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Various Artists

Harmonic Festival 2010, Birmingham. 12/03/2010

Photography: John Hollenbeck of Claudia Quintet.
Courtesy of Gerry Walden/

by Ian Mann

March 15, 2010


Friday at the Harmonic Festival with performances from Birmingham's Ben Markland Quintet and New York's Claudia Quintet.

The Harmonic Festival is an exciting new project billed as ” Birmingham’s cutting edge jazz festival”. Held over the course of four days at various venues but centred at the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street the festival featured a mixture of international names alongside young, locally based musicians.

The festival is curated by bassist Chris Mapp and multi instrumentalist Percy Pursglove, both graduates of the acclaimed jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire. Indeed Percy has gone on to be a tutor there himself and many of his highly promising students featured in the festival programme.

Events began on Wednesday March 10th with the great Dave Holland presenting the Conservatoire students in concert at that wonderful venue the Adrian Boult Hall. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the event but I’m assured that it was a great success and yes, Mr. Holland did pick up his bass and play with the students.

On Thursday young saxophonist Lluis Mather, one of the most accomplished musicians to emerge from the Conservatoire course was to be heard in a great double header with one of Birmingham’s best known jazz exports fellow saxophonist Soweto Kinch at The Yardbird. Sadly I couldn’t make that either but I’m pleased to report that I caught up with young Mr Mather’s playing elsewhere at the festival.


For me the festival started early on Friday evening with an appearance in the Symphony Hall foyer   by a quintet led by bassist Ben Markland.  A locally based musician Markland was joined by some of Birmingham’s top players including alto saxophonist Chris Bowden, guitarist Pete Harris and drummer Neil Bullock. Standing in for unavailable local trumpet hero Bryan Corbett was Lluis Mather on tenor and the young saxophonist acquitted himself well in such experienced company. The performance linked the Harmonic Festival with the regular Rush Hour Blues events held at 5.30pm each Friday at Symphony Hall. These free events are organised jointly by Symphony Hall and Birmingham Jazz and are hugely popular attracting a loyal core of regulars whilst simultaneously introducing new audiences to the music.

The quintet performed two entertaining sets featuring a mixture of Markland originals and an imaginative selection of outside material. The quintet kicked off with a version of Keith Jarrett’s “The Cure”, the title track of the pianist’s 1990 album for ECM. Introduced by Markland’s bass the piece also featured the spacey guitar of Pete Harris and the contrasting horns of Bowden and Mather, their interplay occasionally hinting at the twin sax pairing of Polar Bear. Mather’s playing here and throughout the set was cool, lyrical and undemonstrative, a good contrast to the biting, often fiery playing of the always animated Bowden. 

Markland’s “Chorale 34” framed solos from both saxophonists and from Markland himself. The bassist is a fine ensemble player, later in the festival he appeared as bass player and musical director for the singer Sara Coleman, but he is also an imaginative soloist with a huge tone and an enviable dexterity.

Markland is clearly a huge admirer of the great American bassist Charlie Haden and the next tune was an arrangement of “Ellen David” from Haden’s 1976 album “Closeness”, a series of duets with Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane and Paul Motian. Mather took the first solo achieving a remarkable purity of tone on the tenor. Then came Markland’s resonant bass followed by a well constructed solo from Bowden on alto. Before the close we heard from both Markland and Mather for a second time. The quintet more than did justice to Haden’s beautiful tune.

To close the first set the quintet performed Markland’s rousing original “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Bear” introduced by Harris’ guitar. After the two saxes had stated the theme Harris took off with a well crafted, subtly bluesy solo, his best playing of the evening thus far. Mather then took over on tenor his lyricism contrasting well with the powerful groove behind him. The more forceful Bowden then took over on alto and we also heard from Markland at the bass. A typically large and enthusiastic Rush Hour Blues crowd made it clear that they had thoroughly enjoyed what they had just heard.

A Markland blues, as yet untitled, got the second set off to rousing start. Harris soloed first before the two horns traded licks with Bowden later emerging to deliver a typically scorching solo. The powerful Bullock then weighed in with a hard hitting drum feature. Markland and Bowden are Birmingham’s premier rhythm section, often heard as the engine room of trumpeter Bryan Corbett’s quartet or behind Bowden in the saxophonist’s Tomorrow Band. Tonight I was highly impressed by Bullock’s contribution and particularly by the subtle nature of his playing in the quieter numbers.

A swinging version of Nat Adderley’s “The Old Country” harboured fine solos from Bowden, Mather and Markland and a somewhat truncated second set was completed by Bowden’s Latin flavoured original “Saturday Afternoon”. Bullock introduced the piece with drums and shakers before Markland’s bass groove kicked in to fuel excellent solos from Bowden, Harris and Mather with Bullock also featuring strongly in the closing stages.

These two highly enjoyable sets certainly got my festival off to an excellent start and Ben was kind enough to give me a copy of the Tomorrow Band’s album “2 To Get Set” which I’ll take a look at in due course. 


For me the biggest attraction at the festival was the New York group Claudia Quintet led by the innovative drummer and composer John Hollenbeck. Claudia made a huge impression when they played at Cheltenham Jazz Festival three years ago and I just knew that I couldn’t miss this rare UK appearance.

The presence of Hollenbeck’s group was a major coup for Harmonic and the support of Birmingham Jazz and in particular Tony Dudley Evans was instrumental in bringing them to Birmingham. The quintet had also added a date at London’s Vortex just before their visit to the Midlands and it was obvious from the first moments of their performance that this was a band at the top of it’s game.

Joining Hollenbeck were master bassist Drew Gress, a veteran of literally dozens of recordings, saxophonist and clarinettist Chris Speed and accordionist Ted Reichman who adds a distinctly unusual flavour to the instrumental line up. The quintet have been together since 2001 and have already recorded four albums with a fifth due out in May. They’re a working band and the tightness and mutual trust that results from that certainly comes out in their performances. Even with regular vibraphonist Matt Moran missing due to impending fatherhood his replacement Tim Collins was able to fit seamlessly into a line up augmented tonight by the excellent pianist Matt Mitchell. For the second set the band were joined by festival organiser Pursglove on trumpet and another Birmingham musician , Steve Tromans on Fender Rhodes. This represented the first and probably only appearance of “The Claudia Octet”. No wonder the stage at the CBSO Centre resembled a musical instrument shop.

It was my first visit to the CBSO Centre, a converted warehouse with a towering ceiling and distinctive red brick walls hung with colour co-ordinated sound baffling. It’s a cool space and one which ideally suited Claudia Quintet, a band that for all the intricacies of their music exude a palpable if indefinable sense of New York cool. As one audience member, the singer Laura Collins, observed “they couldn’t come from anywhere else.”

I think of Claudia as New York’s equivalent to our own Polar Bear. Each led by a drummer/composer both groups deploy an unusual instrumental configuration and their tunes are quirky and idiosyncratic, sometimes deceptively simple, at others almost bafflingly complex. Both Hollenbeck and Polar Bear’s Seb Rochford exude a child like sense of wonder about the world which comes out in their music but it has to be said that Hollenbeck has a rather more conventional haircut.

Much of Claudia’s material tonight was drawn from the impending fifth album “Royal Toast”. In the main Hollenbeck left the titles unannounced, doubtless preferring to let the music speak for itself. Claudia’s music is through composed, full of interlocking melodies and rhythms with the lead switching between instruments in the blink of an eye. There is no conventional jazz soloing as such but each player will quietly pick up the baton before passing it on again equally unobtrusively. You don’t applaud after solos at a Claudia gig, there’s far too much going on musically for that as the patterns ebb and flow before your eyes and ears. In the opening number we heard variously from Speed’s clarinet, Mitchell at the piano and the incomparable Gress at the bass. Collins’ work at the vibes saw him deploy variously soft and hard mallets, sometimes four, at others only two. Reichman’s accordion is the glue that holds this richly textured music together and Hollenbeck’s drums and percussion supply exotic colouration as well as subtly driving the music forward in tandem with Gress’s bass. Mitchell’s piano fits in perfectly with Claudia’s soundworld and will be heard on the forthcoming album (alternating with that of Gary Versace). He sounded fully integrated into the established Claudia team.

The second piece, introduced by Gress’s bass contained dazzling, superfast unison passages , a powerful groove from drums and bass plus a mercurial solo from Speed on the clarinet before he eventually moved on to tenor. Collins weighed in with a ringing vibes solo but again the main focus was on the superb ensemble playing. Claudia are surely the only band to combine klezmer elements with the mathematical precision of Steve Reich.

“Royal Toast” contained features for Speed on tenor and Mitchell on piano. His (Mitchell’s) opening salvo was highly percussive and the band joined in for some dazzling unison riffs and passages. Later Mitchell’s delicate, minimalistic playing provided the bridge into “Ideal Standard” with it’s long, lyrical melody lines. Claudia thus ended an absorbing first half on an elegiac note.

The second set saw Pursglove and Tromans enter the proceedings for some special arrangements of Hollenbeck’s compositions. Pursglove acquitted himself particularly well linking up effectively with Speed in a convincing two horn pairing. Tromans seemed to be more peripheral but did contribute two telling solos over the course of the set, one spiky and cerebrally funky in the third item, the other delicately shimmering in the fourth.

After the octet had been introduced by Chris Mapp they launched into the delightfully titled “Armitage Shanks”, the earthy moniker the result of Hollenbeck’s obsession with airport toilets. We had a punk band at school and the bass player was called Armitage Shanks but that’s another story. More decorous than it’s title Hollenbeck’s tune included features for Speed on clarinet, Pursglove on trumpet and Mitchell on piano.

The second tune saw Speed switch to tenor combining well with Pursglove for some unison horn lines played out above Hollenbeck’s skittering percussion. Reichman, hitherto hidden in the ensemble delivered an impressive accordion solo. The instrument remains unusual in jazz but Reichman makes it sound thoroughly convincing in this context and is surely one of the accordion’s foremost practitioners in this musical area. 

Hollenbeck’s drums introduced the third tune which threw some atonal riffs into the mix with the solo baton passing from Pursglove to Gress and then from Tromans to Collins the vibraphonist striking the bars with his fingers as well as with mallets.

Collins deployed a bow on his vibes for the next, decidedly spooky item. The brooding atmosphere was enhanced by grainy arco bass, droning accordion and muted trumpet with Tromans emerging from the murk to deliver a shimmering solo at the Rhodes.

Hollenbeck has a way with titles, it’s a shame he doesn’t announce all of them. “They point..glance..whisper..then snigger” dates back to the 2005 album “Semi Formal” and was also played by the band at Cheltenham three years ago. Here it was begun by Reichman, utilising the whole keyboard of his instrument and progressed through piano, Rhodes and vibes whilst driven by Hollenbeck’s drum groove. After a passage for the combined talents of Pursglove and Speed Gress took over with another astonishing bass solo. The recorded version doesn’t sound anything like the one we heard here implying that behind Claudia’s tightly disciplined structures there’s plenty of room for re-interpretation and improvisation. 

A brief encore featured a drum and electric piano intro and fluttering trumpet all allied to the tight knit Claudia sound. The group’s appearance was a triumph and attracted the largest crowd of the weekend. The writing was brilliantly, colourful and imaginative and the playing tight, focussed and disciplined but also frequently dazzling. Claudia are one of my favourite working bands and I can’t wait for the new album or their next British visit. It must have been a thrill for Pursglove and Tromans to play with these guys and it’s an experience they’ll treasure for a long time I suspect.

Claudia’s shifting, ever evolving, often highly complex music reminded of the Bridget Riley paintings I’d seen at the Flashback exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery during the day. Fleeting, tantalising, highly mathematical, sometimes deceptive, Claudia’s musical lines often seemed to echo Riley’s abstract yet always logical paintings. The more you look or listen the more you see or hear.

Ethereal yet grooving Claudia continue to progress and their involvement was clear evidence of Harmonic’s intention to explore the cutting edge of jazz.

What a day, more to come.

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