by Ian Mann
December 15, 2014
Ian Mann visits two iconic London jazz clubs, The Vortex and Ronnie Scott's and enjoys performances by trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and the American quintet Kneebody.
Photograph of Yazz Ahmed sourced from the EFG London Jazz Festival website
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, DAY TEN 23/11/2014
The final Sunday of the Festival is the time we traditionally take our hosts out for lunch to thank them for putting up with us for over a week! With other family members now based in the capital a group of eight of us met up in a Turkish restaurant in Islington for a very enjoyable meal.
Unfortunately the last day of the festival delivered some appalling weather so to avoid a severe drenching I took a cab up to Dalston to visit my favourite London jazz venue, The Vortex. No visit to the city would be complete for me without taking in a gig here. Small and unpretentious but welcoming and friendly The Vortex hosts live jazz virtually every day of the year. It’s a permanent jazz festival that survives largely through the efforts of its dedicated volunteer staff. The Vortex is a great institution and one with an international reputation, many leading European and American jazz musicians have expressed their love of playing at the place, none more so than New York based saxophonist Tim Berne. The Vortex really is “all about the music” and several notable live albums have been recorded there.
YAZZ AHMED’S FAMILY HAFLA
Trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed is something of a rising star. The young Bedfordshire based musician is a regular presence on the London jazz scene and was recently appointed a “Jazzlines Fellow” by the Birmingham based Jazzlines organisation. Indeed Tony Dudley Evans of Jazzlines was present in the Vortex audience to offer his support for Ahmed’s latest project.
“Hafla” is an Arabic word meaning “friendly social gathering” and the group Ahmed Family Hafla represents Ahmed’s “musical family”. The project presents Ahmed’s musical explorations of her Arabic roots (her father is from Bahrain) and the music we heard today combined Middle Eastern elements with more conventional jazz virtues rooted in the bebop and swing traditions (her British grandfather was the 1950s trumpeter Terry Brown), the rich blend given an additional contemporary resonance by Ahmed’s judicious use of electronics.
In 2011 Ahmed embarked upon this path with the release of the highly enjoyable album “Finding My Way Home” which featured a large cast of musicians. Her music has moved on in the intervening years and much of what we heard today was new. Hopefully the awarding of the Jazzlines Fellowship will help Ahmed to finance the recording of a second album in 2015. The sounds we heard today certainly deserve to be documented on disc. I understand that she will also be writing new music for a Jazzlines commission and that this will be premi?red in Birmingham in 2015.
Ahmed’s seven piece band featured a fascinating blend of youth and experience with George Crowley joining Ahmed in a twin horn front line and specialising on bass clarinet throughout. Dudley Phillips on six string electric bass and Martin France at the kit represented a venerable rhythm pairing, their efforts supplemented by percussionist Corrina Silvester. Rising star Ralph Wyld was on vibes and the group was completed by Naadia Sheriff on Nord electric keyboard.
Ahmed’s writing was intricate and tightly arranged and the extended line up allowed for a broad and interesting range of rhythms, colours and textures. However the set also included a number of very interesting and thought provoking covers but I’ll address these individually as we proceed.
The first set commenced with “Wah-Wah Sowahwah”, a tune from the “Finding My Way Home” album which began with a freely structured opening featuring Wyld’s bowed vibes . Phillips’ s electric bass groove then fuelled solos from Ahmed on trumpet who subtly added a dash of echo to her sound courtesy of a Koass Pad effects unit. Crowley, who I’d witnessed earlier in the Festival week playing tenor sax with Brass Mask excelled on bass clarinet here and throughout. I believe he may have been “depping” for Shabaka Hutchings but if so he did an absolutely terrific job. The piece concluded with a drums/percussion feature from France at the kit and Silvester on an array of percussion that included Arabic instruments such as the darbuka, rigg and sagat. The only member of the band to have appeared on the “Finding My Way Home” album she was largely an unobtrusive presence but her touches of colour and mastery of Arabic rhythms added much to the performance.
The introduction to “Balail” featured Phillips on bass, Silvester on frame drum and Sheriff’s shimmering keyboards. Ahmed appeared on flugel horn and her warm toned solo was followed by features for Wyld, Phillips and France.
“El Ahmadi” was dedicated to an Arabic tribe dating back to the 17th century and was the most deliberately “Middle Eastern” piece thus far with some colourful interplay between Ahmed’s trumpet and Crowley’s bass clarinet, the latter sharing soloing duties with Sheriff’s keyboards.
The first of the outside pieces was “Thoughtful Benn”, a tune written by veteran saxophonist Duncan Lamont who composed the music for the “Mr. Benn”, children’s television series. This fascinating factoid was something that I hadn’t heard before , proof that you really do learn something new every day! A gentle keyboard and vibe intro led into an enchanting, appropriately child like theme stated by Ahmed on flugel and Crowley on bass clarinet. Glancing out of the Vortex’s plate glass windows there seemed to be a certain magic in the air as this charming music played to a backdrop of twinkling lights as evening fell over Dalston.
Ahmed has toured with Radiohead and played flugel horn on their “King Of Limbs” album . An arrangement of that group’s “Bloom” concluded a fascinating and enjoyable first half with Ahmed soloing on flugel horn, floating serenely above France’s motorik groove and applying subtle electronic embellishments to her sound. Great stuff.
Set two began with “The Lost Pearl” with Ahmed seeming to make subtle allusions to “A Night In Tunisia” on her solo trumpet intro. The subsequent arrangement was rich and complex, packed with colourful hues and textures. Further solos came from Sheriff on keyboards and Wyld on vibes deploying the now familiar four mallets technique. Ahmed has previously deployed Empirical vibraphonist Lewis Wright in her group and Wyld seems to be following in his footsteps and looks set to become Britain’s next outstanding young vibes soloist.
Ahmed dedicated “Le Saboteuse” to her “inner saboteur”, the intricate arrangement providing for some compelling interplay between various elements of the group particularly trumpet, bass clarinet, keyboard and percussion. Ahmed switched to flugel for her solo, again skilfully processing her sound through the use of electronics.
“Jamil Jimal” was introduced by the exotic sounds of percussion and vibes before solos from Crowley on bass clarinet and Ahmed on pure toned trumpet.
The EFG London Jazz Festival commissioned a total of twenty one new composition to commemorate the Festival’s “coming of age”. Many of these had a London theme and Ahmed’s “Whispering Gallery” represented an attempt to avoid the usual London clich?s of hustle and bustle and traffic noises. Instead her piece was inspired by the calm and tranquillity of St. Paul’s Cathedral and included samples of sounds actually recorded at the Cathedral. Flugel horn, keyboards and vibes conveyed something of the beauty of Wren’s architectural masterpiece underscored by a subtle percussion groove.
Ahmed has worked and toured extensively with the band These New Puritans and an arrangement of their song “Organ Eternal” closed the second set. Sherrif’s keyboard intro and France’s contemporary drum grooves suggested the influence of minimalism as Ahmed took the first solo on flugel followed by Crowley on bass clarinet, the two horns also combining for an inspired duet. We also heard more from Sheriff’s keyboards plus Wyld’s vibes. This concluded a fascinating afternoon of richly colourful music making that drew on many sources to create sounds that were intelligent, vibrant and thought provoking.
2015 promises to be a big year for Yazz Ahmed who had enjoyed a busy LJF including Family Hafla supporting American violinist Regina Carter at the QEH the previous evening, although this performance was limited to little more than half an hour. She and Silvester had also a run a workshop for young musicians on the morning of today’s performance.
Before taking my leave of the Vortex I enjoyed conversations with Yazz Ahmed, Loose Tubes trumpeter Noel Langley, Tony Dudley Evans and his London based friend Sue, publicist Lee Paterson and Babel record label proprietor Oliver Weindling. Jazz may be an international language but the UK jazz community is admirably close knit and supportive with all these people making substantial contributions in their different ways to the music we all love.
ALISON RAYNER QUINTET
I wombled my way down to the Southbank (overground, underground) hoping to catch something of the quintet led by bassist and composer Alison Rayner. Rayner’s performance was part of an afternoon of free events featuring bands led by female musicians, all of them part of the ground breaking Blow The Fuse collective headed by Rayner and guitarist Deidre Cartwright. Rayner’s was the final performance of a programme that had featured groups led by saxophonists Chelsea Carmichael and Roz Harding plus an ensemble co-led by Cartwright and sitar player Baluji Srivastav.
As it was I only caught the final number by Rayner’s group, the composition “String Theory” which included a well received tenor solo from saxophonist Diane McLoughlin during which she managed to slide in a tribute to the recently departed Jack Bruce. The rest of the group included Rayner on double bass, Cartwright on guitar, Steve Lodder on piano and Buster Birch at the drums. The album “August”, released earlier in 2014 was recently reviewed on the Jazzmann and is strongly recommended. It was disappointing not to have heard a bit more of this but I hope I get the opportunity to catch up with Rayner’s group again in 2015.
Finally it was up to Ronnie Scott’s to hear the curiously named American quintet Kneebody. This was yet another gig that represented something of a “punt” on my behalf although I had heard something of the group before on radio broadcasts.
Formed at music college in Los Angeles in 2001 Kneebody have released a total of eight albums including three live recordings. There is no defined leader, although bassist Kaveh Rastegar handles the bulk of the on stage announcements. Writing credits are shared around the group and the five members also pursue parallel solo and sideman careers.
Kneebody’s music embraces a number of influences from jazz to rock to electronica with Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, Radiohead, Queens Of The Stone Age and Squarepusher just some of the names mentioned as inspirations. In 2009 they even recorded an album of Burl Ives songs in a collaboration with experimental vocalist Theo Bleckmann, I’ve not heard the album but I’d imagine that the re-interpretations are pretty radical.
Kneebody are an electric band, Adam Benjamin plays electric keyboards exclusively, Rastegar plays bass guitar and both trumpeter Shane Endsley and saxophonist Ben Wendell are electronically hooked up and manipulate their sounds with an array of FX pedals. The line up is completed by drummer Nate Wood. Their music is certainly hard to classify but for all the contemporary influences it has a jazz heart and both Endsley and Wendel revealed their credentials as major improvisers with some lengthy and inspired jazz solos.
The majority of the material came from Kneebody’s latest studio recording “The Line” (2013) but they kicked off with a recent Wendel’s composition titled “Drum Battle” which actually turned out to be a feature for his own tenor plus Benjamin’s keyboards.
Two pieces from Benjamin followed, the first featuring the composer’s keyboards and Endsley’s bleary muted trumpet ? unfortunately I didn’t quite catch the title of this one.
The second, “Unforeseen Influences” saw the band really hitting their stride with Benjamin’s richly textured keyboard sounds combining with Wood’s hip hop style grooves and Rastegar’s monstrously propulsive bass to trigger blistering solos from Endsley and Wendel.
From “The Line” Endsley’s “Cha Cha” was inspired by his home city of Denver. Again this was Kneebody at their best with clipped odd meter rhythms inspiring solos from Endsley on open horn trumpet, Rastegar on electric bass and Benjamin at the keyboards.
Rastegar contributed “Pushed Away” with its slowed down rock beats and distorted bass and Rhodes sounds. At one point its composer was thinking of turning it into a song with lyrics and there’s something of that in its structure. “I think it sounds dark and kind of proud” he comments in the sleeve notes to “The Line”. Rastegar also has a neat line in surreal and often humorous tune announcements delivered in a laid back US stoner style monotone. It’s all part of the act and helped to establish a great rapport with the audience, many of whom were hearing the group for the first time. Incredibly it was the band’s first ever show in the UK.
An excellent first set concluded with Wendel’s “Still Play” also sourced from “The Line”. The live version was significantly different to the record with a bravura solo tenor sax intro complete with circular breathing techniques. Endsley matched Wendel for brilliance with a fiery trumpet solo over fluid but propulsive bass and drum grooves, and with Benjamin producing an impressive variety of sounds from his Rhodes and synths this was a high energy end to a hugely entertaining first half.
Ronnie Scott’s can be an excellent place to hear music, the acoustics are superb and the atmosphere intimate offering the chance to witness world class musicians at close quarters ? so far just like The Vortex then. Unfortunately its also a “destination” venue which means that it’s overpriced with regard to tickets, food and drink - which I can live with (especially as I had a press pass), everybody who goes to Ronnie’s knows where they stand in this regard. What I do find problematical is the behaviour of certain customers who think that they can hold a conversation while the musicians are playing despite the polite requests from the management for minimal talking during the performance out of respect for the performers and other customers. However noisy tables at Ronnie’s can be a problem, one that is less pronounced at Pizza Express and non existent at The Vortex. We had just such a group next to us for the first Kneebody set, who were beginning to irritate me ? and bearing in mind that this was essentially an electric band they must have been making a hell of a noise. The older I get the more I realise that life is too short to put up with shit from ignorant people and I was already steeling myself for a half time confrontation when they finished off their meals, settled their bills and decided to leave. Yes! There is a Jazz God after all. These were people who had obviously never heard Kneebody before, or probably much other jazz for that matter. They were probably just ticking Ronnie’s off on some kind of destination “bucket list”. Their early exit ensured that the second set was even more enjoyable.I have to say that their behaviour was unexpected as crowds during Festival week tend to be more attentive.
By way of contrast the couple at the table on the other side of us were delightful, serious jazz fans based in North London who were regulars at The Vortex, Caf? Oto and other leading London venues. My thanks to them for good company and interesting and intelligent conversation. They had been to Robert Mitchell’s “Invocation” event at the South Bank that afternoon, a performance featuring the pianist’s group Panacea plus strings and choir, and commented on just how good this had been, stimulating, uplifting music.
Rant over, on with the music and a second set that began with Benjamin’s composition “Lowell”, an enigmatically titled piece that might have been variously inspired by Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s home town, or Lowell George of Little Feat, -Benjamin wasn’t letting on. The music itself featured the composer’s keyboards surging above Rastegar’s powerful bass grooves.
A new Wendel composition, as yet untitled, established his credentials as a jazz tenor soloist in a piece that paid homage to the jazz stylings of the past, perhaps the most conventional “jazz” piece of the evening.
Endsley’s “Uprising” introduced an element of funk thanks to Rastegar’s strummed bass grooves.
Both Endsley and Wendell used electronics to distort their sounds whether playing solo or in tandem in a manner that reminded me of an American version of Get The Blessing. Add in a laconic bassist with a deadpan and frequently bizarre announcing style and you can see where I’m coming from. However with Kneebody having been around since 2001 it’s probably them who have influenced GTB. This piece drew a rapturous reception from the Ronnie’s crowd as the group started upping the pace.
The energy levels were maintained on an unannounced number that began with an impressive solo drum intro, Wood then combining with Rastegar to produce a mighty groove that fuelled the interplay between tenor sax and muted trumpet over swirling Dr. Who style keyboards. The relentless groove continued through trumpet and keyboard solos and a second passage of heavily treated trumpet and tenor. Wendel’s final marathon tenor solo combined power and fluency in a manner that reminded me of the great Donny McCaslin.
To close the show Kneebody eased back on the throttle with Benjamin’s “Perfect Compromise” , a tune dating back to the band’s d?but CD. Characterised by lush horn textures, a symphonic blending of Rhodes and synths and a gently brushed groove this was Kneebody’s way of letting us down gently at the end of an enjoyably boisterous evening of music making.
Except, of course, it wasn’t the end as a delighted Ronnie’s crowd called out for an encore which turned out to be based around an insistent Rhodes vamp, a locked in bass and drum groove and the characteristically punchy twin horn attack of Endsley and Wendel with Benjamin also cutting loose for a growling Rhodes solo.
On their first visit to England Kneebody had delivered, doubtless winning themselves a whole lot of new fans, your reviewer included, in the process. This show has received great reviews elsewhere on the web and all the genuine music fans in Ronnie’s that night seemed to think the band were terrific.
Having said that Kneebody’s sound was nowhere near as radical as some of the pre-gig publicity had suggested and there may be some listeners around who would dismiss them as a mere “fusion outfit”. However their blend of hard hitting grooves and incisive solos plus Benjamin’s colourful keyboard work is immediate and accessible and the obvious delight they take in playing their music also communicates itself to the audience. In other words Kneebody are a great live act but repeated listening to “The Line” also reveals hidden depths with regard to rhythm, melody and texture with Benjamin’s keyboards a particularly significant factor in the band’s all round sound. On this evidence I’d like to think that UK promoters will want to invite Kneebody back to British shores again pretty soon.
I’m led to understand that Ben Wendel, who seems to be the most prolific member of the group in terms of a solo career, is due to visit the UK in 2015 when he will be touring with a group of UK musicians. This information came from James Maddren who will be occupying the drum chair at these events. Nothing seems to have been finalised yet but this is something that should be well worth looking out for in 2015.
The 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival was another great artistic and commercial success with several sold out shows and attendances at virtually every other event somewhere close to capacity. The sheer variety of the festival is its greatest strength with all the different strands of jazz represented from the popular and populist (not necessarily the same thing) to the extreme experimentation of the outer reaches of the avant garde. Venues range from huge concert halls to the most intimate of clubs and an impressive variety of venues in between. There really is something for everyone.
The impressively large number of free events on the festival calendar were universally well attended and hopefully these will help to attract many new listeners to the music. Again these were stylistically diverse and that “something for everyone” clich? applies here too. However I do sometimes fear that people get it into their heads that they can see top quality jazz for nothing and thus become reluctant to pay to see anyone but the biggest names. That said the music does need to get noticed and overall I feel that festival organisers Serious should be congratulated for doing such a great job in terms of spreading the message, something that is also encouraged by the education and workshop programme and the commissioning of new music.
LJF really is an impressive feat of organisation and the choice of music on offer is mind boggling. I immersed myself in it for almost the whole of the ten days and still felt that I’d barely scratched the surface. For a jazz fan it’s Christmas come early, roll on 2015.
COMMENTS VIA FACEBOOK:
17 December at 23:42
Terrific review of Yazz Ahmed’s music! I want to hear this. Is it on iTunes?
18 December at 01:12
Hi Pat, you can find Yazz’s first album, ‘Finding My Way Home’, on iTunes, Amazon and CDbaby…. The music and the band from this gig will be featured on her second album, which is 90% done… Our mission over the holidays is to crack on with finishing it 😊
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18 December at 01:12
Good luck with finishing the new project. Going to iTunes now!