Wall 2019 ended where it had begun, in the Jazz Lounge at the Kings Head for the last of four loosely blues themed events.

Successful performances from John-Paul Gard, Lady Nade and Sicknote Steve were followed by this entertaining show from the Claire Victoria Duo featuring vocalist and violinist Claire Roberts.

Originally from Carmarthen Roberts studied music and composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and at Bangor University. She remains based in Manchester, “it’s the kind of place that just sucks you in” she told me. Nevertheless a Welsh lilt remains in her speaking voice and this became more pronounced as this ‘homecoming’ show progressed.

Roberts is a highly versatile musician who was written for classical ensembles large and small but who also plays fiddle and sings with the Manchester based Texas swing ensemble The Swing Commanders. She also performs duo gigs, usually in the company of a pianist, under the name Claire Victoria, these ranging from lounge events to more formal jazz club performances such as this.

Tonight, in the absence of her regular duo partner, Roberts was accompanied by the Cardiff based pianist Guy Shotton. A regular and popular visitor to BMJ and Wall2Wall Shotton is particularly adept at working with vocalists and has previously appeared with Debs Hancock, Sarah Meek and Becki Biggins.

Tonight’s performance featured a mix of jazz and blues material with some of the selections sourced from the Swing Commanders repertoire.

The duo opened with “Undecided”, with Roberts augmenting her well enunciated vocals with her accomplished violin playing. Shotton was on her wavelength immediately and the pair quickly struck up an impressive rapport.

The presence of a photograph of Bessie Smith on the “Blues” banner of BMJ’s “Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition proved to be the inspiration for a version of Smith’s lascivious blues “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl”, with Roberts providing a suitably provocative vocal and a concise violin solo.

A more subtle blues influence informed the duo’s version of Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good”. Here Roberts’ singing was complemented by the lively instrumental interplay between her violin and Shotton’s keyboard.

“East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon” took the music even further into full on jazz territory with a scat vocal episode from Roberts and scintillating electric piano solo from Shotton.

A poignant “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”  was followed by the more playful “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, with Shotton and Roberts exchanging instrumental solos.

Roberts provided a sultry vocal, in both English and Spanish, on “Besame Mucho”, one of the pieces sourced from the Swing Commanders repertoire.

The multi-lingual mood continued with the French lyrics of the playful and implausibly infectious “Zou Bizou”.

No blues themed evening would be complete without a homage to Billie Holiday and Roberts’ seductive vocal on “Fine and Mellow” certainly hit the spot, with the instrumental solos from her and Shotton representing a further bonus.

The first set concluded with an emotive reading of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, but with Roberts delivering the lyric in English.

The first set had delivered an enjoyable and wide ranging performance that had touched many bases, yet still remained in keeping with the overall blues theme. The second half offered similar diversity and was even more playful as the duo warmed to their task.

Unaccompanied piano introduced “Comes Love”, which offered more scat vocals from Roberts, plus a violin solo.

Roberts and Shotton joined instrumental forces to introduce a poignant reading of “Old Rocking Chair”,  an item that was particularly well received by the Abergavenny audience.

A playful “Honeysuckle Rose” featured Roberts’ vocal gymnastics and an impressive Shotton solo.

Jobim’s “Desifinado” featured the singing of the lyric in English, but with Roberts shading off into Portuguese at the close.

“Andy Of Mine” saw Roberts relishing in the risqué lyric and soloing fluently on violin.

However this levity was quickly nipped in the bud with an emotive reading of the song “Gloomy Sunday”, another Billie Holiday vehicle, and surely one of the bleakest songs ever written.

The mood was lightened once more with Roberts’ sultry version of the Maria Muldaur hit “Midnight At The Oasis”, followed by a fast paced rendition of “Love Me Or Leave Me”, another song from the Swing Commanders canon.

Those Texas swing inclinations really came to the fore with “Mule Skinner Blues” as Roberts yodelled “I’m a lady mule skinner from way down Tennessee”. Texas and Tennessee may be a long way west of Carmarthen and Abergavenny but the audience loved it and the duo remained on stage for a well deserved encore.

In keeping with the theme of the evening this proved to be “Every Day I Have The Blues” with the versatile Roberts delivering an authentically bluesy vocal, plus a final violin solo.

This relaxed but enjoyable duo performance rounded Wall2Wall 2019 off on a high note. Another pleasingly substantial crowd gave Roberts and Shotton an excellent reception, and justifiably so. This was a wide ranging performance that covered a mix of emotions and a variety of musical styles with the audience never quite knowing what to expect next. Roberts’ flexible and versatile singing was well complemented by her classically honed violin playing, while Shotton again displayed his customary empathy and versatility at the keyboard.

My thanks to Claire and Guy for speaking with me afterwards and to Claire for providing with a review copy of the Swing Commanders album “In Transit”, which I intend to take a fuller look at in due course. However I can tell you that it’s great fun and I would imagine that a Swingcos live show would be an energetic and enjoyable party experience.

FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

Wall2Wall 2019 was a great success, presenting a typically diverse programme featuring some exceptional singing and playing. On the whole attendances were healthy, with John Law, Chube with Dennis Rollins, Sarah Gillespie and the Renewal Choir all playing to near capacity audiences at the Melville Theatre.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for the organisers was how successful the new strand of events at the Kings Head proved to be, with every performance there being both well attended and rapturously received. This was an experiment that succeeded brilliantly and I would imagine that it’s almost certain that it will be repeated in 2020.

Congratulations to Mike Skilton, Debs Hancock and the rest of the BMJ / Wall2Wall team for another successful Festival.

 

 

 

by Ian Mann

September 05, 2019

Ian Mann on live performances by the Alex Goodyear Bop Septet, Chube with Dennis Rollins, and the Sarah Gillespie Sextet, plus a screening of the Chet Baker biopic "Born To Be Blue".

Photograph of Chube with Dennis Rollins by Pam Mann


SATURDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, ABERGAVENNY

31/08/2019


FILM:
CHET BAKER - ‘BORN TO BE BLUE’


Today’s entertainment at the Melville Centre began with a first for the Festival, the screening of the recent Chet Baker biopic “Born To Be Blue”, starring Ethan Hawke.

The Festival’s first cinema screening was a joint venture with the hugely successful Abergavenny Film Society who regularly show ‘art house’ films to capacity audiences at the Melville Theatre. Such is the popularity of the Society that there is actually a membership waiting list.

Today’s jazz themed film played to a near full house comprised of Film Society regulars and hard core jazz buffs. I’d actually seen the film before at the Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford a short time after its cinema release in 2015, but I was more than happy to see it again, having been very impressed by the work first time round.

Directed by Robert Budreau the film was shot in Canada and the UK and made its début at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The movie charts a period in the life of the celebrated American trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, blending fact with fiction to create a cohesive narrative. Set in 1966 it documents the period when Baker was recovering from a severe beating that knocked out most of his front teeth and totally ruined his embouchure. In effect he had to learn how to play trumpet all over again.

The incident actually took place in 1968 but the movie brings it forward a couple of years. The film begins with Baker, by then an incurable heroin addict, being sprung from an Italian jail by a film director. He is hired to play himself in a movie documenting his earlier years as the young, handsome pin up boy of 1950s West Coast cool jazz.

This sequence includes black and white footage purporting to depict a 1950s Baker performance at New York’s famous Birdland jazz club with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis looking on. The film doesn’t shy away from Baker’s womanising and drug taking, subjects that are also tackled in this section of the film.

Baker strikes up a relationship with his co-star Jane (Carmen Ejogo), who is playing his ex-wife Elaine, in the fictional film, and it’s shortly after these two ‘get it together’ that Baker is beaten to a pulp outside a bowling alley by an irate drug dealer to whom he owes money. The film, designed to launch Baker’s ‘comeback’ is shelved.

The scenes where Baker takes the first tentative steps towards playing the trumpet again make for harrowing viewing, the images of blood on the mouth piece and all down the front Baker’s white singlet are not for the squeamish.

But for all his problems Baker displays a steely determination in his quest to play again. He and Jane return to Baker’s home state of Oklahoma and live for a while with Chet’s plain speaking mother Janet Laine Greene) and disapproving father (Stephen McHattie). Baker practices the trumpet and gets a job pumping gas at the local garage. The inevitable familial bust up sees Baker and Jane moving to California where they live in a camper van.

Baker rekindles his brittle relationship with his manager Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie). Gradually he returns to public performance via a residency in a local pizza parlour, which predictably doesn’t go well at first. Still having problems with his teeth a disguised Baker plays so badly at his first sit in that the bandleader tells him “you might want to practice more on your own first”.

The dental and embouchure problems force Baker to concentrate more on his singing, and in the intervening years his distinctive, fragile vocals have become as well known as his trumpet playing.

Once the West Coast jazz public become aware that Baker is playing again the pizza parlour sessions eventually take off and Dizzy Gillespie’s promoter arranges for Baker to play a prestigious gig at Litany Studio, the performance being recorded for a live recording.

In the meantime Baker’s drug dependency, initially inspired by Charlie Parker’s much publicised heroin addiction, remains a problem. Placed on a rehabilitation programme involving the heroin substitute methadone his progress is monitored by Probation Officer Reid (Tony Nappo), whose remit also involves ensuring that Baker is in gainful employment. This leads to some predictably prickly encounters between Reid, Baker and Bock, with Reid eventually consenting to Baker concentrating on music full time.

The Litany Studio gig, which includes footage of Baker’s most famous cover, “My Funny Valentine”, effectively his signature song, is a triumph. Gillespie himself (Kevin Hatchard) is in attendance and suggests that Baker is now ready to complete his comeback by returning to New York and playing Birdland once more.

But the film isn’t just about Baker’s musical career. It’s also a love story chronicling the affair between Baker and Jane, the latter a fictional amalgam of several of the women in Baker’s life.
As Jane struggles to forge a successful acting career, still difficult for a woman of colour in 1960s America, she also has to act as the anchor for the troubled Baker. The couple become ‘engaged’ with the ring being a valve ring from Baker’s trumpet, which Jane wears around her neck on a chain.

Baker’s meeting with Jane’s parents ends in predictably acrimonious fashion and Jane refuses to accompany him to New York, putting her own career first as she attends a Hollywood audition.

The final section of the film is set in Birdland where a nervous Baker finds himself out of methadone and succumbs to the temptation of injecting himself with heroin. Eventually Bock persuades him to take to the stage, watched once more by Gillespie and a sceptical Davis. The thorny real life relationship between Baker and Davis has been much documented and is common knowledge to jazz fans.

Finding her audition cancelled Jane flies to New York and enters the club as Baker is performing his opening number, inevitably “Valentine”. However a visit to his dressing room results in her seeing the drug taking paraphernalia. This represents the final straw and she removes the valve ring, handing it to Bock, and storms out of the club. Baker watches it all from the stage.

“Valentine” is a triumph, with even Davis nodding in approval as the audience applaud rapturously. Baker announces the next tune, “Born To Be Blue”.

Roll credits.

“Born To Be Blue” is an excellent film and the audience at Abergavenny were transfixed by this semi-fictionalised account of a chapter of Baker’s story. Whether they actually ‘enjoyed’ it is a moot point. Perhaps because of its Canadian origins it doesn’t shy away from ending the film on a sad note. This wasn’t your typical ‘Hollywood Ending’ and the film was all the more convincing as a result. The sudden ending, with Baker calling the tune that gives the film its title, also represented a neat touch and was very clever.

I’d forgotten just how grim the film is in many ways. It pulls no punches with regard to drug taking and violence while the language was authentically earthy throughout. It certainly doesn’t glamorise Baker’s lifestyle and his very real problems.

Hawke gives an exceptional performance, looking very much like his subject, and his singing voice is heard, very convincingly,  on some of the performances. The musical score for the film was written by David Braid and the trumpet for the audio performances was played by Kevin Turcote. Hawke himself took trumpet lessons and also studied video footage of Turcote, allowing the actor to mime convincingly during the shoot.

In real life Baker remained dependent on heroin for the rest of his life. He moved to Europe and continued to record frequently and tour widely, basically performing to fund his drug habit. In 1988 he fell to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam. He was aged just fifty nine.

Today’s screening represented a highly successful collaboration between Black Mountain Jazz and Abergavenny Film Society and it is to be hoped that similar collaborations will take place in the future, either on a regular BMJ club night, or more likely at next year’s Wall2Wall.

For further information on Abergavenny Film Society please visit;
http://www.abergavennyfilmsociety.com/


ALEX GOODYEAR’S BOP SEPTET

The first live music of the day was provided by a septet led by the young Cardiff based drummer Alex Goodyear.

A product of the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music (RWCMD) Goodyear had impressed on his earlier visits to BMJ and Wall2Wall as a member of Sheek Quartet, co-led by singer Sarah Meek and pianist Guy Shotton, and as part of vocalist Becki Biggins’ quartet.

Goodyear’s rhythm partner at these events had been bassist Nick Kacal who had led his own group Guerillasound at Wall2Wall in this very room the previous evening. The new group had delivered an excellent performance, a genuine Festival highlight, and Goodyear’s contribution had been a big part of that as he lined up alongside Kacal, guitarist Nicolas Meier and violinist Richard Jones, with guest vocalist Meek joining the group for a couple of numbers.

Today the popular Goodyear had been invited to bring his own band to Wall2Wall. With a couple of changes to the advertised line up the septet included a good blend of youth and experience with comparative ‘old hands’ Gareth Roberts (trombone) and Ashley John Long (double bass) being joined by RWCMD youngsters Daniel Newberry (tenor sax), Coren Sithers (alto), Thom Voyce (trumpet & flugel) and Michael Blanchfield (piano).

As the group’s name suggests they specialise in music from the classic hard bop era and for today’s event Goodyear selected a programme consisting entirely of compositions by the great Wayne Shorter.

In keeping with the era to which they were paying homage the band were suitably suited and booted, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gareth in a suit before!

The septet commenced with “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” from Shorter’s classic “Speak No Evil” album. A slightly hesitant unison theme statement led to a fiery trumpet solo from Voyce plus further impressive outings from Newberry, Blanchfield and Roberts.

Voyce moved to flugel for “Wild Flower” which contained an opening solo from Blanchfield that was both expressive and inventive. The young pianist had previously impressed at various RWCMD events at Brecon Jazz Club and on the evidence of today’s performance he looks set to become a major new voice on his chosen instrument. His interplay with the leader’s drums was particularly impressive and Goodyear was also to enjoy a more extended solo drum feature.

The classic “Infant Eyes” represented the opportunity for Roberts to demonstrate his remarkable abilities as an interpreter of ballads on the trombone, his tone warm, rounded and commendably tender, using the plunger mute to soften, rather than coarsen his sound. Blanchfield again impressed with a lyrical piano solo, while the leader’s sensitive brushwork was a feature throughout.

“And now for something completely different” said Goodyear as he introduced “Witch Hunt”, the tricky contours of the piece threatening to trip the players up. Sithers, who had first appeared at Wall2Wall as a seventeen year old back in 2016, took his first solo of the night on alto and his playing was very well received. Further solos came from Voyce on trumpet, then Newberry, really digging in on tenor, and finally BMJ favourite Long at the bass.

The next item was something of a tour de force, a segue of the Shorter tunes “Dance Cadaverous”, “House Of Jade” and “Deluge”, the last two sourced from Shorter’s classic 1965 Blue Note album “Juju”.
“Cadaverous” included solos from Sithers, also a talented pianist, on alto, and from Voyce on flugel.  A passage of unaccompanied piano from Blanchfield then led into the ballad “House Of Jade”, which included features for Roberts on muted trombone and Sithers on alto, his solo leading to a solo sax passage that provided the link to “Deluge”. Here the energy levels were increased as Newberry and Voyce went head to head, stretching out powerfully on tenor and trumpet respectively, as well as working in tandem on the heads. Newberry had led his own quintet, a band that included both Voyce and Long, at the 2018 Festival and was making a welcome return.
This complex segue had featured some terrific playing and the septet were rewarded with a great reception from a small but knowledgeable and highly enthusiastic audience.

To close the septet tackled “E.S.P.”, Shorter’s composition for Miles Davis and the title track of the trumpeter’s 1965 album for Columbia. This gave the opportunity for all the horn players to demonstrate their chops with concise solos coming from Roberts on trombone, Sithers on alto, Newberry on tenor and Voyce on flugel. These were followed by a series of fiery saxophone exchanges between Newberry and Sithers, the whole being driven by Goodyear’s dynamic, Blakey-esque drumming.

This was an excellent performance presided over by the ever enthusiastic Goodyear, a puckish figure behind the kit. All of these musicians are popular figures with South Wales jazz audiences and many are likely to return in various guises again next year.

I predict a bright future for Alex Goodyear, with national recognition a possibility if he should ever decide to make the move to London.


CHUBE featuring DENNIS ROLLINS

Wall2Wall 2019 was very much about returning heroes (and heroines) and this unique collaboration between harpist Ben Creighton-Griffiths and his trio Chube with the great trombonist Dennis Rollins was one of the most keenly anticipated events of the entire Festival.

Cardiff based Creighton-Griffiths has established the Welsh harp as a valid jazz instrument, both through his solo performances and with his exciting Chube trio featuring Aeddan Williams on acoustic and electric bass and the unrelated Matthew Williams on drums.

Creighton-Griffiths first appeared at Wall2Wall in 2016 when he played a solo set in the bar that was very well received. Among the onlookers were the musicians Christian Garrick, David Gordon and Dennis Rollins, who were all hugely impressed, with Rollins declaring “I want to work with this guy!”.

Having made an impression with his performance in the bar Creighton-Griffiths returned later in the year to the more formal setting of the Melville Theatre as he played a second solo set as part of a double bill with Duski, the band led by Cardiff based bassist and composer Aidan Thorne.

A further solo show in the bar at Wall2Wall 2018 saw Creighton-Griffiths making reference to his ‘electro-fusion’ trio Chube, a prospect that intrigued everybody. Sure enough Chube were soon invited to play a BMJ club night and absolutely wowed the audience with their performance in the Theatre in March 2019. The trio’s self titled EP, which features much of the music played both in March and today, represents vital and highly enjoyable listening.

Dennis Rollins has also been a regular and popular visitor to BMJ having brought his Velocity Trio to both the Club and Festival in recent years. Velocity’s unique line up of trombone, Hammond organ and drums/percussion suggests that Rollins likes playing in unusual instrumental configurations, so this alliance with Chube seemed like a very natural move for him.

With Creighton-Griffiths doubling on keyboards there was a direct link between the music of the two bands and today’s performance comprised of material sourced from the repertoires of both Chube and Velocity Trio. If Chube’s tunes predominated this was partly because they had more members numerically, but also because the accommodating Rollins, an acclaimed jazz educator, was happy for his youthful collaborators to be given their head.

Things kicked off with “Shift”, the opening tune from the Chube EP and one which emphasised the ‘electro-fusion’ element of the trio’s sound. With Creighton-Griffiths playing both synthesiser and electric piano in addition to harp this was music that embraced jazz, rock and electronics. Rock and funk rhythms drove the piece, with Creighton-Griffiths soloing on synth.

“Black Orpheus”, written by the Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa, has been part of Ceighton-Griffiths’ solo repertoire. Here the harp was more in evidence as Creighton-Griffiths soloed on the instrument. Aeddan Williams featured on melodic electric bass and Rollins found more space within the music as he delivered his first full length trombone solo.

From the Chube EP “Chrysalism” was the first tune that the trio wrote collaboratively. Tonight it was introduced by a dialogue between harp and double bass before Aeddan switched to electric to help provide the grooves that fuelled Rollins’ trombone solo.

With the members of the quartet based in different parts of the country (Cardiff, London, Doncaster) finding time to rehearse had been difficult. However with Rollins having been ensconced in Abergavenny since Thursday time was found for some intense wood-shedding on the days prior to the concert. The members of Chube opted to tackle two items from Rollins’ Velocity Trio programme commencing with “The Rose”, a song written by Amanda McBroom and made famous by Bette Midler. This was introduced by a duo of harp and trombone with subsequent solos coming from Creighton-Griffiths on harp, Aeddan Williams on melodic double bass and finally Rollins on trombone, his warm tone bringing out the full beauty of McBroom’s melody.

Next came the trombonist’s “Symbiosis”, the title chosen to express the deep musical understanding between the members of the Velocity Trio, a quality also shared by the members of Chube and their illustrious guest. Here Creighton-Griffiths’ keyboards simulated the sound of the Hammond as he soloed. Meanwhile Matt Williams enjoyed an extended drum feature. Following the performance Rollins praised his young band mates, complementing them on expertly negotiating the complex changes of meter that characterised the piece.

It was back to the Chube repertoire for “Interlude”, another tune from their eponymous EP. Here bass and drums were very much to the fore as Creighton-Griffiths coaxed a range of colours and textures from his keyboards.

Creighton-Griffiths revealed that the new tune “Ligma” had been played on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme as part of the regular ‘BBC Introducing’ feature. It’s good to hear of the guys getting some much deserved national recognition. Perhaps because of its newness this piece was played by the core Chube trio as Rollins sat out. Bright and melodic, but with tight grooves, the performance featured Creighton-Griffiths doubling on harp and keys while Aeddan soloed on electric bass.

Rollins rejoined the group for their take on the Outkast hit “Hey Ya”, which saw Creighton Griffiths carrying the melody on harp as Aeddan moved to double bass. Rollins’ warm toned trombone solo was complemented by Creighton-Griffith’s harp counter melodies in this unique interpretation of the song.

“Salty Tongue”, another new Chube original added a hint of hip hop courtesy of Matt Williams’ broken beats, but it was the quartet’s version of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” that really brought the house down. This had been a big crowd pleaser when the trio played it back in March. With Rollins on board as well it was irresistible as Matt Williams again nailed that John Bonham drum groove and Creighton-Griffiths deployed pedals to conjure fuzzed up, heavily distorted sounds from the harp. Aeddan then took over the melody on monstrous electric bass before Rollins’ authentically bluesy trombone soloing finally took the tune into another dimension. Appropriately the piece was played in front of the Chicago banner from BMJ’s ‘Jazz Through The Ages” exhibition.

Next came the Chube composed companion piece “When The Reggae Breaks” with its quasi-Caribbean grooves generated by keys, drums and electric bass and with Rollins adding Rico style trombone.

To close we heard Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” played in Headhunters style, with Aeddan on electric bass and with solos from Rollins on trombone and Creighton-Griffiths doubling on both keyboards, with Rollins also tapping out rhythms on cowbell.

A near capacity audience gave this unique collaboration a terrific reception and an encore was inevitable. Here Rollins pulled rank and took charge, co-ordinating an audience clap along on his infectiously funky tune “Boneyard” as the concert ended in a party atmosphere. Solos here came from Aeddan on double bass, Creighton-Griffiths on synth, Rollins on trombone and Matt Williams with a suitably rousing drum feature.

This gig was another triumph and a total vindication of the decision of Chube and Dennis Rollins to work together. Musical skill combined with a genuine sense of give and take, and the quality of the playing and writing was complemented by the charismatic presence of the ebullient Rollins.

Criticisms were few, I would have liked to have heard a little more harp, Creighton-Griffiths seems to specialise increasingly on keyboards these days, but this is perhaps inevitable given the primarily electric nature of the Chube trio. Nevertheless it’s the presence of the harp that makes this trio so unique, something they’d do well to bear in mind.

That said I predict that Chube’s star will continue to rise. They have the potential to appeal to a broad audience, including adventurous rock listeners.

Jazz, rock and electronics were all promised, and all were brilliantly delivered by this unique quartet, an alliance that may yet prove to be more than just a one off.


SARAH GILLESPIE SEXTET

The final event of the evening featured the music of another artist who has graced the stages of BMJ and Wall2Wall on numerous occasions. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Sarah Gillespie has visited Abergavenny many times, often in the company of her one time mentor Gilad Atzmon.

However since Mike Skilton teamed her with pianist Kit Downes at a BMJ promoted event at Brecon Jazz Festival back in 2012 Gillespie has increasingly stepped out of Atzmon’s shadow.

Her most recent album release, “Wishbones”, released in late 2018 features a brand new band, led by Downes and featuring bassist Ruth Goller and drummer James Maddren. Substantial guest contributions also come from guitarist Chris Montague and trumpeter Laura Jurd.

Tonight’s event was billed as the “Welsh Launch of Wishbones” and Gillespie brought along a stellar sextet of leading London based jazz musicians. Only Montague remained from the album personnel but the line up included such jazz heavyweights as Tom Cawley on piano, Dave Hamblett at the drums and Led Bib’s Liran Donin on double bass. Jurd’s role was filled by Nick Smart on trumpet and flugel, Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music and Jurd’s former mentor.

Although Gillespie works extensively with jazz musicians her music is hard to categorise. Her evocative and poetic lyrics encourage comparisons with such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. There’s an exotic, Bohemian quality about the Anglo-American Gillespie that is also mirrored in her songs. Her sharply observed lyrical images are complemented by a strong, left leaning social conscience.

Another large audience crowded into the Melville and again there was a palpable air of anticipation about the forthcoming performance. Gillespie and her Rolls Royce of a band didn’t disappoint.

Seated at the front Gillespie played acoustic guitar throughout, a significant part of the framework musically as well as vocally. She sang with her customary passion and power, although in the live environment the full impact of her words was sometimes lost – no blame attached here, it’s just that sometimes it’s difficult to pick up things lyrically at gigs.

This is however a minor complaint in a performance comprised mainly of “Wishbones” material and which commenced with “Russian Interference”, a song depicting the typical human proclivity of blaming a single outside force for all of life’s misfortunes. Here Smart on flugel and Montague on electric guitar provided the instrumental solos. Both impressed throughout the evening with their fluent and pertinent contributions as soloists.

Tonight dedicated to Boris Johnson, to a knowing laugh from the crowd, “Coup D’Etat” raised the energy levels with Gillespie’s vivid lyrical imagery and powerful singing augmented by further incisive solos from Smart and Montague, the latter deploying a slide.

Again sourced from “Wishbones” Gillespie’s evocative arrangement of the traditional American ballad “Moonshiner” saw Smart sitting out as Montague again took the instrumental plaudits on guitar.

Next came a couple of dips into the back catalogue starting with the catchy “Sugar Sugar” from Gillespie’s previous album “Glory Days”, with a returning Smart again impressing on flugel.

The perennial crowd pleaser “How The Mighty Fall” followed, a song sourced from Gillespie’s stunning 2009 début “Stalking Juliet”. Cawley was given his first solo of the night here, alongside Montague on guitar.

Returning to the “Wishbones” repertoire “Ballad Of Standing Rock” tackled environmental issues and the building of the Delta Access Pipeline in Gillespie’s home state of North Dakota. Sung from the point of view of a construction engineer working on the project this was an atmospheric ‘story song’ that saw the instrumentalists painting ‘sound pictures’ to complement Gillespie’s rich lyrical imagery, with Smart once more excelling on flugel.

Humour has always been an important component of Gillespie’s lyric writing and of her live performances. The audience loved “Susannah Threw A Helicopter”, a song based on the nursery school reports of Gillespie’s young daughter.  The song didn’t shy away from how vicious young children can be towards one another, there was theft, violence and territorialism in these tales, reflections of the adult world these children will grow into.  Most songs written about children are pretty sentimental and cringe worthy -  with her balance of realism and tenderness, laced with a sharp and sly humour, Gillespie avoided falling into that particular trap.

“Wishbones” itself, a typically twisted Gillespie love song, was performed as a quintet with Smart sitting out. This offered Montague, who impressed throughout the evening, to cut loose once more on guitar.

Gillespie has had a book of poetry published, “Queen Ithaca Blues”. One item from this collection has now been set to music. “Lonely Hearts Sads” presented a list of fictional ads from the lonely hearts columns, the wordplay variously clever,  vicious, surreal and laugh out loud funny. The music that accompanied it was an exaggerated blues, with the dialogue between Montague’s guitar and Smart’s flugel an integral part of the arrangement.

“You Win” was introduced by Gillespie solo, the singer accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.
It was a welcome reminder of her instrumental abilities. With Smart again sitting out the song, with its hooky chorus, was again played in quintet format with Montague again the featured soloist.

Cawley was invited to introduce “Babies And All That Shit” at the piano. “Don’t get too jazzy” Gillespie warned him, “I can’t handle that”.  It’s always been a moot point as to whether Gillespie is actually a jazz singer, but she habitually works with top class musicians and jazz audiences love her, so in that sense I guess that she must be. That said her appeal extends far beyond the usual jazz demographic. Dylan fanatics, in particular, are rather prone to Gillespie’s music.

Gillespie’s “love letter to my late mother”, the rollicking title track of the “Glory Days” album, took us storming into the home straight. This was followed by “Lucifer’s High Chair”, another favourite from the back catalogue that first appeared on the 2010 album “In The Current Climate”.

The inevitable encore saw the band tearing through “Million Moons”, another classic from Gillespie’s début that saw Smart excelling on flugel once more.

Another packed house at the Melville gave Gillespie and her band another terrific reception. Chube and Rollins, followed by the Gillespie Sextet had constituted a superb evening of music making, in boxing terms the old one-two, a terrific combination.

It was difficult to believe that neither Donin nor Smart had ever played with Gillespie before this evening. These two late subs both acquitted themselves superbly, with Smart particularly impressive as a soloist. Montague, the only musician who had actually featured on the “Wishbones” recording, also delivered some inspired solos and generally seemed to function as Gillespie’s musical ‘right hand man’.

I’m not sure if Donin and Hamblett had worked together before but as a rhythm section they were right on the money, combining to give the music an irresistible momentum and providing a sturdy platform for the instrumental soloists. Cawley, standing in for Kit Downes, kept a relatively low profile and it would have been nice to have heard a bit more from him as a soloist, as impressive as Montague and Smart were. Nevertheless Cawley’s piano was often at the heart of the music.

If this was Gillespie’s ‘second string’ goodness knows what the first team must be like. Make no mistake, this was a superb all round team performance with the charismatic Gillespie at its centre.

My thanks to Sarah, Chris and Liran for speaking with me afterwards. Always a pleasure to talk to you guys.

The Saturday programme at Wall2Wall habitually delivers the best music of the Festival and this year was no exception with both Chube/Rollins and Gillespie delivering in spades. There was also much to enjoy about the Shorter themed set from Alex Goodyear and his band of local heroes, while the screening of the excellent Chet Baker film opened up another direction for Wall2Wall to explore. Pretty much an excellent day all round.

by Ian Mann

September 03, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys performances by Ian Shaw, John Law's Re-Creations, the Debs Hancock / Dave Hobbs Duo and Nick Kacal's Guerillasound.

Photograph of Nick Kacal’s Guerillasound by Pam Mann


THURSDAY and FRIDAY AT WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, ABERGAVENNY

29/08/2019 and 30/08/2019


IAN SHAW, FESTIVAL DINNER, THE ANGEL HOTEL, 29/08/2019


Following three successful blues themed evenings in the new Jazz Lounge venue at the Kings Head Hotel Wall2Wall returned to its regular home at the Melville Centre for the bulk of the Festival with a number of concert performances taking place over the weekend. Events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were mainly centred at the Melville but, before this, the now well established Festival Dinner took place in the luxurious surroundings of the splendidly restored ballroom at the Angel Hotel.

The Festival Dinner has become something of a civic event for the town of Abergavenny, always a guaranteed sell out and with the Mayor and Mayoress in attendance. The two course meal always features excellent food and in recent years the entertainment has included superb performances from vocalists Lee Gibson (2016) and Becki Biggins (2018) and from the Bristol based band Moscow Drug Club, fronted by singer and percussionist Katya Gorrie (2017).

As I attended this event as a paying customer I don’t intend to give my usual song by song account but I enjoyed both the meal – the Angel has an excellent reputation for the quality of its food – and the entertainment, a brilliant solo performance by the inimitable vocalist, pianist and raconteur Ian Shaw.

Shaw, arguably the UK’s leading male jazz vocalist, is the biggest name to play the Festival Dinner thus far. A London based artist with a well established recording career he routinely works with the best in the business.

Originally from North Wales Shaw makes regular return visits to his homeland and has previously appeared at the Wall2Wall and Brecon Jazz Festivals.

At the 2017 Wall2Wall Shaw played a concert performance at the Melville, superbly accompanied by pianist Barry Green. My account of that performance can be found as part of that year’s Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/saturday-at-wall2wall-jazz-festival-abergavenny-02-09-2017/

In 2018 he gave a solo performance at the 2018 Brecon Jazz Festival, a fund raising concert in support of the charity Side By Side With Refugees, a cause very close to Shaw’s heart. Again my review of that show appears as part of my overall Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/friday-at-brecon-jazz-festival-10-08-2018/

In 2011 I enjoyed two sets by Shaw at the Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival, the second of which saw him joined by a number of guest musicians, including pianist Jonathan Gee, saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev and fellow vocalist Michael Mwenso. Review here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/saturday-at-lichfield-real-ale-jazz-and-blues-festival-2011/

Turning now to this evening, and Shaw performing to an audience of around one hundred, many of whom may not have heard him before and others who may have had little idea of quite what to expect.

Shaw may be one of the UK’s most respected most respected jazz vocalists, but his talent doesn’t stop there, he is also an accomplished pianist and songwriter and a raconteur with a ready, and often salty wit. In other words Ian Shaw is an entertainer – although having said that he’s emphatically not “show business”, despite having stated out as a stand up comic before turning to music full time.

As a singer Shaw is technically gifted in the extreme. His voice is an extraordinarily flexible instrument, capable of improvised scats that have the fluidity of horn lines and possessed of a remarkable dynamic range that peaks with an almost implausible falsetto. He interrupts himself constantly, peppering his songs with jokes, anecdotes and other asides which frequently make audiences guffaw with laughter. At other times his interpretations, both of his own songs and those of other people, are genuinely emotional and often deeply moving.  He is also a highly accomplished pianist and this ability, combined with his skill as a vocalist, creates a self contained musical unit that impresses on every level. Ian Shaw is a unique entertainer, and, although he probably wouldn’t want to be thought of as such, should be considered as something of a national treasure. 

At the Angel, despite the delicious food that everybody had enjoyed, Shaw soon had the audience eating out of his hand courtesy of his patented recipe of witty repartee and extreme musical facility. He regaled audiences with his tales of growing up in Presbyterian North Wales, of making the move to London, and of playing piano in an Amsterdam brothel. More serious topics included gay rights and the refugee crisis. Behind the sometimes comic façade Shaw is a great humanitarian and a committed campaigner for causes important to him. It wasn’t just his music and humour that endeared him to the audience, it was his warmth and humanity too.

Tonight’s repertoire of songs included a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. Mitchell’s music has always been a touchstone for Shaw, since he first discovered the “Blue” album many years ago, and his bravura performance of this well known song proved to be a great crowd pleaser.

So too was a stunning segue of the David Bowie songs “Where Are We Now” and “Life On Mars”, two songs from very different phases of Bowie’s long career. Also Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, which gave Shaw the opportunity to stretch his voice to its limits as he mimicked the sounds of guitars and other instruments. Meanwhile a clever re-write of “The Girl From Ipanema”, re-gendered and re-located, had the audience in stitches.

An accomplished song writer in his own right Shaw’s repertoire also included the poignant and autobiographical “My Brother”, written for a sibling who had perished before Shaw was born, but who has been a constant presence in his life.

On a lighter note the witty and streetwise lyrics of “Carry On World (Starring Everyone)” represented a bitter-sweet anthem for our troubled times.

The Abergavenny audience lapped it all up, with Shaw winning many instant converts. Like all Ian Shaw shows it was hugely entertaining, but also musically satisfying.  Ian Shaw doesn’t pander to a mass audience but nevertheless he deserves to be far better known to the wider public than he actually is.

The comments I heard after this performance were universally positive, whether from regular Shaw listeners or total jazz neophytes. The only complaint was that it was too short, an hour in the company of the multi-talented Ian Shaw just seemed to fly by.

After the performance it was a privilege for me to speak with Ian Shaw for the first time, as warm and witty a personality off stage as he is on it, and generally a wonderful human being.


JOHN LAW’S RE-CREATIONS, MELVILLE THEATRE, 30/08/2019

Pianist and composer John Law is another artist to have visited Abergavenny and Black Mountain Jazz on previous occasions.

In 2009 he visited with his Art of Sound Trio, featuring bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Asaf Sirkis, playing Law’s original compositions. This trio have recorded four volumes of original material.

Two years later Law returned with his Opt Trio, featuring Sirkis and the Russian born bassist Yuri Goloubev. In this case the word ‘Opt’ stood for ‘other peoples tunes’, and in a sense this band represented the forerunner of his current Re-Creations quartet. Both groups specialise in artful deconstructions of ‘outside’ material, including radically altered versions of jazz and pop songs.

These “Re-Creations” are rigorous, with the carefully crafted arrangements often deploying re-harmonisations and the use of unusual,  frequently shifting time signatures. Within this framework plenty of space is left for improvisation and for interaction between the players.  Broadly speaking it’s similar to the approach taken by Brad Mehldau, a musician Law openly acknowledges as an influence- 

The Opt Trio’s only release was an ‘official bootleg’ that Law used to sell at gigs. However his Re-Creations project has been more fully and formally documented with a series of three official album releases on the 33 Record label. “Volume 1” (2017) and “Volume 3” (2019) feature the quartet of Sam Crockatt (saxes), James Agg (double bass) and Billy Weir (drums). “Volume 2”, also 2019, is a solo piano recording.

For this evening’s show at the Melville the unavailable Crockatt was replaced on tenor by rising star saxophonist Josh Schofield, a most able deputy.

The majority of tonight’s material was sourced from the third volume of the Re-Creations series and the performance began with the quartet’s version of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1”. Law likes to challenge his audiences to identify his often heavily disguised “Re-Creations”, and in this case only one member of the crowd could manage it, and it certainly wasn’t me! The performance featured Law on the Melville Centre’s acoustic upright piano and also picking out melodic snatches on glockenspiel. Weir’s dampened drum grooves and feathery cymbal touch provided a subtle rhythmic impetus as Schofield sketched further melodies on tenor sax.

The quartet then segued into a playful arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”, giving the old favourite a radical modern twist as Law established an earthy electric piano groove on his Korg SV electric keyboard. This was a frenetic, post modern version of the tune that included a more orthodox acoustic piano solo from Law, still doubling on Korg, and an expansive tenor sax excursion from the excellent Schofield.

Established jazz composers are not immune to the Law treatment. Tonight’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” was introduced by Weir at the drums, joined in dialogue by Agg’s bass, before Schofield sketched the familiar melodic hook on tenor sax. The saxophonist then stretched out further, probing deeply on tenor as Law conducted from the piano chair. The pianist then embarked on his own solo, underscored by Agg’s muscular bass groove and Weir’s fluid, loose timed drumming.

“This is another ‘guess the tune’” said Law as he embarked on a lengthy, arpeggiated solo piano passage that was thoroughly compelling and almost hypnotic. I suspect that, like me, most listeners recognised the allusions to the melody of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”. Bass and brushed drums were added to the equation before Schofield’s tenor fully embraced the familiar melody.
Agg was the featured soloist, picking out the melody pizzicato above Law’s piano arpeggios, before eventually picking up the bow.

Law’s arrangement of Miles Davis’ “So What” saw him doubling on electric and acoustic keyboards and soloing on the latter. He was followed by Schofield on tenor sax before the pair entered into a series of engaging melodic exchanges.

The first deconstruction of a modern pop song followed with Law’s re-imagining of Adele’s “Hello”, one of the centre pieces of “Volume 3”. This was introduced by a further passage of unaccompanied, arpeggiated piano, with Law’s classically honed technique very much to the fore. Again there were subtle allusions to the melody, but the tune only became truly recognisable with Schofield’s tenor sax solo and Agg’s outing on melodic double bass.

George Gershwin’s “Summertime” was introduced by a dialogue between the duo of Law on acoustic piano and Schofield on tenor sax. With the addition of bass and drums each then undertook an individual jazz solo, before the quartet was broken down again for the melodic exchanges between the leader’s piano and Agg’s double bass. The music then became more vigorous with a series of fiercely interactive exchanges between Law, Agg and Weir in piano trio mode. Another duo episode then saw an almost free jazz exchange between Schofield on tenor and a mallet wielding Weir at the drums, this eventually leading to a full blown drum solo from Weir. This was one of the quartet’s most adventurous “Re-Creations”, rarely can this most familiar of Gershwin tunes have been explored so radically, and at such length.

The quartet concluded with a take on The Beatles tune “Ob-La-Di-Ob-Lah Dah”, playfully treating it to a series of stylistic and dynamic variations, ranging from Latin-esque lounge style cheesiness to riotous Django Bares style up-tempo romps. Along the way we heard piano and tenor sax solos and a further series of spirited exchanges between Schofield and Weir.

All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable set that was well received by a pleasingly sizeable crowd at the Melville. Sound problems early on interrupted the flow a little, although this was more of an issue for the perfectionist Law than for the audience. Everybody played well on these imaginative, and often radical, arrangements with Weir winning many plaudits from members of the audience.

I was also impressed by Schofield, who fitted in seamlessly. It was my first sighting of this highly rated young saxophonist, already a bandleader in his own right, and I predict that we will be hearing a lot more from him in the coming years.

A good start to the main concert programme then, although I did have a few reservations. Law’s approach sometimes seemed to a bit too academic and knowing, too self consciously ‘clever’ for its own good. It’s an issue I’ve previously raised with regard to the music of the American group Mostly Other People Do The Killing, another band of fearsomely talented technicians.

During the course of the concert Law mentioned “I tend to do things in threes”, so it could be that the end of the road is nigh for the Re-Creations project, but hopefully not for this quartet. Law is a highly gifted writer of his own material with an impressive back catalogue of original music,  and it would be nice to hear this quartet tackling some of this.


DEBS HANCOCK / DAVE HOBBS DUO, MELVILLE CENTRE BAR, 30/08/2019

The ‘Wall2Wall’ nature of the Festival was emphasised by this intimate duo performance in the Melville Centre’s bar area while the turnaround was affected between the Re-Creations quartet and bassist Nick Kacal’s new Guerillasound group.

Vocalist Debs Hancock is a key part of Black Mountain Jazz as an organiser,  band liaison, announcer of acts and more. A highly accomplished multi-tasker she’s also a jazz singer with an increasingly impressive reputation, who has become a great favourite with jazz audiences in South Wales and the Borders.

She has previously worked in a duo situation with pianists Dave Jones and Guy Shotton as well as leading her own groups, usually trios or quartets,  under the generic Jazz Dragons name.

Tonight she was joined by guitarist Dave Hobbs, a one time Jazzmann contributor,  for a performance that initially functioned as background music as people re-charged their glasses after the John Law gig. But it didn’t take long until people were listening more intently as the pair quickly won the audience over with their intimate interpretations of a variety of jazz standards, mostly drawn from the ‘Great American Songbook’, plus a couple of well chosen pop covers.

The standards included “A Foggy Day In London Town”, “Gee, Baby Ain’t I Good To You”, “On Green Dolphin Street”, I Got The World On A String”, “But Beautiful” and a closing “Nature Boy”.

The two pop covers were the theme song from Peaky Blinders and a version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” that elicited an audience sing-along.

A great way to relax between sets, in the company of two of BMJ’s own.


NICK KACAL’S GUERILLASOUND, MELVILLE CENTRE THEATRE, 30/08/2019

Bassist Nick Kacal recently moved to the Valleys town of Mountain Ash after may years playing on the London jazz circuit, often in pretty weight company.

The arrival in the area of a musician of Kacal’s calibre and quality has represented quite a bonus for the South Wales scene and Kacal’s previous visits to BMJ and Wall2Wall in the company of vocalists Sarah Meek and Becki Biggins have won him many friends.

Kacal has recorded with pianist Alex Hutton and with vocalist Gabrielle Ducomble, and in addition to his talents as a bass player and composer he is also an accomplished recording engineer and producer.

Having previously enjoyed Kacal’s contributions to performances in Abergavenny by Meek and Biggins I was very much looking forward to seeing him leading his own band and presenting his own material.

The group name Guerillasound refers to the kind of tactics musicians have to employ to get a gig. Originally the band was a bass led trio featuring pianist Grant Windsor and bassist Dave Ohm and this London based line up appears on the group’s début album “Three Step, Two Step”.

Tonight’s version of the group was very different, but it did feature a stellar line up with Nicolas Meier on guitar, Richard Jones on violin and young drum tyro Alex Goodyear behind the kit. The core quartet were joined for two numbers by guest vocalist Sarah Meek.

“Three Step, Two Step” features a mix of Kacal originals plus a batch of inspired pop and rock covers. Some superficial parallels to the Law quartet then, but ultimately Guerillasound were significantly different, anybody who feared that the two groups would be too similar was very much mistaken.

Around fifty people attended the Re-Creations event, but only thirty or so returned for Kacal. Those that went home missed something of a treat as the new group delighted their audience with a skilled, spirited and eclectic display that featured some great musicianship.

Meier and Jones play together in the guitarist’s own quartet World Group and have established an excellent rapport. The other axis in the current edition of Guerillasound is the rhythm section of Kacal and RWCMD graduate Goodyear, these two being part of the Guy Shotton led trios that backed both Meek and Biggins.

I assume that Kacal had previously worked with Meier and Jones in London. In any event the new quartet quickly hit its stride to deliver some excellent and very exciting music, like the album a mix of Kacal originals and an eclectic mix of covers sourced from a variety of genres.

The quartet commenced with a jazz standard, “The Way You Look Tonight”, which came packaged in a quirky arrangement that served to introduce the individual instrumental voices of the band. The tune was ushered in by the leader’s bass, this establishing a groove that underpinned the fluid interplay between Meier’s guitar and Jones’ violin, plus the individual solos that followed. The subsequent dialogue between Meier’s guitar and Kacal’s double bass formed the intro for the latter’s own solo, with Goodyear finally rounding things off with a brushed drum feature.

Kacal’s own “Hardware Store” was also introduced by the composer’s bass and proved to be a kind of warped blues with a very contemporary edge. Meier had switched guitars and delivered a powerful solo that exhibited a strong rock influence, with the Swiss making excellent use of the tremolo arm and FX pedals. Jones, too, treated the sound of his instrument via the use of pedals during his eerie and effective violin solo. Kacals’s own solo combined melody with muscularity in impressive fashion while the irrepressible Goodyear enjoyed an energetic drum feature. Impressive stuff.

“If I Only Had A Brain”, from The Wizard of Oz, re-introduced the quirkiness factor. “I feel like I’m living in Oz since I moved to Wales” confessed Kacal. Introduced by a dialogue between Kacal’s bass and Meier’s semi acoustic guitar the familiar theme was eventually taken up by Jones’ violin. The arrangement saw the group breaking down into duos for playful but stimulating pared down dialogues between Meier’s guitar and Goodyear’s drums and later Kacal’s bass and Jones’ violin, with the latter deploying both pizzicato and arco techniques. The choice of tune may have been a bit left field but the performance was genuinely impressive.

Kacal’s own “Absent, Not Gone” was notable for the interplay between Meier’s electric guitar and Jones’ keening violin. With the guitarist again making effective use of tremolo arm and pedals the piece had something of an Americana feel about it and I was reminded of the partnership of Bill Frisell and Eyvind Kang. Meier’s FX drenched solo was genuinely haunting in a group performance that did full justice to one of Kacal’s most emotive and atmospheric compositions.

Sarah Meek joined the group for a song that Kacal described as “a modern classic that you might not have heard in this way before”. The tune turned out to be Nirvana’s “Lithium”, a piece previously recorded by Guerillasound in their piano trio format. Inevitably tonight’s version sounded very different with Meek delivering the lyrics fairly straight. It made a change to actually hear the words clearly enunciated, Kurt Cobain, like John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, being a singer who frequently favoured rawness and emotion over clarity of diction.
Paced by the leader’s bass the arrangement incorporated a bouncy groove that subtly subverted the intensity of the original and saw Meier adopting a warm, Metheny like jazz guitar sound for his solo. Jones followed on violin, soaring above that joyous groove, and Goodyear rounded things off with an increasingly vigorous drum feature. The choice of “Lithium” as a jazz vehicle reminded me of the cult Cardiff band Heavy Quartet blasting out their own mass horn driven version of the song on the Stroller programme at Brecon Jazz Festival back in the 1990s. Happy days.

Meek remained on stage to deliver a sultry vocal on the jazz standard “I’m Confessing That I Love You” in an arrangement that evoked a louche after hours feel with instrumental solos coming from Jones’ wheedling violin and Meier on semi-acoustic guitar. Again the interplay between these two instruments caught the ear before Meek returned to reprise the lyrics.

The free standing posters from BMJ’s ‘Jazz Through The Ages’ exhibition had been positioned around the Melville Centre for the duration of the Festival, including a couple strategically placed behind the musicians. The “Bebop” panel, featuring a photograph of Charlie Parker, was situated just behind Kacal, prompting him to call the Parker bop standard “Segment”. This saw Meier and Jones soloing in suitably boppish fashion above the leader’s rapid bass walk and Goodyear’s crisp drum grooves. Kacal then impressed through his exchanges with Jones and his subsequent agile bass solo before Goodyear wrapped things up with a briskly brushed drum feature.

The Kacal original “Open Hat” introduced an element of funk to the proceedings, courtesy of the leader’s bass grooves and Meier’s choppy, wah wah guitar chording. Meier’s solo exhibited a strong rock element while Jones’ equally powerful violin feature found him also making use of wah wah and other effects. Kacal introduced the famous bass hook from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” as he introduced the band, eventually abandoning this as he discovered that playing and announcing simultaneously wasn’t quite as easy as he thought. Nice try though, and nobody seemed to mind too much.

In keeping with their name Guerillasound had produced one of the surprises of the Festival. The gig may have been relatively sparsely attended but it was still a triumph with Kacal and his colleagues delivering a bright and energetic performance that included some exceptional playing.

I was also highly impressed with the quality of Kacal’s original writing, which embraced a variety of musical styles within a broader jazz framework. Meanwhile the covers were well chosen and played with genuine enthusiasm. There was a freshness and joyousness about Guerillasound’s performance that made their attitude to their eclectic range of covers seem more natural and organic than Law’s more studied and academic approach.

Of course having the mighty Nic Meier in its ranks is a huge boost for any band but everybody impressed with their contributions. Jones, originally from Cardiff but now based in London, won many plaudits from other listeners as did the eager Goodyear, a real rising star of the jazz scene. Kacal held it all together from the bass, the anchor of the band but also a highly fluent and dexterous bass soloist.

Guerillasound is something of an umbrella term for Kacal’s projects and a number of well known musicians such as pianists Zoe Rahman and Tom Cawley have at one time passed through its ranks.
The piano trio album is an impressive piece of work that again contains some excellent playing and writing plus a vibrant recorded sound that is also a tribute to Kacal’s engineering and production skills. If tonight’s line up is the new permanent line up of Guerillasound, as was at some point suggested, let’s hope that they are able to document their music on disc too.

Tonight’s three performances, in both the theatre and the bar, got the weekend’s events off to a great start with Kacal’s Guerillasound representing the ‘Discovery of the Festival’. Let’s hope that tonight’s excellent performance helps to open more doors for this very talented line up.

My thanks to Nic Meier for providing me with an advance copy of his soon to be released album “Peaceful”, featuring his World Group comprised of himself, Jones, bassist Kevin Glasgow and percussionist Demi Garcia. I intend to undertake a full review of this in due course.


by Trevor Bannister

August 21, 2019

Guest contributor Trevor Bannister previews a performance of saxophonist and composer Mark Lockheart's "Days On Earth" suite at the Wilde Theatre, South Hill Arts Centre, Bracknell on 27/09/2019.

Trevor Bannister writes;


On 27th September Jazz in Reading and Bracknell Jazz are jointly promoting a performance of Mark Lockheart’s Days On Earth at the Wilde Theatre, South Hill Arts Centre, Bracknell. It’s the opening concert in Mark’s UK tour and though scaled down from the massive ensemble that premiered the work in January and recorded the album, the Bracknell concert will be the only one to use a four-piece string section, making it an even more special occasion.


PRESS RELEASE:


Mark Lockheart’s ‘Days on Earth’
 
Wilde Theatre, South Hill Arts Centre, Bracknell, Berkshire.
 
Friday 27 September 2019
 

Mark Lockheart, virtuoso saxophonist and composer, is thrilled to be bringing his music to the Wilde Theatre, Bracknell on Friday 27 September and the chance to present his full 15-piece ensemble on the first date of his forthcoming UK tour.
 

‘Bracknell,’ he says, ‘has a special place in the British jazz psyche. I have special memories of playing at the wonderful Bracknell Jazz Festival with the fantastic band Loose Tubes on a bill topped by the great American guitarist Pat Metheny . The Festival brought cutting edge music to the town in a pleasant family atmosphere. I hope to bring some of that magic back to Bracknell with my jazz/orchestral tour de force ‘Days on Earth’.
 

‘My amazing small ensemble, featuring rising-stars Laura Jurd on trumpet, Alice Leggett saxophone and Sam Rapley clarinets, plus Liam Noble piano, Mike Outram guitars, Tom Herbert bass and Seb Rochford drums, will play the first half. They’ll be joined by special guests Rowland Sutherland flute, a string section and Jim Rattigan and Lawrence Clark on french horns for ‘Days on Earth’ in the second -it’s  very first performance out of London since its première in January of this year.’
 

‘Days on Earth’, and the album released to coincide with the concert, received massive critical acclaim and moved John Fordham of the Guardian to write in his 4-star review, ‘This is the brightest recording of a glittering career.’  
 

How best to describe ‘Days on Earth’?

‘It’s the culmination,’ Mark explains, ‘ of the 2 billion seconds that I’ve been eating, sleeping, playing and composing music; an eclectic mix of the influences and genres that have shaped my ideas -  expansive jazz improvisation, the lush soundscapes of playing with the band Polar Bear, to 70’s funk, African kora type harp melodies and soaring strings. It’s a defining work for me – intrinsically linked to life, love and joy.’
 

‘Days on Earth’, an ambitious venture jointly promoted by Bracknell Jazz, Jazz in Reading and South Hill Park, has a universal appeal to all lovers of live contemporary music and should not be missed!
 

Further details and ticket information can be found on:
 
http://www.jazzinreading.com
 
https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/mark-lockhearts-orchestral-jazz-suite/


The ‘Days on Earth’ tour will continue with the 8-piece ensemble: Sept 30th , Jazz In The Round- London; Oct 4th, Turner Sims, Southampton; Oct 10th, RWCMD, Cardiff; Oct 30th, Symphony Hall, Birmingham.
 
 

by Ian Mann

August 20, 2019

Ian Mann on the final day of the Festival, and performances by Ross Stanley, Karen Sharp, Stochelo Rosenberg, Rory Ingham and the Celtic Jazz Quartet. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Steve Brown, ‘the hardest working drummer in Brecon’ by Bob Meyrick.


SUNDAY AT BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2019

11/08/2019


ROSS STANLEY TRIO, THE MUSE

The mid-day slot on the final day of the festival offered a choice of listening. The young RWCMD schooled pianist Frazer Nelson was leading his trio at the Ty Helyg Lounge, the quartet Ocaso were bringing the sounds of Portugal and Brazil to the Castle Hotel, while trumpeter Gethin Liddington and his Goodkatz quintet were reviving the sounds of the Dixieland and swing eras at the Wellington.

Having previously reviewed shows by both Ocasa and Goodkatz I eventually decided to opt for what promised to be an intriguing and enjoyable performance at The Muse by a one off trio led by keyboard player Ross Stanley.

The affable Stanley is arguably best known as the UK’s most in demand jazz organist but he is also a highly accomplished pianist and performs and records regularly on both instruments. Today’s performance saw him appearing on piano, in reality a Nord Stage 88 keyboard, at The Muse in the company of drummer Steve Brown and local bass heroine Erika Lyons.

Stanley and Lyons had only met for the first time forty five minutes before the gig but one would never have thought it as the newly assembled trio gelled around the shared language of jazz to deliver a hugely enjoyable set of standards that featured some excellent playing from all involved. Considering the number of options on offer the audience turnout was also pleasingly large, let’s hope things were the same at the other three venues.

The trio introduced themselves with a swinging version of “Nobody Else But Me” that included fluent solos from Stanley and Lyons plus a series of brushed drum breaks from Brown.

Next we heard two contrasting compositions from the pen of Antonio Carlos Jobim, played back to back but not segued together.
A lively “No More Blues” featured solos from Stanley and Lyons complemented by the colourful drumming of Brown, ranging from the clatter of sticks on rims to the gentle patter of hand drums during the bass solo.
The jazz waltz “Louisa” was more contemplative and lyrical, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied piano and featuring the sound of brushed drums. Stanley later stretched out more expansively on piano before handing over to Lyons, who briefly flourished the bow towards the close.

The jazz standard “A Time For Love” was also introduced by a passage of solo piano with more conventional jazz solos subsequently coming from Stanley and Lyons plus a series of brushed drum breaks from Brown.

Solo piano also instigated a beautiful trio performance of the ballad “For All We Know” with Stanley’s playing subsequently complemented by Brown’s exquisite cymbal touch. Lyons’ bass solo was outstanding, melodic and lyrical, but highly dexterous.

“My Shining Hour” was delivered at a much faster tempo with Brown’s rapidly brushed drum grooves propelling a barnstorming piano solo from Stanley. The drummer also got to enjoy a full length solo, his vigorous brush work supplemented by effective use of the bass drum.

“Jive Coffee” was a contrafact written by the American guitarist Peter Bernstein, who plays in a trio with Larry Goldings, one of Stanley’s Hammond heroes. I assume that the piece was originally conceived for performance by an organ trio but it worked just as well in this context with its infectious Latin-esque rhythms prompting inventive solos from Stanley and Lyons plus a further drum feature from Brown.

A hugely enjoyable set concluded with an arrangement of Percy Mayfield’s “The Danger Zone”, a song made famous by Ray Charles and played here in a style that Stanley described as “a dangerously slow blues”. Solos here came from Stanley on piano and Lyons at the bass.

The Festival brochure promised a guest appearance by the young alto saxophonist Rachel Head, another product of the RWCMD. For some reason this didn’t happen but in truth I wasn’t too disappointed, the addition of another musician might have interrupted the very special rapport that had been established so quickly by the members of this exceptional trio.

Lyons once played professionally on the London jazz scene under her maiden name of Erika Howard before escaping to the Welsh Borders, where the quality of her playing is greatly appreciated by local jazz audiences. In the meantime she’s rather dropped off the radar as far as the jazz scene at large is concerned. I rather got the impression that Stanley was very pleasantly surprised by the level of her capabilities as both an effective team player and a highly accomplished soloist.  Here in the Marches we’re rather proud of Erika’s capabilities and this show was a welcome reminder of her considerable talents.

It was also a timely reminder of Stanley’s skills as a pianist and of Brown’s ability to both complement drive any band that he finds himself a part of. This was a hugely enjoyable standards set that surpassed my initial expectations.


KAREN SHARP QUARTET, GUILDHALL THEATRE

As the audience filed out of The Muse the busy Brown packed up his cymbals ready to dash over to the Guildhall for his second gig of the day as part of a quartet led by the saxophonist Karen Sharp.
Sharp endeared herself to British jazz audiences during a lengthy stint with the late Humphrey Lyttleton’s band, before embarking on a solo career.

By way of contrast to the Stanley trio this is a regular working group that also features the talents of pianist Nikki Iles and bassist Dave Green. This line up has recorded two albums, “Spirit” (2011) and “The Sun, The Moon and You” (2018). The recordings feature a mix of jazz standards and Sharp originals, but today’s performance was entirely standards based.

I had previously seen this quartet perform in March 2017 at a Shrewsbury Jazz Network event at The Hive Music & Media Centre. The billed as the Nikki Iles / Karen Sharp Quartet the group gave a very classy performance and those high standards were also apparent throughout today’s set.

The quartet hit the ground running with a version of Harry Warren’s “Summer Night” with Sharp quickly hitting her stride with a marathon tenor solo. A highly fluent soloist she was followed by the similarly masterful Iles at the piano and the peerless Green at the bass.

“The Dolphin”, a tune written by Luiz Eca and associated with Stan Getz, introduced a Brazilian flavour to the piece and included solos from Iles, at one point with only Green’s bass for company, Sharp on tenor, and Green himself.

A tenor sax / double bass duet introduced the quartet’s version of Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica” with Green taking the first conventional solo, underscored by sparse piano chording and tastefully brushed drums. Sharp and Iles later stretched out on tenor and piano respectively, prior to a closing drum feature from the ever effervescent Brown.

“Quiet Now” was an exquisite ballad from the pen of the criminally underrated American pianist and composer Denny Zeitlin, also a qualified psychiatrist. Introduced by a passage of solo piano from Iles this was a beautiful performance that featured Iles at her most lyrical and Green at his most melodic. Sharp’s warmth on tenor was a good demonstration of her versatility and her skills as a ballad player.

The Lee Konitz composition “Thingin’” was ushered in by Brown at the drums and saw Sharp switching to baritone and joining the drummer in an introductory dialogue. With the addition of Iles and Green Sharp embarked on a more orthodox jazz solo that demonstrated her fluency on the larger horn. She was followed by Iles on piano, Green at the bass, and Brown with a series of drum breaks.

Sharp moved back to tenor for the second ballad of the set, an arrangement of the Leonard Bernstein song “Some Other Time”. The piece was introduced by Iles at the piano and featured Sharp’s expressive tenor sax soloing in addition to further features for Iles and Green. The performance concluded with an impressive solo tenor sax cadenza.

An excellent set concluded with an unannounced item that I thought I recognised but couldn’t pin a title on. In any event it was great fun with Sharp delivering a rousing, rasping, baritone solo while Iles continued to shine at the piano.

Another near capacity audience thoroughly enjoyed this set which featured Sharp demonstrating great fluency on both saxophones, while Iles performance was as impeccable as ever at the piano.
Once again  the always swinging Brown proved himself to be a great team member, a subtly propulsive drummer who always offered great support to his colleagues and clearly enjoyed his own moments in the spotlight. This was his second gig of the day, following immediately after the performance by the Ross Stanley trio, but the ever effusive Brown showed no signs of tiring.

I have seen Dave Green perform on many occasions but have rarely seen him afforded as much solo space as here. His time keeping was immaculate throughout, as ever,  but it was his soloing that really captured the imagination, fluent, inventive and melodic, but always with that underlying sense of swing. For me, he threatened to steal the show.

My photographer friend Bob Meyrick, also the promoter of the Jazzsteps series of events in Nottinghamshire, likes to refer to Green as “The Guv’nor”, a perfect description for the quiet authority that he brings to any ensemble that he plays in. In Dave Green the Sharp quartet had the ultimate ‘safe pair of hands’, and an inspired bass soloist to boot.


STOCHELO ROSENBERG QUINTETTE, THEATR BRYCHEINIOG

From the ‘Guv’nor’ to ‘The Don’, the name that guitarist Chris Quinn gives to fellow guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg, head of the Dutch gypsy jazz dynasty and the man that many regard as the natural heir of the great Django Reinhardt.

The Rosenbergs are gypsy jazz royalty and persuading them to play at BJF represented another coup for the Festival organisers. They were assisted in this quest by the Shrewsbury based Quinn, who has forged close links with the gypsy jazz community and who helped to facilitate today’s concert as well as playing rhythm guitar in a five piece line up that featured Stochelo Rosenberg and his younger brother Mozes on lead guitars, Christiaan van Hemert on violin and Arnaud Van Den Berg on double bass.

Stochelo was born in Belgium and is now based in the Netherlands, but he and the rest of the Rosenberg clan have acquired an international reputation and have toured globally.

It was good to see Theatr Brycheiniog being used as a Festival venue once again and a pleasingly large crowd was in attendance as the five musicians took up their positions. The essence of gypsy jazz is that it can be played on portable instruments so with no piano or drum kit present the members of the Quintette initially looked very small on the huge stage. But the quality of the music quickly filled the space and the sound in the auditorium was perfectly balanced, allowing the listeners to capture every nuance of the playing.

There are a lot of groups around playing gypsy jazz or ‘manouche’ music but I think I can fairly say that I haven’t seen it played quite as well as this since witnessing Stephane Grappelli himself, with a band featuring the then rising star Martin Taylor, at Malvern Theatre sometime in the late 1970s / early 80s.

The Quintette’s repertoire drew widely on that of the Quintet du Hot Club de France and featured many Django Reinhardt compositions, beginning with “Duke and Duke”, quickly followed by “Daphne” in a dazzling opening combination. These two pieces found Stochelo and Mozes trading solos of astonishing virtuosity, their fingers flying around their fretboards in a blur, the lead changing hands seamlessly as they delighted their excited audience. The impressive van Hemert also contributed some fluent solo statements of his own as Quinn and Van Den Berg supplied the vigorous, propulsive rhythms.

The ballad “Clair De Lune”, first recorded by Reinhardt in 1947, revealed a more sensitive side of the group with van Hemert leading off the solos, followed by Mozes and Stochelo.

“Honeysuckle Rose” was taken at a fast clip as the Quintette raised the energy levels once more, with solos coming from Stochelo, Mozes and van Hemert.

The Quintette also specialise in bringing other elements to the gypsy jazz table, including swing, bebop, rumba, bossa nova and funk. Their interpretation of “Poinciana”, inspired by a recorded version by pianist Ahmad Jamal, brought a hint of bossa to the proceedings with van Hemert delivering a violin solo of such beauty that it was rewarded with whoops of delight from an adoring audience.

The temperature was raised again with a romp through “Minor Swing”, one of Reinhardt’s most famous compositions. Van Hemert took the first solo before handing over to the two lead guitarists who traded solos and also played a delightful duo passage as the rest of the band temporarily dropped out.

Written by Stochelo and named by van Hemert “Mozeology” honoured the composer’s brother and added a bebop element to the music. The tune, written on Widney Island while the group were on tour in nearby Seattle included a feature for Van Den Berg at the bass in addition to solos for the two lead guitars plus violin. The bassist was to feature again as he shared the solos with Stochelo on Reinhardt’s “Minor Blues”.

Another famous Reinhardt piece, the enduring “Nuages”, again featured the gentler side of the group with Mozes sharing the solos with van Hemert and Stochelo.

We then heard another Stochelo original, that I didn’t catch the title of, before the Quintette took things storming out with a galloping version of “Joseph Joseph” with the breakneck rhythms setting the pace for astonishingly agile solos from Stochelo, Mozes and van Hemert and with Van Den Berg weighing in for good measure.

The inevitable encore saw Stochelo and Mozes coming back on stage to play a brief, but beautiful, guitar duet. They were then joined by the rest of the group for stunning version of “the gypsy anthem”, “Dark Eyes”,  with solos from van Hemert, Stochelo, Mozes and Van Den Berg and with the collective accelerating the rhythm to a mind boggling pace by the close.

Following this the Quintette received a genuine standing ovation with practically everybody in the auditorium getting to their feet. I’ve seen and heard a lot of gypsy jazz in recent years and perhaps become a little jaded about it, but this performance was a real eye opener, a welcome reminder of just how exciting this music can be. These guys really did take the genre to a whole other level.

Congratulations are due to Chris Quinn, who helped to put the whole thing together, and to North Wales Jazz, who I believe were involved as well. Quinn also played the ‘Dave Kelbie role’ to perfection, focussing on rhythm guitar throughout (no solos), his disciplined and accurate playing giving the soloists just the platform they needed to help them weave their manouche magic.

I’m also indebted to Chris for providing me with a copy of “The Way Of The Guitar”, his recent recording as part of the Paulus Schafer Trio, an album I intend to take a look at in due course. Also for the gift of a live album by the trio The Rosenbergs, a trio led by Mozes and featuring another member of the clan, Johnny, on rhythm guitar and occasional vocals.


RORY INGHAM QUINTET, ST. MARY’S CHURCH

Twenty two year old trombonist and composer Rory Ingham was named as the winner of the Rising Star category at the 2017 British Jazz Awards.  A frequent award winner his profile has continued to increase thanks to his work with the quintet Jam Experiment, now renamed Bonsai. Ingham has also played with the Mike Gibbs Big Band, NYJO, the BBC Big Band and others.

My review of the recent Bonsai album, “Bonsai Club”, can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/bonsai-bonsai-club/

The quintet that Ingham brought to the Festival represented a new project and featured his Bonsai bandmate Jonny Mansfield on vibraphone, Julia Mills on soprano and alto saxophones, Will Harris on double bass and the German born Felix Ambach at the drums. The date was part of a short European tour that will also take in Berlin and Barcelona!

It turned out that Mills is actually Ingham’s mother. How many other bands featuring mothers and sons do you know? The Dankworths obviously, and for those of us of a certain age who grew up in the 1970s there’s always Lieutenant Pigeon!

Mills turned out to be highly capable saxophonist, making a return to the music business after several years away raising a family. It was clear where Rory and his violinist/vocalist Dominic get their musical genes from.

Today’s set mainly featured Rory’s original writing, but although some of these tunes had been featured in the repertoire of Jam Experiment / Bonsai they sounded very different in this context.

The first piece we heard was the trombonist’s “Get It On Target”, a tune with an infectious ‘head’ that reminded me of Pat Metheny’s “James” and which also forms part of the Bonsai repertoire.
This featured a trombone and soprano sax front line with mother and son combining effectively and with each subsequently taking individual solos. I was already familiar with Ingham’s abilities as a soloist after seeing him with Jam Experiment but Mills’ playing was a revelation as she probed fluently, intelligently and incisively on soprano. Mansfield, who leads his own eleven piece band Elftet, with which Ingham plays, then impressed with a vibraphone solo that saw him deploying the four mallet technique. Mansfield is also a talented drummer and fulfils this role with Bonsai.

Although now based in London Ingham hails from Wakefield and his compositions often reference his native town. One such was the ballad “Sandal Castle”, performed as a quartet with Mills sitting out. This featured the warm, rounded sound of the composer’s trombone underscored by shimmering vibes and brushed drums and with Harris delivering a richly melodic double bass solo, prior to an unaccompanied trombone cadenza at the close.

Mills returned, this time on alto, for the first ‘outside’ item of the set, an arrangement of the Charlie Parker bebop standard “Anthropology” that featured an impressive unison statement of the tricky theme by the horns, followed by solos from Mills on alto and Mansfield on vibes. Ingham’s own solo saw him accompanied by Harris’ bass only, the latter subsequently entering into a sparky dialogue with Ambach’s drums.

Ingham’s own “Theaker’s Barn” featured interlocking trombone and alto lines fuelled by brushed drum grooves. Ingham’s trombone solo featured him in a pared down setting with just bass and drums for company. Mansfield then took over at the vibes, his vivacious exchanges with Harris and Ambach sometimes reminiscent of the Cloudmakers Trio (Jim Hart, vibes, Michael Janisch, double bass and Dave Smith, drums) who visited BJF in 2018.

The next piece was an astoundingly empathic trombone and double bass duet that was unannounced, and which I thought might have been entirely improvised. Mills later informed me that it was an adaptation of the Jasper Hoiby composition “Before”, a piece originally written for the trio Phronesis.

The set concluded with Ingham’s composition “MidWest”, a piece inspired by family visits to the Scottish Highlands. Introduced by Ambach at the drums this was a lengthy, episodic work featuring a front line of trombone and soprano sax with Mills’ airy solo followed by Ingham on trombone.
Besides the solos the piece also featured complex, through composed unison passages that revealed just how tight this quintet was, even in what is still early days for this particular project. The piece then ended as it began with a feature for Ambach at the kit.

The quality of the playing and the maturity of the original writing helped to ensure that this set was extremely well received by the audience at St. Mary’s. Ingham’s humorous presenting style also helped, both he and Mansfield are refreshingly down to earth Northerners with a ready wit. The novelty of seeing a mother and son playing together, with the son in charge, may also have been a factor.

The success of the event could also be measured in album sales with the new Bonsai album selling well and with Mansfield selling out of his Elftet album.

My thanks to Rory, Julia and Jonny for speaking with me afterwards. I now hope to catch up with Bonsai when they play at the Hermon Chapel Arts Centre in Oswestry on Sunday, September 15th 2019 as part of their ongoing tour.

CELTIC JAZZ QUARTET, WELLINGTON HOTEL

The final ticketed event of Brecon Jazz Festival 2019 saw the return of a quartet that first played the Festival in 2016 under the name Celtic Jazz Sounds.

Now re-named the Celtic Jazz Quartet this is an Irish/Welsh collaboration and saw Carole Nelson (piano, alto sax, penny whistle, vocals) and Maria Walsh (lead vocals, percussion, flute) crossing the Irish Sea once more to join forces once more with local musicians Heulwen Thomas (violin, vocals) and Ian Cooper (electric bass).

Under the group name Zrazy the duo of Walsh and Nelson have recorded a series of albums embracing both jazz and folk as well as electronica.  Openly lesbian many of their songs embrace feminist and political issues but there was little proselytising at tonight’s performance which saw the Anglo-Irish duo (Nelson was born in London) combining with Thomas and Cooper to deliver an entertaining set that was well received by a sizeable and supportive audience at the Wellington.

The 2016 performance had the feel of a ‘one off’ event and was in truth, a rather ragged affair but the quartet still made enough of an impression to be invited back ‘by popular demand’.

Nelson and Walsh had come over early, on the Thursday immediately prior to the Festival in order to avoid the dire weather that had been forecast. It’s possible that this might have afforded them more rehearsal time with their Welsh colleagues as tonight’s performance was far more tight and together than last time with Thomas sticking around for the whole set – in 2016 she’d left part way through to play another gig elsewhere.

In the main the set was steered by the Zrazy duo with the songs of Nelson and Walsh forming a large part of the repertoire. The first song was introduced by Nelson on penny whistle and featured Walsh on bodhran and vocals, her lyrics evoking a real sense of place and nature. Thomas skilfully wove her violin solo into the piece and Cooper’s bass provided a solid groove throughout.

The song “Rain” was an apposite choice given the weather conditions and featured Walsh playing brushed snare drum as Nelson doubled as piano soloist and backing vocalist. Elsewhere we heard from Thomas once more and Walsh contributed a scat vocal episode in addition to her singing of the lyrics.

“Heaven Is Here” introduced more new sounds with Walsh on voice and shaker and Thomas playing the violin pizzicato.

Zrazy’s original songs were mixed with jazz standards and other set pieces. “One Note Samba” was a feature for Thomas’ violin but also included a piano solo from Nelson and another bout of scatting from Walsh.

“Dream On”, the title track of a Zrazy album, proved to be a fierce declaration of individuality with Walsh’s singing of the lyrics augmented by Nelson’s piano solo and Thomas’ gypsy jazz style excursion on violin.

A song inspired by Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains saw the group sound supplemented by the addition of a drum machine as Walsh delivered a lyric relating to childhood memory and escaping the big city life.

I recall Cole Porter’s chronicle of obsession “Night And Day” featuring at the 2016 performance, and it was to feature again here with Walsh’s delivery of the lyric bookended by instrumental solos from Nelson and Thomas.

Thomas took the vocal mic to deliver a version of “Alright OK” etc. a light-hearted dip into the rock ‘n’roll catalogue that also saw her soloing on violin, sharing the instrumental spotlight with Nelson’s piano. Rhythmic impetus came from Walsh’s brushed snare and Cooper’s underpinning electric bass growl.

After this dash of light relief came a total contrast with Nelson’s harrowing, but award winning original song “Private Wars” with Walsh’s voice chronicling the tale of a relationship breakdown. The sounds of the Zrazy duo were underpinned by Cooper’s electric bass undertow with Thomas’ violin breaking free to solo towards the close.

Walsh picked up the bodhran again for “Drive”, a piece that she described as “our Thelma and Louise song”. This tale of defiance and escape in a repressive Ireland was fuelled by Cooper’s bass groove and saw Nelson adopting an electric piano setting for a solo whose sound reminded me of The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm”. Thomas also featured on violin and Cooper’s bass came to the fore very briefly, prior to a scat vocal episode from Walsh.

The set concluded with “You Make Me Happy”, a song from Zrazy’s most recent album “The Art of Happy Accidents”. Once again the piece featured the drum machine, which supplemented Cooper’s funky electric bass groove as Walsh soloed on Jethro Tull like flute and Nelson doubled on keyboards and alto sax, with Thomas delivering a final violin solo.

Once again this quartet were very well received by a supportive crowd and sales of the Zrazy duo’s CDs were correspondingly brisk. It was certainly a more accomplished and professional show than last time with the full time presence of Thomas, who soloed with flair and fluency, a substantial factor in the success of the evening.

Nelson and Walsh write intelligent, often very personal, songs with pertinent lyrics and they embrace an impressive variety of musical styles including jazz, folk and pop. They have clearly attracted a considerable following for their music and although it’s not particularly to my personal tastes the audience reaction more than justified their presence here.


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

Despite the weather 2019 was another highly successful year for Brecon Jazz Festival. With the exception of Maciek Pysz’s talk on the lunchtime of the opening day every concert event that I went to was very well attended and the audiences were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and supportive throughout.

The big names such as Liane Carroll, Barbara Dennerlein, Scott Hamilton and Stochelo Rosenberg all delivered the goods while Samantha Wright and Rory Ingham announced themselves as stars of the future. Gareth Roberts and the Pysz/Cousins/Gardiner trio demonstrated the strength of the South Wales jazz scene while Ross Stanley and Karen Sharp delivered classy standards based sets.
Steve Waterman’s Big Band was the most accomplished ensemble to fill the Friday night big band slot thus far.  In fact every performance that I saw offered something to enjoy and everywhere audiences reacted correspondingly.

The poor weather and the tight scheduling combined to ensure that I saw little of the Street and Fringe programmes although I did enjoy the photographic and art exhibitions at The Muse, Theatr Brycheiniog and Guildhall.

Following on from 2018’s ‘Women In Jazz’ theme this year’s Festival again included an impressive roster of female led bands with Samantha Wright, Liane Carroll, Alice Leggett, Barbara Dennerlein and Karen Sharp all headlining successfully while the Celtic Jazz Quartet was 75% female.
Friday night’s big band also included a large contingent if female instrumentalists with Leggett, Charlotte Keeffe, Beverley Green and Rebecca Nash all featuring strongly as soloists. Elsewhere Alicia Gardener-Trejo, Sophia Oster, Paula Gardiner, Nikki Iles and Julia Mills all played key roles in the bands they were involved in.

Lynne Gornall, Roger Cannon and their team are to be congratulated on another successful Festival that once again brought some exceptional jazz talents and some great music to Brecon. The stewarding was as courteous and efficient as ever, the sound excellent at all venues and every event ran to time.

My only reservation regarding this year’s Festival would be the absence of the Brecon Jazz Futures programme, which delivered some excellent music from some prodigious young talents in both 2016 and 2018. It is to be hoped that the strand, co-ordinated by jazz educator Marc Edwards, can return in 2020.

That said the performances by the Alice Leggett Quartet and Rory Ingham Quintet, plus some of the RWCMD related appearances confirmed the festival’s commitment to supporting emerging jazz talent.

by Ian Mann

August 18, 2019

Ian Mann on the second day of the Festival and performances by the Pysz/Cousins/Gardiner Trio, Alice Leggett, Gareth Roberts, Barbara Dennerlein and Scott Hamilton. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Maciek Pysz by Bob Meyrick.


SATURDAY AT BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2019

10/08/2019


MACIEK PYSZ /  GERARD COUSINS / PAULA GARDINER TRIO
WELLINGTON HOTEL

A noon start in the function room at the Wellington Hotel for this unique, one-off trio featuring the combined talents of guitarists Maciek Pysz and Gerard Cousins together with double bassist Paula Gardiner.

Polish born Pysz, a previous visitor to Brecon Jazz Club’s monthly sessions, had given an interesting and stimulating talk and guitar demonstration the previous day in the lounge at Ty Helyg Guest House.

A popular figure among Brecon jazz audiences he was joined by fellow guitarist Gerard Cousins, a true local favourite. Primarily a classical guitarist Cousins, who lives in the Brecon area, also has jazz leanings and has performed previously at the Festival. These appearances have included a fascinating re-imagination of Miles Davis’ classic “In A Silent Way” album, performed in the company of a hand picked ensemble featuring some of the best jazz musicians from South Wales and the South West of England.

Paula Gardiner is also a familiar figure to Brecon jazz audiences as a bassist, composer, arranger and band leader and also as the Head of Jazz Performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) in Cardiff.

Rather than taking the easy option and playing a standards based set the trio decided to largely concentrate on material written by Pysz and Cousins. It’s also likely that as a mainly classical player Cousins is less familiar with the ‘real book’ canon than his colleagues.

The performance began with Pysz and Cousins working in the guitar duo format and commenced with a beautiful interpretation of the Pysz composition “These Days”, a piece that he had performed solo the previous day at Ty Helyg. Today’s rendition featured the duo’s mesmerising, intertwining guitar lines, the pair switching lead and rhythm functions throughout the performance, passing the baton seamlessly as the piece developed.

Both guitarists share a love of flamenco music and “Desert” was Pysz’s homage to the great Paco de Lucia and featured both players using the bodies of their guitars as auxiliary percussion as they traded dazzling, virtuosic solos.

Cousins also draws inspiration from the work of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass and regards Pat Metheny’s interpretation of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” as something of a personal touchstone. His own composition “Minimi”, written for two guitars, was therefore an ideal choice for this situation as he and Pysz delivered a hypnotic and immersive performance featuring shimmering, interlocking, arpeggiated guitar patterns, with Pysz utilising his foot pedals to provide additional colour and texture.

Cousins then went solo in a performance of his composition “White Cloud, Blue Sky”, a piece inspired by one of his jazz guitar heroes, the great John McLaughlin, and particularly McLaughlin’s work with Shakti and with Zakir Hussain. It was also his love of McLaughlin’s playing that led to the earlier “Silent Way” project.
And there was me thinking the title might have been inspired by Jan Garbarek’s “Photo With…” album, but I digress.
The performance itself mixed a delightfully melodic and pastoral opening passage with a more energetic and dynamic second part that became a whirlwind of extreme finger picking virtuosity.
The recorded version of this piece appears on Cousins’ 2014 album “The First Beat Is The Last Sound” and features him overdubbing the two guitar parts.

Cousins and Pysz were joined by Paula Gardiner for a segue that renewed their love affair with Iberia as Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” was teamed with Chick Corea’s celebratory “Spain”. The concerto saw Gardiner picking out the melody on the bass as she exchanged phrases with the two guitarists. This proved to be taster for the dazzling performance of “Spain” which featured stunning solos from both guitarists plus a further bass feature for Gardiner. This was genuinely jaw dropping stuff, such was the skill and virtuosity on display.

But this performance wasn’t all about technique, there was also a strong focus on beauty with the players also embracing the concept of space within the music, with notes sometimes seeming to just hang in the air. A case in point was the trio’s delightful interpretation of Ralph Towner’s beautiful composition “Beneath An Evening Sky”, which was introduced by an extended passage of unaccompanied guitar from Pysz and which later included an exquisite solo from Cousins. At Ty Helyg Pysz had spoken of his admiration for Towner’s work and this genuine affection was perfectly expressed here.

To close the trio performed the Pysz composition “Always On The Move”, a reflection on the guitarist’s nomadic lifestyle and a neat follow on from Friday’s talk. Again the piece was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from the composer but also included features for Cousins and Gardiner. Once more the piece revealed Pysz’s skills as a writer, he is a consistently excellent composer, whose works all possess a strong melodic, and even cinematic, quality.

The subdued virtuosity of these three fine musicians was rewarded with an excellent reception from a pleasingly substantial crowd at the Wellington. The reaction was enthusiastic enough for the trio to be accorded an encore. This proved to be Cousins’ choice, the guitarist selecting his arrangement of “Openings” from Philip Glass’ larger opus “Glassworks”. Cousins had transposed Glass’ piece for solo guitar but it worked equally effectively in a trio context with Pysz’s pedals and Gardiner’s bowed bass adding extra colour and texture to Cousins’ guitar parts.

This was a performance that again demonstrated the abilities of Festival organisers Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon to bring together musicians who have never worked, or even sometimes met, each other before, to create a viable musical partnership.

Pysz and Cousins clearly had a great respect for each others abilities and quickly gelled into an effective partnership with Gardiner subsequently finding her own way into the music as the set progressed.

This subdued but absorbing set proved to be something of a Festival highlight with the selection of largely original material making a nice change from the largely standards based nature of some of the other Festival performances.


ALICE LEGGETT QUARTET, GUILDHALL THEATRE

Over at the Guildhall the young alto saxophonist and composer Alice Leggett was leading her quartet in what must have been one of her most prestigious shows to date.

Cardiff born Leggett studied at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London and the quality of her musicianship has attracted the attention of such jazz luminaries as trumpeter Steve Waterman and saxophonist Mark Lockheart.

Leggett was part of the Steve Waterman Big Band that had played at the Castle Hotel the night before and she has also featured with previous BJF big bands. She has also played with the Calum Gourlay Big Band and with the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra.

On disc she appears as a key part of the ensemble on Lockheart’s large scale work “Days On Earth”, released on Edition Records.
Review here; http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/mark-lockheart-days-on-earth/

Today Leggett brought her regular London based quartet to Brecon, an experienced line up featuring the talents of pianist Rick Simpson, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Jon Scott.

The programme that they performed was mainly comprised of Leggett originals and commenced with “Mount Tibidabo”, named for the highest point in Barcelona. A loosely structured intro around a rolling groove evolved into a more formally written section, a brief passage of solo piano from Simpson providing the link. As the music continued to unfold Leggett began to stretch out on alto, probing deeply above the polyrhythmic flow of Scott’s drumming, his style reminiscent here of the great Jeff Williams. Leggett was followed by the impressive Simpson, a busy and versatile presence on the London jazz scene.

Simpson’s piano then introduced “Castle and Sun”, a more reflective Leggett original inspired by a Paul Klee painting, that included further solos from the saxophonist and pianist.

Gourlay’s bass ushered in the wonderfully titled “Even Artichokes Have Hearts” and the bassist also took the first full length solo on a piece featuring a song like structure and one of Leggett’s simplest and most beautiful themes. Leggett then expanded upon the melody during her alto solo and she was followed by Simpson, who added gospel flavourings to the mix during an expansive excursion on piano.

Following this we heard a ‘contrafact’ where Leggett had written a new ‘head’ or theme above the chord structure of Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Call This”. Leggett described the piece as a “nice little swinger” and it certainly encouraged the near capacity audience to get on her side as the quartet fairly romped through the piece with expansive solos from Simpson and Leggett plus further features for Gourlay and Scott, the latter deploying brushes in vigorous fashion. The piece certainly swung like the clappers, while keeping something of Monk’s trademark quirkiness intact.

Leggett’s “Sense of Self” was given a world première, with hard driving, contemporary sounding grooves contrasting well with gentler, more ruminative piano trio passages. The tension was ramped up during Leggett’s alto solo and the piece came to a climax with a dynamic drum feature from Scott. The drummer’s contribution to the success of the performance was certainly noticed by the audience, with many favourable comments being overheard on the way out.

The set concluded with “One Way Leggett”, the title a reference to Alice’s propensity for driving the wrong way down one way streets -  “no-ones been hurt – yet” - joked the saxophonist. Gourlay introduced the piece solo at the bass, eventually establishing a groove that acted as the green light for barnstorming solos from Simpson and Leggett as the quartet completed their performance on a high note.

Although we’d only heard five numbers this had been a full length set that was very well received by a commendably large crowd at the Guildhall. Leggett’s pieces were lengthy, sometimes complex and densely written, but still with plenty of scope for improvisation and individual self expression.

There was much potential here and some excellent playing but it still didn’t quite feel like the finished article. Leggett’s presentation was a little hesitant and she needs to work more on her stage craft.

Also “Artichokes” and the Monk contrafact were the most effective items in the repertoire, rather than the more ambitious material, which Leggett probably sets more store by, but which sounded a little anonymous by comparison. A qualified success then, but still a highly enjoyable event and another step up the jazz career ladder for the young and talented Alice Leggett, probably playing to one of the largest audiences that she has faced thus far.


GARETH ROBERTS QUARTET, THE ELLINGTON SET, WELLINGTON HOTEL

“Ellington at the Wellington!” as Lynne Gornall couldn’t resist saying during her introduction.

Trombonist Gareth Roberts is one of the leading figures on the South Wales jazz scene and has been a great friend of Brecon Jazz for many years. He has featured at the monthly Club events on numerous occasions and also led the Big Band at the 2018 Festival, writing many of the arrangements and also contributing a smattering of original compositions.

2019 saw Roberts appear in the Big Band led by trumpeter Steve Waterman as well as presenting this performance by his own quartet, a group featuring the cream of South Walian jazz talent.

Pianist Dave Jones, bassist Ashley John Long and drummer Mark O’Connor have all featured on the Jazzmann web pages many times in various contexts and there’s no doubt that if these guys were to move to London their skills would be hugely in demand. Like Roberts all these musicians are seriously talented players who always deliver the goods. We’re talking premier league quality here, these guys deserve to be considered as far more than just good ‘regional musicians’.

And in many ways, as Lynne Gornall explained, this was what today’s performance at a packed Wellington was all about. Welsh jazz audiences may already be familiar with the talents of the musicians on display but this set was a chance to bring Roberts, Jones, Long and O’Connor to the attention of a wider demographic as they played to a crowd containing many visitors from further afield. Sensing that this was far more than just a routine gig Roberts and his colleagues played with real brio in a set that contained some truly inspired soloing.

Roberts is a talented composer in his own right and has released two quintet albums as a leader, both comprised of entirely original material. He was also a significant writing presence in the ranks of the cult Cardiff band Heavy Quartet, sadly now defunct. He has also written “The Monmouthshire Suite”, a large scale work that has been performed by the Monmouth Community Big Band, and is a key performer and arranger for Cardiff’s Capital City Big Band.

One of Roberts’ most popular projects with audiences is his “Ellington Set”, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. The trombonist has presented his vibrant interpretations of favourite Ellington tunes at numerous venues across Wales, including Brecon Jazz Club and Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny, always gaining a great reception.

As Roberts explains;
“I was asked to perform a set of my favourite standards but when I started to think of tunes to play they all turned out to be Ellington compositions. He’s my favourite composer so I decided to present a themed set and it’s just taken off from there”.

The quartet hit the ground running with “In A Mellow Tone”, which included inspired solos from Roberts, Jones and Long. Jones, a highly accomplished composer and bandleader in his own right, tossed a Thelonious Monk quote into his solo, a gesture that was to become something of a theme in its own right.

Jones’ keyboard flourishes announced “Take The A Train”, which was fast tracked by Long’s rapid, highly propulsive bass walk, this signalling an astonishingly agile trombone solo from Roberts and a rollicking piano solo from Jones. O’Connor threw in a series of sparky drum breaks in a performance that crackled with energy and was great fun. These guys always play with a smile on their faces and their collective sense of fun is something that transmits itself easily to audiences.

The blues “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” found Jones quoting Monk and more during the course of his solo, much to the amusement of his colleagues - that shared sense of musical humour again.

But the quartet also showed that they can also do ‘serious’ with a beautiful version of the ballad “In A Sentimental Mood”, which was introduced by a duo passage of trombone and piano, these later joined by double bass and brushed drums. For all his exuberance elsewhere Roberts is capable of playing with great tenderness on ballads. Another highlight here was Long’s delightfully melodic bass solo.

It was the bassist who persuaded Roberts that he should add “Just Squeeze Me” to his repertoire of Ellington tunes. A lively performance of the piece featured a further solo from Long alongside features from Roberts and a particularly inspired Jones.

Arguably the Duke’s most famous tune “It Don’t Mean A Thing” featured a rousing trombone solo from Roberts, the trombonist being followed by Jones at the keys. Roberts then embarked on a series of rumbustious exchanges with O’Connor that delighted the Festival audience.

Roberts dedicated “Creole Love Call” to his father, who was seated in the audience. This performance of his dad’s favourite Ellington tune featured Roberts’ bluesy, plunger muted trombone vocalisations, at one point in conjunction with Long’s bass only. Further solos came from Jones and Long. It should be mentioned that the latter is one of the most able and creative bass soloists around, a bass feature from Ashley John Long is never boring.

The all too short set closed with a joyous romp through “Caravan”, ushered in by a rousing dialogue between the leader’s trombone and O’Connor’s drums. Jones added Afro-Cuban flourishes to his piano solo before Roberts stretched out further on trombone. The performance was then climaxed by a dynamic drum feature from O’ Connor.

I’ve seen Roberts’ Ellington show a couple of times before but have never tired of it. The quality of the Duke’s timeless writing and the vivacity and skill of the performances ensured that today’s performance was a great success with Roberts and his colleagues earning a terrific reception from a highly appreciative crowd. The show, presented by Roberts with warm Welsh wit, was indeed a great showcase for the members of the quartet, all of whom were clearly “up for it”. The time just seemed to fly by and the only possible complaint was that it was too short! At previous shows, performed over two sets, Roberts has performed tunes by “my second favourite composer – me!”.
In this showcase event it would have been nice to have heard a couple of his high quality originals too. They wouldn’t have sounded in any way out of place.


BARBARA DENNERLEIN TRIO, GUILDHALL THEATRE

It represented quite a coup for the Festival organisers to persuade Germany’s “Queen of the Hammond Organ”, Barbara Dennerlein, to come and perform in Brecon.

Munich born Dennerlein started playing the organ at the age of eleven and first burst onto the jazz scene in the late 1980s / early 1990s with a series of albums for the German Enja record label. The second of these, “Hot Stuff” (1990) featured a line up including the British musicians Andy Sheppard (sax) and Mark Mondesir (drums).

These recordings established Dennerlein internationally and she subsequently signed to the Verve record label for a series of albums featuring some seriously heavyweight American jazz musicians.
Still based in Munich she currently records for her own Bebab imprint.

Dennerlein was initially inspired by the late, great Jimmy Smith and his style is still at the heart of her jazz organ playing. However her style has expanded to incorporate other influences, notably classical music, and she has also recorded on numerous church pipe organs, and also on synthesisers.

For this special one off UK appearance the Festival organisers had teamed her with two young musicians from the RWCMD, guitarist Kumar Chopra and drummer Alex Burch. Chopra has visited Brecon Jazz Club before at a number of RWCMD showcase events and played the Festival last year as part of a quintet led by saxophonist Martha Skilton. I have always been impressed with Chopra’s playing but I was previously unfamiliar with Burch.
As it was both of the young musicians fitted in superbly in what was a very big gig for both of them, playing to a capacity audience under the leadership of one of the leading figures in European jazz. Their performances were a credit to both their playing and sight reading skills in a programme comprised entirely of Dennerlein originals, albeit written and delivered very much in the style of the classic organ trio tradition.

The trio commenced with “Jimmy’s Walk”, Dennerlein’s tribute to the great Jimmy Smith. The title also refers to Dennerlein’s ability to play walking bass lines on the organ’s foot pedals, a skill enhanced by modern technology and the use of a sampler to help produce a more authentic string bass sound. Dennerlein took the first solo at the keyboard of a two manual Viscount Legend organ and she was followed by Chopra on the guitar. Next came a remarkable solo by Dennerlein on her instrument’s foot pedals, producing a bass sound so authentic that I almost found myself looking around the stage searching for the bass player. Her dancing feet were subsequently joined in dialogue with Burch’s drums. I’ve seen other organists, such as Van Der Graaf Generator’s Hugh Banton and local Hammond guru John Paul Gard, play pedal bass lines before, but I’d never witnessed anything quite like this, and I suspect that anybody else who hadn’t seen Dennerlein before probably hadn’t either.

She topped this with her multi-tasking on the introduction to “A Summer Day”, duetting with herself as she answered her keyboard melodies with agile pedal bass lines as Chopra added shadowy guitar atmospherics and Burch’s cymbals shimmered. More conventional organ and guitar solos then followed.

Next a fast moving but unannounced item with the organ surging above Chopra’s choppy guitar chording and Burch’s propulsive drum rhythms. Dennerlein takes an almost orchestral approach to the organ, conjuring a remarkable range of sounds from the instrument. This piece included passages in three different time signatures and Dennerlein was fulsome in her praise for her young companions as they safely negotiated its complexities.

The slow blues “Going Home” commenced with an unaccompanied organ passage that embraced church and gospel music with Dennerlein making effective use of her instrument’s volume pedal as the music swelled and subsided. Her pedal bass lines then supported Chopra’s authentically bluesy guitar solo, prior to a further organ solo and a subsequent organ/guitar dialogue.

Dennerlein proved to be an excellent speaker of English and her announcing style was both humorous and informative as she offered a number of insights into her instrument and her playing techniques. For example that the boogie woogie style of piano playing is less suitable for the organ because the latter instrument is not touch sensitive. However the resourceful Dennerlein circumvents the problem by playing the left hand bass lines with her feet on those famous pedals, as her piece, simply titled “Organ Boogie” demonstrated. Chopra again impressed with another bluesy and incisive guitar solo.

The Dennerlein original “Get It On “then added an element of funk to the equation with further solos from organ and guitar.

The closing “Black And White”, the title of course a reference to the colours of the organ keys, was introduced by another passage of virtuoso unaccompanied organ, later joined in a three way conversation by guitar and drums. The piece proved to be something of a showcase for Burch, who enjoyed a substantial drum feature towards the end of the tune.

With just six numbers being played the reader might be forgiven for thinking that this was a short set, but this was far from being the case. Dennerlein’s quasi-orchestral approach to the organ resulted in her solos being really expansive and the audience marvelled at her inventiveness as a soloist and her skills as a technician. Her frequently dazzling footwork was inevitably something of a talking point and there can be no doubt that she’s currently one of the world’s leading exponents of her chosen instrument, right up there alongside top Americans such as Joey Defrancesco, Larry Goldings and John Medeski.

Subtly encouraged by their leader Chopra and Burch rose magnificently to the occasion and each one performed brilliantly with Chopra delivering some highly impressive solos of his own while Burch’s time keeping was immaculate and right on the money throughout. These two young musicians acquitted themselves brilliantly in what must have been their most high profile performance to date.

The response from the audience was hugely positive and the gig was something of a triumph for the Festival organisers, whose audacious decision to bring Dennerlein to the Festival was totally vindicated. Fortunately, despite the bad weather, there were no serious interruptions to the travelling plans of the various overseas musicians who played at the Festival, with every performance going ahead as scheduled.

One of the people who helped to facilitate this afternoon’s performance was the UK’s own Hammond hero Ross Stanley who supplied the Viscount, an instrument actually belonging to the rock star Steve Winwood, the latter a great supporter of British jazz and a patron of Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Stanley himself, playing piano, was to perform on the Sunday of the Festival. More on that in that day’s coverage.


SCOTT HAMILTON QUARTET, GUILDHALL THEATRE

A couple of hours later another capacity crowd assembled in the Guildhall to enjoy a set from the American tenor sax specialist Scott Hamilton.

Dennerlein had been a first time visitor to Brecon but Hamilton represented something of a returning hero, having played a string of successful Festival performances in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days Hamilton was still regarded as a rising star but the intervening years have seen his transition into more of an ‘elder statesman’. Yet musically little has changed, Hamilton’s style has always been rooted in the pre-bop era, inspired by such saxophonists as Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. His repertoire is almost entirely standards based and we were to hear many of his favourites this evening.

I recall seeing the young Hamilton play this very room back in the day,  in a quintet as I recall, co-led by the late clarinettist Kenny Davern. Hamilton also appeared at BJF with the cornettist Warren Vache and in 1994 released a quartet live album recorded at the Festival with the British musicians Brian Lemon (piano), Dave Green (double bass) and Allan Ganley (drums).

Of that trio only Green is still with us and he lined up alongside Hamilton on the stage tonight alongside pianist John Pearce and drummer Steve Brown as part of Hamilton’s regular British quartet.

An unaccompanied tenor sax cadenza introduced “I Just Found Out About Love, And I Like It”, a tune associated with Nat King Cole that included further solos from Hamilton, Pearce and Green.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me” was performed as a mid tempo swinger with solos from Hamilton, Pearce and Green, plus a series of brushed drum breaks from the ever smiling Steve Brown, grinning away behind the kit.

Dizzy Gillespie’s “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” represented a dashing foray into bebop territory with its fast moving melody lines and powerful rhythms. Hamilton soloed first on tenor, followed by Pearce who delivered some of his best playing of the night, urged on by Brown’s propulsive drumming. Brown himself then enjoyed some vigorously brushed drum breaks before entering into a series of exchanges with Hamilton, the saxophonist peppering his contribution with quotes, among them “When The Saints Go Marching In”.

By way of contrast Hamilton then demonstrated his mastery as a tenor sax balladeer on the Anthony Newley / Leslie Bricusse composition “Pure Imagination”, a song made famous for its inclusion in the film “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”. With warm, breathy tenor sax from the leader, lyrical piano from Pearce and a melodic double bass solo from Green this version of the tune was a delight.

The pace increased again on the next piece, an unannounced item that began with Brown at the drums, who established a Latin-esque groove that provided the platform for solos from Hamilton and Pearce. Brown himself then enjoyed an extended drum feature towards the close.

The quartet then stretched out on an energetic version of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” with Hamilton introducing the piece with an extended passage of unaccompanied tenor. Pearce then took over on piano, soloing expansively above a rapid bass and brushed drum groove. Hamilton then undertook a more conventional solo on tenor, followed by Green at the bass and Brown with a brushed drum feature that again saw him exchanging ideas with the leader.

The Ellington ballad “Tonight I Shall Sleep With A Smile On My Face” seemed to sum up the feelings of the highly supportive audience and included lyrical solos from Pearce and Hamilton.

The final number was unannounced but the quartet went out swinging fiercely with solos from Hamilton and Pearce and a series of drum breaks from Brown.

The Brecon audience loved it and treated Hamilton and his colleagues like returning conquering heroes. It was maybe a little too mainstream for my personal tastes but there was no denying the quality of a performance led by a master of his craft, accompanied by a Rolls Royce of a rhythm section in Green and Brown. For many of us the gig was also a reminder of just what a talented jazz pianist John Pearce is, his contribution was excellent, both as a supremely fluent soloist and as a sympathetic and sensitive accompanist.

Thus ended a day of excellent and very varied music performed in front of sold out or near capacity audiences, with much appreciation being shown to all the musicians involved.

 

 

by Ian Mann

August 18, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys the first full day of the Festival and performances by Maciek Pysz, Samantha Wright, Liane Carroll and the Steve Waterman Big Band. Photography by Bob Meyrick.

Photograph of Samatha Wright, Phelan Burgoyne and Alicia Gardener-Trejo by Bob Meyrick


FRIDAY AT BRECON JAZZ FESTIVAL 2019

09/08/2019

The 2019 Brecon Jazz Festival, the thirty sixth to be held in the town, was the third to be solely organised by Lynne Gornall and Roger Cannon of Brecon Jazz Club. Building on the success of the 2017 and 2018 events it proved to be another outstanding success, despite the inclement weather that battered many parts of the UK over the course of the Festival weekend.

Once again the Festival was a truly international affair with musicians from Germany, the Netherlands, the USA and Poland joining a strong British contingent that included a number of local Welsh favourites.

The concert programme was augmented by a wide range of free Fringe events and although the street music programme was badly affected by the weather there was still that tangible ‘Brecon Buzz’ about the town, particularly on the Saturday and Sunday of the Festival.

Attendances for the numerous events on the ticketed concert programme were excellent, with several performances being complete sell outs. The feedback from audiences with regard to the very varied programme of music was overwhelmingly positive and the standard of the musicianship was exceptional almost throughout.


MACIEK PYSZ,  “MUSIC, TRAVEL AND IMPROVISATION”, TY HELYG LOUNGE

The first ticketed event began at 1.00 pm in the intimate setting of the lounge at the town’s Ty Helyg Guest House, the base for many of the visiting musicians.

Among these was the Polish born guitarist and composer Maciek Pysz, a musician who has become an extremely popular figure with British jazz audiences after having lived and worked in London for over a decade.

Today’s event was billed as a “jazz and guitar talk” with the title “Music, Travel and Improvisation”
Pysz has toured widely in the UK and is a previous visitor to Brecon Jazz Club, but he has also lived in Italy for a while, and also in Paris, and has toured extensively throughout Europe and to North Africa and Turkey, frequently collaborating with musicians from other countries and cultures. His compositions are often based on his experiences, hence the title of today’s event.

However this wasn’t just about Pysz talking, we were also to hear some of his wonderful guitar playing and the event began with him improvising on his semi-acoustic Godin guitar while utilising his range of seven – yes, seven – effects pedals.

In response to a question from the floor he subsequently demonstrated these individually including the volume, delay, reverb, freeze and octave pedals plus the live looping station that allows him to effectively sample himself and create layered textures and interlocking melody lines. The combination of effects pedals and live looping allows Pysz to create quasi-orchestral sounds from just the string strings of his guitar. Marshalling these various devices to create a coherent musical statement requires considerable skill, as Pysz demonstrated during the course of his masterful improvisation.

With several guitar players in the audience, including photographer Bob Meyrick, there were a number of guitar related questions. Pysz’s guitar is a hollow bodied instrument, very different to the solid bodied ‘arch top’ electric guitars favoured by many jazz and bebop players or the Stratocasters and Telecasters deployed by rock groups.  Pysz favours standard tuning and the discussion with regard to the technical aspects of playing also turned to chording, alternative tunings (as used by Ant Law and former Festival visitor Deirdre Cartwright) and harmonics,  together with appropriate demonstrations. Much of this went over my head to be honest, but it was still fascinating nevertheless.

Pysz began was a classical guitar player but was attracted to the sounds of jazz via his father’s extensive and varied record collection. Neither of his schoolteacher parents were musicians, although they were both big music fans. He was inspired to play guitar by an older cousin who would perform to great acclaim at family events. Apparently the cousin still plays, but not professionally.

Further inspiration came from the then emerging internet with Pysz able to study, and play along to, clips of his favourite guitar players, among them John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Frank Gambale and Pat Metheny. These days his principal influences are the French guitarist Sylvain Luc and, most important of all, the great Ralph Towner.

The teenage Maciek also played rock and metal before deciding to focus on jazz. Essentially he is self taught, having eschewed the music college route, instead embarking on a Law degree that he never finished. Two years into his course he decided to take a gap year in London, supplementing his income by playing guitar, and ended up staying. He was tempted to undertake a jazz performance course in London but instead ploughed the money that he would have spent on fees into recording his first album “Insight”, released in 2013. The record, featuring bassist Yuri Goloubev and drummer Asaf Sirkis, was a considerable success and effectively became his ‘calling card’. Pysz hasn’t looked back since, going on to record several other successful albums with a variety of different musicians from a wide range of countries. He is due to release a new solo guitar album in September 2019, which should be well worth waiting for.

Pysz is very much an ‘internationalist’ and talk turned to the practicalities of being a performing musician in the modern, Brexit era. Pysz keeps guitars and amps in a number of different European locations and these days tries to travel to most gigs by train, armed with a guitar and amp if necessary, plus an overnight bag. He favours this over air travel partly for environmental reasons, and partly because of the charges made by airlines for the transportation of musical instruments, and also the rough treatment that those instruments sometimes receive at the hands of baggage handlers. One also suspects that the train services in mainland Europe are rather more efficient than those here in the UK.

Pysz has recently returned to his native Poland but denied that Brexit was a major factor with regard to this. His choice was largely made for the reason that he’s become tired of the big city life in Paris and London.

Pysz hails from Rybnek in southern Poland was was complemented by an audience member on the quality of his English. Obviously living in London for so long and travelling so widely has sharpened his language skills but also significant is the fact that he first started learning English at the age of eight. Pysz was born in 1982 and his generation was the first since the end of World War 2 to grow up free of Soviet oppression. The learning of Russian was no longer compulsory and Pysz, like so many other Polish children elected to learn English.

To close Pysz gave a beautiful solo rendition of his composition “These Days” from that landmark first album, essentially an acoustic guitar performance, but one that made judicious use of that range of effects pedals.

All in all this was an interesting, stimulating and illuminating start to the Festival with Pysz answering questions with charm, candour and insight. The playing was something of a bonus, and represented a taster for his performance the following day at the Wellington Hotel as part of a one off trio featuring two Welsh musicians, fellow guitarist Gerard Cousins and double bassist Paula Gardiner. A review of that performance will form part of my Saturday coverage.

Unfortunately this was the only ticketed event of the weekend to be poorly attended, probably because of the early 1.00 pm start, before many visitors had actually arrived in Brecon. Those that were there thoroughly enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, the informality of the setting actually adding to the atmosphere. The staging of similar events with other willing musicians is certainly a thought for future Festivals.


SAMANTHA WRIGHT DOUBLE CLARINET QUINTET, THE MUSE

Over at The Muse this event featuring the music of the young clarinettist Samantha Wright was an event that I had marked down as being a potential Festival highlight. I’m pleased to report that this proved to be very much the case as Wright led her international ‘Double Clarinet Quintet’ featuring the talents of a blend of British and German musicians.

Wright is a jazz graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire and is currently studying for a Masters degree in Hamburg under the tutelage of the great Rolf Kuhn as well as performing extensively around Europe.

In October 2018 her Double Clarinet Quintet was selected by the Jazz Promotion Network UK for a tour of England as part of their “Emerging Talent” scheme. Today’s appearance was also presented under this banner with my good friends Jez and Helen Matthews of Jazz at the Lescar in Sheffield liaising with Lynne and Roger to bring the band to Brecon.

The intriguing line up featured leader Wright on clarinet alongside Alicia Gardener-Trejo on both bass clarinet and baritone sax and Phelan Burgoyne at the drums plus the Hamburg based musicians Sophia Oster (piano) and Tilman Oberbeck (double bass).

The programme was a carefully chosen selection of originals from within the band ranks together with an intriguing mix of outside compositions. It was far removed from a ‘standards’ set and despite Wright’s acknowledged love of the music of such clarinet greats as Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Buddy DeFranco it was a performance that brought the role of the clarinet firmly into the 21st century.

The quintet began with Wright’s composition “Egal”, a German expression meaning “it’s alright” or “don’t worry”. Introduced by a passage of unaccompanied clarinet by the leader the piece also featured the fascinating but rarely heard combination of the clarinet and its larger bass cousin, the latter skilfully played by Wright’s fellow Birmingham graduate Gardener-Trejo. Besides blending together effectively both clarinettists delivered outstanding individual solos with Gardener-Trejo displaying a remarkable fluency on the larger instrument. Equally impressive was Oster at the keyboard, adopting an acoustic piano sound for her own solo.

As alluded to previously Wright’s clarinet tutor in Hamburg is the remarkable Rolf Kuhn, ninety years young and still performing and teaching regularly. He once played with Benny Goodman and is the older brother of the acclaimed pianist and composer Joachim Kuhn.
Rolf Kuhn’s “Mela’s Interplay” was the next piece to be performed, a remarkably contemporary sounding composition that commenced with a freely structured intro featuring Gardener-Trejo on baritone saxophone. This then metamorphosed into a hard driving swing with Wright delivering a dazzling clarinet solo, generating a surprising degree of power as she went toe to toe with the burlier sound of Gardener-Trejo’s baritone. Oberbeck’s propulsive bass lines and Burgoyne’s crisp drumming underpinned Oster’s piano solo before the bassist also established himself as a fluent and convincing soloist.

A first dip into the standards repertoire came with an extraordinary interpretation of “Body And Soul” that transformed this most familiar of tunes into something almost unrecognisable and totally contemporary. Oster’s unaccompanied piano introduced the performance, the sound of the keyboards then augmented by the whisper of Wright’s clarinet, Oberbeck’s bowed bass and Gardener-Trejo’s grainy bass clarinet. The leader then continued to probe gently over a steadily rolling groove, the clarinet fulfilling a role more closely associated with the soprano saxophone. Oster then contributed a gently rippling piano solo before Wright closed the piece with a solo clarinet cadenza, paying oblique homage to the famous tenor sax balladeers who have interpreted this song.

Carla Bley’s composition “Lawns” cleverly teamed a simple melody with complex harmonies and once more featured the beguiling blend of clarinet and bass clarinet. Gardener-Trejo took the first solo, her playing exhibiting a real warmth and tenderness as she stretched out above the patter of Burgoyne’s hand drumming. Oster’s piano solo was at first lyrical, but later more expansive, while Wright took the opportunity to roam widely on clarinet. Oberbeck was also featured as a soloist while Burgoyne impressed in his role as colourist, displaying the influence of one of his drum heroes, the great Paul Motian.

Wright paid tribute to her clarinet hero Artie Shaw with a version of Shaw’s “Interlude in B Flat” in an arrangement secured from the Shaw archive, held at the University of Arizona. Performed as a duet with Oster the piece combined straight ahead clarinet swing with sophisticated piano rhythms.
Wright displayed a Shaw like virtuosity on a piece that its composer once recorded with clarinet, jazz rhythm section and classical string quartet, arguably the first ever example of ‘third stream’ jazz music.

Wright’s second original, “How About Now”, re-introduced the full quintet and the double clarinet front line. Oster introduced the piece unaccompanied, again coaxing a convincing acoustic piano sound from a Nord keyboard borrowed from Jez Matthews. The addition of Oberbeck and Burgoyne led to an extended passage in piano trio mode with Burgoyne’s neatly detailed drumming a particularly notable feature. Wright then soloed on clarinet, followed by Oberbeck at the bass, this leading to passage featuring the ‘double clarinets’ backed by double bass only. Wright subsequently soloed more incisively, now backed by powerful, driving rhythms on this complex, episodic composition.

Oster, also a vocalist and bandleader, revealed herself to be a composer of some talent with her delightful original “Nanaimo”, named for a city on Vancouver Island, but with a title sourced by Oster from a book rather than a personal visit. This proved to be a beautiful piece with a gently melodic theme that included a second piano/clarinet duo interlude – Wright and Oster often work together in this pared down format. Elsewhere the pair were augmented by languid bass, brushed drums and texturing baritone sax.

The jazz standard “All I Do Is Dream” was introduced by the duo of Wright and Oberbeck with the bassist eventually setting up the fast walk that provided the jumping off point for rousing solos by Wright on clarinet and Gardener-Trejo on baritone, their flights of fancy fuelled by vibrant, swinging rhythms. Subsequently the two horns engaged in a quick-fire exchange of ideas followed by subsequent features for piano, double bass and drums.

A justifiably proud and enthused Jez Matthews had little difficulty in coaxing his charges back on to the stage for a deserved encore, a brief reading of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur”, introduced by a short duo passage of bass and piano and featuring that distinctive clarinet / bass clarinet front line.

Having covered the Birmingham jazz scene pretty thoroughly over the years I’m surprised that Samantha Wright had hitherto slipped under my radar – I’ve seen Gardener-Trejo perform live on several previous occasions in a variety of different line ups. Nevertheless I was very pleased to discover her music and playing today at a gig which did indeed prove to be one of the Festival highlights – and I certainly wasn’t alone in thinking this.

The distinctive instrumental line up was like a breath of fresh air, the playing uniformly excellent and the programme well chosen, with some highly accomplished original writing from Wright and Oster. Let’s hope Wright can get this music recorded, if there had been any CDs available I have no doubt that they would have been flying off the shelves.

My thanks to Samantha, Sophia and Tilman for speaking with me afterwards. Samantha Wright is a major new talent and a name to watch for the future, as indeed are those of all the other members of this supremely accomplished quintet.


LIANE CARROLL, ST. MARY’S CHURCH

Following Ian Shaw’s performance in 2018 this was the second fund raising event to be held at Brecon Jazz Festival in aid of the charity Side by Side With Refugees.

Once again the event had been facilitated by long term BJF volunteer steward John Anderson, a personal friend of both Shaw and this year’s performer Liane Carroll. Anderson, Shaw and Carroll are all committed humanitarians and great supporters of the Side by Side Charity.

Also benefiting was the local Hay, Brecon and Talgarth Sanctuary for Refugees, a branch of the Refugees Welcome charity, for whom a spokeswoman addressed the audience, explaining something of the nature of the work of the organisation and the dizzying overall scale of the refugee crisis.

The format of the actual performance was the same as last year, a solo vocalist / pianist and general all round entertainer capable of captivating an audience with a winning blend of music and wit.

There are many similarities between Shaw and Carroll, both are distinctive and technically accomplished singers, highly accomplished pianists and genuinely quick wits, capable of responding to any situation with humour and a well judged bon mot. Each peppers their performances of songs with spontaneous jokes and witty asides, many of these laugh out loud funny.

Carroll’s choice of material is sourced from far and wide with songs from the jazz, soul and rock repertoires all grist to her stylistic mill. A convincing soul and blues vocalist she commenced with a soulful “You Don’t Know Me”, a song made famous by Ray Charles.

Next up a bravura take on “Fever”, made famous by Peggy Lee but with the self deprecating Carroll comparing herself more with Peggy Ashcroft and even Peggy Mount! This was a tour de force incorporating audacious scat vocals and witty asides. The audience loved this and were already eating out of her hand.

The gospel flavoured “Mercy Now”, written by New Orleans singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier was given a more serious treatment, with Carroll bringing genuine emotion to its themes of personal heartache and social injustice. Gauthier, a supremely talented lyricist, is an artist worthy of further attention.

Carroll has been central in the release of the album “Silly Silhouette”, an album released in support of refugee and cancer charities, notably Side By Side and the Royal Marsden Hospital. The album features the songs of the New York born songwriter Louis Rubin (1910-84) who wrote more than two hundred songs during his lifetime, the majority of them in the 1940s and 50s. Following his death Rubin’s work was largely forgotten but his eldest daughter, Suzan Rubin Felton, inherited his original sheet music and brought it to the attention of Carroll. The result is an album featuring thirteen of Rubin’s best songs performed by some of the UK’s leading jazz vocalists, including Carroll, Shaw, Alice Zawadzki, Karl Charity and Brendan Reilly.

With Rubin Felton seated in the audience Carroll performed the title track from the album, a playful but bitter-sweet song that also gave Carroll the opportunity to demonstrate her excellent piano technique during the central instrumental break. It’s sometimes easy to become distracted by her singing and to forget just what an accomplished pianist she is.

A rousing, Bessie Smith inspired rendition of “St. Louis Blues”, a song written in 1913,  then took Carroll back to her blues roots.

This was followed by a tour de force medley linking her own wistful, autobiographical “Dublin Daydream” with an audacious arrangement of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that mixed quirky arpeggios with a raw bluesiness, and finally a Laura Nyro tune that I missed the title of.

The songs of Tom Waits have long been a cornerstone for Carroll and his vast body of work was represented here by “I’ll Take It With Me When I Go”.

Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me” was given a rock and gospel tinged treatment that provided a platform for Carroll’s witty ad libs.

Jerome Kern’s “Old Man River”, forever associated with Paul Robeson, was delivered more solemnly, Carroll’s emotive singing of the lyric reflecting the kind of civil rights concerns that remain just as pertinent in 2019.

It was back to the Rubin album for the sweet “Long As It Meant Having You”, a more dignified parallel to the foolish “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”.

Just like her friend Ian Shaw Carroll looks on Joni Mitchell’s music as a touchstone and she promised us our first Christmas song of the year with a winning segue of two of Mitchell’s most famous songs, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “River”. The former gave Carroll the opportunity to display her vocal gymnastics before a brief burst of a very unseasonal “Jingle Bells” took us into a more reverent reading of “River”.

A deserved encore saw Carroll encouraging the audience to sing along with Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” before whooping it up with Donald Fagen’s “Walk Between Raindrops”, a real bonus for Bob Meyrick and I, both dedicated Steely Dan fans.

Like Shaw’s performance last year this was a brilliant event and the audience just loved Liane Carroll’s singing, playing and warm but wicked wit.

The “Silly Silhouette” album sold well and it’s an education to hear just what a talented songwriter Louis Rubin was. There’s a timeless innocence about his songs, but a New York knowingness too, it’s a surprise that some of them haven’t become jazz standards. Carroll and the rest of the cast perform them with reverence and an obvious love and the album makes for highly enjoyable listening, while raising funds for very good causes. It was good to see Suzan Rubin Felton, who wrote the album’s liner notes, enjoying Carroll’s performance so much.

The Side By Side charity concert looks set to become a Brecon Jazz Festival feature. Who will John Anderson, with his impressive list of contacts, be able to persuade to come and entertain us next year? We wait with baited breath.


STEVE WATERMAN BIG BAND, CASTLE HOTEL


Another Brecon Jazz Festival tradition is the annual Big Band Dinner at the Castle Hotel. This was the fourth such event and in purely musical terms it was the best yet, featuring a hugely experienced line up of musicians under the leadership of trumpeter, composer and arranger Steve Waterman.

A capacity audience enjoyed a hot meal before the music started, the food being served ‘buffet style’ and being of extremely good quality given the numbers that the Castle Hotel was catering for.

And so to the music from a stellar line up that was smaller in number than in recent years but which still packed a powerful punch with quality prevailing over quantity.

The twelve piece line up was as follows;

Steve Waterman, Charlotte Keeffe – trumpets & flugelhorns

Gareth Roberts, Pete Johnson – trombones

Alice Leggett – alto saxophone

Beverley Green – tenor saxophone

Dominic Norcross – baritone saxophone

Rebecca Nash – piano

Dan Messore – guitar

Paula Gardiner – double bass

Andrew Bain – drums

plus Eliana Hoss – guest vocalist

Although several of these musicians now ply their trade in London the line up still had a strong Welsh presence with several of the performers based in Wales or having studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where the Canterbury based Waterman has been a visiting tutor. Keeffe, Leggett, Nash and Messore were all former Waterman students.

The ensemble hit the ground running, generating a genuine big band sound on Tadd Dameron’s “Ladybird” with Nash, Norcross, Johnson, Green and Waterman all featuring as soloists and with the trumpet and drum exchanges between Keeffe and Bain forming a particularly distinctive part of the arrangement.

Freddie Hubbard’s ever popular “Little Sunflower” was given a lively Latin-esque treatment with Keeffe fulfilling Freddie’s role with a fluent trumpet solo. Also impressing as soloists were Messore on guitar and Green, a new name to me but a highly competent musician, on tenor sax. Interestingly Nash varied her sound here, moving from an acoustic piano setting to a ‘Rhodes’ sound, perhaps in homage to Hubbard’s tenure with the CTI label during the 1970s.

Guest vocalist Elaina Hoss, who had appeared at the 2017 big band gig, joined the band to sing Harold Arlen’s “It’s Only A Paper Moon”, a straight through rendition with no instrumental solos and with the vocals a little too low in the mix.

The singer remained on stage to deliver Jerome Kern’s famous standard “All The Things You Are” with space found in the arrangement for an impressive ‘acoustic’ piano solo from Nash.

“Sunny” was the last of the vocal items in the first set and featured instrumental solos from Messore on guitar and the increasingly impressive Green on tenor. Messore, who worked with Waterman in the quintet Lacuna, was an interesting choice for this project, the sound of his electric guitar with its attendant effects a subversive presence in the ranks of the big band with the guitarist subtly pushing the envelope, but without ever quite going too far.

The instrumentalists took over again for “Night Lights”, a Gerry Mulligan composition that was the title track of a Waterman album contrasting the differing writing styles of Mulligan and Chick Corea.  Here Waterman and Keeffe both switched to flugelhorns, with the latter soloing warmly and fluently on the instrument. Also featuring as a soloist was Leggett, whose pure toned alto was complemented by the sound of cushioning horns and brushed drums. Nash’s piano solo was underscored by Messore’s subtle guitar effects, including the use of a drumstick on the strings, glissando style. Others to feature were Gardiner with a melodic bass solo and finally the impressive Johnson on trombone.

Having already featured Mulligan the first set concluded with a lengthy romp through Corea’s “La Fiesta”,  which incorporated some more fine soloing. Introduced by a solo bass cadenza from Gardiner the piece also included a fiery, rock influenced solo from Messore that recalled John Scofield’s playing with the Mike Gibbs Big Band back in the day. Nash adopted a classic Rhodes sound for her keyboard solo, her playing reminiscent of Corea himself. Local hero Gareth Roberts, who had successfully led last year’s big band got the biggest cheer of the night thus far for his rousing trombone solo, even upstaging Waterman’s own virtuosity on trumpet. It was then left to Bain to round things off with a dynamic drum feature. This had been an invigorating and joyous performance that took the audience into the break in a very good frame of mind.

The second set followed a similar pattern to the first with the ensemble opening up with a couple of instrumental before being joined by Hoss for a sequence of vocal numbers prior to a further sequence of instrumentals towards the close.

The sound of accapella horns introduced a segue of Mulligan tunes with “Line for Lyons” teamed with “Walking Shoes”, the latter one of Gerry’s best known compositions. Particularly engrossing here was the dialogue between Waterman’s trumpet and Norcross’ baritone in the segue’s opening stages. Later we heard more rousing and swinging big band passages with solos coming from Green on tenor, Leggett on alto and Keeffe on trumpet.

The next item was a fascinating merging of two Herbie Hancock tunes with the rhythm section playing the grooves of “Chameleon” while the horns played the familiar melody of “Watermelon Man”. It all worked surprisingly well with soloing space being found for Waterman on trumpet, Johnson on trombone, and Leggett, really stretching out on alto.

Hoss joined the band to sing George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” with Messore’s guitar prominent in the arrangement.

This was followed by a brace of Duke Ellington songs, first “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”, known to musicians as “Concerto for Cootie” according to Waterman, but here featuring Green on tenor as the instrumental soloist.
Next a lively rendition of “It Don’t Mean A Thing” with instrumental features for Keeffe on trumpet, Green on tenor and Messore on guitar.

The evening ended with two Waterman original instrumentals sourced from two different projects. First we heard “October Arrival”, the title track of a 2005 album by Waterman’s Jazz Orchestra, a predominately Welsh ensemble. This was announced by an opening horn chorale featuring the flugels of Waterman and Keeffe and the trombones of Roberts and Johnson, the textures similar to those of brass band music. I was briefly reminded of the music of bassist Ben Crosland’s Brass Project, an ensemble in which Waterman plays. Subsequently more conventional jazz solos came from Leggett on incisive alto, Waterman on flugel and Norcross on baritone sax, but always with those warm brass textures never too far away.

The next piece came from from Waterman’s “Buddy Bolden Blew It” album, a recording paying homage to the greats of jazz trumpet from Bolden through to Kenny Wheeler. As Waterman explained the tune “Red Vest Man” is his tribute to the legendary figure of Bolden himself, written in the style of a New Orleans funeral march complete with a rousing ‘second line’ section. Bain’s martial style drums set the pace with Keeffe’s delivering the vocalised, plunger muted solo usually played by Waterman himself. Roberts’ ‘tailgate’ style trombone added to the authentic New Orleans atmosphere before a salvo from Bain’s drum kit triggered the joyous ‘second line’ section, delivered with great joie de vivre by the ensemble collectively, prior to a final restatement of the funeral march.

The 2018 big band, led by Gareth Roberts, had been highly impressive but if anything this was better again. I’ll admit that the vocal sections of the performance didn’t really do much for me, but I’m sure that many people really enjoyed this aspect of things and the guest vocalist (last year it was Annabelle Garner) has become part of the Big Band Dinner tradition.

For me the real highlights were instrumental with some great soloing coming from what, for me, was an excellent collective of familiar faces and new discoveries. Some of these were to appear again at the Festival with Leggett and Roberts both leading their own groups elsewhere on the programme, and Gardiner appearing with the guitar duo of Pysz and Cousins.

It brought to a close a hugely successful first day of the Festival which had seen a series of excellent and very varied performances, all of which had been enjoyed by appreciative and pleasingly large audiences.

The thrill of discovery is everything so my award for gig of the day has to go to Samantha Wright, an exciting new find who delivered a fascinating performance, bringing the clarinet into a 21st century context via the intelligent and virtuoso playing of herself and her band.

by Ian Mann

July 10, 2019

Ian Mann on a memorable night of film & live music with a screening of the celebrated jazz documentary "A Great Day in Harlem" followed by a live performance by trumpeter Bruce Adams and his quartet.

A GREAT DAY IN LEAMINGTON SPA

Film; A Great Day in Harlem (1994, directed by Jean Bach)

Live Music; Bruce Adams Quartet

Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa, 07/07/2019


Tonight’s jazz double film of film and live music was presented by local promoters In The Moment, founded by the former journalist and educator Matthew Wright and bassist, composer and all round mover and shaker Adrian Litvinoff.

The film/live music format is one that the pair organise once or maybe twice a year. Previous screenings have included the 1957 film “The Sound of Jazz” and the more recent Tubby Hayes biopic “A Man in a Hurry” (2015).

Tonight’s event took advantage of the facilities offered by Leamington’s arts and entertainments venue, the Spa Centre, with the film being shown in the Centre’s Studio / Cinema performance space before the audience made their way upstairs to the Balcony Bar to be entertained by live music from trumpeter Bruce Adams and his quartet.


A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM

Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph of a host (fifty seven to be precise) of New York’s most celebrated jazz musicians of the time photographed on the steps of a brownstone building in Harlem must be one of the best known and most widely reproduced images of any music genre. It’s one that I’ve seen replicated many times in music venues up and down the country,  indeed there’s a framed print in one of my regular jazz haunts, the Queens Head pub in Monmouth.

I was aware of the existence of a film documenting the circumstances behind the famous photograph but I’d never actually seen it, and with all due respect to Bruce Adams, a musician whose playing I’ve enjoyed on a number of occasions, it was the prospect of seeing the movie for the first time that actually represented the main draw for me. The fact that Kane’s famous image was snapped in the year of my birth gave the film an additional resonance, along with the fact that virtually everybody pictured in, or involved with, the photograph is no longer with us. I suspect that the great saxophonists Benny Golson, born in 1929 and Sonny Rollins, born in 1930, may be the sole surviving musicians from that ‘Great Day’.

The screening was introduced by Matthew Wright, a sometime contributor to Jazz Journal, who informed us that it had been difficult for In The Moment to get hold of footage for the film, despite the fact that it was originally released as recently as 1994 and was critically acclaimed at the time. The original distributors of the film, Blue Dolphin, sold the rights to Universal, who subsequently passed them on to Sony. Wright unsuccessfully chased both Universal and Sony, who each seemed to have completely lost track of their investment. It was only when Bronwen Allsopp of the Spa Centre tracked down the film’s co-producer Matthew Seig that the footage became available, with Seig stating that occasions like tonight’s were exactly what the film’s makers would have wished for their work.

The enduring appeal of the film and of the music that inspired it was evidenced by an excellent turn out on one of the warmest days of the year and with plenty of rival attractions going on in the Leamington / Warwick area. The audience for the film was around one hundred, which I thought was very impressive given the circumstances.

The “Great Day in Harlem” film was the brainchild of director / producer Jean Bach (1918-2013), a print and broadcast journalist with a passion for jazz. She was aware of Kane’s photograph and was conscious that even thirty years after the shoot very few of the musicians involved were still alive. She undertook the task of interviewing many of the survivors on film, coming up with some sixty hours of material. For eighteen months she and editor Susan Peehl worked on the interview footage that Bach has captured, painstakingly paring down the material to create the hour long feature film that we were to enjoy this evening.

On the face of it “A Great Day in Harlem” is about one photograph, a single moment in time, but as the film makes clear there was far more to the occasion than that. Kane’s image has become definitive, but so many more photographs were taken that day, including cinema camera footage shot by Mona Hinton, the wife of bassist and composer Milt Hinton. Milt was one of the subjects of Kane’s photograph but asked Mona to film the events surrounding the photo shoot. Mona Hinton’s home movie footage is an integral part of Bach’s film and is interspersed with the more formal interview material assembled by Bach and Peehl. There is also archive material of some of the musicians playing live, this culled from previously mentioned “The Sound of Jazz” film which was originally filmed for CBS television and produced by Robert Herridge. The rights to that film are now owned by the Smithsonian Institution.

These components have been skilfully stitched together by Bach, Seig and Peehl to create a cohesive and illuminating overview of the occasion, which is given additional weight and gravitas by the voice-over of its prestigious narrator, Quincy Jones.

As we learned at the beginning of the film at the time his iconic image was snapped Art Kane wasn’t even a professional photographer. Instead he was an acclaimed art director working for a variety of American magazines.  In the summer of 1958 Esquire magazine took the decision to publish a jazz edition. Its art director Robert Benton suggested that Kane, a jazz enthusiast, should be detailed to design the cover. It was Kane’s idea that the magazine should assemble as many jazz greats as possible for a communal photograph, scheduling the photo-shoot for 10.00 am on August 12th at 17 East 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenue in Harlem. 

Ten in the morning was an uncharacteristically early hour for the jazz musicians of the time, many of whom were used to playing in the clubs of 52nd street until three or four in the morning. “I never knew there were two ten o’clocks in one day” grumbled one early riser. Had it not been for the early start the roll call might have been even bigger, among those who arrived too late to be included in the definitive photograph were saxophonist Charlie Rouse, pianist/vocalist Mose Allison and drummer Ronny Free.

For Kane and his assistant Steve Frankfurt even establishing some kind of order among the musicians who had turned up on time represented something of a challenge. Many of the players hadn’t seen each other for a while and were more interested in chatting and joshing with one another than listening to the novice photographer. The local kids were fascinated by what was going on and at one point were playing around with Count Basie’s hat. Eventually Kane decided to feature the kids in the photograph, sitting them on the kerb in front of the musicians.

Kane’s attempts to organise the throng, which included using a rolled up copy of the New York Times as a makeshift megaphone, were documented by Mona Hinton’s movie camera. Bach, Seig and Peehel skilfully weave her footage into the film among the interviews and archive clips. There are also stills from Robert Benton, Milt Hinton and stride pianist Mike Lipskin who had attended the event as a protégé of Willie “The Lion” Smith. “The Lion” actually missed appearing in the definitive photograph having become bored with waiting around. He was taking a rest on the stoop of the building next door when the iconic image was finally captured.

Not that this prevented Smith from appearing in the film, which includes archive coverage of his playing, a series of stills taken on the “Great Day” and a discussion of the stride piano style pioneered by him and his great friend Luckey Roberts.

Of course “The Lion” wasn’t the only legend to be profiled during the course of a film that also included priceless live footage of such giants of the genre as pianists Thelonious Monk and Count Basie, cornettist/trumpeter Rex Stewart, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, trumpeters Roy Eldridge,  and Harry ‘Red’ Allen, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus and violinist Stuff Smith, all of whom had passed on long before the film’s release.

Even some of the musicians interviewed by Bach had died before the film’s eventual release, the project having been some six years in the making. These included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Buck Clayton saxophonists Bud Freeman and Scoville Brown and drummer Art Blakey, all of whom appear as ‘talking heads’ as well as featuring in archive footage. Also featuring as an interviewee is the pioneering baritone sax specialist Gerry Mulligan who died in the year of the film’s release.

Other interviewees include saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins, pianists Marian McPartland and Horace Silver and trumpeter Art Farmer, in addition to journalists and photographers such as Kane, Frankfurt, Benton and Lipskin plus Robert Altshuler and Nat Hentoff.

With such a wonderful set of contributors (and I haven’t mentioned all of them by any means) the film is chock full of anecdotes and observations that will delight any jazz fan. It’s interesting to note that the photograph features musicians from all the known genres of jazz at the time, from players rooted in the sound of New Orleans such as drummer Zutty Singleton to be-boppers and modernists such as Gillespie, Blakey and Mulligan plus such unique and indefinable talents as Monk and Mingus. The music’s roots in the blues are represented by the presence of powerhouse vocalist Jimmy Rushing.

Despite their stylistic differences all the musicians seem to get on well, as is evidenced both by the still photographs taken on the day and by Mona Hinton’s home movie footage. In a society less diverse than today the inclusiveness of jazz is illustrated by the presence of both black and white musicians and by the female musicians in Kane’s picture, pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams and Maxine Sullivan. All three seem to have the complete respect of their colleagues.
McPartland is interviewed in the film and Sullivan and Williams are both profiled. Williams receives particular attention for her playing and arranging skills and was very much regarded as an equal by the male musicians of her time.

That said the photograph does reveal distinct factions, usually defined by choice of instrument. The drummers, in particular seem to stick together with Singleton, Blakey, George Wettling, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa and Sonny Greer all pictured together.

Once the iconic photograph was ‘in the bag’ Buck Clayton reveals that many of the musicians retired to Minton’s Playhouse, the venue widely considered to be the place of the birth of bebop, for further reminiscences, drinks, and no doubt, a jam session – which all seems very appropriate.

The edition of Esquire carrying the famous photograph was eventually published in May 1959 and the success of the venture led to Kane becoming a professional photographer of some distinction. He appears as an interviewee in Bach’s film, offering illuminating insights into the events surrounding the “Great Day”. Tragically he took his own life in February 1995, five months after the release of the film. Jean Bach, too is no longer with us, having passed away in 2013 aged ninety four. Meanwhile Mona Hinton (born 1919) died in 2008.

The “A Great Day in Harlem” title was first coined for the film by Bach, herself borrowing from the Duke Ellington song “A Sad Day in Harlem”. It has now been widely applied to the photograph that inspired it and in recent years a rash of “Great Day” photographs of large gatherings of musicians, from numerous genres and in various town and cities around the world have appeared. In the UK “Great Day” pictures have been taken in a number of different London locations and also in Birmingham and even in Leamington Spa. In May 2016 a gathering of Warwickshire musicians assembled in Leamington’s Jephson Gardens, among them bassist Adrian Litvinoff and drummer Tom Voce, who were appear with Bruce Adams later on for the town’s own “Great Day” celebration.

The Leamington “Great Day” picture was one of a number of artefacts relating to the film exhibited in the Balcony Bar, including a print of Kane’s photograph, together with a key identifying the musicians, plus various stills from the day in question. Matthew Wright displayed his personal copy of a book relating to the photograph that had been published in the US, which was a nice touch. He had also authored free audience handouts giving biographies of Jean Bach and Mona Hinton. Thanks, Matthew.

I had been loath to use the title “A Great Day In Leamington” for this feature, fearing that some might regard it as a little too facetious, but the existence of the photograph of the same name helped to change my mind.

I’d recommend any jazz lover to see this marvellous film. The Spa Centre crowd was totally captivated by it and a spontaneous round of applause burst out at the end of the screening. The archive footage is priceless, the anecdotes consistently interesting and amusing and the circumstances behind the creation of the photograph fascinating. Sixty years on Kane’s photograph represents a snapshot of another age, but Bach’s film acts as a reminder of the enduring power and appeal of the music.

For the record the roll call of musicians appearing on the photograph is;

Red Allen
Buster Bailey
Count Basie
Emmett Berry
Art Blakey
Lawrence Brown
Scoville Browne
Buck Clayton
Bill Crump
Vic Dickenson
Roy Eldridge
Art Farmer
Bud Freeman
Dizzy Gillespie
Tyree Glenn
Benny Golson
Sonny Greer
Johnny Griffin
Gigi Gryce
Coleman Hawkins
J.C. Heard
Jay C. Higginbotham
Milt Hinton
Chubby Jackson
Hilton Jefferson
Osie Johnson
Hank Jones
Jo Jones
Jimmy Jones
Taft Jordan
Max Kaminsky
Gene Krupa
Eddie Locke
Marian McPartland
Charles Mingus
Miff Mole
Thelonious Monk
Gerry Mulligan
Oscar Pettiford
Rudy Powell
Luckey Roberts
Sonny Rollins
Jimmy Rushing
Pee Wee Russell
Sahib Shihab
Horace Silver
Zutty Singleton
Stuff Smith
Rex Stewart
Maxine Sullivan
Joe Thomas
Wilbur Ware
Dickie Wells
George Wettling
Ernie Wilkins
Mary Lou Williams
Lester Young

BRUCE ADAMS QUARTET

Following a half hour break which allowed audience members to re-charge their glasses and look at the various “Great Day” exhibits we finally settled back to enjoy a set of live music in the Balcony Bar from the Scottish born trumpeter Bruce Adams and a local trio led by pianist John Patrick and featuring Adrian Litvinoff on double bass and Tom Voce at the drums.

Adams is a much respected figure on the mainstream jazz scene in the UK who has worked frequently with saxophonist Alan Barnes as well as leading his own groups. Well known for his dramatic high register playing he’s a musician that I first heard in the 1980s at the Ludlow Fringe Festival and more recently at the sadly now defunct Titley Jazz Festival in my home county of Herefordshire.

Adams is a hard working musician who gigs regularly up and down the country and who has become a hugely popular figure among British jazz audiences.

Tonight’s relaxed and good natured set was largely themed around music written by, or associated with, the musicians featured in Kane’s photograph. However in an initial deviation from that the quartet kicked off with “Rosetta”, written by pianist Earl Hines and a piece that acted as a vehicle for the soloing of Adams on trumpet, Patrick on electric piano and Litvinoff on double bass. This was a good introduction to the voices of the band with Adams demonstrating his power and fluency on trumpet while Patrick proved himself to be a wry and inventive piano soloist, concentrating on an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound throughout. I was already aware of Litvinoff’s considerable abilities through his work with his own excellent Interplay quintet.

Adams switched to cornet to pay tribute to Rex Stewart on “Morning Glory”, a tune specifically written for Stewart by Duke Ellington. Apparently Adams’ cornet was once owned by the late Roy Castle and its new keeper used it to good effect on a blues tinged ballad that included some richly emotive playing from Adams. With Voce deploying brushes we also heard from Patrick at the piano before Adams moved back to the trumpet for the close.

“Robbins’ Nest”, written by saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, raised the energy levels once more with Patrick opening the solos, followed by Adams and Litvinoff and with Voce enjoying a series of fiery drum breaks.

The policy of alternating high energy numbers with ballads continued with Adams also featuring as a vocalist on a Roy Eldridge inspired version of Hoagy Carmichael’s song “Old Rockin’ Chair”. Ostensibly this may have been a ballad but we still got to enjoy some of Adams’ renowned high register trumpeting as he shared the instrumental solos with Patrick.

Two pieces from the pen of Horace Silver followed. First Adams switched to flugel for “Nica’s Dream”, written to honour Baroness Pannonica Rothschild, the “Jazz Baroness”, the British born heiress who did so much to support musicians like Silver and Thelonious Monk. Solos here came from Adams on flugel and Patrick on keyboard, their excursions underpinned by the buoyant Latin rhythms laid down by the impressive Voce, who also got to deliver a series of colourful drum breaks.

Silver’s “Strollin’”, which Adams dedicated to Flanagan and Allen, then featured Adams on Harmon muted trumpet, alongside Patrick at the piano.

A terrific version of Monk’s own Hackensack featured piercing high register trumpeting as Adams soloed in dynamic fashion above the crisp, driving rhythms of Voce and Litvinoff. Patrick followed at the keyboard prior to an extended bass feature for Litvinoff and finally a fiery series of exchanges between Adams and Voce.

“Some Time Ago” lowered the temperature once more with Adams moving back to flugel for a version of the tune inspired by the recording by flugel specialist Art Farmer and guitarist Jim Hall.
Solos here came from the leader on flugel and Patrick on gently trilling electric piano, or Rhodes if you will.

Finally a rousing send off in the form of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia” with Adams citing Gillespie as a major influence on his own playing. Introduced by Litvinoff at the bass Adams put a different slant on the piece by deploying a Harmon mute on his opening solo, his statement followed by final outings for Patrick on keyboard and Litvinoff on bass before Adams brought things to the boil with a second solo featuring the open horn.

Adams had delivered the show with a wry Scottish wit and although I suspect that the programme hadn’t deviated too far from his usual repertoire the fact that the material was loosely themed to complement the film was much appreciated. The leader’s own playing was excellent and the variety that resulted from the deployment of the three different horns helped to keep things interesting. The veteran Patrick impressed with his understated but richly imaginative solos while Litvinoff and Voce proved to be a supportive, flexible and versatile rhythm team who also made the most of the soloing opportunities that came their way.

Thus ended “A Great Day in Leamington”, the combination of film and live music working supremely well to create a highly memorable evening. The audience turn out must have delighted the organisers and helped to give the event an excellent atmosphere.

My thanks to Matthew Wright and Adrian Litvinoff for speaking with me afterwards and for putting on such an excellent night of jazz. Long may their work together as ‘In The Moment’ continue.

by Ian Mann

June 25, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys the first two releases on multi-reed player, composer and improviser Tom Ward's Madwort micro-label.

TOM WARD

Madwort’s Menagerie - “Madwort’s Menagerie (Madwort Records MW002)

Tom Ward / Adam Fairhall Duo “Susurrus” (Madwort Records MW001)

Madwort is the anagrammatic stage name adapted by the multi-reed player, composer and improviser Tom Ward.

These two releases are the first to appear on Ward’s own ‘micro-label’ and were forwarded to me by Tom earlier in the year. My apologies to him for only getting around to writing about them now. “Madwort’s Menagerie” was released in February 2019, “Susurrus” a few months earlier in September 2018.

Originally from Yorkshire Ward is now based in London where he has become a significant presence on the capital’s jazz and improvised music scene. I first heard his playing on the excellent 2007 eponymous album from keyboardist Dave O’Brien’s band Porpoise Corpus, something of a ‘lost classic’ in my opinion. Here Ward was featured on alto sax but in recent years he’s also been heard on tenor, as well as branching out to add clarinets and flute to his instrumental armoury.

Ward leads the Madwort Saxophone Quartet featuring himself on alto alongside Chris Williams (alto/soprano), Andrew Woolf (tenor) and Cath Roberts (baritone). This line up issued the excellent “Live at Hundred Years Gallery” album on the Efpi record label in 2018.

More recently he has formed a more ‘conventional’ quartet known as Mechanical Mindset featuring former Porpoise Corpus colleagues Dave O’Brien (keyboards) and Spencer Brown (bass) plus drummer Olly Blackman from Quadraceratops and the Hackney Colliery Band.

Ward works frequently in the sphere of freely improvised music including the duo Ti/om, his collaboration with double bassist Tim Fairhall. More recently the group has become a trio, Ma/ti/om, with the addition of Swedish percussionist Matilda Rolfsson.

As the life partner of fellow saxophonist Cath Roberts Ward has featured with several of the numerous ensembles led by her, including Quadraceratops, Saxoctopus and the large ensemble Favourite Animals. Through Roberts he has established strong ties with the LUME collective, co-founded by Roberts and fellow saxophonist Dee Byrne.

Ward’s other large ensemble work has included stints with Beats & Pieces Big Band, Paulo Duarte’s Overground Collective, Chris Rodgers’ Combustible Alarms, the London Jazz Orchestra and guitarist Anton Hunter’s Article XI.

Ward, Roberts and saxophonist Colin Webster run BRAK, a regular improvisation night at the London venue waterintobeer which usually features one off performances by three different duos. Ward’s collaborators at these events have included trumpeters Charlotte Keeffe and Alex Bonney, vibraphonist Corey Mwamba and double bassist John Edwards.

Internationally Ward was part of a PortaJazz commission for the Guimaraes Jazz Festival in Portugal where he worked with the guitarist Nuno Trocada and the playwright Jorge Louraco. He has also been involved with the Anglo-Belgian collective Tonus.

MADWORT’S MENAGERIE

Ward’s latest project is the ‘strings and winds’  sextet Madwort’s Menagerie which comprises of;

Alex Bonney – cornet
Tim Fairhall – double bass
Julie Kjaer – flutes
Cath Roberts – baritone saxophone
Adam Spiers – cello
Tom Ward – bass clarinet, composer

The genesis of this distinctive line up was a big band rehearsal involving some of the players. Ward was intrigued by a briefly heard, unintended snippet of music featuring a quartet of bass clarinet, flute, trumpet and trombone. This eventually led to the formation of Madwort’s Menagerie via a process that has been described as;
“Transmogrifying some of his compositions for sax quartet, hybridising this with his free improv duo Ti/om and finally balancing woodwind, brass and strings with the addition of cello.”

The album features eight pieces written by Ward and the music features the fine balance between composition and improvisation that has come to distinguish the output of players associated with the LUME and Efpi stables and their myriad offshoots.

Opener “Fish Biscuit Standoff” commences with an intriguing extended dialogue between the leader’s bass clarinet and Bonney’s cornet. The pair are eventually joined by the other instrumentalists with Fairhall’s bass underpinning the increasingly garrulous multiple exchanges. These continue to hold the listener’s attention, even as they become less heated but more abstract in a process that Ward describes as “disintegrating into a heap, with the winner of the cat food stockpile negotiations remaining unclear”.

Fairhall’s unaccompanied double bass introduces “Islands in the Green” which features the warm sounds of Spiers’ cello and Kjaer’s alto flute above a Bulgarian influenced rhythmic pattern. As the first featured soloist Kjaer’s flute seems to imitate bird song and there’s also a more extended solo from Fairhall, his dexterous bass playing cushioned by the rich textures provided by his colleagues.

The title of “Revolution (about Axis)” tips its hat in the direction of the band Alas No Axis, led by the influential American drummer and composer Jim Black. Ward describes the piece as being “built on a long harmonic series that revolves through four key centres”. There’s a beautiful cello solo from Spiers, underscored by Fairhall’s bass, allied to some exquisite ensemble passages with the cello still at the heart of the group sound. Ward then takes over on bass clarinet, displaying a remarkable fluency on the instrument. Kjaer’s airy flute features towards the end of the piece, again underpinned by Fairhall’s bass, her playing again suitably bird like and emphasising the pastoral feel of the piece.

On the face of it “Human Eyes Humanise” may seem like a flippant title but it refers to the phenomenon of pareidolia, the process of seeing human forms in inanimate objects, such as a face in a plug socket. “What we’re actually seeing is our own humanity looking back at us”, explains Ward. Musically the piece is a feature for Bonney on cornet, who adopts a pleasingly warm and relaxed sound on the instrument as he solos, supported by the ever faithful Fairhall on bass, and also exchanges melodic ideas with the other members of the ensemble.

“Tribute to Tau” was inspired by Michael Hartl’s Tau Manifesto and is based on mathematical principles. The piece mixes the complex time signatures of 6/8 and 7/8 with some impeccable ensemble playing, with Bonney’s cornet again playing a prominent role in the arrangement. Space is found within the structure for an improvised solo by the leader on bass clarinet, his tone deliciously rich and woody.

The teasingly titled “Unfortunate Interaction with a Chair” also flips between two different rhythmic feels. Again there’s some exquisite ensemble playing alongside an absorbing dialogue between Spiers on cello and Bonney on cornet, plus a further improvised bass clarinet solo from Ward.

“Dangerous Slumberer” awakens slowly, with Ward’s bass clarinet ruminations informing Fairhall’s bass groove. Kjaer’s flute dances lightly and nimbly around the deeper sonorities generated by bass clarinet, double bass and baritone sax. Nevertheless the featured soloists here are those operating at the lower end of the sonic spectrum, Fairhall on double bass and Roberts on baritone sax, the latter cutting loose for the first time on this album.

The final track on this album is “Handbuilt by Robots”, a tune that originally appeared on the Madwort Saxophone Quartet album. The title is presumably inspired by Roberts’ sometime alter ego Cath Robots. Ward himself says of the piece “it allows the ensemble more freedom to shape the composed material than on some of the more structured pieces on this record”. There’s certainly more of a ‘free jazz’ feel to the piece, which is indeed more loosely structured than elsewhere, and makes greater use of extended techniques. There’s a more consciously avant garde feel about the music and the improvising adopts more of a collective approach. Nevertheless the hand of the composer is still very much in evidence and there are some delightfully melodic moments here, particularly in the second half of the piece.

“Madwort’s Menagerie” has attracted a degree of criticism for its ‘chamber jazz’ approach to improvisation but personally I found it an interesting and absorbing listen. It’s true that in the main there’s a greater concentration on the written material than one would normally associate with many of these musicians but the writing is full of interesting ideas and the playing is excellent throughout.

It’s an unusual instrumental configuration, particularly in view of the absence of a drummer, but despite this the music is far from bloodless with the excellent Thornton providing a sturdy rhythmic framework for the other musicians to wrap their ideas around. The music is rich in terms of colour and texture and the imaginative use of counterpoint also helps to keep both musicians and listeners on their toes. With its mix of jazz and contemporary classical elements this is highly distinctive music that avoids the clichés and pitfalls of both and makes for fascinating listening. It won’t appeal to everyone but open minded listeners should find much to enjoy here.


TOM WARD / ADAM FAIRHALL DUO
“SUSURRUS”

This earlier release finds Ward in a highly creative duo partnership with the Manchester based pianist, keyboard player, composer and improviser Adam Fairhall, the older brother of Tim I believe.

Adam Fairhall has worked as a sideman in bands led by trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall as well as pursuing a productive solo career.  Recordings under his own name include “Second Hand Blues” and the excellent “The Imaginary Delta” (2012), both collaborations with the electronics artist Paul J. Rogers. “The Imaginary Delta” also included contributions from a wider ensemble of Manchester and London jazz musicians. My review of that exceptional recording can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/adam-fairhall-the-imaginary-delta/


In recent years Fairhall has become increasingly immersed in fully improvised music in a variety of different contexts including the groups Ant Traditions (with guitarist Dave Birchall), The Markov Chain (with bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Paul Hession) and the sextet Spirit Farm (with Corey Mwamba on vibes and percussion, Christophe de Bezenac on sax, Dave Kane on bass, Anton Hunter on guitar and Johnny Hunter at the drums). Meanwhile The Revival Room features him playing organ alongside Johnny Hunter and saxophonist Mark Hanslip.

Fairhall has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history and jazz piano styles and is skilled at updating these elements into a contemporary context, as evidenced “The Imaginary Delta” and by his solo piano album “Friendly Ghosts” (Efpi Records, 2017).

He has also become fascinated by arcane keyboard instruments and regularly incorporates the sounds of toy pianos, Indian harmoniums and other mechanical keyboard instruments into his work,  often subjecting them to prepared piano techniques.

Earlier in 2009 he released the excellent trio album “Fragments”, a predominately improvised work recorded in the company of bassist Seth Bennett and drummer Johnny Hunter.
Review here;  http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/fragments-fragments/

Ward and Fairhall first performed together at one of LUME’s then regular improvised music events “The Hat Speaks”,  wherethe names of collaborators are literally drawn out of a hat. The pair immediately struck up a rapport and subsequently performed again at BRAK, at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, London and at Manchester Jazz Festival.

The Ward/Fairhall duo is particularly indicative of the fertile links between the London and Manchester jazz scenes that have been fostered by the LUME and Efpi organisations in recent years.

“Susurrus” was recorded at Limefield Studios in Manchester on 12th April 2018 by engineers Will Faulkner and John Ellis and was subsequently mixed and mastered by Alex Bonney. It features nine freely improvised pieces and embraces a surprisingly wide sonic palette. In addition to the studio’s Steinway grand piano Fairhall also deploys a number of keyboard instruments from his personal collection and is also credited with accordion, prepared Dulcitone and harmonium. In addition to his usual alto sax Ward is also featured on bass clarinet and tambin, a type of diatonic flute traditionally played by the Fula people of West Africa.

The album commences with “Personable Pedantry” which focusses on the core combination of grand piano and alto sax with Ward’s melodic playing of the latter instigating a lively but amicable instrumental dialogue that sees the duo exchanging phrases in friendly but animated fashion. The pair stick to instrumental sounds that could largely be considered to be ‘conventional’, but still find much to say during the course of an enthralling and increasingly energetic set of exchanges.

Still featuring piano and alto “Grue”, named for a predatory monster that lives in the dark, is more crepescular in mood and tone. More ruminative than the opener it is nevertheless thoroughly absorbing, while still remaining relatively orthodox in terms of technique.

“Caliginous”, which Ward describes as being “dark, misty and gloomy” is more uncompromising and features an increasingly garrulous and fractious alto / piano dialogue, but again essentially within the realms of conventional technique.

The title track, “Susurrus” features the first change of instruments with Ward moving to bass clarinet and Fairhall to Dulcitone, a 19th century keyboard instrument which features hammers striking metal bars. The name of the piece means “a whispering or rustling sound” and here we encounter the first real examples of extended technique. Ward incorporates the sound of his instrument’s keypads into his playing while Fairhall uses prepared piano techniques on the already exotic Dulcitone to create a range of effects that variously recall the shimmering of a glockenspiel or the sound of an African ‘thumb piano’. The overall effect is beguiling, occasionally unsettling, but often downright beautiful.

The piano / alto combination returns for “Tatters” which Ward describes as being a piece “in which scraps of early jazz are torn up and re-purposed”. As a concept it’s not a million miles away from “The Imaginary Delta” or “Friendly Ghosts”, but the feisty, rumbling exchanges between Fairhall and Ward sound very different to either of these.

There’s another change of instrumentation for “Spumous”, the title meaning “to foam or froth”. Here we encounter the sound of Fairhall’s Indian harmonium which emits a suitably whale like drone as well as supplying beguiling melodic flourishes. It’s teamed with Ward’s tambin to create a possibly unique combination of instruments. The resultant sounds are never less than fascinating and one can imagine this track fitting very nicely into the format of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction programme – although this now seems more unlikely following the Beeb’s outrageous decision to reduce the transmission times of this niche, but vital and much loved, institution.

It’s back to the core instrumental combination for the final time for the spiky “Rule of Thirds”, which Ward describes as “exploring larger intervals on piano and alto”.

“Gleam” presents a final instrumental variant as Ward’s bass clarinet is combined with a modified Azerbaijani garmon, a type of accordion. Ward’s slap tongue technique is augmented by the fluttering of the garmon in a lively series of opening exchanges before the duo adopt a more relaxed sound featuring deeper bass clarinet timbres and the churchy, organ like drone of the garmon. Ward describes the track as “starting with bright sparkles and growing into a warm glow”, which sums things up very neatly.

The final piece, “Liminality”, again features the winning combination of harmonium and tambin, and sounds just as exotic and beguiling as before. The title refers to “the quality of being in transition from one state to another”, another succinct summation of the duo’s enchanting music.

The “Susurrus” album represents another highly impressive statement from Ward. The core alto and piano pieces all maintain the listener’s attention but it’s the even more exotic offerings featuring rarely heard combinations of unusual or arcane instruments that really put the icing on the cake. The result is a wholly absorbing duo recording that is a credit to both musicians, their efforts further enhanced by the quality of the recorded sound, so hats off to the engineering team too.

These two first releases on his own Madwort label show Tom Ward to be a highly creative musician with an excellent technique on a variety of reed instruments.  He’s also a skilled and consistently interesting composer and a highly fluent and intuitive improviser. This is serious music that doesn’t take itself too seriously, always a winning combination in my book, and although it may be a little esoteric for some ears there is still much here on both recordings for the adventurous listener to enjoy.

Long may Tom Ward continue to flourish as he embraces a variety of musical styles (jazz, world, classical) with musicians drawn from the cream of the London and Manchester jazz and improv scenes.

For further information on Tom Ward and the Madwort record label please visit http://www.madwort.co.uk

by Ian Mann

May 13, 2019

Ian Mann on performances by Vula Viel, Yazz Ahmed, David Sanborn, Hanna Paulsberg, Madeleine Peyroux and two exceptional 'Trios With A Twist', one from Cuba, the other from France.

Photograph of Yilian Canizares by Tim Dickeson


SUNDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 05/05/2019


VULA VIEL, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

Another early start start at the PAC for this 11.00 am show, featuring Vula Viel, the unique trio led by percussionist and composer Bex Burch.

Burch specialises in playing the gyil, the ceremonial xylophone of the Dagaare tribe from Upper West Ghana.
She spent several years living and working in Ghana where she learnt to both build and play the instrument and on returning to the UK set about constructing a band around it, utilising the skills of the finest musicians on London’s jazz scene.

In 2016 she released her début album “Good Is Good”, the English meaning meaning of the Dagaare phrase Vula Viel, the latter becoming the collective name of a quintet featuring Burch, saxophonist George Crowley, keyboard player Dan Nicholls and twin drummers Simon Roth and Dave De Rose.

I saw this version of the band give an exciting performance at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, Birmingham in May 2016. My review of that event also contains a more substantial account of the background behind Vula Viel’s music and the remarkable story of how Burch became one of the few Europeans to master the gyil and it can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/vula-viel-dan-wilkins-hare-hounds-kings-heath-birmingham-25-02-2016/

Vula Viel’s début was mainly comprised of Burch’s arrangements of traditional Dagaare ceremonial music, often pieces played at funerals. Nevertheless this was vibrant, colourful, highly rhythmic music that celebrated life rather than mourning death, a tradition that migrated from West Africa to New Orleans and the ‘second line’ tradition. At around the same time as that first album an EP of remixes of the tune “Yes Yaa Yaa” was also issued, casting a modern slant on this ancient music.

Fast forward to 2019 and the release of Vula Viel’s second album “Do Not Be Afraid”, a recording featuring a brand new edition of the band, this being the trio that Burch brought to Cheltenham. Only the leader remains from the first edition of the group with Burch now joined by Jim Hart at the drum kit and Ruth Goller on electric bass.

This time round the music is comprised entirely of original compositions by Burch, albeit based around traditional Dagaare structures. The new record sees the group putting a more contemporary slant on the music with Burch adding a range of FX pedals to the gyil, these complementing the propulsive sounds of Goller’s electric bass.

Despite the change of line up the music remains intensely rhythmic and this was a highly energetic performance that quickly blew away any Sunday morning ‘cobwebs’. I suspect that the trio played everything from the new album, albeit in a slightly different running order, as well as including the old favourite “Yes Yaa Yaa” and a number of newer, as yet unrecorded, pieces.

They played in front of a visual display, a light show if you will,  achieved by placing a light in a water tank, a simple but effective trick that helped to generate patterns that pulsed in time with the rhythms generated by the band.

I’m fairly certain that they commenced with “Well Come”, the rousing call to arms that kicks off the new album and features Burch blowing a conch as well as playing the gyil. I think that today was the first time that I’ve seen Hart playing the drum kit, as opposed to his more usual vibraphone, and I was highly impressed with his contribution at the ‘traps’. There was a real energy and vibrancy about the music as the band tackled the fiercely interlocking rhythms, bringing something of a punk attitude and spirit to the proceedings. Goller’s electric bass was a forceful and muscular presence as she brought a real drive to the music, echoing the propulsion that she once brought to the Pete Wareham led bands Acoustic Ladyland and Melt Yourself Down.

The new recording also includes vocals and lyrics for the first time, with a number of guest singers appearing on the album. Here the vocals were tackled by the band members with Goller taking the lead on “Do Not Be Afraid”, augmented by the voices of Burch and Hart. The lyrics are mantra likes pearls of wisdom, presumably sourced and translated from Dagaare teachings. Addressing the audience between numbers Burch spoke of “the necessity and joy of music”, qualities that were embodied in this set as the leader encouraged the audience to try to clap along with the infectious, but unfamiliar rhythms.

This was music that was constantly evolving and possessed of a free-wheeling energy even in its occasional reflective moments. There was little soloing in the conventional jazz sense, although the lead changed hands fairly frequently and the set was littered with set pieces such as bursts of unaccompanied gyil, percussive ‘battles’ between Butch and Hart and powerful, virtuosic, fuzzed up bass solos from the impressive Goller whose role was far more than just rhythmic.

From the new album the lyrics of “We Are” appeared to pay homage to the Dagaare funeral traditions that inspired the band’s début while “Yes Yaa Yaa” became a celebratory audience sing-along.

This was great way to start the day, the only cavil being that Burch’s gyil was sometimes a little too low in the mix and overwhelmed by the bass and drums during the ensemble passages. The ‘light show’ element worked well and helped to enhance the performance of what is already a very visual band, the sight of Burch playing the gyil with such skill and energy already representing a mesmerising sight.

It was good to be able to see everything in the comfortable environment of the PAC but such was the rhythmic drive and energy of this band that they’d have been equally at home in the club atmosphere of the House Of Fraser Basement. Indeed I’m sure that they probably play gigs to standing audiences on a regular basis in London and have no difficulties in getting crowds to respond physically.

There’s a growing buzz about Vula Viel at the moment that transcends the conventional jazz audience. Expect their star to continue to rise.


YAZZ AHMED; POLYHYMNIA, JAZZ ARENA

Over at the Jazz Arena audience were treated to the first performance outside London of “Polyhymnia”, a new suite by the trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed that will form the basis of her forthcoming album recording, scheduled for release in October 2019.

The suite was commissioned in 2015 by the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation with support from the PRS Women Make Music scheme. Inspired by six courageous and influential women “Polyhymnia” was premièred at the Purcell Room on the South Bank as part of the 2015 Women Of The World Festival and was performed by an all female ensemble.


The twelve piece ‘Hafla Ensemble’ that Ahmed brought to Cheltenham was a mixed sex group that was centred around the members of the trumpeter’s regular working septet, the Hafla Band and lined up as follows;

Yazz Ahmed – trumpet, flugelhorn, electronics
Alex Ridout – trumpet & flugel
Noel Langley – trumpet & flugel
Carol Jarvis – trombone
Josie Simmons – baritone sax
Nathaniel Facey – alto sax
George Crowley – tenor sax, bass clarinet
Naadia Sheriff – piano, keyboards
Ralph Wyld – vibraphone
Dudley Phillips – electric and acoustic bass
Corinne Sylvester - percussion
Sophie Alloway – drums

The opening piece of the suite was dedicated to the women of the Suffragette movement and was based on the movement’s theme song “Shoulder To Shoulder”, itself in turn modelled on the Welsh tune “Men Of Harlech”, the familiar melody of which could be detected towards the close. Sylvester and Alloway introduced the piece percussively before the addition of the horns helped to give the music more of a conventional big band feel. Solos here came from Jarvis, Ridout and Facey and from Ahmed herself, processing the sound of her horn electronically via the Kaoss pad that has become an essential component of her sound.

“Ruby Bridges” was dedicated to the civil rights activist who was the first Afro-American pupil to attend a previously segregated school in Louisiana. As the music commenced Sylvester’s percussion simulated the ringing of a school bell while Alloway’s military style drumming approximated the rhythms of a protest march. The sounds of the American south were also reflected in the gospel stylings of the music, which sometimes sounded like one of Keith Jarrett’s ‘country blues’ numbers. Solos here came from Ridout on trumpet and Sheriff on acoustic piano.

The next movement was a dedication to the female Saudi film director Halfaa al Mansour and emerged out of an atmospheric intro featuring the eerie sound of Wyld’s bowed vibes. Sylvester’s use of Arabic percussion allied to Ahmed’s electronically enhanced trumpet gave the music a distinctive Middle Eastern feel, the leader’s use of Arabic scales a reflection of her Bahraini heritage. The other featured musician was Wyld with a more conventional vibraphone solo that saw him deploying the four mallet technique.

“One Girl Too Many” celebrated  Malala Yousafzai and incorporated phrases from her 2013 speech to the United Nations. Some of these were sung or spoken by Ahmed and her fellow band members while others were turned into melodies or rhythms, an inventive and effective compositional device. The leader was the featured soloist on electronically treated flugelhorn.

The title of “2857” was sourced from the number of the bus famously ridden on by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Introduced by the sounds of electric bass and percussion the mood of this piece was initially sombre and reflective but gradually gained momentum through a bellicose tenor solo from Crowley that seemed designed to mirror the growing Afro-American discontent in the American South of the 1950s and 60s. The final section of the tune featured an unstoppable groove fuelled by drums, percussion and vibes that now seemed to reflect the ultimate success of the civil rights movement, with Simmons rasping baritone solo cutting a swathe through the buoyant rhythms.

The final movement of the suite honoured a figure closer to home. The British saxophonist and composer Barbara Thompson (born 1944) helped to forge the path that Ahmed and the numerous other female band leaders at this year’s Cheltenham have followed, breaking down the barriers and succeeding in the previously male dominated world of jazz. A true pioneer and an indomitable spirit Thompson was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease in 1997 and was recently widowed following the death of her husband, the drummer Jon Hiseman, yet she still continues to compose and record music.
It was appropriate that Ahmed’s piece should include a saxophone solo, this being an expansive and incisive outing from Facey on alto with further solos coming from Wyld on vibes and Ahmed on flugel.

The Hafla Ensemble concluded their set with a tune that did not actually form part of the set. Nevertheless Ahmed dedicated “A Shoal Of Souls” to the Bristol based artist and illustrator Sophie Bass, who produced the distinctive artwork for Ahmed’s most recent album “La Saboteuse”. As befits its title the tune was also dedicated to the North African and Syrian refugees currently attempting to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of finding a better life in Europe. Appropriately the music incorporated Middle Eastern and North African elements with the leader on electronically enhanced trumpet and Wyld on bowed vibes making particularly notable contributions.

Today’s performance at a sold out Jazz Arena was a triumph for Ahmed with the music getting a terrific audience reaction plus a pretty unequivocal ‘thumbs up’ from the critics. The playing from a well drilled ensemble was exceptional and “Polyhymnia” looks set to be one of the most anticipated jazz releases of the year.

The quality of the writing was excellent and overall this was more successful than Ahmed’s other (very good) large ensemble work “Alhaan Al Siduri”, commissioned in 2015 by the Birmingham based Jazzlines association. My only cavil about today’s performance would be that Ahmed was perhaps overly reliant on electronic wizardry during the course of her own solos. It would have been nice to have heard some more ‘straight ahead’ playing from her rather than leaving that to Ridout and Langley.
Nevertheless this was a set that ranked as one of the Festival highlights.


DAVID SANBORN ACOUSTIC BAND, TOWN HALL

This represented a return visit to Cheltenham for alto saxophonist David Sanborn who played the Big Top in 2016 with a quintet that he dubbed his Electric Band. I also covered that event and largely enjoyed it, but it was a show that divided audience and critical opinion.

For this performance in the marginally more intimate environs of the Town Hall the saxophonist had brought along his Acoustic Band, with only drummer Billy Kilson remaining from the previous line up. Today’s group also included Michael Dease on trombone, Geoffrey Keezer on piano and keyboard and Ben Williams on double bass. It wasn’t all strictly acoustic but it was far more obviously a ‘jazz’ performance than 2016’s had been, with Keezer a big improvement on keyboard player Ricky Peterson, whose playing I really didn’t take to at all.

The material this time round was more rooted in the jazz tradition as opposed to the funk and fusion of two years ago. Williams and Kilson established a driving groove as the quintet launched into the Michael Brecker tune “Tumbleweed” with Sanborn soloing incisively on alto followed by Dease on trombone and Keezer at the piano with the ebullient Kilson also enjoying something of a drum feature.

Sanborn described the late Brecker as one of the greatest saxophone players of his generation and followed up the opener with a second Brecker tune, “Half Moon Lane”. Introduced by Keezer at the piano this was a slower tune that again featured the leader’s Jackie McLean styled alto plus a stand out solo from Williams, once the bass player with guitarist Pat Metheny’s Unity Band. Further solos came from Keezer on piano and Dease on trombone, the latter also entering into a series of exchanges with the leader.

The Marcus Miller composition “Maputo”, named for the capital of Mozambique, was also played at Sanborn’s 2016 Cheltenham concert. Today the thirty five year old composition was performed in a new “Pan African” arrangement with Keezer moving to an electric keyboard, a Yamaha Motif XF8, to supply the percolating kalimba style motif motif that underpins the song. Solos here came from the leader on alto and Dease on trombone, the latter delivering his best solo of the afternoon and producing an impressive range of sounds from the trombone, sometimes utilising the services of a plunger mute. Meanwhile Keezer mixed acoustic and electric keyboard sounds during his feature.

A change in direction for an arrangement of a pop song that Sanborn remembered from his youth. The tune was “It’s All In The Game”, a hit for Tommy Edwards and later for the Four Tops. Sanborn slipped us the interesting snippet of information that the melody was written as far back as 1911 by Charles Dawes, who later became Vice President to Calvin Coolidge! Carl Sigman’s lyrics came much later. Trivia aside this was classic Sanborn as he soloed at length on alto, bringing a wealth of emotion to the song and almost ‘crying’ on the instrument. There were also features for Williams on double bass and Keezer on piano prior to an unaccompanied closing sax cadenza from the leader.

Kilson’s drums introduced the slyly funky “Spanish Joint”, co-composed by the late jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and the soul singer D’Angelo. With Keezer on electric piano this was a more energetic work out featuring the joint melody lines of Sanborn and Dease and with the leader soloing incisively.

The impressive Williams introduced the next, unannounced, piece with an extended solo bass feature that had Sanborn muttering his approval. The saxophonist continued to sit back as the group went into piano trio mode with Keezer delivering a sparkling acoustic piano solo peppered with Latin-esque flourishes. Dease followed on trombone before handing over to Sanborn, the two horn men also entering into a lively series of exchanges with the pair quoting liberally from Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.

There were no doubts about the identity of the final piece, an arrangement of “On The Spot”, a tune composed by the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. This high energy closer saw Sanborn and Dease playing the catchy melodic hook in unison before the leader stretched out with a wailing, bluesy alto solo, the trombonist following. But the tune was essentially a showcase for the energetic Kilson, a busy and galvanising presence throughout, who enjoyed himself in an exuberant and theatrical drum feature.

This was the third time that I’ve seen Sanborn and although I know that he has his detractors I’ve generally enjoyed all of them. Today’s acoustic show was definitely a step up from the Electric Band gig of three years ago with Sanborn reminding us of his fluency as a jazz soloist and doing so in the company of a highly competent all star band with each member impressing individually and collectively. For me it was a first live sighting of Keezer, Williams and Dease and I was impressed with all of them.

It wasn’t quite up to the standard of the Redman gig in the same venue the night before but this was still a pretty strong showing from another leading figure of American jazz. Radio listeners will get the chance to judge for themselves when the Sanborn concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme on the evening of Monday May 13th 2019 at 11.00 pm.


HANNA PAULSBERG CONCEPT, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

On to another saxophonist, this time a young European musician playing the tenor.

The Norwegian saxophonist, composer and bandleader Hanna Paulsberg appeared at the very first Birmingham / Trondheim Jazz Exchange event some ten years ago and subsequently returned to Cheltenham to lead her Concept quartet at a successful appearance on the Festival’s Freestage in 2012

This year Paulsberg was invited back for a rather more formal concert performance at the PAC. In the years since her very first Cheltenham appearance she has established herself as saxophonist, composer and bandleader of some stature, releasing a total of four albums as a leader including “Waltz For Lilli” (2012), “Song For Josia” (2014) and “Eastern Smiles” (2016). In 2018 her latest recording “Daughter Of The Sun” included a guest appearance from the celebrated Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo and garnered some very favourable reviews.

Today Paulsberg brought along her long running Concept quartet featuring pianist Oscar Gronberg, bassist Trygve Waldemar Fiske and drummer Erik Nylander, the latter having taken over from previous drummer Hans Hulbaekmo. Both Gronberg and Fiske had also been part of the Birmingham-Trondheim Exchanges, emphasising the importance of these ventures, and I seem to recall Hulbaekmo being part of it too.

The Concept group sound is less obviously experimental than much contemporary Norwegian jazz and more rooted in the American jazz tradition with the influence of musicians such as Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Stan Getz evident in Paulsberg’s sound.

She also impresses as a composer, her pieces often evolving out of simple, repeated melodic phrases, but with Paulsberg and the quartet developing them in consistently interesting and inventive ways.

Not all of the tunes were announced but the opening piece showcased Paulsberg’s fluency as a tenor sax soloist as she shared the spotlight with the impressive Gronberg as Nylander provided the necessary propulsion via his rapidly brushed grooves.

Paulsberg’s musical career has allowed her to travel widely and she like to write tunes inspired on her experiences and by people she has met. Hence we learned that the title track of the “Song For Josia” was written for a musician that she worked with in Madagascar. This was another excellent example of Paulsberg’s melodic writing style and began in piano trio mode with Gronberg taking the first solo. Fiske’s bass was also featured before the music gathered greater momentum, building up a considerable head of steam as Paulsberg stretched out on tenor.

The next piece demonstrated Paulsberg’s skills as a ballad player, her sound now soft and breathy. Meanwhile Gronberg’s lyrical solo was embellished by Nylander’s drum colourations. The quartet then increased the energy levels once more as the piece progressed with Paulberg now adopting a harder edged tone and probing more deeply.

“Catalan Boy” was sourced from the “Eastern Smiles” album and was written for a fellow saxophonist on an international jazz course. “He was a very flirty boy”, explained Paulsberg, who, despite being tempted, eventually dismissed him as a potential suitor. The tune was suitably playful and a good example of Paulsberg’s abilities to create rewarding compositions from initially simple sources. The first solo came from the composer as she extemporised around the repeated staccato phrases that formed the basis of the tune. We also heard from Grunborg at the piano and from Nylander at the drums, the latter’s colourful playing being a major factor throughout the tune as a whole.

Next a true ballad that featured Nylander playing brushed drums throughout and with solos coming from Gronberg and Paulsberg, the saxophonist exploiting the higher registers of her instrument and neatly sidestepping the usual jazz ballad clichés.

“Little Big Saxophone”, the last of half a dozen fairly lengthy and substantial compositions, was a tribute to the Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist and exhibited a similar quirky playfulness as the earlier “Catalan Boy”. The piece opened with a good natured series of sax and drum exchanges before progressing to move seamlessly up and down the gears, changing the pace and dynamics without any obvious signalling of the tempo changes. Along the way we got to enjoy solos from Paulsberg, Gronberg and Fiske as the quartet brought a consistently enjoyable performance to a close.

This was one of the more low key performances of this year’s PAC programme and one of the most ‘straight ahead’. Nevertheless it was still hugely satisfying and included some impressively mature writing and some excellent playing from a highly talented quartet with a well established rapport. Paulsberg presided over the proceedings with an easy charm and the performance has sent me back to the recordings once more. Four albums in and Paulsberg has already amassed an impressive body work, with all of her output making for rewarding listening.


MADELEINE PEYROUX, THE BIG TOP

The American born singer and songwriter Madeleine Peyroux has accrued a large following for her work and made a return visit to Cheltenham, filling the 2000 seater Big Top.

I first discovered Peyroux’s work around fifteen years ago on albums such as “Careless Love” and “Half The Perfect World”. My wife was a big fan at the time as was one of her work colleagues and I remember us all attending a Peyroux live show at Warwick Arts Centre but ultimately coming away feeling disappointed. The presentation was all very laid back and low key with Peyroux lacking any real stage presence. Somehow the live experience didn’t live up to the promise of those two very good albums.

I’ll admit to having paid little regard to Peyroux in the meantime as I’ve dug deeper into the recesses of contemporary jazz but having a vacant slot in my Festival programme I thought I’d check out how the singer has progressed with regard to live performance in the intervening years.

Fifteen years on and with Peyroux touring in support of her ninth and latest album “Anthem” I was interested to see how she had honed her stage craft in the interim. Certainly there were more jokes than previously as she attempted to get the audience onside in the cavernous venue but these sounded rather forced and often feel flat.

Things started well enough with “Don’t Wait Too Long”, a self penned song that has become something of a signature tune for her, but Peyroux didn’t really build on her success. Her song selections, whether self penned or by others, tend to be somewhat gloomy and downbeat and there was insufficient emotional variety in her set, something that even she tried to joke about. Even though Peyroux’s repertoire embraces various genres of American music, ranging from jazz to blues to folk to country there’s still a tendency for them to all start to sound the same after a while. However her one attempt to liven things up, the cringe-worthy “Honey Party” just sounded banal and out of place.

Peyroux accompanied herself on acoustic guitar for the majority of the set which restricted her mobility about the stage. Also I felt that she was singing just a few too inches far away from the mic and the intimacy and meaning of the lyrics was often crucially lost.

Peyroux made here name as an interpreter of other peoples’ songs and her repertoire has included Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and other great North American songwriters. She has a particular affinity for the music of Cohen and her interpretations of his “Dance Mr To The End Of Love” and “Anthem” were particularly successful and well received.

Elsewhere another attempt at humour by way of Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” was more successful while the original song “Brand New Deal”, from the “Anthem” album, added some sharp and pertinent political commentary. Other items from the new record included “All My Heroes” and “We Might As Well Dance”. More familiar fare came in the shapes of “Careless Love” and “As Far As I’m Concerned It’s A Lovely Day”.

Peyroux was supported by a highly skilled but ultimately rather faceless backing band of veteran session men including Andy Ezrin (keyboards, melodica), Paul Frazier (electric bass) and Graham Hawthorne (drums). I didn’t catch the name of the guitarist, but he added some nice Wes Montgomery style melodic flourishes as he shared the majority of the instrumental solos with Ezrin. Is it possible for a band too be too ‘tasteful’? Because that what these guys were, their solos were skilful, succinct and neatly constructed, totally professional but lacking the spontaneity that defines the best jazz.

Ultimately I’m afraid I found it all rather dull, something not helped by being a long way from the stage in an uncomfortable seat in a giant tent – not that the location had affected my enjoyment of the Abdullah Ibrahim gig the day before, although admittedly I did have a much better vantage point for that.

Peyroux’s performance was received politely but not particularly enthusiastically by the audience and I noticed that there wasn’t much of a rush to the record store afterwards, which suggested that others shared my reservations. The “Careless Love” album was playing in the record shop and actually sounded much better than the real thing had done, leading me to conclude that Peyroux is ultimately the kind of artist who is more at home in the studio than on the concert stage. There’s plenty of precedent for that, the rock band Blur for instance, as well as plenty of counter-examples who were dynamic live acts but didn’t always cut it on disc, the Edgar Broughton Band, Mott The Hoople and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin to give three such names from my rock past.

West Country based music fans might have been better advised to have checked out Peyroux’s performances at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol the following night. It would be interesting to know how this show went down in the kind of smaller, more intimate venue that I’m sure would have suited Peyroux’s music more.


OMAR SOSA, YILIAN CANIZARES, GUSTAVO OVALLES PALACIOS, JAZZ ARENA

Next up a complete contrast at the Jazz Arena. There was nothing remotely dull about this stunning performance in the ‘Trios With A Twist’ series featuring pianist Omar Sosa, vocalist and violinist Yilian Canizares and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles Palacios. It was dynamic, exciting and colourful, both musically and visually.

The Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa had previously visited Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2016 with his Quarteto AfroCubana, playing a hugely exciting show in this same venue, albeit one hampered by technical difficulties. I preferred to try and ignore the sound problems and just concentrated on the joyousness of the music.

Mercifully there were no such issues today as Sosa unveiled his new project, a collaboration with the Swiss based vocalist and violinist Yilian Canizares.  Canizares may be based in Switzerland, hence the sponsorship from Pro-Helvetia and the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation, but she is of Cuban descent and the music of the island is deep in her soul, she is totally immersed in it.

Sosa and Canizares recently released the album “Aguas”  (meaning “waters”) on the OTA record label, a recording that also includes the talents of percussionist Inor Sotolongo. Tonight Palacios performed quite brilliantly in the percussionist’s chair, the quality of his performance more than matched by the dazzling contributions of Sosa and Canizares.

The partnership of Sosa, these days based in Barcelona, and Canizares is a cross-generational one, Sosa, the senior partner, has been investigating the music of the Afro-Cuban diaspora for many years, releasing a string of highly regarded albums in the process. He’s a real showman, taking to the stage in white robes that emphasise his African heritage, but he’s also bang up to date musically, his instrumental set up incorporating grand piano and electric keyboards plus a range of programming and sampling equipment. He may be flamboyant but his piano technique is exceptional, his deployment of the various electronic devices at his disposal skilled and pertinent and his sheer musicality unquestionable.

These are qualities that also apply to the younger Canizares who represented a compelling centre stage presence as well as singing and playing brilliantly. And while the album may be credited to Sosa and Canizares Palacios’ contribution on a wide variety of percussive implements was also vital and exceptional, this truly was a ‘Trio With A Twist’.

Compared to Peyroux, who had struggled to project in the vastness of the Big Top, there was the sense that this was genuinely a ‘show’ something enhanced by the bright clothing of the participants and the imaginative use of lighting and other effects. Dry ice swirled as Sosa’s piano and electronics set the mood with Palacios reciting words in Spanish while playing Cuban style drums.

Canizares then made her entrance, playing pizzicato violin, before singing the first song of the evening, her emotive vocals complemented by some fiery violin bowing.

I’m assuming that the majority of the music came from the “Aguas” album, the title of which references the Yoruban deity Oshun, the Goddess of Love and Mistress of Rivers, and the life and energy that she brings. The title also references the ocean that separates these two emigres in Europe from the land of their birth.

Thus there was plenty of emotional depth in this music, flamboyant though much of it was, helping the trio to avoid the usual Afro-Cuban salsa clichés. Canizares’ soulful singing of the Spanish lyrics mirrored the sorrow and profundity of corresponding genres such as flamenco, fado and even the blues, a real sense of what the Spanish call ‘duende’.

But this wasn’t just an exercise in longing and nostalgia, this was a celebration too, of all things Cuban and of life itself. These qualities were reflected in Sosa’s dazzling, technically brilliant piano soloing and his intelligent deployment of synthesised bass lines and sampled vocals. The use of modern technology contrasted with Palacios’ exuberant playing of a veritable battery of percussive devices ranging from kit drums to congas to smaller devices that were sometimes difficult to identify from my vantage point. He always had the right sound or rhythm for any given musical situation.

Meanwhile Canizares was a revelation, a fiery, soulful and technically accomplished vocalist, a superb violinist and a charismatic stage presence. And make no mistake this was a show with Sosa periodically abandoning his piano stool to dance with Canizares as Palacios continued to supply the infectious rhythms. The lights also played their part, at one point Canizares was bathed in swirling blue and yellow light, a striking image brilliantly captured by the Tim Dickeson photograph that accompanies this feature. Even the audience were totally involved, a bout of spontaneous clapping along breaking out without any prior encouragement for the band.

Nothing seemed overly contrived, the chemistry between Sosa and Canizares seemed far too natural to have been manufactured, with the excellent Palacios also buying right in to the co-leaders’s concept and integrating with his band mates perfectly. The playing of both Sosa and Canizares combined the precision of Western classicism with the passion and energy of Cuba and Africa, and an innate musicality was apparent throughout, even in something as superficially banal as Palacios’ maraca feature. Other set pieces included a piano/violin duet followed by a vigorous discourse featuring all three musicians.

I have no tune titles for you, naturally these were all in Spanish, but the language barrier didn’t matter in a performance as dynamic, exciting and downright brilliant as this. The trio had the whole arena on their feet long before the close and were one of the few acts of the weekend to be afforded an encore. Yes, they were the last act of the day in this venue so no time restraints but such was the overwhelming enthusiasm of the audience reaction that defying the wishes of the audience wasn’t really an option. The lines at the record store were rather longer than they had been for Ms. Peyroux!

This gig was a bit of a late addition to my Festival schedule, the memory of Sosa’s 2016 performance swinging the vote over the solo piano performance at the PAC by Fred Hersch, who was subsequently replaced by Marc Copland.

The Copland concert also drew favourable reviews and was obviously a very different performance to this. But I don’t think anything could have topped Sosa, Canizares and Palacios, a collective force of nature, who surprised everybody (in a good way) with this barnstorming ‘Gig of the Festival’.


SYLVAIN DARRIFOURCQ / VALENTIN CECCALDI / QUENTIN BIARDEAU,
PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

The final gig at the PAC, and the last in the ‘Trios In A Twist’ series featured the French trio of drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq, cellist Valentin Ceccaldi and tenor saxophonist Quentin Biardeau. The last named was a replacement for the previously advertised Manuel Hermia, who was unable to travel due to illness.

The trio of Hermia, Ceccaldi and Darrifourcq appear on the album “God At The Casino”, a selection of original compositions from the members of the band and from which all of tonight’s material was sourced.

Darrifourcq was the only member of the trio whose playing I was previously familiar with, having seen him perform at this Festival and in this venue on two previous occasions. In 2013 he appeared with the Anglo-French quartet Barbacana, which also featured keyboard player Kit Downes, and in 2015 he and Downes returned as part of the trio In Bed With…, a band that also included the French guitarist Julian Desprez.

The drummer brought a very French eccentricity and whimsicality to both these projects and it was no surprise to see him bringing similar qualities to tonight’s performance. Darrifourcq is a very ‘theatrical’ drummer, augmenting his kit with various small devices including toys and kitchen implements, the ‘toys’ including children’s play things as well as implements of a more sexual nature!

Darrifourcq is a very visual player, always fascinating to watch, and its own way this was as much a ‘piece of theatre’ as the Cuban trio’s show had been, despite all the avant garde trappings.

Darrifourcq had obviously been remembered from his previous visits and this event was pleasingly well attended despite the comparative lateness of the hour and the experimental nature of the music. The French trio had certainly attracted a larger audience than the Michael Formanek quartet the previous evening.

The trio commenced with On A Brule La Tarte”, the opening piece from their album, written by Ceccaldi and with a title translating as “We Burn The Pipe”. An introductory staccato riff incorporating cello and drums was joined by the wailing of Biardeau’s sax as the newcomer began to find his niche within the group. Extreme dynamic contrasts were a feature of the piece with Ceccaldi attacking his instrument with a savage, violent vigour that would probably appal many a classical musician – heavy metal cello anyone? Darrifourcq continued to roam around his kit, adding the sounds of those small devices to the more conventional percussive noises while Biardeau continued to unleash barrages of fog horn like sax. This was real ‘pin your ears back’ stuff, pretty full on but totally exhilarating.

The introduction to the next piece was more impressionistic with a passage of unaccompanied cello from Ceccaldi that included both pizzicato techniques and grainy bowing. Darrifourcq later added the sound of various small devices and Biardeau joined in on over-blown tenor, extended techniques are something of a hallmark of this trio. This, I think was Hermia’s composition “Du Poil De La Bete”, the absent saxophonist still making his presence felt through his writing.

Drums and pizzicato cello then established a riff or groove above which Biardeau floated wispy sax melodies as the music segued into Darrifourcq’s “Les Flics De La Police”. A more staccato riff then emerged, the odd meter groove encouraging much head nodding around the venue as the trio ‘got down’ albeit in a highly cerebral, King Crimson sort of way. Biardeau topped this with an increasingly confrontational sax barrage to complement Ceccaldi’s continuing assault on his cello and Darrifourcq’s explosive drumming.

A solo drum feature from Darrifourcq ushered in Hermia’s piece “Ho Chi Minh”, with the pregnant pauses before each series of percussive attacks stretching out to such lengths that one was periodically reminded of John Cage’s “4 min 33 sec”. Darrifourcq’s pauses may not have been that long, but they were positively ‘Pinter-esque’. Next Ceccaldi set up a simmering drone on the cello that became increasingly buzzy and distorted as he placed objects under the strings. The re-introduction of the drums plus Biardeau’s belligerent tenor sax then provoked another bout of intellectualised head banging as Biardeau’s sax honked, wailed and fluttered above an increasingly frenetic staccato riff. In their own strange way these guys were more ‘death metal’ than Starebaby had been the previous day.

I’m fairly certain that the trio actually played the whole of the “God Is In The Casino” album, albeit with this being primarily improvised music much of it sounded very different to the recording. So I’m fairly sure that we concluded with Darrifourcq’s “Chauve Et Courtois” which included a set piece percussive introduction featuring the full range of the drummers ‘objects’, as they’re classified on the album cover. Even with the good sight lines in the PAC I still couldn’t make out everything he was doing, it was a bit like watching Tony Buck of The Necks, a possible influence.
Pecked sax and plucked cello were added to the mix, augmenting the percussive wizardry before Biardeau began to assert himself with some increasingly gruff and garrulous sax harmolodics.

This last ‘Trio With A Twist’ earned themselves a great reception from the PAC audience. This was music that was, in many ways, totally ‘out there’,  but which still possessed enough structure to remain accessible, that fine balance between the composed and the improvised again. The rapport between Darrifourcq and Ceccaldi was obvious throughout, with Biardeau having to find his own way into the music, something he did very successfully. The combination of some ferocious odd meter riffing plus the visual spectacle of Darrifourcq’s almost relentless drumming ensured that the music remained accessible and the memories of those aspects of the performance help to ensure that the “God Is At The Casino” album remains a good listen in the home environment too.

This show was very different to anything else I’d heard at the Festival but in its own eccentric, and very French, way it represented one of the highlights of the Festival. This was adventurous, experimental music delivered with a Gallic smile on its face.


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

I was unable to travel to Cheltenham on the Monday due to family commitments so this was the end of Cheltenham for me for another year. As ever the Festival produced some superb music with the ‘Trio With A Twist’ strand really delivering. Sunlight, Joshua Redman, Vula Viel and today’s Cuban and French trios all performed superb shows under this banner.

The number of female led bands was also impressive (Cheltenham certainly can’t be accused of gender bias) with the majority of these being spearheaded by instrumentalists. Nubya Garcia, Vula Viel, Yazz Ahmed and Hanna Paulsberg all impressed with Yilian Canizares forming part of a trio of equals. And there were many more women on the bill including Rachel Musson, Julie Campiche and the duo of Zoe Rahman and Nikki Yeoh, I was sorry to have missed all of these but such are the choices one has to make at Festivals.

I’m grateful to Bairbre Lloyd and the other staff at the Festival press Office for supplying my press tickets and to photographer Tim Dickeson for allowing me to use the images that illustrate these pages.


‘WATERGATE’

The only sour note concerns the over zealous stewarding at the Town Hall. These were not the friendly and courteous volunteer stewards in the pink polo shirts that staffed all the other venues, I have only admiration for them.

Instead these were paid professional security guards presumably funded by the Cheltenham Trust that now appears to administer the Town Hall and Pillar Room. I turned up for the John Surman gig and was commanded to have my bag searched. It’s a long day when you cover as many events as I do and I was extremely annoyed when I was asked to either abandon the water bottle that I’d brought with me, hopefully to last me through most of the day, or to vacate it of its contents. I made a show of emptying it over the Town Hall steps, hoping to fill it again later. “We have a no fluids policy”  I was told.

I’m used to this kind of bullshit at football matches, I don’t expect to encounter it at a jazz festival. The issue it seems was not the potential of the bottle as a missile, as at the football, but the possible smuggling in of illicit alcohol. I suspect that this may have been a problem at rock gigs at this venue in the past. But at two in the afternoon for a jazz ensemble led by a seventy five year old and with an audience of a similar age – come on! Of course they were selling alcohol inside, and I could even have purchased a replacement bottle of water, something that I chose to do elsewhere. If this was just some kind of money making scheme they weren’t going to be making any out of me. Yes there was free water inside, as promised by the stewards, served in plastic cups from a water cooler.

I can’t stand this kind of unnecessary officiousness and I’m not going to let it pass without comment. The medical profession warn us of the dangers of dehydration, making the actions of these ‘goons’ totally irresponsible in my book. What happened to ‘innocent until proved guilty’?

And then there’s the environmental issue, the replacement water bottles, the hundreds of single use plastic cups. These ‘guys’ were professionals, the kind that are in the job because they like bullying people. Effectively they’ve taken money off every single person who had to buy a replacement bottle of water thanks to their over zealous, bloody minded pettiness – and they did it three times in my case. We don’t need them at Cheltenham. Don’t employ them at this or any other venue and don’t let them spoil our Festival.

Rant over.  Apart from that it was great.

 

by Ian Mann

May 10, 2019

Ian Mann on performances by Paris / Birmingham Jazz Exchange, Alfa Mist, John Surman's Brass Project, Dan Weiss & Starebaby, Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya, Vels Trio, Joshua Redman and Michael Formanek.

Photograph of Joshua Redman by Tim Dickeson.


SATURDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 04/05/2019.


JAZZ EXCHANGE; PARIS and BIRMINGHAM, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

For ten years Cheltenham Jazz Festival has hosted the annual ‘Jazz Exchange’ event featuring students from the Conservatoires of Birmingham and Trondheim. It has become something of a tradition for the ‘Trondheim Jazz Exchange’ to start off the Saturday programme and the event has been particularly well suited to the intimate environs of the PAC.

Many of the musicians that have appeared in these events have gone on to enjoy successful professional musical careers and some of the international alliances that were first formed at these events have gone on to become regular working bands.

This year the Jazz Exchange event was the ‘same but different’ with the Birmingham students collaborating with their counterparts from Paris as opposed to Trondheim. Reading between the lines I suspect that the change may have been enforced by the loss of the financial support of the Norwegian Embassy which always used to sponsor this event, but this represents pure speculation on my part.

Yet, in many respects nothing had changed. The format of the concert was the same with three groups being presented, comprised of two students from each institution and with a focus on original material written by the group members. As in previous years the students had spent two days prior to the performance engaged in intensive wood-shedding and rehearsals as they worked out their ideas.

Prior to the performance Jeremy Price, the Head of Jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire talked of the importance of the institution’s international outreach programme which has seen Birmingham students travelling to perform in the US, Colombia, Germany and Italy and now Paris.

Now on to the performances, and I have admit that I found it no easier to pick up the names of the French musicians from the on stage announcements than I did the Norwegian ones. So I’m indebted to my fellow scribe Peter Slavid, who was covering the event for London Jazz News, for supplying me with the full line up details.

Group One featured Parisians Guillaume Guedin on alto sax and Lucio Tomasi on drums with the British contingent represented by bassist Asaph Jeffrey and pianist Cameron Sheehy.

Their first piece commenced with a lengthy passage of unaccompanied alto from Guedin, a brave, bold and totally unexpected move but one that demonstrated the young saxophonist’s mastery of his instrument, his playing impressively mature and fluent. Guedin was joined by Tomasi’s brushed drums as the Paris students briefly performed as a duo prior to the subsequent edition of bass and drums. Jeffrey took the next solo, combining effectively with Tomasi’s drums before handing over to Sheehy to round out this arrangement of Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies”.

The group’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “From This Moment” commenced at ballad pace with bass, sax and piano initially combining to state the theme before the momentum gradually began to build during Sheehy’s solo. Tomasi then impressed with an unaccompanied brushed drum feature.

The final piece was a rousing slice of bebop / hard bop that sounded like it may have come from the pen of Charlie Parker, although none of the denizens of ‘scribblers corner’ could pin down a title. No matter, the piece still offered plenty for the listener to enjoy with Sheehy sharing the solos with the impressive Guedin. The saxophonist was the star player in this quartet with the two French players appearing to predominate over their Birmingham colleagues, not that the contributions of the two Brits should be overlooked.

On then to group two which offered a far less conventional line up and placed the emphasis firmly on original material. This was a ‘chamber jazz’ quartet featuring the saxophones of Paris based Clementine Ristord (soprano) and from Birmingham Liam Brennan (alto). At the piano was Noe Huchard with James Owston, a former BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year finalist on double bass.

The performance commenced with Ristord’s composition “Loony Puppets” which was ushered in by Huchard at the piano and Owston on bass. Ristord stated the melody on soprano sax, her distinctive tone being strikingly pure and almost oboe like. She handed over to Brennan’s alto before the two horns coalesced effectively. The first full length solo came from Huchard who displayed a pleasingly lyrical touch at the piano. Ristord then probed subtly on soprano, her crystalline tones contrasting well with the more acerbic sound of Brennan’s alto.

Brennan’s own “Clairvoyant” featured an ensemble theme statement prior to solos from the composer on alto and Huchard on piano as Owston’s grounding bass fulfilled a pivotal role in this drummer-less group. Ristord and Brennan then came together for a haunting twin sax restatement of the theme.

Finally we heard Huchard’s composition “Hip”, which was introduced by the sound of Owston’s bass and also included further solos for both bass and piano.

This was a particularly interesting group with the contrasting sounds and styles of the two saxophonists proving to be particularly effective. The contributions of Huchard and Owston were also excellent and I was also impressed by the quality of the original writing.

The final group was led by Birmingham based saxophonist Lewis Sallows, here playing alto alongside his compatriot Matt Holmes (drums). The French contingent featured trombonist Cyril Galamini and bassist Nicolas Jacobee.

This quartet began with an imaginative arrangement of Fats Waller’s “I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” that combined a trad jazz feel with contemporary rhythmic elements. Sallows had based his arrangement on a performance of the tune by Count Basie’s Orchestra and his alto was featured alongside Galamini’s trombone with Holmes enjoying a series of vigorous drum breaks.

Sallows’ own “108 Miles” took its title from the distance between his Hertfordshire family home and Birmingham. Introduced by Jacobee and Holmes the piece also included fluent and fiery solos from both Galamini and Sallows, the pair spurred on by the polyrhythmic flow of Holmes’ dynamic drumming.

Galamini selected the set’s other outside piece, an arrangement of “Soulville” by pianist Horace Silver. “Here’s some proper jazz for you” announced the unnecessarily self deprecating Sallows. This spirited performance rounded off this year’s Exchange event in energetic and good humoured fashion with solos coming from Sallows, Galamini and Jacobee.

This third group maintained the high standards set by the first two quartets. I particularly liked the comparatively rare pairing of alto and trombone, which sometimes reminded me of Jackie McLean and Grachan Moncur III.

This year’s Exchange event was as enjoyable as ever. With the format unaltered only the geographical location of the visiting musicians had changed and the standard of musicianship was well up to the levels of the Trondheim years.

I always enjoy this event and it’s something of an understated gem on the Festival calendar. There’s always plenty of variety and interest, the changeovers are executed quickly and efficiently and the standard of the musicianship is always hugely impressive. Let’s hope that it will continue, in one form or another, for many years to come.


ALFA MIST, JAZZ ARENA

I have to confess to knowing nothing about pianist, composer, producer and rapper Alfa Mist prior to this performance. Having a gap to fill I decided to take a chance on this event after checking him out on Youtube and deciding that there should be enough jazz content in his show to keep me happy.

Mist fronted a band featuring Johnny Woodman on trumpet & flugel, Jamie Leeming on guitar, Kaya Thomas-Dyke on electric bass and vocals and Jamie Houghton at the drums.

Mist’s jazz influences include Miles Davis and Avishai Cohen with the former particularly evident via Woodman’s trumpet playing, which was often reminiscent of Davis’ ‘electric era’. But Mist’s music also included elements of soul, funk and hip hop with the late J Dilla also named as a significant influence.

Mist’s particular brand of nu-jazz was outside my usual listening area but on the whole I rather enjoyed this show which opened with the tune “.44” from Mist’s recent album release “Structuralism”. The piece that included a fluent Harmon muted trumpet solo from Woodman that saw him further manipulating the sound of his instrument via a wah wah pedal. Leeming also impressed as he combined an orthodox guitar sound with a range of more contemporary effects. Mist himself, on electric piano, seemed content at this juncture to play more of a rhythmic and textural role, happy to give his colleagues their head.

From the same album “Naiyti” featured echoed flugel from Woodman that reminded me of Nils Petter Molvaer, while Mist himself cut loose for the first time on Rhodes. He was followed by Leeming and by Houghton with a drum feature.

Two more instrumentals in the same vein followed, “Retainer” and “Nocturne” with Woodman soloing on both trumpet and flugel and again treating the sound of the horns electronically. For “Retainer” Leeming produced an almost synclavier like sound from his guitar while on “Nocturne” he favoured a cleaner, more conventional guitar sound. Meanwhile Mist moved between Rhodes and grand piano but the sound from the latter was often muddy and distorted.

With Woodman projecting a charismatic and brooding centre stage presence it was sometimes difficult to remember that this was actually Mist’s gig. He went some way to addressing this on “Closer” which saw him demonstrating his rapping skills for the first time while simultaneously playing grand piano.

“Glad I Lived” featured more rapping plus the use of sampled voices as Mist moved back to the Rhodes. Woodman’s muted trumpet solo was delivered over the backdrop of Thomas-Dyke’s deeply resonant bass frequencies.

Born in East London of Ugandan heritage Mist dedicated “Jjajja’s Screen” to his grandmother, who only spoke the Luganda language, meaning that music was the only way he could bond with her.
With Mist on grand piano this was another instrumental piece featuring slow burning solos from Woodman on flugel, Leeming on guitar and Mist on piano with Leeming’s carefully constructed solo exhibiting a strong rock influence.

“Falling” featured a lead vocal from Esperanza Spalding look-alike Thomas-Dyke and was a nu soul ballad that also featured shimmering electric keyboards and wispy Harmon muted trumpet.

For the final item, another instrumental Mist moved back to grand piano and opened the piece by duetting with Woodman’s trumpet. The latter moved between muted trumpet and flugel during the course of his solo, propelled by Houghton’s hard driving drum grooves. The band signed off in style with further solos from Leeming and Thomas-Dyke and with Houghton enjoying a closing drum feature.

On the whole I rather enjoyed this performance from Mist and his band at a gig that took me out of my usual listening zone. It may have been a bit on the smooth side for my personal tastes but there was plenty of jazz content here with both Woodman and Leeming impressing with the quality of their soloing and overall this was a highly competent band that responded well to a near capacity crowd in the Jazz Arena. One suspects that Mr. Mist has acquired something of a following for his intelligent and accessible blend of jazz, soul and hip hop. All in all a very worthwhile experience.


JOHN SURMAN,  JOHN WARREN and THE BRASS PROJECT, TOWN HALL

One of the most eagerly anticipated events of the Festival was this performance at the Town Hall of the Brass Project, a venture co-led by the British multi reed player John Surman and the Canadian composer John Warren. Today’s concert was staged as a celebration of Surman’s 75th birthday and marked a return to one of his favourite projects.

In the 1980s Surman conceived the idea of augmenting his regular trio with bassist Chris Laurence and drummer John Marshall with a ‘choir of brass instruments’. Collaborating with Warren he recorded a studio album for ECM which was released in 1992 under the snappy title “The Surman Warren Brass Project”. The recording featured compositions from both Surman and Warren with the latter conducting an ensemble featuring the core trio of Surman, Laurence and Marshall plus a brass choir featuring three trumpets, two trombones and, perhaps most distinctively, two bass trombones.  Over the years the Brass Project has featured such British jazz luminaries as trumpeters Kenny Wheeler, Henry Lowther, Guy Barker and Steve Waterman and trombonists Mark Nightingale and Malcolm Griffiths.

Today’s ‘brass choir’ featured students from the Birmingham Conservatoire and these young musicians acquitted themselves very well, providing some excellent solos during the course of the performance as well as impressing with the precision of their ensemble work.

As far as I could make out from the on stage announcements the brass section comprised of;

Gareth Howell, Ashton Smith, James Morland, James Gardner – trumpets

Toby Carr, Joe Carnell – trombones

Josh Tagg, Ashley Naylor – bass trombones

Today’s performance consisted of a full performance of “The Traveller’s Tale”, an eight part suite composed by Warren and dedicated to the memory of his grandfather Jack Warren, whose eventful, globe trotting life helped to inspire the music.  A live recording of a performance of this work was made in 1993 and subsequently re-issued in 2017 on the Fledg’ling record label.

The suite commenced with the atmospheric impressionism of “Dawning” which featured the sounds of warm, sonorous brass textures and the woody timbres of Surman’s bass clarinet, these augmented by the shimmer of Marshall’s carefully judged cymbal embellishments.

Part 2, “The Journey Home” proved to be more rousing and up-tempo with a genuine big band feel. Powered by Marshall’s authoritative drumming and Laurence’s vigorous bass the ensemble really took off with Surman on baritone sax sharing the solos with one of the young trumpeters – unfortunately the individual solos weren’t verbally acknowledged by the co-leaders. This piece also included a bass feature for Laurence, whose playing had previously been a little too low in the mix.

Part 3, “Carefree Days” was centred around a groove established by Laurence’s bass and Marshall’s brushed drums with Surman stating the main melodic theme on soprano sax before handing over to one of the young trumpeters for the first solo. Surman later followed suit, still on soprano, and the piece concluded with the kind of brass chorale that had first inspired the Project.

Bassist Laurence also set the tone for Part 4, “Hindustan Nights”, his introductory bass motif joined by the clatter of Marshall’s sticks on rims. Designed to have an exotic quasi-Indian feel the arrangement made extensive use of the distinctive tones of Surman’s bass clarinet as he shared the solos with one of the trombonists with Laurence’s melodic bass motif a recurring presence throughout.

The music segued into Part 5 “Elegy”, a remarkable showcase for the bowing skills of the classically trained Laurence, his arco playing rich and dark, the mood of the music solemn and almost baleful at times. Other passages included staccato bowing that was sharp, spiky and abrasive, seeming to express a barely suppressed anger. Laurence’s remarkable playing was augmented by the grainy timbres of Surman’s bass clarinet.

From here the music segued again, this time into Part 6 “Lay of the Land” where Surman’s soprano was allowed to swoop and soar above the lush brass textures and buoyant rhythms as he shared the solos with a trombonist and a trumpeter.

Marshall’s solo drum feature introduced Part 7 “Resolution”, his chiming cymbals subsequently conjoining with Surman’s bass clarinet as the co-leader commenced his solo, cushioned by the rich sounds of the brass chorale, whose luminous textures added an almost spiritual feel to the music.

A further feature from Laurence, this time on pizzicato bass, paved the way for the final movement “New Horizons” with Surman’s darting, melodic soprano dancing nimbly around Marshall’s military style drum patterns.  As the momentum of the tune began to increase Marshall’s drumming became increasingly dynamic as his powerful playing helped to fuel strident solos from two of the young trumpeters plus a sinuous and incisive soprano solo from Surman.

On the whole this was a show that was well received but nevertheless it was still a performance that divided opinion. Some commentators complained about the sound balance in the cavernous Town Hall, never the easiest of venues for sound engineers. I felt the sound was probably as good as it was likely to get, so no real complaints from me there.

More pertinent perhaps were the comments that the set up on stage was somewhat strange, with co-leader Surman stuck out in the wings, presumably to allow the audience better views of the consistently impressive Marshall and Laurence. With Warren turning his back on the crowd to conduct the brass there was no real centre stage presence, which was somewhat distracting for the audience. Also the lack of announcements made it difficult for the audience to distinguish between the movements and people were uncertain of just when to applaud. Overall though the positives far out-weighed the negatives and the quality playing from such established masters as Surman, Laurence and Marshall was never in doubt with the Conservatoire members also acquitting themselves superbly.

I treated my self to a copy of the “Traveller’s Tale “live album afterwards which stands up well in the home listening environment and was highly beneficial in the writing of this review.

My only regret was that after recently publishing a series of interviews with John Marshall, these conducted by my colleague Trevor Bannister, I wasn’t able to meet up with him myself afterwards due to the tight turnaround schedules for both musicians and reviewers alike. Nevertheless it was a privilege to witness his playing – another time for that meeting perhaps?


DAN WEISS – STAREBABY, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

On then to another master drummer, albeit one from another country and another generation.

New York based Dan Weiss exerts a mastery of rhythm that even drum luminaries such as the UK’s own James Maddren look up to.  As well as being a phenomenally talented kit drummer Weiss is also a tabla master with a thorough command of the Indian classical tradition. He also holds a degree in western Classical Composition, in short Weiss is one talented guy.

His latest project is Starebaby, a quintet that explores Weiss’ love of the heavy metal genre as well as his love of film and TV soundtrack music. Throw in his jazz, Indian and classical influences as well and it makes for a fascinating mix.

The line up of Starebaby is an unusual one in that it features two keyboard players, Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, plus Ben Monder on guitar and Trevor Dunn on electric bass with Weiss leading from the kit.

The crowded stage at the PAC featured Mitchell playing the venue’s grand piano with Taborn situated behind him playing a variety of electric keyboards and associated electronic gadgetry.

It was Mitchell’s low end piano rumblings that ushered in the first piece, accompanied by the shimmer of the leader’s cymbals and Taborn’s electronic texturing. The arrival of Monder upped both the volume and energy levels as the band lurched into some chunky, math rock riffing with Monder’s solo variously recalling those cerebral guitar heroes Allan Holdsworth and Robert Fripp, no wonder he got the call for David Bowie’s Blackstar band.

Dynamic contrast was very much the order of the day with passages of spacey keyboard layering and texturing or solo acoustic piano punctuated by savage onslaughts of metallic riffery.  Mitchell and Taborn sometimes switched roles with the latter moving temporarily to the acoustic. Monder’s guitar was enhanced by a range of FX pedals while Dunn’s muscular but virtuosic electric bass playing was also an essential part of the band’s sound.

Weiss kept to the talking to a minimum as the band navigated their way through three lengthy ever evolving segues with Weiss often appearing to lead from the drums, his pre-written parts with their melodic patterns seeming to act as triggers for the other members of the band. On occasion the group would break down into smaller units with Weiss at various junctures engaging in a series of duo exchanges with Mitchell, Taborn and Dunn, which helped to introduce a degree of variety to the proceedings.

Announcing the final number “Episode 8”, a composition inspired by the television series “Twin Peaks”, Weiss also fired the obligatory barb at Donald Trump, hoping he’d be out of office by 2020.
The piece itself was suitably episodic and included features for Dunn on bass and Taborn on synthesiser, the latter wrenching some truly amazing sounds from the instrument. It was all highly intense with Starebaby coming over as an even more intellectual King Crimson, such was the power and complexity of their metallic edged sound and their frenzied, fractured riffing.

Given the pedigree of this band (Taborn as a solo artist, Mitchell’s membership of the wonderful Claudia Quintet and Monder’s involvement with Black Star) I’d tipped this event as a possible ‘gig of the festival’. I certainly enjoyed it but it wasn’t quite that. At times I found Starebaby’s music overwhelming and although nobody likes a good avant rock riff more than me it was all a little too intense and bombastic, even the quieter, more impressionistic moments featuring Taborn’s keyboards were largely dark and menacing.

Much to admire nevertheless, particularly the phenomenal technique of the leader, and it was good to see Monder playing live for the first time.


ABDULLAH IBRAHIM & EKAYA

Over in the Big Top a legend of the music was leading his long running band.

Now aged 84 the South African born pianist, composer and bandleader remains musically active, his sound still evolving. Working under the name Dollar Brand he pioneered a distinctive style of South African jazz that remains hugely popular with jazz listeners but it’s a style that he’s largely moved on from. Like Duke Ellington (with whom he worked) and Miles Davis Ibrahim is a musician who doesn’t stand still and doesn’t trade in nostalgia, despite this appearance with his long running group Ekaya, the band name meaning ‘home’.

The current edition of the band is comprised largely of American musicians is very different from the one that used to include saxophonists Carlos Ward and Ricky Ford and now lines up as;

Cleave Guyton – alto sax, flute, piccolo
Lance Bryant – tenor sax
Andrae Murchison – trombone
Marshall McDonald – baritone sax
Noah Jackson – double bass, cello
Will Terrill – drums

Ibrahim said even less than Weiss and didn’t speak to the audience at all, preferring to let his music do the talking. I’ve seen him on a couple of occasions previously, a solo piano performance in Birmingham twenty odd years ago and leading his trio at a festival in the Colston Hall, Bristol in 2009. Both were, to be honest, a little disappointing with few variations of mood and pace and generally lacking in variety.

With a larger ensemble things were pleasingly different. I’ve wanted to see Ibrahim with the full Ekaya band for a long time and was delighted to be able to take this opportunity to do so.

The concert began with Ibrahim playing solo piano, the music having a meditative, almost spiritual quality about it. Gradually bass and brushed drums were added to the equation and then the warm, rounded tones of the four horns with McDonald taking the first orthodox solo on baritone, later followed by a full on tenor solo from Bryant. 

Ibrahim also introduced the next piece at the piano but in general he played sparingly, allowing plenty of room for his younger band mates to express themselves. Clad in uniform black the four horn players wandered on and off stage at regular intervals as the individual soloists took it turns to step up to the mic as Ibrahim conducted and directed proceedings from the piano stool. Here the principal soloist was trombonist Murchison.

The septet was regularly broken down into smaller units with the next piece beginning in piano trio mode prior to the addition of Guyton on piccolo. There was a transition into sax trio mode as McDonald stepped up to the plate with vigorous support coming from Jackson and Terrill. Next up was Murchison with a quote laden trombone solo, this followed by a drum feature from the ebullient Terrill.

One particular highlight was the dialogue between Jackson on cello and Guyton on flute with Ibrahim himself providing subtle commentary and punctuation. Likewise Terrill’s unaccompanied intro to a later piece with its carefully constructed melodic drum patterns.

With no announcements the tunes tended to flow into each other with band members continuing to come and go with frequent regularity. The next piece saw Ibrahim again introducing proceedings at the piano before welcoming back the band, the colourful ensemble playing of the horns supplemented by individual solos.

The penultimate item included features for each of the individual band members before a closing duet between the leader on piano and Guyton on flute that had the solemn air of a valedictory.

Although the Big Top was far from full Ibrahim and Ekaya were afforded an excellent reception from those that were there, the leader and his band bowing to the crowd with exaggerated humility.

Again this was a concert that divided opinion. There were some who felt that Ibrahim was rather ‘just going through the motions’ and found the constant stringing together of individual solos rather tedious. For myself I rather enjoyed it, there were some excellent moments from all the individual musicians and the band, and in particular the horn section, did cohere effectively in the numerous ensemble passages. The main complaint was that Ibrahim didn’t play enough himself, and while it’s true that his contribution was rather sparing one should first consider his age and then the fact that what he did play was always pertinent and often very beautiful. Sometimes less is more, as was demonstrated by the concise economy of Ibrahim’s own performance.


VELS TRIO, HOUSE OF FRASER BASEMENT

I made a second trip to the Basement to check out Vels Trio the second act in the ‘Gilles Peterson Presents’ series. The young threesome were originally formed in Brighton but are now based in London, where they are making considerable inroads on the capital’s music scene.

Featuring Jack Stephenson-Oliver on keyboards, Cameron Dawson on electric bass and Dougal Taylor at the drums the Vels boys acknowledge a wide range of influences ranging through jazz, prog rock and funk through contemporary hip hop and electronica. Artists they admire include Robert Glasper, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock Thundercat, Austin Peralta and Canterbury scenesters Soft Machine and Caravan.

I’d add the contemporary bands GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands to that list although Vels Trio’s stylings are more retro with vintage synth and Rhodes sounds a key part of their musical identity. I was also reminded of pianist Dominic J Marshall’s experiments with electronica in his DJM Trio guise.

Vels Trio is evidently a band that has accrued something of a following and the audience was larger than I had expected, not quite as big as for Nubya Garcia the previous evening but generally younger and with plenty of regular followers in evidence.

Arriving relatively late following the Ekaya gig I found myself more than halfway back and could see even less than I could the night before. The only group member visible was the baseball hatted Dawson, the only one who was standing up – and even then I couldn’t see his bass properly.

Instead I just got my head down and surrendered myself to the Trio’s catchy melodic hooks and propulsive contemporary grooves, a cunning mix of the retro and the modern. The only tune title I caught was “Celestial Greens”, but once again this was a band that kept the chat to the minimum, preferring just to kick on and play.

There’s certainly something of a buzz about Vels Trio at the moment and their youthful energy and enthusiasm was certainly infectious but whether their wholly instrumental music constitutes jazz is something of a moot point. They don’t really develop their arresting hooks in the way that true jazz musicians do (or even Caravan and the Softs) and apart from the occasional impressive set piece for bass and drums there was little conventional jazz soloing. In this respect Vels are less sophisticated and less jazz than either GoGo Penguin or Mammal Hands and this lack of harmonic development suggests that they’d be a less rewarding listen than either of these bands in the home environment.

Vels Trio probably won’t hold much appeal for jazz purists but it’s possible that their all instrumental approach will attract new listeners to the music thanks to their appeal to a hip young constituency.

In the main I enjoyed them, but less so than the more obviously jazz orientated Nubya Garcia. In retrospect I would probably have been better advised to check out the twin piano concert by Zoe Rahman and Nikki Yeoh at the PAC instead, a performance that got rave reviews from other commentators. That said I’ve seen solo performances by both Rahman and Yeoh before and written particularly extensively about Zoe, hence the decision to check out something new. Choices, choices, but at least I will get to hear Rahman and Yeoh when their performance is transmitted on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now.

And finally, as at the Garcia gig, I wandered down to the front at the end to check out Stephenson-Oliver’s keyboard set up which on this occasion contained a Samson Carbon 49, a Nord Electro 5 and a Moog Grandmother.


JOSHUA REDMAN TRIO, TOWN HALL

A particularly baffling piece of scheduling found two big name American visitors playing opposite each other with saxophonist Joshua Redman leading his trio at the Town Hall while bassist and composer Michael Formanek led his all star Elusion Quartet at the PAC.

After weeks of vacillating I opted for Redman, mainly on the basis that the Formanek gig was being recorded for BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now and that at least I would get the chance to hear it later. Good call as it turned out, but more on that later.

At the Town Hall, and forming part of the ‘Trios With A Twist’ series, Redman was fronting a trio featuring Reuben Rogers on double bass and Gregory Hutchinson at the drums. Both of these musicians appear on “Come What May”,  Redman’s excellent new quartet recording for Nonesuch Records. The album features seven new Redman originals but in the absence of pianist Aaron Goldberg Redman chose to present more of a standards orientated programme. Perhaps not surprisingly the quality of both the playing and the arrangements ensured that this sounded fresh and vital, this certainly wasn’t a group that was just going through the motions.

First up was a heavily disguised “Mack The Knife” with an innovative arrangement that breathed new life into the old warhorse. Redman introduced the piece with a lengthy spell of unaccompanied tenor sax extemporising, later stretching out even further, his soloing fuelled by Rogers’ vigorous bass and Hutchinson’s explosive drumming. Rogers also featured as a soloist as the set got off to an invigorating start.

The Redman original “Back From Burma” followed, even though it’s not a piece that features on the new record. This was a more atmospheric and impressionistic offering that was introduced by Rogers at the bass with Hutchinson adding mallet rumbles. Redman’s tenor sax melodies were slinky and seductive and his solo was underpinned by Hutchinson’s colourful mallet work, the drummer switching to sticks as Redman’s playing grew in intensity.

The originals “Second Date”  and “Tail Chase” kept the pot bubbling, the latter featuring an infectious, boppish hook and a tenor solo of honking r’n’b flavoured intensity. Redman could then be heard shouting his approval at a Hutchinson drum feature that constituted a superb blending of power and precision.

By way of contrast the standard “Never Let Me Go” demonstrated Redman’s way with a ballad, his playing combining tenderness and fluency but also shading off into something more adventurous as the saxophonist flirted with the avant garde with a series of bat like squeaks.

The final piece saw guest Soweto Kinch joining the group on alto for an unannounced blues that again sounded as if it might have been written by Charlie Parker. The two saxophonists played the head in unison before shading off into their individual solos Kinch going first and peppering his feature with playful quotes. Rogers followed on the bass prior to a series of exchanges between Redman and Kinch, the carousing of the horns fuelled by Hutchinson’s Blakey-esque drumming. Finally the drummer enjoyed his own feature, again provoking a terrific response from the capacity crowd in the Town Hall.

The deserved encore featured the core trio and combined avant garde flourishes such as sax harmolodics and pecking with rousing funk grooves and features for all three protagonists. Kinch then returned to the stage as Redman and his colleagues acknowledged the cheers of the crowd.

Presided over with great charm by the always affable Redman this was an excellent set that combined energy with an element of showmanship, but which most importantly featured some exceptional playing from all the musicians involved. Redman is a superb technician and a highly fluent improviser, and these qualities, combined with an easy going charisma have made him something of a superstar in jazz terms. He’s a musician who consistently delivers and he has developed a superb rapport with Rogers and Hutchinson, musicians he has worked with consistently for twenty years. The excellence of their contributions to this evening’s success should not be overlooked.

Meanwhile the addition of Kinch, still fresh from the triumphant performance of the Sunlight trio at the PAC the previous evening represented a very welcome bonus. Apparently Kinch has interviewed Redman for Jazz Now, leading to the two musicians establishing a Trans- Atlantic rapport. Definitely the highlight of the day thus far.


MICHAEL FORMANEK ELUSION QUARTET, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

Following the conclusion of the Redman gig I hot footed it to the PAC in the hope that the stewards there would let me in to catch something of the Formanek show, even if it meant just standing at the back. As the event was not particularly well attended they were generous enough to allow me access, discretely ushering me to a seat, so my thanks to them for that.

Entering the hall during the applause between numbers I was lucky enough to witness three fairly lengthy compositions performed in full and I was later informed that I’d probably seen over half the gig, which was a bit of a result – plus I’ll get to hear the rest of it on the radio later.

Bassist and composer Formanek was leading his Elusion Quartet, an extension of his earlier Elusion Trio featuring Tony Malaby on tenor & soprano saxophones and Ches Smith on drums, percussion and vibraphone, both leading figures on New York’s experimental jazz scene. The addition of the Canadian born pianist Kris Davies elicited a change of band name with the Elusion Quartet releasing the excellent album “Time Like This” on the Intakt record label in 2018. The majority of tonight’s material was almost certainly sourced from that recording.

The music of the Elusion Quartet is richly evocative and has something of a ‘chamber jazz’ quality about it with the group sometimes breaking down into even smaller units. The first piece that I witnessed included passages in both saxophone trio and piano trio modes with Smith moving between drums and vibes, deploying the four mallet technique on the latter.

Similarly the next piece commenced with an intimate dialogue between Formanek on bass and a mallet wielding Smith at the kit, the drummer also using his feet on the kit, Han Bennink style. Davies’ piano was added to this heady mix, working under the lid to dampen the sound of the strings. Out of these avant garde elements emerged an infectious odd meter groove that formed the backdrop for Malaby’s saxophone solo, the combination of the fascinating rhythms and the harsh bray of Malaby’s tenor sometimes reminding me of the music of Charles Mingus. Heads were nodding around the venue as the music developed an unexpectedly ferocious head of steam.

The final piece was introduced by a stunning passage of unaccompanied piano from Davis that saw her utilising the full range of the instrument from low end rumblings to glacial tinkling,  eventually establishing a series of rippling arpeggios that formed the bedrock of the piece. In time her playing was embellished by the deep resonances of Formanek’s bass and Smith’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. This time round Malaby’s tenor playing was lush and lustrous but even this was upstaged by the flowing piano lyricism of Davis.

Formanek introduced the band one last time, thanked the small but enthusiastic audience and then they were gone.

I was so glad that I got to see some of this. It had been a day that had saved the best until last, the shows by Redman and Formanek being the undoubted highlights. The only disappointment with regard to the Formanek gig was the size of the audience, but it was getting late by now and they would almost certainly have drawn a larger crowd had they played earlier in the day.

In musical terms I couldn’t really fault it. I enjoyed the combination of chamber style delicacy and improvisational rigour and the consistently absorbing and interesting Formanek compositions. I’d seen Formanek, Smith and Malaby perform individually before in other contexts and always been impressed by them but tonight was my first sighting of Davis. I’d heard her before on records by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and enjoyed her contribution but her playing tonight was something of a revelation, particularly her lightness of touch at the instrument. I loved the sparkling, crystalline melody lines that she produced, albeit interlaced with a fierce improvisational instinct. I’m already looking forward to hearing her and the Elusion Quartet again on Radio 3.

 

 

 

by Ian Mann

May 07, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys an evening of performances by Leah, the Sunlight Trio of Soweto Kinch, Andreas Schaerer & Kalle Kalima and the Nubya Garcia band.

Photograph of Andreas Schaerer (at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival) by Tim Dickeson.


FRIDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 03/05/2018.

The 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was already into its third day by the time I finally hit town. Arriving in good time I braved the drizzle to enjoy some music at the Free Stage at the main Festival site in Montpellier Gardens before moving on to ticketed events in the Parabola Arts Centre and a new venue for 2019, the House of Fraser Basement.


LEAH, FREE STAGE, MONTPELLIER GARDENS

Playing the five thirty slot on the Free Stage was a quintet fronted by vocalist Leah Bullock, simply known as Leah. The band was completed by Oli Pickering (guitar), Jack Givens (keyboards), Tomasz Williams (electric bass) and Jack Quance (drums).

Leah is due to release her début EP “In With The In Crowd” later in May 2019 with the official launch gig scheduled to take place at the Apartment venue in Cheltenham on May 24th.

Leah and her band play a blend of soul, funk and jazz and today’s set featured a blend of familiar covers plus the occasional original. Fronted by Leah’s soulful vocals the jazz content was smuggled in via the guitar solos of Pickering, the star instrumentalist in a tight and funky combo.

The set list included creditable covers Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard Through The Grapevine”, a funked up version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a cover of Nora Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”.

I was less keen on Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, which has been done to death by these kind of bands. An inventive arrangement of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” was actually an improvement on the original with Leah’s soulful singing infinitely preferable to the affected vocal warblings of the Gibb brothers (no, I don’t like the Bee Gees).

“Valerie”, originally written and performed by the Zutons, but subsequently claimed by the late Amy Winehouse, steamed along infectiously as did a version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”. The originals, which presumably will be included on the EP, included a song called “All Night Long” (not the Lionel Ritchie one) and were pretty decent efforts in a soul / funk vein.

Leah and her band were well received by a commendably large crowd at the free stage. There was nothing particularly profound here but this was an enjoyable set by a highly competent band that probably doesn’t go short of work. All in all a very enjoyable way to while away an hour prior to the ticketed events.


SUNLIGHT;  SOWETO KINCH meets ANDREAS SCHAERER & KALLE KALIMA, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE

The opening performance of this year’s Festival events at the PAC was also the first of the “Trios With A Twist” strand that ran at various Festival venues throughout the weekend. This series produced some phenomenal music making, with this inaugural performance setting the benchmark for what was to follow.

Sunlight proved to be an international collaboration created specifically for the Festival and brought together British saxophonist Soweto Kinch, Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer and Finnish guitarist Kalle Kalima. Schaerer’s involvement ensured that the event was supported by the Swiss Arts Council, Prohelvetia, with further support coming the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation.

Apparently Kinch and Schaerer had collaborated once before at Cheltenham, although this wasn’t a meeting that was covered by myself. However I’ve seen Kinch leading his own groups on numerous other occasions while my introduction to Schaerer’s extraordinary vocalising came at the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival.

On that occasion the Swiss was part of the European ‘supergroup’ Out Of Land, a quartet that also included the German pianist Michael Wollny and the French musicians Emile Parisien (saxophones) and Vincent Peirani (accordion), all artists closely associated with the ACT record label.

Kalima I’ve only heard on disc, notably in the trio Oliwood, led by Berlin based drummer and composer Oliver ‘Oli’ Steidle.

I have to confess to having had reservations about that Out Of Land at London’s Cadogan Hall. Although their set included some dazzling playing and received a standing ovation from a sell out crowd the group too often felt like a collection of individuals rather than a real ‘band’.

Schaerer’s remarkable wordless vocals draw on the influences of such vocal pioneers as Bobby McFerrin and the UK’s own Phil Minton plus those of modern day ‘beat boxers’. In the context of the Out Of Land group his singing often seemed to be just a little too much of a ‘novelty’. Tonight, as part of a smaller unit, he seemed a more integral part of the proceedings and I found myself enjoying his contribution here more than I had done in London.

Tonight Schaerer played a greater role rhythmically, his frequently astonishing ‘vocal percussion’ forming a core part of the trio’s sound as he shared rhythmic duties with Kalima’s guitar as Kinch moved between alto and tenor saxophones, mainly concentrating on his favoured alto.

None of the pieces played tonight was formally announced, so no titles, but the trio started out with a great sense of purpose, the intertwining melody lines of Kinch’s alto and Kalima’s guitar underpinned by the rhythms of Schaerer’s vocal percussion. The singer and Kalima then switched roles allowing the vocalist time and room to stretch and soar, demonstrating his astonishing range and judiciously treating the sound of his voice via an array of electronic gadgetry. Pertinently all three performers were reading music, these presumably being pieces written or arranged specifically for performance by this trio. This was emphatically not a one off totally improvised free jazz performance, although the interaction between the musicians was of a remarkably high standard throughout.

One should not forget that Schaerer isn’t the only vocalist in this band. Kinch has made his reputation with a blend of jazz and rap and the next piece featured his own vocalising with a rap referencing the Sunlight of the trio’s name - “If we let the light in we might get enlightened” he sang above a backdrop of Kalima’s textured guitar and Schaerer’s own vocal percussion.

The next piece featured an unaccompanied guitar introduction with Kalima deploying a slide. The performance then metamorphosed into a song, with Schaerer delivering the lyrics in French. Nevertheless there was still plenty of space allowed for individual virtuosity with Kinch’s biting and incisive alto solo raising the energy levels prior to a stunning vocal ‘solo’ from Schaerer that incorporated beat boxing, birdsong and the kind of yodelling that makes Thijs van Leer look like a mere dabbler. This was surprisingly rhythmic and truly joyous music, and there was more to come as Kinch traded up to tenor to deliver an earthy solo on the larger instrument before moving back to alto for a series of dazzling sax and vocal exchanges with Schaerer.

With all three musicians incorporating a plethora of electronic effects into their individual sounds the stage was a tangle of wires. Echoed alto sax introduced the next piece with Kinch entering into a spidery dialogue with Kalima’s guitar. Schaerer’s wordless singing here sometimes reminded me of the late Brazilian percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos as he now engaged with Kinch’s alto. The saxophonist then moved to tenor once more to deliver a powerful solo prior to another vocal set piece from Schaerer that included some astonishingly flexible high pitched vocalising prior to a final flourish that showcased his equally remarkable beat boxing techniques.

Kalima, now based in Berlin, introduced the penultimate piece on guitar, this leading into a song with Schaerer again delivering the lyrics in French prior to an alto sax solo from Kinch.

The final item began with the sound of Kinch’s echoed tenor, this joined by Kalima’s guitar generated bass lines and Schaerer’s vocal percussion as Kinch cut loose with a wailing tenor solo. Putting down his horn Kinch now delivered a reprise of his “Sunlight” rap, this time incorporating references to the PAC and Cheltenham. Schaerer then took the whole concept of ‘voice as instrument’ to another level as his solo simulated the sound of a trumpet as Kinch moved back to alto.

The Sunlight trio enjoyed a terrific reaction from the Parabola audience. Inevitably it was the performance of the extraordinary Schaerer that was most talked about. Theatrical it may be but there’s no doubting the sheer brilliance of his technique or his innate musicality. Kinch’s contribution was nearly as fine, although some expressed reservations at the lyrical content of his rapping. I’m no fan of rap but at least I can understand Kinch’s words and appreciate his distinctly British approach to the genre. Selflessly combining rhythmic and textural roles Kalima was less spectacular than his colleagues, but nevertheless his more low key contribution was integral to the trio’s success.

This was an excellent performance that got my Festival proper off to a great start. The Out Of Land group began as a one off collaboration that evolved into a regular band, one suspects that this trio possesses an even greater potential to follow suit.


NUBYA GARCIA, HOUSE OF FRASER BASEMENT

The 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival offered a new venue for fans to check out, the basement of House of Fraser’s flagship store on Cheltenham’s Promenade, Cavendish House.

I’d assumed that following Fraser’s much publicised financial problems that the store itself had closed and that the basement space had been rented out to the Festival. However the shop itself still appeared to be open.

Tonight’s performance was one of three at the venue forming part of the ‘Gilles Peterson Presents’ series. Peterson himself introduced this performance by a quartet led by rising star saxophonist Nubya Garcia and featuring Joe Armon Jones on keyboards, Daniel Casimir on acoustic and electric bass and Sam Jones at the drums.

I first saw Garcia play as a member of Tomorrow’s Warriors back in 2013 and have since championed her work with the all female ensemble Nerija. As a long term admirer of her talents it’s good to see her making such an impact on the British jazz scene, along with several other members of that Tomorrow’s Warriors ensemble, among them Armon Jones and Garcia’s fellow saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi.

As Peterson mentioned in his introduction as Garcia’s star has continued to rise her playing has also received recognition from the international jazz community leading to guest appearances with such American luminaries as fellow saxophonists Gary Bartz and Pharoah Sanders and trumpeter Christian Scott.

Turning now to tonight’s performance in a hot and crowded basement. The new venue is a long, low ceilinged room and having arrived from the Sunlight gig with little time to spare I found myself halfway back in a standing only crowd and could only really see Garcia and Casimir,  who were both standing, and the occasional glimpse of Jones through gaps in the crowd. Armon Jones I couldn’t see at all.

In the circumstances it didn’t matter too much. This was music to absorb yourself in, an updating of the ‘spiritual jazz’ of Sanders and John Coltrane blended with Afro-Caribbean influences from 21st century London.

The quartet commenced with a near half hour segue that included the tunes “Fly Free” and “The Source” and incorporated marathon Coltrane-esque tenor solos from Garcia, these prompting equally feverish responses from the excellent Armon Jones at the keyboard as Casimir and Jones, two other rapidly emerging jazz talents, stoked the fires with their fluent but highly muscular and propulsive grooves.

It was all hugely exciting and invigorating stuff and just in case anybody might have been starting to think it was all a bit too much ‘Coltrane by numbers’ Garcia and her band quickly sidestepped any potential doubters by adding elements of ska and dub reggae to the mix with Armon Jones’ shimmering keyboards and Casimir’s monstrous bass grooves helping to fuel Garcia’s powerful tenor soloing.

“Hold” was introduced by a rousing solo drum feature from the consistently impressive Jones, this helping to fuel similarly spirited responses from the leader on tenor and Armon Jones at the keyboard. As I mentioned previously I couldn’t actually see Armon Jones but the range of sounds that he produced, particularly during his ear catching solos, suggested that he was probably surrounded by a whole bank of keyboards. After the gig when I wandered down to the front of the low stage (complete with crush barrier) I was mightily surprised that all these remarkable sounds had been produced from just one tiny Nord keyboard.

It was Casimir’s turn to take the spotlight as his solo bass feature introduced the aptly named “Pace”, which featured the clarion call of Garcia’s tenor in another blistering marathon solo, Armon Jones responding with a similarly thrilling keyboard excursion.

Casimir took up the electric bass for the title track of Garcia’s latest EP “Where We Are”, a piece introduced by the leader’s unaccompanied tenor. Subsequently Casimir’s hypnotic electric bass grooves and Jones’ fluid drumming combined to provide the ignition for the incendiary soloing of Garcia and Armon Jones.

This was a high energy show that again generated a highly enthusiastic reaction from an appreciative audience in a well attended venue. If one were being hyper-critical one could cite a lack of light and shade in the music but this was very much a ‘club’ gig with the focus firmly on energy and excitement, and in this respect Garcia and her band delivered in spades while also exhibiting a universally high standard of musicianship. It was easy to see why they’ve been making so many waves on the London jazz scene and pulling in a younger constituency in the process. This jazz festival crowd was perhaps a bit older on average than the audiences to which Garcia has been playing lately. But the generation barriers were quickly broken down with everybody that I spoke to, of whatever age, declaring this to be an excellent performance.

I’ve been following Garcia’s career for several years now and I’m delighted to have witnessed the progress she has made. And, like her, I’m in it for the long haul. It would be good to see her make a full length album following the success of the two EPs she has issued so far.

Meanwhile Armon Jones, also of the Ezra Collective, was to return to the venue the following evening leading his own group in the last of the three events in the ‘Gilles Peterson Presents’ series.
I couldn’t attend that but would be interested in seeing or hearing his band sometime in the future.

The other Peterson performance at the Basement was also on the Saturday and featured Vels Trio. That event will form part of my Saturday festival coverage.

 

 

by Ian Mann

April 30, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys the third edition of the genre defying Surge In Spring Festival, coordinated by Birmingham based musician, composer, arranger, bandleader, poet and educator Sid Peacock

SURGE IN SPRING III, MIDLANDS ARTS CENTRE (MAC), CANNON HILL PARK, BIRMINGHAM, 27/04/2019.

This all day event utilising the various performance spaces at the ‘mac’ was the third in the series of Surge In Spring festivals established in 2017 by the Birmingham based musician, composer, poet, bandleader and educator Sid Peacock.

Originally from Bangor in Northern Ireland Peacock has been resident in Birmingham since the late 1990s following his graduation from the city’s Conservatoire, an organisation with whom he maintains close links.

A particularly open minded musician Peacock is dismissive of generic, disciplinary and cultural boundaries and is involved in a broad range of musical and other artistic activities.

Surge In Spring is named after one of Peacock’s primary creative outlets, his unique jazz/folk large ensemble Surge Orchestra. Today also marked the official release date of Surge Orchestra’s latest album release “Valley Of Angels”, a recording that has already been reviewed on the Jazzmann website. http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/surge-orchestra-valley-of-angels/

The success of the inaugural Surge In Spring event led to a second Festival in 2018, which unfortunately I was unable to attend due to prior commitments. My account of the 2017 event can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/surge-in-spring-festival-midlands-arts-centre-mac-birmingham-08-04-2017/

2019 followed a similar pattern to previous years with three ticketed events being held in the mac’s main performance space, the 219 seater Theatre. These were performance by the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra, the Kadialy Kouyate Band and, of course, Peacock’s own Surge Orchestra, effectively the Festival headliners.

The Surge In Spring ethos is for the Festival to spread to spread its musical and geographical net widely. The other performances embraced a wide range of folk musics from around the world alongside various facets of contemporary jazz - and with most of the performers actually being based in Birmingham it was a superb demonstration of just how diverse a city Birmingham has become in the cultural sense.

Music education has also been an important part of Peacock’s work and this has also been incorporated into the Surge In Spring remit. Peacock has always encouraged emerging musical talent and many of today’s performers were young musicians, grateful to be given an opportunity to present their music at an event that is becoming an increasingly important part of Birmingham’s cultural calendar.

On then, to the first event of the day and;

MOSELEY MISFITS, HEXAGON THEATRE

The first act to appear in the intimate confines of the 84 seat Hexagon Theatre were the Moseley Misfits, a community band from the Moseley district of Birmingham. Peacock is keen to encourage musicians of all ages and this was ‘ a community group for adults who play any instrument to any ability’, as opposed to a youth ensemble.

The tiny stage at the Hexagon played host to three guitarists, two electric bassists, two alto saxophonists, two violinists, two accordionists and two percussionists playing tambourine and shakers.
This being a community band the line up can vary, but these were the performers available for today.

The group is led by composer and educator Rob Jones (one of today’s alto saxophonists) and Reuben Penny, who acted as conductor, and rehearses once a week during school term times.
Only formed in November 2018 the band has already achieved an impressive level of competence, as was demonstrated by today’s performance. But, crucially, it’s all about fun, and with some members of the group making their first ever public performance it was an impressive display from these keen amateur musicians.

Penny conducted and presented with good humour and with the encouragement of a very supportive audience this midday show was a triumph for the Moseley Misfits. There were no individual solos but under the guidance of Jones and Penny the group achieved an impressively coherent ensemble sound as it tackled material ranging from Toto’s “Africa” through Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” to The Beatles’ “Blackbird”. Despite the absence of a drum kit – therefore no Animal impressions - they gamely tackled “The Muppet Show Theme” and rounded things off with Elvis Presley’s “Falling In Love With You”. Unanticipated demands for an encore led to a reprise of “Africa”.

Next term the Moseley Misfits will be tackling a series of arrangements of movie themes and hope to make another public performance at a Birmingham venue yet to be decided sometime in July 2019.

This was a good, fun way to start the day and won the approval of a beaming Sid Peacock who had witnessed the performance as a member of the audience.


MIKE FLETCHER JAZZ ORCHESTRA, MAIN THEATRE

Saxophonist and composer Mike Fletcher has been a mainstay of the Birmingham jazz scene for a number of years, both as a prolific sideman and as the leader of his own groups, including his highly interactive trio with bassist Olie Brice and drummer Jeff Williams with whom he released the album “Vuelta” on Birmingham’s own Stoney Lane Record label in 2015.

He has also worked in a trio setting with Brice and drummer Tymek Jozwiak, releasing the wholly improvised album “Nick Of Time” on the Slam record label in 2014.

Fletcher also writes for and leads larger ensembles such as the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra (MFJO) which today consisted of a slimmed down twelve piece unit featuring;

Mike Fletcher, John O’Gallagher – alto saxes
George Crowley – tenor sax, bass clarinet
Sean Gibbs, Sam Wooster, Aaron Diaz – trumpets
Richard Foote, Kieran McLeod – trombones
Andy Johnson – tuba
Tom Ford – guitar
Chris Mapp -  electric bass
Jonathan Silk – drums

The occasion represented the première of Fletcher’s new work “Picasso(s); Interactions” which its composer describes as “a new suite for improvisers inspired by Picasso’s ‘Las Meninas’ and Coleman Hawkins’ ‘Picasso’. “

More on that later.

Today’s musical performance began with the MFJO playing a segue of three movements from an earlier suite, “Different Trane”, inspired by the music of John Coltrane and Steve Reich.

Diaz introduced the first movement on unaccompanied trumpet, his lone horn subsequently joined by the deep brass sonorities of Foote, McLeod and Johnson and by the Harmon muted sounds of his trumpet peers Gibbs and Wooster -suggestions here of Coltrane’s “Africa Brass”.

Diaz continued to solo on the open horn, his sound lonely and slightly baleful as Mapp and Silk provided minimal accompaniment, the drummer deploying mallets.

Next, a slightly discordant passage with the textured layers of brass punctuated by the sharper stabs of the reeds, this leading into an incisive alto solo from O’ Gallagher. This, in turn, was followed by a quieter, almost pastoral passage featuring the Frisell like tones of Ford’s guitar in conjunction with Mapp’s electric bass counterpoint and Silk’s mallet rumbles.


Next came the new “Picasso(s); Interactions” suite. The concert had been preceded by an audience discussion with Fletcher presided over by Tony Dudley Evans, whose TDE Promotions were co-presenting this particular event. A hand out was given to audience members as they entered the theatre in which Fletcher answers five questions from an Imagined Audience Member before raising a few of his own.

The text of the hand out is reproduced below;


“Five questions from an imagined audience member .


Imagined Audience Member: What is the connection to Picasso?

Mike Fletcher: At the beginning of my PhD in early 2015 I found myself in Barcelona with some free time so I went to the Museo Picasso, where I discovered his Las Meninas exhibition, which is a collection of 58 paintings that he made based on the much earlier Velazquez painting of the same name. The paintings themselves are, of course, wonderful pieces of art in their own right, but what caught my attention was a short extract from a letter Picasso wrote to his friend Sabartes where the artist explained his process, which I’ll paraphrase here. He said something along the lines of “if I were to undertake a faithful copy of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, there would come a time when I would perhaps be impelled to make a small change, and as a result of this first change more would follow. Gradually it would cease to be a copy and become my (Picasso’s) Las Meninas.”
As a jazz musician I found this description to be resonant of the way we improvise on standard compositions. So I decided to see if I could apply Picasso’s process to my own music making.

IAM: What about Coleman Hawkins?

MF: Picasso’s project involved copying a seminal masterpiece of Spanish painting. In order to ‘copy’ Picasso’s process I would have to find a similar masterpiece from within my own discipline. I had already decided that it should be a solo saxophone project, so it was an easy decision to make. I would copy the first great solo saxophone piece. A beautiful coincidence is that the first major recording made by a solo saxophonist was Coleman Hawkins’ 1948 recording Picasso – hence the title Picasso(s).

IAM: Why is this music any different to what you’ve done before?

MF: The most apparent difference is that it represents the first time I’ve done a project completely on my own. That said, perhaps the most important difference in terms of the music is that it is all based on a technique I call ‘pitch limitation’.
Picasso based his Las Meninas entirely on the structure and content of the Velazquez. This is to say that, although he made many changes to the way he depicted Velazquez’ tableau, he didn’t add in any extra figures or objects. I felt like this was an important part of the procedure, so I decided to do the same with the Hawkins piece. In other words, I transcribed Hawkins’ notes, and throughout the piece, these are the only notes I permit myself to use.

In this sense I would argue that this is quite a novel approach to jazz performance because in almost every other type of jazz, the musician is free to choose the notes he or she likes!

IAM: But isn’t Picasso(s):Interactions a large ensemble project?

MF: Yes. The original Picasso(s) was a solo piece (which was the basis of my PhD, and is also available as an album). What I have done with the Interactions stage is to apply the same pitch limitation process to my large ensemble, MFJO. The suite is in three parts, each of which is based on a different way of using Hawkins’ notes, but the common thread is that you won’t hear any other notes throughout the suite!

IAM: Does improvising in this way make a difference to the musicians’ experience?

MF: This was one of the questions I asked myself when I began the project. I can report that it very much does – perhaps more than I had anticipated.
Improvisers frequently talk about the way that they form habits that, over time, lead them to develop certain formulae. As a result many of us try and find ways to stimulate new ideas. The pitch limitation concept was my way of doing this. I have found that, when performing the piece, an idea occurs to me that I can’t complete because the notes I need to complete the phrase are not available. Consequently I have to find a way of resolving the phrase that would not have occurred to me had I followed the first idea. I find this a challenging but very rewarding way of improvising.
Now I have employed the same technique for the large ensemble, the rest of the guys in the band are faced with the same challenge!

Five questions for my audience:

Do you think it is important/valuable for an audience member to understand the processes that musicians use in performance?

If so, do you consider it the responsibility of the musician to inform the listener, or the listener to inform his or herself? If not, why not?

Do you think you would have noticed any difference in musical approach without having had it explained?

Do you think this type of verbal interaction could be relevant to other types of jazz performance?

Is it jazz?”

This is all interesting musical and philosophical stuff and provoked a lively debate among those present. One AM declared that he just wanted to listen to and enjoy the music and wasn’t at all interested in the theories or methods behind it. Others disagreed, sometimes quite strongly.

For myself I’ve always found that having some background information helps to enhance my appreciation and enjoyment of the work in question. Some knowledge of the intentions of the composer gives one an additional incentive to listen out for things, and to absorb oneself more fully in the music. It helps to heighten the senses – and in my case it is often very useful if you’re going to be having to write about it afterwards.

Now I can’t claim to have understood everything about Fletcher’s piece but the talk and handout did serve to open my ears.

With Fletcher now conducting rather than playing the music was more abstract than the earlier Coltrane/Reich suite. With the limitations imposed upon the performers there was no soloing in the conventional sense although certain instruments achieved prominence at times, notably O’Gallagher’s alto and Foote’s trombone. Often two instruments would seem to be in dialogue within the overall framework of the ensemble and the piece concluded with the sound of O’Gallagher’s unaccompanied alto.

“He’d still got some notes saved up” explained Fletcher in the post performance Q & A in which he also explained the hand signals with which he’d conducted the band, himself forming part of the improvisatory process. Fletcher spoke again of the influence on his musical and academic work of the pioneering American alto player, composer and improviser Steve Lacey.

There was much to admire and enjoy in this set by the MFJO. The new Picasso suite is clearly a work in progress and overall the performance as whole came over as being a little too dry and academic at times. But with a band of this calibre, featuring many of the leading musicians on the Birmingham jazz scene, there were still plenty of stand out moments.

The pre and post Q & As were also stimulating and thought provoking and added to the overall experience.


GERMA ADAN and JOBE BAKER SULLIVAN, HEXAGON THEATRE

Across at the Hexagon a performance was already under way from the young Haitian singer, songwriter, violinist and guitarist Germa Adan. Now based in Birmingham she was accompanied by Jobe Baker Sullivan on violin and backing vocals.

The material consisted of traditional Haitian folk songs, sung in French or Creole, interspersed with Adan written originals with English lyrics. The latter included “Hush”, inspired by a chance meeting between Adan and a Syrian refugee in Birmingham’s Central Library, a song that fitted neatly into Surge’s international, multi-cultural ethos.

With her pure, clear vocals, accomplished instrumental skills and very natural charm Adan was well received by the audience within the Hexagon, even persuading them to join in the choruses of a couple of traditional Haitian folk songs.


RICHARD LAIRD, HEXAGON THEATRE

I’m grateful to Sid Peacock for organising press tickets for my wife and myself for Surge III. One act that he strongly recommended I check out was his compatriot Richard Laird, a singer, guitarist and songwriter from Derry, Northern Ireland.

Although well known in his homeland Laird’s profile in the rest of the UK is low, hence Peacock’s determination to bring him to Birmingham.

For today’s all too brief set in the Hexagon Laird was accompanied by Ruth Angell on violin and Sarah Farmer on viola, the strings adding extra colour, depth and texture to the music.

Laird is softly spoken but sings with great power and authority in a way that reminded me of Christy Moore.

In the early 21st century Laird was involved in a songwriting project, “Boys Of The Island”, commemorating Ireland’s involvement in the First World War. Collaborating with the later Sam Starrett and with violinist/harpist Tracey McRory under the group name Songshed the trio wrote several songs relating to this theme. In the years since Laird and McRory have continued to perform them in Ireland and also in the locations in France and Belgium that inspired them.

These provided the source for his first two songs today, Starrett’s “Soldier” and the jointly written “John Condon”. The latter, written for a fourteen year old boy from Waterford killed on the battlefields of Flanders was subsequently covered by Fairport Convention.

Away from the WWI material Laird performed the traditional Irish songs “The Maid Of Culmore” and “The Shores of the Swilley”, the latter covered by Sinead O’ Connor.

A particularly well received set concluded with a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” with Laird, encouraged by Farmer and Angell, leading the audience in a sing along as the trio put their own stamp on Lou Reed at his most bitter-sweet.

This was arguably the pick of the Hexagon performances, the intimacy of the venue suiting the subdued power of Laird’s delivery perfectly. He’s definitely an artist I’d like to hear more of , as Sid had suggested (no Cds for sale unfortunately). And hats off to Angell and Farmer for their contributions to the success of this performance.


KADIALY KOUYATE BAND, MAIN THEATRE

The next ticketed event in the Main Theatre was a performance by the Senegalese kora player, vocalist and songwriter Kadialy Kouyate and his band.

Born into a line of griots Kouyate is now based in London and has toured widely around the UK. He teaches the kora at SOAS as well as pursuing a productive career as a performing musician. Besides leading his own projects he has also recorded with the London based Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale.

Kouyate has previously appeared at the mac as a solo performer but today saw him fronting a full band featuring djembe, drum kit, electric guitar and electric six string bass. It was difficult to pick up the names of the individuals concerned but online research suggests that three of them were almost certainly Giuliano Osella (drums) Momodou Konte (djembe) and Amadou Ndir (electric bass). I believe it may have been the Scottish musician Graeme Stephen on guitar.

In any event the quintet proved to be a highly rhythmic ensemble that played with the focus, energy and volume of a rock band. The fiery interaction between Kouyate and Konte was particularly impressive as was the interplay between the three stringed instruments with their interlocking melodic and rhythmic lines.

This was an exciting, high energy performance and although the focus was very much on the playing and singing of the charismatic Kouyate there were plenty of excellent solos from the rest of the ensemble. Stephen proved to be a master of the classic ‘West African’ guitar sound while Konte, who also played other small percussive devices, specialised on the djembe, or talking drum, and proved himself to be a true virtuoso of the instrument. In conjunction with Osella and Ndir Konte helped to give the music a phenomenal rhythmic drive, while also demonstrating remarkable levels of power, energy and skill in his features on the djembe, bouncing ideas off his leader in a series of dazzling exchanges.

Through his songs Kouyate preached the virtues of tolerance and freedom whilst also expressing his pride in his Griot ancestry and of his love and respect for that tradition.

The audience responded positively to these messages, the power of the music and the rhythms transcending any language barriers. Encouraged by Konte the final number saw the audience clapping along happily with the band.

This was an impressive performance from Kouyate and his band with all of the musicians performing with skill and verve, and none more so than the leader himself, a striking figure centre stage with his white painted kora.

The decision to present Kouyate with a full on band was more than justified. One could imagine these guys also going down a storm at WOMAD.


IRYNA MUHA & RICHARD SCOTT, THE HEXAGON

Over in the Hexagon I enjoyed a performance by the Ukrainian born vocalist, instrumentalist and songwriter Iryna Muha who performed in a duo with the British musician Richard Scott.

It was Peacock’s idea to pair the two together and their set was a fascinating amalgam of Ukrainian, Russian and British folk influences.

Their performance was already under way when I arrived from the Main Theatre with Muha singing a traditional Ukrainian folk song while accompanying herself on the hurdy gurdy while Scott provided additional support on acoustic guitar.

Muha’s own “River Trent” was written in the UK but with a Russian lyric celebrating the importance of water imagery in Russian and Ukrainian folklore.

Besides their collaborations the two musicians both performed individually, Scott playing a solo acoustic guitar piece dating from a time “when folk and classical music were not as divided as now”.

Muha demonstrated the mechanics of that fascinating instrument the hurdy gurdy before using it to accompany her singing of a Ukrainian folk song with an anti-war message.

Finally the two combined to play a Bulgarian bag pipe tune on hurdy gurdy and viol, the resultant drones proving to be totally absorbing and mesmeric, the effect not totally dissimilar to modern electronic dance music. I dubbed it ‘retro-techno’ and was also reminded of the drone of John Cale’s viola in the Velvet Underground, a neat link to the previous performance in the Hexagon and Richard Laird’s rendition of “Pale Blue Eyes”.

I was impressed by this performance from two very talented multi-instrumentalists and also by the power and purity of Muha’s singing. Whether the pair will work together as a duo again remains to be seen but I’d say that there was the potential here for a successful partnership.


SIMON PETER KING ORGAN TRIO, mac FOYER

On now to another brilliant multi-instrumentalist. Shropshire based Simon King is equally proficient on guitar and drums and I’ve seen perform many times on both instruments – although never at the same gig.

Today King was wearing his guitarist’s (woolly) hat and leading an organ trio featuring Matt Ratcliffe on keys and Jim Bashford at the drums.

Events had also been taking place in the even smaller performance space of The Hub but there was no way the King trio would squeeze into there so they set up in the foyer. I enjoyed a quick coffee and a sandwich in the café within earshot of the trio before taking to my feet to get a better view of the performance.

This was classic organ trio jazz with Ratcliffe playing a modern generation Hammond complete with two manuals, a pedal board and, of course, a Leslie cabinet. It was an impressive set up that delivered an equally impressive sound and I enjoyed watching the combination of Ratcliffe’s hands and feet as he delivered some marvellously fluent solos, simultaneously delivering bass lines via the pedals.

King was equally inventive with his guitar solos, combining agile single note runs with sophisticated chording. Behind the kit Bashford offered propulsive support to both soloists in a lively set that saw some of the mac’s youngest patrons dancing along excitedly.

Some of the adults must have been tempted too for this was classic, hard grooving Hammond jazz, steeped in gospel and drenched with the blues as Ratcliffe and King channelled the spirits of Jimmy Smith and Grant Green. In the year of the label’s 80th anniversary this was like an old Blue Note album brought to life, which is praise indeed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this swinging, unpretentious set and was hugely impressed by the dazzling playing of King and Ratcliffe as they traded consistently fiery and inventive solos, spurred on by the hard driving Bashford.

Just the thing to set you up for the main event and;


SURGE ORCHESTRA, MAIN THEATRE

Today marked the official release date of the latest Surge Orchestra recording “Valley Of Angels” but, rather surprisingly, the album material was totally ignored as Peacock led his ensemble through a series of performances with a distinctly Irish theme. “We’ve even got Irish weather” he joked, for Storm Hannah had made her progress across the UK during the day bringing heavy winds and rain. It was all a bit of a contrast to the first two Surge festivals which had both enjoyed glorious weather and brought crowds flocking to neighbouring Cannon Hill Park. Still, thanks to Hannah, it was much easier for both performers and audience members to find a car parking space this time.

Tonight’s show was part of the “When Traditions Meet” project, a PRS Foundation commission that formed part of their Beyond Borders strand. Further performances are scheduled in Ireland hosted by Culturlann and the North West Community Partnership. These will take place at Solstice Arts Centre, Navan on May 4th 2019 and The Derry Playhouse, Derry on May 5th 2019.

For tonight’s performance Peacock unveiled a slimmed down Surge Orchestra (twenty three musicians appear on the new album) but augmented the ranks of the regulars with four illustrious guests, Irish flute and whistle player Eimear McGeown, Ulster Scots bagpiper Darren Milligan, Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsimbu and Irish percussionist Eamonn Cagney.

The staging was spectacular with specially commissioned videos being screened behind the band as they played. Images of ship building and step dancing were shown as the band tore through the first two numbers, “Tipperary” and “Kiss The Maid” in thrilling fashion with swirling Celtic ceilidh melodies blending with big band jazz in a manner reminiscent of Salsa Celtica. McGeown’s whistles and the kilted Milligan’s pipes were particularly distinctive components and both musicians featured prominently as soloists, each impressing with their virtuosity. Typically inventive Peacock arrangements also introduced a hint of South African Township jazz and an element of wilful avant garde jazz dissonance. Also featuring strongly as a soloist was the impressive baritone saxophonist Alicia Gardner Trejo.

Peacock also works regularly in a duo format with his life partner, Surge violinist and occasional vocalist Ruth Angell. Working together under the banner Peacock Angell the duo’s music has more of a folk feel than Surge and their latest release is the EP “Songs Of The Shipyard”, six musical settings of the words of the Ulster poet Thomas Carnduff. The recording features Angell’s pure vocals plus her violin and acoustic guitar. Peacock features on guitar and vocals and the duo are augmented by the keyboards of Surge pianist Steve Tromans.

Two songs from this collection were featured this evening, arranged for large ensemble. “Banks of the Lagan” featured Peacock’s lead vocal and Angell’s wordless harmonies as water imagery was projected on the screen behind them.

Later on in the set we heard “Shipyard Fairy” in an arrangement by Angell, which Peacock dedicated to the memory of the late Alan James (1957-2019), former chairman of the English Folk Dance And Song Society and a performance and projects manager at the mac. Again arranged for additional instruments this featured Angell’s charming lead vocal.

Elsewhere we heard Tsibu’s “New Well”, the title a pun on his first name, which was introduced by McGeown’s flute and also included features for the composer on acoustic guitar and Tromans on piano.

“The Pedlar” commenced with a duet between Tsibu and percussionist Cagney. These two have worked together regularly for many years, notably in Cagney’s Convergence Ensemble, like Surge a cross-cultural musical project. Later violin and flute folk melodies were effectively combined with authentic big band swing with Gardner Trejo’s baritone again prominent in the arrangement.

Peacock described his piece “The Contemporary Craic” as “Henry Mancini meets Schoenberg”, which is a pretty fair summation of Surge as a whole. Peacock is a composer who has been influenced by such mavericks as Frank Zappa, Carla Bley and Django Bates, famously collaborating with the latter at a memorable gig in this very hall in 2011 that featured the Surge Orchestra with Bates as guest soloist.

“The Frustrated Octopus” merged music and poetry and was accompanied by appropriate and striking visual images of suitably tentacled creatures. Cagney’s percussion brought a Latin feel to the music and helped to fuel a blazing trumpet solo from Mike Adlington.  Meanwhile Milligan’s pipes brought another dimension to a typically eclectic arrangement.

Peacock thanked a lengthy list of people who had helped with the Festival and also lamented the recent tragic passing of the murdered journalist Lara McKee. The band then played us out with a roaring instrumental, part of the “La Fête” album repertoire if I’m not mistaken, with solos coming from McGeown on flute and Mike Fletcher on alto sax.

So ended another typically exciting but thought provoking Surge performance. I’ve spoken before of the “controlled chaos” Peacock brings to Surge,  but there’s a serious message of inclusivity behind the seemingly anarchic blurring of artistic and musical boundaries. To play Peacock’s blend of genre hopping music requires a high degree of skill from the players so hats off to tonight’s incarnation of the Surge Orchestra. I didn’t catch every single name and not everybody involved appears on the “Valley Of Angels” album but here’s the closest I can get to the full line up;

Sid Peacock – director, vocals, guitar
Ruth Angell- violin, vocals, guitar
Aria Trigas – violin
Anna ? - viola
Emma Capp – cello
Mike Adlington – trumpet
Richard Foote – trombone
Mike Fletcher – alto saxophone
Alicia Gardner Trejo – baritone saxophone
Unknown – electric bass
Tymek Jozwiak - drums

Guests;
Eimear McGeown – flutes and whistles
Darren Milligan – highland bagpipes, whistles
Niwel Tsimbu – guitar, percussion
Eamonn Cagney – percussion


FESTIVAL OVERVIEW

The dynamic, visually enhanced performance by Surge Orchestra in a sold out Main Theatre was undoubtedly the highlight of the day but the Festival of a whole consistently produced music that was both interesting and enjoyable.

Cutting across musical and geographical boundaries this was a truly international event but one that still had the twin entities of Birmingham and Ireland at its heart.

Besides the headliners I was particularly impressed by the performances of Richard Laird and of Kadialy Kouyate with his full band. The newly formed duo of Iryna Muha and Richard Scott worked particularly well and showed genuine long term potential. And I never fail to enjoy the Hammond fuelled grooves of Simon King’s organ trio.

There was also stuff I didn’t get to see including performances by the youth jazz aggregations of the Jazzlines Ensemble and the bands of the Birmingham Ormiston Academy, the latter co-led by the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year, saxophonist and Birmingham resident Xhosa Cole.

I’d have been keen to witness the music of Melinda Maxwell (from Trish Clowes’ Emulsion Ensemble) and Callum Armstrong whose performance in the Hexagon featured ancestral and modern reed instruments including Greek aulos, oboes and bagpipes and which was said to draw on folk, jazz and contemporary classical music. Unfortunately they were scheduled opposite the King organ trio and in this instance I decided to stick with what I already knew. That’s Festival life for you.

Congratulations to Sid Peacock and his team for another successful Surge In Spring, an event that is becoming an increasingly important part of Birmingham’s cultural calendar. His own show was a triumph and the other events were also consistently interesting and largely well attended, despite the inclement “Irish” weather.

Here’s to the fourth one.

 

 

 

 

by Ian Mann

April 17, 2019

Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note Records in 1939 this is absolutely essential viewing for anybody with even the slightest interest in jazz.

FILM REVIEW;

BLUE NOTE RECORDS “BEYOND THE NOTES”

Director SOPHIE HUBER

Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the founding of Blue Note Records in 1939 “Beyond The Notes” is the second documentary film from director Sophie Huber.

Born in Switzerland but now based in Los Angeles Huber initially trained as an actor but gained film making experience as part of a Berlin based collective, co-directing several narrative films films while a part of this organisation.

In 2012 her first feature length documentary “Harry Dean Stanton; Partly Fiction”, an impressionistic portrait of the now late actor, was premièred at the Venice Film Festival with the resultant acclaim leading to a general cinema release.

When it was announced that a full length documentary about Blue Note Records was to be released I was wildly excited, hoping to be able to view the film at a local cinema. However the fact that I live in a remote rural location soon put paid to this, “Beyond The Notes” didn’t even appear as part of the annual Borderlines Film Festival. I’m therefore grateful to Faye Blaylock of Eagle Rock Entertainment for forwarding me a private link to the film for review purposes. Thanks, Faye.

My first significant involvement with Blue Note came in the 1980s when I acquired a second hand copy of the Lee Morgan album “The Sidewinder”, one of the label’s best known releases. Following an adolescence spent listening to prog and metal I was just getting into jazz and the Morgan record sparked an interest in all things Blue Note, the label having a particularly distinctive identity in terms of both music and visuals. There was a definite ‘Blue Note’ sound and the album packaging, featuring the photography of label founder Frank Wolff and the graphics of sleeve designer Reid Miles, was the embodiment of cool. I was hooked, and with Blue Note conducting a vinyl re-issue campaign at the time many more albums followed as recordings by Kenny Dorham, Art Blakey, Horace Silver,  Herbie Hancock, Hank Mobley,  Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and others found their way into my collection – plus more Morgan of course! I was later to experience a similar epiphany with the German label ECM, coincidentally celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, another label with its own sound (albeit a very different one) and a similarly unique take on graphic design.

Leaving aside personal reminiscences and turning now to Huber’s film. “Beyond The Notes” doesn’t attempt to present a strict chronological account of the Blue Note story. Instead it looks at the wider musical and social implications of the label’s output, including its influence on the musicians of today.

The film begins in a Los Angeles studio where a contemporary group of ‘Blue Note All Stars’ are recording with producer and current label boss Don Was. Besides offering a fascinating glimpse into the recording process Huber’s film also includes ‘talking head’ style snippets of interviews with Was plus all six band members, Robert Glasper (piano,keyboards), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Marcus Strickland (tenor sax), Lionel Loueke (guitar), Derrick Hodge (electric bass) and Kendrick Scott (drums). Later on in the film interviews are conducted with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, two of the most influential musicians to have ever appeared on Blue Note.

All the members of the All Stars sextet speak of the influence of the Blue Note label on their younger selves, talking about the “transformative power” of the music and the coolness of Miles’ designs. On a more serious note the label’s role in the overall context of the Afro-American experience is also discussed with the interviewees talking about the “fight” and the “struggle” and the importance of both jazz and hip hop in this context. Akinmusire speaks of the social progress that has been since Blue Note’s ‘glory days’ of the 1950s and 60s but voices his fears that things are now beginning “to go back again” in the Trump era. These concerns are reflected in his playing as the All Stars sextet tackle Glasper’s hard bop inspired composition “Bayyinah” in the studio, the anger and the passion of the musicians reflected in their fiery performances.

Following this introductory section we were now transported back to the founding of the label back in 1939 by two German emigres, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff who had fled the horrors of Nazi Germany and settled in New York. In archive radio footage the pair describe hearing jazz for the first time on records in 1920s Berlin and of loving it but not fully understanding it. Lion, in particular, subsequently became increasingly absorbed in the music and was able to immerse himself in it more fully upon his arrival in New York.

Essentially Lion and Wolff were fans who established Blue Note to record the music that they wanted to hear, it was never meant as a purely commercial venture aiming for ‘hits’. The first artists they recorded were the boogie woogie pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons and James P Johnson these followed by saxophonist Sidney Bechet, trumpeter Sidney De Paris and clarinettist Edmund Hall.

Although its founders were white Blue Note’s roster of artists was almost exclusively black. Perhaps because of the prejudice they had suffered in Germany Lion and Wolff treated their artists with the utmost respect; they understood the value of trusting the musicians, encouraging the playing of original compositions, planning recording sessions in conjunction with the performers and even paying for rehearsal time, these qualities setting them apart from other labels. As a result the two Germans were respected in return and well accepted by the black musical community, despite their ‘funny accents’ and Wolff’s uncoordinated dancing when a studio session was ‘cooking’.

“They put no pressure on you” remarks Herbie Hancock while hip hop musician and producer Terrace Martin, part of the label’s current roster comments “they gave the cats a chance”. Among one of the major contributors to the film is ninety two year old saxophonist Lou Donaldson, whose wheezy accounts of working with Wolff and Lion are often laugh out loud funny. He’s quite a character is Lou.

Despite its origins in boogie woogie piano and trad jazz Blue Note is best known for pioneering the hard bop sounds of the 1950s and 60s. The label’s move towards a more modern style of jazz developed from Lion’s love of the music of Thelonious Monk. Lion and Wolff encouraged Monk’s individuality and he first recorded for the label in 1947, remaining with the company for five years, eventually moving on to Prestige. Huber’s film includes some great coverage of Monk in the studio and in live performance.  “Monk was the first hip hop pianist” comments Glasper.

“Without Blue Note nobody would have heard of Thelonious Monk” opines Donaldson. But the pianist was never the most commercial of propositions and his eventual departure came about due to the label’s financial difficulties. As genuine independents Lion and Wolff led a hand to mouth existence, particularly in the label’s early years.

Other influential pianists to record for the label included Herbie Hancock, Kenny Drew and Bud Powell. The latter stayed with the label from 1949-58 and produced some of his best work during this period. Again there’s some excellent archive footage of Powell, a tragic figure who died in 1966 aged just forty one.

Blue Note’s increasing involvement with modern jazz saw some of the giants of the music recording for the label, among them saxophonist John Coltrane whose 1960 recording “Blue Train” is still regarded as one of his best. An archive interview with Coltrane finds him enthusing about that session. In modern day Los Angeles Kendrick Scott talks about Coltrane’s influence on him and his contemporaries. Coltrane only recorded once for Blue Note and is most closely associated with the Impulse! label, but “Blue Train” remains one of the jewels of the Blue Note back catalogue.

Miles Davis, most commonly associated with Columbia, recorded three albums for Blue Note during the 1950s, later returning to appear on another Blue Note classic, Cannonball Adderley’s “Something Else!. Archive film of Davis shows him in the studio recording the ballad “I Waited For You”. Later on in the film there’s a clip of the Davis quintet playing Shorter’s composition “Footprints”.

Another trumpeter to record for the label was Clifford Brown, who was killed in a road traffic accident in 1956 aged just twenty five. During a short career Brown made a huge impact upon the music, remaining a highly influential figure to this day, with Akinmusire naming him as one of his major inspirations.

A central figure in the Blue Note story is the recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, another white who commanded total respect within the community of black musicians. Van Gelder is praised for his ability to capture the sound of individual musicians while retaining a clear label identity.

Between 1953 and 1959 Gelder recorded Blue Note sessions in his parents’ front room in Hackensack, New Jersey. He later built his own studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a purpose built construction designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and with the emphasis on space and height. During construction Van Gelder’s neighbours thought he was building his own church! In the ensuing years over four hundred recordings were made there, many of them label classics.

Almost as central as Van Gelder to Blue Note’s identity is album sleeve designer Reid Miles, whose innovative use of lettering, type faces and graphics was the visual equivalent to Van Gelder’s sonic artistry. Miles had the ability to make each album package different, but still instantly recognisable as a Blue Note record. His designs were augmented and enhanced by Wolff’s extraordinary black and white photographs. As well as handling the majority of Blue Note’s business affairs Wolff photographed every recording session and his striking, candid images were the perfect adjunct to Miles’ designs. The darkness within the Englewood Cliffs studio positively benefited Wolff’s photographs, making them more atmospheric than ever. Blue Note album sleeves remain the epitome of cool and several books of Wolff’s jazz photography have been published.

Blue Note was also a pioneer of live recording with drummer/bandleader Art Blakey’s 1954 album “Live At Birdland”, with its legendary introduction by the club’s MC Pee Wee Marquette, proving to be one of the most ground breaking releases in the label’s catalogue. Blakey and pianist Horace Silver were the pioneers of the style that came to be known as ‘hard bop’ as they broke the rules of bebop by replacing its complexities with simpler, funkier, more accessible components. This was considered a radical development at the time, despite its subsequent absorption into the jazz mainstream. This was the start of Blakey’s long running Jazz Messengers franchise that consistently encouraged young and up and coming musicians, consistently hiring the young instrumental hot shots of the day.

Among these was the young saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, a shy young man who was brought out of himself by Blakey, who appointed him Musical Director of the Messengers and encouraged him as a composer.  As his leader Blakey also encouraged him to take musical risks on the bandstand. Shorter is among the musicians interviewed in Los Angeles saying “Art Blakey told me ‘you can’t hide behind your instrument’” Meanwhile Kendrick Scott comments “Art Blakey was a leader who trained leaders”.

The Blakey / Shorter section of the film includes marvellous archive coverage of the Messengers playing pianist Bobby Timmons’ composition “Moanin’”, essentially the band’s signature tune and of Blakey directing his band in the studio and even arguing with Lion and Wolff. We also see Shorter playing “Speak No Evil” and commenting that “we were thinking in terms of long term value”, even at this stage Blue Note wasn’t consciously looking for hits.

Indeed the label continued to experiment as artists such as Jackie McLean, pianist Andrew Hill and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson flirted with the modal jazz pioneered by Miles Davis and John Coltrane and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. Meanwhile albums such as McLean’s “Let Freedom Ring” and Blakey’s “Free For All” reflected the ongoing rise of the Civil Rights movement, with Blakey’s album, which features Shorter, containing some of the most intense music the drummer / leader ever recorded.

Although it had never actively sought commercial success Blue Note actually hit the pop charts in 1963 when “The Sidewinder”, the title track of an album by trumpeter Lee Morgan actually hit the pop charts. The recorded version was the 25th take of the tune, a fact indicative of the fastidiousness of Blue Note’s recording methods. This was followed shortly after by Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father”. But these commercial breakthroughs proved to be a double edged sword as distributors pushed for more hits in the same vein and began to withhold payments. This unlooked for success had created its own problems and after years of living hand to mouth Blue Note began to experience real cashflow problems. In 1966 Lion and Wolff sold out to Liberty records, the pair being retained as ‘consultants’.  Lion had no taste for the corporate world that he had been thrust into and retired in 1967, Wolff died in 1971. It seemed that an era was over.

Blue Note limped on until 1979, first with Liberty and then with United Artists, who in turn had acquired Liberty. It seemed like the end but it was revived in the 1980s by record executives Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lindvall, both fans of jazz and of Blue Note in particular,  and both enthusiastic and knowledgeable enough to know that they were sitting on a gem of a back catalogue. Hence those 80s re-issues with which I cut my Blue Note teeth, plus a huge raft of repackages on CD in the 1990s, including previously unreleased material that Lion and Wolff had left on the shelf. With both jazz and rock becoming increasingly aware of their own histories Blue Note recovered much of its credibility and cool with Van Gelder hired again to remaster many of his original recordings for CD, the ‘RVG’ re-issue series.

Cuscuna and Lindvall took a similar approach to their predecessors Lion and Wolff.  “You’re the artist, you make the art and we’ll sell it” they would tell the musicians in their charge. Under the guidance of these two visionaries Blue Note began to make new signings, among them vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Cassandra Wilson and guitarist John Scofield. Even a handful of Brits got signed, saxophonists Tommy Smith and Andy Sheppard and trumpeter Guy Barker all recorded albums for Blue Note in the 1990s but got dropped again soon afterwards. Unsurprisingly they don’t get a mention in Huber’s film. The revived Blue Note’s biggest commercial success came in 2000 with the singer Norah Jones, who features in an interview and archive coverage.

The final section of the film emphasises the links between Blue Note past and Blue Note present and the direct lineage between jazz and hip hop with both depicted as “music of the inner cities”.
Samples of vintage Blue Note records appeared on hits by hip hop artists US3 and A Tribe Called Quest. Built around the riff from Hancock’s composition “Cantaloupe Island” US3’s “Cantaloop” sampled several other snippets from classic Blue Note records and was even afforded a release on the iconic label that had inspired it. Meanwhile A Tribe Called Quest based their success on a sample of the Lee Morgan composition “Absolutions”.

Cypress Hill, De La Soul and Eminem were other hip hop acts to trawl the Blue Note back catalogue . Blue Note artists that proved to be popular with the hip hop fraternity included Lou Donaldson and guitarist Grant Green, but the most frequently sampled Blue Note artist is drummer Idris Muhammad, whose playing style with its frequent use of break beats was particularly suited to the new aesthetic.

Terrace Martin compares contemporary hip hop artists with the jazzers and hard boppers of old, citing the withdrawal of musical instrument programmes in schools as the catalyst for the rise of hip hop and rap. Denied the opportunity of more conventional means of musical expression the youth of inner city America have developed their own alternative, making use of modern recording technology.

Glasper, in particular is seen as the bridge between jazz and hip hop, drawing from all the elements of contemporary Afro-American music with his Experiment group on recordings such as his “Black Radio” series. Meanwhile Glasper and Akinmusire are among the several jazz artists that appear on rapper Kendrick Lamarr’s 2015 hit album “To Pimp A Butterfly”, further cementing the links between the two genres.

The film ends as it began in a Los Angeles studio as Shorter and Hancock join the sextet of Glasper, Akinmusire, Strickland,  Loueke, Hodge and Scott to record a version of Shorter’s late 1960s composition “Masqualero”, a work that was also informed by the racial politics of its era. It’s an absolute treat to see these musicians of different generations coming together in support of a single cause.

The respect that the current crop of Blue Note All Stars have for their seniors is expressed in the studio interviews conducted during this session. Loueke speaks of their “openness”  and of regarding them as musical allies. Indeed it’s his summation of Hancock’s playing as being “Beyond The Notes” that gives the film its title.

Loueke is impressed by the way that Shorter and Hancock variously display “courage, uncertainty and vulnerability” as part of the improvising process. Hodge adds “they’re prepared to let the music flow out, they’ve worked at their humanity as well as their music”.

“Beyond The Notes” is an absolute treat for any jazz fan. The archive footage, both musical and spoken word is a joy, as we hear Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff speak and see such great artists as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Miles Davis play.

The contributions of Shorter and Hancock plus Was, Cuscuna, Lindvall and the current crop of Blue Note artists are also hugely enjoyable, whether playing in the studio or offering perceptive insights during the ‘talking head’ style interviews.

The film is also a visual delight. It’s great fun to pick out your favourite LP cover from the many iconic designs that are depicted. Then there are Frank Wolff’s marvellous photographs. One section of the film depicts Michael Cuscuna looking through Wolff’s photo archive, discovering rarely seen images of the great musicians associated with Blue Note label and reacting to them in the manner of a kid in a sweet shop.

I was a bit like that watching this film, and of course it makes you want to dig out those classic albums out again and listen to them again in full.

Criticisms are few. The chronological jumping around was slightly distracting – but then it was never Huber’s intention to deliver a strictly linear narrative. It’s also arguable that the jazz / hip hop link is a little overplayed in the expectation of attracting a younger audience – but try telling Glasper and his band of All Stars that.

Basically this is absolutely essential viewing for anybody with even the slightest interest in jazz. Even for those less committed than myself in terms of the music there is interest to be found in the socio-political narrative of the story and this film also represents rewarding viewing for those interested in the visual arts of photography and graphic design.

It’s rumoured that the BBC have acquired rights to the film with the intention of screening it later in the year, presumably on BBC4. Assuming that they do, make sure you don’t miss it! And if you’re lucky enough to live near a cinema where it’s being screened, just get yourself down there.

 

by Ian Mann

April 02, 2019

Nashville, Tennessee musician (Adult Contemporary / Jazz / Singer - Songwriter), Scott Gray is releasing his new video “Someday” via The Jazz Mann.

Nashville, Tennessee musician (Adult Contemporary / Jazz / Singer - Songwriter), Scott Gray is releasing his new video “Someday” via The Jazz Mann. I’m indebted to Scott’s publicist, Tom Brumpton, for supplying the following content;


U.K. EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE of Scott Gray’s ‘Someday’ Video via The Jazz Mann

Nashville, Tennessee musician (Adult Contemporary / Jazz / Singer - Songwriter), Scott Gray is releasing his new video “Someday” via The Jazz Mann!

Taken from his new EP ‘Raincoats & Other Short Stories’, which was released exclusively in the U.K. and Europe on March 22, 2019. The EP has been remastered and also includes a new bonus track called “As If”

True to the title, ‘Raincoats & Other Short Stories’ features stories and personal experiences that Gray wrote in hopes that he will connect with his listeners. His focus and dedication to host his listeners through a journey to articulate life has resulted in a sophisticated sound accompanied by a collection of well-told stories. “I think for anyone who is passionate about music, the personal experience is part of the enjoyment for them. We are all looking for connection. I want them to feel like they were included – a part of the process,” says Gray.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated with stories. Stories always swept me away to another place and time and I loved feeling connected to its characters. Our ability to use our imagination is a very powerful thing and I knew that one day, I wanted to be a story-teller myself. That’s basically what ‘Raincoats & Other Short Stories’ is; a collection of short stories that I fashioned in my mind (with small bits of real life peppered in between). I purposely wanted to write with such vivid imagery that the listener couldn’t help but be taken away to some other place in their own minds and connect with the characters and in many cases, to ultimately be connected with each other. Maybe that’s what I like about the idea of storytelling the most, its ability to connect us. After all, isn’t that the point of it all?” - Scott Gray

“Someday” is currently spinning on radio stations throughout the U.K. and Europe. The video for “Someday” can be found here:


Furthermore, Scott recently stopped and had a chat with The Jazz Mann about his new video and his process!

1. “Someday” is a beautiful song about waiting for one’s true love. We were also told your wife is in the video? Is the video about your personal love story?

I’ve been told that a lot and I’m very humbled by everyone’s response. In terms of my wife, yes, Nicole makes a rather sizable appearance in the video, but “Someday” was not inspired by our personal story. Just like the other songs from my current album, “Someday” was a story that I made up. However, if there is any personal inspiration behind it, my long-time dream of pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter was the real backstory. The core of this tune is really the pursuit of a dream, whatever that dream may be and how sometimes those dreams can feel so out of reach.

2.  What was your favourite part about filming the video (besides having your lovely wife in it)?

You definitely nailed the right answer, filming with Nicole was certainly the best part. It made the entire process so much more comfortable for me. I’m pretty shy in front of a camera. Other than the obvious answer, shooting in New York City, Central Park specifically, was magical; to look around and see all of those towering columns of architectural masterpieces. I think I just love the duality of city-meets-nature. It’s just one of my favourite places.

3. You are based in Nashville, TN but obviously the setting of the video is in New York City (which makes sense since Central Park is also mentioned in the song). What is your connection to NYC?

I honestly have no direct tie to New York. The big connection and my main draw is my love for the beat and tempo of NYC. Please don’t misunderstand me, Nashville is my home and I really do think it’s one of the best places on earth. But I think the style of my first album, overall, just felt so New York to me; and I think a lot of people can definitely connect the dots between my music and the style of the city.

4. How do you approach writing a song? Do you get inspired by personal experiences or do you like to make up scenarios?

Although I don’t have a set approach to writing, most of the time a song is inspired by some obscure riff that I stumble upon. Sometimes, I just like to sit at the keyboard with no intent at all and just let my fingers move. It’s typically in that process that a riff is born. There have even been times that one of my boys (I have two sons) is plunking around on the keys and I hear something interesting. I’ve written a couple of tunes that way, believe it or not. Lyrically, I’m inspired by so many different things, even something as simple as a picture in a magazine can spark an idea or a story line. This current album really is a collection of short stories. It was fun to allow these stories to evolve organically. Of course, there are bits of real life sandwiched in between.

5. What do you hope listeners will take away after hearing “Someday”?

I never really want to put thoughts in someone else’s minds when it comes to my work. I think that part of the beauty of music is that we can participate in the “creation” of the story by interpreting the message in a way that fits us best. But selfishly, I do hope that listeners can reach beyond the ‘love song” nature of this story. As I mentioned earlier, this song is really about dreams and how often those dreams can feel so far away. For someone, that dream might be finding their one true love. For someone else, that dream might be starting a business that influences real change. Regardless of the dream, we all reach a point of saying, “When will this happen?” or “Will it ever happen?” It’s just natural for us to wonder, “When will Someday get here?” It’s just part of the human experience. Maybe if all of us “dreamers” can realize we are on similar paths, we will find courage to keep at it and to know that we all have something to fight for. So, I hope this song can help us feel connected knowing that others are going though similar challenges in reaching those dreams.

‘Raincoats & Other Short Stories’ is available now. For more information on Scott Gray, please visit his website at http://www.ScottGrayMusic.com.

 

by Trevor Bannister

March 16, 2019

Pending his 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival gig with John Surman's Brass Project John talks more about his work with Soft Machine & with Surman, Eberhard Weber & others. He also picks his top ten CDs.

Photograph;  Soft Machine 50th Anniversary Tour, ‘Iridium’, Times Square, New York City, October 2018


“You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer”: Part 3
 
Soft Machine lay dormant until 2001. Leonardo Pavkovic, an incredibly knowledgeable New York based impresario of Croatian origin, who speaks at least five languages, was a great mate of Elton Dean’s and a massive fan of the band. He came up with the idea of putting a new band together. It would comprise of Elton Dean, Allan Holdsworth, Hugh Hopper and myself, and would be billed as Soft Works. I didn’t show any interest at first when Elton first broached the idea. I was the only one who’d played with everybody and it didn’t sound like a compatible quartet to me. But sometimes what’s incompatible on paper, works well in real life, so after a bit more time it seemed like worth having a go and I thought, ‘Let’s do it’.

All went well, with Leonardo as the driving force. We visited Japan and recorded an album and then history repeated itself. John Etheridge came in as Allan took his leave. We wanted a title to distinguish ourselves from the original band because Karl wasn’t involved and we came up with the title, Soft Machine Legacy. Theo Travis, who had a strong prog-rock background and had often depped with the band, came in on flute, saxes and keyboards, when Elton passed away in 2006. When Hugh died in 2009, Roy Babbington, whose association with the band dated back to 1973, took his place on bass.  Some people imagined that Soft Machine Legacy was merely a tribute band, but the ‘new’ line-up was actually a continuation of the original Soft Machine, so we decided to revert to the proper title. It’s as Soft Machine and with the continued support of Leonardo, putting his health at risk in the process, that we’ve toured to celebrate the band’s fiftieth year, with concerts in the States, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands, plus numerous dates in the UK, and recorded ‘Hidden Details’.

Lots of people have commented on the brilliant sound quality on ‘Hidden Details’. That was thanks to Jon Hiseman’s production. What an engineer! He was another one of those people, like Dave Watkins, who could do anything he put his mind to and do it fantastically well. He was a fantastic drummer, an absolute master using two bass drums, and an amazing character with such a positive attitude. Working with a fellow drummer as the engineer can make you feel a bit ‘under the cosh’, but never with Jon. He’d take time to work out how to get the best sound from everything that I was doing. His recent death was a huge loss to music and an even greater loss to his wife Barbara (Thompson) as he was her principal carer.

I suppose that you could describe my career as ‘multi-faceted’. I’ve been able to weave my career together from all manner of fascinating musical threads.

Salena Jones provided my ‘in’ to Ronnie’s, where I practically lived for a while working with some wonderful singers. It went so well with Salena that our three-week booking was extended to six. Working with singers can be limiting for drummers, but I love it. I played a lot with Annie Ross and did a lovely TV ‘special’ with the great Sarah Vaughan. She wasn’t in the greatest shape as her husband had only recently died, but it was beautiful.

I especially liked playing with Esther Morrow, who had worked with Ellington on his Sacred Music concerts. Joy Marshall had a reputation for ‘being difficult’ and someone warned me to “watch out!’ when I took the booking to play with her, but she was alright. You just have to get on and play. Singers are often under a lot of pressure and it doesn’t help to be confrontational. The last thing anyone needs is aggravation. Life’s too short. Elaine Delmar, on the other hand, was the complete opposite, an absolute sweetheart, while Norma Winstone is great in any context, and incredibly creative, whether in a small group or a big band like Kenny Wheeler’s.

Harry South was a very nice guy and an excellent ‘straight-ahead’ jazz arranger.  He used Roy Babbington and I almost exclusively for a while with his studio orchestra. Harry wrote the themes and incidental music for TV shows like the ‘Chinese Detective’ ‘Give Us A Break’ and ‘Big Deal’. Do you remember those? He was a great character, loved by everyone, even if he had an aversion to the recording technology of the day. He liked to do things ‘his way’.  Mike Gibbs provided the music for the ‘The Goodies’ comedy series and we did all of those. Great fun!

In the early 1980s I worked extensively in Germany, juggling gigs with Soft Machine alongside work with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg. I met Eberhard Weber in the second-half of the 1970s and played with him on a record date led by the German guitarist Volker Kriegel (Missing Link).  Eberhard subsequently asked me to join his quartet ‘Colours’. I loved working with him; a fantastic bass player and a fantastic man. We recorded with Manfred Eicher for his ECM label and the Goethe Institute subsidised two tours of the States and a six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand. A great band. Loved it!

I met another wonderful bassist, Arild Anderson, through the EBU (European Broadcasting Union). Each year, the radio stations of member countries put a big band together for a concert,  which is broadcast and recorded by the host station. When the BBC hosted the event at Golder’s Green Hippodrome, John Taylor, Chris Laurence and I formed the rhythm section. Although Arild was with a Norwegian band, he asked if he could play with us, so that we would have two basses, with Arild playing over-the-top of Chris. Since then we’ve been involved in a lot of projects together and keep in regular touch.

Jeff Clyne was lovely to play with, a very special bloke. He was four years older than me and came up in that special Tubby Hayes – Jazz Couriers’ generation of players. And wow, what a band that was! But Jeff moved on. He had a wonderful love/hate relationship with John Stevens. They loved playing together but drove each other mad in the process. I miss him dreadfully.

The bass player/drummer relationship is very, very special.  It’s to do with how you hear the time. Some bass players and some drummers push on the beat, others lay-back. It’s very important finding people that you feel completely comfortable with and adjusting those two things. As you get older you become more flexible; at least I hope so. I’ve been incredibly lucky to play with such great players as Jeff, Chris, Dave (Holland) Eberhard, Arild, and of course Lucas Lindholm.

John Surman has a special place in my career. We’ve had a long association that goes right back to Ronnie’s ‘Old Place’. He’s an absolute giant and one of the first of our generation to make an international mark. We had a fantastic quartet with John, John Taylor, a genius, on piano and Chris Laurence, another genius, on bass. Music is people and if you get the chemistry together as we did, it just communicates, no matter what style of music you play. We shall be playing together again in May of this year at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival to celebrate John’s 75th birthday with a rare live performance of The Brass Project.

Music is a strange and incredible process. It’s what we do, and yet in a sense we don’t even think about it; we just ‘do it’. When someone puts a band together, they pick people who will bring their own way of playing and musical personality to the music. Nobody needs to tell you what to do; it’s improvised music so you don’t want any constraints.  If there’s ever a doubt in my mind, I might ask, ‘How do you want this?’ and inevitably the answer comes back, ‘Yes, well, it could be a little bit like this or maybe a little bit like that … Whatever you think, really?’.

It comes back to you. That’s what the world of jazz is all about. It’s a personal voice.  That was the whole thing with Ellington; he chose people for their musical qualities He didn’t have to tell them how to play; the music was written around them and that’s how it should be. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been playing this long and to have come up with a generation of amazingly talented people of like-mind. ‘It’s been a blast,’ as they say. And long may it continue!
 
JOHN MARSHALL: A personal selection of 10 recordings;

Michael Gibbs -   Michael Gibbs    Deram  1969      

Nucleus -    Elastic Rock   Vertigo  1970

Jack Bruce -  Harmony Row    Polydor    1971

Soft Machine -  Bundles   (Harvest1974) Esoteric   2010

Soft Machine -  Softs   (Harvest1976) Esoteric   2010

John Surman  - Morning Glory   (Island 1973)  Fledg’ling    2017  
 
John Surman Qt  - Stranger Than Fiction     ECM  1994

Eberhard Weber’s Colours -  Silent Feet    ECM     1977

Andersen/Tsabropolous/Marshall - Achirana    ECM  2000

Latest release:
Soft Machine -  Hidden Details   Dyad    2018 also Vinyl


The John Surman / John Warren Brass Project featuring John Marshall will appear at Cheltenham Town Hall at 2.15 pm on Saturday 4th May as part of the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Further details and tickets available from http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com

Interview conducted by TREVOR BANNISTER.
 

by Trevor Bannister

March 15, 2019

In the second part of his interview with guest contributor Trevor Bannister John establishes himself on the 1960s London jazz and session scene and gets the call from Soft Machine.

You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer: Part 2


Our generation was very lucky. It was the Zeitgeist in the arts and there was so much exciting cross-fertilization of ideas. It was a case of, ‘do your own thing’, but ‘get it together’. The other great thing was the opportunity to play, which is so lacking now. I was very adaptable, liked different things and got to play with just about everybody which was fantastic. I could be depping in Acker Bilk’s trad band one night, playing with John Surman at Ronnie’s ‘Old Place’ the next and accompanying a singer at the new club in Frith Street the night after. I even played with Indo-Jazz Fusions to a crowd of 250,000 at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival on the same bill as Bob Dylan. The truth is that I get on with so many people and I’m good at juggling.

Dave Morse helped me tremendously to get to grips with what was happening in London and to learn ‘my trade’ with gigs. You soon realise that it’s case of ‘wheels within wheels’; being in the right place and at the right time to meet the right people.  I worked with a group called the Trebletones backing the singer, Helen Shapiro and then found myself doing a lot of Jamaican ‘Bluebeat’ things with Tony Washington, a piano player; ‘Bluebeat’ had a particular rhythmic feel. One day we got a call from the fantastic guitarist Ernest Ranglin who was producing a session at Olympic Studios, then near Baker Street, for the singer Millie Small. I was totally overawed by all these heavy-weight session guys. We did about six different titles that day and one of them was ‘My Boy Lollipop’. It came out soon after and reached #2 in the UK charts. I remember hearing it on the radio and telling my girlfriend of the time, ‘That’s me!’

‘Fat’ John Cox had a fantastic band at the Café des Artistes in Fulham Road; a heavy-weight band with Tony Roberts and Ray Warleigh on saxes, Chris Pyne on trombone, Peter Lemer on piano and Danny Thompson on bass.  They played a lot of Mingus numbers which I absolutely loved as he was a great favourite of mine. All these guys doubled as members of Alexis Korner’s band and it was through them that I joined Alexis to fill-in while his regular drummer went to the States for a few months. Herbie Goines, a very good singer was on vocals and apart from the blues we did some interesting instrumental things.

When that finished, Chris Pyne, put a word in for me when Eric Galloway, the resident big band leader at Butlin’s Filey, needed to change drummers mid-way through the summer season. That was a brilliant move. It was a very good band and it had an enormous pad; I remember that Eric pulled out things on the last night that we’d never seen before.  You can either treat those gigs as a bit of a holiday or you can do some work. I chose the latter and used the time to polish-up my reading, a decision which truly paid off when I got back to London. Following a call from guitarist Phil Lee I played a gig with Graham Collier’s band, which worked out really well as I could read and take care of everything. Graham’s original material had a Mingus feel and used lots of different time-signatures, which was unusual at that time and which I liked very much. The line-up was pretty fluid as Graham was always looking for good new players, but at various times it included Phil Lee on guitar, Harry Beckett or sometimes Ian Carr on trumpet and flugelhorn, John Mumford, Mike Gibbs or Nick Evans on trombone, Elton Dean or Stan Sulzmann on saxes and Frank Ricotti on vibes. Karl Jenkins was a major addition to the band – a phenomenal talent! He played piano, baritone and soprano saxes and oboe. I can’t think of anyone else, and there aren’t many, who can play the oboe with such energy and expression, and yet he’s very self-deprecating about his oboe playing. I listen to some of the things he played then and think, ‘Crikey, he’s fantastic!’

I’ve already mentioned the peculiar ‘wheels-within-wheels’ that operate within the jazz scene – here’s another classic example. I first played with Jack Bruce in the Mike Gibbs Orchestra on its first gig at Lancaster University –that was one hell of a band! Amazing! EVERYBODY was in it! EVERYBODY!

Around that time Karl and I had an occasional group. Ian Carr, who often depped for Harry Beckett in Graham’s band and who we also knew from Mike’s Orchestra, liked Karl’s compositions and what we were doing.  Having decided to leave the Rendell/Carr Quintet he asked us to join him to form Nucleus, which, as you might say, worked out pretty well.

Jack would sometimes dep with Ian, so as well as the Gibbs’ connection, we also got to know each other through Nucleus. When Jack was setting up his first solo album, ‘Songs for a Tailor’, he called me, along with guitarist Chris Spedding, another alumnus from Nucleus and the Gibbs’ band, to do a couple of tracks. From there he formed his quartet with the incredible Graham Bond alto and organ. He could play them separately, or at the same time! We had a fantastic time, but it was a stormy set-up. Jack was notably unpredictable, and Graham became so impossible that in the end Jack had to get rid of him. Everything was going along nicely with the three of us when Corky Laing and Leslie West from Mountain arrived from the States to record in London. Jack phoned one Monday afternoon to say that he was folding the band and joining them. That was it!

He wouldn’t have realised at the time, but he actually did me a favour, as it meant that I was free to join Soft Machine. That evening Soft’s manager, Sean Murphy, approached me at Ronnie’s, where I’d ended up after calling into a Gerrard Street pub where Carl Palmer was doing a drum clinic for Paiste Cymbals. ‘Would you like to join Soft Machine?’ he asked. ‘OK, let’s see what happens,’ I thought to myself. That was in 1972; forty-six years later I’m still finding out!

In truth, I didn’t know much about Soft Machine and when I asked around about the band, the answer always came back that it was ‘on its last legs’. Their most recent tour of Maison de la Culture had ended on a sour note when the audiences regularly walked out in protest at Elton Dean and Phil Howard playing free. There was a sort of funereal atmosphere when I met Elton, Hugh Hooper and Mike Ratledge for our first rehearsal, but things picked up after that. We finished recording the 5th album, played a Sunday lunchtime concert at Chelsea Arts College and then hit the road with three weeks in Italy before moving on to France.

A personal disaster struck in southern Italy. My wife Maxi and I had decided to take-in the sights around Naples before the second leg of the tour and stopped at a little restaurant for a seafood meal – she contracted typhoid and I got hepatitis. I didn’t feel at all well, but somehow got through the tour. Maxi came back to London via Munich, in order to organise moving home to Southfields from Highgate. How she did while being so ill I don’t know – then after the move she was admitted to St George’s Hospital in Tooting. 

Elton left and Karl Jenkins came in. His focus was moving more and more towards composition and so we saw the need for a new soloist to cover the gap left by Elton. That’s when Allan Holdsworth joined Soft Machine.
We first met at a Musicians’ Union Workshop shortly after he came down to London from Bradford – he’d just recorded a great album, “’Igginbottom’s Wrench” with his band ‘Igginbottom – and I asked him to play with us. Karl re-wrote the entire book with new pieces of his own, plus some nice pieces by Mike Ratledge like ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains’, which is on our new album ‘Hidden Details’.

We set off on our first tour of the States in 1975 with a new sense of focus and direction. Sadly, our record label, Columbia, decided to choose a moment midway through the tour to cull bands rated at less than ‘mega-status’ and pulled the funding. We covered the east coast and made some great fans who turned up in droves with their vintage albums to be signed when we went back for the Fiftieth Anniversary Tour of 2018, but never got to the west. Meanwhile, our gear was stuck in the States and ended up being impounded by Customs so you can imagine the shenanigans in trying to get it back. There was a lesson in all this; if you want to be ‘gigantic’, you’ve got to have a singer, unless of course, you’re Weather Report or John McLaughlin. Soft Machine didn’t carry that sort of weight.

The tour however, served to raise Allan’s profile and he became such hot property that Tony Williams wanted to sign him for Lifetime. To everyone’s relief he announced that he would stay with Soft Machine, only to change his mind a few days ahead of our next tour. Sean Murphy found a note on his office desk – ‘Gone to the States. Allan’.

‘Allan,, we’re supposed to be starting a tour at the end of the week!’ I explained when I called him in the States.‘Gazeuse!’ came the reply in his broad Yorkshire accent (‘Gazeuse’ was Allan’s favourite epithet. He’d found on a Perrier bottle, liked the sound of it and used at every opportunity.) ‘Gazeuse. What’s happening? I’m here.’ We had to cancel the tour. But the upshot was that Allan recommended John Etheridge and ‘the rest’, as you might say, ‘is history’.

 
John Marshall in action with Allan Holdsworth, Pat Smythe and Daryl Runswick at Chateauvallon in 1974.
https://youtu.be/9lJOkXETO70

by Trevor Bannister

March 14, 2019

In the first episode of a three part interview with Soft Machine drummer John Marshall, conducted by guest contributor Trevor Bannister, John recalls his school and University days.

Photograph; The Dave Watkins Trio: Dave Watkins piano, Rudolph Ferrier bass and John Marshall drums, the Great Hall, Reading University December 1961.


“You Didn’t Look Like a Drummer” (Part 1)

John Marshall fondly remembers an occasion from early in his career when he depped with Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band, one of the most popular and successful ‘trad’ bands of the day. ‘I got a last-minute call to do one gig with Acker. The band bus picked me up in Charing Cross Road and we drove to an American air base in great comfort, with aircraft-style seats that you could swing round to form a circle – very handy for passing the whisky bottle round after the gig. Acker had a good band, all went very well, and I really enjoyed myself, mainly thanks to the pianist Stan Greig, a fine drummer himself, who led me through the arrangements. On the way back to London, Acker looked at me and said, “Sorry I didn’t speak to you on the way up, but you didn’t look like a drummer to me.” 

Appearances apart, it’s not a mistake anyone could make once John is settled behind his drum kit. Then and now, he brings a palpable sense of energy and excitement to the stage, and the remarkable skills and unique feeling for time that make him one of the greatest drummers of his, or any, generation. At an age when many would be content to settle for the ‘pipe and slippers’ of retirement, he has just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Soft Machine, and his own forty-six-year membership of the band, with a gruelling tour to touch base with fans in Japan, Canada, the east and west coasts of the States, and the Netherlands. In between hitting the road for dates in the UK and looking ahead to his appearance at the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival with John Surman, John Warren & The Brass Project, John kindly found time to reflect on his musical career. 
 
***

I was born John Stanley Marshall in Isleworth, Middlesex on the 28th August 1941 and grew up in neighbouring Hounslow. I had a fascination for drums from an early age and used to love watching the pit drummers at the variety theatres in Chiswick and Kingston that we visited as a family. And then one year I followed the Borough Road Teacher Training College Rag Parade back to the college where a jazz band set themselves up to play in the grounds. The drummer just played ‘ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling’ on the ride cymbal. I thought to myself, ‘I quite fancy doing this’, and got into playing. I used to play along to Buck Clayton records at a friend’s house while he strummed a guitar and later on formed a little band at school. I took lessons on Saturday mornings with Jimmy Marshall (of Marshall amps fame!) and joined the Bernie Simmons Swinging Students Big Band.

Americans weren’t allowed to play here when I was younger, so I grew up listening to English big band drummers. Phil Seaman was a force of nature who either played like a dream or was absolutely dreadful. I didn’t mind! Who’s counting? In later years I got to know him and would give him a lift home after a gig. Allan Ganley was an immaculate drummer and a very generous guy who took me for some lessons. Getting information out of people was often quite tricky; they’d spent years getting their ‘thing’ together, so you could understand why they were reluctant to pass anything on to a young ‘whipper-snapper’ who could put it altogether in a matter of seconds. Allan wasn’t at all like that. Great guy! Bobby Orr, a lovely guy and very original player, was another hero of mine.

We were brought up to think that we lacked the magic ingredient that made American drummers like Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes and Dannie Richmond so special and that we would never get near to them. It fostered a sort of inferiority complex. They were certainly very exotic, but gradually we began to realise that there was an ‘American’ way of playing and a ‘European’ way, and even an ‘English’ subset of playing.

I didn’t realise that until years later when I toured in the States for the first time. People turned up at gigs with tapes they’d taken off the radio and stuff we’d done. ‘These are Americans?’ I thought, ‘They’re fans and they think we’re great!’ Then the ‘penny-dropped’. We were DIFFERENT. The stuff that WE thought to be exotic was run-of-the-mill to them – our music had a different quality and that’s what they liked.  As for me, having worked with so many electric bands, I played much louder than the norm. My ‘home’ volume is more; I’m a loud drummer and that’s it!

The other two things that separated us from the Americans, and again I didn’t appreciate this until much later, were how they were trained and how they held the sticks. They came up through the school of rudiments and used the ‘orthodox grip’ - with the right-hand above the stick and the left-hand below it, whereas the ‘rudiments’ were less a part of my training and I was taught to use the ‘matched grip’ - you held the sticks in exactly the same way in each hand. I’ve always assumed that Phil Seaman was responsible for us using ‘matched grip’. It was pretty controversial at the time and when I took some lessons with Philly Joe he shouted, ‘You can’t play drums like that!’ Anyway, when the Americans saw Ringo Starr using ‘matched grip’ they started to think that if he was so successful, that must be the way to play and copied him. It’s not an issue any more, but do you think the Americans will own-up to the technique coming from this side of the Atlantic? They’re very resistant to that idea.

Having said that, there’s a certain ‘openness’ about some American drummers which is very attractive. I loved Dannie Richmond’s playing with Charlie Mingus. Roy Haynes is very special, which I think is not unconnected to his working with great singers like Sarah Vaughan for much of his career. He’s still playing. He spent a lot of time talking when I saw him a couple of years ago, but who could blame him at age 93! You also come across total eccentrics like Bobby Moses, who played with Gary Burton. He used to do these amazing solos without ever hitting the drums. He went through the whole thing, with everybody yelling at him.  Crazy, but a very nice guy.

Philly Joe Jones was a fantastic character and a very funny man. I took some lessons with him when he was living in London in the late-1960s and sharing a flat with the bassist John Hart. He was doubtless here for some dodgy reason and didn’t have a work permit which meant that officially he couldn’t play, but he could teach. I’ve already mentioned that he shouted at me for using ‘matched grip’. He was very conservative, but he introduced me to a whole area of military-style playing which I’d completely ignored and written-off as being irrelevant to jazz; the rudimental system.

I’d always dismissed the rudiments as being nothing more than exercises, rather like performing PE at school. Philly Joe, I soon discovered, didn’t make a move without using a rudiment. He showed me how to use them creatively to make phrases. It was the way he used them that gave his playing its special quality. And of course, he was probably the world’s best brush player. ‘When you’re playing with a singer,’ he would say, “You play like this (John imitates the grace and elegance of Philly Joe’s brush strokes) and everybody watches you. No one’s watching the b….’  Incredible! He claimed that he was the first black tram driver in Chicago and used to stop off to play and take a drink at various bars en route. How much was true I don’t know, but they were great stories. Some pupils had a hard time with Philly Joe because he was so often ‘out-of-it’ but I got on well and he was a great teacher.

***

There were three Marshalls in my class at Isleworth Grammar School - J.A., R.S. and me, J.S. There were also a lot around on the scene in later years.  I would sometimes get panic phone calls asking, ‘How quickly can you get to the studios?’ They’d booked the wrong John Marshall, thinking that I was John Marshall the trombone player.  That problem was solved when he eventually joined Kurt Edelhagen in Berlin. There was the singer John Marshall in Germany and Johnny Marshall the baritone player who played with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. 

I wasn’t considered ‘university material’ by the staff at school and I joined the Civil Service as an Executive Officer in the Public Trustees Office after A Levels. The father of my then girlfriend, a university teacher, however, encouraged me to apply the following year. He explained that I would qualify for a grant so that everything would be paid for; talk about the ‘good old days’! I chose to study Psychology because it was something new and completely different to the arts subjects I’d studied at sixth form. My choice of Reading was made for me because it was the only university that offered the subject as a BA rather than a BSc which would have needed a background in science. I eventually made a late application in the summer of 1960 and was just about to set off with a friend on hitch-hiking trip to the Continent when a letter arrived offering me a place. The Trustee’s Office wasn’t too pleased, but my mother was delighted. She thought it would get drums out of my system – little did she know!

Reading was a very small university in those days with about 1,500 students, mostly based in the Edwardian red-brick campus near the town centre. Whiteknights Park was very new and apart from the Physics Block and the Faculty of Letters everything else was still being built. I spent my first year in digs with the lovely Mrs Entwistle. I enjoyed the Psychology course but spent far too much playing. The formidable head of department, Professor Magdalen D. Vernon, who didn’t suffer fools gladly, once remarked to me, ‘Mr. Marshall, I understand that you play the drums. It would be nice of you if you could show up in the department occasionally.’ 

There was a lively university jazz scene in those days, with at least four bands playing in various styles and a Jazz Club that met every Monday night during term-time at the Lower Ship pub just off Reading town centre. Adrian Bull led the Ad Hoc ‘trad’ band, which included the pianist Bob Stuckey, who’s still very active and with whom I later worked in a quartet with Dudu Pukwana. Guitarist Geoff Staines had his quartet, with Nick Georgiades on drums. I joined a trio led by the pianist Adrian Read, a post-grad Education student who styled himself on Oscar Peterson, along with Rudolph Ferrier on bass. We also formed the rhythm section of the Swingtet led by the trumpeter Don Richards. 

When Adrian and Don graduated the following year, Rudi Ferrier and I joined Dave Watkins, a brilliant pianist and original composer. None of us, it should be said, were from the Music Department; jazz was a definite ‘no-no’ in those days, and they wouldn’t have anything to do with it. We came from all sorts of subject backgrounds: Post-Graduate Education, Agriculture, Chemistry, Geography, Classics, Psychology in my case and in Dave’s, Fine Arts.  

Dave Watkins was married to Wendy Ramshaw, who was studying for a teacher-training diploma. They were fantastic people and hugely talented. Dave could turn his hand to anything; he wrote a hit song for Andy Williams – ‘It’s So Easy’ which reached #13 in the UK charts in 1970 and became an eminent figure in British design. He designed the medals for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Wendy’s signature ringsets are part of permanent collections in the V & A and other museums across the world. She designed the new Edinburgh Gates at Hyde Park in 2015, the Millennium Medal presented to Queen Elizabeth II on 31st December 1998 and was honoured with a CBE in 2003. Her death in December 2018 was a great loss.

Dave was a great innovator and shook the place up a little when he took three numbers from the Johnny Dankworth/Cleo Laine album ‘Shakespeare and All That Jazz’ and arranged them for the trio. Chris Worth, a French language student delivered the vocals suitably attired in Tudor costume We performed at the ‘Jantaculum’, an annual pre-Christmas gala of music and poetry, in the rarefied atmosphere of the University Great Hall in December 1961. It was considered very daring at the time!

I played with Adrian’s Trio and Don’s Swingtet at the first ’Reading Standard’ Jazz Band Contest on 11th November 1960 in front of a packed crowd of about 1,000 at the Olympia Ballroom. Three local bands, the Just Jazz Quintet, the Alvin Westcot Seven and the Kid Forsyth Jazzmen completed the line-up. The resident Don Turk Orchestra, which had an excellent drummer in Byron Davis, provided the ‘continuity’ music from the ballroom’s second stage to keep the dancers happy. I remember that Benny Green was one of the judges.

Adrian’s trio took second place to the Just Jazz Quintet and that earned us an interval spot at the New Luton Jazz Club early in 1961. Don’s third place was rewarded with a booking for Reading’s first ‘All-Niter’ on 20th January 1961.  The bill included ‘trad’ stars Mickey Ashman, Ken Colyer and the Clyde Valley Stompers, as well as the Just Jazz Quintet and Alvin Westcot’s Jazztet. A free breakfast was promised to those who lasted the full course of the event. As the ‘Standard’s’ jazz correspondent noted at the time – ‘not a bad performance from the two student bands!’

I was back the next year with Dave Watkins. The ‘Standard’ hyped-up the event in the week’s leading up to the second contest on 3rd November. The BBC producer Terry Henebery, guitarist and broadcaster Ken Sykora and Matthew Turner, well-known locally as the leader of the Silver Bell Jazz Band, were enlisted as judges. The star bandleader and drummer Eric Delaney drew the running-order at a gig he was playing at the local Majestic Ballroom a few days before the contest. The line-up included four ‘trad’ bands, Alvin Westcot Jazztet, the Blue Jays Jazz Band, the Olympians and the ‘Kid’ Forsythe Jazz Band, and two modern, the Dave Price Quartet and us. The Ad Hoc Band had been scheduled to compete but withdrew at the last moment.

We won and Dave stepped up to receive the Golden Trumpet Challenge Trophy. I was voted ‘Top Musician of The Evening’ and awarded a separate trophy and a record voucher from Barnes & Avis, a local music and record store. It’s the only trophy I’ve ever received apart from winning the Melody Maker jazz poll in 1973 and 1974, when Soft Machine was also voted top small group.

In addition, we were promised an interval gig at the Marquee, then in Oxford Street, and a BBC audition. Ken Sykora is reported to have said that, ‘we were a very promising group destined for higher things’, while Les Mason, who ran the Robinson Crusoe Club at California Country Club, Wokingham said that he, ‘would like the group to play with Ronnie Scott on Ronnie’s next visit to the club’.

The ‘Reading Standard’ covered jazz pretty extensively at that time, not just the popular ‘trad’ bands that appeared at the Town Hall and Olympia Ballroom, but our university Jazz Club as well. I got several mentions in the summer of 1961:

“Although Kenny Ball was the main attraction at Olympia (Ballroom) on Tuesday of last week (a capacity crowd turned out to hear him play), a large share of the honours must go to the Don Richards’ Swingtet (who played the interval spot) … The really outstanding member of the group was drummer John Marshall. He had some excellent ideas and carried them out with a skill and confidence which caused people to praise this polished performance. One fan thought the group by far the best in Reading and even went so far as to suggest that they should get together when they leave university and turn professional”.

“… Incidentally, John is due to play at the Festival Hall next Thursday (6th June), probably sitting in with the Mike Garrick Quartet (‘Jazz and Voices’ concert). He has already played with this group three times this year, including a London date and the Bushy Club”.

The paper even reported on my plans for the summer vacation:

“John hopes to spend the vacation across the Atlantic and I hope we will be hearing some first-hand news from that scene”.

I flew to America that summer with a friend from Bristol University on a trip organised by what was known as the Canada Club; the Club chartered a flight, dumped you in Canada at the beginning of the summer and then flew you home six or seven weeks later, leaving you to make your own arrangements in between. We made a bee-line to New York and Manny’s famous music store in West 48th Street where I bought a beautiful set of Ludwig drums, otherwise unobtainable at home.

My friend’s uncle worked on one of the Cunard Queen liners, so we put the drums into a taxi and drove to the docks for him to ship home. The customs duty would have been insane, but he somehow got away with only paying £10.00.  It cost me a crate of whisky when we got home – a lot of money in those days - but still cheap at the price. I was aware of only one other person at home with a Ludwig kit. I’ve still got it!
The Inter-University Jazz Federation Jazz Band Competition was an important part of the calendar in those days. Fifty or sixty bands of all jazz styles would compete each year and the top dozen or so would progress from regional heats to the Finals held just before Easter.

Don Richards Swingtet was eliminated in the semi-finals at Southampton on 22nd February 1961, but I made it through to the Finals at Queen Mary College, London with Adrian Read a few weeks later. We were competing against bands from Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Exeter, Southampton and Cambridge, and two from Oxford. Benny Green Alun Morgan, Steve Race and Johnny Dankworth formed the team of judges and the whole show was compered by George Melly.

The following year, playing with Dave Watkins, we took second place in the semi-final held at Reading Town Hall and earned this comment in the programme for the finals which took place once again at Queen Mary College:
“The Dave Watkins Trio produced the first outstanding drummer of the evening (John Marshall) and were also the first group to show an understanding of balance and dynamic contrast. The quality I admired most in their performance was the ability to create tension – a hallmark of a good group. Dave himself is a pianist with a highly developed sense of form and melody.”

I was selected as a ‘musician deserving special mention’, which was great, but we found ourselves competing against tough opposition in the final with bands from Leeds, Birmingham, Southampton, Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Queen’s Belfast, Oxford and Cambridge. Just as they had a year earlier, Cambridge wiped the board. They had a heavy-duty band of professional standard comprising Art Themen, Dave Gelly, Lionel Grigson, and John Hart, a very good bass player, who I mentioned earlier in connection with Philly Joe Jones, and who tragically died in a car accident in France. The drum chair was occupied in 1961 by George Walden, later to become a minister in the Thatcher government, and by Jonathan Lynn in 1962. He, of course wrote ‘Yes Minister’ with Anthony Jay.

There are several other names that spring out from those competitions: Bryant Marriott (Oxford) and Roger Eames (Nottingham) who both became jazz producers for the BBC; Tony Faulkner (Sheffield), an excellent drummer who became an educator at Leeds College of Music; Dudley Hyams (Southampton) who had a great band; Miles Kington and Bill Ashton (Oxford), respectively a distinguished writer and broadcaster and the founder of NYJO. Bill later became known as the ‘gig king’ for weddings, bar mitzvahs etc and I did a lot of work with him. I remember the Oxford guys as regarding themselves a ‘class apart’. They’d be standing round the bar before the competition in a very urbane manner, discussing what they were going to play in the next round as if the result was a foregone conclusion. All these guys from university. Can you imagine that now?

Johnny Taylor, a Geography student and fine bass player was a pivotal guy in the Jazz Club. He was an energetic and very sparky guy, with lots of connections, who always seemed to be organising things and inviting guests like Dick Heckstall-Smith, Michael Garrick and Shake Keane down to the Lower Ship. He also set up the ‘Jazz and Voices’ concert at the Recital Room of the Royal Festival Hall in June 1961, in which I played with the Mike’s Garrick Quartet. That was very special and a key event for Mike that set him up to launch his career as musical director for  ‘Poetry & Jazz in Concert’.  Another guest, pivotal to my career, was the vibes player Dave Morse. You might say that Dave belonged to the ‘second tier’ of London jazz players; excellent players who played one-off gigs on a regular basis, but not part of the studio ‘elite’.  Dave had his own quartet and after a gig at Jazz Club he said, ‘Give me a call when you come down after finals because I’m looking for a drummer’. And that proved to be my introduction to the London jazz scene.

There is one other guy from those Reading days who I should mention. He would turn up at Jazz Club every now and then and ask if he could ‘sit-in’ and sing some blues. We didn’t give much thought to it and would usually oblige. Fast forward a few years and I got a call to do some tracks on an album – ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’. Our blues singer was none-other than Arthur Brown himself! I remember Kit Lambert, a big name in those days and manager of The Who, being at the recording session. No personnel details were ever given on the original album, but I’m listed on the re-issue – along with about four other drummers. I play on three tracks. We did a version of ‘Fire!’, but the one they used on the hit single, and by far the best, was actually the demo with Drachen Theaker on drums. He played perfectly on that track. Ours was nowhere near as good. You have to own up sometimes! 

Arthur talked to me about joining the band, but our ideas were worlds apart. He was into simple, straightforward stuff, whereas my idea was to play as complicated as possible but make it sound simple. I didn’t hear from him again after that.

Despite Professor Vernon’s misgivings, I put the work in and came away from Reading with a respectable degree in Psychology. I only ever returned to the university once after that and that was to play a gig with Nucleus.


COMMENTS;

From Steve Mardell via email;


I read these with great interest, having known and played once or twice with John at the Lower Ship, Reading when we were undergraduates. He was an amazing drummer then, and Dave Watkins a really outstanding piano player and leader. I was an indifferent guitar player, but did what I could. When I started with the band in 1959, it was known as the Brass Monkeys, a title inherited from previous trad years, and regarded by Dave and Don Richards, tpt, as not entirely refllecting our rather faltering trend towards bebop. Dave led us into more progressive directions, with careful arrangements and, for me, rather difficult harmonies ! But he was always gracious enough to write them out for me. John was way ahead of the game.
Liz Barclay was on bass, Colin….on trombone, and the clarinettist, who’s name I never knew, was a serving member of R.E.M.E. at Arborfield, and a very good musician.
At the age of seventy-nine I still play a Gretsch 6120.
 Best Regards,
Steve Mardell
(BA Hons. Classics, Reading, 1961.)

by Ian Mann

February 19, 2019

Ian Mann enjoys two very different albums recorded in 2018 by the Italian born, London based saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace.

Tommaso Starace

Harmony Less Quartet “Narrow Escape” (Music Center Records BA 409 CD)

Quintet “Eleuthera All That Jazz” (Music Center Records BA 406 CD)

I’m indebted to Tommaso Starace for forwarding me the above albums, his two latest releases, both recorded during 2018.

The Italian born London based saxophonist and composer Tommaso Starace has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages in recent years. Since moving to England he has become a hugely popular figure among UK jazz audiences thanks to the quality of his live performances. These have always combined a high standard of musicianship with a relaxed and witty presenting style that has consistently charmed British jazz fans.

Equally proficient on the alto and soprano versions of his chosen instrument Starace is also a skilled composer and the exciting quality of his live shows has been backed up by an impressive catalogue of recordings, many of these structured around an overall concept or theme.

A common thread running through Starace’s work has been his love of photography, cinema and the visual arts..  Several albums have been inspired by the works of notable photographers and have have included “Blood & Champagne” (2010) which was inspired by the work of the war photographer Robert Capa and “Italian Short Stories” (2014) which drew its inspiration from the work of the Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin . An earlier (2006) release, made with a British line up, featured original compositions inspired by the work of the celebrated photographer Elliott Erwhit.

Starace has also been inspired by the work of other musicians. His 2013 album “Simply Marvellous!” paid homage to the late, great French pianist and composer Michel Petrucciani (1962-99) in a programme comprised entirely of arrangements of Petrucciani compositions. Starace also pays tribute to other past jazz greats by the regular inclusion of standard material both in live performance and on album, where the standards rub shoulders with Starace’s impressive original compositions. It’s an approach that features on both of these two new recordings.


“Narrow Escape”

Starace has always worked regularly with musicians from both the UK and Italy and has consistently operated concurrent British and Italian quartets. His latest album, “Narrow Escape”, brings the two strands together in a Harmony Less Quartet which combines Starace’s alto in a twin saxophone front-line with Brit Dave O’Higgins’ tenor. Meanwhile Starace’s fellow Italians Davide Liberti (bass) and Ruben Bellavia (drums) form a dynamic and very impressive rhythm section.

“Narrow Escape” features five original pieces by Starace with a further four tunes coming from the pens of outside composers, the jazz giants Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and the great ‘American Songbook’ writer Jimmy Van Heusen.

I assume that the inspiration for the “Narrow Escape” project initially came from the various ‘piano less’ quartets pioneered by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in the 1950s. Of course, the absence of a chordal instrument such as a piano or guitar isn’t exactly news in 2019, but neither is it entirely common either. Starace has worked closely with pianists in the past, notably his compatriot Michele Di Toro with whom he has recorded in a duo format (the 2016 album “From a Distant Past”) , so this new Harmony Less Quartet represents something of a departure for him. In this respect it could be said to be his most adventurous album to date.

Despite the presence of a clutch of jazz standards Starace and his colleagues adopt an agreeably contemporary approach to the project. Yes, there are traces of Mulligan’s methods in the music but there are also echoes of Ornette Coleman’s more radical approach to the chordless format too; and to these ears there are also hints of drummer Seb Rochford’s group Polar Bear with its twin tenor front line.

The album commences with the Starace original “Touch and Go”, which possesses an edgy, nervous energy that reminded me of Ornette Coleman. Pecked, skittering saxophone phrases distinguish the opening section with bass and drums locked in perfect synchronicity. The two reeds then stretch out more expansively on individual solos that are both fluent and highly inventive, Starace going first, later followed by O’Higgins. The rhythm section support the soloists brilliantly, the playing of both Liberti and Bellavia combines dynamism with invention and suppleness. Each is fully in tune with what the reeds are doing but each has plenty to say on their own account, as evidenced by Liberti’s solo, which convincingly commands the listener’s attention.

It’s Liberti’s bass that introduces “Medusa’s Charm”, another Starace original, but this time with a more languid and atmospheric feel that sometimes recalls Polar Bear. Wispy sax melodies are underscored by richly resonant double bass while Bellavia adopts more of a colourist’s role, with his mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers adding much to the atmosphere of the piece. This time the sax solos smoulder rather than burn as O’Higgins and Starace probe subtly but deeply.

Starace’s “Fugue in EB-” introduces a classical element to the proceedings with the two saxes working in tandem, alto and tenor blending sublimely above a subtly colourful rhythmic backdrop. Bassist Liberti takes the first solo, combining great dexterity with a strong melodic sensibility as Bellavia provides deft, delightfully nuanced drum commentary. The momentum increases with the subsequent sax solos from Starace and O’Higgins, both typically fluent, the latter really stretching out as the rhythm team up the energy levels. The piece then resolves itself with further variations on the main theme, the two reeds dovetailing beautifully.

The beguiling sounds of Liberti’s unaccompanied bass introduce the Starace composed title track. In time the bassist establishes the groove motif around which the track is centred as he and Bellavia combine to provide the platform for the beguiling saxophone interplay of Starace and O’Higgins, the pair dovetailing in mercurial fashion before embarking on thrilling individual solos. There’s also a drum feature for the excellent Bellavia who circumnavigates the kit with the support of Liberti’s underpinning bass pulse. The track resolves itself with twin saxophonists exchanging phrases on the outro.

After hearing four Starace originals back to back we now embark on a sequence of four ‘outside’ pieces commencing with Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle”. With Liberti again providing the anchor and with Bellavia supplying a bright and colourful drum commentary the two saxophonists enjoy a spirited dialogue in this playful and joyous group performance before once again embarking on their individual solos. There’s also a lively series of exchanges between the reeds and drummer Bellavia in an arrangement that stays true to Monk’s spirit,  embodying the composer’s quintessential quirkiness and impishness.

Next up is John Coltrane’s “Grand Central” which is also approached with gusto, the saxophonists exchanging loquacious solos and darting phrases above the agile accompaniment of Liberti’s rapid bass walk and the chatter of Bellavia’s drums.

The quartet adopt a similarly playful approach on Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone In Love”, which features an extended solo from the consistently impressive Liberti. Meanwhile the two saxophonists enjoy a series of lithe exchanges and equally lissom solos above the crisp and colourful drum patterns laid down by Bellavia.

The last of the outside items is Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be Bop” which is introduced by Bellavia at the kit and is tackled in suitably boppish fashion with a series of ebullient saxophone exchanges followed by vivacious individual solos punctuated by a series of vigorously brushed drum breaks.

The album closes with Starace’s own “Pass a Good Time”, which exhibits a Monkish playfulness, and maybe a hint Mingus too as Starace and O’Higgins tussle above a meaty bass line and colourful, busy drum groove. Each saxophonist also takes the chance to stretch out on his own with both players delivering thrilling solos. There’s a thoroughly absorbing bass feature from Liberti, too.

Featuring some excellent original writing in addition to skilful arrangements of well chosen standards “Narrow Escape” is a hugely enjoyable album from a very well balanced quintet. Starace and O’Higgins are a world class front line who complement each other well, whether working in tandem or making fluent individual statements. There’s always the sense that the saxophonists are part of a team, despite their strong individual identities, these tightly knit performances are from being ‘cutting contests’.

But there’s no sense of the quartet just being about the two reed men, Liberti and Bellavia are very much equal partners, fulfilling their rhythmic duties superbly while bringing plenty more to the party. Both are vital components of the group sound in a perfectly integrated quartet.

Starace’s own summing up of the album in his liner notes says it all;
“I’m extremely grateful to the incredible musicianship of Dave O’Higgins, Davide Liberti and Ruben Bellavia. Thanks to their brilliant performances and hard work this album has the virtuosity, musicality and energy that I wanted to bring alive in each of these compositions”.

Amen to that!

“Eleuthera All That Jazz”

Also recorded in 2018 “Eleuthera” is a very different type of album recorded with a very different band.

“Eleuthera All That Jazz” is an annual jazz festival held on the island of Eleuthera on the Atlantic edge of the Bahamas archipelago. It’s a fairly new festival, having been founded in 2013 by its chairwoman Patricia Oakes Leigh-Wood to help raise funds for the island’s historic Haynes Library. She supplies the album’s liner notes.

Reading between the lines it would seem that Starace has appeared at the Festival on a number of occasions and he is currently its musical director.

Although playing with numerous other musicians at the Festival Starace has established a regular Eleutheran quintet featuring Massimo Colombo on Fender Rhodes, Adrian D’Aguilar on bass, Kevin Dean on drums and Lamont Gibson on trumpet.  Colombo is from Italy, the other three are leading Bahamian musicians. Their album was recorded at a Nassau studio and features three compositions each from Starace and Colombo,  all written specifically for the Festival, plus arrangements of standards by Billy Strayhorn and Bud Powell.

The album is less intense than its companion and generally espouses a more straightforward approach, but with the electric piano and electric bass also bringing a hint of fusion, Latin and other elements to the proceedings. Things kick off with Starace’s lively, hard bop flavoured “Never Stop” which incorporates solos from the leader on alto and Colombo at the keyboard.

D’Aguilar’s bass introduces Colombo’s slyly playful Latin tinged composition “Colibri” which includes solos from Starace on alto and the composer on electric piano, plus something of a feature for Dean at the drums.

Starace’s “Blues for Eleuthera” is a genuine blues, punchy, funky and hard hitting with succinct solos from Gibson, who impresses on his first major outing, plus D’Aguilar and Starace.

Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is given a tender ballad reading with Gibson on muted trumpet and Colombo on shimmering electric piano. D’Aguilar and Dean provide suitably sympathetic rhythmic accompaniment while Starace features on gently sinuous soprano sax. Gibson briefly removes the mute to solo, but without disrupting the essential mood of the piece.

Colombo’s “Yellow Tune” presents a further example of the composer’s Latin flavoured funkiness. It’s another playful piece and one that features his own keyboards extensively alongside Gibson’s trumpet and Dean’s colourful drums and percussion.

Pianist Bud Powell’s much covered composition “Parisian Thoroughfare” is the album’s second standard and is treated to a lively bebop flavoured arrangement featuring Gibson’s fluent, agile trumpet soloing, quickly followed by Starace who displays similar qualities. The rhythm section negotiate the twists and turns of Powell’s composition with great skill and aplomb.

Colombo’s final offering with the pen is the ballad “Julie” which includes features for D’Aguilar’s languidly liquid electric bass and Starace’s gently incisive alto. The composer also solos on softly trilling Fender Rhodes.

The final piece is Starace’s “Cocodimama”, a joyously celebratory piece embracing African and Caribbean flavours and incorporating lively solos from Starace on alto,  Gibson on trumpet and Colombo at the keyboard. There is also something of a drum feature for the impressive Dean.

There is much to enjoy on the “Eleuthera” album and the recording is an excellent advertisement for, and celebration of, the Eleuthera All That Jazz Festival.

I have to admit to missing the sound of an acoustic piano, although one suspects that such instruments, especially good quality ones, are in rather short supply in the Bahamas.

Ultimately the “Eleuthera” album is a less essential listen than the excellent, and more tightly focussed, “Narrow Escape” but it does have its moments, particularly from Starace himself.

Starace will be returning to Eleuthera in 2019. Let’s hope he can get the Harmony Less Quartet out on the road in Britain, too. I’d love to see Starace and O’Higgins performing together in this format live.

Ian’s Star Ratings;

“Narrow Escape” 4 Stars, Recommended

“Eleuthera All That Jazz” 3.5 Stars

by Ian Mann

January 29, 2019

Ian Mann is educated and entertained by the first date of a tour celebrating the life and music of trumpeter Dizzy Reece performed by pianist Trevor Watkis and a stellar international quintet.

“Routes In Jazz;  A music retrospective of the great Jamaican trumpet icon Alphonso “Dizzy” Reece featuring the Trevor Watkis Quintet, CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 26/01/2019.

Trevor Watkis – piano, Byron Wallen – trumpet, Ralph Moore – tenor saxophone, Dezron Douglas – double bass, Willie Jones III – drums.

Tonight was the first date of a UK tour celebrating the life and music of the Jamaican born trumpeter and composer Alphonso Son “Dizzy” Reece.

Born in Kingston on 5th January 1931 Dizzy Reece is still very much with us, now aged eighty eight and living in The Bronx, New York City. His is a remarkable story, one that saw the seventeen year old Dizzy coming to the UK on the Windrush in 1948, landing in Liverpool and eventually settling in London where he performed with many of Britain’s leading jazz musicians. He also lived and worked in Paris, playing with expatriate American musicians such as saxophonist Dexter Gordon and Don Byas, an experience that eventually led him to relocate in 1959 to New York, the city that he still calls home.

My interest in tonight’s event was piqued by an email sent to me by the tour promoters, the London based Blue Soundscape Music and I’m grateful to both them and to Birmingham Town Hall / Symphony Hall for agreeing to place my wife and I on the guest list.

I’ll admit to knowing precious little about Dizzy Reece prior to this evening’s performance but even so his was a name that had been on my radar for a long time thanks to a couple of re-issued Victor Feldman albums on the Jasmine record label that I purchased long ago when I was first getting into jazz, probably sometime in the early 1980s.

Feldman (1934 -87), a British born pianist, vibraphonist and percussionist had made the move to the US in 1955. My two re-issues, “Transatlantic Alliance” and “Victor Feldman In London Vol. One; The Quartet” were recorded in 1956/7 with London based musicians and featured Feldman doubling on piano and vibes in a variety of different line ups. The personnel included Reece, fellow trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar, saxophonists Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott and drummer Phil Seaman, all true British jazz legends. Having come to jazz from a rock direction my interest in Feldman had been sparked by his appearances as a session musician on numerous albums by Steely Dan, particularly his wonderful electric piano solo on the song “Black Cow” from the album “Aja”.

However in terms of Dizzy Reece I feel that I’m now starting to digress. The second reason for attending tonight’s gig was the presence of a stellar international quintet assembled by pianist Trevor Watkis, brother of the acclaimed jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss.

Watkis had intentionally chosen a Transatlantic line up in an attempt to mirror Reece’s own career trajectory. Thus we had the All American rhythm section of Douglas and Jones together with the London born Anglo-American Moore, who moved to California in 1972 aged sixteen to live with his father. Moore attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to New York and and made his recorded début as a leader in 1985.  He is currently based in Los Angeles. I’d heard Moore’s playing before but had always assumed that he had been born and raised in the States.

Providing the British interest were Watkis and trumpeter Byron Wallen, the latter filling the role that it seems Reece himself was due to play. Reece is currently suffering from dental problems, a scourge common to trumpeters and saxophonists alike, but it’s always a pleasure to hear Wallen play and Watkis couldn’t have chosen a more able or appropriate deputy.

Besides the playing of five exceptional musicians tonight’s show also featured a strong visual element. A large screen was suspended above the band, upon which images relating to Dizzy Reece were projected. The great man was very much with us in spirit and thanks to the medium of modern technology he was also able to speak to us in a short film titled “One Love; Dizzy Reece” which was shown before a note was played. Speaking from his home in the Bronx Dizzy offered audiences New Year greetings, apologised for his absence due to those dental problems and told us something about his career, from coming to England on the Windrush to playing with Scott, Hayes, Feldman and others in London before making the move to New York.

Reece was filmed both at his home and in Franz Sigel Park in the Bronx, which had been laid out by Dizzy’s namesake, the Luxembourg born architect Louis Aloys Risse. The trumpeter explained that it was only a short walk across the bridge to Harlem, the district where he lived for many years.

Although less musically active in recent years Reece has become something of a polymath, writing book and screenplays and exhibiting as a painter. Examples of his artworks were shown, paintings that combined abstraction with Afro-Futurist imagery. These were striking, vibrant, colourful, thought provoking works that I would be happy to see more of.

Watkis filled us in with more biographical details,  informing us that Reece had once lived in Birmingham and then in Lancashire before making the move to London.

There were also audio snippets of archive interviews with Reece in which the trumpeter explained that he had started on the instrument aged eleven. “I had a revolutionary streak and an evolutionary streak” he declared, “that’s been the matrix for my music”.

The music of the American bebop revolution had reached Jamaica fairly early and Reece fell in love with the sound, presumably earning his nickname from a devotion to Dizzy Gillespie, with whom ha later worked. It was a music that he was first to explore in Europe and the in the US itself. Following his move to New York Reece was at one time a member of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and was himself signed to the Blue Note label on the recommendation of none other than Miles Davis.

As Watkis and the quintet began to play images were projected behind them, including photographs of Reece himself in performance plus those of some of the musicians he played with or was inspired by. Among those I recognised were the British contingent of Scott, Hayes and Feldman plus American icons such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and namesake Dizzy Gillespie.

There were also some terrific images of recordings that Reece had been involved with, including early British releases on the Tempo label founded by producer and jazz journalist Tony Hall. These included “A New Star” (1955/56) and “Progress Report” (1956-58). Reece’s Blue Note albums, featuring covers in the classic Blue Note style, were also depicted including 1960’s “Comin’ On”.
Later works for other labels included “Asia Minor” (1962), “Nirvana; The Zen of the Jazz Trumpet” (1968) “From In To Out” (1970) and Manhattan Project (1978), plus the Reece composed jazz themes for the soundtrack of the film “Nowhere To Go”.

Although he was never a prolific sideman there were also album covers featuring Reece’s work with others including Blakey, pianists Duke Jordan and Andrew Hill, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley and trombonist Slide Hampton.

Other visual images that evoked particular interest were photographs taken on board the Windrush, an endorsement for Beson trumpets, and a classic photograph from 1961 taken at an informal jazz summit in New York’s Central Park and featuring no fewer than twenty one famous trumpeters of the day. Reece is seated between Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie in an image to rival Art Kane’s iconic “A Great Day In Harlem” photograph, which had been taken just three years earlier.

The images circulated on a loop as Watkis and the quintet played, giving the audience plenty of time to absorb all the details of the photo-montage. Arguably the visuals, which even included photographs of tonight’s band,  were a little distracting at times but in general I found it quite easy to switch my attention between the screen and the stage.

As far as I’m aware most of the material that was performed was written by Reece, although at least one Watkis original featured in the second set. I had no idea that Reece had been such a prolific composer with much of tonight’s material written in the classic hard bop, Blue Note style. A piece would typically start with an infectious hook or theme, typically stated by the two horns working in unison, before shading off into individual solos with Wallen, Moore and Watkis featuring on every tune and with others sometimes including features for Douglas and Jones.

The standard of the playing from this hand picked international quintet was exceptional with a well balanced, hard swinging ensemble sound enhanced by wonderfully fluent and inventive solos. Wallen has long been a mainstay of the UK jazz scene, a versatile musician who is equally at home in a variety of jazz contexts, but who clearly relished the opportunity of flexing his hard bop muscles and demonstrating his flawless chops here.

Moore is a master of the hard bop style and has recorded numerous discs in the idiom under his own name as well as working as a sideman with many of the jazz greats, among them pianists Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, drummer Roy Haynes and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. He too was extremely impressive as he combined with, or traded solos with, Wallen.

Watkis is arguably less well known than his brother, Cleveland, but proved to be a versatile pianist, capably holding the quintet together but also cutting loose as a fluent and imaginative soloist. I have to confess to having heard little of him on record but I was impressed by his contribution here. Also an acclaimed jazz educator Watkis has worked with leading musicians from both sides of the Atlantic including UK saxophonists Jason Yarde and Tony Kofi and the American rhythm team of Reuben Rogers (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums).

Talking of rhythm teams I’d been fortunate enough to witness both Douglas and Jones perform live before, albeit not together. Both occasions occurred at the London Jazz Festival and both were at Ronnie Scott’s. Jones appeared there with the late, great Cedar Walton back in 2010, Douglas with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane two years later. Both impressed again tonight, particularly Jones who didn’t seem to have changed at all during the interim. Wiry and elegant he sat bolt upright behind the kit and drummed with a crisp, precise, swinging authority. He and the dexterous, propulsive Douglas, in conjunction with leader Watkis offered great support for the front line soloists. Wallen and Moore were given ample opportunity to fly with such a Rolls Royce rhythm section behind them. Meanwhile their individual bass and drum features were impressive and consistently absorbing.

For a reviewer the only thing missing tonight were actual tune announcements. Watkiss gave us plenty of biographical information about Reece but very few of the tunes were actually introduced by name. Of the four buoyant, fiercely swinging hard bop delights that we heard in the first half only “Rebound”, from Reece’s second Blue Note album, 1959’s “Star Bright” was actually named. I had hoped to button hole Watkis after the show to get a set list but by the time we had to leave nobody from the band had come out to the foyer.

If the focus in the first half had been very much on the hard bop, Blue Note sound the second set offered more variation. After a sturdy slice of more of the same to start the next piece began with a freely structured dialogue between Douglas’ bass and Watkis’ piano, these two subsequently joined by the sound of Wallen’s muted trumpet. Douglas’ bass motif and Jones’ rolling drum grooves then took the music into more modal, African influenced territory suggesting that Reece had adapted to the changes in jazz that Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others introduced in the 1960s. This provided the platform for a powerful solo from Wallen, now playing with an open bell, that combined stridency with fluency. Similarly impressive statements came from Moore and Watkis, plus the whip smart Jones at the drums.

With its piano trio introduction,  contrapuntal horn lines and expansive solos from Wallen, Moore and Watkis the pianist’s own “Star Gazing” offered something a little different, the piece written as a tribute to Reece and the trumpeter’s keen interest in astronomy.

Reece’s own “Big Fist”, written for Victor Feldman’s Big Band saw the quintet coming on like a mini version of that big beast in a dynamic performance featuring exuberantly racing horn lines and blazing solos from Wallen, Moore and Watkis plus a series of volcanic drum breaks from Jones that developed into a full blown solo, this rewarded with a terrific reception from the crowd.

Watkis himself introduced the final piece at the piano, his percussive motif answered by Douglas’ bass and then continuing throughout the tune in mesmeric, hypnotic fashion as he underpinned the squalling counterpoint of the horns. Presumably the piece was written by Reece, but it had something of an air of Monk or Mingus about it, I suspect it may have been called “Variations On Monk”.

The lack of tune titles aside, probably less of a concern to the other audience members than to myself, this was a hugely enjoyable performance that both entertained and educated. I came out of the concert knowing a lot more about Dizzy Reece than I had done previously. His musical story truly is a remarkable one and despite his physical absence he was still very much the star of the show.

Not that this detracts in any way from the contribution of Watkis and the quintet who played Reece’s music (and that of Watkis) with passion, skill and grace. This was a very classy outfit.

Tonight was the first night of the tour and I suspect that the presentation may become more polished as the tour progresses. There were no reservations about the playing though, which was terrific throughout.

This is a show that is both entertaining and educational and features a specially selected Anglo-American line up that is unlikely to be seen again any time soon.

The remaining British dates on the tour are listed below. The Routes In Jazz tour is also due to visit the USA and, of course, Jamaica.

30.01.19 - Manchester, England - Band On The Wall
31.01.19 - London, England – Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
01.05.19 – Nottingham, England – Lakeside Arts

 

by Ian Mann

December 14, 2018

Ian Mann enjoys the final day of the Festival and performances by Flying Machines, the Monty Alexander Trio and Bill Laurance and the WDR Big Band conducted by Bob Mintzer.

Photograph of Bill Laurance and the WDR Big Band conducted by Bob Mintzer
by Tim Dickeson


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL,
Sunday 25th November 2018

FLYING MACHINES, SPICE OF LIFE, SOHO

For me, the final day of the Festival commenced with this lunchtime show at The Spice Of Life by Flying Machines, the quartet led by guitarist and composer Alex Munk.

The band’s name draws on the inspiration of the leader’s late father Roger Munk, the man regarded as “the father of the modern technology airship” - or “Hybrid Air Vehicle” as they are now more commonly referred to. Honoured by the Royal Aeronautical Society Roger Munk worked with enormous lighter than air machines “bigger than football pitches and capable of flying at 20,000 ft. for weeks at a time”.  HAV, the company that he founded in 2007 is currently flight testing the world’s largest ever air vehicle.

Alex Munk studied at Leeds College of Music and at the Royal Academy of Music in London and he retains close ties to both institutions. It’s these links that have led to a busy career as a highly adaptable and in demand sideman.

In 2016 Munk made his recording début as a leader with the release of the first, eponymous Flying Machines album. It was a record that attracted considerable critical acclaim and in 2018 the band consolidated their success with the release of their second album “New Life”, which built upon the success of its predecessor and also received a very positive response from the critics. Flying Machines have also earned an excellent reputation as an exciting live act and I was very much looking forward to seeing them live for the first time after having favourably reviewed both of their albums.

Today’s performance saw Munk leading album personnel Matt Robinson (piano, keyboards), Conor Chaplin (five string electric bass) and Dave Hamblett (drums). Like Scottish drummer Alyn Cosker at the Pizza Express Jazz Club the previous Tuesday Munk didn’t shy away from referring to his band’s music as ‘fusion’, indeed he made liberal use of that particular f-word throughout the set.

The band were full of confidence and raring to go following a successful album launch event at the Pizza and blasted straight off into “Fall In” from the new album with Chaplin’s springy, buoyant electric bass lines and Hamblett’s muscular, rock influenced drumming fuelling fiery solos from Munk on guitar and Robinson on electric piano.

From the group’s first album “Bliss Out” was described by Munk as “Katy Perry meets Wayne Krantz with a hint of an Irish jig”. The latter component emerged out of Robinson’s keyboard texturing and riffing but it was Munk’s soaring solo that really caught the ear, the guitarist demonstrating an adroit command of dynamics.

From the new album “Moondust” demonstrated a gentler side of the band as it evolved from an atmospheric introduction featuring Hamblett’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Spacey guitar and keyboard FX then set the mood for Robinson’s acoustic piano solo.

The new album contains several spontaneously improvised episodes, this being an area of music making that the group wish to develop further. Today both “Moondust” and “New Life” emerged from such improvisations with the album title track a barnstorming demonstration of the band’s ability to blend jazz sophistication with a raw rock power as some truly gargantuan riffing was allied to equally powerful soloing. This was a hugely exciting and exhilarating way to round off a rather brief first set, but the band were to stretch out further and longer in the second half.

“Tracks”, the opening piece from the quartet’s début, opened the second set and was a worthy successor to a great British fusion tradition that includes such fondly remembered acts as Isotope, Brand X and Hatfield & The North. The blend of acoustic piano and electric guitar as Robinson and Munk shared the solo was also reminiscent of The Impossible Gentlemen, the contemporary Anglo-American quartet featuring one of Munk’s acknowledged influences, the great Mancunian guitarist Mike Walker.

From the new album “Elation” was initially quieter and more lyrical with the sound of acoustic piano blending with liquid electric bass. Chaplin subsequently combined with Hamblett to establish a muscular off kilter groove as the piece progressed, with solos coming from Robinson on acoustic piano and Hamblett at the drum kit prior to a more subdued finish featuring just guitar and piano.

An element of reflection continued with Robinson’s unaccompanied acoustic piano introduction to “Peace Offering” from the first Flying Machines album. Chaplin and Hamblett then combined to generate a groove that framed the solos from Munk on guitar and Robinson on piano, the pair seamlessly trading ideas above a backdrop of chunky riffing.

Also from the début “Lighter Than Air”, the title a nod towards Roger Munk, served as a feature for Chaplin’s fluid, fluent electric bass soloing as Robinson doubled on electric and acoustic keyboards, soloing on electric piano. The final solo went to Munk on gently spiralling electric guitar.

Returning to the new album Flying Machines rounded things off with a segue of “Bullet Train” and “Take Time”, the final two tracks on “New Life”. “Bullet Train” originated as a studio improvisation but was so successful that it has since become part of the group’s repertoire. Representing an example of “improvised composition” it began here with Munk’s guitar scratching and pedal generated FX. Chaplin then established a Hugh Hopper like bass groove that underscored Munk’s drifting, Floyd like guitar as Hamblett slowed down his hitherto busy drumming style to embrace a lugubrious Nick Mason-like tempo. A beautifully melodic electric bass solo from Chaplin was followed by Robinson on acoustic piano and Munk on guitar as the piece developed slowly and organically to embrace a truly anthemic quality that mirrored the dynamics of much contemporary rock music.

A sell out crowd in the intimate confines of the Spice roared their approval and summoned the band back for a quick encore, a short, but highly appropriate, version of “Stratosphere” from their début.

This was a highly exciting and enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon and I was highly impressed by the Flying Machines live experience. The quartet played without the benefit of sheet music but were commendably tight and had obviously ‘played these tunes in’. That said there was still ample scope for improvisation with several pieces differing substantially from their recorded versions. Blending power with precision Flying Machines were loud and combined something of the visceral power of rock with the braininess of jazz. As I’ve said before this is a band capable of a broad appeal if given the right exposure.

Congratulations to Flying Machines and also to the Spice Of Life venue which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018. Well done to Paul Pace who co-ordinates and introduces the jazz programme and my thanks to him for arranging press tickets for my wife and myself.

It was good to meet with Paul and also with label owner Martin Hummel and publicist Emma Perry of Ubuntu Music, for whom “New Life” was recorded. Martin and Emma are building Ubuntu into a highly successful British label with a strong individual identity that is rapidly becoming a significant and very welcome presence on the UK jazz scene, alongside the more established Edition and Whirlwind imprints. Congratulations to them.


MONTY ALEXANDER TRIO, CADOGAN HALL

Over at Sloane Square the veteran Jamaican born, US based pianist and composer Monty Alexander was playing with his trio.

The Flying Machines show had taken off at 1.30pm with Monty’s show kicking off at four. The Alexander Trio were due to be supported by the Tomorrow’s Warriors Female Front Line. I knew timings would be tight and largely expected to miss the support act at Cadogan but still hoped to catch the whole of Alexander’s set after the interval.

This was exactly how things panned out. There was less than ten minutes to go of the Warriors set when I arrived at Cadogan so I decided to wait for the interval and just watch the last knockings of the Warriors show on the TV monitors in the foyer.

The nine piece all female ensemble were playing a reggae flavoured brand of jazz that was clearly being very much enjoyed by the audience inside the hall. A set piece exit which saw the band members leaving the stage individually heralded the conclusion of what had obviously been a very popular show.

Montgomery Bernard Alexander, known to all as Monty, was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1944. He began learning classical piano aged four before discovering jazz in his early teens, with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong significant early influences.

In 1961, aged just seventeen, he moved to the US, settling first in Miami, making a name for himself on that city’s music scene before moving on to New York. During the course of a long and illustrious career Alexander has played with many American jazz greats, most notably vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown.

Besides establishing himself on the US jazz scene Alexander also toured regularly in Europe, establishing a large and loyal following this side of the pond for his hugely accomplished playing and highly entertaining live performances.

Although emphatically a jazz pianist first and foremost Alexander has never forgotten his Jamaican roots and has regularly integrated the sounds of calypso and reggae into his music, working regularly with the versatile Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. Jamaica has never forgotten Alexander either and he holds an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies and the Jamaican honour of Commander of Distinction. Today’s show was introduced by Alexander’s nephew, who informed us of these awards.

Alexander’s preferred working format has always been the piano trio and he has worked with many of the world’s leading bassists and drummers over the years. His current group features JJ Shakur on double bass and Justin Brown at the drums and the three of them were clustered almost uncomfortably close together on the Cadogan Hall’s huge stage.

As well as being a brilliant pianist Alexander is also a born entertainer and even on the opening number, appropriately titled “Hello”, he was encouraging the audience to clap along with Brown’s drum beats at the appropriate moments. But there was plenty of genuine jazz too, with fluent solos from Alexander and Shakur supported by Brown’s crisply propulsive brush work.

The pianist brought an element of calypso to a lively version of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”, liberally peppering his solo with quotes and allusions while Brown added an entertaining drum feature.

Alexander is also a talented composer and much of the programme consisted of originals, including “Renewal” with its themes of reminiscence and a fresh start. With its solo piano introduction allied to melancholic arco bass and mallet rumbles the start of this piece was unexpectedly sombre but the irrepressible Alexander isn’t the kind of character to stay mournful for long. The second half of the piece found him soloing joyously above an infectious bass and drum groove and feigning boredom during the course of Shakur’s bass solo, I guess he’s heard the quotes from “Eleanor Rigby” and other pop songs before.

Between tunes Alexander regaled us with anecdotes from his colourful life, his childhood in Jamaica, the move to Miami and so on. He’s clearly a man with a following and his audience lapped all this up.

The programme included excerpts from Alexander’s “Jamaica Suite”, among them a ska and reggae flavoured tribute to Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, the Jamaican record producer who contributed much to the success of both genres.

By way of contrast Alexander’s “The River” was a beautifully descriptive ballad with Alexander’s gently rippling arpeggios during the introduction approximating the sound of running water. This evolved into a yearning melody with Shakur and the brush wielding Brown offering sensitive support. In its closing stages the tune became more vivacious, echoing the liveliness of the upper stages of a young river.

Another tune inspired by nature was the episodic “Hurricane”, Alexander’s musical response to Hurricane Charlie which devastated Jamaica in 1951. “Ours was the only house left standing, our neighbours all came over and drank all the whisky” the pianist told us. A gentle intro featuring the sound of bowed bass represented the calm before the storm. Brown’s thunderous mallet rumbles and cymbal crashes then signalled the arrival of the tempest while Alexander’s rollicking piano solo, including a quote from Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, captured something of the whisky drinking episode. Finally Brown delivered a rousing drum feature, his percussive violence mirroring that of the storm.

Alexander told us tales of performing at Jilly’s night club in New York with Frank Sinatra sitting in the audience drinking Jack Daniels and hanging out with members of “The Mob”. This era was represented by “Blues For Jilly”, a blistering slice of blues boogie featuring playful quotes from “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and even “Rock Around The Clock”. A supremely fluent soloist steeped in jazz and bebop Alexander tosses these amusing musical asides in seamlessly, a sense of fun pervading everything he does. Not taking himself too seriously he retains a very Caribbean sensibility.

The Sinatra episode was represented by a delightful version of a suitably nocturnal sounding “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” with Shakur featuring strongly as a soloist.

To close Alexander paid tribute to Jamaica’s most famous musical son, the late, great Bob Marley with his arrangement of “No Woman, No Cry” which combined sophisticated jazz chording with an irresistible reggae lilt.

The audience loved it and hollered for an encore, Alexander returning alone to sing “Just Too Marvellous” while accompanying himself at the piano. “I ain’t no singer”, he confessed, which frankly was true, but the majority of his adoring following didn’t seem to mind.

Shakur and Brown then returned with the second encore item proving to be Rodrigo’s “ Concerto de Aranjuez”, a surprising choice I thought initially, before recalling Alexander’s love of the music of Miles Davis. With Shakur and Brown offering sympathetic support this was really rather lovely but Alexander still wasn’t finished. A return to calypso with the “Banana Boat” song found Alexander soloing on melodica as audience members danced in the balcony.

This show represented something of a last minute choice for me. I was worried that I might find Alexander’s music a bit too mainstream, even a bit ‘old hat’ but I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this performance. Alexander may be an unapologetic entertainer and a bit of a ‘character’ but he’s also a prodigiously talented jazz pianist and an effortlessly fluent soloist. An innate musicality underpins everything he does and he was backed by a well balanced trio who offered him terrific support.

It was easy to see how Alexander’s superb playing technique allied to his easy going personality has made him so popular with audiences, even those who might not regularly listen to jazz. I suspect that for many of the people in the audience today this was their only gig of the Festival. For myself today’s performance was something of a welcome bonus and change from some of the more esoteric things I’d seen during the Festival period.

On this evidence I’d be more than happy to see Alexander again and to check out his extensive back catalogue too.


BILL LAURANCE & THE WDR BIG BAND, QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL


I usually like to take in at least one large ensemble performance at EFG LJF. Thus far the biggest band I’d seen was Jonny Mansfield’s eleven piece Elftet the previous Sunday at the 606.

The prospect of Snarky Puppy keyboard player Bill Laurance teaming up with the crack WDR BIG Band was too good to resist and my last gig of the Festival found me once more at the QEH.

British born Laurance was a founder member of the phenomenally successful US band Snarky Puppy and still works with that group, but he has also established a parallel career as a solo artist, prolific session musician and as a composer for ballet and other forms of dance.

As a solo artist he has released three studio albums “Flint” (2014), “Swift” (2015) and “Aftersun” (2016). “Live At Union Chapel” was also released in 2016 and features a core trio of Laurance plus Snarky Puppy members Michael League (bass) and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight (drums).

The WDR Big Band hails from Cologne, Germany, and was first established in 1946. Many famous musicians have passed through its ranks and it has had several bandleaders during the course of its existence. Currently the band is led by the American tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, of Yellowjackets fame. Since 1984 the band has recorded regularly with leading American and European jazz musicians, establishing a sizeable discography in the process.

The majority of tonight’s programme were piece sourced from Laurance’s solo albums, most of them arranged for big band by Mintzer. The WDR is one of the best contemporary big bands in the business, a slick well oiled machine populated by a clutch of supremely accomplished musicians, many of them superb soloists. The WDR sported a classic big band line up featuring five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, guitar, bass, drums, percussion and a second keyboard player who augmented and complemented Laurance.

With the reeds players doubling on various saxes, flutes and clarinets the band sound was rich and varied and the vibrant, colourful opener included sparkling solos from Laurance on acoustic piano and one of the band’s tenor saxophonists with a powerful offering. The names of the soloists were often drowned out by the applause, plus my German isn’t so good, so apologies for that.

“The Rush” was more overtly funky and featured electric bass as drums and percussion worked in tandem to develop a groove that fuelled solos from the WDR’s keyboard player on electric piano, plus one of the trombonists.

“Swag Times” featured Laurance on electric keyboards, who soloed on electric piano but the instrumental honours went to alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer who delivered a brilliant solo that reminded me of the sound of the late, great Phil Woods.

Laurance and Mintzer shared the announcements and the latter was featured as a soloist on the next piece, his tenor playing both fluent and powerful.

“Aftersun” was inspired by the cosmologist Carl Sagan, the arrangement featuring muted brass allied to flutes and clarinet. The languid arrangement with its minimalist keyboard motifs eventually expanded into wide-screen big band magnificence with Paul Shigihara’s stratospheric electric guitar solo providing a fitting climax.

The first set concluded with the title track of “Swift”, the composition apparently inspired by the bird of the same name. This wasn’t immediately obvious from the initially sombre arrangement with Laurance’s ‘sinister’ (his word) acoustic piano accompanied by the low end sounds of tuba, trombone and contrabass clarinet. A bass trombone solo evoked memories of Ashley Slater of Loose Tubes or even the great Rico Rodriguez but it was with Strassmayer’s incisive and impassioned alto solo that the music finally took flight.

The start of the second half saw Laurance come out alone to explain his admiration for the music of his musical idol Herbie Hancock and to talk about his interest in Buddhism. All this served to demonstrate his increasing interest in the art of improvisation as he played a wholly improvised introduction to the Snarky Puppy tune “Silver” dedicating the improvised element to “the moment, and to Herbie”. This improvised episode was largely quiet and contemplative but later included some showy classical flourishes.

Laurance’s British roots were acknowledged on “Denmark Hill” which included solos for Laurance on acoustic piano, one of WDR’s trumpeters and the estimable Mintzer on tenor.

“Money In The Desert”, written at Dubai Airport, combined low end brass and reed sounds with insistent funky grooves and included solos from the WDR keyboardist on Rhodes, plus the same tenor player that had earlier excelled on “The Good Things”.

“Golden Hour”, inspired by a sunset in the South of France was the only true balled of the evening and featured Laurance at his most lyrical on acoustic piano. There was also a delightful flugel horn solo with the WDR band member displaying a Kenny Wheeler like grace and fluency.

The WDR’s percussionist, who impressed throughout, was featured on tabla and konnakol on the infectiously rhythmic “Ready Wednesday” with Laurance featuring on electric keyboards and Mintzer soloing on tenor.

Encore “Red Sand” featured a mix of hip hop and Latin grooves, syncopated horn lines topped by piccolo and Laurance soling on acoustic piano. Bassist John Goldsby, who had anchored the performance throughout was also afforded a brief electric bass cameo.

This had been an excellent performance with Laurance’s hooky, accessible tunes lending themselves well to the format of the big band but with the electric elements helping to retain a contemporary relevance.

Laurance hosted the show with considerable personal charm, obviously thrilled at having his tunes arranged by such a respected figure as Mintzer and having them played by such a terrific band. In some ways he was like a younger Monty Alexander as he told us about his meetings with Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. But there was also a political element too as he railed against Brexit, much to the approval of the crowd. Unfortunately he was probably preaching to the converted.


FESTIVAL SUMMARY

I can safely say that I enjoyed every performance that I witnessed at the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival, the venues ranging from clubs to concert halls and with the music crossing jazz genres and formats, from Bill Frisell’s solo guitar performance to the massed ranks of Bill Laurance and the WDR Big Band. Once again the cast of musicians was truly international and there were also a significant number of female led bands. I also have to say that I enjoyed the National Jazz Archive’s ‘Women In Jazz’ exhibition at the Barbican Music Library, which will remain open until the end of the year.

There were many exceptional performances but if I had to single out just one it would be Avishai Cohen’s trio at The Barbican.

There were no real disappointments other than the cancellation of the National Youth Jazz Collective event at The Vortex.

I also missed the early evening events at Ray’s Jazz at Foyle’s which have produced so much good music in recent years and given a ‘leg up’ to some of the rising stars of the current jazz scene such as Nerija and Ezra Collective. Given that Foyle’s now boasts an impressive performance space on the top floor let’s hope a way can be found to being the ‘Six o’Clock Jazz’ strand back next year.

Overall though another great Festival, congratulations to Serious and to all the individual venues concerned. Roll on EFG LJF 2019.

 

 

by Ian Mann

December 12, 2018

Ian Mann on a diverse day of musical performances including those of Ranjana Ghatak, Hilde Marie Holsen, Ivo Neame / Pete Wareham Duo, Trish Clowes' My Iris and the Avishai Cohen Trio.

Photograph of Avishai Cohen by Tim Dickeson


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL,
Saturday 24th November 2018

DAYLIGHT MUSIC FEATURING ALBATROSS SAXOPHONE QUARTET, RANJANA GHATAK, HILDE MARIE HOLSEN and IVO NEAME / PETE WAREHAM DUO – UNION CHAPEL, ISLINGTON

For thirty Saturdays of the year the Daylight Music organisation stages lunchtime events at the Union Chapel in Islington. These pay what you can events (suggested donation a mere fiver) present an eclectic mix of music across a range of genres ranging from jazz to folk to classical.

During the period of the EFG London Jazz Festival the events are presented under the Festival umbrella and take on a distinctive jazz tinge. I was sorry to miss the previous week’s event featuring the Norwegian keyboard player Sigbjorn Apeland (of the band 1982) playing the Chapel organ alongside other performers keyboard player Danalogue and baritone saxophonist Helen Papaionniou.

Usually presenting three ‘headline acts’ plus additional interval music Daylight Music is something like a live version of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, such is the diversity and eclecticism of the programming, which is undertaken and presented by Ben Eshmade of the promoters Arctic Circle.

RANJANA GHATAK

Today’s programme had a loose ‘drones’ theme and the first artist to be featured was the London based vocalist Ranjana Ghatak singing Indian devotional music and accompanying herself on the North Indian drone instrument the tanpura.

Born in London of Bengali heritage Ghatak has immersed herself in both Indian and Western music and has worked extensively with jazz musicians such as drummer Sebastian Rochford and bassist Liran Donin. She and Donin are due to release an album together in 2019.

However for today’s performance she concentrated firmly on the Indian classical repertoire and the mood of the music was meditative and devotional. Ghatak performed seated on the floor of the stage cradling her tanpura, the drone of which underscored her pure but emotive singing, the lyrics delivered in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. The repertoire included classical ragas plus one Ghatak original in the same vein, inspired by the writings of a 15th century Indian mystic.

The acoustics of the magnificent 19th century Union Chapel were particularly well suited to this devotional music of another religion and the performance was undeniably beautiful and strangely restful.

ALBATROSS SAXOPHONE QUARTET

It’s a Daylight tradition that the music never stops, even when the necessary changeovers are being executed on the main stage. Today the ‘background’ or ‘interval’ music came from the Albatross Saxophone Quartet, a group of young musicians from London’s Guildhall School of Music. All the main members of the saxophone family were represented – tenor, alto, soprano, baritone – with the quartet playing pieces from the classical saxophone repertoire. I did try to check out the personnel on line so I could give each of them due credit but the only name I could find was that of Sophie Burrows (baritone) who appears to be the group leader and doubles up on alto in other contexts. Like the rest of the audience I probably wasn’t listening to them as closely as I should have been, but still enjoyed what I heard.

HILDE MARIE HOLSEN

Next to take to the main stage was the young Norwegian trumpeter and electronic musician Hilde Marie Holsen. Signed to the Hubro record label Holsen has released two solo albums, 2015’s “Ask” and 2018’s “Lazuli”.

Holsen’s music, featuring the sound of her processed trumpet, was again well suited to the acoustics and atmosphere of Union Chapel. Utilising an array of foot pedals and a variety of table mounted electronic devices Holsen mutated the sound of her horn into something ethereal and beautiful, making extensive use of drones and glitches.

Inevitably I found myself making comparisons with her compatriot Arve Henriksen’s contribution to the performance by Supersilent at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the previous evening. It’s likely that Henriksen has been a profound influence on Holsen, as have Nils Petter Molvaer and Jon Hassell, one suspects.

Holsen’s brief performance here was less varied than Supersilent’s and considerably less intense but one suspects that Holsen was restricted in terms of both time and location. Daylight Music is a relaxed, family friendly event and conjuring up music as scary and violently abrasive as Supersilent had done at some points in their performance probably wasn’t a good idea in this context. Instead Holsen intentionally sought to create a more relaxed atmosphere, one of tranquillity and quiet beauty. Her coolly elegant trumpet playing and subtle, nuanced soundscaping created an ambience that the audience could relax into and immerse themselves in.

Today’s performance was little more than a taster for Holsen’s art. I enjoyed what I heard but found her music a little tepid and one dimensional in comparison to Supersilent. That said I’d readily take the opportunity of hearing her albums or of taking in a full length live performance where the full range of her skills could be appreciated. One suspects that in less restricted circumstances she is capable of producing music with a broader sonic, dynamic and emotional range than we heard in this brief ‘taster’.

IVO NEAME / PETE WAREHAM DUO

Many of the people who were present today were here speccificallyto check out this intriguing duo performance by two of the most influential British jazz musicians of recent years.

Ivo Neame is best known as the pianist of the Anglo-Scandinavian trio Phronesis who had shared the bill with Supersilent at the Barbican the previous evening.

Saxophonist Pete Wareham made his name as the leader of the groups Acoustic Ladyland and Melt Yourself Down. He has also worked extensively with Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear and has recently been observed collaborating with the Mercury Music Prize nominated singer, guitarist and songwriter Nadine Shah.

2017’s EFG LJF / Daylight Music collaboration included an inspired duet between Kit Downes playing the Chapel organ and Matthew Bourne on grand piano. Downes has regularly played the Chapel’s splendid three manual ‘Father Willis’ organ but for Neame it was the first time behind the console of this magnificent instrument.

Church organ / saxophone duets are unusual but not unique. Precedents include Downes and Tom Challenger, Dave Stapleton and Deri Roberts and Jan Garbarek and Kjell Johnsen.

Understandably the opening exchanges here were a little tentative, particularly as the organ was hidden away behind the pulpit and Neame and Wareham, the latter specialising on tenor sax, were denied eye contact. But gradually the pair grew in confidence as Neame began to explore the full sonic and orchestral possibilities of the organ, creating appropriately church like sonorities and toying with elements of wilful dissonance.

Wareham is known as a powerful and aggressive saxophonist but today found him at his most quiet and subtle as he soloed softly against a backdrop of Neame’s organ generated bass lines.

Both musicians enjoyed unaccompanied solo sections but it was the moments in which they came together, instinctively finding the same wavelength, that were the most absorbing. At these moments the duo’s music seemed to fill this magnificent space and became truly immersive – definitely the word of the day.

Neame and Wareham were the undoubted highlight of today’s Daylight Music programme (incredibly the 295th) although it’s probably fair to say that they didn’t quite hit the heights that Downes and Bourne had done a year previously.

Nevertheless both had risen magnificently to the challenge, on what was probably their first collaboration together, certainly in this context and with Neame getting to grips with the ‘Father Willis’ for the first time. The success of today’s event suggested that this was an experiment that deserves to be repeated.

It marked the start of a busy day for Neame who was off to perform with Phronesis at Cambridge Jazz Festival that same evening.

Daylight Music is a great institution and one that I would attend on a regular basis if I actually lived in London. As it is my now annual visits to the wonderful space that is Union Chapel are becoming something of an EFG LJF highlight. Long may the collaborations between EFG LJF and Daylight Music continue.

I had planned to visit The Vortex for the afternoon performance by the National Youth Jazz Collective and decided to walk to the venue rather than taking the Overground. A brisk walk found me in Gillett Square at around 2.50 pm with the performance due to start at 3.00 pm.

I was extremely disappointed to find the Vortex closed and the performance apparently cancelled. It was unfortunate that I was not to be able to make my annual visit to my favourite London jazz club. If I had known about the cancellation I would have attended the Jazz New Blood event at Waterloo Creative Studios (Iklectik) instead.

Still every cloud has a silver lining and having walked up Upper Street I decided to ‘get my steps up’ and walk back to our Islington base via Essex Road. Thus I stumbled upon the second hand record shop Flashback, which includes an excellent jazz section. This is likely to become a place of regular pilgrimage in subsequent years. Flashback also has branches in Bethnal Green and Crouch Hill.

NEXT GENERATION TAKES OVER, BARBICAN FREESTAGE

The main event of the evening at the Barbican was in the main hall where bassist Avishai Cohen and his trio were due to revisit their 2008 breakthrough album “Gently Disturbed”.

More on that later as first we were to enjoy the sound of two young ensembles on the Barbican Freestage. The Jazzmann has always sought to encourage young, up and coming jazz musicians, hence today’s aborted trip to the Vortex and the coverage in previous years of the Jazz New Blood events at Iklectik and the NYJO Jazz Jam at Ray’s Jazz at Foyles.

The opening slot at today’s Next Generation Takes Over event featured the students of the Julian Joseph Jazz Academy, founded by the noted pianist, composer and radio presenter. Various bands from the Academy were presented playing a variety of music ranging from Latin jazz to standards such as Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”, Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and McCoy Tyner’s “Inner Urge”.

The students of the JJJA are tutored by such respected musicians as Joseph himself plus saxophonist Tony Kofi, trumpeter Byron Wallen, trombonist Trevor Mires and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss. With mentors of this quality teaching them it should perhaps have come as no surprise to find that the ensemble playing was of the highest quality and the individual soloing consistently excellent. Young vocalist Harriet also impressed with her delivery of a number of Great American Songbook tunes.

The JJJA were followed by students of the Camden Jazz Hub who were accompanied by their tutors Claude Deppa (trumpet), Joy Ellis (piano) and Sam Agard (percussion), all of them acclaimed educators. The students here were younger than those of the JJJA and more obviously learning their instruments, hence the performance was less slick and polished than the JJJA’s had been.

Nevertheless it was still great fun with the irrepressible Deppa consistently encouraging his students and also coaxing a readily supportive audience into getting involved, clapping along with the music and generally giving these young musicians plenty of positive encouragement. The material included the joyous Township sounds of Deppa’s native South Africa plus an infectious, audience friendly version of Sonny Rollins’ jazz calypso “St. Thomas”.

It would perhaps have been better if the younger musicians of the Camden Jazz Hub had been allowed to play first with the more professional sounding JJJA going second. I did wonder if that was because some of the Academy students have already reached a professional standard and had gigs elsewhere during the evening.

Nevertheless I’m sure that all the young musicians from both institutions got a great deal out of this gig, as did the appreciative Barbican audience who got involved and who approached the music with great warmth and a real generosity of spirit.


TRISH CLOWES’ MY IRIS / AVISHAI COHEN TRIO, BARBICAN HALL


TRISH CLOWES’ MY IRIS

The ‘support slot’ in the main hall was filled by the British saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes with her My Iris quartet featuring Chris Montague on guitar, Ross Stanley on Hammond organ and piano and James Maddren at the drums.

The group takes its name from Clowes’ 2017 album “My Iris”, arguably her best recording to date, from which came that album’s opening track “One Hour”, a paean to “the extra hour of dreaming you get when the clocks go back”.  The piece was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Montague, this joined by the leader’s tenor sax, Stanley’s organ drones and the rumble of Maddren’s mallets. Stanley moved to piano as the main theme kicked in and Clowes soloed on tenor sax followed by Montague on guitar and Stanley at the keyboard. One of Clowes’ most accessible pieces, despite its considerable complexities, this was a piece that quickly got the near sell out crowd at the 1900 capacity Barbican onside. Playing to nearly 2000 people was a far cry from the last time that I saw these musicians playing to an audience of less then fifty at the Emulsion Festival at the tiny Hexagon Theatre at Birmingham’s Midlands Arts Centre.

Clowes has never been an artist to stand still and the next item was a segue of pieces from the group’s forthcoming album, due for release in 2019.

“Lightning Les”, named for the Leslie cabinet accompanying Stanley’s Hammond B3, again began impressionistic ally with the sound of spacey organ and shimmering cymbals but Maddren’s drum groove soon moved the music somewhere else as Clowes dug in, soloing in forthright manner on tenor sax. Stanley then unleashed that beast of a Hammond with a soulful organ solo before handing back to Clowes’ tenor.
Montague’s guitar solo drew on elements ranging from the jazz avant garde to prog rock and provided the link into the song “Free To Fall” which featured Clowes’ vocalising. Poetry and literature have always been a source of inspiration for Clowes with words have increasingly finding their way into her compositions. Here semi-sung, semi-spoken lyrics extolling the virtues of honesty and humility were intoned against a backdrop of church like Hammond prior to instrumental solos from Clowes on tenor, Stanley on piano and Montague on guitar.

This intriguing preview of Clowes’ next recording was well received by the enormous crowd, but unfortunately this signalled the end of an all too short set.

Despite its brevity the show had been a triumph for Clowes and her colleagues and the sales of “My Iris” and other recordings were correspondingly brisk during the break. I eventually got the chance to congratulate Trish and Chris on their performances in front of the largest audience they’d ever played to. The guitarist admitted that he hadn’t actually felt nervous until they had come off stage and he suddenly realised the enormity of what they had just accomplished.

Trish Clowes remains one of the most inquisitive musicians in British jazz, consistently moving across musical genres and introducing the influence of other artistic disciplines to her sound. She and her band won many new fans tonight thanks to the quality of their brief performance and the release of her new album will be awaited with much interest.


AVISHAI COHEN TRIO

Tonight’s performance by the Avishai Cohen Trio was something of a late addition to my Festival wish list, but it’s an addition that I’m very glad I made.

I’ll admit to not knowing a great deal about Cohen’s music prior to tonight’s gig. I remember him making something of a breakthrough as a member of pianist Chick Corea’s Origins band but was largely ignorant of his solo career. However I’d heard a lot of good things about the man and his music and the presence of the great Mark Guiliana on drums pretty much swung the deal for me.

Born in Israel in 1970 Cohen moved to New York in the early 1990s, making his leadership début in 1998 and establishing his own Razdaz record label in 2003, around the time he finally left Corea’s employment. He has since established a successful solo career, earning something of a cult following in the process. Tonight’s gig got the same sort of enthusiastic reaction (there was plenty of whooping) as those by jazz superstars such as Pat Metheny. Cohen is something of a showman and is evidently a musician with a huge following.

Tonight’s concert was a celebration of one of Cohen’s most acclaimed recordings, the 2008 release “Gently Disturbed” featuring the trio of Cohen, Guiliana and pianist Shai Maestro. The original trio reconvened tonight to re-interpret this milestone recording, an album that has been acclaimed as a profound influence on the bass led Anglo-Scandinavian trio Phronesis.

The show wasn’t quite a straight run through of the celebrated album but the evening did commence with the solo piano introduction of opening track “Seattle”, Maestro subsequently being joined by Cohen and Guiliana with the leader rapidly embarking on his first solo of the night, an immediate demonstration of his status as a virtuoso double bass soloist.

The album’s second track, “Chutzpan”, saw the trio moving up the gears with a busy, energetic display of tightly interactive music making featuring dazzlingly executed unison passages and virtuoso solos from Maestro and Cohen with the bassist also making use of the body of his instrument as a form of percussion, augmenting Guiliana’s already hyper-active drumming.

In a variation to the album running order “Umray” was less frenetic with an extended solo piano intro and with Guiliana favouring the patter of hand drums and the swish of brushes as he offered sympathetic support to the lyrical, melodic solos of Cohen and Maestro. The pianist, who has recently issued his own trio album “The Dream Thief” on ECM Records, had taken his own three piece group into Ronnie Scott’s earlier in the Festival.

The catchy hook of the collaboratively written “Eleven Wives” was recognised by the crowd and cheered loudly as the hard driving rhythms of the piece encouraged a forceful bass solo from the leader and a dynamic drumming display from Guiliana. The influence of e.s.t could be heard here on one of the trio’s most accessible and popular pieces.

By way of contrast the traditional “Lo Baiom Velo Balyla” was positively tender, almost hymnal, as Guiliana deployed brushes and Cohen and Maestro soloed with great sensitivity.

“Structure In Emotion” was another piece to demonstrate the subtle side of Guiliana as he provided the most delicate of drum shadings to Maestro’s introductory pianistics before moving rapidly up through the gears during the complex but hard grooving second section with the trio fully in sync, like a well oiled machine. Cohen has worked with a number of trio line ups over the years but aficionados of the bassist’s work generally seem to consider that this version is the best of all of them.

The traditional tune “Puncha Puncha” was given a substantial re-working. Originally recorded as an instrumental piece tonight’s version saw Cohen singing its lyrics in the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino and doing so soulfully and effectively. Instrumental solos came from bass and piano with Guiliana’s economical brushwork only added in the closing stages of the piece.

The introduction to “The Ever Evolving Etude” saw Cohen demonstrating his considerable skills with the bow before the trio established a fast moving, almost Latin-esque groove that acted as the spur for virtuoso solos from Cohen and Guiliana. The bassist used the body of his instrument as percussion and engaged in an element of showmanship. Guiliana’s virtuoso circumnavigation of his kit was evidence of the kind of ability that has made him a sideman of choice for saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and by extension David Bowie. It should also be remembered that Guiliana appeared on the breakthrough Phronesis album “Alive”, deputising for the unavailable Anton Eger.

Guiliana’s epic kit hammering signalled the end of the performance, but the ecstatic reaction of a near capacity crowd ensured that an encore was inevitable. Cohen returned alone to sing a soulful, moving and convincing version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”, accompanying himself with a display of virtuoso bowed bass.

Maestro and Guiliana returned to the stage for a trio encore that featured more jaw-dropping soloing from Cohen, both with and without the bow, plus a torrential piano solo from Maestro, a seemingly unstoppable outpouring of notes. By a process of elimination I’d surmise that this was “Variations In G Minor”, one of two album tracks not already played.

Such was the reaction to this that the trio were accorded a second encore, this a feature for the leader’s virtuoso plucking and huge bass sound. This I took to be the title track “Gently Disturbed” itself, a final celebration of an album that is clearly revered by Cohen’s legion of adoring fans.

I have to say that this set was probably THE highlight of the Festival, surpassing even Phronesis the previous evening. Jasper Hoiby has acknowledged the influence of Cohen’s trio on his own band, and tonight I could see why.

The Cohen trio played with an irresistible mix of virtuosity and showmanship, but crucially had the tunes to back up their undoubted chops. Mixing jazz with Jewish and other Middle Eastern music allied to a dose of Western classical Cohen is a composer of considerable ability. The traditional items in the repertoire were also highly effective making for a complete package.

Tonight’s performance was also enhanced by a perfect sound balance. I know from previous experience that the Barbican space can represent a considerable challenge for sound engineers – the mix for the female supergroup ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding) a few years ago was appalling and featured the same instrumental configuration as the Cohen trio. We were seated near the mixing desk so I made a point of personally thanking the sound engineer who told me that he travels with the band and handles the sound at all their gigs. It certainly makes one appreciate why so many bands take their own sound people on the road with them, provided they can afford it. It makes such a difference.

After the show I treated myself to a copy of the superb “Gently Disturbed” and also two of Cohen’s other Razdaz releases 2004’s “At Home” and 2006’s “Continuo”. Both feature Guiliana and pianist Sam Barsh with oud player Amos Hoffman adding an extra dimension to “Continuo”. “At Home” features various guests on horns and percussion. Both are of a similar standard to “Gently Disturbed” and feature excellent writing and playing, consequently they are also highly recommended.

For me this performance represented both the gig of, and the discovery of, the Festival. It has subsequently been broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme and sounded just as good second time round. At the time of writing it can still be enjoyed on BBC iplayer.

 

by Ian Mann

December 10, 2018

Ian Mann on a day of music dominated by the sounds of Scandinavia including performances by the Thomas Backman Band, the Adam Waldmann Trio, Supersilent and Phronesis.

Photograph of Anton Eger (Phronesis) at Ystad Jazz Festival, Sweden by Tim Dickeson.


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Friday 23rd November 2018


THOMAS BACKMAN BAND, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO


The final free lunchtime event at the Pizza presented the Swedish multi-reed player Thomas Backman and his quartet. The group were promoting their recent album “Did You Have A Good Day David?”, a digital and vinyl only release on the Modern Muzik label.

Backman played alto and baritone saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet and occasional keyboards and he was joined by Josefine Lindstrand on piano, keyboards and vocals, Oskar Schonning on both electric bass and electric guitar and newcomer Julia Schabbauer on drums, vocals and occasional keyboards.

Backman established his own group in 2016 after fifteen years as a cross-genre sideman with a variety of groups on the Swedish music scene. His début album features nine of his original compositions, three of which feature lyrics by Lindstrand. Elsewhere the pianist/vocalist sings wordlessly, using her voice as an additional instrument.

With so much doubling up going on the stage at the Pizza resembled a musical instrument shop as the members of the quartet took to the stage. Unfortunately this was the poorest attendance for a lunchtime event during the week and for once there was a distinct lack of atmosphere at the Pizza.

For the first time there were other events competing for the audience’s attention with Kit Downes performing a recital on the organ at the Royal Festival Hall. I also suspect that other potential listeners elected to go directly to Cadogan Hall to see UK saxophonist Adam Waldmann’s trio. I went on to that later and the place was fuller than it had been all week, absolutely rammed.

Not that the shortage of listeners phased Backman and his colleagues, they played their proverbial asses off, generating an intensity that suggested that playing this music represented an essential cathartic process, particularly for the leader.

I’m fairly certain that the quartet commenced with album opener “Output”, ushered in by Lindstrand’s electric keyboard allied to a collage of sampled voices, these including the line “Did You Have A Good Day David?”. As the music gathered momentum Backman unleashed a blistering alto sax attack, this underscored by Schonning’s ominous bass rumble and the snap and clatter of Schabbauer’s drums. Lindstrand vocalised wordlessly and moved between electric and acoustic keyboards. When the sampled voices returned at the end Backman switched to grainy bass clarinet as Schonning dragged a bow across the strings of his bass guitar.

A song with Swedish lyrics and with a title translating as “Beyond All Doubt” was introduced by Lindstand’s unaccompanied vocals as Schabbauer moved to an auxiliary keyboard, a Korg Ovation 3, situated almost centre stage. Meanwhile Schonning moved to slide on guitar on this atmospheric and effective slice of Nordic melancholy. This, I suspect, was “Bortom all tvivel” which closes the group’s album.

“Pennsylvania” featured the leader on baritone sax, the atmospheric intro also including more bowed bass, spacey electric keyboards and gently brushed drums. Gradually the mood of the piece began to alter as it gathered momentum, Lindstrand’s soaring wordless vocals imparting an anthemic quality that was brutally punctuated by the belligerent squalling of Backman’s free jazz style baritone solo, the saxophonist making effective use of harmolodics.

“Glejs”, originally written for a former trio, was introduced by the looped vocals of both Lindsrand and Schabbauer with the minimalist sounds of Steve Reich a clear influence, The haunting sound of female harmonies was to prove a particularly distinctive aspect of the group’s sound. However as the piece evolved it took on a very different character as Backman unleashed another baritone sax onslaught, generating a glorious, skronksome racket that was reminiscent of the punk jazz of Acoustic Ladyland or Led Bib. And there was to be no respite when Schonning followed him on guitar.

Following the baritone sax assaults of the previous two numbers the quartet now demonstrated a gentler side of their collective character with the as yet unrecorded “Villa”, written for a Spanish village. Introduced by Schonning’s unaccompanied guitar the piece also featured Backman on clarinet, Lindstrand on acoustic piano and some of the most delicate drum shadings I’ve heard this side of Jarle Vespestad’s work with the Tord Gustavsen Trio.

“Jag Sag” featured the arresting vocal harmonies of Lindstand and Schabbauer, lyrics that included words in both Swedish and English and Backman playing both bass clarinet and Korg keyboard.

Lindstrand’s soulful vocals distinguished the next piece, which also included solos from Backman on baritone sax and Schonning on guitar.

Schabbauer introduced the next piece at the drums, eventually joined by electric bass, electric keyboards and alto sax with Backman soloing powerfully and engaging in a three way freak-out with keys and drums. This was followed by a gentler bass clarinet episode which saw the leader duetting with Schonning’s guitar. 

The closing piece, “Mi”, featured the choral voices of Lindstrand and Schabbauer allied to a gently propulsive brushed drum groove that was almost ‘motorik’ in its implacability,  this augmented by strummed electric bass as Backman’s clarinet danced lithely around these rhythmic impulses.

The publicity for this performance had promised a blend of “bebop, free jazz, hip hop, indie pop and chamber music” and it was true that all of these elements had been glimpsed at various moments of the band’s set. I enjoyed their energy and their willingness to mix genres and change direction quickly, thereby creating a distinctive group sound. The imaginative use of vocals added to the individuality of the music and the standard of the playing, particularly from Backman himself, was excellent throughout.  The phrase ‘Indie-jazz’ seemed to sum up their quirky approach best and I was sometimes reminded of the Norwegian group Pixel, themselves previous EFG LJF visitors.

Those that were there seemed to enjoy it a lot and a large percentage of the audience went home with a slice of expensive Swedish vinyl. My thanks to Thomas for speaking with me afterwards and for the gift of said LP, an enjoyable listen and a great help with the writing of this review.


ADAM WALDMANN TRIO, CADOGAN HALL FOYER

The last event in the “Round About Two Thirty Series” featured a trio led by saxophonist Adam Waldmann. Best known as the leader of the acclaimed Kairos 4tet Waldmann was accompanied by the bright young talents of Conor Chaplin (double bass) and Corrie Dick (drums), these days perhaps best known collectively as the rhythm section of the Mercury nominated band Dinosaur.


I caught the whole of a second set mainly comprised of interpretations of well known jazz standards plus the Waldmann original “Kairos Moment”, the title track of the 4tet’s début album.

Still recovering from hand surgery Waldmann chose to specialise on soprano sax and his playing was sublime throughout as he and his highly accomplished young colleagues breathed fresh life into tunes such as the opening “I’ll Be Seeing You” with Dick’s imaginative brushwork framing supremely fluent solos from Waldmann and Chaplin.

“Kairos Moment” was played in response to a half time audience request and worked well in this new trio context, the inventiveness of Dick on drums and percussion again working to the benefit of soloist Waldmann.

Even that hoariest of standards “All The Things You Are” sounded fresh and new in the hands of this superb trio. Dick’s polyrhymic flow encouraged Waldmann’s wonderfully inventive saxophone ruminations as Chaplin weighed in with a delightfully melodic double bass solo. Finally it was the turn of the drummer himself with a neatly constructed solo that fully explored the melodic possibilities of the drum kit.

Thelonious Monk’s ballad “Ask Me Now” was given a wonderfully sensitive reading with delicate brushed drum accompaniment supporting lyrical solos from soprano sax and double bass.

To close Waldmann called John Coltrane’s notoriously tricky “Giant Steps”, adding an extra twist by nominating Dick for the first solo. Following a brief collective theme statement the drummer was thrown in at the deep end, responding with typical skill, wit, invention and sheer musicality. Waldmann and Chaplin followed him with similarly lucid solo contributions.

Despite the familiarity of much of the material this was an inspired and inspiring set that got a terrific reception from a large and attentive audience. Waldmann, Chaplin and Dick brought a fresh sparkle to even the most jaded items in the repertoire, their playing light, airy and consistently imaginative and inventive, always finding something to new to say within each piece. Waldmann played with a rare grace and fluency that helped to bring out the very best in his two younger colleagues. Yet another unexpected festival highlight.

My thanks to Adam Waldmann for speaking with me at length after the performance and talking about his plans for a new Kairos album to be released in 2019. It’s a recording that will be keenly anticipated and should constitute one of THE jazz events of the coming year.


SUPERSILENT / PHRONESIS, QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL

One of the hottest tickets of the Festival was this intriguing double bill featuring two very different Scandinavian bands, the Norwegian electro-improvising trio Supersilent and the Anglo-Scandinavian piano trio Phronesis.

SUPERSILENT

Like the Rymden event the previous evening tonight’s concert was supported by the Norwegian Embassy in London and it was the sponsor’s compatriots who took to the stage first, surrounded by a sea of electronic equipment.

Supersilent is a long running concern having formed in 1997 when the improvising trio of Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Stale Storlokken (keyboards) and Jarle Vespestad (drums) first collaborated with the electronic music artist Helge Sten aka Deathprod. The success of that concert at a Norwegian jazz festival led to the formation of the Supersilent quartet, the group later becoming a trio in 2009 following the departure of Vespestad after twelve years and nine albums.

Supersilent have always maintained a certain mystique, each album is simply designated a number as is each individual track – thus track four on album five is “5;4” and so on. Their album packaging is similarly minimalist, this is a band that doesn’t like to give too much away.

It’s an approach that has won them something of a cult following for music that has ranged from the violently abrasive to the ambiently lyrical, and probably the lyrically ambient as well. In recent years their profile has been raised further by successful live collaborations with former Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, whose former band was another outfit that was adept at retaining a vital air of mystique. Jones seems to relish these electro-improvising situations, having previously collaborated with Brit drummer Martin France’s similarly inclined Spin Marvel outfit.

Supersilent have now recorded fourteen numbered albums plus a series of compilations, an impressive feat considering that their members are also involved in a myriad of other projects, with Henriksen in particular enjoying a successful solo career.

Indeed although I’d never witnessed a Supersilent live performance before my appetite had been whetted by several previous sightings of Henriksen, including performances with sound artist Jan Bang at Hay Festival, with the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval at Cheltenham Jazz Festival and with the Birmingham based electronic duo Dreams Of Tall Buildings at Brum’s much missed Harmonic Festival.  Henriksen has never disappointed and the last named of these collaborations was a superb example of the electro-improviser’s art and the closest performance in spirit to Supersilent themselves.

Tonight’s set was a single improvised performance lasting for the best part of an hour. Things began quietly as whispering trumpet combined with shimmering keyboards and ambient layers of electronics.

This atmosphere of quiet reflection was then splintered by the clarion call of Henriksen’s pocket trumpet which prompted a more aggressive passage incorporating shuddering low frequencies and the creative use of sound glitches as Storlokken generated noises from his three tiered rack of keyboards that variously resembled the crashing of huge electronic waves or the sound of a storm in deep space.

Meanwhile Henriksen’s choir boy like vocals contrasted effectively with the harsh, crackling, dissonant sonic landscapes generated by Sten, with his table full of electronic devices, and Storlokken at his keyboard command module.

I’d been warned that Supersilent, despite their possibly ironic name, could be ear-splittingly loud. Certainly some of their output was abrasive and unsettling but I never found this performance physically uncomfortable in terms of sheer volume. Nevertheless some listeners found it all a bit much to take and headed quietly for the exits, presumably returning for Phronesis in the second half. They were replaced by a stream of inconsiderate latecomers, the to-ing and fro-ing serving to interrupt the atmosphere that Supersilent had so carefully created, both through their music and the old, but effective, visual combination of shadowy lighting and dry ice – that air of mystique again.

In any case Supersilent aren’t exclusively about aural violence. Contrast and dynamics are an important part of their music as they demonstrated with the next passage as the lonely, vocalised cry of Henriksen’s trumpet was cushioned by the gentlest of ambient texturing.

Out of this slowly emerged electronically generated tympanic sounds, at first reminiscent of distant thunder but gradually mutating into a march of impending doom with the dissonant sounds of Storlokken’s keyboards helping to reinforce this aural image of the coming apocalypse. Only the humanising sound of Henriksen’s trumpet offered any kind of softening effect.

The resurgence in intensity continued as the trio generated frequencies ranging from the nerve janglingly shrill to the bone judderingly deep, these towering edifices of sound representing tall buildings indeed. You could feel the sound deep in your chest as Storlokken slammed his arms down on his keyboards during a solo, of sorts, before Henriksen added the sound of eerie, shamanic vocals.

After eventually peaking the trio seemed primed to conclude their performance with a quieter, more ambient closing passage featuring the gentle piping of Henriksen’s trumpet allied to soft focus electronics.

But Supersilent aren’t that predictable, we were still to enjoy a Henriksen vocal set piece, his singing mutating from choir boy like purity to the deep throated sounds of Sami joik before the trio finally concluded this electro-acoustic tour de force with a cathedral like wall of sound.

Despite the occasional longueur this was a truly impressive performance from Supersilent that earned them an excellent reception from the majority of the crowd at a sold out QEH. This was challenging, uncompromising music that proved to be a bit too much for a small minority but it was a compelling performance that was total success on its own terms. For the group’s hardcore fans, such as Tim Owen of the Dalston Sound website, it represented the highlight of the evening. I certainly enjoyed it as an experience, particularly with the frisson of live performance adding an extra dimension to the performance, although I’m not totally convinced that I’d want to listen to the music of Supersilent in the home listening environment on a regular basis.


PHRONESIS

Compared to Supersilent the second act on this double bill were almost conventional. Phronesis sport the classic piano trio line up but are led from the bass by Danish bassist Jasper Hoiby, with Swedish drummer Anton Eger behind the traps. Englishman Ivo Neame, occupying the piano chair, represented something of an interloper at this otherwise all Scandinavian event.

Reviewing the trio’s recent album release “We Are All” (their eighth) my comments included the following phrases. “‘Chemistry’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot with regard to musical ensembles but its one that is particularly applicable to these musicians.  There’s still something special, a real spark in the air, that only happens when the three of them get together as Phronesis.  Despite the considerable individual achievements of its members elsewhere there’s still something very special and unique about Phronesis”.

All of these attributes were in evidence tonight as Hoiby, Neame and Eger delivered a dynamic performance of material largely sourced from the “We Are All” recording. Hoiby’s bass introduced his own composition “Breathless”, an apt opening number for this thrillingly vibrant set. Eger’s brisk brushed grooves offered subtle propulsion to the solos of Hoiby and Neame. The pianist swarmed all over the keyboard in a dazzling display of virtuosity, this contained within a group performance that was more dynamic and intense than the recorded version.

Most of the tunes were unannounced and in any case all mutated in live performance as this inspired trio of improvisers delighted in subverting their own written material. With Neame and Eger now equal partners in both the compositional and improvisational processes Phronesis is no longer ‘Hoiby’s group’ but instead a highly combustible and interactive trio of equals. The next piece upped the energy levels even further with Hoiby’s muscular bass both opening and closing the tune as Neame unleashed another high energy piano solo and the effervescent Eger delivered a flamboyant and dynamic drumming display.

Hoiby has made increasing use of the bow in recent years and it was his arco bass that introduced Eger’s “The Edge”. Neame then soloed fluently above the vigorous bustle of Eger’s brushed drums, the piece eventually developing into a spirited tripartite exchange.

Neame’s piano introduced his own “Matrix for D.A.”, a dedication to the author Douglas Adams. Bowed bass and Eger’s use of small percussion added delightful detail before the pianist embarked on a lengthy solo, joyously bouncing ideas off the responsive and eager Eger. Hoiby followed the pair with a bass solo that teased the audience with a series of false endings before an absorbing coda featuring the sounds of piano and bowed bass.

The fact that we had only heard four numbers might suggest that this was a short set, but the reality was anything but. Being the true improvisers that they are the trio had pulled and stretched at the fabric of the tunes to thrilling effect, bouncing ideas off each other in a way that delivered moments of exhilarating collective interplay allied to a series of brilliant individual solos. The recorded versions of these tunes are by no means short, but tonight they were substantially expanded and developed in the crucible of live performance. This is a group where nobody’s the star but everybody’s a star. Even after ten years Phronesis’ collective walking of the musical tightrope never fails to both enthral and entertain.

A deserved encore was introduced by Hoiby’s arco bass, before he put down the bow to instigate a propulsive pizzicato groove that was embellished by Neame’s pianistic flourishes, these developing into a torrential, barnstorming solo. Hoiby followed on double bass before handing over to Eger, who had already been a dynamic presence, to unleash a final volcanic drum solo. Hands and feet a mere blur the drummer unleashed a positively incandescent drumming explosion that saw him circumnavigate every aspect of his kit in a whirlwind of energy, encouraging the audience to clap along, the crowd pleasing element backed up by a truly stunning display of power, energy and virtuosity. The Eger drum assault has long been a part of the Phronesis live experience but it never fails to excite with its blend of brio and brilliance.

With his bleached blond hair and manic drumming style Eger may represent the group’s visual focus but Phronesis is very much a partnership of musical equals whose unique energy and chemistry is still very much intact, and even now still evolving and developing. Even after more than a decade of existence one senses that there is still much to come from this remarkable trio.

The standing ovation that they earned here was evidence of just how much Phronesis are adored by the British jazz public, but this is a trio with a truly international reputation who have also made considerable inroads in Europe and the Americas, and justifiably so. They remain one of the most exciting acts in the world deploying the classic piano/bass/drums configuration.

 

 

by Ian Mann

December 07, 2018

Ian Mann on a day of international music with performances by the Al MacSween Trio, Liran Donin's 1000 Boats and Scandinavian 'supergroup' Rymden.

Photograph of Rymden sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Thursday 22nd November 2018


AL MacSWEEN TRIO, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

Back to the Pizza but in this instance not at all certain quite what to expect from a trio led by the young pianist and composer Al MacSween. Advance publicity had suggested that MacSween might also be a vocalist and that he was due to perform with a trio featuring drummer Eddie Hick (Gilad Atzmon, Sons of Kemet etc.) and with the hip hop artist Wonky Logic on synths and percussion.

As it turned out MacSween appeared in a more orthodox piano trio configuration featuring Huw Bennett on double bass and Joost Hendrickx at the drums. However their repertoire was far from conventional with MacSween’s original compositions shaped by his interest in world music styles ranging from India to Cuba to Eastern Europe and from North to South Africa. It was an absorbing and entertaining pianistic journey that far exceeded my expectations. I suspect that I enjoyed this trio rather more than I would have the advertised line up.

MacSween studied jazz at Leeds College of Music but he has also studied Indian classical music plus other world music styles and has collaborated with a wide variety of musicians from numerous musical cultures, including the Cuban jazz violinist Omar Puente.

With guitarist Giuliana Modarelli he co-leads the world music collective Kefaya and was also part of the world jazz outfit Grupo X.

Much of today’s performance consisted of new material, much of it still untitled. The trio commenced their first piece in atmospheric fashion with Bennett making effective use of the bow before the music exploded into life with MacSween attacking the keyboard of the Pizza’s Steinway grand with a Neil Cowley-esque relish. Hendrickx, another product of the Leeds jazz scene, expanded a similar energy on his kit during a powerful drum feature and it was left to Bennett’s unaccompanied bass to resolve things.

“Puriya Dhanashari” audaciously fused the rhythms of Indian classical music with those of Cuba, taking the Indian raag as its starting point. It was clear from the outset that MacSween was a pianist of enormous technical facility, a musician with the ‘chops’ to execute his adventurous musical ideas. In Hendrickx and Bennett he had similarly gifted band mates. Hendrickx has been a leading figure on the jazz and experimental music scene in the North of England for a number of years while Bennett led his own sextet at the 2017 EFG LJF, mixing African and Latin sounds with jazz and funk.

The next piece was influenced by the sound of the santoor, the dulcimer like instrument of the Indian sub continent, and by the maqams or modes of Middle Eastern music, the santoor having travelled to other parts of the world. This was a highly rhythmic piece with the leader’s piano combining rhythmically with bass and drums as well as soloing in relatively conventional fashion. Bennett moved between arco and pizzicato bass and his bowed solo was particularly impressive. Not to be outdone the excellent Hendrickx also enjoyed an extended drum feature.

There were more tasty musical fusions to follow as MacSween and the trio combined the sounds of Cuban rumba with Moroccan Gnawa. This piece was introduced solo by the leader at the piano but featured the patter of Hendrickx’s hand drumming during an absorbing dialogue with Bennett’s bass, the latter also using the body of his instrument as a form of auxiliary percussion.

The musical world tour continued as the trio explored the folk melodies of Greece and Albania, with MacSween taking a feverish solo that saw him swarming all over the piano keyboard. Hendrickx again utilised hand drumming techniques as he accompanied Bennett’s bass solo before picking up his sticks for a closing drum feature.

Finally this lunchtime musical odyssey took us to South Africa and the joyous, celebratory township sounds of “Biko’s Dream”, written by the South African pianist Moses Molelekwa, a collaborator of Hugh Masekela, who died tragically young in 2001 at the age of just twenty seven.

Festivals always throw up exciting new discoveries and for me this year it was Al MacSween. This prodigiously talented and adventurous young pianist really does deserve to be better known. Today’s well attended gig will have done his reputation no harm at all. A vibrant, energetic performance that embraced a wide range of global styles was well received by an appreciative audience and it was unfortunate that MacSween had no ‘product’ to sell as business would undoubtedly have been brisk. Let’s hope that he and this excellent new trio can get their music documented at some point during 2019.


LIRAN DONIN’S 1000 BOATS / RYMDEN (BUGGE WESSELTOFT, DAN BERGLUND, MAGNUS OSTROM), QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL

No visit to the Cadogan today as we met up with a family member who was visiting London on business and was the only one who had missed my wife’s birthday festivities the previous Saturday. In some respects this was a shame as I would have liked to see Georgia Mancio singing with her group Quadro, especially as they had been recommended to me by guest contributor Trevor Bannister who saw them at the Progress Theatre in Reading in April 2016. Trevor’s account of that performance can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/quadro-progress-theatre-reading-berkshire-22-04-2016/

LIRAN DONIN’S 1000 BOATS

Turning now to the evening’s events and the appearance by bassist, composer, producer, educator and bandleader Liran Donin and his 1000 Boats ensemble in the ‘support’ slot at the QEH.

Still probably best known to UK jazz audiences as the bassist for the mighty Led Bib Donin released his début solo album “8 Songs” earlier in 2018. It’s a mightily impressive recording that has found its way, and rightly so, into many commentators’ ‘Best of Year’ lists. The Jazzmann gave the album a glowing review back in October which can be viewed here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/liran-donins-1000-boats-8-songs/

On a night that offered an exceptional variety of tempting jazz events all over the capital it was the quality of that album and the presence of the Donin band on the bill that swayed my decision to opt for this one. Having enjoyed the recording so much I just felt I had to see the music played live.

Donin’s band at the QEH featured just one change from the album personnel with tenor saxophonist Alex Hitchcock deputising brilliantly for Josh Arcoleo. Donin’s Led Bib colleague Chris Williams completed a twin reed front line on alto sax, Maria Chiara Argiro occupied the piano chair with the versatile Ben Brown, of the group Bahla, at the drum kit.

“8 Songs” explores the Israeli born Donin’s musical roots in the Middle East and North Africa and demonstrates the leader’s considerable abilities as a composer. It also includes some exceptional playing from a hand picked band, some of them bandleaders in their own right.

Time constraints meant that only four of Donin’s eight songs could be played this evening, but the lack of quantity was offset by the energy and quality of the quintet’s performance. Playing double bass exclusively Donin’s vigorous plucking introduced album opener “I Can See Tarifa”, its North African flavourings distinguished by a powerful ensemble performance featuring the twin reed attack of Williams and Hitchcock and the colourful and propulsive drumming of Brown allied to the quicksilver piano work of Argiro. Crowned by an incisive alto solo from the irrepressible Williams this was an opener that grabbed the audience by its metaphorical lapels and demanded its attention.

The group slimmed down to a trio for “Alma Sophia”, a dedication to Donin’s young daughter, that featured the leader’s melodic bass soloing, this including some stunning high register work around the bridge of the instrument. Argiro supplied sensitive piano accompaniment as Brown added colourful but sympathetic drums and percussion.

“Noam, Sea and Sand” also commenced in piano trio mode with Brown’s briskly brushed drums providing the accompaniment for fluent solos from Donin and Argiro. The return of Williams and Hitchcock pushed the energy levels up as the two saxes dovetailed brilliantly, both wailing forcefully, but remaining complementary at all times as Brown’s dynamic drumming urged them forward. Dynamic contrast was provided by a passage of unaccompanied piano from Argiro at the close of the piece.

An all too brief set conclude with the group in full on quintet mode for a shortened version of “FREE” with Donin and Brown laying down a powerful groove as the twin saxes jousted with each other before Hitchcock stepped forward to solo authoritatively. The piece also included the celebratory wordless vocals of Donin, Williams and Argiro.

1000 Boats enjoyed a rapturous reception from the QEH crowd, of a kind rarely given to a support act. Although doubtless frustrated at not being able to play for longer this gig was still a triumph for Donin. The queue at the merch stand still hadn’t cleared by the end of the interval as we were summoned back into the hall to hear Rymden and Donin came back out again after the main set to sell yet more CDs, they were veritably flying off the shelves. The fact that the new Rymden trio has yet to record and thus had no product to sell may have helped, but nevertheless the audience’s reaction to Donin’s short set was still nothing short of remarkable. My congratulations to Liran for that, and also for the gift of a signed poster featuring the album’s stunning cover image, photographed by Ariel Van Straten.

It was also good to meet again with the ever effervescent Chris Williams and with vocalist Ranjan Ghatak, who guests on the album and was to appear at EFG LJF at Union Chapel, Islington on Saturday November 24th. More on that in a subsequent feature. Donin and Ghatak are due to record an album together in 2019, which will be awaited with much interest.

I’d still love to see 1000 Boats play all eight songs in a full set – hopefully sometime in 2019, maybe at Cheltenham Jazz Festival – hint, hint.

RYMDEN

Turning now to the Scandinavian ‘supergroup’ Rymden, a trio featuring the Norwegian pianist and composer Bugge Wesseltoft plus the Swedish rhythm pairing of bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom.

Wesseltoft first came to my attention as a sideman with saxophonist Jan Garbarek but he has also been a prolific solo artist with his New Conceptions of Jazz group helping to shape the future of European jazz with its innovative blending of jazz and electronica. By way of contrast he has also recorded several albums as a solo acoustic pianist.

The names of Berglund and Ostrom will be forever linked thanks to their lengthy tenure as the rhythm section of e.s.t, the innovative piano trio from Sweden that enjoyed huge commercial success, even in America, and influenced a whole generation of piano led bands.

e.s.t came to a tragic end with the death of leader Esbjorn Svensson in a scuba diving accident in 2008. Both Berglund and Ostrom have subsequently led their own projects, delivering enjoyable recordings for the ACT label, also the home of e.s.t.

Both Berglund’s Tonbruket quartet and Ostrom’s various groups have been influenced by the prog rock that they grew up with. Thus for their first joint collaboration with a pianist since Svensson’s death it’s perhaps appropriate that they have chosen to link up with Wesseltoft, a musician adept at blending acoustic and electric sounds.

I’d assumed that the group name Rymden was a Scandinavian variant on the word ‘rhythm’, but it’s actually the Swedish word for ‘space’, so perhaps it should have come as no surprise that some of the music had something of a sci-feel about it.

Electronics were certainly an important part of the group sound with Wessltoft playing acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and synthesiser while Berglund’s bass set up included the full range of FX that he brought to e.s.t.

The trio played in front of a projection, or light show, of sorts, but ultimately this added little to the music. Aspects of the musicians playing in real time formed part of the imagery but in truth the technology deployed here hadn’t really moved on since the days of e.s.t or early Tonbruket and in the main the visuals were somewhat distracting. It certainly didn’t make for the immersive audio-visual experience that Jaga Jazzist’s stunning light show created at EFG LJF 2017.

That said the trio’s music truly was immersive as they began with a lengthy opening segue melding together the tunes “Reflections”, “The Odyssey” and “Pitter Patter”.  A gentle intro featuring Ostrom’s effective use of small percussion yielded to a display of rock dynamics as Wesseltoft gravitated between acoustic piano and Rhodes and Berglund soloed powerfully on double bass.

Ostrom handled most of the announcements in immaculate English, first introducing his bandmates to great applause from a partisan crowd and then the tune “The Lugubrious Youth Of Lucky Luke”. The drummer always did have a great way with tune titles, it was Ostrom who named the majority of e.s.t’s pieces, even when Svensson had actually written the music. “Luke” was ushered in by Wesseltoft on unaccompanied acoustic piano, later underpinned by Ostrom’s mallet rumbles, and the piece did have something of an e.s.t feel about it. Meanwhile Berglund’s bass solo, deeply resonant, but flowingly melodic, brought back good memories of the playing of the great Eberhard Weber.

Berglund took up the bow to introduce the next segue of tunes, “Roke”, named after a region of Sweden and “The Celestial Dog”, written in honour of the canine cosmonaut Laika and a piece in keeping with Rymden’s space theme. His melancholy, cello like bowing was joined by the rumble of Ostrom’s mallets and the spacey synth sounds generated by Wesseltoft. Berglund switched to acoustic piano and Berglund to pizzicato bass as the music gathered momentum, Ostrom’s rock style drumming imparted the music with an anthemic quality, these moments punctuated by more atmospheric episodes. Wesseltoft then gravitated back to electric keyboards, his hypnotic synthesiser arpeggios variously reminiscent of Terry Riley or of Pink Floyd setting the controls for the heart of the sun. Elsewhere Wesseltoft attacked his Rhodes with venom,  sometimes deploying drum sticks on the unfortunate instrument, Ostrom delivered a drum solo that was both dynamic and mesmeric while Berglund again flourished the bow during the quieter moments of this prog style epic. Occasionally the trio established an e.s.t style groove while Wesseltoft’s doubling on keyboards a la Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson added to the overall ‘prog-ness’ of it all. However it should be noted that there was nothing po-faced about all of this with Wesseltoft, in particular, happy to introduce an element of humour and playfulness into the performance.

The crowd lapped it up and the group returned for an encore,  the beautiful, hymn like “Home Grown” which offered a pleasingly simple alternative to what we had heard previously. Featuring Wesseltoft on acoustic piano and with a delightfully melodic pizzicato bass solo from Berglund this was the perfect way to wind down and to round off an otherwise dynamic and energetic performance.

Rymden have played a series of European festivals during the year and the rapport between the group members is clearly beginning to develop. Some have criticised the trio for a tendency to bombast, and whilst they may have a point none of these musicians have ever attempted to hide their musical pasts. Prog and electronica is an integral part of who they are.

Personally I found much to enjoy here and will await the release of the trio’s début album in 2019 with much interest. From what I gather it’s due to surface in February, presumably on Wesseltoft’s Jazzland record label.

Working with another pianist / keyboard player in a trio context represents a big step for Berglund and Ostrom after all this time, but with the support of a loyal and supportive audience it’s a move that looks as if it’s going to pay off.


by Ian Mann

December 06, 2018

Ian Mann on performances by the drummer led bands Lorraine Baker's Eden and Antonio Sanchez's Migration. Plus the hard bop of the Fishwick Brothers and the contemporary sounds of Brother's Testament.

Photograph of Antonio Sanchez sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Wednesday 21st November 2018


LORRAINE BAKER’S EDEN, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO


Kent based drummer, bandleader and educator Lorraine Baker has attracted a considerable amount of critical acclaim for her recently released début album “Eden”, a tribute to the life and playing of fellow drummer Ed Blackwell (1929-92).

Blackwell collaborated with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassists Charlie Haden and Dave Holland plus many others and the pieces that Baker interprets on the “Eden” album are tunes that he played he played on while working under the leadership of artists such as these. 

Born in New Orleans Blackwell developed a unique way of playing the drums with Baker commenting “I have always admired the dance-like quality of Blackwell’s playing and his strong sense of melody” . Of her own “Eden” project she says;  “I wanted to create my own version, taking existing tunes that featured him and re-imagining the arrangements in a modern setting, whilst showcasing my own style as an improviser”.

The “Eden” album features an impressive line up with Baker being joined by the vastly experienced Liam Noble on piano, rising star Binker Golding on tenor sax and Paul Michael on electric bass. The latter is Baker’s co-arranger and the drummer/leader has stated;
“Paul Michael has been a long term musical partner and I believe that he has an incredibly individual approach to improvisation and chordal accompaniment on electric bass. He is a key part of the project”.

For today’s performance Michael and Golding were present with the piano chair taken over by the versatile and reliable John Turville, a bandleader in his own right. Turville had been part of the band for their entire UK tour and fitted in seamlessly, making a major contribution to the success of today’s show at a packed out Pizza.

Given that “Eden” is a drummer’s album paying homage to another drummer Baker’s playing was given a distinctive prominence in the mix on the recording. I’d expected her to dominate here, particularly as our table was situated close to to the drum kit, but instead the performance was controlled and nuanced with a good balance between all the instruments.

It was Michael’s strummed electric bass that introduced the opening number, “Thumbs Up”, written by bassist Mark Helias, an important figure, together with Blackwell, in Don Cherry’s last working group. Michael’s powerful strumming helped to fuel a hard hitting tenor sax solo from Golding and an expansive piano solo from Turville with Baker rounding things off with an effervescent drum feature.

Cherry’s own “Guinea” doesn’t actually appear on the “Eden” album but was once performed by Baker in the company of Dave Holland. Less frenetic than the opener and with Baker deploying brushes the piece included solos from Turville, Golding and Michael.

It was back to the album repertoire for “Chairman Mao”, written by bassist Charlie Haden. Appropriately the piece was introduced by Michael’s electric bass and his insistent motif formed the backbone of the song as Baker adopted a rolling, ever evolving drum groove. Golding’s theme statement on tenor evolved into the opening solo with the saxophonist followed by Turville at the piano and Baker with a closing drum feature, featuring both sticks and bare hands.

The quartet’s interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation” featured some of Golding’s most robust tenor sax playing, his muscular soloing accompanied by Baker’s powerful drumming. The leader then engaged in a vibrant dialogue with Turville at the piano prior to a closing drum feature. Baker was getting plenty of room to express herself, but without drowning out the other musicians.

“Dakar Dance”, with its infectious African rhythms was actually written by the German born vibraphonist and pianist Karl Berger. Introduced by the leader’s drums the tribal rhythms formed the basis for solos from Golding and Michael but it was Baker’s own playing that impressed most, her melodic approach to the drums totally in tune with Blackwell’s aesthetic.

Next came “Pentahouve” from the pen of the prolific Mark Helias, introduced by Michael at the bass and again featuring the colourful playing of Baker, her use of foot operated cowbell reminiscent of Antonio Sanchez (of whom more later) and Partikel drummer Eric Ford (more on him too!).  Golding sketched the melody on tenor, exchanging ideas with Turville in an engaging duo episode prior to embarking on a full blooded sax solo. The piece concluded with a solo drum passage from Baker that again emphasised the melodic aspects of the style developed by Blackwell.

Finally we heard Don Cherry’s “Mopti”, which was written for the group Old And New Dreams, a quartet of former Coleman alumni (Blackwell, Cherry, Haden and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman) who were signed to ECM during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. This piece appeared on the 1981 album “Playing” and was ushered in here by the gentle thunder of Baker’s mallet rumbles allied to Michael’s strummed bass. Golding’s incantatory tenor sax echoed the sound of Dewey Redman while Turville’s piano brought a fresh instrumental perspective to the piece. The performance concluded with a final solo drum passage from Baker, played with a combination of mallets and bare hands.

Baker and her Eden group maintained the high standards set at the Pizza on the previous two days and their homage to the great Blackwell was well received by a knowledgeable, listening audience.
The “Eden” album is well worth hearing and my review of the recording can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/lorraine-baker-eden/


FISHWICK BROTHERS QUINTET, CADOGAN HALL FOYER

I arrived at Cadogan Hall in time to hear the whole of the second set by a quintet co-led by the musical Fishwick Brothers, Steve (trumpet) and Matt (drums).

The Manchester born twins were joined by a stellar line up featuring Dave O’ Higgins on tenor sax, Rob Barron on piano and Dario De Lecce on double bass.

For this new project the brothers had chosen to focus on the music of two late but influential American pianist/composers, Cedar Walton and Duke Jordan. The Fishwicks recorded with Walton and the first half of today’s performance was dedicated to his music.

Thus I caught the Duke Pearson set and very enjoyable it was too. This was probably the most “straight-ahead” jazz that I heard all week, fiercely swinging and played in the classic hard bop style that will forever be associated with the Blue Note record label. As well as being a prolific pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Pearson (1932-80) was also the head of A & R for Blue Note.

That Blue Note connection was evident from the start as the quintet launched into “Ready Rudy”, Pearson’s tribute to Blue Note’s legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Briskly delivered in the hard bop style of the celebrated label the piece featured fluent and fiery solos from Steve Fishwick on trumpet, O’Higgins on tenor sax, Barron at the piano and the Italian born De Lecce on double bass.

“Empathy” was less frenetic and was something of a feature for pianist Barron who shared the solos with O’Higgins and Steve Fishwick.

“My Girl Shirl” was a dedication by Pearson to his wife Shirley and was another hard bop delight introduced by the unison horns of O’Higgins and Steve Fishwick with both musicians subsequently embarking on individual solos. Barron followed on piano and there was also a series of crisp, brisk exchanges between drummer Matt Fishwick and the two horns.

Matt switched to brushes for “You Know I Care”, a true jazz ballad with lyrical solos coming from Steve Fishwick on trumpet and Barron on piano, with the rhythm section offering sympathetic support.

O’Higgins returned to the fray and the quintet upped the temperature for the closing “Los Malos Hombres” (translation ‘The Bad Men’), a fiery slice of Cubano bop ushered in by Matt Fishwick at the drums and featuring blistering solos from Steve Fishwick on trumpet, O’Higgins on tenor and, Baron at the piano prior to a final salvo from Matt Fishwick at the drums.

Tellingly the quintet omitted Pearson’s most famous composition, “Jeannine”, a piece that has become something of a jazz standard. I suspect that in the first half they may have missed out Walton’s most famous offering, “Bolivia”, too.

The Fishwicks are yet to record their Walton/Pearson project, but if they do the results should be well worth hearing.

I very much enjoyed the music of this sharp suited quintet. The honesty and straightforwardness of their approach made a refreshing change from some of the more esoteric music that I’d covered previously. I wouldn’t want to listen to hard bop all the time these days but this spirited set was like a much needed shot in the arm, a welcome reminder of how exciting and enjoyable this style of jazz can be.

Fishwick fans may like to read a review by guest contributor Trevor Bannister of a recent show at the Progress Theatre, Reading by a quintet led by Steve Fishwick and featuring guest American tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart plus pianist John Pearce, bassist Jeremy Brown and drummer Matt Fishwick. Trevor’s review can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/S=73d849d9a1800d99cf76fe712e581f599244af04/reviews/review/steve-fishwick-quintet-featuring-grant-stewart-progress-theatre-reading-ber/


BROTHER’S TESTAMENT / ANTONIO SANCHEZ & MIGRATION, JAZZ CAFÉ, CAMDEN

I’ve long been an admirer of the playing of the Mexican born drummer Antonio Sanchez thanks to his long term membership of the Pat Metheny Group and its various offshoots. But Sanchez is also a bandleader and composer in his own right, he provided the soundtrack for the cult “Birdman” movie and leads his own group, Migration.

The prospect of seeing Sanchez leading his own project tempted me into making my first visit to the Jazz Café in Camden and I’m indebted to the venue’s press officer Becca McLeish providing my press tickets.

Despite its name the Jazz Café has hitherto tended to focus on funk and soul but is now operating a far more adventurous jazz policy with several leading jazz names including Billy Cobham, Jean Toussaint and Bill Frisell set to appear at the venue in the coming months. There’s currently more ‘real’ jazz happening at the Jazz Café than there has been in recent years. Check out the listings at
https://thejazzcafelondon.com/whats-on

The Jazz Café combines the ambience of a rock venue on the ground floor with the atmosphere of a jazz club in the balcony restaurant. I was downstairs in the standing only area which made note taking difficult so the following review is more of an overall impression of the evening rather than my usual ‘blow by blow’ account. Attending stand up gigs is getting to represent more of a challenge as I get older and in a crowded, and stiflingly hot venue, I didn’t always have the greatest view of the stage. Nevertheless the rock club vibe suited Sanchez, a musician who has attracted a strong ‘crossover’ following thanks to his long tenure with the Metheny group.

Before Sanchez appeared we enjoyed a brief support slot from the young London based band Brother’s Testament featuring bandleader Munashe-Caleb Manyumbu on keyboards and synths, Mark Mollison on guitar and Hugo Piper on electric bass. Unfortunately the band’s regular drummer, Jack Robson, had been taken ill before the gig and was replaced by a young musician introduced as Sam who acquitted himself well in challenging circumstances.

The Brother’s Testament sound proved to be an intriguing mix of old and new as funk grooves combined with ambient electronic soundscaping on numbers such as “Icarus” and “Moonwalker”. Elements of jazz, rock, neo soul and hip hop could also be heard in the group’s music but it was the blend of old and new technology that fascinated me most with leader Manyumbu making effective use of old school analogue synths and emerging as the group’s dominant instrumentalist.

Nevertheless I was also impressed with the contributions of Mollison, who deployed his guitar FX judiciously and effectively, and of Piper, an accomplished groove maker and agile soloist on five string electric bass. Deputy drummer Sam visibly grew in confidence as the set progressed and I rather enjoyed BT’s contribution to the success of the evening.

Manyumbu’s synthesiser work appealed to the old prog rocker in me and provided an effective contrast to the more contemporary aspects of the band’s music. I’d certainly welcome the opportunity of seeing this talented young band play a full length set and of hearing them on disc.

Turning now to Sanchez who was promoting “Lines In The Sand”, his seventh solo album and his third under the Migration band name. The band that he brought to London, this Festival date forming part of a wider European tour, included Thana Alexa on vocals and effects, Chase Baird on tenor sax and EWI, John Escreet on keyboards and Orlando Le Fleming on acoustic and electric bass. Escreet and Le Fleming are ex-pat Brits living and working in New York City and both were loudly cheered by the London crowd.

The majority of tonight’s material was sourced from the new album, the political themes of which tie in perfectly with the band name Migration. Sanchez became an American citizen in 2016 after twenty five years of living and working in the country and now holds dual Mexican/US citizenship.
As an ‘immigrant’ who is now also an American Sanchez is appalled by President Trump’s policies on the matter of immigration. Thus “Lines In The Sand” is an angry record that addresses the plight of those immigrants, or would be immigrants, who have been less fortunate than Sanchez himself.
An impassioned but articulate verbal tirade from the leader mid set, in which he referred scathingly to “that asshole Donald Trump” made his feelings abundantly clear.

Turning now to the music itself and I’m fairly certain that the band played the whole of the “Lines In The Sand” album. The musicians took the stage to the accompaniment of a collage of sampled sounds collected at the US/Mexican border, police sirens, barked out orders, the desperate pleas of the migrants, the crying of children etc. Tellingly the clip made repeated use of the phrases “this is wrong!” and “shame on you!”. I think we know just who is being addressed here. This proved to be the intro to the three part suite “Travesia”, delivered here as a single twenty minute performance with Sanchez’s busy, constantly evolving drumming right at the heart of the music. Alexa’s soaring wordless vocals invited comparison to the work of the Metheny group, the use of wordless singing having been something of a PMG hallmark over the years. However the politically informed music of Sanchez has a darker edge than most of Metheny’s sunny, Brazilian influenced output in this vein. Alexa, Sanchez’s life partner, also made effective use of electronics to subtly alter the sound of her voice at judicious points in the programme.

The use of modern technology also extended to the use of EWI by Baird who soloed convincingly on the instrument as well as impressing on tenor. Back in the 70s the EWI was considered by many to be a bit of a ‘novelty’ instrument but the new generation of instruments is more versatile and expressive and overall I was impressed by the way in which it fitted into the ensemble here. The ability to write for a blend of acoustic and electric instruments is something else that Sanchez has gained from his tenure with Metheny.

This was further illustrated by the way in which Le Fleming and Escreet moved seamlessly between the acoustic and electric versions of their respective instruments. During the course of the evening the Doncaster born Escreet delivered a series of exceptional solos on acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and Prophet Synthesiser as well as providing much of the fabric of the overall ensemble sound, particularly in terms of colour and texture.

“The Long Road” continued the migratory theme but was gentler, more lyrical and less densely written than the “Travesia” suite. The mood here was wistful rather than angry, with Alexa’s soaring vocal expressing the yearning of the would be migrant for the’ better life’, the ‘promised land’.

In a slight variation to the album running order these sentiments were given words with Alexa providing the lyrics and Sanchez the music for the song “Home”. A bandleader and composer in her own right Alexa has released the solo album Ode To Heroes” as well as appearing on recordings by Sanchez, guitarist Gene Ess and pianist Matija Dedic.

The lengthy “Lines In The Sand” proved to be a two part composition, again structured almost like a suite, ebbing and flowing and with Alexa’s wordless singing again a key part of the ensemble sound. In the live environment the length of the piece allowed the individual members of the group to stretch out on a series of set pieces. Le Fleming, replacing the album’s Matt Brewer, impressed on five string electric bass, making effective use of his FX pedals, notably fuzz, as he produced an impressive range of sounds from his instrument, sounding almost guitar like at times.
Baird, who has followed such saxophone heavyweights as Donny McCaslin and Seamus Blake in the Migration line up weighed in with some hefty, muscular tenor sax soloing while Escreet dazzled with a searing synthesiser solo.
Alexa’s vocal set piece found her manipulating an FX unit to mutate and layer her voice in an impressive display of voice led soundscaping. And lest the political aspect of the music be forgotten she also intoned words from poems written about the ongoing crisis at the US / Mexican border. Still there was more, with further solos from Escreet on electric piano and Baird on EWI plus the final inevitable drum feature from the leader, Escreet’s keyboard comping underpinning a virtuoso and at times truly volcanic salvo from the dynamic Sanchez.

The Migration band were summoned back for a deserved encore, an extended take on “Bad Hombres Y Mujeres”, which featured more tight but dynamic ensemble playing and more inspired soloing.

Almost immediately after the show the indefatigable Sanchez was out in the foyer of the venue, chatting with fans, signing CDs and posing for photos. As a long term fan of his playing with the Metheny Group it was an honour for me to meet him at last, if only briefly, and to get my newly purchased copy of “Lines In The Sand” signed by him.

On the way out I met Eric Ford, enjoying a rare night off from performing himself, who had clearly relished the opportunity of seeing one of his drum idols and chief musical inspirations play. It says everything about Sanchez’s abilities that such a brilliant drummer as Ford actually looks up to him. Thanks to Eric for stopping to talk.

But tonight wasn’t just about Sanchez the player. His technical abilities as a drummer are unquestionable but it was his ability as a composer that impressed me most. His episodic writing was colourful, vibrant and rhythmic and its complexities were skilfully negotiated by a superb band who had committed the music to memory rather than ‘reading the dots’. The “Lines In The Sand” album features seventy minutes of highly accomplished music but it packs a powerful political message too, with neither element getting in the way of the other. Sanchez has made his political message clear, without in any way compromising his musicality or artistic integrity.

 

by Ian Mann

December 05, 2018

Ian Mann visits central London's two Pizza Express Jazz Club venues and enjoys performances by the Alyn Cosker Gtroup and the Itamar Borochov Quartet.

Photograph of Itamar Borochov sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Tuesday 20th November 2018


ALYN COSKER GROUP, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

This lunchtime gig at the Pizza was my second sighting of the Alyn Cosker Group in twenty four hours. The band, led by drummer and composer Cosker and featuring pianist Steve Hamilton, guitarist Davie Dunsmuir and electric bass specialist Colin Cunningham, had supported Nik Bartsch’s Ronin at Ronnie Scott’s the previous evening but I have chosen to cover today’s performance which featured one full length set rather than the brief forty five minute support slot at Ronnie’s. I’d enjoyed the performance the night before but today’s show was decidedly superior as the group set their own agenda and relaxed into Cosker’s material. Also Hamilton had the use of the Pizza’s beautiful Steinway grand piano; at Ronnie’s he had played electric keyboards exclusively, the grand at Ronnie’s having been prepared for Nik Bartsch, who had worked extensively ‘under the lid’.

Around half of today’s material was sourced from Cosker’s recent album release “KPF” (reviewed here http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/alyn-cosker-k-p-f/). The recording covers a wide stylistic range features a number of guests from both the jazz and folk scenes but is centred around the core all Scottish quartet that Cosker brought to London. The album fuses a variety of musical elements but in live performance the Cosker Group focusses on ‘fusion’ in the original jazz-rock sense with the composer unapologetically making consistent use of the f-word.

Cosker is the most in demand drummer on the Scottish jazz scene. He helps to provide the rhythmic drive behind the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra led by Tommy Smith and is also a prolific sideman in a plethora of small group settings. Among the leading Scottish musicians with whom Cosker has recorded are saxophonists Smith, Paul Towndrow and Konrad Wiszniewski, trumpeter Colin Steele, bassist Euan Burton and pianist Euan Stevenson. Crossing the border he has also worked with the English musicians Quentin Collins (trumpet) and Ed Jones (saxophones). Cosker has also worked with the American vibraphonist Joe Locke and away from the jazz field played in the band co-led by Mercury Music Prize nominees Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanergan.

A music graduate of the University of Strathclyde Cosker is also an aspiring composer and has released two solo albums, 2009’s “Lyn’s Une” and the current recording “KPF”.

Today’s performance began with a sequence of three tunes sourced from Cosker’s début commencing with the complex but high powered “Oh Dear” which saw Dunsmuir taking the first solo on guitar, his playing combining the power of rock with the dexterity and fluency of jazz on a high octane solo. Hamilton, once a member of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks followed on piano. The pianist is Scottish ‘jazz royalty’ a hugely in demand musician in a wide variety of jazz contexts and beyond. The combination of electric guitar and acoustic piano, allied to Cosker’s dynamic drumming sometimes reminded me of The Impossible Gentlemen as the quartet teased the crowd with a series of playful false endings.

“Logan’s Slogans”, a piece dedicated to Cosker’s old music teacher in Ayr was introduced by a salvo of solo drumming before settling into a Meters inspired funk groove with the excellent Dunsmuir delivering another feverish solo before handing over to Hamilton at the piano. Cunningham was featured extensively on five string electric bass prior to a closing drum feature for the leader.

The ballad “Don’t Forget Me” then slowed things down a little and demonstrated a more sensitive side of the group. Dunsmuir’s atmospheric unaccompanied guitar intro saw him making effective use of the instrument’s tremolo arm. Cunningham’s bass solo featured liquidly melodic playing, a nice contrast to the funky slapping of his previous feature. Hamilton’s piano solo was distinguished by his flowing lyricism while Cosker drummed with great sensitivity, this heightening the dramatic effect of his cymbal work at the close.

Turning now to the new album “Purely Intertwined” was introduced by the leader’s drums, Cosker revealing that his playing on this piece had been inspired by the great American session drummer Jim Keltner (Steely Dan, Traveling Wilburys, Ry Cooder etc.). Dunsmuir’s solo here was exceptional, bending strings and again making inventive use of the tremolo arm. The recorded version features a solo from guest vibraphonist Joe Locke but it was Hamilton who stepped into the breach here with an equally impressive acoustic piano solo (he actually plays electric keyboards on the album version).

The title track of “KPF” was skilfully segued with another album track, “Hee Haw Twice”. Dedicated to Cosker’s wife and standing for “Kirsty’s Pretty Face” “KPF” is a brief, but suitably charming, solo piano piece with the recorded version featuring Cosker’s own keyboard playing.
Here the atmospheric unaccompanied piano passage was delivered by Hamilton, the music then taking a more dramatic turn as it mutated into “Hee Haw Twice” with Dunsmuir’s rock influenced guitar again taking flight. Hamilton then sparkled at the piano, stretching out expansively prior to a volcanic closing drum feature from Cosker.

Remaining with the “KPF” repertoire “The Adventures of Feskelar” was dedicated to Cosker’s cocker spaniel of the same name. Picking up where he left off the composer introduced the tune at the drums with Cunningham’s propulsive electric bass lines subsequently fuelling turbo charged solos from Dunsmuir on guitar and Hamilton at the piano. Interestingly both Dunsmuir and Hamilton have been working with another famous drummer, the great Billy Cobham - “he keeps pinching my sidemen!” joked Cosker. Dunsmuir certainly follows some impressive figures in the Cobham guitar chair, among them John Scofield and the late, great John Abercrombie.

It was back to the début album for a closing segue of the ballad “Unannounced” and the fiery funk work out “That’s The Ticket”. The ballad section was lyrical and melodic with Cosker deploying brushes as Hamilton and Dunsmuir delivered attractive solos with the guitarist using a finger slide to generate a sound similar to that of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
Cosker’s drums provided the link into the funky “That’s The Ticket” as he combined with Cunningham to provide the boosters for Dunsmuir’s fleet fingered guitar soloing. Cunningham then demonstrated his slap bass technique on an extended feature.

This was a hugely enjoyable performance from the Cosker group with the leader introducing the show with a wry Scottish wit. The standard of playing was superb throughout and although Cosker’s brand of high energy fusion might not be to all tastes it went down a storm with today’s crowd at the Pizza.

My thanks to Alyn and Steve Hamilton for speaking with me afterwards and revealing that the jazz life isn’t always glamorous. The group members had to catch an early evening train back to Edinburgh, a second night in a London hotel representing an unaffordable luxury.


ITAMAR BOROCHOV QUARTET, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, HOLBORN

We decided to give the 2.30 show at Cadogan Hall a miss today, partly because of the filthy cold, wet weather and partly because we had arranged to meet a friend for an early evening drink in the Russell Square area.

This proved to be handy for our next musical port of call, Pizza Express’ new venue in Holborn which was playing host to a quartet led by the Israeli born, Brooklyn based trumpeter and composer Itamar Borochov.

I’m indebted to Sue Edwards for providing us with tickets for this event. Sue handled the UK publicity for “Blue Nights”, Borochov’s third album as a leader, which appears on the French label Laborie Jazz. I was highly impressed with the recording (review here http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/itamar-borochov-blue-nights/), and jumped at the chance of seeing Borochov performing live.

The following biographical details are sourced from my “Blue Nights” review;

Originally from the cosmopolitan port city of Jaffa Borochov brings the influence of Sephardic sacred music to jazz, particularly the use of Arabic scales. He first heard this music in his local synagogue and has since broadened his range of musical influences to include the ‘maqams’ of the greater Middle East and North Africa. The ‘maqam’ is the mode of Arabic Music, hence the resemblance of some of Borochov’s music to the modal jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others.
In addition to his Jewish, Arab and North African influences Borochov has also immersed himself in the realms of jazz and bebop, increasingly so since moving to the US. Borochov began playing trumpet at the age of eleven and has absorbed the jazz trumpet lineage of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Clark Terry, and Booker Little through to Wynton Marsalis, Jon Hassell and Arve Henriksen. He has also been open to the influence of other jazz instrumentalists such as saxophonists Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.
Borochov also cites the influence of Weather Report plus such non-jazz artists as diverse as Edith Piaf, Nasrat Fatah Ali Khan and Prince. The trumpeter is interested in the similarities between different musical cultures, traditions and genres and brings something of that fascination to bear in his music.
“Blue Nights”, despite its many influences, is primarily a jazz record - as distinct from a ‘world jazz’ record. The core instrumentation is just trumpet, piano, double bass and drums, that of a classic jazz quartet. Borochov’s frequently quoted remark helps to put things into context;
“I have to be real. If John Coltrane was informed by his father being a preacher I had to do the same thing. Lee Morgan brought gospel and I’m bringing Sephardi synagogue music.”

The group that Borochov brought to Holborn was essentially the one that appeared on the album with the trumpeter joined by drummer Jay Sawyer and Chicago based pianist Rob Clearfield. The only change was in the bass chair where the leader’s brother, Avri, was replaced by the Dutchman Nicolas Thys. The bassist has worked with Borochov before and was drafted in for the European tour after Avri recently became a father for the first time. Thys proved to be a more than adequate replacement in a show that highlighted Borachov’s star quality while still remaining a superb team performance.

I have to say that I was also impressed with the Pizza’s new venue. In the basement of the building and clearly modelled on the original jazz club in Dean Street, Soho it also possesses a beautiful Steinway grand piano and an authentic jazz club ambience. Hitherto it’s largely been used for events at the cabaret / comedy/ light entertainment end of the spectrum but tonight proved that it’s also a great place to listen to jazz. The Borochov gig was probably the most “serious” jazz event Holborn has hosted thus far and was probably moved here due to the presence of heavyweight jazz talents drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel at Dean Street during EFG LJF week.

I’m pleased to report that the new venue was packed out for the visit of Borachov, a musician with a relatively low profile in the UK but with a growing international reputation. Not every tune was announced but I’m reasonably certain that nearly everything was sourced from the “Blue Nights” album.

That was certainly the case with the opening “Motherlands” which was introduced by Clearfield’s piano arpeggios, these soon by Sawyer’s atmospheric use of shakers and the whispering of the leader’s trumpet. Borochov’s opening solo had something of the majesty of Miles Davis about it, his playing in the flesh more noticeably powerful than on the album as he stalked the stage charismatically, again in a manner reminiscent of Miles. But Borochov is no copyist, the Jewish and Middle Eastern influences that permeate his music are proof enough of that. The recorded version of “Motherlands” includes distinctive contributions from three Moroccan Gnawa vocalists/percussionists. Tonight the leader shared the solos with pianist Clearfield, the latter making highly effective use of that Steinway.

The title track from “Blue Nights” followed, with Borochov stating the melodic theme of the piece with a slow burning intensity as Sawyer deployed brushes behind him. Clearfield’s piano solo embraced a flowing lyricism while the leader favoured a choked intensity for his subsequent trumpet solo, eventually building to an anthemic grandeur. The subtle use of Arabic scales and motifs was apparent throughout the piece, adding an alluring appeal of the exotic to these English ears.

“Take Me To The Bridge” actually closes the “Blue Nights” album and is based on a Jewish melody written by the rabbi Baruch Chait with an arrangement by Borachov. Introduced by Thys at the bass with Sawyer again wielding shakers Chait’s theme was jointly stated by Borochov and Clearfield before being used as the basis for individual solos with Borochov going first, his increasingly impassioned playing supported by the dynamic drumming of the consistently impressive Sawyer. Clearfield relished the opportunity to stretch out with an expansive, quote filled solo and there were also cameos for bass and drums

The rather short first set concluded with “Garden Dog Sleeps”, a Borochov ‘contrafact’ based around the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street”. The trumpeter challenged the audience to name which tune it was based on, but nobody spotted it. I wouldn’t have known myself if I hadn’t read about it while reviewing the album. Borochov and Clearfield were the featured soloists on this heavily disguised artefact.

Returning to the stage for the second set Borochov dedicated the opening number to the memory of the recently deceased trumpet great Roy Hargrove, a very classy and humble gesture. Extolling Hargrove’s philosophy of living life “completely in the moment” the tune he chose to play was “Right Now”, the opening track from the new album, here featuring solos from Hargrove, Clearfield and Thys.

Unaccompanied piano introduced the next, unannounced piece with Clearfield now deploying a more percussive style that was sometimes reminiscent of Thelonious Monk.  On trumpet Borochov soloed with controlled power and a Miles-ian sense of cool. I suspect that this may have been an extended version of “Broken Vessels” from the new album

From the new album “Maalem” (meaning ‘the one who knows’) was the second tune from Borochov’s Moroccan collaboration. More spacious than on the record the mood here was of quiet reflection with fragile, lyrical solos from Borochov and Clearfield. There was little applause for the individual solos, this mainly due to the fact that an air of hushed reverence had fallen over the audience as the sense of spirituality that informs all of Borochov’s music was at its most palpable. The atmosphere was only breached when Borochov announced that this was the end of the performance.

With the tension now released the audience clapped loudly and cheered for more, eventually being awarded for their efforts as Sawyer established a brisk drum groove that powered the boppish solos of Borochov and Clearfield as the quartet delivered some of their most straightahead jazz playing of the evening. Sawyer then enjoyed a series of effervescent drum breaks as he entered into a series of spirited exchanges with the leader’s trumpet before embarking on an impressive no holds barred drum solo.

This was a great, high energy way to end a memorable performance. As with Nik Bartsch’s Ronin the previous evening the full power and majesty of Borochov’s playing only truly came out in live performance. Impressive as the “Blue Nights” album is tonight’s performance took the music into another dimension with the charismatic, enigmatic Borochov leading a superb band of musicians. The playing from all concerned was both inspired and exemplary throughout. This was a performance that was a definite Festival highlight. Borochov is definitely a musician worthy of greater recognition. On the evidence of tonight’s performance his star is surely destined to continue to rise.

My thanks to Sue Edwards and her sister Fiona for speaking with me afterwards, and also to Charlotte, the manager of Ian Shaw, another artist whose work I have covered recently.

I also spoke to Itamar, Jay and Rob, so my thanks to them. Rob was also kind enough to provide me with a review copy of his recent solo piano recording “Wherever You’re Starting From”, which I intend to take a full look at in due course.

by Ian Mann

December 04, 2018

Ian Mann on performances by the Ant Law Quartet, Martin Speake's Charukesi and Nik Bartsch's Ronin.

Photograph of Nik Bartsch’s Ronin sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website http://www.efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL,
Day Four, Monday 19th November 2018


ANT LAW QUARTET, PIZZA EXPRESS JAZZ CLUB, SOHO

For several years now the famous Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street has been running free lunchtime sessions on the weekdays of the Festival. It’s pretty much a given that attendees should eat, but the quality of the music is worth the price of the meal on its own.

They may be nominally free but these are serious jazz performances played to listening audiences and the quality of the musicianship is astonishingly high. These sessions are always well attended and have given significant boosts to the careers of young, up and coming British jazz musicians as well as European artists seeking to make an impact on the UK jazz scene.

It’s also common for already established musicians to perform here, such as guitarist Ant Law, well known for his work with saxophonist Tim Garland and a bandleader in his own right with a steadily growing reputation.

Law has recently released “Life I Know”, his third solo album and his first for Edition Records. Featuring his regular working band of  Mike Chillingworth (alto sax), Ivo Neame (piano), Tom Farmer (double bass) and James Maddren (drums) it’s arguably his strongest and most accessible recording yet. My review of “Life I Know” can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/ant-law-life-i-know/

However the band that Law brought to the Pizza was not his working group but a one off international quartet featuring Belfast based pianist and composer Scott Flanigan, double bassist Ferg Ireland and French drummer Marc Michel.

I was expecting what seemed like an ad hoc ensemble to perform a largely standards based set but instead the focus was on the original writing of Law and Flanigan with much of the material being sourced from Law’s recent album.

Law and Flanigan originally met at an artist’s retreat, quickly establishing a rapport that encouraged them to continue working together. The Irishman is a bandleader himself with two albums to his credit.

Law’s strummed intro ushered in “Searching”, the second track on his new album, a piece with a song like structure and here featuring a beguiling, sustain heavy solo from its composer.

“Stract”, from his début album “Entanglement” (2013) exhibited similar qualities with Law now favouring a cleaner, classic jazz guitar sound that was well suited to his fluent, elegant soloing. Flanigan and Ireland also featured as soloists, as did Michel with a dynamic series of drum breaks towards the close.

From the new album “Aquilinus” proved to be something of an epic as it emerged from an atmospheric introduction to embrace solos from all four musicians during its considerable length.

The first set concluded with “She Has Music”, a tune by the Irish singer Sue Rynart selected by Flanigan. Announced by the pianist as a “London première” the piece included features for Ireland and Law, the latter contributing a lengthy solo as the group went into guitar trio mode.

After a short break the second set began with Law’s solo guitar performance of the tune “Pure Imagination”  written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and famous for its inclusion in the film “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”.  The lyric  “There is no life I know, that compares to pure imagination” gives Law’s album its title. As on the album his performance here saw him making effective use of his various pedals to create  a spacious, shimmering, ethereal soundscape.

The rest of the quartet returned to the stage with Flanigan now taking over the spotlight with an unaccompanied piano introduction to his composition “Overgrowth”. It has to be said that for a ‘one off’ group the quartet were remarkably tight and focussed throughout today’s performance, something that was a tribute to their sight reading skills as they tackled the often complex compositions of Law and Flanigan with confidence and acumen. This piece included an extended drum feature for the excellent Michel who attacked his kit with an obvious relish.

Flanigan also selected a Law composition for the quartet to play, the spacious “Thirteen Moons”, another tune from the “Entanglement” album, the title a subtle nod to Jan Garbarek, perhaps? Its slow, drifting melody acted as the vehicle for lyrical solos from Ireland and Flanigan plus a series of gently rippling exchanges between the pianist and the composer.

Law’s “Zero Sum World” album was the source of the more complex “Trivophobia” which yielded more forceful solos from Ireland and Flanigan plus an explosive drum feature from Michel, underpinned by Law’s rapid guitar comping.

Law has always possessed a fondness for unusual time signatures with “Laurvin Glaslowe” from his current album a case in point. The recorded version includes a konnakol (vocal percussion) intro from guest artist Asaf Sirkis but today’s performance of the piece was ushered in by a passage of unaccompanied guitar from Law. Ireland and Michel tackled the rhythmic challenges of Law’s writing with considerable aplomb and entered into a series of thrilling three way exchanges with the composer, these paving the way for a closing Michel drum feature.

A large audience at the Pizza Express responded well to this programme of largely original music. Law’s music may be complex but it’s also readily accessible and I was very impressed with the guitarist and his colleagues. Law introduced the music with warmth, charm and a ready wit and came over as a really nice guy. My thanks to both him and Scott Flanigan for speaking with me afterwards.

One suspects that this quartet has the chemistry and the potential to continue working together so I will continue to keep an eye open for future collaborations. In the meantime Flanigan’s solo recordings should also warrant further investigation.


MARTIN SPEAKE’S CHARUKESI

During the Festival week Cadogan Hall hosts its own series of free performances. The ‘Round About Two Thirty Series’ takes place in the foyer at Cadogan Hall and the first event of the week featured Charukesi, a new quartet led by the acclaimed alto saxophonist and composer Martin Speake.

Charukesi reflects Speake’s interest in ‘world music’ forms including Indian, African and Middle Eastern influences. It represents an updating of his Fever Pitch project, the seven piece ensemble that recorded the album of that name for the Village Life label back in 1997.

Apart from Speake none of the original members of the Fever Pitch group remain, Charukesi consisting of a younger crop of musicians and featuring Alyson Cawley (tenor sax, clarinet), Rob Luft (guitar) and Will Glaser (drums).

I arrived in time to hear Speake delivering an uncharacteristically hard blowing alto sax solo on the tune “Sweet Seventeen”, a piece based around a seventeen beat rhythmic sequence.

The leader explained that this new band was inspired by the earlier Fever Pitch project, the name of the earlier group having been borrowed from Nick Hornby’s book at a time before Martin, like so may of us, fell out of love with Premier League football. Nevertheless the title track of the “Fever Pitch” album was played here, introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tenor sax from Cawley and with the beguiling Indian rhythms generated by Glaser and Luft underpinning Speake’s own alto solo.

“Maqam Jega” introduced a Turkish influence with Cawley playing clarinet on the intro before switching back to tenor sax. There was an authentic Middle Eastern feel about the music as Speake and Cawley entered into an engaging alto / tenor dialogue as Luft and Glaser sat out, returning only when Cawley returned to clarinet for a set of lively ensemble passages, these followed by a richly inventive guitar solo from Luft. With Cawley back on tenor once more the closing ensemble passages proceeded to generate more steam than a Turkish bath.

The momentum was maintained on “The Journey” with the two saxophonists trading solos, Speake going first. The twin reeds were followed by a colourful drum feature from the excellent Glaser. This piece was the title track of the 2004 album that Speake recorded with the Indian musicians Dharambir Singh (guitar) and Sarvar Sabri (tabla, ghatam). The composition “Charakeshi”, which presumably gives this current group its name, also appeared on this recording.

Like Law’s group this was essentially a new band, but was again one with enormous potential. Speake is an acclaimed educator who likes to work with younger musicians and his colleagues here certainly brought out the best in him.

Speake has said of the Charukesi project;
“I felt I wanted to play music that is very immediate for audiences and is simple harmonically, groove based and the improvising consists of primarily melodic and rhythmic development rather than based on chord changes”.

On the evidence of today’s performance he has succeeded brilliantly. This was music that was both exotic and accessible and was superbly played by a highly accomplished quartet. The audience remained engaged and attentive throughout and gave the Charukesi band an excellent reception. Again, it will be interesting to see how this band develops, hopefully with their music being documented on disc at some point.


NIK BARTSCH’S RONIN, RONNIE SCOTT’S JAZZ CLUB

My second visit of the Festival to Ronnie Scott’s was courtesy of publicists Manners McDade who handle Nik Bartsch’s publicity in the UK, so my thanks to them.

Swiss pianist and composer Bartsch has been a regular visitor to EFG LJF with his bands Ronin and Mobile but it was a brief solo piano performance from the man at Daylight Music event at the Union Chapel, Islington (part of the 2017 EFG LJF) that really opened my ears to his music.

I subsequently reviewed his latest release “Awase” (ECM Records 2018), made with the Ronin group, and found myself both understanding and enjoying his music more and more. Some of the following biographical details are sourced from that review.

Nik Bartsch, born 1971, is a Swiss pianist and composer based in Zurich. He studied piano and clarinet as a child before concentrating on linguistics, philosophy and musicology during his time at a student at Zurich University.

Strongly influenced by minimalist and avant garde composers such as Steve Reich, John Cage and Morton Feldman Bartsch formed his first group, Mobile, in 2001, releasing the album “Ritual Groove Music” on the Tonus Music record label, the first of six recordings for the Bern based company.

In 2006 Bartsch signed to the prestigious Munich based label ECM which increased his profile considerably and transformed him into a significant presence on the international jazz scene. “Awase” is his sixth album for the label and represents a continuation of the unique musical path he has been exploring since 2001.

Bartsch’s music operates at the interface of jazz and contemporary classical music with minimalism a clearly discernible influence. The title of that first album, “Ritual Groove Music”, is both highly descriptive, and something of a mission statement. There’s a strong air of spirituality about Bartsch’s music, which has sometimes been described as “Zen Funk”. His compositions evolve slowly and organically, making use of recurring, but subtly mutating, grooves and motifs. Nothing is rushed, giving the music a meditative quality that many listeners find to be strangely beautiful.

Bartsch’s main creative outlets are the groups Ronin and Mobile, the two outfits representing different ways of interpreting Bartsch’s compositions. Ronin is the “Zen Funk” outlet and currently features the enigmatically named Sha (born Stefan Haselbacher) on alto sax and bass clarinet, Thomy Jordi on four string electric bass guitar and the long serving Kaspar Rast, who has worked with Bartsch since the début, on drums. Previous members of the group, hitherto a five piece, have included Bjorn Meyer on electric six string bass and Andy Pupato on percussion.

Meanwhile Mobile is a wholly acoustic unit that currently includes Sha and Rast plus percussionist Nicolas Stocker. The group sometimes operates as Mobile Extended with the addition of a string quintet featuring two cellos. As the shared personnel might suggest there are many similarities between Ronin and Mobile with several of Bartsch’s pieces being interpreted by both groups. Indeed Bartsch himself has said;
“We’ve always taken the position that the compositions can be played by both groups-Mobile or Ronin- to bring out different aspects of the music”.  Some pieces have been recorded by both groups.

Bartsch’s “modular” approach to music is reflected in his titles, each piece is a “Modul” with its own specific number. This ascetic, intellectual, purely functional approach to tune titling is designed to focus the listener’s attention on the structure and spirituality of the music with the composer eschewing descriptive titles that might affect the interpretation of the music, presumably by both his fellow players and his listeners.

Meanwhile the album title “Awase” is a term derived from the martial art of Aikido and means “moving together”, an apt description of Ronin’s collective ethos.

Tonight at Ronnie’s Ronin consisted of Bartsch, Sha and Rast with Bjorn Meyer returning on six string electric bass in place of an unwell Thomy Jordi, who is now hopefully fully recovered. For long standing fans of the group, and there were many at a sold out Ronnie Scott’s, the return of the popular Meyer actually represented something of a bonus.

The band had flown to London from the previous night’s show in Oslo and took to a dimly lit stage, with Bartsch immediately reaching under the lid of the piano to instigate the building blocks from which the first piece would be developed.  As he was joined by the sound Meyer’s guitar like electric bass the mood was profoundly spiritual, with that trademark minimalist influence apparent from the start. I’m fairly certain this was “Modul 58” from “Awase” and as the momentum of the piece began to build the stage lighting became brighter.  One could see where the “zen funk” label so often attached to Bartsch’s music comes from, the rhythms generated by the band were hypnotic and mesmeric, akin in many ways to the rhythms of contemporary electronic dance music but in a primarily acoustic context. All around the club heads were nodding as listeners immersed themselves in this ‘ritual groove music’. Neither last year’s solo piano performance or listening to the “Awase” album had quite prepared me for the sheer power of Ronin’s music in a live setting. The wiry, dynamic Rast hit his drums with a power and precision that reminded me of the late, great Jaki Liebezeit. Meanwhile Bartsch’s work ‘ under the lid’ was equally compelling, his use of the interior of the instrument was the most comprehensive I have seen since that made by Johann Bourquenez of fellow Swiss outfit Plaitow, another group strongly influenced by the sounds of electronica. Meanwhile Sha impressed with a powerful and incisive alto sax solo, having moved to the instrument from bass clarinet.

Although Bartsch spoke to the audience to introduce the band and to explain the circumstances behind Meyer’s return to the band no tune or “modul” titles were announced. One suspects that Bartsch probably likes it this way, descriptive titles can effect people’s perception of the music, in Bartsch’s world he prefers his listeners to absorb themselves totally in the playing.  The next piece also began under the lid with Bartsch producing some Oriental style sounds from the innards of his instrument as he plucked and scraped the strings. Again Meyer’s high register bass harmonics came into play as Sha sketched a wispy alto sax melody, before gradually ramping up the intensity, his playing underpinned by an implacable low end piano / electric bass rumble and the sound of Rast’s sizzling cymbals, the music coming to a thunderous crescendo before fading away as Bartsch, still working under the lid, embarked on a duet with Meyer’s electric bass, the latter’s tone still in the upper registers and sounding very guitar like.  Meyer offered further evidence of his immense virtuosity with an unaccompanied electric bass feature. Meanwhile Sha had switched to bass clarinet with Bartsch moving to electric keyboards as the band began to simmer, and finally come to the boil once more with some intensely rhythmic playing and with Sha producing some brutally guttural sounds on bass clarinet during the course of his solo.

Set Two was to be a single unbroken performance, a segue of pieces that I think included Sha’s composition “A” at the start of its duration. Sha himself moved constantly between bass clarinet and alto sax in a performance that again began under the lid, the initial quietness of the piece a total contrast to the intensity of much of the first half, particularly the playing of Sha himself on this most song like of compositions.  A short drum feature from Rast then led to Meyer setting up-an electric bass groove and again entering into a duet with leader Bartsch, the leader again hitting the interior strings of the piano with a drum stick.  Meyer’s sound was still reminiscent of the melodic bass playing of Steve Swallow but his use of the thumb on his subsequent solo showed that he could be Jaco, too. The music now built to a climax with Sha moving from bass clarinet to alto, his solo underpinned by staccato piano and bass motifs and Rast’s increasingly dynamic drumming. Having peaked the music faded away to leave only Bartsch’s gentle unaccompanied piano motif, this gradually fading into silence.

Although Bartsch has played at EFG LJF before he’s previously only done so in concert halls and churches and before this evening I wasn’t sure how his intense, but fiercely intellectual, music would fit into a jazz club environment. I needn’t have worried, there aren’t many acts that receive a standing ovation at Ronnie Scott’s, but that was exactly what Ronin got as all that intensity and tension was finally released.

A deserved encore saw more under the lid orchestrations from Bartsch and sepia toned bass clarinet from Sha as the quartet gradually wound things down to finish in the same way as they had begun the evening, in semi-darkness. Again the crowd got to their feet to voice their approval.

Any misgivings that I might have had were totally groundless. This performance was a triumph for Bartsch and his colleagues with the audience demonstrating a real love of this extraordinary and unique music. Only witnessing Ronin in live performance can give the listener a true appreciation of both the power and the subtlety of Ronin’s music, plus the extraordinarily high standard of musicianship of those involved. Their performances are totally immersive, much like those of The Necks, but achieving the effect from a totally different position and methodology.

My review of “Awase” met with the approval of Nik Bartsch himself and we have since exchanged email correspondence, It was therefore particularly pleasing to meet with him and Sha after the gig as the pair signed CDs and chatted to fans. For all the intensity of the music they are very warm and welcoming guys.

Bartsch has carved out a unique place in contemporary music and this performance was very much a Festival highlight. There were many others who clearly felt the same.

Support came from a quartet led by Scottish drummer and composer Alyn Cosker but as I was to witness a full length performance by this band at the Pizza Express the following day I’ll write about them in my next feature.

 

 

 

 

 

by Ian Mann

November 30, 2018

Ian Mann on a memorable day of music with performances by Jonny Mansfield's Elftet, Bill Frisell solo and Alina Bzhezhinska's "Afro-Harping" project.

Photograph of Bill Frisell at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival by Tim Dickeson.


EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
First Sunday, November 18th 2018


JONNY MANSFIELD’S ELFTET, 606 JAZZ CLUB, CHELSEA

A welcome return visit for me to the 606, the basement jazz club in Chelsea founded by flautist and Steve Rubie. My thanks to Steve and to the club’s marketing manager Laura Thorne for arranging my tickets.

The 606 is a musician owned establishment with proprietor Steve Rubie combining his career as a restaurateur and club owner with that of a professional jazz flautist. The club’s name comes from its original address in the Kings Road but it is has been located in the basement of its current premises in Lots Road since 1988, a former industrial building close to the old Lots Road power station.

The “Six” has always had a policy of booking British or UK based musicians almost exclusively, even visiting Americans perform with a British rhythm section. The club also has close ties with the Royal Academy of Music and is keen to support young up and coming jazz musicians such as today’s band, the eleven piece Elftet led by vibraphonist and composer Jonny Mansfield.

Also a talented drummer Mansfield was the winner of the 2018 Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize, an award that will help to finance Elftet’s début album which will be released during 2019 on the Edition record label.

I’d previously witnessed Mansfield performing as the drummer with the Jam Experiment quintet at a performance at The Hive in Shrewsbury in June 2017. More recently guest Jazzmann contributor Trevor Bannister reviewed a performance by Elftet at the Progress Theatre in Reading, speaking very highly of the band. Trevor’s words encouraged me to check Elftet out for myself and I approached today’s show with a good deal of expectation. Fortunately I was not to be disappointed.

First there was the matter of food, the 606 has established a good reputation for the quality of its dining and my wife and I enjoyed a well prepared Sunday lunch before settling back to enjoy the music of Mansfield and his colleagues.

My last visit to the “Six” was in November 2016 when I enjoyed a performance by the seventeen piece Patchwork Jazz Orchestra, an aggregation comprised of numerous Academy alumni. Some of those musicians were also present in today’s line up which featured;

Jonny Mansfield vibes & leader, James Davison trumpet & flugelhorn, Rory Ingham trombone, Tom Smith alto saxophone, Sam Rapley tenor saxophone & bass clarinet, Dom Ingham violin & vocals, Ella Hohnen Ford vocals & flute, Laura Armstrong cello, Oliver Mason guitar, Will Harris bass guitar, Boz Martin-Jones drums.

Mansfield is an ambitious composer whose pieces embrace a variety of musical styles as well as drawing inspiration from poetry and literature. In this sense his music is very much in the tradition of British jazz composers such as Michael Garrick, Mike Westbrook and Kenny Wheeler. But the youthfulness and vitality of his ensemble helps to give his music a very contemporary twist.

With so much other music happening around town during the Festival it was decided that Elftet would play one long set with no interval. The majority of the pieces had also been played at Reading and as I write this it’s fascinating to compare my impressions of the music with Trevor’s.

Both performances began with “Sailing”, a highly evocative piece of writing despite Mansfield’s admission that he has never set foot in a sailing vessel. Here jazz, folk and classical influences merged with the poetry of the lyrics, coolly delivered by Hohnen Ford and speaking of “sailors on the sea” and of “the gift of song and poetry”. The first instrumental solo came from Rory Ingham, also of the Jam Experiment group,  on rousing trombone. He was followed by Rapley, who began on bass clarinet but switched to tenor sax to deliver a similarly powerful solo. The piece ended with Hohnen Ford leading the band in a chorus with the audience encouraged to clap along.

“For You” calmed things down a little with its attractive, gentle melodies, with solos coming from Smith on alto, Harris on melodic five string electric bass and Davison on velvet toned flugelhorn.

Mansfield was commissioned to write new music for a performance by Elftet at the 2018 Marsden Jazz Festival in West Yorkshire. The new material, collectively gathered under the title “On Marsden Moor” included settings of poems by the acclaimed poet and academic Simon Armitage. Among these was “About His Person”, the words a list of items found on the body of a (presumably) dead person. Armitage’s lines were sung emotively by Hohnen Ford with the dark, woody timbres of Rapley’s bass clarinet and Armstrong’s cello adding to the sense of melancholy and with Davison featuring as a soloist on mournful sounding flugelhorn.

“Silhouette” commenced with a free jazz style intro instigated by Harris at the bass and featuring Hohnen Ford’s wordless vocalising. Harris’ staccato bass riffs then fuelled a guitar solo from Mason as the piece began to gather momentum with the eleven piece ensemble delivering a convincingly authentic big band sound. Mansfield had hitherto been content to remain part of the ensemble but now his dialogue with Harris led to a barnstorming four mallet vibes solo. Interestingly I later learnt that, like me, Mansfield had been at Ronnie Scott’s the night before checking out the young US vibes rising star Joel Ross performing as part of the Marquis Hill Blacktet. The experience certainly seemed to have inspired Mansfield. Tom Smith, a composer and bandleader in his own right, then rounded off the solos on alto sax.

Written in praise of that humble insect the ladybird “Wings” was gently atmospheric, developing from the fragile shimmering of Mansfield’s unaccompanied vibes intro and featuring subtle violin and cello textures allied to cool wordless vocals. The first solo came from Rapley on bass clarinet, followed by a second outing for Mansfield’s vibes before the music took a more celebratory and anthemic turn with Mason’s closing guitar solo.

As at Reading Elftet closed things out with the epic “Tim Smoth’s Big Day Out”, named in honour of alto saxophonist Tom Smith. Behind the jokey title lay an ambitious, sprawling, multi-faceted composition comprised of many different sections and featuring all the members of the band. Today’s performance lasted for nearly forty minutes and reminded me of the prog rock epics of my 1970s youth that used to fill up the whole of one side of an album – think “Supper’s Ready (Genesis), “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (Van Der Graaf Generator) and “Nine Feet Underground” (Caravan), and maybe even Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” at a pinch. What these pieces had in common were distinct individual sections,  often not written contemporaneously, that were subsequently skilfully knitted together to create a convincing whole.
Mansfield’s piece had this kind of feel as it built from a solo four mallet vibes intro, the ringing overtones combining beautifully with Armstrong’s cello textures. Hohnen Ford’s lyrics and singing had something of a Norma Winstone like quality about them and she was also joined by the voice of Dom Ingham who both sang and played violin on this piece. The four horns combined effectively as part of the ensemble but the performance was also distinguished by a dizzying series of instrumental solos and set pieces. First up was a guitar solo from Mason followed by a duet between Mansfield and Harris and then a tenor solo from Rapley with only Martin-Jones’ drums for company. Rory Ingham’s rumbustious trombone solo reminded this listener of Gary Valente’s work with Carla Bley (praise indeed) while Tom Smith delivered an unaccompanied alto feature that pushed the instrument to its limits and included an astonishing demonstration of circular breathing. And still there was more, the twin voices returned to reprise the initial vocal theme with its beach, sea and sky imagery while further instrumental solos came from Harris on bass, Davison on flugel and Dom Ingham on violin. A passage of scat vocalising from Hohnen Ford then cleared the way for a final climactic drum feature from Martin-Jones. This had been a real musical roller coaster ride and both band and audience were drained after this. Deserved as it might have been an encore was never going to be forthcoming.

Once again I had thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the 606 and can only re-iterate that the venue is an excellent place to enjoy high quality food and highly accomplished British jazz. My thanks to Jonny Mansfield for speaking with me afterwards and to Steve Rubie and his team for their excellent hospitality.

The Elftet album, which I understand will include guest performances by saxophonist Chris Potter, organist Kit Downes and flautist Gareth Lockrane, will be eagerly awaited and should represent one of the major jazz events of 2019.

BILL FRISELL SOLO, CADOGAN HALL

One of the highlights of the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was the duo performance at the Town Hall featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and double bassist Thomas Morgan playing music from their 2017 ECM recording “Small Town”.

That was a wonderfully intimate performance but Frisell has now decided to take things a stage further. His latest album “Music IS”, released on Okeh Records, is a solo recording, the third such of Frisell’s long and productive career.

This renewed fondness for solo performance saw Frisell take to a sparsely furnished stage at Cadogan Hall to a huge welcome. Tall, shy and shambling the bespectacled Frisell seemed almost embarrassed at the warmth of the reception. He’s a musician who prefers to let his playing do the talking so he elected to say nothing to the adoring crowd and instead sat down, picked up his customised Fender Telecaster and began to play.

As at Cheltenham this was virtually an unbroken performance and one that was almost certainly largely improvised.

Born in Baltimore in 1951 Frisell has created a unique guitar style that draws on elements of jazz, rock, ambient and Americana. Frisell’s sound, with its distinctive guitar ‘twang’ is instantly identifiable, making him one of the most recognisable instrumentalists around. Indeed it’s routine for myself and other commentators to regularly refer to the playing of other guitarists as being “Frisell-like”. His style is so distinctive that it has turned into an adjective.

Besides an electric and acoustic guitar, a modest amp and an array of foot pedals the stage was also home to a collection of small, soft toy animals, an indication of Frisell’s amiable eccentricity. Not entirely solo then, Bill.

As Frisell played those folk and country influences quickly became apparent as song like melodies punctuated the guitarist’s jazzier ramblings, it was almost as if we were eavesdropping on a man having a conversation with himself.

Using the top strings of his instrument to generate bass lines Frisell deployed his array of foot pedals to good effect, live looping motifs and phrases and improvising new melodies over the top. At times he created something of a carousel/music box effect, at others a backwards drone muddied the ambient waters, yet everything seemed natural and organic, the ideas flowing seamlessly, each development sounding unforced and perfectly logical.

Frisell has always had a fondness for interpreting familiar material, gently subverting pop songs and folk material but with his deep seated love for his sources always apparent. As at Cheltenham familiar tunes periodically hove into view, notably the Bond theme from “Goldfinger”, which he performed with Morgan at Cheltenham and which appears on the “Small Town” album. Again the guitarist gave the bombastic Bond theme tune the classic Frisell treatment, transforming it into something melancholy, mysterious and beautiful, something emphasised by his subtle improvisations around the theme and judicious use of looping and layering effects.

“Goldfinger” segued delightfully into Burt Bacharach’s “What The World Needs Now” which exhibited similar qualities, but Frisell, perhaps sensing that his audience was getting too comfortable, now roughened the edges with some heavier, rock influenced electric guitar playing that made effective use of sustain and fuzz effects. As this long solo recital built to a climax it transpired that this most reluctant of guitar heroes was actually giving his adoring public the big finish.

The inevitable encore saw Frisell return to pick up the as yet unused acoustic guitar to perform a delightfully poignant version of The Beatles tune “In My Life” subtly seguing into John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance”.

At the end of this Frisell put down his guitar, stood up and clasped his hands as if in prayer, shyly acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, many of whom had got to their feet.

An hour and a half of solo guitar is a lot to ask of an audience but Frisell’s following were thoroughly absorbed by this immaculately intimate performance. You could literally hear a pin drop.
If pushed I’d probably sat that I preferred the Cheltenham performance with Morgan when Frisell had another musician to bounce ideas off. Nevertheless this was a superb performance that demonstrated his seemingly effortless command of the solo guitar format.

ALINA BZHEZHINSKA - ‘AFRO-HARPING’, TOULOUSE LAUTREC JAZZ CLUB, KENNINGTON

A rare visit to London’s deep south for this performance by jazz harpist Alina Bzhezhinska at the Toulouse Lautrec Jazz Club in Kennington.

Tonight represented my first visit to Toulouse Lautrec although I have been publicising events at the venue for a number of years and enjoyed regular email and Facebook contact with its enterprising proprietor Nolan Regent. It was good to meet Nolan at last and it was also nice to experience a performance space that had previously only existed in my imagination.

Based in a building that I surmise to have been a pub in a former existence the Toulouse Lautrec is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The ground floor of the venue houses the Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec which serves authentic French cuisine and has established a good reputation for the quality of its food. The first floor houses a piano bar that recreates the cabaret atmosphere of 1920s/30s Paris.

The Jazz Club itself is situated on the second, or top, floor and I was immediately impressed by its authentic jazz club ambience, definitely a match for the 606, the Pizza, Spice of Life, Vortex and Ronnie’s. Somehow I’d always imagined that the venue was primarily an eating place with the jazz primarily deployed as background music. How wrong can you be? Although tapas style bar snacks were served, very different from the main restaurant menu, this was a genuine, serious jazz club with a relaxed, informal atmosphere and a listening audience. Tonight the room was absolutely rammed and stiflingly hot but I still thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Toulouse Lautrec and would like to take the opportunity of returning again in subsequent years.

The size of the crowd was a tribute Bzhezhinska, a musician and composer who has made a big impression on the UK jazz scene with her album “Inspiration” (Ubuntu Music, 2018), her tribute to the lives and music of John and Alice Coltrane. My review of the “Inspiration” album can be read here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/alina-bzhezhinska-inspiration/

The “Inspiration” band, featuring saxophonist Tony Kofi was due to play at the Spice of Life later in the week but tonight we were to enjoy the music of Bzhezhinska’s latest project, inspired by the “Afro Harping” album by that other great jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby (1932-86).

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “Afro-Harping” and many of tonight’s selections were sourced from that record. Along the way Bzhezhinska told us something of Ashby’s life story and her struggles as a young, black, female jazz musician playing an unfamiliar instrument in a male dominated musical environment and in an America going through the social upheavals of the 1960s with issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War on the political agenda. Besides her jazz output the prolific Ashby also worked as a pop session musician and recorded extensively with Bill Withers and with the Motown record label.

The band that Bzhezhinska had enlisted for this project included Christian Vaughan (keyboards, musical director), Gareth Lockrane (flutes), Julie Walkington (double bass) and Joel Prime, the only survivor from the “Inspiration” band, on drums and percussion.

They commenced with “Soul Vibrations”, the opening track from the “Afro-Harping” album with Vaughan adopting an organ sound on his Yamaha keyboard as Bzhezhinska took the first solo of the night on harp. Initially the leader was a little too low in the mix but careful repositioning of the microphones around her instrument brought about a substantial improvement as the set progressed. “Microphones always represent a challenge” explained the harpist.

From the same album “Games” brought a Latin-esque feel to the music, something encouraged by Prime’s colourful percussion as Bzhezhinska, Lockrane and Vaughan, now deploying an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound, impressed with their solos.

The ballad “My One And Only Love” was introduced by an unaccompanied passage from the leader which demonstrated her command of the harp and its sonic possibilities. Ashby worked regularly with the flautist Frank Wess, hence the presence of the excellent Lockrane on a variety of flutes. It was the flautist that took the next solo, followed by Bzhezhinska, whose harp playing sounded almost pianistic at times, this quality mirrored by Vaughan’s subsequent solo with the keyboard player now adopting an acoustic piano sound.

Returning to the repertoire of the “Afro-Harping” album “Action Line” had something of the feel of a TV theme about it with Bzhezhinska taking the first solo accompanied by the exotic patter of Prime’s percussion. Lockrane featured on piccolo while Vaughan deployed string synth sounds (much of “Afro-Harping” features an orchestra directed by Richard Evans) before switching to an electric piano setting for his solo. The Australian born Prime, who impressed throughout, then rounded things off with an exuberant percussive flourish.

Also from the “Afro-Harping” album came “Lonely Girl”, the second piece to feature a solo harp intro, Bzhezhinska joined first by double bass and then percussion. Ashby’s background in commercial music ensured that she always wrote strong melodies, something emphasised by Lockrane’s breezy theme statement and subsequent solo as he shared the features with harp and electric piano. Like Bill Frisell earlier in the day Ashby’s style was so distinctive that record producers would often ask other harp players to recreate “that Ashby Sound”.

Besides her work as a musician Ashby was also a political activist who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She and her husband John Ashby also founded a radical black theatre group in her native Detroit. The title of her piece “Life Has It’s Trials” reflected both her personal circumstances and the turbulence of the times and featured solos from Bzhezhinska on harp and Lockrane on flute.

A lengthy first set concluded with “Secret Love”, a piece that Ashby recorded for a standards album. The performance included features for Walkington and Prime alongside solos from Lockrane, Bzhezhinska and Vaughan.

During the interval I noted the presence of Tony Kofi in the club, offering his support for his colleague’s new project, something that was good to see.

The first piece of the second half was unannounced but got the proceedings off to a lively start with Lockrane on flute, Vaughan on electric piano and Prime at the drums the featured soloists.

“Afro-Harping” includes a cover of Freddie Hubbard’s charming tune “Little Sunflower” which saw Lockrane delivering the familiar melody on alto (I think) flute – this man had more flutes on stage than you could shake the proverbial stick at. He’d also led his Big Band at the Spice of Life earlier in the day, let’s hope he had Monday off! Solos her came from Bzhezhinska and Lockrane.

The album also features Andre and Dory Previn’s theme from “Valley Of The Dolls”, a feature here for the leader who demonstrated the almost orchestral capabilities of the harp, a quality that also distinguishes the “Inspiration” album.

Next came another film theme, Luis Bonfa’s “Black Orpheus”. Ashby was particularly adept at arranging popular tunes but this was a Bzhezhinska adaptation in the Ashby style featuring an unaccompanied harp intro and with features for Prime on hand drums, Lockrane on alto flute and Vaughan on acoustic piano.

In many cases Ashby’s arrangements had been transcribed by Vaughan, who essentially acted as Bzhezhinska’s MD for this project. A case in point was “Come Live With Me” from the “Afro-Harping” album, played as an ensemble piece with buoyant bass and drum grooves underpinning a strong melody.

The quintet completed their programme with the final track from “Afro-Harping”, an arrangement of the Bacharach/David song “The Look Of Love” with Lockrane featuring on both flute and piccolo and sharing the solos with Bzhezhinska on harp and Vaughan on electric piano.

The quintet remained on stage to play a deserved, but unannounced encore, with a vibrant bass and drum groove fuelling solos from all five members of this highly accomplished band.

This had been a lengthy, value for money performance packed with excellent playing and a fascinating collection of tunes. The presentation by Bzhezhinska mixed charm and wit with interesting and informative details about Ashby’s life and music. Next year’s Ashby inspired recording will be awaited with much interest.

I’ve wanted to see Bzhezhinska play since being hugely impressed with “Inspiration” and I’m pleased to report that she and her excellent band didn’t disappoint. This wasn’t one of the high profile EFG LJF shows but it proved to be something of a personal Festival highlight.

My thanks to Alina and Nolan for speaking with me after the show. Like Steve Rubie at the “Six” Nolan was running around manning the mixing desk, helping out behind the bar, looking after the band and the guest list etc. etc.

Sure they’re running a business, but club owners such as Nolan and Steve are some of the great unsung heroes of British jazz, providing places for top quality jazz musicians such as Elftet and the Bzhezhinska group to play in. Well done, gentlemen, and thanks too to all the musicians who helped to make this first Sunday of the Festival such a memorable day.

 

by Ian Mann

November 29, 2018

Ian Mann on the music of New York's Jamie Baum Septet + and Chicago's Marquis Hill Blacktet.

EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL
Day Two, Saturday 17th November 2018


The first Saturday of the Festival proved to be a strange day for me, one that didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected.

My wife had celebrated her 60th birthday in the week leading up to the Festival and our hosts, both family members, had invited the numerous other branches of the family to London for a surprise party. Relatives converged on the capital from all corners of the UK, Cardiff, Cambridge, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester and my wife was taken completely by surprise. She had a wonderful day with her family that she will never forget.

It all came as a surprise to me too, I’d been kept out of the loop to prevent any spilling of the proverbial beans. It did however affect my Festival plans. I had intended to cover the Daylight Music event featuring Sigbjorn Apeland and others at Union Chapel before moving on to the NYJO Jazz Jam at The Vortex and perhaps catching something of the Italian Jazz Showcase at the Barbican Freestage. All this was shelved due to the unforeseen events but as I hadn’t actually arranged press tickets for these events I was able to change my plans with a clear conscience, I was going to pay the five pound admission charges at the Chapel and the Vortex and the Barbican event was, of course, free. However I still felt that I should honour my commitments to the two ticketed events that I had arranged to cover in the evening. Having somehow managed to remain sober I abandoned the revellers to their evening meal and made my way to Kings Place for;

JAMIE BAUM SEPTET +, HALL TWO, KINGS PLACE

Jamie Baum is a New York based flautist and composer and a substantial presence on that city’s jazz scene. She’s a musician that I have been aware of for a number of years having at some point received one of her earlier albums, the 2013 Septet + release “In This Life” as I recall. I was impressed with what I heard but somehow the album slipped through the net as regards reviews, mainly due to this site’s concentration on UK jazz.

My apologies to Jamie for that but I have continued to keep an eye on her career, regularly passing on the contents of her newsletters to the Jazzmann readership and including her gigs in our listings.
When a rare UK live appearance was announced at EFG LJF I therefore felt duty bound to check it out, both for myself and for Jamie.

The Kings Place date was part of a short European tour (now completed) in support of Baum’s latest album “Bridges” featuring her eight piece ensemble Septet +. The group that Baum brought to London was essentially the same as that on the album with the flautist joined by Amir Elsaffar (trumpet, flugelhorn, voice), Sam Sadigursky (alto sax, clarinet), Chris Komer (french horn), Brad Shepik (guitar), Zack Lober (bass) and Jeff Hirshfield (drums, percussion). The only change was the piano chair where the album’s John Escreet was replaced by the excellent Luis Perdomo. Escreet was to turn up later at the Festival as part of drummer Antonio Sanchez’s Migration band, but more on that in a subsequent feature.

First formed in 1999 Baum’s now expanded septet has been her primary vehicle for composition and there have been regular fluctuations in personnel over the years with many of New York’s leading musicians passing through the band’s ranks. The latest album, “Bridges”, reflects Baum’s growing fascination with world music and global rhythms and the links, or bridges, between musical cultures. The current version of the band is adept at navigating the complexities of Baum’s writing and the emphasis tonight was on composition rather than out and out improvisation, although several of tonight’s performances differed significantly to the recorded versions.

The majority of tonight’s material was sourced from “Bridges” but the group began with an older piece, “Nusrat” from the “In This Life” album. Baum has long been an admirer of the late, great Pakistani Qawwali vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-97) and her piece is a transcription of one of Khan’s vocal melodies. The first thing that struck me about tonight’s performance was the fascinating but highly effective blend of horns with the combination of flute, trumpet, alto sax and french horn surely unique in the realm of jazz. The complex melody lines resulted in a sound that reminded me of an exotic updating of bebop with solos coming from Elsaffar on trumpet, Baum on flute, Komer on french horn and Sadigursky on high register alto sax.

Turning to the “Bridges” repertoire “Joyful Lament” was based upon another Khan melody and represented something of a feature for guitarist Shepik. Drums, bass clarinet and guitar introduced the piece before Shepik took flight with a guitar solo that combined great fluency with a strong rock influence as he headed for the heavens with a breathtaking, sustain heavy solo. The recorded version includes a konnakol introduction by guest musician Navin Chettri.

Baum cast her global net further with “From The Well”, the opening tack of the “Bridges” album. Here the influence was the maqam of Jewish and Middle Eastern music with Baum taking the first solo on flute. The excellent Elsaffar then demonstrated his mastery of the form with an authentically Middle Eastern sounding solo on trumpet that became increasingly forceful and garrulous as the tune progressed.

Unaccompanied piano introduced “Song Without Words”, dedicated to the memory of Baum’s late father Seymour James Baum. Perdomo’s low end pianistic rumblings then underpinned Elsaffar’s vocals, his singing inspired by “Kol Nidre”, an Aramaic dedication played or recited in the Jewish synagogue before the beginning of the evening service on every Yom Kippur. I wasn’t aware of all this until I read the album liner notes, but at the time I noted that the music had a spiritual and meditative quality about it, this enhanced by a further passage of solo piano, more beautiful vocalising from Elsaffar and the warm, woody tones of Sadigursky’s bass clarinet and Baum’s flute.

The first set concluded with “While We Are Here”, another tune from the “In This Life” album with Perdomo’s piano arpeggios underpinning mellifluous horn melodies with solos coming from Baum on flute and Perdomo on piano, the piece steadily gaining momentum as it progressed courtesy of Lober’s insistent bass grooves and Hirshfield’s crisp drumming, with the latter’s cymbal work particularly impressive.

The group stuck to the “In This Life” repertoire at the start of the second set with “The Game”, another piece inspired by by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that embraced strong melodies and driving rhythms with Shepik taking the first solo on guitar. He was followed by the leader on alto flute who entered into a series of lively exchanges with Elsaffar on trumpet.

It was back to the “Bridges” album for the rest of the programme beginning with “There Are No Words”, a reflective but delightfully melodic piece featuring solos from Lober on double bass, Baum on flute and Perdomo at the piano.

The centre piece of the “Bridges” album is the three part suite “Honoring Nepal; The Shiva Suite”.
Baum’s fascination with South East Asian music has led to her visiting Nepal many times and performing at the Kathmandu Jazz Festival in 2003 and 2009. Having played with local musicians and having formed lasting friendships in the country she was emotionally devastated by the terrible earthquake that caused widespread destruction in Nepal in 2015. Commissioned by the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in New York City the Suite is her response to those events and is centred around the complex character of the Hindu deity Shiva, the God of Destruction among several other contradictory attributes. The suite was first performed at a benefit concert for the earthquake victims at the Poisson Rouge Jazz Club in New York City.

Although performed tonight as a single entity the Suite is divided into three distinct parts, “The Earthquake”, “Renewal” and “Contemplation” and it was fascinating to follow its progress in live performance. Lober’s playing of a singing bowl helped to set the scene, the ethereal sounds subsequently joined by sparse piano chording and the subtle textures created by flute, trumpet, french horn and bass clarinet. A dialogue between Shepik on guitar and Hirshfield at the drums then ushered in the violence of “The Earthquake” with its wilfully dissonant ensemble passages. “Renewal” then featured Sadigursky’s melodic alto sax solo, this followed by a series of exchanges with the leader’s flute. Singing bowl and piano ushered in the gentler “Contemplation” with french horn and bass clarinet then intertwining above the soft patter of hand / brushed drums. Perdomo then entered into dialogue with Lober’s melodic bass before embarking on a flowingly expansive piano solo, this followed by a fluent excursion from Komer on french horn as the music ultimately became more celebratory in tone.

The last tune of the night was the final one from “Bridges”. Baum wrote “Ucross Me” at the Ucross Artist Colony in Wyoming and the piece addresses the crossing of boundaries and the connecting of influences, themes that inform the “Bridges” album as a whole. Exhibiting a minimalist influence with its piano arpeggios, gently needling guitar and pecked, contrapuntal horn lines this was an oddly compulsive piece that eventually adopted a more forceful, straightforward rhythmic drive that framed instrumental set pieces such as the dialogue between Lober’s bass and Elsaffar’s trumpet, with the latter subsequently embarking on a more conventional solo. This was then followed by Shepik’s spiralling inventions on guitar.

Overall I was impressed with Baum’s writing and by the playing of the members of the ensemble. Rich in terms of colour and texture and with consistent rhythmic interest Baum’s music has much to offer and the “Bridges” album reveals fresh delights with each subsequent listen. There were occasions when tonight’s performance seemed a little too formal and overly academic (much of “Bridges” was written for a Guggenheim Fellowship) but Baum’s interest in global musical culture has found her assembling a fascinating amalgam of influences into a unique and personal soundworld, made accessible by a select group of hand picked musicians.

I treated myself to a copy of “Bridges” during the interval and was sorry that I couldn’t hang around after the show to speak with Jamie. Instead I had to dash off to Ronnie Scott’s to catch my third American band of the Festival, trumpeter Marquis Hill and his Blacktet.

MARQUIS HILL BLACKTET, RONNIE SCOTT’S JAZZ CLUB

There was some doubt as to whether this show actually came under the EFG LJF umbrella and I’m therefore indebted to Ronnie’s Marketing Manager Emma Raczkowski for arranging my ticket for this event.

This late night show was the second of the evening by the Blacktet and saw the Chicago born Hill leading a stellar five piece band dubbed the Blacktet and featuring Braxton Cook on alto sax, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Jeremiah Hunt on acoustic and electric bass and Jonathan Pinson at the drums. Initially I was a little disappointed that rising drum star Makaya McCraven wasn’t behind the kit as had been suggested but that was soon forgotten as I was quickly blown away by the percussive skills of Pinson, who fills the drum chair on Hill’s latest album “Modern Flows Vol.2”.

I first became aware of Hill’s playing when he appeared as part of bassist Marcus Miller’s band at an excellent performance at Birmingham Town Hall in October 2015. I was hugely impressed with Hill’s contribution and jumped at the chance of seeing him leading his own project.

At a sold out Ronnie’s Hill and his colleagues took to the stage to the sampled sounds of “Modern Flows II Intro”, the opening track on the new album featuring the voice and words of poet, DJ and MC Brandon Alexander Williams. The album embraces elements of hip hop, funk, soul and r & b, with Hill adopting the point of view that all Afro-American music stems from the same source. Like his one time boss Miller he’s a versatile musician who drifts seamlessly between musical genres.

But make no mistake, tonight’s was emphatically a jazz performance with the members of the Blacktet relishing in free-wheeling improvisation as they tackled Hill’s material with gusto. As Williams’ voice played Ross and Pinson entered into dialogue, the drummer setting up a hip hop style groove that quickly mutated into something more conventionally jazzy as Williams’ voice faded away and the twin horns of Hill and Cook steered the music into more orthodox bebop territory with Cook taking the first solo on alto, followed by Hill on trumpet, the two also entering into a series of fiery exchanges. Ross followed them with a highly percussive two mallet vibraphone solo, channelling the spirit of Lionel Hampton for the 21st century. With Hunt’s bass fulfilling an anchoring role Ross then renewed his dialogue with Pinson, their dazzling exchanges sometimes reminiscent of the equally brilliant interplay between Jim Hart and Dave Smith in the UK’s own Cloudmakers Trio.

It was Pinson that introduced the next piece with a passage of unaccompanied drumming that incorporated martial rhythms and led to a complex, boppish head from the horns with Hill shading off into a strident, bop flavoured solo. As Cook took over on alto Hill, a former drummer, clapped out a rhythm that wouldn’t have disgraced a flamenco ‘palmas’ specialist as he combined with the vibrant Pinson. Still wielding two mallets the impressive Ross took up the baton on vibes, his solo followed by a feature for bassist Hunt before the two horns coalesced again for a unison restatement of the head.

Thus far tune titles had been unannounced but Hill now spoke to introduce “Prayer For The People” which was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied bass from Hunt prior to a bravura solo from Hill that included Dizzy Gillespie-like trumpet pyrotechnics. Cook, previously seen at EFG LJF with trumpeter Christian Scott’s band, was equally impressive, as was the razor sharp playing of the whole ensemble. The recorded version of this tune, on “Modern Flows Vol. II” features the words of Chicago poetess M’Reld Green and tackles the subject of social injustice in black neighbourhoods, but tonight it effectively transmitted its message as an inspired instrumental performance.

From the same album “Herstory” also features Green, but again convinced as an instrumental with the irrepressible Ross displaying his four mallet technique as he soloed over Pinson’s solid drum grooves. Meanwhile Hill’s solo on Harmon muted trumpet evoked that classic Miles Davis sound, with Cook’s alto sometimes doubling the melody.

No further tune announcements were forthcoming but the sparks continued to fly with the soulful grooves of the next piece fuelling another impressive trumpet solo from the leader. But as impressive as Hill and Cook were, the only two musicians that I’d heard previously, it was the fresh discoveries Ross and Pinson that excited me most. Pinson is a playful but highly musical drummer and his scintillating exchanges with Ross in the, vibes trio, format were among the most thrilling moments of the set. Whether soloing with two mallets or four Ross was consistently impressive and is set to release his album début as a leader in 2019, an event that should be well worth looking out for. Meanwhile Pinson displayed the kind of chops that have made him such an in demand sideman, with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter heading an impressive list of former employers.

This performance by the Chicago based Blacktet was a tribute to the high standard of jazz musicianship in the Windy City and was easily the match of the two New York based bands I’d already seen. Indeed this was probably the pick of the bunch thus far, a hugely exciting show that featured some exceptional soloing allied to a strong group dynamic and underpinned by a highly relevant political agenda.

The only regret was that there wasn’t more of it, the set lasting just an hour and with no encore forthcoming despite the excited reaction of the crowd.

 

by Ian Mann

November 05, 2018

An intriguing evening of music making that once again mixed genres at a whim. Ian Mann on the latest edition of Trish Clowes' Emulsion Festival, w. guest musicians Alexander Hawkins & Percy Pursglove.

Emulsion Festival VII, Day One, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 02/11/2018.

Emulsion Festival is the brainchild of London based saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes. This seventh edition of the event was the second such of 2018, Emulsion VI having taken place at the Gateway Arts Centre in Clowes’ native Shrewsbury in June. Review here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/emulsion-festival-vi-day-two-gateway-arts-education-centre-shrewsbury-16-06/

This was also the Festival’s second visit to the mac, with Emulsion V having taken place at the venue in 2017.

As befits a former BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist Clowes is a musician with a foot in both the jazz and classical music camps. During her studies on the Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music she regularly associated and played with students on the classical courses. Her recordings, “Tangent” (2010), “and in the night time she is there (2012), “Pocket Compass” (2014) and “My Iris” (2017) have all contained elements of both genres, with Clowes collaborating with a range of musicians drawn from both the jazz and classical fields.

Clowes conceived the Emulsion project as a means of bringing adventurous musicians from the jazz and classical worlds together in a spirit of mutual collaboration. She describes it as “a new music Festival that celebrates the adventurous spirit and the open mind”, and “an experiment featuring a group of like-minded musicians”. She emphasises the cross-genre nature of the Festival and its role as “a platform for new music and improvisation”.

The First Emulsion Festival took place at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston before moving on to two other London venues, Kings Place and the Village Underground. In 2017 Clowes took the Festival on the road, moving first to Birmingham, then on to Shrewsbury, and now back to Birmingham again.

Emulsion is more than just a series of festivals. Clowes has described it as “an evolving concept”, a movement if you will, which actively encourages and commissions new music from both jazz and contemporary classical composers.  The primarily outlet for these works is the Emulsion Sinfonietta, an ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical musicians personally selected by Clowes.

Every Emulsion event is different with the Sinfonietta regularly augmented by guest musicians and composers, these regularly bringing freshly composed music to the ensemble. At Shrewsbury the guests included jazz pianist/composers Robert Mitchell and Nikki Iles. Meanwhile Emulsion VII featured the talents of the innovative pianist, composer and improviser Alexander Hawkins.

As in previous years the Festival extended over the course of two days. Again I was only able to attend one of these, in this instance the Friday evening performance featuring a scaled down nine piece ensemble playing an eclectic and adventurous mix of primarily new music from a range of composers including Clowes and Hawkins plus other members of the ensemble, among them Percy Pursglove, Donald Grant and Louise McMonagle. Outside material came from Anthony Braxton, Bela Bartok and Ross Edwards.

Tonight’s ensemble lined up as follows;

Trish Clowes – tenor & soprano saxes, voice
Alexander Hawkins – piano, voice
Mandhira de Saram – violin, voice
Donald Grant – violin, voice
Lauren Weavers – oboe, cor anglais, voice
Louise McMonagle – cello, voice
Percy Pursglove – trumpet, double bass, voice
Chris Montague – guitar, voice
James Maddren – drums, voice

Sharp eyed readers will note that everybody sings, despite the fact that none of the members of the ensemble is primarily known as a vocalist. This was because the programme included two pieces by Percy Pursglove for “Emoji Choir”, compositions with a graphic score comprised of emoji characters, each one depicting a specific, mostly vocal, noise such as hisses, intakes of breath, whistling, humming, finger snaps etc. The so called “Noise Choir” i.e. the Emulsion Ensemble provided the vocal accompaniment to Pursglove’s emotive solo trumpeting on the opening “Tinker, Innovator, Plagiarist, Spy”. All the members of the ensemble were involved, with the blend of male and female voices particularly effective and with certain recognisable phrases distinguishable among the myriad of vocal sounds, finger snaps and hand claps, among them “Emojis are omnipresent in our lives”. In the intimate confines of the mac’s Hexagon Theatre this proved to be an unusual, intriguing, and highly effective beginning to the night’s music making.

During the course of the evening the ensemble was frequently broken down into smaller groups, beginning with the quartet that played the first of Hawkins’ compositions. The Oxford based musician was playing an upright piano as he lined up alongside Clowes on soprano sax, Weavers on oboe, Maddren at the drums and Pursglove now on pizzicato double bass. Rather like a classical concert Emulsion VII came with a printed programme of events, although the running order was rather more fluid. By a process of elimination I assume that this was the pianist’s “Assemble/Melancholy”. Again the performance included unconventional sounds as the fingers of both Clowes and Weavers fluttered over the key pads of their instruments on a piece that combined the sonorous solemnity of church music with the gnarled knottiness of intense jazz improvisation.

McMonagle’s “Beep Beep Beep” brought another combination of instruments to the stage as the original nonet became even more fragmented. The cellist was teamed with Hawkins at the piano and Pursglove on double bass, with the trio again deploying extended techniques as Hawkins dampened the piano strings and both string players played percussively, including some vigorous bowing below the bridges of their respective instruments. By way of contrast McMonagle also offered some astonishing, virtuosic, high register bowing on a piece that was exciting, invigorating and enjoyable, despite its embrace of the avant garde.

The cross genre nature of the Festival was acknowledged with a lively performance of Bartok’s “Cushion Dance” by a quartet featuring the violins of Grant and de Saram alongside the reeds of Weavers (oboe) and Clowes (soprano sax). 

The folk inspired melodies of the Bartok piece provided scope for some excellent playing from the two violinists and this was a theme that continued into the next composition, Grant’s own “Gorm Shuil”, the title a Gaelic phrase meaning “Blue Eyes”. Grant, from the village of Roybridge in the Scottish Highlands is the embodiment of the Emulsion ethos, equally at home playing traditional British folk music with the likes of singer Kate Rusby as he is playing classical violin with the Elias String Quartet or freely improvising with Clowes and the rest of the Emulsion crew.  Steeped in Gaelic culture his tune told the mythical tale of a Scottish witch and was played by a trio featuring himself with de Saram and McMonagle, the first section of the piece featuring the composer playing haunting violin melodies underscored by McMonagle’s melancholy cello drone in the manner of an air or lament. The addition of de Saram on second violin saw the music pick up pace and head into jigs and reels territory with Grant stamping his foot in time to the beat as the music continued to gather momentum. There was even an element of audience participation as Grant taught the audience a couple of Gaelic phrases, including the tune title, and encouraged us to sing along. I don’t think I’ve sung along in Gaelic since the last time I went to a Julie Fowlis concert.

For the audience the participation wasn’t over yet. The first half closed with another of Pursglove’s Emoji Choir pieces, this one variously known as “#49 Years” or “Sing a Song for the Silenced” or “Alas, Work Bringeth Not Freedom”. The instrumentalists here were Pursglove on breathy trumpet and Montague on scratchy guitar, these two accompanied by the furtive rustle of Maddren’s drums, but the real focus was on the Emoji Choir, i.e. the rest of the ensemble plus us, the audience members. Spectator involvement is becoming more and more of a feature of Emulsion events and for this piece each audience member was provided with a graphic score featuring a dozen different emojis, each depicting a different noise, plus approximate timings at which make the appropriate sound as everybody tried to hang in there along with the trio and the rest of the ensemble. Not all the graphic scores laid out on the seats were exactly the same, which only served to add to the randomness of a delicious chaos. Emulsion may have serious aims, but as this mass performance showed it can also be great fun, with all the spectators seeming to enjoy the sense of involvement.

The shorter second set was rather more formal and commenced with the virtuoso solo cor anglais (I think) playing of Lauren Weavers on “Ulpirra”, a piece written by the Australian contemporary classical composer Ross Edwards and based upon an Aboriginal myth. The piece has also been played by solo performers on instruments ranging from recorders through flutes and oboes to soprano saxophone.

Clowes’ own “Song for Saariaho”, written for the inspirational Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, brought the trio of herself, McMonagle and Maddren to the stage. Originally written for bass clarinet Clowes successfully transferred the woody timbres to her tenor sax as McMonagle added effective cello counter-melodies and Maddren provided appropriate drum punctuation. Clowes’ tenor solo represented one of the few ‘conventional’ jazz solos of the entire evening.

Maddren remained on stage to be joined in a spontaneous improvisation by guitarist Chris Montague, the latter manipulating his sound by jamming objects under the strings and making convincing use of a range of pedal generated effects. Exploring territory between jazz and rock this productive and well received collaboration brought new musical elements to the Emulsion mix.

Guest performer Alexander Hawkins presided over the next section of the evening. Hawkins is one of the many contemporary improvising musicians to be influenced by the great Chicago based saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton (others include the American musicians Taylor Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson). Influenced in turn by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen Braxton is reluctant to describe himself as a jazz musician and his pieces habitually have numbers rather than names as titles. Hawkins brought Braxton’s “Composition 142” to Emulsion, its tricky contours traversing the hinterland between jazz and contemporary classical composition with solos from Pursglove on trumpet and Clowes on soprano sax.

Influenced by the music of the baroque Hawkins’ own “Sun(g)” also featured the entire ensemble and was a mesh of intertwining melodic and rhythmic lines.

Finally we heard Clowes’ “Master & Margarita”, a piece sourced from her début album “Tangent” but here re-arranged specifically for this ensemble, “revisited”, as its creator described it. Again audience participation was encouraged, with the crowd encouraged to make ‘thunder noises’ in keeping with Clowes’ source of inspiration for the piece, the fantastical writings of the Russian author  Mikhail Bulgakov.  Following the avant garde leanings of Hawkins and Braxton this was rather more conventional, almost ‘straightahead’, by comparison and included solos from Pursglove on trumpet, Clowes on tenor, and even Maddren at the drums.

This was an enjoyable end to an intriguing evening of music making that once again mixed genres at a whim and offset any accusations of ‘seriousness’ or solemnity’ with a welcome sense of fun. Ths included involving the audience as well as the musicians, but not in the rote and tedious ‘put your hands together’ manner of the average rock concert.

Such is Clowes’ commitment to audience participation that she is currently undertaking a PhD study into the subject, with audience members filling out questionnaires that were handed in at the merch desk (yes! CDs, T shirts, tote bags, badges) at the end of tonight’s performance.

The second day of the Festival was due to take place on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd November with an extended line up including Ross Stanley on keyboards and Catriona McDermid on bassoon. The programme was scheduled to include a solo performance by McDermid of Nicola Lefanu’s “Sir Harlequin” plus “Prelude III from ‘Trois Prelude et Fugues’” by Marcel Dupre, played by the duo of Clowes and Stanley, presumably on saxophone and organ respectively.

Emulsion VI at Shrewsbury had introduced the concept of ‘Emulsify’, compositions involving both the ensemble and the audience. The Saturday was due to revisit this on a larger scale than tonight with two new pieces , “Everyone plus everyone” by Pursglove and “I.F.” by Clowes.

I’d be interested to hear from anybody who went on the Saturday. The Friday was never less than interesting and the constant mutations between line ups and musical styles ensured that the evening was like a live version of “Late Junction”, the BBC Radio 3 programme that has championed Clowes and Emulsion and which broadcast performances from Emulsion V, also held at the mac.

Such exposure might have been useful this time, the Friday night attendance was frankly disappointing, possibly due to a combination of half term holidays and the impending Bonfire Night. Clowes, however seemed defiantly undeterred. She had clearly had a ball playing this challenging, but fun, material with a group of hand picked friends. My thanks to Tom Harrison, Clowes’ collaborator on the Emulsion project for inviting my wife and I to the Festival.

Clowes is a born creator and a willing risk taker and it will take more than this to knock her off her stride. Look out for Emulsion VIII in 2018. The mission continues.

by Ian Mann

September 10, 2018

Ian Mann enjoys the Jazz Alley and Charity Swing Party events at the Market Hall with performances by Wonderbrass, Tarion, Rebelinx and The Electric Swing Circus.

Photograph of Wonderbrass by Pam Mann


JAZZ ALLEY and CHARITY SWING PARTY,
SUNDAY at WALL2WALL JAZZ FESTIVAL, MARKET HALL, ABERGAVENNY, 02/09/2018


The final day of the wall2wall Jazz Festival has settled into a well established format. Today was the fourth annual edition of “Jazz Alley”, the family friendly event held in Abergavenny’s impressive Market Hall featuring free musical performances, food stalls and a licensed bar.

Jazz Alley has proved to be a popular event with the people of Abergavenny and has helped to bring jazz to an audience who might otherwise not get to hear it, while simultaneously raising the profile of the Black Mountain Jazz Club and the Wall2Wall Festival within the town.

The ‘family friendly’ nature of the event entails that the performances have to be readily accessible, crowd pleasing affairs and in general the performances on the Sunday of the Festival are less ‘serious’ than on the preceding days with the emphasis very much on fun.

This year Jazz Alley featured an extra dimension with  the Jazz Alley and Charity Swing Party events supporting the Music Therapy programme at the Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice, a charity covering the whole of Wales and based at Sully in the Vale of Glamorgan. We were to hear something about the work of the charity at various junctures during the day.

This fact, combined with an improvement in the weather from 2017 ensured that visitor numbers were up again for the third consecutive year with several people there to support the charity as much as to listen to the music.

The Jazz Alley afternoon featured performances from three very different acts, the Cardiff community big band Wonderbrass, local all female indie rock band Tarion and the Canadian artist known as Rebelinx, the last named playing his final gig of an extensive UK tour.

Following a full afternoon of music the venue was cleared at 6.00 pm in readiness for the ticketed evening event, the Charity Swing Party, again in aid of Ty Hafan, with a large percentage of the ticket price going directly to the charity. The entertainment was provided by the young Birmingham based ‘electro-swing’ act The Electric Swing Circus.


WONDERBRASS

Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary Wonderbrass is a great Welsh institution that has charmed and entertained festival audiences all over the UK. Led by saxophonist, composer and educator Rob Smith Wonderbrass is ostensibly a ‘community band’, a phrase that conjures up images of well meaning amateurism. In reality the standard of musicianship is extraordinarily high for such an institution, which speaks volumes for the quality of Smith’s leadership.

As well as delighting audiences at home and abroad Wonderbrass has also released a series of excellent recordings, the majority of the them in the CD EP format that are both enjoyable and convincing in the home listening environment. Over the years Wonderbrass have collaborated with many leading jazz musicians including trumpeter Claude Deppa, saxophonist Jason Yarde, bassist Paula Gardiner and drummer Mark O’Connor.

The very nature of the band engenders that its line up is very fluid. There have been occasions when the ensemble has numbered in excess of twenty five members but today’s incarnation was a slimmed down thirteen piece version numbering more reeds than brass, the line up featuring two soprano saxes, two altos, two tenors and one baritone plus trumpet, flute, clarinet, keyboards, guitar, electric bass and drums.

Clad in their distinctive yellow band uniforms and with some members of the band displaying exotic head gear Wonderbrass took to the streets of Abergavenny for a New Orleans style jazz parade before filing back into the Market Hall and taking their place on the venue’s stage.

Split over two sets, their performances punctuated by the one from Tarion, their programme included a mix of Smith originals together with a series outside pieces, many of them commissioned specifically for the band. Myriad musical styles were incorporated ranging from New Orleans and Township jazz to folk, funk and ska plus a number of inspired pop and rock covers, presumably arranged by Smith.

Among the latter was the rousing first set opener, a raucous reading of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” inspired by Jagger & Co.’s recent appearance in Cardiff. Other pop covers included Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”,  “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” by Californian rockers CAKE and Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer” which closed the second set and had the crowd bellowing along with the lyrics as members of the band got down off the stand to dance with members of the audience.

But behind Wonderbrass’ crowd pleasing antics and good time façade there’s a good deal of musical sophistication. Other composers to be represented included Mongo Santamaria, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Professor Longhair, Cannonball Adderley and Hugh Masekela. It’s a list that reflects the breadth of the band’s influences and offers evidence of their virtuosity and versatility.

Pieces commissioned specifically for the band included Deppa’s “Commander’s Call” with its strong Township Jazz influence and “Buccaneer Bay” by the New York City based musician King Django, an old friend of the band. Smith’s own pieces included the infectious New Orleans inspired “I Ain’t Got No Sideways” from the latest Wonderbrass EP “What The Actual Funk?”, dating from 2015.

As ever with Wonderbrass the playing was excellent with most members of the ensemble getting to take a solo at one point. The personnel weren’t introduced but the lion’s share of the soloing came from Smith on curved soprano sax and band stalwart Jenny Bradley on baritone. Others to impress were keyboard player Katie, flautist Caroline and trumpeter Catherine (thanks to Jenny Bradley for supplying the names).

I’ve seen Wonderbrass perform many times over the years at jazz festivals in Brecon and Lichfield and have always enjoyed their irresistible blend of high quality musicianship combined with an infectious sense of fun. Smith’s original compositions are consistently engaging (as is his writing for close musical relatives Heavy Quartet) and Wonderbrass also choose to cover interesting outside material with their punchy, colourful, highly inventive versions of well known pop and rock tunes proving to be guaranteed crowd pleasers. The audience loved them and a return visit in 2019 isn’t out of the question. As well as being great fun they’re also musically satisfying.  Personally, I’d like to see them headline the evening ticketed event some time.


TARION

Tarion are an all female band originating from Abergavenny and its environs playing all original music mainly written by lead singer and occasional guitarist Jay Ryan and guitarist and occasional lead singer Clare Francis. The current line up of the band is completed by bassist Judy Coyte and drummer Sally Ann Iles. They describe themselves as “a bit punky, funky, folky, rocky”. They’re certainly not jazz but they had previously appeared at the inaugural Jazz Alley event in 2015 and had obviously been received well enough to be invited back.

I missed their 2015 performance as that first Jazz Alley ran parallel to ticketed events at the Kings Arms so today was my first exposure to Tarion’s music. Basically I’d categorise them as “indie rock” and, for me, there was much to enjoy about their music, although die hard jazz fans might disagree.

I liked the fact that Tarion choose to play their own material rather than the usual pub rock covers fare. Their Jazz Alley performance saw the core quartet augmented by a guest guitarist, introduced only as “Dave”. He proved to be more than just the ‘token bloke’ as he added colour and texture to the group’s music, sometimes deploying a finger slide, at others electronic effects. Tarion’s songs deployed very few instrumental breaks, and certainly no solos in the jazz sense, but in many aspects the mysterious Dave almost functioned as the band’s lead guitarist.

Coyte and the powerful Iles provided a solid and propulsive rhythm section but Ryan’s vocals were ill served by a booming rock style sound mix and it was virtually impossible to make sense of any of the lyrics. This isn’t to cast aspersions on Ryan’s singing, or that of Francis when she took over the lead on her own songs; both singers were more than competent vocalists and probably sound fine on record but the Market Hall acoustics didn’t do any of today’s vocalists any favours at all. Of course the cavernous, high roofed building was never intended for live music but one still felt that turning the volume down a notch or two might have helped.

What I heard convinced me that I’d be quite happy to hear Tarion again in a more sympathetic setting, and I’d like to hear them on disc too. They appear to have a four track digital EP, “Party Hard” available on Bandcamp, from which two of today’s songs, set opener “Taxi” and the later “Finish With a Flourish” were sourced. Other songs heard today included “Ocean Pacific Blue”, “Fool in Love”, the infectious “Spellbound” and set closer “Six Feet From Land”.

Overall the positives outweighed the negatives and there was obvious potential here, but an otherwise promising set was marred by the unsympathetic sound balance.


REBELINX

The final act at Jazz Alley was Rebelinx, a Canadian born artist who was playing the last date of a UK tour. Born in Toronto Richard Lincoln Thorne aka Rebelinx or Linx spent several years in New York, a city he still regards as his ‘second home’. Now based in Vancouver he has also spent time in Montreal, Paris and Prince George, BC.

For this Wall2Wall performance Linx fronted a four piece band featuring keyboards, electric bass and drums. On keyboards was Tony Keshiro, also based in Vancouver but originally from Trinidad. The rhythm section were two Midlands based musicians who had joined Linx for the tour only but whose names were rendered indecipherable by the Market Hall’s acoustics.

Indeed Rebelinx was to suffer the same problems as had been endured by Tarion, particularly with regard to the vocals. Keshiro, also a record producer and acoustic engineer later told me that he was unhappy with the mix but that he acknowledged the difficulties in obtaining a good sound in such a venue.

Linx is a versatile musician whose music embraces elements of jazz, funk, soul and reggae. He sings and plays alto saxophone and with this being a jazz festival his focus today was largely on jazz, soul and funk. The bass and drum team provided a propulsive funk groove in conjunction with Keshiro, who also added splashes of colour and texture via his Yamaha DX7 keyboard.  Meanwhile Linx proclaimed his socially conscious lyrics in a style that reminded of Gil Scott Heron. His vocals were punctuated by incisive alto sax solos played in a style that was sometimes reminiscent of David Sanborn.

Again it was impossible to make sense of much of the lyrics, or even of the talking between songs, but Linx still managed to get his message of love, tolerance and inclusiveness across, while also tackling a range of social issues, especially those particularly relevant to the Afro-American/Canadian community. It was a shame that the words were so difficult to pick up as Linx was clearly a thinking artist with something positive and pertinent to say. The set included such socially conscious material as “Broken Pride”, “Hold On” and “Gone To Crock”.

Nevertheless his energy and enthusiasm, in conjunction to the infectiously funky grooves generated by his colleagues tempted a small knot of dancers on to the floor and there were many who enjoyed his set. As I had been with Tarion I was again frustrated by the quality of the mix but could again take many positives from the performance. I particularly enjoyed Linx’s sax soloing which was less effected by the poor sound quality. Indeed the vocal mic seemed to have an unnecessary degree of reverb on it, something that was also apparent when MC for the afternoon, Pip Williams, addressed the audience.

Linx is a versatile artist who plays across a variety of musical genres. He also has something of a following as a reggae artist and on the previous day had appeared on the bill at the One Love reggae festival in Bruton, Somerset. He and his band finished their show at Jazz Alley with a distinctive and crowd pleasing jazz/funk take on Bob Marley’s reggae classic “One Love” with a snippet of “Get Up, Stand Up” thrown in for good measure.

Again, there was much to enjoy here but with the poor sound balance once more serving to frustrate the listener. Later, as were making our way back to the car after the Charity Swing Party we met Linx and Tony outside the Hen & Chickens pub where they were chatting to one of the locals. We also paused to thank them for their earlier performance and were rewarded with a long and interesting conversation. Linx was particularly happy with my Sanborn and Scott Heron comparisons, stating that he felt he was carrying on Gil’s message. Cheers, guys.


CHARITY SWING PART