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by Ian Mann

October 31, 2012


"Banned In London" documents a hugely exciting jazz occasion, full of energy and inspired soloing.

Aruan Ortiz and Michael Janisch Quintet

“Banned In London”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR 4628)

Bassist and composer Michael Janisch is a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages. The Wisconsin born musician is now a London resident after a spell spent living in New York City. As well as being a fine musician Janisch is also one of the jazz scene’s great movers and shakers, an indefatigable organiser who has used his contacts on both sides of the Atlantic to set up many fruitful and memorable international collaborations between American and European musicians. He has also set up his own Whirlwind Recordings label which is steadily building up an impressive catalogue. Janisch is working towards establishing a distinctive “Whirlwind Sound” with the help of New York based engineer Tyler McDiarmid and the signs are that Whirlwind will soon develop to rank alongside the similarly musician led Edition (co-founded by pianist Dave Stapleton) as one of the UK’s most prestigious independent jazz labels.

The line up on this live album recorded at a sold out Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho at the 2011 London Jazz Festival is a typically international Janisch aggregation. Co-leading the group is Cuban born pianist Aruan Ortiz who now lives and works in New York City and is concurrently a member of trumpeter Wallace Roney’s quintet as well as leading his own quartet. Janisch and Ortiz met while both were studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the pair have maintained close musical links in the intervening years. The European element in this transatlantic alliance is trumpeter Raynald Colom, French born but now based in Barcelona after spending some time in New York where he worked with Ortiz and the drummer on this recording the great Rudy Royston , formerly of the Bill Frisell group and the JD Allen Trio. To create a fully fledged supergroup Janisch recruited the services of alto saxophonist Greg Osby, once one of the leading lights of the M-Base movement but a musician who has been rather off the radar in recent years. It’s a volatile mix of highly talented individuals and “Banned In London”, the title a homage to Osby’s own recording “Banned In New York”, is full of energy and inspired soloing. It’s certainly a blowing album with five lengthy workouts comprising of two Ortiz originals, one from Janisch and two heavily disguised standards, Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now”.

I saw the quartet of Ortiz, Janisch, Osby and Royston perform much of this material at The Cross in Moseley, Birmingham just two days before this album was recorded and have to confess that I found myself a little disappointed. The main reason for this was the noise of the electric piano that Ortiz was forced to use, it sounded terrible and rendered him at a disadvantage in comparison to the rest of the group. The fine soloing by the other members of the group plus a fleeting guest appearance from Jean Toussaint on tenor sax went some way to rectifying the situation but overall I felt that the Birmingham show was not as good as it could have been. At the time I predicted that the group would really come into their own at the Pizza with the addition of Colom and the availability of a proper acoustic grand piano. On the evidence of “Banned In London” I appear to have been proved right.

“Banned In London” crackles with energy from start to finish beginning with Janisch’s opening bass salvo on “Precisely Now”, the Dave Holland inspired opening track from Janisch’s 2009 album “Purpose Built”. The original is complex and tightly arranged but here Janisch and the group treat the theme much more openly and it ultimately mutates into a blowing vehicle with extended solos from Colom and Osby. Colom’s solo is beautifully constructed, slowly growing in passion and intensity as he interacts with the piano of Ortiz and the kinetic drumming of Royston. Next up is Osby, his tone pure yet tense and urgent. Again he’s superbly complemented by Ortiz’ s inventive chording and Royston’s colourful, energetic drumming as Janisch propels the whole group forward from the bass.

Thomas “Fats” Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” opens with a stunning solo sax cadenza from Osby who subsequently pulls Waller’s composition out of shape in cahoots with the rest of the group. Osby later takes a more conventional solo, articulating his thoughts above the roll and swing of his colleagues’ rhythms. Ortiz’s unusual and imaginative piano chords and fills are a feature throughout the album as he pushes the soloists to new heights. The pianist’s own solo begins in a reflective manner as he converses with Royston and Janisch but eventually the discourse becomes more animated and turbulent with Ortiz unleashing torrents of notes and embracing a wilful dissonance. The grand piano at the Pizza allows him to express his ideas in a way that the cruddy electric in Birmingham could only hint at.

Ortiz’s own “Orbiting” is the title track of his acclaimed quartet album recorded with a stellar line up featuring guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Eric McPherson. Ortiz’s tricky theme provides the launching pad for extended solos first from Colom and then from himself.
Colom hits the ground running and is fiery, fluent and inventive, spurred on by the relentless flow of ideas from Royston at the drums. Ortiz initially calms things down but gradually his solo develops a layered intensity, once again encouraged by the brilliant Royston who subsequently delivers a dynamic drum feature, his percussive pyrotechnics audibly delighting the eager Pizza crowd. 

Solo piano opens Monk’s “Ask Me Now” with Ortiz putting his own stamp on the composer’s style. The piece is essentially an extended ballad with Osby’s delicately blown alto and Colom’s rounded trumpet tones combining well. Both hornmen deliver elegant, eloquent solos that dig deep into the emotions with Osby’s offering particularly impressive.

The fireworks return with Ortiz’s closing “The Maestro”, another tricky theme that develops into a veritable solo fest with virtually all the members of this international “supergroup” demonstrating their skills. Colom goes first, simmering then coming to the boil above Royston’s polyrhythmic grooves. Osby is swinging and mercurial, clarity mixed with intensity, the audience love his incisive solo. Like Colom Ortiz develops his solo patiently, gradually ramping up the tension in layers of accreted intensity to reach a rousing climax. It’s a solo that appears to borrow from the classical avant garde as much as jazz and is perhaps an acknowledgement of the pianist’s classical roots. After a restatement of the theme the piece concludes with a final Royston drum feature, surprisingly rather more thoughtful and low key than his previous effort. Janisch is the only one not to solo but his muscular, driving bass playing provides the backbone of this group in more ways than one.

“Banned In London” documents a hugely exciting jazz occasion that was evidently wholly satisfying for the lucky audience members that were there on the night. There’s some intriguing writing from Ortiz and Janisch and some brilliant soloing from the members of an all star band. However as I observed at the Birmingham show strings of solos, no matter how brilliant, can become rather wearing after a while and there’s arguably too much use of the head/solos/head format for all the energy and skill on display. Ultimately I find Janisch’s more carefully considered material on “Purpose Built” more satisfying.

This is not to deny the immediacy of “Banned In London” and it’s obvious that this is a group with enormous potential. It would be interesting to hear a studio album of through composed material from this line up.

In the meantime readers will get the opportunity to see how the group have developed when they return to London for the 2012 London Jazz Festival. The official launch of “Banned In London” will take place at the Purcell Room on the South Bank on Saturday 10th December 2012 at 7.45 pm.
See for ticket details. Osby and Janisch will also be conducting a masterclass earlier the same day as part of the Festival, again for details please refer to the Festival website.

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