by Ian Mann
December 05, 2017
Eclectic, Iklectik, Elektrik - Ian Mann on the penultimate day of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
Painting of Nihilism by Gina Southgate
EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL, SATURDAY NOVEMBER 18th 2017
DAYLIGHT MUSIC – HERMES EXPERIMENT / NIK BARTSCH / KIT DOWNES & MATTHEW BOURNE / PAUL REYNOLDS , 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.
This London Jazz Festival special saw performances from the jazz/chamber music ensemble Hermes Experiment, a solo piano performance from ECM recording artist Nik Bartsch and a duo collaboration between Kit Downes playing the chapel organ and Matthew Bourne on grand piano.
I’ve always had a hankering to attend a performance at Union Chapel after hearing a live album recorded there in 1996 by two of my prog rock heroes, Guy Evans and Peter Hammill of the group Van Der Graaf Generator. I was actually due to attend that gig but was prevented from doing so by a serious sports injury sustained a month or so before the event. I was bitterly disappointed at the time, not least because the gig involved what at the time seemed like a one off re-union of VDGG, but that sense of loss has been tempered with the passing of the years and VDGG’s subsequent reformation on a semi-permanent basis in 2005.
That Union Chapel show included a section featuring VDGG keyboard player Hugh Banton playing the Chapel’s splendid Father Willis organ and more than twenty years on the prospect of hearing Kit Downes performing on the same instrument was too good to miss. And so I found myself on a cold winter’s morning walking up Upper Street in the drizzle to finally take my place in the Union Chapel pews.
What 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. It had been a long wait but I absolutely loved it! The tea and cakes being offered for sale by the Margins Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping the homeless and the isolated of London represented a delicious bonus.
And so we settled down to enjoy the performances commencing with Hermes Experiment, a young quartet performing an eclectic mixture of material. Featuring Heloise Werner (vocals), Anne Denholm (harp), Marianne Schofield (double bass) and Oliver Pashley (clarinets) the ensemble commenced with an idiosyncratic arrangement of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” featuring Werner’s flexible soprano voice as Schofield deployed both arco and pizzicato techniques on her double bass, which she played seated, almost like a cello.
Hermes Experiment have collaborated with visual artists such as photographers and with theatre and film directors. They also commission composers and songwriters to provide material for them and next up were two songs written specifically for them by Emily Hall, “I’m Happy Living Simply” with its “like a clock or a calendar” refrain and “The End Of The Ending”. These were two splendidly quirky but highly perceptive items that suited the ensemble perfectly.
The quartet have also established strong links with the composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who is well known to jazz audiences thanks to his collaborations with vocalist Claire Martin. RRB’s “Slow Foxtrot” was one of three pieces inspired by photographs of the composer’s parents taken in the 1920s and featured the combination of 20s dance rhythms with Werner’s semi-operatic vocals.
Pashley’s imaginative and inventive adaptation of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” saw him moving to bass clarinet with the slowed down arrangement serving the song well and bringing out the full impact of its environmental message.
Hermes Experiment concluded their well received set with an arrangement of the folk song “The Linden Tree” written by jazz bassist and bandleader Misha Mullov Abbado with Pashley soloing on clarinet.
With their broad range of influences Hermes Experiment seemed to encapsulate the spirit of Daylight Music, whose ethos seems to echo that of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Late Junction’ programme with regard to its diversity and willingness to embrace the exotic, innovative and unusual. Eclectic is the word.
I had noted that there were two pianos on the stage, a grand and an upright. During the intervals between the main acts the upright was played by Paul Reynolds, a bassist and pianist on the London session scene playing jazz, pop, rock and theatre music. A regular contributor to Daylight Music he also leads his own band Vespers. Today Reynolds’ playing was essentially used as background music as the audience refilled their coffee cups and generally relaxed. He may have been largely ignored but his contribution was never less then enjoyable and always welcome.
Next up, playing the grand piano, was the Swiss pianist and composer Nil Bartsch, a late addition to the Daylight Music programme. Bartsch’s presence represented a very considerable and very welcome bonus. As an ECM recording artist he is a musician with an international reputation and a unique approach to music making that he describes as “zen-funk” or “ritual groove music”. Leader of the “zen-funk” quartet Ronin and the larger ensemble Mobile he has also recorded the solo piano album “Modular Movement” for ECM. The previous day he had appeared at EFG LJF at a lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall, a collaboration with the Britten Sinfonia.
Today Bartsch performed a solo piano set lasting around half an hour, presumably sourced from the “Modular Movement” album. A striking, shaven headed figure his monk like appearance and the zen like calmness of his demeanour was wholly in keeping with the music which was heavily influenced by the methods of minimalists such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
I’ll admit that I’ve not always found the Zurich based Bartsch totally convincing on record but within the environs of this atmospheric venue his performance was utterly compelling with its layered arpeggios and inventive use of the interior of the instrument including the striking, scraping and dampening of the strings. Even his use of the sustain pedal was imaginative in a performance that sometimes reminded me of the open ended improvisations of cult Australian trio The Necks, a band whose music would be absolutely ideal for Union Chapel – they might even make use of the organ too.
At the close Bartsch received a tremendous ovation from the crowd, acknowledging the applause with a bow of the head and with hands clasped as if in prayer. Whatever your faith this performance represented something of a spiritual experience.
KIT DOWNES & MATTHEW BOURNE DUO
Pianist and organist Kit Downes is one of the brightest stars to have emerged on the British jazz scene in the past decade or so. A leader of his own piano based groups Downes is also an in demand sideman who has worked with saxophonists Julian Arguelles and Stan Sulzmann and drummer Jeff Williams among others.
A surprise success in recent years has been Vyamanikal, Downes’ improvising duo with saxophonist Tom Challenger which features Downes on church organ. Two albums on the Suffolk based boutique label Slip and a number of successful concert and festival appearances have enhanced the duo’s reputation and it looks as if Downes and Challenger will continue to collaborate for a while yet.
Today Downes was given the opportunity to play on Union Chapel’s splendid three manual Father Willis organ, built in 1877. Unfortunately the console was hidden behind the pulpit and Downes was almost invisible to the audience. Perhaps modern video technology could have been deployed with a screen set up so the audience could have seen what Downes was doing.
But we could hear him, and he sounded wonderful generating music that varied from flute like whisperings to grand gothic thunder, the sound seeming to surround and envelop the listener.
We could however see Bourne, whose contribution here was very different to when I last saw him play live at a sweltering Vortex in the summer of 2006. There he was in full maverick mode, triggering samples and other electronic effects in one of the most remarkable solo piano performances I’ve ever seen. Today he was far more thoughtful, positively lyrical at times and with his occasional forays inside the lid atmospheric rather than iconoclastic.
At first Downes and Bourne played alternating passages but the best and most dramatic moments came when they played together as when Bourne’s rumbling, low end left hand sonics combined with Downe’s Messiaen like organ dissonance. In turn this led to flashes of the old Bourne, his staccato attack of the piano keyboard reminiscent of the great Cecil Taylor and eliciting a roar of approval from the crowd. This contrasted well with the liturgical cadences created by Downes at the organ as the duo’s performance, again clocking in at around the half hour mark drew to a close with a gentle, more impressionistic coda with the duo again being accorded a great reception from the audience.
This was a superb performance from two of the UK’s most adventurous and inventive keyboard instrumentalists with Downes really bringing out the orchestral capabilities and possibilities of that magnificent Father Willis organ.
This event proved to be a genuine Festival highlight and was a fiver very well spent. If I lived in Islington all year round I think I’d make a point of going to Daylight Music every week!
JAZZ NEWBLOOD SHOWCASE – KASIA KAWALEK 5TET / ROMARNA CAMPBELL’S BLAN(C)ANVAS / NIHILISM – IKLECTIK ART LAB, WATERLOO
We managed to reach Highbury & Islington station just before the hordes spilled out of the Arsenal / Spurs derby at the Emirates and so we high tailed it to Waterloo.
I discovered the Ikaectik venue at the 2016 EFG LJF and immediately warmed to it. Founded in 2014 Iklectik is a haven for jazz and improvised music plus other branches of the arts and is the home of several jazz organisations including Jazz Nursery, LUME and Jazz NewBlood, all of whom hosted events at the venue during the Festival period.
Located in a building that looks as if it may once have been a school Iklectik is a pleasingly Bohemian looking space furnished with an appropriately eclectic selection of chairs, benches and sofas. It serves beer, wine, coffee and snacks and even on a chilly November day was warm and welcoming. It may be a home for artistic outsiders but it’s certainly not exclusive and I was made to feel very welcome by proprietor Edward and by Patricia Pascal of JazzNewblood, an organisation who describe their mission as being “nurturing youth jazz talent”.
As in 2016 JazzNewBlood hosted two showcase events, each one presenting the work of three different bands. Today’s featured a quintet led by the young vocalist, flautist and songwriter Kasia Kawalek, Blan(C)anvas led by drummer and composer Romarna Campbell and the dynamic collaborative five piece Nihilism.
KASIA KAWALEK 5TET
Twenty year old Kasia Kawalek is a singer, flautist and songwriter based in London. A music business student at Middlesex University she works in an administrative capacity for Pizza Express Jazz Club as well as studying and performing.
Today’s show saw Kawalek and her five piece band presenting a programme of four original songs penned by the young singer. Kawalek was joined by Lorenz Okello-Oengor on keyboards, Izzy Stephens on guitar, Mark Mollison on bass and Benjamin Appiah at the drums. The quintet is due to issue an EP of its original material in 2018.
Combining jazz with pop r’n’b and rock sensibilities the group opened with “Don’t Know Where Your Life Is Going”. Kawalek then doubled on vocals and flute, combining well with Stephens’ guitar on “I Scream When I’m Sleeping”.
Kawalek writes from personal experience, as exemplified by “N41”, written on the night bus on the way home after a gig and featuring Okello-Ossengor’s keyboards prominently in the arrangement.
The new song “Free From Feelings” suggested the inspiration of Amy Winehouse in addition to Kawalek’s publicly acknowledged influences of Erykah Badou and Blossom Dearie.
I was impressed by Kawalek’s singing and playing and also by the quality of her songwriting. These were intelligent, mature evocative songs and the vocalist was given good support by her band, all students or former students at Middlesex University. The 5tet were well received by a supportive crowd at Iklectik and the release of their EP in the New Year will be keenly anticipated.
The Polish born Kowalek is also a singer of jazz standards and was to turn up in that capacity later on in the weekend. But more on that later. My thanks to her for speaking with me and providing me with details of her fellow musicians plus a set list.
ROMARNA CAMPBELL BLAN(C)ANVAS
Twenty one year old drummer and composer Romarna Campbell hails from Birmingham and studied jazz at the Conservatoire in her home city. She is currently furthering her studies at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston where she is in her first year.
I first became aware of Campbell’s playing thanks to her links with Brecon Jazz Club. In August 2016 she was invited to play with pianist Geoff Eales at Brecon Jazz Festival before returning in January 2017 to perform with a one off quartet led by pianist and composer Philip Clouts.
Blan(C)anvas is Campbell’s UK based band and features Sahvannah Amoka on tenor sax, Richie Seivwright on trombone, Deschanel Gordon on piano and Mutale Chashi on electric bass. Earlier this year the quintet supported one of Campbell’s heroines, the US drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Meanwhile Campbell is establishing herself on the Boston jazz scene and has already played in many of that city’s leading jazz clubs
Today’s set featured a mix of Campbell originals and arrangements of pieces by other contemporary jazz composers. The band commenced with Campbell’s own “Anxiety”, written on a Trans-Atlantic flight and with the urgent, staccato horn phrases expressing the emotions expressed in the title. Drawing on the bebop and hard bop traditions the tune also included solos from Gordon on piano and Chashi on electric bass with Campbell’s crisp drumming driving the band. The piece was crowned with a drum feature from the leader as things got off to a promising start.
Another original, “Limitations Of Our Imaginations” was segued with “Black Superhero Theme” by the band Erimaj, led by drummer Jamire Williams, another of Campbell’s drum idols. Gordon and Chashi again made important contributions as did horn soloists Seivwright and Amoka with the leader again rounding off the performance with a drum feature.
The leader’s own “Righteous Vibrations” concluded the performance, introduced by Chashi at the bass, this leading into a spirited trio passage featuring Gordon’s skipping piano phrases and Campbell’s skittering drum grooves. The addition of the horns eventually triggered individual solos from Amoka on tenor, Gordon on piano and Seivwright on trombone with Campbell again wrapping things up with a closing drum feature.
This was a performance of much promise with Campbell impressing both with her own writing and her imaginative use of outside material. Any subsequent recordings of this material would be eagerly anticipated.
My only quibble was that from my vantage point Campbell’s drums were too dominant with the sound of the horns buried too deeply in the mix. I suspect that this was less to do with the actual playing than with the miking for the horns. A better balanced sound would have made for a more satisfying performance but nevertheless there was much to enjoy here in a performance that augured well for Campbell’s future.
It was good to speak with Romarna again after previously meeting with her at Brecon and I’m grateful to her for providing me with some background info on her band and her choice of material. And it was also good to speak with Romarna’s mum, who had caught the train down from Birmingham specifically for this event.
Next up was the exciting young quintet Nihilism, fronted by violinist and vocalist Saskia Horton. She was joined in the front line by soprano sax specialist Shango Ljihakin in a line up that saw Lorenz Okello-Osengor and Benjamin Appiah return to the stage on keyboards and drums respectively. I recall the busy Appiah also impressing in 2016 as part of the group Triforce. The Nihilism line up was completed by Christopher Luu on electric bass.
From the gig publicity I’d expected something more obviously hip hop influenced, but although Nihilism’s music was groove driven and packed a considerable punch it seemed to owe more to old fashioned fusion. The unusual violin and soprano sax front line played with great verve on the opening “Dissonance”, cutting a swathe through the heavy grooves generated by electric bass, drums and keys. Horton undertook a flamboyant solo on violin followed by Ljihakin on rapier like soprano and finally Okello-Osengor on synth, his sound alternating between the ethereal and the downright dirty.
A segue of “Lunar’s Travels” and “In Motion” saw Horton playing pizzicato as Ljihakin played the melody of the first piece before embarking on an incisive solo. Okello-Osongor adopted an electric piano sound for his keyboard solo before Ljihakin’s second outing on soprano formed the bridge into “In Motion”. Solos here came from Horton on violin and Luu on electric bass with Appiah rounding things off with a hard hitting drum feature.
“Yoda” featured a funky electric bass groove and included another fiery violin solo from Horton and a stunning electric bass feature from Luu.
As part of a second segue the music evolved into the harder edged “Beast Mode” which saw the group’s hip-hop influences finally coming out courtesy of the grooves generated by bass, drums and keys and with Horton and Ljihakin both contributing rap style vocal episodes. With its staccato instrumental phrases this was music that combined the urgency of hip hop with the complexity of prog rock. I don’t know who Horton’s violin heroes are but I was reminded of Jean Luc Ponty, or closer to home Christian Garrick in his jazz rock / electric violin guise.
This was a hugely exciting performance from a very well drilled young band who played with skill, passion and urgency, occasionally hinting at the past but very much of the present. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed them. Once again let’s hope they can get their music out there on disc.
Thanks to Saskia for talking with me afterwards and providing me with lots of relevant background information.
It was also good to meet up again with Gina Southgate, who painted all three bands and whose image of Nihilism illustrates this article.
LAURENCE COTTLE BAND / MIKE STERN / DAVE WECKL QUARTET, RONNIE SCOTT’S JAZZ CLUB, SOHO
A short tube ride to Ronnie’s for this sold out performance featuring an all star American quartet co-led by guitarist Mike Stern and drummer Dave Weckl, two of the most revered instrumentalists in contemporary US jazz.
LAURENCE COTTLE BAND
Opening the proceedings was a quartet led by Swansea born Laurence Cottle, a virtuoso exponent of the electric bass and a leading figure on both the jazz and session scenes, with a lengthy list of pop and rock credits.
The funky four piece that Cottle brought to Ronnie’s included pianist Tim Lapthorn, drummer Frank Tontoh and saxophonist Dan Reinstein, the latter also an acclaimed eye surgeon who divides his time between the UK and the US. The characterful Reinstein actually acted as MC with Cottle happy to remain in the background. “The Welsh are funkier than the English” declared Reinstein, which raised a cheer in certain quarters, not least from my other half.
By the time I arrived the quartet were already under way but I was able to enjoy a version of Freddie Hubbard’s funky but melodic 70s classic “Little Sunflower” with solos coming from Lapthorn on piano and Reinstein on tenor sax.
From the same era came “Watermelon Man” from Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters” album in a slowed down, slyly funky arrangement featuring Reinstein on curved soprano sax and Cottle on electric bass, his solo including a quite from The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.
Best of all was a spirited group workout on Kenny Garrett’s composition “Wayne’s Thang”, the composer’s dedication to Wayne Shorter. Here Reinstein adopted a harder edged tone on tenor as he shared the solos with Lapthorn. The piece also included an absorbing and entertaining dialogue between Cottle and Tontoh, the drummer clearly relishing every moment of it.
This was an enjoyable and entertaining set, packed with fine playing from four very experienced musicians, that set the evening up nicely for the stellar American main act.
MIKE STERN / DAVE WECKL QUARTET
I’ve seen Weckl perform, most impressivel,y with Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band, but I have to admit that the main attraction here was the guitar playing of Mike Stern. I’d enjoyed a performance by Stern’s own group many years ago at the sadly now long defunct branch of Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham. It was a great show and I’ve enjoyed hearing Stern on album since, not forgetting his contributions to the Miles Davis bands of yore.
There was also a certain morbid fascination about this performance. Eighteen months ago Stern was running for a cab in New York City when he tripped and fell. As a guitarist his first instinct, understandably, was to protect his hands. As a result he ended up breaking both elbows, which was possibly worse. He was forced to cancel a tour with saxophonist Bill Evans and faced a lengthy period of surgery and rehabilitation. But, now, thankfully Stern is back on the stand, with a new solo album titled “Trip”, a humorous nod in the direction of his horrific experience. Of course “Trip” could have a second connotation, Stern was once a drug buddy of the late, great Jaco Pastorius. But Stern lived to tell the tale, he’s one of the great survivors and has got through so many scrapes that it’s tempting to think of him as jazz’s equivalent to Ozzy Osbourne.
Despite everything he’s been through Stern exudes an ‘aw shucks’ bonhomie both on and off stage, conducting a workshop with young musicians during the afternoon and chatting graciously to fans after the gig. I remember meeting him in Birmingham and finding him a thoroughly decent bloke.
The music from “Trip” formed part of this show but there plenty of surprises too as the quartet opened with the late Don Grolnick’s “Nothing Personal”, a tune written for the Brecker Brothers band of which Stern and Grolnick were members. Arranged by Weckl this allowed each member of the band to introduce themselves with a solo, Stern going first, followed by Bob Malach on tenor sax, Tom Kennedy on five string electric bass, and, of course, Weckl at the drums.
As a soloist Stern rivals Pat Metheny for fluency and melodiousness but his playing, like that of John Scofield, is more rooted in the blues. We were to hear this on his own “Avenue B” (from the 2004 album “These Times”) which was by turns, balladic, bluesy and anthemic as Stern shared the solos with Malach on tenor and Weckl at the kit.
Stern has added singing to his armoury and his credible wordless vocals sometimes evoked memories of Pat Metheny’s voice featuring ensembles. The African tinged “Emilia” and the ballad “I Believe You” from the new album “Trip” were particularly effective in this regard.
But it wasn’t all about Stern, Malach contributed several solos that effectively combined muscularity with soulfulness improvisational fluency, although he was content to sit quietly at the edge of the stage when not actually playing.
Meanwhile Kennedy provided propulsive funk flavoured electric bass grooves and on one occasion took centre stage with a virtuoso solo bass feature that brought back memories of Pastorius. Technically dazzling with its slippery fingered runs Kennedy’s feature also featured the effective use of wah wah FX while the liberal insertion of quotes such as “Salt Peanuts” elicited laughter from both the audience and his band-mates alike.
Then there was Weckl who drummed with power and precision, but with plenty of subtlety among all the chops. One dialogue with Stern saw him playing his kit with bare hands, gently at first before building up to a bruising power.
The set highlight had to be the title track from “Trip”, which threatened to close the show. This high octane piece with its tricky unison guitar and sax riffs seemed to embody the kind of headlong rush that contributed to Stern’s misfortune. And, of course, the solos were spectacular with Stern’s turbo-charged guitar taking flight first, followed by Malach’s earthy double sax and finally Weckl’s dynamic drumming in a final explosive percussion feature.
The deserved encore threw up something totally unexpected, with Stern acknowledging his blues roots by singing a version Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House”, which also featured his high speed guitar shredding in conjunction with Malach’s earthy tenor sax and the driving rhythms generated by Kennedy and Weckl. This was the classiest blues cover you’re ever likely to hear.
This was a hugely exciting show, presided over by Stern with charm and good humour and with a relaxed Weckl chipping in every now and again. It wasn’t all hammer and tongs and pure technique, there were also moments of subtlety and humour plus the unexpected bonus of Stern’s surprisingly accomplished vocalising. A sold out crowd loved it and the band were due to play a second house later on.
Meanwhile all Stern fans will want to hear “Trip”, a highly accomplished album that celebrates one man’s triumph over adversity in highly convincing and entertaining fashion. A recent interview in Jazzwise explains what Stern had to go through in order to return to the scene. It was incredibly tough going, but it’s good to have him back and he’s clearly a musician determined to make the most of it.
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