Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Michael Janisch

Live:Theatr Gwaun, Fishguard, 31/08/2009

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by Ian Mann

September 02, 2009


A first night triumph for Janisch and his international all star band

This date was part of the annual Pembrokeshire Jazz ‘N’ Blues Festival co-ordinated by the local Aber Jazz organisation. A mixture of free and ticketed events, the festival takes place every August Bank Holiday weekend in the pubs and other performance spaces of Fishguard. This was my first visit to this enterprising and enjoyable little festival and I was only able to attend this one performance, but nevertheless I was impressed and may be tempted back for a more prolonged visit in 2010.

Local performers rub shoulders with established figures from the wider national scene and beyond. These included Michael Janisch, an American bassist now living in England, and his stellar band bringing together leading musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. Janisch has just recorded “Purpose Built” his first album as a leader and this was the first date on a lengthy national tour to promote the new record. Joining Janisch here were British musicians Paul Booth (saxophones) and young vibes prodigy Jim Hart with the American contingent comprising of Jason Palmer (trumpet & flugelhorn) and star drummer Clarence Penn. Securing the services of Penn for the tour represents a considerable coup for Janisch. Penn is one of the leading drummers in the US if not the world and the performance I saw him give as part of Dave Douglas’ group at the 2009 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was nothing less than extraordinary. He didn’t disappoint here either.

Booth, Hart and Palmer all appear on the “Purpose Built ” album but Penn, a special guest on this tour had only had time for a couple of very brief rehearsals since flying in from New York. I should think a wet and windy Fishguard was a bit of a culture shock after the Big Apple, but I digress. The point is that from the very beginning this quintet was incredibly together which can only bode well for the rest of the tour. Over the course of two sets they played virtually everything from the album,  mixing Janisch’s highly individual originals with his imaginative interpretations of popular and jazz standards. It was a heady mix of strong writing and brilliant playing which was rapturously received by a gratifyingly large audience at Theatr Gwaun. The venue itself is a former chapel that now serves as the town’s cinema and arts centre. It’s a comfortable venue with good acoustics and I just liked the atmosphere of it. It seats 180 and although it was difficult to gauge precisely the audience here must have numbered over 100. Having been to gigs in small towns (and large cities-hands up Birmingham and Cardiff) with only a handful of people in the audience I know how disheartening such events can be for both musicians and punters. Janisch and his colleagues must have been delighted at the size and the warmth of the reception here. Janisch had conducted a music workshop at the Theatr during the afternoon which probably helped but there were plenty of people present specifically for the evening performance. 

The quintet began with “Precisely Now” the opening track from the “Purpose Built” album and a tune inspired by the writing methods of Dave Holland, one of Janisch’s all time bass heroes. Appropriately Janisch began the piece with a solo bass intro joined in turn by Penn on hand drums,  Hart on vibes and finally the two horns with Booth on tenor and Palmer on trumpet. The trumpeter took the first solo of the night followed by the dazzling Hart utilising the four mallet technique on the vibes. Janisch’s deployment of the vibes in this group perhaps owes something to Holland’s methods, the older man having frequently made use of vibist Steve Nelson in his ensembles. Janisch’s knotty, rhythmically complex writing has something of Holland about it too but if anything is more accessible; Janisch’s writing for this album is very personal and he clearly has an ear for a good tune.

Nowhere was this better borne out than on the following “Adelante” which saw the composer switching to bass guitar. Slyly funky and centred round a nagging horn phrase this proved an enormous hit with the Fishguard audience. Hart again threatened to steal the show with another virtuoso piece of soloing but really this was great ensemble playing all round.
The title of “Lost Creek”  has it’s origins in Janisch’s childhood in Wisconsin. Another winning tune, this time with a folkish tinge, this saw the composer switching back to acoustic bass and placing his solo between features for Booth on tenor and Palmer on trumpet. I’ve seen Janisch as a sideman before and he’s thoroughly dependable in that role but seeing him cut loose as a soloist in his own band was a revelation. His drive and dexterity are mightily impressive and despite the incredible array of talent in this band it’s always clear just whose group it is as Janisch subtly dictates proceedings. 

Janisch’s bass opened the first standard of the evening “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”. Penn’s use of brushes, shaker and bell tree initially gave this a folksy, quirky feel as Booth stated the theme on tenor, shadowed by Palmer’s trumpet. However the mood changed to something more overtly jazzy as Hart’s vibes took over, followed by the saxophonist whose tenor playing became more and more muscular as he really dug in. Finally came a drum feature for the brilliant Penn, roaming purposefully around his kit. This was an unusual and increasingly dynamic arrangement of this old chestnut. Great stuff.

The quintet concluded the first half of the programme with Janisch’s “Shumshi” (it’s a Korean food apparently), a tune centred around a recurring bass motif and inspired by another of Janisch’s bass heroes the late, great Charles Mingus. Certainly the carousing horns of Booth and Palmer and the dynamic drumming of Penn owed something to the old master. Janisch’s solo bass acted as a bridge into the second half of the tune with Booth on tenor and Palmer on trumpet both soloing powerfully.

At the end of this first set the group were extremely warmly received and business at the CD stall during the interval was very brisk indeed with the personable Janisch happily signing copies for the eager customers. 

The quintet opened the second half with Janisch’s “Serenade Of The Seas” a lilting tune containing solos from Hart on vibes and Booth on tenor. Booth is a versatile player, much in demand in both the jazz and pop/rock fields and beyond. His playing as a member of Steve Winwood’s touring band has received much praise and his jazz credentials include membership of bassist Arnie Somogyi’s excellent Ambulance group. Booth has also released a couple of albums as a leader most notably “No Looking Back” an accomplished 2007 release on Basho Records.

Janisch dedicated his next composition to “Puki ‘n’ Pappo” a Serbian tenor player and Cuban pianist with whom he once formed an unlikely trio. This quirky piece saw Booth switching to alto but was most notable for Penn’s extraordinary drum feature which saw him utilising the whole of his kit (skins, rims,cowbell-the lot) to conjure up rhythms and colours. His inspired dialogue with Janisch brought a whole new meaning to the phrase drum’n bass.

The lively “Sofa Stomp”  featured more of Penn’s brilliant polyrhythmic drumming following Booth and Palmer’s dual horn intro with Palmer on flugel. But Hart was the real star here, sparring with Janisch’s bass guitar before moving on to deliver his most flying, prodigious solo of the night.
Janisch’s arrangement of the Billy Strayhorn classic “Blood Count” changed the mood completely. The brooding introduction included darkly bowed bass and muted trumpet before Booth’s warm, smoky tenor took over dovetailing with Palmer’s now open horn. The trumpeter then took over the solo duties, his delicate use of the slurring technique adding to the atmosphere.
Another change of pace with the closing “Beep”. This piece had a tricky, appropriately boppish theme and featured solos from Palmer, Hart, a swashbuckling Booth on tenor and finally master drummer Penn. This fast, furious and exhilarating piece drew a tremendous reaction from an ecstatic crowd who clapped and stamped thunderously until the quintet returned for an encore.

This proved to be a much mutated version of Miles Davis’ “Milestones” with Janisch leading off the solos from the bass followed by Booth on alto. Appropriately this was a major feature for Palmer, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts who played pretty, Milesian, muted trumpet and entered into an absorbing dialogue with vibist Hart. He sounded off with a Duke Ellington quote (It Don’t Mean A Thing”) before Hart took up the reins.
After the show there was another impressive queue for CDs. If everywhere is as successful as Fishguard young Mr Janisch is going to sell an awesome amount of albums on this tour. Tonight’s gig was a triumph and Janisch and his colleagues must have been absolutely delighted. This is a magical band and I’d urge everyone likely to read this to check them out on what is a very comprehensive tour. I’ve not heard the album yet but hope to review this for the site in due course.

For me attending this show entailed a 240 mile round trip in often atrocious weather. It was certainly worth it to see such a tremendous line up of musicians I don’t suggest you all do that but this unique group deserves your support. You won’t be disappointed.

“Purpose Built” is due for release on Michael Janisch’s own Whirlwind label. For further details of the album and tour visit Michael’s informative new website

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