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Friday at Harmonic Festival, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, 30/09/2011.

by Ian Mann

October 04, 2011


A welcome return for "Birmingham's cutting edge jazz festival". Stimulating, rewarding and entertaining with the Dreams Of Tall Buildings/ Arve Henriksen collaboration the undoubted highlight.

Harmonic Festival, Midlands Arts Centre, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham,30/09/2011.

Billed as “Birmingham’s cutting edge jazz festival” Harmonic is the brainchild of Birmingham based musicians Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove. Their first venture under the Harmonic banner took place in March 2010 at various venues around the city centre but with the bulk of the performances taking place at the CBSO Centre. The line up featured a mix of local, national and international names with the pick of the performances coming from New York’s Claudia Quintet under the leadership of drummer John Hollenbeck.

Artistically the first Harmonic Festival was a great success and I was pleased to see the festival return for a second year. The move to the newly refurbished Midlands Arts Centre or MAC was an inspired one, the presence of several performance spaces within a single building led to a real festival atmosphere and the glorious late summer weather was a surprise bonus. Such downtime as there was between gigs could be spent out in the sunshine enjoying the well tended environs of the spacious Cannon Hill Park. The free parking was a very significant benefit too!

Friday at the festival featured the annual Jazz and The Media Symposium, an intriguing “Collectives Triple Bill” with music from some of the UK’s brightest young jazz musicians, and, to close, a set from headliner Arve Henriksen, the Norwegian trumpeter collaborating with the Birmingham based soundscape artists Dreams Of Tall Buildings. This was a line-up that stayed true to the Harmonic principles of not only offering a showcase to young players but also bringing in interesting and innovative international headline acts. 


The second Jazz and The Media Symposium provided a stimulating afternoon’s conversation with host Tim Wall (Professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies at Birmingham School of Media) introducing presentations from Andrew Dubber, Reader in Music Industries Innovation at Birmingham City University and Sebastian Scotney of the hugely successful London Jazz Blog.

A professional writer, speaker and sometime DJ Dubber referred to various projects he has been involved with in various parts of the globe including Norway, India and the Scottish island of Jura. Perhaps the most relevant of these was Scarborough Jazz Festival where he was involved with the marketing operation. Dubber focussed on jazz’s relationship with the internet and social media and of the need for “media appropriate mediation”. He stressed the importance for jazz of letting its potential listeners become involved in the process of music making, believing this fostered some kind of “ownership”. This was in part facilitated by giving musicians small hand held portable cameras and getting them to film themselves with the results being transmitted on line and thus involving the fans in the process. Some of this all seemed rather too close to the techniques of reality TV for me and overall I wasn’t impressed. Frankly I don’t see Dubber’s methods attracting many new listeners to the fold although established fans may appreciate having an “inside view” of the musicians at work. 

I was rather more interested in what Sebastian Scotney had to say. Scotney’s London Jazz Blog is not dissimilar to The Jazzmann with its mix of jazz news and record and live reviews. Sebastian’s style is more conversational and he gives prominence to previews rather than reviews but essentially we’re singing from the same hymn sheet. Both of us are hobbyists rather than professionals and have the simple aims of sharing our enthusiasms whilst (hopefully) helping the jazz community. The London Jazz Blog actively encourages reader comment and participation but only if this is positive or at least informed criticism. “Trolling” is actively discouraged but remains a comparatively minor problem. Sebastian has established a supportive on line community of jazz enthusiasts so well done to him for that. He no longer blogs for the Telegraph but is nevertheless rather more involved with the “music business” than myself. Operating as we do in broadly similar areas we have corresponded by email several times but nevertheless it was good to meet up at last to discuss our shared love for the music. Thanks to Sebastian for buying the coffee during the break, unfortunately I couldn’t reciprocate as he had to dash back to London in the evening to play baritone sax with the Stan Reynolds Big Band. Nevertheless I shall look forward to returning the favour when we meet up at another festival. 

Festival director Chris Mapp also took part in the debate citing the importance of youtube and twitter in connection with the Harmonic and Cobweb Collective websites. An interesting debate grew out of this with regard to the question of UK jazz musicians being too modest and self deprecating when it comes to self promotion, especially when compared to their American counterparts, plus the whole issue of “authenticity” and “selling out”. Heavy stuff to end a thought provoking afternoon of debate and ideas.


On then, with the music itself. The early 00’s rise of the F-ire Collective has encouraged other young musicians to follow in their wake. North London’s Loop Collective is the best known and most established of these but similar aggregations of even younger musicians have now sprung up in Birmingham (Cobweb Collective) and Manchester (Efpi Collective). This intriguing triple bill featured one band each from Efpi, Cobweb and Loop with Manchester’s 265 Quartet taking to the stage first. The event took place in the intimate Hexagon performance space with the semi circular seating arrangement giving the audience the chance to get close to the musicians.

265 Quartet are part of a collective of musicians recording for the EFPI record label. With their hand manufactured cardboard sleeves there’s something of the DIY punk spirit about Efpi, particularly their flagship act the Beats & Pieces Big Band, a blistering large ensemble led by Musical Director Ben Cottrell. A Loose Tubes for the 21st Century B&PBB played a rousing set at the Mostly Jazz Festival, held in Birningham’s Moseley Park back in July, and also attracted a rave review in The Guardian for their performance at Ronnie Scott’s as part of the Brit Jazz Festival a few weeks later.

Formed and led by B&PBB guitarist Anton Hunter (also of the Hunter Andreae Quartet or HAQ)  the 265 Quartet are a very different prospect to the big band. Inspired by American guitarist Bill Frisell’s 858 Group (hence the numeric name) 265 are a chamber jazz group featuring Hunter on guitar, Cottrell on clarinet, Graham South on trumpet and flugel and Rod Skipp on cello. 

The music blurs the lines between jazz and contemporary classical music and composition and improvisation. It’s a tricky line for such young musicians to tread but 265 do so superbly. The group began with Frisell’s “Strange Meeting”, a good introduction to the voices of the band with solo episodes for flugelhorn, clarinet, cello and guitar.

The rest of the material came from within the group. South’s eerie and atmospheric “Sleep” exhibited a real dream like quality and featured the composer on both flugel and muted trumpet.
A segue of Hunter compositions “From Here I Saw What Happened” and “And I Cried” saw Skipp both plucking and bowing his cello and Cottrell using the keys of his clarinet as percussion. South’s lyrical flugel solo contrasted well with the more avant garde elements in the second section as Hunter deployed an array of effects pedals before a muted coda.

Hunter’s lyrical “An Individual Note” was ushered in by the composer’s guitar before the rich blend of Skipp’s cello and South’s flugel took over with subsequent solos coming from South and Cottrell.

To conclude Skipp’s “Joust” was aptly named with each instrument battling for supremacy in an unexpectedly garrulous finale. A sparky clarinet/flugel dialogue culminated in an almost impossibly lengthy sustained single flugel horn note. Skipp meanwhile used a drumstick both on and under his cello strings to abrasive effect.

265 sound very different to the other Efpi projects that I’ve heard and their sound emphasises the sheer versatility of these musicians both individually and collectively. They have yet to record but will inevitably do so. The results should be most interesting.


Noose, part of Birmingham’s Cobweb Collective are led by the young tenor saxophonist and composer Lluis Mather, a graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire. Already a distinctive soloist Mather appears in a number of bands and played a prestigious gig as the leader of his own quartet at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Noose occupies a rather different area to the quartet and is a bassless line-up featuring the vocals of Holly Thomas alongside Dan Nicholls (piano) and Euan Palmer (drums). The group explores the poetry and jazz tradition pioneered by pianist and composer Michael Garrick with Thomas filling the Norma Winstone role.

The intimate setting of the Hexagon was far more appropriate to the group’s music than the wide open spaces of Moseley Park where I saw Noose earlier in the year as part of the Mostly Jazz Festival. Here the nuances of their settings of poems plus Mather’s original compositions could be better appreciated.

They began with a setting of Aldous Huxley’s poem “Somewhere Between”, extracted from his last book “Island”. This was centred around Thomas’ voice and Nicholls’ piano with Mather subsequently coming into his own on the following “Lines Of Succession”, an original featuring the shared saxophone/wordless vocal lines of Mather and Thomas.

“Cotes Du Rhone Village”, a piece that also featured in Mather’s 2009 Cheltenham set was more obviously jazzy with Palmer deploying a variety of implements on his drums from sticks to brushes to bare hands. Thomas’ vocal interlude (in French) represented a fresh twist on the arrangement and the piece culminated in a fluent Mather tenor sax solo.

Palmer’s drums issued in a setting of Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” with Thomas intoning the words above Nicholls’ dense piano chording. Larkin was famously an avid jazz fan so it was highly appropriate that his words should have been adapted for a jazz context.

“Ratcliffe’s Palm” with its piano/drum dialogue and later unison sax and vocal lines plus tenor solo was another step into broadly orthodox jazz territory. The spiky “Lord Of The Dance” (not the hymn tune) moved from a gentle voice and sax intro through a more animated passage of staccato phrases before culminating in an expansive Nicholls piano solo.

To close the Mather original “Fern” with its piano/drum duet segued into a beautiful setting of Tennyson’s poem “Ask Me No More”.

On the whole I enjoyed this but sometimes found the vocals a little superfluous. Mather is an accomplished enough soloist and doesn’t really need any help on the essentially instrumental pieces in the group’s repertoire. Having said that Thomas is an accomplished singer as her duo set with guitarist Toby Carpenter at Harmonic 2010 proved. She was at her best here on the poems although her voice was sometimes rather submerged in the mix. Palmer’s sensitivity and attention to detail at the drum kit was impressive and Nicholls also impressed with his pianistic skills both as accompanist and soloist. Nicholls leads his own group Mirror featuring Loop Collective members James Allsopp (reeds) and Dave Smith (drums) thus providing a neat link with the band coming up next.


Part of the London based Loop Collective, Splice are led by bass guitarist Pierre Alexandre Tremblay who also lectures in composition and improvisation at the University of Huddersfield. Tremblay had led a free workshop that morning as part of the festival with members of the Cobweb Collective and the local electro-acoustic ensemble Soundkitchen participating.

Splice, whose début album “Lab”, has recently been reviewed on The Jazzmann incorporate a good deal of electronica into their work courtesy of Tremblay and trumpeter Alex Bonney. The group is completed by Robin Fincker (tenor sax and clarinet) and drummer Dave Smith. Visibly older than the Efpi and Cobweb guys these players are now experienced professionals but have retained the desire to experiment and innovate.

Although the album contains compositions from all four members of the group at least half the record is freely improvised. Nothing here sounded particularly familiar so I’d guess that the quartet’s set was pretty much fully improvised. The first piece incorporated dubby textures and electronic glitches with Bonney treating the group sound through his bank of electronic devices. Smith’s drum pulses and accents added both colour and rhythmic drive with the most obvious jazz influence coming from Fincker’s tenor. 

The second piece featured Bonney on trumpet, actively processing his own sound. After passing through a Smith drum feature and a meandering electronic section Fincker’s full on tenor above an electronic maelstrom seemed to signal coming apocalypse.

The more reflective third instalment opened saw Fincker switch to clarinet with consistently interesting musical dialogues taking place between the band members with Bonney a constant factor. Tremblay’s bass guitar sound was heavily treated throughout the set via the leader’s own box of electronic tricks and he subtly dictated the course throughout.

To close Tremblay announced that the group were going to play a “ballad”. This proved to be a delicious piece of French irony as the group launched into a barrage of thunderous bass chords, bludgeoning drums and bellicose tenor sax. Playing the trumpet one handed Bonney manipulated the sound with the other. Tremblay’s extravagant bass chording sometimes reminded me of Jim Barr of Get The Blessing but Splice wander far more deeply into avant garde and improvisational territory than GTB.

Inevitably there was the odd longueur but overall this was a sparky, consistently engrossing set full of good ideas and excellent playing. The use of electronics anticipated the music that was to come from the Friday headliners Arve Henriksen and Dreams Of Tall Buildings.


The Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen has developed a unique voice on his instrument blending post Miles Davis jazz trumpet with folk music forms and electronica to develop a totally personal style. I saw Henriksen give a remarkable performance at Hay Festival in 2009 in the company of laptop artist Jan Bang but this performance with the Birmingham based sound artists Dreams Of Tall Buildings was better still.

Although Henriksen has recorded prolifically for ECM he still finds time for outside projects and initially collaborated with the DOTB duo of Justin Wiggan and Darren Joyce on the album “Rope/Drowning The Heart Sounds” released on DOTB’s Museum label in 2009.

The stage of the MAC’s main theatre resembled an electrical showroom with Henriksen, Wiggan and Joyce together with their arsenal of electronic equipment spread right across the front of the stage with guest percussionist Laurence Hunt positioned on the far left. Hunt had never played with Henriksen before and was the only one of the quartet to actually be reading music although Wiggan had some kind of colour coded crib sheet on his table.

The freshly assembled quartet played a single piece, “The World Forgets To Weep”, which had been specially commissioned for the festival. The ebb and flow of the music quickly drew the listener in with Hunt’s use of tuned percussion sometimes adding a Steve Reich feel to the proceedings. Wiggan and Hunts mind boggling array of lap tops, pedalboards and hand held devices were complemented by throat mikes which amplified their other worldly vocals, an adjunct to Henriksen’s own remarkable singing which ranged from muezzin like wailing to church like choral vocalising to stream of consciousness mutterings in both English and Norwegian. His trumpet playing on both the conventional instrument and the smaller pocket trumpet (echoes here of Don Cherry) was equally distinctive ranging from breathy vocalised sounds to flute like intonations. It rarely sounds like conventional jazz trumpeting but is all the more remarkable for that and it all fitted in perfectly with DOTB’s electronic and computerised soundscapes. Elsewhere Joyce added heavily distorted, fuzzed up electric guitar and Hunt added to the already unsettling but somehow strangely beautiful atmosphere with the eerie sound of bowed cymbals and vibes.

This unique music seemed to grow organically, possessed of a kind of inner logic with Henriksen’s trumpet and vocals and Hunt’s percussion adding a welcome humanising element to the electronic soundscapes generated by Wiggan and Joyce. Moments of chilly beauty were juxtaposed with passages of almost industrial noise to give the piece a strong narrative arc and at times an almost epic grandeur. A subtle but effective lightshow added to the music and at the end of the piece several members of the audience rose to give the quartet a standing ovation.

At this point the house lights came up but the audience resolutely stayed put, still wanting more of this extraordinary music. Eventually Henriksen was coerced into coming out and announcing an encore. This featured the Norwegian singing through his pocket trumpet to the accompaniment of   electronically generated sound-washes, the shimmer of vibes and a backdrop of choral vocals.  Like much of Henriksen’s output this would have made perfect film soundtrack music.

This was one of the best concerts of its type that I have seen, matched only by Food’s single piece performance at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival and far eclipsing Spin Marvel’s rather disappointing effort at Cheltenham this year. The involvement of extra musicians also gives it the edge over Henriksen’s Hay performance.

I treated myself to a copy of the DOTB/Henriksen album and find myself pleased to report that this also works very well when listened to at home. In many cases improvised music, whether electronic or acoustic, is less convincing without that vital live/visual element and it’s a tribute to DOTB’s and Henriksen’s soundscaping skills that the album is so effective. I’d not heard of DOTB before tonight’s show but on the evidence of this live performance plus the album I’d be encouraged to find out more.

A long journey home meant that I couldn’t stick around to hear much of drummer and composer Jonathan Silk’s quartet playing in the MAC bar. However what I did catch sounded promising with the twin tenors of John Fleming going toe to toe spurred on by Nick Jurd’s bass and Silk’s drums.

The first day of Harmonic had been stimulating, rewarding and entertaining with the DOTB/Henriksen collaboration the undoubted highlight.

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