by Ian Mann
December 02, 2008
State of the art trio music. Andersen was quite mesmerising
The international trio of Andersen, Smith and Vinaccia have attracted compelling amounts of critical praise for their ECM release “Live At Belleville” recorded over two nights at the Oslo venue in September 2007.
Following their appearance at the London Jazz Festival this was the trio’s only other English date on a short tour and Lichfield’s magnificent Guildhall attracted a pleasingly large crowd, many of whom had considerable distance to see them perform. The audience were not to be disappointed. Andersen and his cohorts produced an evening of memorable music that drew a fervent response from a knowledgeable, listening audience.
Norwegian bassist Andersen has been one of the doyens of the European jazz scene for many years now and has been associated with the ECM label for well over thirty of these recording several albums under his own name as well as appearing as a side man with the likes of Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Bobo Stenson.
Italian born drummer Paolo Vinaccia has been resident in Norway for many years and is a long term associate of Andersen’s appearing on the bassist’s ECM albums “Hyperborean” and “Electra” and also on the Norway only release “Kristin Lavransdatter” , a beautiful soundtrack to accompany the play of the same name.
Scottish tenor saxophonist Smith has matured from a precocious youngster into one of the major figures on the international jazz scene. Berkeley educated he has played with big American names such as vibraphonists Gary Burton and Joe Locke and in 2003 led a sextet featuring Joe Lovano, John Schofield, John Pattitucci and Bill Stewart for the album “Exodus”, a collection of original Smith material recorded in New York and released on his own Spartacus label. Smith has also played with leading figures on the UK scene and with top ranking Europeans (as here). However he has never forgotten his roots and is an enthusiastic ambassador and patron for the burgeoning Scottish jazz scene through his educational work, the Spartacus label and his leadership of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
This unique Norwegian/Scottish alliance was appropriately acknowledged by Andersen’s “Independency” suite which occupied the first half of the evening’s performance. The piece was originally commissioned in 2005 by the Norwegian Consulate in Aberdeen to commemorate 100 years of Norwegian independence and is the centre piece of the “Live In Belleville” album. Comprised of four movements it was played here as a shifting magnum opus with Andersen, positioned centre stage subtly but unmistakably leading from the bass.
The piece began with Andersen utilising the bow and making judicious use of electronics to loop and delay the sound. In this way he built up layers of sound to create a rich backdrop with a distinct choral quality. It would not be too fanciful to describe this process as painting or perhaps sculpting with sound. Andersen subsequently played virtuoso pizzicato bass over the wall of sound he had himself created.
I remember ECM label mate and fellow bassist Eberard Weber demonstrating this technique on TV back in the 80’s. I think it was one of the half hour shows that Oscar Peterson hosted for Scottish TV. At the time it seemed absolutely magical. These days even the guys with a guitar at the acoustic night at my local pub seem to have some form of this kind of technology and it’s become two a penny. Tonight Andersen restored the magic again.
The hirsute Vinaccia is a man mountain who sits behind an enormous kit, especially by jazz standards. He looks as if he should be in a death metal band not a saxophone trio. Appearances can be deceptive. He proves to be the most sensitive of accompanists utilising brushes, sticks and mallets and deploying a range of cymbals from the minuscule to the massive.
Smith was originally greatly influenced by the great Jan Garbarek. Although there are still elements of this in his playing he has now developed his own voice on the instrument, one capable of ranging from a whisper to a scream. There were several examples tonight of full blooded tenor playing alongside more atmospheric and impressionistic passages. Smith also made subtle use of electronics to add a distinctive echoing quality to his sound. Even Vinaccia had a device to manipulate the volume of his drums.
The “Independency” suite incorporated passages of three way dialogue with strong interaction between the musicians and virtuoso soloing from Andersen (both with and without the bow) and Smith. Moody atmospherics alternated with spirited passages incorporating the rolling thunder of Vinaccia’s drums.
Smith would sometimes drop out allowing Andersen’s bass to lead from the front supported by Vinnacia. These duets between what was ostensibly the “rhythm section” were full of melodic invention and musicality.
The music of the “Independency” suite was always unfolding and despite the occasional longueur consistently held the listener’s attention. This was complex but absorbing and accessible music. On the celebratory fourth movement there was a fleeting moment when Andersen was almost playing orthodox walking bass.
If it had been an excellent first half the second set was to be even better. The trio chose a selection of song based material on which to base their improvisations. Andersen’s ethereal ballad “Dreamhorse” opened with the composer looping a bass phrase which became the pulse for the entire piece. He then added several other layers to this before Vinaccia added his support. Smith’s tenor playing took on an almost hymnal quality, aided by subtle electronic adjustments that added a church like echo to his phrasing. An excellent start then with the music living up to the cinematic and dreamlike connotations inherent in the title.
Next came “Ilama Ilama” a Yemeni folk tune brought to the group by Smith and as yet unrecorded. Vinaccia’s unaccompanied drums opened the piece before being joined by Andersen’s bass and Smith’s unmistakably middle eastern sounding tenor. Using the bow Andersen built up another loop mid tune over which the three protagonists improvised in muscular fashion building up a fair head of steam. This was uplifting music based around a powerful folk melody. Highly enjoyable.
Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” also appears on the “Belleville” album and is very much a vehicle for Smith. Opening on unaccompanied tenor Smith embarked upon a lengthy, probing solo as Andersen and Vinccia stoked the fires. Later there was a typically agile solo from the remarkable Andersen accompanied by the dependable Vinaccia before Smith returned to play us out. This was a remarkable modern mutation of an established standard.
The closing “Outhouse” was an opportunity for Vinaccia to release the latent power he’d been channelling all set. This rumbustious Andersen tune (also from the album) featured him both duetting with Andersen and in volcanic solo passages punctuated by Smith’s saxophone squalls. There was a marked Ornette Coleman feel to this tune and it proved a rousing finale drawing a tremendous response from the Lichfield crowd.
The trio returned to calm things down with an interpretation of a Scottish folk tune “Ad Te Levain” , as yet unrecorded and once more brought to the group by Smith. The gorgeous folk melody was given the full “orchestral” treatment by Andersen’s layered bass, Smith’s echoing sax lines and Vinaccia’s dramatic percussion. Haunting and ethereal it seemed to conjure up the swirling mist many of us had driven through to get here-and would probably have to face again. Was it worth it? You bet.
One of the striking features about seeing ECM artists play live is the sheer enjoyment they take in their music making. This represents something of a contrast to the sometimes austere image of the label and it’s production values. However both Andersen here and Bobo Stenson at his recent gig in Much Wenlock (also reviewed on this site) exhibited a playfulness and a child like delight in what they were doing. Andersen was always smiling and urging his colleagues on and the way that he cradled his bass like the body of a woman had something of the erotic about it.
As for Andersen’s playing I’d say that this was the most remarkable bass playing I’ve ever seen, surpassing even Anders Jormin with the Stenson trio. Andersen was quite mesmerising, dazzling in his plentiful solos, resonant, supple and muscular in support of his colleagues and blessed with superb all round musical vision. It’s over twenty years since I last saw Andersen play (in Birmingham with the group Masqualero), I’d almost forgotten just how good he is.
Smith and Vinaccia looked as if they were having a ball too and the chemistry between the three musicians suggests that this trio has plenty of mileage in it yet. Exploring the folk elements introduced in tonight’s unrecorded numbers may be a possible future direction.
With no chordal instrument the exposed format of the saxophone trio can represent a considerable challenge to the musicians. Andersen and his colleagues responded with aplomb generating a wide range of sounds and a breadth of colour that totally transcended the potential limitations of the instrumental line up.
Congratulations to Brian Pretty and the Lichfield Arts team for putting on such a prestigious event in the city.
The group were flying out to Frankfurt the following day for a gig but have since returned to the UK for the second leg of the tour with four dates in Smith’s native Scotland. They are due to play shows in Edinburgh (December 3), Aberdeen(4), Glasgow(6) and Lanark (7).
Full details can be found at http://www.tommy-smith.co.uk
Other useful links are http://www.ecmrecords.com
Also http://www.lichfieldarts.org.uk for details of further events at the Guildhall.