by Ian Mann
December 11, 2014
Ian Mann on two exciting new discoveries from Europe, Denmark's Girls In Airports and Holland's Estafest. Plus a remarkable tribute to a great British talent, the late Lindsay Cooper.
Photograph of Lindsay Cooper sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, DAY EIGHT, 21/11/2014
GIRLS IN AIRPORTS
Day eight and the final lunchtime at Pizza Express. Today’s dish is Lasagne Verdi.
Following the riveting performance by radical Swiss piano trio Plaistow on Thursday lunchtime today it was the turn of the Danes to take over for another showcase gig. The quintet Girls In Airports have a name that is not only rather naff but also rather misleading for these are five guys whose quirky and original brand of jazz has graced three albums to date. The band name comes from the title of a tune on their 2010 d?but, this followed by 2011’s “Migration” and their latest offering “Kaikoura” (2013).
Girls In Airports boast a twin reed front line featuring Martin Stender (tenor sax) and Lars Greve (tenor and alto saxes, clarinet) plus Mathias Holm on electric keyboards, Mads Forsby on drum kit and Victor Dybbroe on percussion. Dybbroe guested on the band’s first album before joining full time for the other two. Stender writes the majority of the band’s material which draws upon Brit style quirkiness (the two reed front line is immediately reminiscent of Polar Bear) plus a variety of world music styles, something encouraged by Dybbroe’s array of percussion. Their music is bright, accessible, highly rhythmic and very entertaining yet still full of depth and musical sophistication. Girls In Airports are managed by Sue Edwards who also looks after Phronesis and it was good to make her acquaintance before and after the group’s performance.
It was also good to meet up with Jez Matthews, a great supporter of the music and the co-ordinator of the jazz programme at the Lescar Hotel in Sheffield. Jez is a regular visitor to the Brecon, London and Copenhagen jazz festivals - I’ve not got to the latter yet but our paths frequently cross at the other two. Jez was full of praise for the late night gig at the Pizza by the Aaron Goldberg Trio the evening before, it’s always good to get feedback from fellow fans, especially ones as knowledgeable as Jez.
With the bulk of the material drawn from their two most recent albums Girls In Airports played two absorbing and entertaining sets of music that earned them a terrific response from yet another packed lunchtime audience, the most enthusiastic reception of the week if CD sales were anything to go by.
Their opening tune (unannounced) combined wispy saxophone melodies with interlocking drum/percussion grooves as Holm filled out the sound via his Roland Juno 60 polyphonic synth and Wurlitzer electric piano, his layered sounds and textures adding depth to this curiously bass-less but nevertheless highly rhythmic ensemble. With Greve moving between tenor and alto saxes it was an intriguing start as the group mixed catchy melodies with infectious grooves while adding enough subtly and complexity to reward closer listening. These are qualities that also imbue their three very worthwhile album releases.
From Kaikoura” the piece entitled “Albert Khan” featured a blend of tenor sax and clarinet with Greve soloing ruminatively on the latter above Holm’s keyboard washes and the gentle patter of Dybbroe’s percussion. This was Girl In Airports at their most reflective and most beautiful.
Alto and tenor combined on the third piece, a more forceful affair featuring a strong drum/percussion groove and an insistent keyboard motif with Holm deploying the sounds of both Hammond organ and distorted Rhodes. However the only drawback of the entire performance was a persistent hum coming from Holm’s keyboard set up that he was able to identify but not suppress, even in the interval.
A segue of the title track from “Migration” plus “King’s Birthday” from “Kaikoura” was a tour de force that closed the first set on a high note. A gentle keyboard intro ushered in the twin tenors of Stender and Greve, their playing becoming increasingly garrulous as the piece progressed, something encouraged by Forsby and Dybbroe’s insistent interlocking rhythmic patterns. A keyboard drone provided the link into “King’s Birthday” with Greve briefly featuring on bass clarinet before rejoining Stender in a two tenor front line, the twin horns now combining softly and breathily above an undertow of subtle conga rhythms and the sound of mallets on toms.
The first number of the second set saw Dybbroe performing on an instrument reminiscent of both a marimba and a balofon as the group’s African influences came to the fore. The twin tenor attack of Greve and Stender steered things back in the direction of more obvious jazz territory with Stender emerging as the main soloist.
Flute like keyboards introduced the next piece which saw Greve switching to alto and combining with Stender above languid drum and percussion grooves. Holm’s spacious keyboard solo represented one of the few obviously “Scandinavian” moments of the band’s performance, this followed by Greve’s alto feature which was brief, gentle and reflective.
Those “Scandi” keyboards also featured on the next piece which grew slowly and hypnotically with tenor sax and clarinet intertwining sinuously above keyboard washes and gently percolating percussive rhythms before a gently ambient coda. Although unannounced I’d hazard a guess that this was the evocative “The Grass By The Roses” from the quintet’s latest album “Kaikouri”.
I fancy that we also heard the song like title track of “Kaikouri” as a tenor sax/clarinet front-line sketched the melody above more of those hypnotic sounding keyboards and a colourful percussion undertow, Stender emerging as the featured soloist on tenor.
From “Migration” the Stender composition “Water Snake” introduced a breezy Latin element as Dybbroe’s congas combined with Holm’s sunny keyboards sounds, the main solo coming from Greve on bass clarinet.
The band reached back to their d?but for the closing “New Years Eve At The Hospice” ,introduced by quietly piping tenor and alto saxes but soon gaining momentum via a synthesised bass line allied to a gently insistent drum groove and Dybbroe’s percussive embellishments. Holm took the first solo, this evolving into a duet with drummer Forsby, before Stender, the group’s principal composer rounded things off with a final tenor solo.
Girls In Airports were the only one of the lunchtime acts that I saw to be rewarded with an encore. This proved to be a short “tone poem” like piece introduced by keyboards, drums and marimba/balofon, these generating shimmering patterns and grooves above which the two tenor saxes briefly intertwined.
It would seem that Girls In Airports are a highly popular act in their native Denmark and although this wasn’t their first visit to the UK they clearly have the potential and the ability to make inroads here, too. I was impressed with their quirkily eccentric and original take on contemporary jazz, one that draws on many sources including rock, world music, electronica and minimalism. Unafraid to deploy simple melodies and grooves there’s a charming Polar Bear style naivet? about this band although they ultimately sound very different to Seb Rochford’s outfit. I was impressed with both this performance and with the band’s recordings, and I predict that UK audiences will get to hear a lot more from Girls In Airports, yet another exciting Festival discovery.
I was back at the Barbican FreeStage for the early evening performance by Estafest, a quartet of leading Dutch improvisers featuring an unusual instrumental configuration of guitar (Anton Goudsmit) viola (Oene van Geel), piano (Jeroen van Vliet) and reeds (Mete Erker). Van Geel also doubled on percussion, mainly the cajon and he started out on this as his colleagues produced spiky, needling phrases and textures around him, Erker deploying first bass clarinet and then soprano saxophone.
Much was made of the group’s ability as improvisers but all were reading and the performance was structured around written compositions with each of the group members contributing pieces. Van Vliet’s “Time Chimes” initially resembled chamber music with its opening viola and piano duet but subsequently edged into something more freely structured involving all four members of the group, Van Geel’s viola tone changing from sweet and mellifluous into something dark and scratchy. Meanwhile Goudsmit’s ominous guitar chording evolved into full on riffing before Erker completed the musical journey with a belligerent tenor sax solo as the music ended up at a totally different place to its starting point.
This was typical Estafest, the group seem to view their compositions as short stories, the course of which can be altered in performance. The next piece featured Robert Wyatt style wordless vocalising alongside classical style viola flourishes and incisive soprano sax.
Erker espoused traditional jazz virtues on the next piece, the sound of conventional swing/bebop tenor sax eventually steered into area of greater abstraction by the other members of the group.
“The Hammer” embraced several areas of music with influences ranging from North African to rock. Van Geel moved from viola to cajon, the latter providing the accompaniment to van Vliet’s equally percussive piano solo. The rock came from Goudsmit’s concluding guitar outburst.
I’d seen Van Geel perform at the 2012 LJF with French bassist Henri Texier’s group and as part of the Take Five European ensemble. His plucked viola introduced the next piece, a short chamber jazz like interlude also featuring piano and tenor sax.
The next item tackled full on free improv skronk, the group members frequently deploying extended techniques as they demonstrated their avant garde credentials.
Van Geel moved back to viola for the closer, a more accessible and highly rhythmic piece that incorporated powerful solos from Goudsmit on guitar and Erker on soprano sax.
Estafest offered a good balance between written and improvised material, an unusual instrumental line up and an often humorous and irreverent approach to music making that is typical of Dutch improvising musicians. In other words I liked them, and so did many others in an audience that grew exponentially during the set as ticket holders arrived to see the main act in the Barbican Hall, a celebration of the music of Lindsay Cooper featuring the members of Henry Cow and others. Estafest’s brand of “accessible avant garde” was just the right warm up for what was to follow and a successful artistic statement in its own right.
HENRY COW, MUSIC FOR FILMS, NEWS FROM BABEL & OH MOSCOW
A CELEBRATION OF LINDSAY COOPER
Lindsay Cooper (1951-2013) was a woodwind player and composer who brought her classically honed skills to numerous left field musical projects embracing elements of jazz, avant garde rock, free improvisation and musical theatre. Best known as rock’s “go to” bassoonist Cooper also played oboe, cor anglais, soprano saxophone and flute and first came to prominence via her two stints with Henry Cow in the 1970s, replacing saxophonist Geoff Leigh on the group’s second album “Unrest”, before briefly leaving and then returning for the latter stages of the band’s career. An increasingly prolific composer Cooper contributed half the material on the group’s final album “Western Culture (1978).
As part of the so called “Canterbury Scene” she also made guest appearances on albums by Egg, Hatfield & The North and Mike Oldfield ( Hergest Ridge) and was a member at various times of the groups Comus and National Health.
Post Henry Cow Cooper was part of the Feminist Improvising Group which also included vocalist Sally Potter. These two also worked together in the Lindsay Cooper Film Orchestra composing soundtrack music, some of which was to feature in tonight’s concert.
In 1983 Cooper was part of the group News From Babel alongside former Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler releasing two albums “Work Resumed On The Tower (1984) and “Letters Home” (1986).
Collaborating once more with Potter she wrote the music for “Oh Moscow”, a song cycle written about issues arising from the Cold War which was performed internationally and released as a live album in 1991. Despite the now dated subject matter it remains one of her best loved works.
Besides the projects featured in tonight’s performance Cooper released a number of other solo albums, guested prolifically on releases featuring the various spin offs and solo projects of former members of Henry Cow and also collaborated with Pere Ubu’s David Thomas in his group The Pedestrians.
Cooper was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 1970s but kept the news of her illness secret for nearly twenty years until the condition eventually prevented her from performing live.
She effectively retired from music in 1998 and the illness claimed her life in 2013, a tragic conclusion to the life and career of a much loved and much respected musician and composer.
The Barbican concert plus a second performance the following night at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival brought many of her old friends and colleagues together to pay tribute. The twelve piece ensemble was centred around the members of the final edition of Henry Cow and in a performance that defied showbiz conventions it was Henry Cow, probably the best known of the various permutations, who played first as the programme followed Cooper’s career in strict chronological order.
Introduced by Sally Potter the members of Henry Cow - Fred Frith (guitar), John Greaves (bass), Chris Cutler (drums) and Tim Hodgkinson (reeds, keyboards) ? were given a heroes welcome by a packed Barbican. Cooper’s role was fulfilled by Michel Berckmans on bassoon, oboe and cor anglais and the group was also augmented by Alfred Harth on a variety of reeds and brass.
During my prog rock youth Henry Cow were regarded as being rather “difficult” even by the standards of the time, even fans of the more esoteric aspects of the Canterbury Scene, krautrock etc. found them challenging. I was therefore surprised not only by how full the hall was but also by just how much love and genuine affection these now greying and balding figures inspired, the cult has clearly survived and prospered in the intervening years. That love ensured that the audience was even prepared to good naturedly forgive them a couple of false starts and breakdowns, an acknowledgement of just how fiendishly complex Henry Cow’s music could be and just what a challenge it must have been to play this stuff again after an interval of nearly thirty years.
As Henry Cow the ensemble played pieces written for the group by Cooper in 1977/78 beginning with “Half the Sky”, an engaging and delightful reminder of Henry Cow’s propensity for tricky riffs in almost impossible time signatures, “math rock” as this kind of densely knit music has since come to be called. Solos here came from Harth on soprano sax and Hodgkinson on clarinet, the latter also doubling on keyboards.
For Gretel’s tale” the group was extended by the addition of former Henry Cow member Anne-Marie Roelofs on trombone, Veryan Weston on piano and Zeena Parkins on electric keyboards. After negotiating a second breakdown the sonic possibilities of Cooper’s writing were finally recognised in another well received performance.
The charming “Look Back” featuring Roelofs on violin was little more than a pleasing vignette but the fiendishly complex “Falling Away” with solos from Hodgkinson and Frith was Henry Cow at their mind boggling best.
This section concluded with the jagged riffing of “Slice”, tantalisingly short but wonderfully evocative and effective.
The Henry Cow set had represented something of a trip down memory lane for me and the music sounded just as good after all these years, somehow managing to be of its time but ahead of its time, if that makes sense. I kind of lost touch with the band and its many offshoots during the 1980s so all of that which followed was essentially new to me but was probably a lot more familiar to many other members of the audience.
The News From Babel section introduced vocalists Dagmar Krause and Phil Minton with John Greaves also stepping up to the mic with Fred Frith periodically filling in on bass. Despite recording two albums the original News From Babel never played any gigs so this was the first time that this material had been performed live. The original line up featured Cooper, Cutler, Parkins and Krause with Minton a frequent guest. Robert Wyatt also sang on the records and it was his parts that were sung by Greaves.
This section of the programme featured six songs written by Cooper with lyrics by Chris Cutler. Opener “Moss” featured the combined voices of Greaves, Krause and Minton while other pieces focussed on specific individuals with Krause, once of Henry Cow, singing the following “Black Gold”.
Minton’s semi operatic vocals distinguished a stand out “Dragon at the Core” which also featured the remarkably percussive harp playing of Parkins plus a scorching Frith guitar solo that led to an excoriating band climax.
Parkins featured again with a solo on “Waited/Justice” sung by Greaves and with Frith on bass. Berckmans was prominent on oboe on both the Minton and Greaves songs as he took on the mantle of composer Cooper.
Krause returned to sing the lovely “Late Evening” with harp, piano and reeds prominent in the arrangement and the equally beautiful “Victory” featuring one of Cutler’s most poetic lyrics. A word here too for Cutler’s drumming, always crisp and precise and at the heart of all the various instrumental configurations heard this evening. It would also seem that the initial idea for this tribute evening came from him.
A selection of Cooper’s film music formed the first half of the second set, mixing instrumental and vocal performances. These drew on “Song of the Shirt” (1979), a film that addressed the parlous situation of women in the sweatshops of Victorian Britain. Cooper’s soundtrack included updated arrangements of traditional folk songs alongside original instrumentals and these found their way onto her debut solo album “Rags”.
The instrumental opener “Women’s Wrongs” featured the twin keyboards of Parkins and Weston, Frith and Greaves on guitar and bass respectively, plus the violin of Roelofs.
Phil Minton sang “Lots of Larks”, another inspired vocal performance that brought a sense of fun to the evening with humorous lyrics evoking a long forgotten London allied to a rousing sea shanty style chorus.
“General Strike” proved to be second instrumental with strong contributions from Frith on guitar, Roelofs on violin and Berckmans on bassoon.
Sally Potter is something of a polymath, as both singer and film director she collaborated with Cooper on the score to the 1983 film “The Golddiggers”, directed by Potter and filmed and recorded with an all female team. Potter now took to the stage to sing her own lyrics to the song “Iceland”, one of the few Cooper compositions to deploy a straight rock beat.
“Empire Song”, little more than a snippet on the soundtrack album was substantially extended in a segue with “Plate Dance” , Cutler’s military style drumming fuelling two of the stand out instrumental moments of the night from Hodgkinson on alto sax and Roelofs on violin, both soloists generating whoops of approval from the supportive crowd.
Potter’s song “As She Breathes” followed immediately afterwards, a beautifully reflective coda with affecting lyrics addressing the subject of “life cycles”, the words suddenly seeming overwhelmingly prescient in the light of Cooper’s fate.
Cooper and Potter collaborated again in 1987 to produce the song cycle “Oh Moscow”. The 1991 live album featured Potter, Minton and Harth and perhaps it was the fact that the work was performed live extensively back in the day that made this the strongest section of tonight’s show. Everybody seemed more comfortable and relaxed and at home with the material. Perhaps it was simply easier to play, as Cooper’s writing matured and as she began to compose increasingly for the screen her work became simpler and less cluttered and ultimately more effective.
Five songs from the suite were performed this evening beginning with “England Descending” with Potter singing her own words and with instrumental highlight a shriekingly brutal tenor sax barrage from Harth.
Minton sang the rumbustious “On German Soil” accompanied by ensemble playing that was reminiscent of the fairground/cabaret music of Brecht and Weill with Harth now prominent on clarinet. It was yet another brilliant performance from the wonderfully versatile Minton who seems to be able to sing in any style from the quasi operatic to the ticks and moans of free improv. To some audience members he was a revelation, less so for me having seen him perform previously in the bands of Mike and Kate Westbrook.
Potter sang delicately on the gentle lament “Lovers” before joining forces with Minton on the rousing “Oh Moscow” itself. Finally Greaves’ solo electric bass ushered in “Forgotten Fruit”, another vocal master-class from Minton.
The warmth of the audience reaction saw the full ensemble take two curtain calls before playing an impromptu encore featuring all twelve musicians/vocalists, but no reviewer seems have been certain about what this actually was.
The warmth of the reaction that was directed towards the ensemble applied equally to Cooper, sadly absent but somehow also present with Potter saying some very moving things about her late friend and collaborator. She also writes beautifully about Cooper’s life and work on the official Lindsay Cooper website http://www.lindsaycoopermusic.com
Tonight’s concert represented a risky enterprise for everyone involved but resulted in a triumph. The much vaunted Henry Cow re-union didn’t overshadow Cooper, the real subject of the evening, and the decision to play her music exclusively was wholly appropriate and totally the right decision. In fact the Henry Cow part of the performance was in some ways the least successful and certainly the most ragged, but it was a nostalgic treat for some and placing it first helped to get the audience on side. I’ve also read that the musicians involved were glad to get it out of the way early on in the proceedings.
Much of Cooper’s work had a political dimension to it, unapologetically feminist and left wing, but on listening to her music both on record and tonight one has never felt oneself as being beaten about the head with a stick with regard to such issues. A compulsive composer Cooper preferred to let her music do the talking. Tonight it continued to speak eloquently, given voice by a circle of some of her oldest and dearest friends.
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