by Ian Mann
April 17, 2023
This was a quintet of highly talented performers and together they delivered a richly varied, hugely entertaining and highly memorable evening of music.
Kim Cypher Quartet with B.D. Lenz, Smokey Joe’s Coffee Bar, Cheltenham, Glos. 13/04/2023
Kim Cypher – tenor, alto & soprano saxophones, vocals, Alex Steele – keyboard, Mike Green- acoustic & electric bass, Mike Cypher – drums, with guest B.D. Lenz – guitar
My thanks are due to Kim and Mike Cypher for inviting me to cover this hugely entertaining show at a new venue for me, Smokey Joe’s Coffee Bar and Diner in Cheltenham. The Cyphers run regular jazz nights at the venue, an American style coffee house and diner quirkily decorated with historic artefacts from the 1950s era sourced from both the US and the UK. It all makes for a pleasantly eccentric and bohemian atmosphere and Smokey Joe’s represents a great place to enjoy live music. The food - burgers, hot dogs, nachos etc. - is arguably a little expensive for what it is, but is all part of the Smokey Joe’s experience. That said the venue also offers a ‘music only’ option and dining is not compulsory. Still this isn’t a food website and I’m no restaurant critic, so let’s get on with the music.
I first encountered Kim Cypher’s music online when her quintet performed an excellent set for the 2020 Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival hosted in Abergavenny by Black Mountain Jazz Club. The instrumental configuration was the same as this evening’s with husband and wife Mike and Kim Cypher, plus bassist Mike Green joined by keyboard player Anders Olinder and guitarist Chris Cobbson. This was a highly entertaining performance filmed to the highest technical standards by 47 Studios and Productions and was one of the best livestreams that I saw during the lockdown period. My review of this online event can be found here;
In 2022 I finally caught up with the Cyphers at a genuine live show at a local gig for me at Pudlestone Village Hall in rural Herefordshire. A sell out audience saw another terrific show from a quartet featuring both Cyphers plus Green and Cobbson, the small size of the venue precluding the use of keyboards. But this hardly seemed to matter as the quartet delivered another hugely entertaining show, fronted by the vivacious Kim Cypher. Review here;
It was at Pudlestone that I got to meet the Cyphers in person for the first time and we have since maintained regular email contact, resulting in the invitation to cover tonight’s event.
I’ve actually been familiar with the music of B.D. Lenz for a little longer after checking him out at a live show at The Marr’s Bar in Worcester back in 2017. This featured his trio with James Rosocha on electric bass and Joe Falcey at the drums. This was another excellent show and after the gig, which I had attended as a ‘punter’, I introduced myself to B.D. who was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his then latest CD “Manifesto” for review purposes. My take on the album appears here;
My favourite Lenz recording actually remains “Live in the UK!”, a very enjoyable “official bootleg” that was recorded at another venue in Worcester (the Arts Workshop) in 2015 by the same trio line up. For me this also acts as an excellent souvenir of the later Marr’s Bar gig, which included many of the same tunes, and I prefer the rawness of the live album to the more polished productions of the guitarist’s studio recordings. Both Worcester shows included an inspired arrangement of Radiohead’s “Creep” and a jaw dropping segue of Billy Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman” and The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. Lenz is a skilled composer in his own right but also possesses a remarkable facility for delivering distinctive and memorable cover versions.
Incidentally James Rosocha subsequently forwarded me a copy of his solo album “Avalon”, a 2018 recording that features Lenz as part of a rotating cast of musicians. Review here;
Kim Cypher has released two albums to date, “Make Believe” (2016) and “Love Kim x” (2019). Both contain a mix of original songs by Kim plus a selection of covers drawn from both the jazz and pop and rock repertoires. As I observed in my review of the Pudlestone show;
“Cypher’s music embraces a broad variety of jazz styles and their lively presenting style ensures that there is something in their repertoire for everyone, but without detracting in any way from the high quality of the musicianship. This is a band capable of appealing to jazz ‘newbies’ and to hardcore aficionados alike”.
Lenz made his recording début in 1997 and has recorded a total of thirteen albums, all released on his own Jade Buddha record label. He has also written extensively for TV and film soundtracks, his credits including the acclaimed television series “Breaking Bad”. A glance at his website http://www.bdlenz.com reveals that he has played with some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz including fellow guitarist Mike Stern, trumpeter Randy Brecker and bassists Mark Egan and Will Lee.
Inspired by fellow guitarists Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bill Frisell Lenz’s music mixes jazz, rock, blues, funk and Americana influences while managing to avoid the clichés of 70s style fusion. He’s a hugely talented musician, who has established something of a cult following, but he really deserves to be much more widely known.
The Cyphers first met Lenz when their band and the guitarist’s trio were double booked for the same gig. Rather than quarrelling they comprised with both groups playing a set each then coming together for a jam at the end. A rapport was immediately established and a lifetime friendship has ensued. Lenz appears as a guest on Cypher’s “Love Kim x “album and has regularly played with the Cyphers on stage. Tonight’s gig was part of a tour that has taken in a number of other British jazz venues.
Tonight’s performance featured material sourced from the repertoires of both Cypher and Lenz. Alex Steele leads the ‘house trio’ at Smokey Joe’s so announcing duties were shared between him, Kim and B.D.
The evening kicked off with Jerome Richardson’s tune “The Groove Merchant”, a hard swinging, funky slice of classic ‘soul jazz’ with solos from Kim on tenor, Lenz on guitar and Steele, who produced an authentic Hammond organ sound from his Yamaha CP4 Stage keyboard.
“Temptation” featured Kim’s vocals for the first time, in addition to her earthy tenor sax playing. Steele switched to an acoustic piano sound for his solo, with further features coming from Lenz on guitar and Kim on scat vocals.
Lenz announced his own composition “Bridges”, a version of which appears on the “Live in the UK!” album. It’s an impressive piece of writing and here featured Lenz making impressive use of his range of guitar effects as he shared the solos with Kim’s tenor and Steele’s keyboard, this time deploying an electric piano or ‘Rhodes’ sound. Tonight’s performance also included a feature for the impressive Mike Cypher, very much the driving force of the band.
The Latin-esque “Lucky Southern” shared the solos around the whole group with Kim on tenor followed by Lenz on guitar, Steele on ‘acoustic piano’, Green on double bass and finally Mike Cypher with a brushed drum feature.
Lenz hails from New Jersey and his composition “Slo Yer Roll” is named for a Jersey expression meaning “calm down”, “cool it” or “back off”. It’s a piece that appears on the “Manifesto” album and was introduced here by Mike Cypher at the drums, who combined with Green on bass and Steele on organ to create a funk groove that provided the impetus for rock influenced solos from the composer on guitar, Steele on organ and Kim on soprano sax.
There was a change of style on the playful swing number “You’re Just In Love” (who’s Justin Love?) with Kim multi-tasking on vocals, tenor sax and whistling, with Steele the other featured soloist on piano.
The first set concluded with Lenz’s “Honus” from his 2013 album “Ready or Not”. This was centred around a particularly heavy funk groove and featured powerful solos from the composer on guitar, Kim on soprano and Steele on organ, but even at its most intense there was still an impish quality about the playing, with Kim sliding a quote from “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” into her sax solo.
This had been an excellent first set that drew an enthusiastic reaction from a near capacity crowd, several of whom had got to their feet to dance. The band’s collective joy in their music making had clearly transmitted itself to their audience.
There was no letting up in terms of energy levels as set two commenced with the Latin infused funk of “Cavalito”, with Kim’s earthy tenor sax sharing the solos with Steele’s ‘acoustic piano’.
Kim sat out as Lenz took over to deliver his still stunning arrangement of “Norwegian Wood”, bringing an abrasive, angry quality to the tune during the course of his dazzling guitar solo. Features for Steele on piano and Green on double bass provided dynamic and stylistic contrast either side of another salvo from Lenz, the piece ending with a powerful drum feature from Mike Cypher.
Kim returned to to the stand to lighten the mood with a swing inspired version of “But Not For Me”, which featured her on both vocals and tenor sax, with Steele the other featured soloist on piano.
With Green moving to five string electric bass Lenz’s “Uh-Huh” was the most overtly funky offering thus far and attracted even more dancers to the floor. Fiery solos came from Kim on tenor, Steele on organ and the composer on guitar, with Mike Cypher again featuring at the close with another volcanic drum salvo.
The evergreen, ever adaptable Duke Ellington / Juan Tizol composition “Caravan” featured Kim on soprano sax, her solo capturing a wailing, muezzin like quality. Her inventiveness was matched by Lenz’s spiralling guitar solo and Steele’s percussive pianistics, with Mike Cypher also featuring once more.
Kim moved to alto for the first time for Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, a wonderfully funky version of this much loved tune that even saw Steele re-creating that filthy clavinet sound at the keyboard as he worked in conjunction with Lenz, Green on electric bass and Mike Cypher to create a monstrous groove. Lenz then took the first solo, followed by Kim on alto, at one point accompanied only by Mike’s drums. The full band then kicked in once more, adding their collective weight to Steele’s piano solo. The dancers loved it, great stuff.
This was the last scheduled number of the evening, but such was the warmth of the reception that an encore was inevitable. This proved to be Kim’s arrangement of Gerry Rafferty’s classic “Baker Street”, as featured on the “Love Kim x” album. With Green still on electric bass the band tore into the song with Kim’s alto wailing alongside Lenz’s guitar before both took off to deliver individual solos alongside Steele at the piano.
As my Pudlestone review explains the Cyphers came late to the professional ranks and are clearly relishing the opportunity of being able to play music for a living. Their gigs are always good humoured affairs with much banter between the individual musicians and between the band and their audience. Tonight’s event was no different and the whole show was great fun, but the humour shouldn’t detract from some seriously top quality musicianship. This was a quintet of highly talented performers and together they delivered a richly varied, hugely entertaining and highly memorable evening of music.
My thanks to the band members for speaking with me afterwards and to B.D. for the provision of a review copy of his latest album, “It’s Just A Dream”, which features guest appearances from Mike Stern and Randy Brecker. I intend to take a look at this shortly.
Lenz will be returning to the UK later in the year to plat some dates with his trio featuring Rosocha and Falcey, with Kim guesting on sax and vocals. There will be greater focus on Lenz’s own music and this line up will visit Smokey Joe’s on July 27th 2023. On hearing this most of tonight’s audience have booked themselves in already, and I’m pleased to say that I will be amongst them.
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