by Ian Mann
May 03, 2023
Ian Mann enjoys a series of sold out shows including performances by Birmingham / Siena Jazz Exchange, CollapseUncollapse with Stian Westerhus, Black Top with Xhosa Cole and Ezra Collective.
Photograph of Ezra Collective at Cheltenham Town Hall by Tim Dickeson
SATURDAY AT CHELTENHAM JAZZ FESTIVAL, 29/04/2023.
Following a very successful and well attended post coViD return in 2022 the 2023 Cheltenham saw audience numbers increase even further with many shows selling out. And it wasn’t just the big headlining events such as Van Morrison, Gregory Porter and Squeeze in the Big Top; three of today’s events on the more ‘cutting edge’ side of the programme at the Parabola Arts Centre also attracted capacity audiences. This, coupled with the fact that there seemed to be more people than ever enjoying the events on the Free Stage in Montpelier Gardens added up to a highly memorable weekend of music at a Festival that must have represented a huge artistic and financial success for the organisers.
BIRMINGHAM / SIENA JAZZ EXCHANGE, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
The first ‘full house’ on today’s PAC programme was for the annual ’Jazz Exchange’ event showcasing the talents of students on the Jazz Course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire alongside their counterparts from various equivalent European institutions.
For many years the visitors were from Trondheim in Norway but more recent exchanges have featured students from Paris and from the Siena Jazz-Accademia Nazionale del Jazz.
Although today’s event was billed as a Birmingham / Siena Exchange logistical problems meant that the Italian contingent were unable to travel. Nevertheless the event still had an international flavour with several Italian students who are currently studying in the UK making appearances alongside other students currently studying in Milan and Hamburg.
As is traditional at this event three different ensembles, known simply as Groups One, Two and Three each presented a short programme lasting around fifteen to twenty minutes.
The event was hosted by CJF’s Programme Advisor Tony Dudley-Evans and the standard of the musicianship from each of the three ensembles was as outstanding as ever. The logistical hiatus had caused no discernible loss of quality and it has to be said that every year the skill levels of these young musicians, wherever they may be from, is hugely impressive. This also says much for the standard of the teaching at the various institutions involved.
Group One, mentored by Jeremy Price of RBC, featured Birmingham based students Ben Partridge (tenor sax), Marcin Muras (trombone), Nick Manz (piano) and Aidan Amann (drums) plus Roz MacDonald, originally from Scotland but now studying in Hamburg on double bass.
Conscious of the need to move things along, the Exchange event has often overrun in the past, Dudley-Evans didn’t encourage the applause of individual musicians during the introductions. Also no tune announcements were made by the musicians but we were informed that all three groups would be playing programmes of original music, with several pieces composed specifically for this event.
Group One’s first piece began with a passage of unaccompanied piano from Manz, who had been a finalist in the 2022 BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition. Gradually bass, drums and horns were added as the group adopted a contemporary jazz sound, perhaps inspired by recordings on the ECM record label. Fluent solos came from saxophonist Partridge and pianist Manz, with a neatly constructed drum feature from Amman coming towards the close. I surmised that Amann might be the son of Midlands based pianist and composer Tim Amann, perhaps somebody reading this can confirm that for me.
The second piece featured a more conventional, ‘mainstream’ jazz sound with tenor sax and trombone combining effectively on the ‘head’. Polish born Muras impressed with his trombone solo, as did MacDonald on her bass feature.
Manz’s piano arpeggios introduced the third piece, quickly joined by Partridge and Muras for a ‘chamber jazz’ trio section sans bass and drums. MacDonald and Amann eventually joined the party and a more conventional piano trio section followed with the impressive Manz soloing. The return of the horns resulted in an increase of energy and momentum and a short cameo from MacDonald was followed by a powerful and expansive tenor solo from Partridge, who seemed to be the effective ‘leader’ of this first aggregation.
Group Two, mentored by Ed Puddick, featured RBC students Rebecca Wing (alto sax), Tom Marsh (double bass) and Henry Wakley (drums) plus the Italian musicians Luca Gianassi (guitar) and Daniele Nocella (trumpet), the latter studying in Milan.
Marsh’s bass introduced the first item, first joined by guitar and drums and then by the mournful sound of Nocella’s trumpet. He then entered into a series of absorbing exchanges with Wing’s alto, these followed by a tasteful, measured solo from Gianassi on guitar. Trumpet and sax then took over again, continuing to exchange ideas as the music continued to gather momentum, with group generating an impressive collective power.
An episodic second piece was led in by Wing’s alto, combining again with Norcella’s trumpet to create a kind of opening fanfare. The two horns were joined by the rest of the group to state the melodic theme, this followed by an outstanding trumpet from Nocella, now adopting a harder edged sound that demonstrated his versatility on the instrument. His solo was followed by that of Wing, with further features coming from Marsh and Wakley. The closing section had a song like construction and was positively anthemic, with the impressive Nocella again leading the way.
The length of this second piece meant that the second group only got to play two numbers, but those two pieces certainly made their presence felt.
The final group, mentored by Andrew Bain, featured RBC students Ben Goodman-Church (piano), James Routledge (trumpet, flugel) and Milo Kirkham (drums), together with Polish born bassist Jaromjr Rusnak, who is studying in Milan, and alto saxophonist Paul Beskers, who is studying in Hamburg.
Their first piece saw trumpet and alto sax combining on the ‘head’ before the impressive Rusnak took the first solo at the bass. Beskers followed on alto and Goodman-Church at the piano, prior to a closing drum feature from the powerful Kirkham.
Routledge moved to flugel and displayed an impressive fluency and sensitivity on the next tune, a ballad that also revealed a more sensitive side to Kirkham’s playing as he switched to brushes. Routledge took the first solo on flugel, this followed by a melodic double bass feature from Rusnak.
Kirkham picked up the sticks again to introduce the swinging, bebop flavoured final item. This proved to be an energetic, upbeat set closer with lively solos from Routledge on trumpet, Beskers on alto and Goodman-Church at the piano.
This was the most varied set of the three but all of the groups were given a very generous reception from the knowledgeable audience at the PAC as they applauded these rising stars, with all fifteen musicians gathering together on stage to acknowledge the acclaim at the end. Each is already a highly accomplished musician and many of today’s performers will surely be joining the professional ranks very soon. I’d be more than happy to see any of them perform again should they ever visit a club near me.
OLDHAM FOUNDATION SHOWCASE – IMMY and TAMZENE, JAZZ ARENA
Another annual event at CJF that seeks to promote and nurture young musical talent is the Oldham Foundation Showcase double bill that takes place in the Jazz Arena.
The performers are not always strictly jazz, although the 2022 event featured rising star jazz vocalist Georgia Cecile, who returned this year with her own show at the same venue as part of the concert programme.
2022 was probably the best all round Showcase event that I’ve seen as the other act was blues singer and songwriter Elles Bailey, a highly talented vocalist and writer with a commanding stage presence and with an excellent band around her. I enjoyed Bailey’s performance so much last year that I checked her out again at subsequent blues festivals in Bilston and Upton.
Although it didn’t quite hit last year’s heights (for me, anyway) 2023 featured another all female bill with Kent based singer, bassist and songwriter Immy followed by Scottish vocalist, pianist and songwriter Tamzene.
The double bill was introduced by CJF’s Head of Programming, David Gaydon, who emphasised the Festival’s support for “early career artists”, while emphasising the success enjoyed by both Cecile and Bailey in the wake of last year’s event.
I could find precious little on line about Immy, who opened the show here playing bass guitar and singing her self penned songs while fronting a trio featuring guitarist Josh and drummer Angus. Her sound has been described as “pop, soul and funk with a touch of jazz”, with artists as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis and Julie London mentioned as influences. From a musical family her inspirations also include poet Emily Dickinson.
Be that as it may this was essentially a pop / rock performance with Immy’s assured vocals and accomplished bass guitar playing supported by Angus’ drums and Josh’s wah wah guitar sound on opener “Falling For You”.
Most of Immy’s songs were about relationships and despite the Dickinson influence the lyrics were rather callow and formulaic, although given her young years this perhaps wasn’t so surprising. Her tunes however were effective and arresting and the singing and playing more than competent. The young trio soon had the audience on their side with drummer Angus helping to elicit an audience clap along to the second song, “Taking It Slow”.
Next up a song described by its writer as “a dancey one”, an upbeat indie rock flavoured offering that kept the energy levels up and the audience onside, and particularly so when Immy demonstrated her bass playing chops with a brief instrumental solo.
“So Pretty”, described as “a song about misjudging someone” that started out as a love song but turned in to a hate song slowed the pace slightly with a voice/ guitar intro as Angus temporarily dropped out. The pretty / shitty rhyming couplet couldn’t help but raise a smile, while Josh impressed with an instrumental solo.
Immy has already released two EPs, 2021’s “Golden Skies” and 2022’s “Lovestruck in London”, plus a handful of singles. Her next single release will be the hypnotic, blues tinged “Sweet Nirvana”, which should do well given its reception here.
It wasn’t always easy to catch the song titles but next up was a tight, taut funky offering that highlighted Josh’s guitar skills.
The only cover of the set was of the Eloise song “Subside”. Also from the UK Eloise is a little older than Immy and is an artist with an international reputation. She is clearly also a huge inspiration for the younger singer - “she’s the reason I’m doing this”.
Another “love song turned hate song” was the bitter revenge ballad “Pretty In Person”. This was followed by “Out Of The Blue”, a co-write with singer Stefan Mahendra.
More of the promised funk arrived on the closing “Lovesick”, a 2022 single that elicited more clapping along and instrumental features for both Immy and Josh. The vibrant rhythms, catchy chorus and instrumental dexterity helped to generate an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd, with many getting to their feet to applaud the band at the end of their set.
Although it was rather more ‘poppy’ than my usual listening these days I rather enjoyed this. The songs were generally good, the singing and playing accomplished and the energy levels impressive. It’s not easy to sing and play an instrument at the same time but Immy multi-tasked impressively, well supported by her young band mates. There is much potential here and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to seeing or hearing Immy performing again. An excellent start to this two part showcase.
From the Scottish Highlands Tamzene is described as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. At today’s event she restricted herself to singing and playing the grand piano at The Jazz Arena.
Influenced by Roberta Flack, Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin and Eva Cassidy she has recently released her début album “Lullaby”. Although only nineteen years of age Tamzene seems to be an old soul, her lyrics about relationships were more mature and nuanced than Immy’s and more rooted in the ‘Great American Songbook’ style of writing. To be fair to Immy she’s not really looking for the same effect and her words and music are more indebted to the pop / indie rock idiom.
Tamzene’s lyrics also draw on the ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter style pioneered by Joni Mitchell and opener “Called You Up” functioned as both torch song and revenge ballad.
“It’s Just Working, Babe” explored similar emotional territory but the more upbeat “Alive” brightened the mood and the optimistic “Not Just Anyone” celebrated the joys of falling in love.
The lyrics of “Ripcord” drew on inventive analogies (“you’re my ripcord when I’m falling) and the last song that I got to hear before having to make an early departure to cover another event was “I Don’t Want To Talk About Love”, a co-write with Scottish singer-songwriter David Sneddon, who was present in the audience.
There was much to enjoy here, Tamzene has a strong singing voice and is an accomplished pianist, although instrumental soloing wasn’t her business, her piano playing was there to support her songs.
With their focus on love and relationships the lyrics were a little one dimensional in terms of thematic content, but Tamzene’s words were also mature, poetic and evocative. More serious in tone than Immy it was perhaps surprising that she was scheduled to play second as a voice and piano solo performance couldn’t match the energy of a three piece electric band. That said Tamzene is more well established and I also noted that the sounds leaching in from other stages didn’t really affect Tamzene’s set, although they could be heard when Immy was announcing songs and her band weren’t actually playing. Thus the running order may have been determined by events happening elsewhere. On balance I probably preferred Immy out of the two, partly because there were other instruments to focus on.
Not quite up to 2022’s lofty standards but an enjoyable event nevertheless. Like the Jazz Exchange event the Oldham Foundation Showcase has become a central part of my CJF experience and I was very pleased to have been able to dip into it once again.
COLLAPSEUNCOLLAPSE with STIAN WESTERHUS, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
CollapseUncollapse is the improvising duo of Birmingham based musicians Mark Sanders (drums, percussion) and Chris Mapp (electric bass, electronics). They have recently recorded an album for subsequent release on the Brooklyn based label 577 Records.
The duo regularly invite other musicians to perform with them and for this Festival event, commissioned by Cheltenham Festivals and TDE Promotions, they asked the extraordinary Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus to join them.
I first remember seeing Westerhus play at the 2006 CJF when he was a member of Fraud, the ‘punk jazz’ quintet co-led by the British musicians James Allsopp (reeds) and Tim Giles (drums). Fraud delivered an incendiary performance at the old Pillar Room venue in the Town Hall and I recall enjoying seeing the band play live again at Warwick Arts Centre in 2007. Fraud was a relatively short lived venture and the group eventually disbanded after recording one eponymous album.
In 2011 Westerhus returned to CJF to deliver an astonishing solo guitar and electronics performance at the Playhouse Theatre. My review of that remarkable event can be found as part of that year’s Festival coverage here;
At the 2014 CJF Mapp, openly acknowledging the influence of Westerhus, gave a solo bass guitar and electronics performance at The Playhouse in which he explored similar sonic territory. This was part of a triple bill known as The Edge Project, presented by Dudley Evans that also featured music from Tricko-Tareco (the duo of pianist Kit Downes and cellist Lucy Railton augmented by saxophonist Julian Nicholas) and the sax / electronics duo of Pete Wareham and Leafcutter John. Review here;
Fast forward to 2023 and Westerhus continues to perform such solo ‘recitals’ and had done so the previous evening at the Parabola. Those that had been there were suitably impressed, but not all fancied submitting themselves to a second Westerhus sonic barrage in as many days.
Introducing today’s trio Tony Dudley-Evans of TDE Promotions explained that the musicians would play a wholly improvised set. All clad in black the musicians took to a stage strewn with foot pedals and other electronic devices designed to expand the sound of both Westehus’ guitar and Mapp’s five string electric bass. Meanwhile Sanders augmented his drum kit with an array of small gongs and cymbals, singing bowls and sundry other items of small percussion.
A forty minute improvisation began quietly and atmospherically, with Sanders laying down an almost funereal beat via the use of mallets on toms as Westerhus and Mapp deployed their instruments and their wide ranging array of electronic FX to create layers of colour and texture. Pointillist guitar combined with ambient sound-washes, but subtly the music began to change, becoming louder and more intense, with Mapp deploying touch guitar techniques on his bass and sometimes using a pick. His use of a floor mounted effects unit allowed him to deliver some diaphragm rattling deep bass frequencies as an increasingly animated Sanders made effective use of those gongs and small cymbals.
Westerhus eventually took over to deliver some seriously brutal guitar shedding, the six string pyrotechnics augmented by screeching squalls of foot pedal generated electronic noise. Turning the volume up even further he entered into the realms of doomy, metalloid drone, punctuated by shrieks of feedback. This was seriously, rock band loud and one or two listeners sneaked out, alarmed at the volume and intensity.
An eerie, more atmospheric passage followed featuring the live looped sounds of Mapp’s bass and Sanders’ use of bows on gongs and cymbals.
Westerhus is also famed for the use of the bow on his guitar and in previous reviews I have referred to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page as a “dilettante” or a “mere dabbler” in comparison. A set piece section featuring his impressive arco technique and his use of ringing overtones was augmented by his plaintive singing, delivered in English. It wasn’t easy to make sense of the lyrics but I seem to recall the phrase “you never know until tomorrow”. Westerhus’ guitar and vocal work was complemented by Sanders’ hand drumming and his use of singing bowls and other small percussion.
The final passage saw the trio cranking up the volume again and making full use of their arsenal of electronic effects as they went into ‘free jazz power trio’ mode, powered by Sanders’ volcanic drumming and with Mapp’s bass occasionally taking over the lead from Westerhus’ guitar. Some of the rhythms were derived from the rock world and provoked a bout of head nodding from some members of the audience.
This excoriating finale drew a rousing response from the crowd and the trio then embarked upon a second twenty minute improvisation that wasn’t strictly speaking an ‘encore’, but which somehow felt like one.
This shorter improvised excursion was introduced by Mapp at the bass, his subtle rhythmic patterns complemented by the soft chime of Sanders’ gongs and cymbals, the delicate filigree periodically punctuated by the harsher sounds of a cymbal scrape.
Westerhus had sat out thus far but now joined to combine with Mapp to create a swirling, ambient reverie of guitar washes and electronically generated sounds, with Sanders temporarily dropping out.
The drummer returned to add mallet rumbles to this atmospheric mix, the reverie subsequently being punctured by electronic squalls as the music became increasingly clangorous, with Westerhus again cranking up his amps and embarking on what was effectively a guitar solo that incorporated some serious shredding and incorporated effective use of the tremolo arm. Meanwhile Mapp elicited howls of feedback from his bass as Sanders hammered his kit in dynamic fashion as the threesome generated an enormous, wailing rock band power.
Having reached a furious peak the music gradually subsided with Westerhus again making use of the bow on the closing ‘comedown’ section.
Acknowledging the applause of the crowd Sanders stepped forward to the vocal mic to thank the audience and to also pay tribute to Tony Dudley-Evans for his role in organising today’s gig and also for his work at CJF and on the Birmingham jazz scene over many years.
CollapseUncollapse and Stian Westerhus had taken us on a remarkable sonic adventure, and little more than an hour later we were to return to this same room to embark upon another one.
BLACK TOP with XHOSA COLE, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
Like CollapseUncollapse Black Top is also an improvising duo, this time featuring Pat Thomas on piano and electronics and Orphy Robinson on vibraphone and electronics.
It’s probably fair to say that Black Top is more established as an entity than CollapseUncollapse. Thomas and Robinson have been performing as a duo since at least 2011 and made their recorded début in 2014, a live set recorded at one of the still ongoing Jazz In The Round events at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London. That album features the duo in the company of guest saxophonist Steve Williamson and is favourably reviewed here;
Black Top also like to invite other musicians to collaborate with them and in 2015 they released their second album, a recording of a 2014 performance at London’s Vortex Jazz Club, this time with guest saxophonist Evan Parker.
The third album in the series was released in 2017 and documented a live performance at Café Oto in London in the company of the American musicians William Parker (double bass, flutes, trumpet) and Hamid Drake (drums, percussion). All the albums in the series appear on the Babel label.
2019’s “Black Top Presents Some Good News” documented another Oto live performance in the company of William Parker, Drake, and vocalist Elaine Michener. It appears on the Otoroku label.
Previous collaborators have included saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, drummer Louis Moholo Moholo, and trumpeters Claude Deppa and Byron Wallen among many others.
Today’s performance featured the Black Top duo alongside rising star saxophonist Xhosa Cole, a bandleader in his own right and a former winner of BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year. There’s something of a buzz about Xhosa Cole and incredibly the Parabola was sold out for this performance of avant garde jazz.
Again the set was to be totally improvised, with the sounds of piano, vibes and sax / flute augmented by the various electronic devices deployed by Thomas and Robinson.
Black Top describe themselves as “a shape shifting unit, dedicated to exploring the intersection between live instruments and lo -fi technology”. Their music is wholly improvised but incorporates the use of loops, samples and dub reggae effects. The duo refer to it as “utilising music and sounds influenced by the African diaspora”.
Today’s performance began with the sounds of sampled speech generated by Robinson and referencing various elements of the Black experience. This was accompanied by the piping sounds of Cole’s flute and by Thomas’ explorations of the piano’s innards.
When Robinson moved to the vibes he deployed the four mallet technique as Thomas gravitated between piano and electronics. Robinson’s vibes playing also included the use of extended techniques, such as rattling the mallets within the tubes of the instrument.
Thomas generated barrages of electronic noise, which I’m not sure were entirely intentional, these contrasting with the soft chimes of the vibraphone.
Cole moved to tenor sax to deliver a solo of sorts, his fluent playing augmented by glitchy electronics. At one juncture Robinson and Thomas dropped out entirely, leaving Cole to improvise solo, a challenge that he dealt with comfortably. It wasn’t the first time that the saxophonist had played with the duo and a strong rapport has clearly been established.
Thomas then rejoined to create an engaging piano / tenor sax dialogue, with Robinson subsequently coming in on vibes, deploying only two mallets this time, as the trio performed a rare all acoustic section.
The next passage saw the introduction of sampled voices and reggae beats, these forming the backdrop for a second tenor solo from Cole and a furious bout of Cecil Taylor like piano from Thomas. The pianist’s playing also draws on the legacy of such giants of the jazz genre as Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington.
An extended vibes / piano dialogue followed as Cole sat out, eventually returning on tenor as the electronics were reintroduced, this followed by a further switch to flute as the sampled voices and reggae beats returned.
Cole continued to move between instruments, taking up the tenor again to solo above Thomas’ jagged piano rhythms. A bout of unaccompanied tenor saw Cole demonstrating his circular breathing technique. He’s a phenomenally talented and open minded musician.
A rousing ‘ragtime’ section featured a passage of stride style piano from Thomas and more four mallet virtuosity from Robinson. This seemed to signal the end but there was still a twist in the tale with a quieter, more impressionistic final section which included Robinson intoning a list of homilies, of which I jotted down “listen to the silence”.
Robinson’s striking T shirt, with the words ‘Windrush Generation’ on the back and the words “More Blacks!, More Dogs!, More Irish!” in red, gold and green on the front drew admiring glances and reinforced Black Top’s political message.
This time there was to be no ‘encore’ but this improvisation had lasted a full hour and represented a fascinating and distinctive musical journey with a strong political message. Black Top have created a unique duo sound, but it’s one in which their guests can feel at home and every performance is different. Having enjoyed hearing the group’s live performances on disc I was delighted to see them ‘in the flesh’ for the first time, and particularly in the company of Xhosa Cole, of whom I was already very much a fan.
To see such adventurous and uncompromising music being played to a full house was very much the icing on the cake.
ESPEN ERIKSEN TRIO with ANDY SHEPPARD, PARABOLA ARTS CENTRE
The third sell out gig of the day was this performance by this Norwegian trio led by pianist and composer Espen Eriksen, joined by the British saxophonist Espen Eriksen.
This event was one of the earliest sell outs of the entire Festival and all the seats had gone before I even applied for press tickets.
Fortunately a couple of returns in the week leading up to the Festival saw the status of the event change to ‘low availability’ and I was able to phone the box office and purchase a couple of tickets just three days prior to the gig.
This was a show that I didn’t want to miss, despite the reservations I have expressed about the Eriksen trio in the past. As I attended as a paying customer I don’t intend to give a fully detailed review but I did enjoy the performance and was very pleased that I was able to witness it.
The Eriksen Trio, also featuring bassist Lars Tormod Jenset and drummer Andreas Bye, was formed in 2007 and the line up has remained constant ever since. The group has released a series of albums for the Rune Grammofon label and my rather guarded review of their 2010 release “You Had Me At Goodbye” can be found here;
The trio specialise in melodic, folk influenced jazz and Eriksen’s compositions often resemble instrumental ‘songs’. It’s an approach that lies somewhere between that of their compatriots Jan Garbarek and Tord Gustavsen and the group’s music has invited criticisms of blandness and bloodlessness, and although I broadly I enjoy their sound I can see where their detractors are coming from.
In 2013 the members of the trio met with the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard when both acts were playing at a festival in Bergen and they subsequently began working together, releasing the album “Perfectly Unhappy” on Rune Grammofon in 2018. Although some of the earlier reservations remained the group sound was much fuller with Sheppard’s sax out front and, for me, this was a more satisfying release than the earlier trio recording.
Better still was 2022’s “In The Mountains”, a collection of live concert recordings, some recorded in the trio format, others with Sheppard on board. As so often happens the frisson of live performance gave the music added heft and my review of this recording was much more favourable.
Some of the pieces had appeared on previous studio recordings but sound more vital here.
Such was the case today, although I didn’t take notes and thus won’t be giving my usual tune by tune account. I do recall that they played the title tracks of both the “Perfectly Unhappy” and “In The Mountains” albums, plus “1974”, which appears on both releases and has a title that references the year in which Eriksen was born.
Eriksen proved to be a lucid and witty interlocutor between tunes and was clearly relishing the opportunity of performing in front of a capacity audience. Seeing the trio performing live made one appreciate just how high their level of rapport is, honed over more than fifteen years of making music together. It was particularly interesting to view from close range the subtle details and nuances of Bye’s drumming. Eriksen was a fluent soloist who thrived in the live environment and Jenset a capable anchor and occasional soloist. The now extravagantly bearded Sheppard fitted in perfectly and was a fluent soloist and an urbane on stage presence, leaving the verbals to Eriksen. Instead he spoke softly and eloquently through his tenor, although observers later expressed misgivings that he hadn’t ‘let himself go’ a bit more.
Nevertheless this was an absorbing and hugely enjoyable performance. As I observed in my “In The Mountains” review “The live environment seems to suit the Eriksen Trio, with the addition of Sheppard representing a very welcome bonus”.
EZRA COLLECTIVE, TOWN HALL
Back in 2013 I saw Ezra Collective, a quintet of young South London teenagers, deliver a highly impressive performance in the performance space at Ray’s Jazz at Foyles as part of that year’s London Jazz Festival. The group had emerged out of the Tomorrow’s Warriors development programme founded by Gary Crosby and Jeanine Irons and it was already clear that they had tremendous potential. Review here;
Three years later I caught up with the band again at the new, larger performance space at Ray’s and it was pleasing to see just how much they had kicked on during the interim. Playing to a sold out crowd they played with confidence and swagger and considerable musical skill. Review as part of our Festival coverage here;
Already it was clear that this was a band that was going places, although quite how far they would go nobody could imagine. Fast forward to 2023 and Ezra Collective are capable of selling out venues like Islington Town Hall and Cheltenham Town Hall as well as delighting audiences at the Green Man Festival in Crickhowell, Mid Wales. A friend of mine who wouldn’t really consider himself as a jazz fan, saw them at Green Man and enthused that they were the best band of the Festival.
It says much for the Collective’s abilities that they are able to delight non jazz audiences by playing entirely instrumental music that is still very obviously jazz. Yes, they are entertainers, but it’s still the music itself that represents the core of their act.
The 2023 edition of Ezra Collection features only one line up change since the band’s inception a decade ago. The group is still led by drummer Femi Koleoso, joined in the ‘engine room’ by his brother, TJ Koleoso, on electric bass. Joe Armon Jones plays piano and keyboards, James Mollison is on tenor sax and Ife Ogunjobi is on trumpet, replacing founder member Dylan Jones.
A sold out Cheltenham Town Hall was absolutely rammed for this standing only gig, even the upstairs balconies were full. It was so hot and crowded that taking notes was impossible, so this will just be an overall impression of the gig.
TJ started things off on the bass, prowling the steps at the back of the stage that lead up to the pipe organ. With brother Femi he helped to lay down Ezra’s irresistible grooves, with Armon Jones’ often filthy sounding electric keyboards adding an extra element of funkiness. The horns of Mollison and Ogunjobi were electronically hooked, allowing them to roam the stage delivering searing solos, while Armon Jones moved between grand piano and electric keyboards, contributing dazzling solos on both.
It was non stop energy all the way with the band members whipping up the crowd and Femi stepping out from behind the kit to talk to the crowd, a hip and charismatic personality dispensing streetwise homilies and pleas for unity and tolerance. The crowd loved him both for this and for his dynamic drumming. Once he had told them that the band’s first ever gig had been on the Free Stage at the 2013 CJF under the Tomorrow’s Warriors Presents banner they were practically eating out of his hand.
Ezra’s music mixes elements of jazz, funk, soul, reggae, Afrobeat, samba and hip-hop, an amalgam of just about all the elements of the African diaspora, but with jazz still very much at its core. This is a brand of jazz from the streets of South London, vibrant, urgent and uncompromising. This may be party music but it still carries a strong political message and the jazz content is undiluted. All of these players are superb musicians and gifted soloists, they don’t water down the jazz content but somehow manage smuggle it past the jazz police and make it appeal to a young audience who might otherwise tell you that they don’t like jazz.
All around me people were dancing, swept along by the sheer energy of Ezra’s performance. They applauded the set piece solos and Femi’s occasional verbal musings, but it’s still essentially all about the music. In addition to being great communicators these guys are also brilliant musicians with serious jazz chops.
The material included an arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “The Eye Of The Hurricane”, from the 1965 Hancock album “Maiden Voyage”, plus Ezra crowd pleaser “Sao Paolo”, from their 2019 album “You Can’t Steal My Joy”.
“Sao Paolo” was the group in real party mood, with TJ, Mollison and Ogunjobi down amongst the crowd and whipping up the audience. This was the last gig of the day and the show was allowed to overrun, but nobody was complaining.
I thoroughly enjoyed this high energy, crowd pleasing performance by Ezra Collective, a band capable of entertaining a large crowd without overly compromising either themselves or their music. Musical intelligence and instrumental virtuosity are still at the heart of their sound and this was still unmistakably a jazz performance. The sound was also remarkably good for the Town Hall, so well done to the sound engineers for that.
And as the crowd melted away into the night I couldn’t resist a smug smile, heartened by the band’s awesome progress and thinking to myself “you read about them here first”.
blog comments powered by Disqus