by Ian Mann
September 22, 2009
An all day celebration of the jazz scene in Bristol and beyond
This all day jazz festival was part of a ten day celebration “All About The Music” to celebrate the refurbishment of Bristol’s venerable Colston Hall, the city’s premier concert venue. The refurbishments have included the creation of an impressive new foyer space in which some of the day’s events were staged.
Also billed as a “Family Festival” (there had been other events during the morning) the music began at 1.00pm in the new foyer with a performance by Essenjay, a group comprised of students from the University of Western England. Consisting of a trumpeter/vocalist plus guitar, keyboards, electric bass and drums the students performed standards such as “Night and Day”, “Summertime” and “My Favourite Things”. This was pleasant if unexceptional fare and provided the backdrop as we relaxed over a coffee after a long journey. The blues inflected guitar playing was the most arresting aspect of the group’s performance.
RESONATIONS BIG BAND
The real stuff began in Hall 2 (formerly the theatre bar, apparently) with a performance by the fifteen piece Resonations Big Band. I had been expecting something along the lines of retro swing but was pleasantly surprised to find that the band comprised of some of the best young musicians on the South West/South Wales music scene and that the music was thoroughly original and contemporary. The material performed was composed entirely by members of the band with saxophonist Kevin Figes, pianist Jim Blomfield and electric bassist Jeff Spencer the principal writers.
The band began with two pieces by Figes. “Lounge Life” saw the versatile reed man soloing on baritone with pianist Blomfield also featuring strongly. The music was given considerable impetus by an invisible drummer, entirely hidden behind the ranks of musicians on a very crowded stage. For the record there were four saxophonists, one flautist, three trombones, three trumpeters, piano. guitar, electric bass and drums. The latter was eventually revealed as the dynamic Daisy Palmer, sometime dep for Clive Deamer in Get The Blessing and a musician with something of a cult following in the Bristol area.
Figes also contributed the brooding ballad “Angel” which this time featured the composer on alto. There was also an impressive trumpet solo from Andy Hague, a player we were to hear a lot more from later.
Pianist Jim Blomfield then took up the compositional reins with his ambitious piece “About Time, Too”, inspired by the compositional techniques of Oliver Messiaen. His solo piano introduction with it’s hints of dissonance sometimes recalled the playing of another Bristolian, Keith Tippett. On a day in which the music largely centred around Bristol based musicians Tippett was a notable absentee. Blomfield’s challenging piece included dark dialogues between Figes’ baritone and Ben Waghorn’s bass clarinet as the instrumental focus shifted from one section to another over some complex time signatures. The way the band sometimes dropped out to feature smaller units, often duos, reminded me of the writing techniques of Graham Collier. Trumpet, piano and bass also featured on this complex, lengthy but satisfying piece.
Bassist and composer Jeff Spencer also has classical leanings. His segue of compositions “Planet Of The Molluscs” and “Last Day Of The End Of Time” were influenced as he put it not only by Stravinsky and Shostakovich but also by “60’s sci-fi music” . With Jonathan James conducting “Planet” opened with Blomfield’s gothic sounding piano intro soon joined by the ominously fanfaring horns. A solo drum passage led to Spencer’s electric bass feature and a solo from an unidentified tenor saxophonist, possibly Josh Arcoleo( catching all fifteen names was totally impossible).
“End Of Time” was less classically influenced and more concerned with rock rhythms courtesy of Spencer and Palmer. The band’s guitarist Jerry Crozier-Cole, pretty much unheard thus far, conjured up an impressive and urgent solo and there were also features for one of the trombonists plus the excellent Palmer at the drums.
This was only the band’s second gig ( they had previously played a successful show at Bristol’s Cube venue) and in front of a large audience it was a triumph. I was impressed by the ambition and quality of the writing and the band as a whole was admirably together at this early stage in it’s career. Individual soloists also impressed, especially the composers and others name checked above. I spoke to alto saxophonist James Gardiner Bateman who told me of the Cube gig and also mentioned that he sometimes works with saxophonist Dennis Rollins. Resonations is full of quality players. At times the music reminded me of Mike Gibbs, which is of course a huge compliment. Economics permitting it would be good to hear the band on record. Watch this space.
JIM BARR’S DOUBLE BASS EXTRAVAGANZA
We hurried downstairs to the foyer to witness the extraordinary sight of Jim Barr’s Double Bass Extravaganza. Get The Blessing’s bassist had assembled a phalanx of double bass players ( it was billed as twenty but my mate Richard counted them and swore there were only eighteen), all clad in suits and wearing black “penguin” masks that ensured their anonymity but which also made them look spooky, unsettling and vaguely threatening. This was as much about performance art as music and followed similar congregations of guitarists (co-ordinated by Adrian Utley) and saxophonists (assembled by Andy Sheppard) which had appeared earlier in the ten days of the celebrations. Sheppard was once a member of the legendary Urban Sax who may well have formed the inspiration for these unusual large scale gatherings with GTB’s paper bags setting a precedent for the masks.
Barr’s ensemble were hugely impressive, beginning with an eerie low register arco drone, progressing through using the soundbox of the instrument as percussion, pizzicato playing of the instrument in the traditional jazz manner and so on. Sometimes the entire ensemble played in the same style, at others duties were shared as some bowed above an archetypal pizzicato walking bass line.
At around half an hour the length of this intriguing performance was just right and a huge crowd watched not just from the floor areas but from the surrounding staircases and balconies. With it’s surreal and arresting visual imagery and superb, tightly controlled musicianship ( the ensemble were conducted by GTB’s trumpeter Pete Judge) this unique performance captivated the audience who were largely transfixed throughout. I only wished I’d had my camera with me to capture the striking visual image of the Extravaganza. This was a unique and remarkable experience.
ANDY HAGUE QUINTET
It was planned that Hall 2 should feature Jonathan James interviewing some of the musicians appearing at the festival. In the event he only spoke to trumpeter and band leader Andy Hague with a brief contribution also coming from the festival co-ordinator and MC Peter Conway. Andy Sheppard was also due to appear but was delayed in conducting a sound check for his later performance in Hall 1.
In any event Hague proved to be an engaging interviewee, talking of his role as leader of the quintet we were to hear later and also of his big band “Pieces”. He spoke of his musical influences, particularly of fellow trumpeters Kenny Wheeler, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown and Woody Shaw on his small group playing and writing and of the styles of Duke Ellington and Count Basie on his big band. Hague also spoke of his role as boss of the city’s Bebop Club venue (one I’ve yet to visit I’m afraid) and of the Bristol scene in general. He was very enthusiastic about the future of jazz in the city with new venues appearing and with world class players like Sheppard still associated with the city. Sheppard’s impressive body of work was discussed by James, Hague and Conway in his absence. This was an enjoyable and illuminating conversation but now it was time for more music with Hague’s quintet taking to the stage.
Most of the musicians in Hague’s group had also appeared in the Resonations Big Band. Ben Waghorn (tenor sax), Jim Blomfield (piano) and Daisy Palmer (drums) were joined by Partisans bassist Thad Kelly-it was also his second gig of the day having featured in the Double Bass Extravaganza.
Earlier Hague had spoken of how his music had moved away from ECM style balladry into something more hard hitting and conventionally jazzy. Certainly the music played here by his quintet owed more to Blue Note than ECM with strong, hard bop flavoured themes providing the jumping off point for fiery soloing from all members of the ensemble. Yes, it was mostly in the head/solos/head format which can sometimes become tedious but the quality and the vitality of the playing from all concerned made this gig a joyous experience for the listener.
Hague’s quintet kicked off with two originals from the pen of the trumpeter. “Abraham” honoured the occasion when Hague’s band jammed with members of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra (including the man himself) immediately after their successful Bristol gig. This was rousing stuff with Hague taking the first solo followed by Waghorn, Blomfield and Kelly.
Waghorn went first on the Latin tinged Hague original “Cross My Palm” inspired by the writing style of pianist Horace Silver. Hague’s own solo moved up through the gears from lyrical to hot. He was followed by the inventive Blomfield before a sparkling bass/drum dialogue from Kelly and Palmer.
Blomfield was the first soloist on the standard “I’ll Close My Eyes”, taking the opportunity to re-introduce some of the classical flourishes he had demonstrated earlier wit the big band. There were also impressive statements from Hague and Kelly.
The Hague original “Hands Up” quickly raised the temperature again with Palmer laying down an infectious funk/shuffle beat as the two horns locked together to deliver the catchy hook. This simple framework was the vehicle for inspired solos from Waghorn, Hague, Blomfield and Palmer.
The quintet closed their brief set with McCoy Tyner’s “Inner Glimpse” whose strong theme kept the pot bubbling. Blomfield took the first solo followed by Hague who demonstrated that Freddie Hubbard influence he’d spoken of earlier. Waghorn’s solo was a lesson in power and fluency and both horns traded breaks with dynamic drummer Palmer.
Andy Hague is something of a local hero among the Bristol jazz community. That status is well earned and at this well attended festival he must have added many new admirers to the fold.
GET THE BLESSING
Also from Bristol GTB have quickly established a high, nationwide profile in jazz terms not only through their connections with Bristolian rock/trip hop band Portishead but for the sheer excellence of their albums “All Is Yes” and “Bugs In Amber”. GTB have also revealed themselves to be a dynamic live act and have been covered extensively on this site at the Brecon 2008 and Cheltenham 2009 festivals plus reviews of both albums and other live shows.
Opening the evening programme in Hall 1 this show promised to be something else again with the core quartet of Jim Barr (basses, occasional guitar), Clive Deamer (drums), Jake McMurchie (saxes) and Pete Judge (trumpets) being expanded to an eleven piece group. When I first read of this I envisaged some kind of big band with additional horns adding extra weight and power to the group’s punchy hooks and themes.
Instead GTB brought in a string quartet and a female singer alongside a solitary trombonist and the perhaps more predictable presence of old Portishead ally Adrian Utley on guitar. Reviews of the group’s second album “Bugs In Amber” spoke of it’s darker side in comparison to the dynamic urgency of the attention grabbing opener “All Is Yes”. Not that “Bugs” is short of hooks, tunes and power, it just seems to be a more mature record and here the expanded group played virtually the entire album back to back casting it in a whole new light. It seems that after taking pains to distance themselves from their involvement in Portishead they are now prepared to embrace some of the famously melancholy characteristics of their old band, especially now that GTB has established an identity of it’s own.
A police siren heralds the opening blast of “Music Style Product” on “Bugs” and indeed was heard here but the presence of the string quartet and Tami Payne’s wordless vocal added a whole new feeling as the group effectively emphasised the dynamic contrasts of the tune.
There was also a string quartet interlude on “The Name For Moonlight Is Moonlight” with it’s nagging bass undertow and haunting trumpet.
GTB live favourite “The Unnameable” has been made into a song with the lyrics delivered by Tammy Paine. Unfortunately her voice was too far back in the mix, leaving the lyrics difficult to decipher but the song seemed to be some kind of murder ballad. Given the relentless, ominous, nature of the music- rendered even more so by Utley’s bowed guitar atmospherics- I doubt if it was exactly “moon in June” stuff.
“Bugs In Amber” itself also now features a lyric and vocal courtesy of remarkable drummer Deamer, but the band have been featuring his voice for a while- certainly since I saw them at Cheltenham in May-so this aspect was not entirely new. Ironically Deamer’s voice was better captured than Paine’s but I have to say I’m dubious about the band pursuing the vocal direction. They’ve enough in their instrumental armoury to avoid doing that and it’s interesting to note that after experimenting with vocals Acoustic Ladyland are now entirely instrumental again.
“Tarp” featured Barr on spooky sounding guitar and McMurchie on tenor sax and electronics and although enjoyable wasn’t such a big departure from the original. Utley’s dark guitar atmospherics added an unsettling edge to the sax riff driven “Einstein Action Figure” .
“The Speed Of Dark” featured Judge and McMurchie manipulating the sound of their instruments electronically over Deamer’s hypnotic drumming.
So It Goes” effectively brought the string quartet back into focus before seguing into the more powerful horn driven “Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes” which closed the set.
This was a Get The Blessing Show with a difference. Barr kept his often surreal and amusing announcements to a minimum and the added instrumentation was consistently interesting. It was certainly an intriguing show but not everything was successful. Some tunes were radically and successfully enhanced or altered, particularly the opener but at other times the extra elements just seemed grafted on and didn’t entirely convince. I also found the accompanying visuals projected on to a screen behind the band distracting and frankly amateurish.
This was a noble experiment and although less slick than a regular four piece GTB show there was much to enjoy. I suspect that rehearsal time may have been limited but this is a project that the band should consider repeating although it would probably be uneconomic to tour. A better rehearsed and more tightly focussed one off London appearance should be strongly considered as should the use of these additional elements on the next album.
ANDY SHEPPARD’S MOVEMENTS IN COLOUR
Bristolian born saxophonist Andy Sheppard is one of the most consistently interesting figures to emerge from the 1980’s jazz boom. Sheppard has led ensembles from duo to big band and has added folk and world elements to his sound. One of the few UK players with a truly international reputation he has worked extensively with American composer/pianist Carla Bley and has recently recorded his first album for the Munich based label ECM.
“Movements In Colour”, Sheppard’s début for ECM is probably his best album yet. Full of stunningly beautiful tunes it deserves to be rated as one of the jewels of the ECM catalogue alongside gems by Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner and many others.
As a fan I’ve had the album for some time and just love it so the chance of seeing this music performed live was too good to miss. What I hadn’t anticipated was for Sheppard to have assembled the entire album line up for this homecoming show. I’d expected to see guitarist John Parricelli and percussionist Kuljit Bhamra but the presence of the album’s Norwegian contingent of bassist Arild Andersen and guitarist Eivind Aarset was a real bonus. Andersen, a band leader in his own right , is one of the best bassists on the planet and an ECM stalwart, Aarset is an emerging star with an impressive canon of recordings under his own name.
The music on “Movements In Colour” is inspired by Sheppard’s love of art particularly the work of Gaugin and Matisse. Musically it draws all the elements of Sheppard’s music together, a love of melody, folk and world elements and top quality jazz improvising. The album is an instant classic and this performance by it’s five creators was little short of brilliant.
The quintet began with “La Tristesse De Roi” (literally “The King’s Tears”) a title inspired by Matisse’s painting. Sheppard’s piercing tenor initially sounded uncannily like Jan Garbarek above Andersen’s haunting bass and Aarset’s guitar atmospherics. Soon a beautiful melody emerged played by Sheppard above the rich rhythmic undertow created by Bhamra’s tabla and Andersen’s bass. There’s a hypnotic quality to the circling, interlocking rhythms that makes them the perfect backdrop for the soloists, in this case Sheppard on tenor and Parricelli on acoustic guitar. Andersen himself is also a gifted soloist, often making use of a delay unit allowing him to improvise above a backdrop of his own creation. He completed the soloing here, demonstrating his huge tone and incredible dexterity on the double bass.
Andersen is also an excellent player with the bow and his arco introduction began “Nave Nave Moe” (inspired by Gaugin) which featured Sheppard on feathery soprano sax with Parricelli still on acoustic guitar. Sheppard’s beautiful sax melody was enhanced by Andersen and Parricelli’s own melodic lines. Like all the music on the album this tune is both eminently accessible but full of sophisticated musical ideas. The discipline and technical expertise of these five musicians brought out these qualities superbly throughout the evening.
“We Shall Not Go to Market Today” is inspired by Gaugin’s painting of that name. Here it opened with a solo feature for Aarset on guitar, the Norwegian treating his guitar with electronics, utilising the body of the instrument and building layers of sound in a manner similar to his fellow countryman Terje Rypdal. Sounding at various times almost like a sitar Aarset’s improvisation eventually led into Sheppard’s beautiful tune, his tenor again cushioned by tabla and bass. It was Parricelli now on electric himself who soloed later in the tune conjuring up a quiet intensity.
“Dancing Man And Woman” the title track of one of Sheppard’s earlier albums lent itself well to interpretation by this band. Also highly melodic it opened with Bhamra’s tablas and snare drum building through Andersen’s bass to a stunning solo from Sheppard on soprano demonstrating incredible physical resourcefulness with his incredible circular breathing technique. Bhamra was also featured as a soloist on his various items of percussion and Parricelli’s electric also featured strongly.
The playful “Bing” closed the show, a joyous piece featuring Sheppard on tenor and Parricelli on acoustic with a series of false endings mischievously conducted by Bhamra seated at the tablas.
This had been a superb set and for me was the highlight of the day. A rapturous audience reaction indicated that plenty of other people agreed. Sadly the tight scheduling meant that the group were unable to return for an encore and thus we were denied the opportunity to hear “May Song”, one of Sheppard’s most beguiling compositions.
Nonetheless this had been a brilliant show that pitted Sheppard with two long term UK based collaborators (Parricelli, Bhamra) and two respected members of the international jazz community. All were brilliant on what was one of the best gigs I’ve seen all year.
JAMES MORTON’s PORKCHOP
Across in Hall 2 local saxophonist James Morton offered a total change of mood with his hard hitting jazz/funk outfit Porkchop. The chairs had been moved out making this a standing venue and Porkchop’s infectious funk grooves certainly encouraged some of the audience members to dance.
Joining Morton on alto were organist Dan Moore, guitarist Denny Ilett and guest drummer Guido May from Munich. Morton’s tunes are bright, punchy, accessible and funky and the gig had something of a party atmosphere about it, in the right club this music would sound even better. Morton is something of a showman, strutting his stuff sporting a pork pie hat and goatee beard and an appreciative crowd clearly loved what they heard.
The group kicked off with Morton’s tune “Alright” which featured the saxophonist trading solos with organist Dan Moore. The Hammond man is an inspired soloist, fiery and funky and is the perfect foil for the energetic Morton. Between them Moore and Ilett handle the bass duties by means of the organ pedals or insistent rhythmic chording-in any event the absence of a regular bass player doesn’t seem to matter.
Morton has a way with song titles-try “Sometimes Shit Just Goes Down Like That” for size. This was a sturdy slice of funk strutting with solos from Morton, Moore and Ilett.
Following this Morton then introduced a very special guest to the stage. Veteran tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis is a legend of the genre having formerly worked with James Brown but he’s a highly talented jazz player too as he demonstrated as a member of drummer Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band at this year’s Hay Festival.
Introducing Ellis Morton announced that the band would play Ellis’ tune “The Chicken”. “when did you write it Pee Wee?” enquired Morton “1967” the older man replied. “Before you were born!” a wag in the crowd shouted at Morton causing much hilarity. In any event the music was irresistible with Ellis soloing first on tenor followed by Moore before the two saxophonists traded licks.
Morton’s “The Hump” was another swaggering piece of funk with a memorable groove and featured powerful solos from both saxophonists plus Ilett on guitar.
Sandwiched as it was between performances in Hall 1 This was of necessity a very brief set but it was a thoroughly enjoyable one and made a nice contrast with some of the more serious stuff next door. Not that there’s anything wrong with Morton’s musicianship,indeed he’s collaborated with Sheppard in the past, and Porkchop are prime exponents of their chosen genre. At times their intensity and virtuosity-Moore is also one hell of a player-reminded me of Derek Nash’s Protect The Beat which should be seen as a compliment.
Morton played us out with a slow burner as we exited to Hall 1 to hear Abdullah Ibrahim. Most of the tunes heard tonight appear on the forthcoming Porkchop album “Don’t You Worry , Bout That” which is due for official release in 2010 but is already available at gigs. The Jazzmann will carry a full review of the album in due course. In the meantime if you live in The Bristol area get out and see Porkchop, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience that should appeal to all music fans not just jazzers. Morton’s enthusiasm is infectious and I defy anybody not to have a good time when this band are playing, but these guys have the chops to convince more serious listeners too. This gig may have been little more than a cameo but it was still a highlight and the appearance from the legendary Ellis a very welcome bonus.
ABDULLAH IBRAHIM TRIO
Although the day’s music had largely revolved around Bristolian artists the festival had secured the services of a truly international line up to act as headliners. The pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand) left his native South Africa in 1962 initially settling in Europe before moving on to the USA.
Ibrahim has recorded prolifically and his music has enthusiastically embraced his South African roots. These days his playing is less obviously African in origin and his music sounds more European or American. I love some of his more overtly South African records but have to confess that I found much of what we heard here a little too serious and academic.
Ibrahim’s chosen format at present is the piano trio with Belden Bullock on bass and long term collaborator George Gray at the drums. The trio chose to play entirely acoustically with no mikes or amps and to be fair they sounded great. I’m pleased to report that the sound at Colston Hall has been tidied up during the refurbishment-I have been there for rock gigs in the past when it’s been terrible.
The Ibrahim trio play without sight music and like to improvise for over an hour at a stretch, an approach perhaps influenced by Keith Jarrett. Initially I found this interesting and the dialogue between the three instruments fascinating. Gray exhibited a quiet virtuosity with his low key drum patterings and theatrical twirling of the sticks. He coaxed an impressive range of sounds from his kit utilising mainly brushes but also soft head mallets and occasionally sticks. His cymbal shadings were rich and colourful and he did all these things without ever breaking the overall mood of the piece.
Bullock proved to be a flexible and responsive bassist whose primary function was to hold everything together but he was fluent and dexterous in the moments when he soloed or duetted with the drums.
Ibrahim lead subtly from the piano dictating the ebb and flow of the music. His playing was reflective, almost spiritual, assured and technically proficient but never flashy.
The trio established a mood and stayed with it and the interplay between the three was disciplined yet instinctive. I was totally absorbed by this process for around forty minutes or so but by the time the piece finished at around seventy minutes I was frankly a little bored, a greater variation in mood and pace would have been most welcome. The lack of contrast and dynamics was something of an issue for me and as admirable as this performance was I couldn’t warm to it in the same way as I had to some of the others, particularly Sheppard who had a far greater balance of light and shade .
The rather precious attitude of the musicians also rankled. Introducing them Conway read the audience a whole list of “do’s an dont’s” but it didn’t stop some people from getting up and leaving early. Perhaps they shared some of my reservations about the music-or maybe they just had to catch the last bus.
Most of the audience of course loved them and the predictable standing ovation ensued. A briefer encore of fifteen minutes or so showed a little more urgency and even exhibited some conventional swing. Another standing ovation resulted but even now Ibrahim declined to speak to us. I know it’s what some performers do-Jan Garbarek is another-but I always feel there should be some sort of verbal acknowledgement however brief it may be.
So the end of a great day’s music (even if the real highlight for me came a little earlier on) which at £20.00 per head had been incredible value for money. There had been a relaxed, celebratory atmosphere about the whole event and we had witnessed some interesting and sometimes innovative music in a wide variety of jazz styles.
My only quibbles were minor, non musical ones such as slow service in the foyer bar and the lack of air conditioning-both concert halls were stiflingly hot. Mind you after a major refurb you’d have thought that would have been sorted out so maybe this is more than a minor issue.
The jazz scene in Bristol looks to be in good health. Let’s hope it stays that way and maybe this jazz day will become an annual celebration. Well done to all concerned.blog comments powered by Disqus