by Ian Mann
July 22, 2013
A quite inspired set peppered with incandescent solos and commendably tight ensemble work.
Michael Janisch’s Purpose Built Quartet, Black Mountain Jazz, The Swan Hotel, Abergavenny, 21/07/2013.
Bassist, composer, record label owner and all round jazz mover and shaker Michael Janisch was born in Wisconsin but now makes his home in South London. A tireless organiser Janisch has utilised his Trans-Atlantic credentials to facilitate regular co-operative projects between British and American musicians, the results being never less than interesting and quite often brilliant. Janisch has connections with musicians from Ireland and the European mainland too, adding even greater spice to his serial collaborations.
For me “Purpose Built”, Janisch’s 2009 solo album, ranks as one of the most important British jazz releases in recent years. An all star line up featuring musicians from both sides of the Atlantic plays superbly on a strong set of eight original compositions plus four highly imaginative arrangements of jazz and bebop standards. Janisch has toured the material on several occasions, always with a different line up and it’s a tribute to his writing and arranging skills that the music always sounds great whatever the instrumental configuration may be on any given night.
As enjoyable as “Purpose Built” continues to be perhaps its greatest significance is that it helped to kick-start Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings imprint, the label becoming an increasingly important presence on the UK jazz scene with a string of fine releases from both British and American musician including a number of international collaborations. The artist roster includes both established figures such as veteran composer and arranger Mike Gibbs and Atlantic hopping drummer Jeff Williams, plus rising stars such as tonight’s man behind the kit Dave Hamblett, whose own solo début for Whirlwind, “Light at Night” has garnered a compelling amount of critical acclaim. Engineer Tyler McDiarmid has done much to develop a distinct label sound and identity and together with the similarly musician led Edition Records the imprint has become a vital and significant part of the British jazz landscape.
Tonight’s celebration of the music from “Purpose Built” saw Janisch and Hamblett joined by Paul Booth on tenor saxophone plus Femi Temowo on guitar, the latter a replacement for advertised vibraphonist Jim Hart. Initially I was a little disappointed that Hart, always a spectacular four mallet soloist, wasn’t playing but that feeling soon evaporated as Temowo turned in a brilliant performance on his Godin semi acoustic guitar. I’d seen him previously with the bands of Soweto Kinch and Courtney Pine but those settings hadn’t given him the freedom he was to enjoy tonight. Given the room to stretch out in a group of superb soloists the guitarist really took the opportunity to enjoy himself, for me he was very much the unknown quantity of this band, but my, how he impressed!
It was gratifying to see such a good crowd at the Swan on a swelteringly warm summer evening. Rather cryptically Janisch asked if there were any clothes pegs in the house before asking BMJ’s Mike Skilton to switch off one of the cooling ceiling fans. Everybody seemed bemused, including your correspondent who thought Janisch may have wanted the pegs in order to attach them to the strings of his instrument as I’d seen Mats Eilertsen do at a recent performance at Warwick Arts Centre by Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila’s trio. The real reason was to become clear later - watch this space.
The quartet commenced with Janisch’s arrangement “Milestones”, a tune variously attributed to John Lewis of the MJQ and Miles Davis. A typically imaginative adaptation began with Booth stating the theme on tenor above Hamblett’s brushed grooves. Appropriately Janisch took the first solo - with his huge tone and astonishing dexterity he’s one of the most fluent compelling double bass soloists around. Some of the high register plucking he delivered here was little short of stunning. Booth followed, really digging in on tenor, then Tomowo, a sit down guitarist in the tradition of such varied but wonderful practitioners of the instrument as Django Reinhardt, Ralph Towner and Robert Fripp. Finally Hamblett weighed in with a series of colourful drum breaks, a terrific start.
Janisch has the natural confidence of so many Americans yet he is never pushy, flashy or in your face. In other words he’s a nice guy and an assured and informative interlocutor between tunes. Here he imparted plenty of interesting information about himself and his band mates which I’ll weave into the fabric of my review. For instance Janisch himself had just returned from a successful Spanish tour with the all star group that recorded the Whirlwind live album “Banned In London” co-led by the bassist and Cuban born pianist Aruan Ortiz and featuring Spanish trumpeter Raynald Colom, plus US giants Greg Osby (alto sax) and Rudy Royston (drums). Whether playing to 2,000 people at an outdoor festival in Tenerife or to 40 people in a bar in Abergavenny Janisch always gives it his all.
The Janisch tune “Adelante” was introduced by a stunning passage of solo guitar from Temowo. The Lagos born, London based guitarist delivered a mesmerising lattice of interlocking lines making subtle use of a delay pedal but emphatically no live looping. It was both absorbing and brilliant. With Temowo on board the tune offered a fascinating mix of African and Latin inflections. Booth’s sax eventually picked out the tune’s nagging and insistent hook before embarking on a muscular solo that saw him swooping up and down the registers of his tenor. Both Booth and Temowo have worked with some of the biggest names in rock. I was aware of Booth’s lengthy stint in Steve Winwood’s band but Janisch informed us that the saxophonist has also played with Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and the famously demanding Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan. Temowo meanwhile was at one time guitarist and musical director for the late Amy Winehouse.
It’s incredible to recount that tonight was the first time this actual quartet had worked together collectively and that Booth and Hamblett had never previously met at all. With this in mind a number of extra curricular standards found their way into the set but what fun the quartet had with them. What they did with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” was little short of astonishing, the song beginning as a gentle tenor sax ballad with Latin inflections and mutating into full on wailing via bravura guitar and sax solos and bass and drum exchanges. The sheer daring and vivacity of it all left the audience open mouthed.
The energy levels remained undimmed for “Invitation”, a standard famously recorded by John Coltrane. Hamblett’s solo drum intro gave way to a towering Booth tenor solo and an equally dazzling Janisch bass solo, these followed by a series of Hamblett drum breaks which seemed to act as a kind of bridge to a coda featuring some deeply bluesy guitar and sax exchanges. Janisch left the stage dripping with sweat after a quite inspired first set peppered with incandescent solos and commendably tight ensemble work.
By the start of the second half the reasons somebody at the Swan had rustled up some clothes pegs and the reason for the request became clear. Temowo, Janisch and Hamblett had their sheet music pegged to their music stands and the ceiling fan was switched on again making for a less discomfiting working environment for the musicians. Booth, more used to the sophisticated world of arena rock had his sheet music programmed into an i-pad.
The second set kicked off with “Precisely Now”, the opening track from “Purpose Built” and a piece inspired by the odd meter composing methods of Dave Holland, one of Janisch’s all time bass heroes. Introducing the tune Janisch recalled premi?ring the album in 2009 at the Aber Jazz festival in Fishguard with an all star band featuring Booth and Hart plus the American contingent of trumpeter Jason Palmer and star drummer Clarence Penn. That performance was a triumph for Janisch, I know because I was there, and it’s a show reviewed elsewhere on this site. Here the piece began with Janisch’s solo bass intro, another virtuoso display that saw him slamming out full chords on the bass as Temowo and Hamblett picked up on the momentum with the guitarist taking the first solo. Booth, meanwhile had got somewhat lost, and was jabbing frantically at his malfunctioning i-pad. Being a true improviser he recovered in time for his solo but the rest of the group, relying on nothing more sophisticated than the Heath Robinson-ish array of old clothes pegs, found his predicament hilarious.
Thankfully Booth’s technological nightmare didn’t reoccur and he was back to his best on Janisch’s innovative arrangement of Sammy Fain’s “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing”. Temowo, who seemed to be having the time of his life sang along gleefully in Keith Jarrett style on yet another wonderful guitar solo. Meanwhile Janisch, his chops sharpened by a week on the road playing major venues in Spain, was simply brilliant on his bass solo. The piece closed with something of a Hamblett drum feature above Booth’s restatement of the theme.
From the “Purpose Built” album the Janisch original “Lost Creek”, a location on the family homestead near his home town of Elsworth, Wisconsin featured some of the bassist’s most descriptive writing. This moody minor key piece (Janisch spoke of synaesthesia when introducing the tune) was enlivened by Booth’s gently probing tenor solo and the pure melodic inventiveness of Temowo’s and Janisch’s contributions.
A superb evening’s music concluded with the group’s rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Yes Or No” which acted as a feature for all four members of the band as the closed a brilliant set on a high. Without doubt this was one of the most exciting shows at BMJ for quite some time and the band got a tremendous reception from a very appreciative crowd. With the event enjoying the support of the Arts Council of Wales’ Noson Allan (or Night Out) scheme it was also a financial success.
Hopefully everybody who enjoyed this will be back for BMJ’s next event, the two day wall2wall Festival which will take place on Saturday 31st August and Sunday 1st September 2013. Mike Skilton has organised an exciting bill featuring some popular, nationally known names including Gilad Atzmon, Sarah Gillespie and Asaf Sirkis plus local favourites such as cult Cardiff band Heavy Quartet, Hammond hero John Paul Gard and daughter Martha Skilton co-leading a quintet with fellow saxophonist Ben Treacher. Full details are available at http://www.blackmountainjazz.co.uk
Meanwhile the indefatigable Janisch changed his shirt, packed up his bass and prepared to drive his compadres back to London, the man’s a human dynamo.
This was quite the best music I’d seen over a weekend that had seen me visiting two local festivals as a punter, Upton Blues Festival and the world/folk/roots Sheep Music festival in Presteigne. I enjoyed both but neither could offer anything of quite this calibre.
Jazz may be a minority music but it’s much loved, both by audiences and musicians. Femi Temowo’s excited tweet enthusing “Ah man, just played an amazing gig with Mike Janisch, Paul Booth and Dave Hamblett. Great playing guys.” says it all.
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