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.
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.
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