by Ian Mann
October 07, 2011
Artistically Harmonic 2011 was a huge success with memorable performances from a wide array of musicians.
Harmonic Festival, Midlands Arts Centre, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 01/10/2011.
Following the excellent Friday programme the second full day of the 2011 Harmonic Festival offered even more music with a pretty constant stream of performances throughout the day. Ticketed events included Mike Hurley’s Tasting Notes, the Mike Fletcher Quartet, Percy Pursglove’s Enchanted Heart and Saturday headliners Food. The “Best Of Cobweb Collective” programme of free events which had begun the previous evening with the Jonathan Silk Quartet continued in the MAC’s Café area with a total of four acts appearing. In this way many people who were not hardcore jazz fans got to hear some of the best jazz the Birmingham scene has to offer. With the glorious late summer weather the neighbouring Cannon Hill Park was very busy and popular with many families dropping into the MAC Café for a drink or a bite to eat. The programme was completed by Steve Tromans’ eleven hour piano marathon of which more later.
LYDIA GLANVILLE QUARTET
First up in the Café was the young drummer Lydia Glanville leading a quartet consisting of Ben Thomas (trumpet & flugelhorn), James Wilson-Rhead (piano) and Alex Phillips. Glanville plays drums and percussion in a variety of jazz, folk and Latin bands with this her most conventional jazz outlet.
They played a variety of attractive compositions sourced from within the group commencing with Glanville’s ballad “Falling” featuring the composer on brushes with solos coming from Thomas on flugel and Wilson-Rhead on electric piano. Thomas switched to trumpet for his own “Heebie Jeebies” which was lively and tricky and included features for each member of the group. Wilson-Rhead’s “Osmo” was another flugel led ballad and also included a feature for bassist Alex Phillips.
I had to leave at this point to attend the first of Mike Hurley’s sessions in the Hexagon but nevertheless I had enjoyed what I’d heard. Ben Thomas is a regular performer in my own county of Herefordshire and I’ve always admired his playing so it was good to witness him in good form here.
MIKE HURLEY’S TASTING NOTES
Pianist and drummer Mike Hurley was the third driving force at this year’s Harmonic alongside festival directors Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove. Hurley’s Tasting Notes project consisted of four sessions of freely improvised music featuring rotating personnel drawn from a pool of musicians and loosely based on a food related theme. The four sessions were spaced throughout the day and were entitled “Spicy”, “Sweet”, “Sour” and Savoury” but it’s probably best to consider them as a single entity rather than sticking strictly to the chronology of the festival performances. The subdued lighting and intimate atmosphere of the Hexagon was perfect for this type of project with the interaction between the players subtle but obvious, this was improv at its most upfront and personal.
Prior to each session the audience members were invited to sample a morsel of food representative of the flavour of the session. Thus “Spicy” was presaged by a cup of hot, spicy, Thai style soup. The music itself came from Gail Brown on trombone, Simon H. Fell on double bass, Harmonic’s own Percy Pursglove on trumpet and British improv veteran Tony Marsh at the drums. The music seemed to evolve organically, it’s always fascinating to watch the improvisational process in action even if the results don’t always translate so well for subsequent home listening. Extended techniques were very much in evidence with Fell sometimes using two bows on his instrument simultaneously, often with one being used in the conventional arco manner with the other being jammed under the strings. Marsh explored every aspect of his drum kit and Brand and Pursglove made use of a variety of mutes plus overblowing and harmolodic techniques. On occasions the group broke down into duos with the dialogue between Brand and Pursglove particularly engrossing. A botched ending to the first piece hardly mattered, this was freely improvised music, the mistakes stay in, all power to the accident!
The second piece, ushered in by Pursglove’s Harmon muted trumpet and featuring Brand’s wah wah style trombone also featured the gurglings of a babe in arms who was with her parents in the front row. Normally this would be an irritant but here it just seemed to blend in and to almost be part of the performance.
Whether the music of the first session was genuinely “Spicy” is a matter for personal interpretation.
For “Sweet” the culinary introduction consisted of sticky and frankly moreish brownies. Certainly Mike Hurley’s piano added a certain sweetness to the music but this was offset by the squalling of Brand’s trombone and Raymond MacDonald’s alto sax, their duelling fuelled by Miles Levin, son of the late Tony Levin, at the drums. However the piece did feature a suitably lyrical passage for piano, trombone and alto sax before a final feature for MacDonald.
“Sour” was presaged by chocolate covered cumquats and introduced two new faces in the form of festival director Chris Mapp on double bass and Shabaka Hutchings on tenor sax and clarinet alongside MacDonald and Levin. The “sourness” of the title was exemplified by Hutchings’ and MacDonald’s sax duelling with the altoist’s acerbic tone particularly appropriate. Mapp and Levin’s bass and drum dialogue gave Hutchings the chance to switch to clarinet thereby adopting another voice for his ongoing musical conversation with MacDonald. Their dialogue was punctuated by a fluent Mapp bass solo, it was surely only fitting that one of the festival’s directors should be given the floor to himself if only on a temporary basis.
The final segment of these improvised sessions, “Savoury”, saw the audience tucking in to tasty Welsh rarebit before the final permutation of musicians in the form of Hutchings, Fell, Marsh and, most appropriately, Hurley took to the floor. The music moved through a lovely piano and arco bass intro through a Hutchings tenor solo and a remarkable solo bass feature from Fell. Like that other great free jazz bassist John Edwards Fell is a player who seems to have a uniquely physical relationship with his instrument. Hutchings again effected a switch to clarinet and entered into an absorbing dialogue with the ever responsive Levin before a final piano solo from event organiser and co-ordinator Mike Hurley brought down the curtain on a fascinating day of improvised music.
On the whole Hurley’s project had been a great success. The idea of the food tastings was quite inspired and created quite a talking point and very appetising it all was too. The intimacy of the venue was perfect for the music although a little stifling at times due to the unexpected late summer heatwave. A word too for the piano, an upright with all the workings exposed, it sounded good and was just perfect for all those interior pluckings and scrapings.
Had these performances been scheduled back to back it would all have proved to be a bit too intense but spacing them throughout the day like different courses on a menu was perfect with each session lasting between thirty and forty five minutes. It’s unfortunate that my co-writer Tim Owen, a real free improv expert couldn’t have been there, I’m sure he could have described the music far more eloquently than I. Free improv is an acquired taste and it’s a shame there weren’t more people to witness this unique event. Although I’d seen several of these players before some were new to me . It was good to witness Gail Brand performing live having previously only heard her on albums by maverick guitarist Billy Jenkins. I was hugely impressed by her contribution and it was also good to see improv legend Tony Marsh at work. Well done to Mike Hurley for bringing this unique combination of London and Birmingham musicians together to create something truly of the moment.
MATT RATCLIFFE QUARTET
The Best of Cobweb programme continued in the Café with key board player Matt Ratcliffe leading his quartet. Ratcliffe appeared at last year’s Harmonic festival with guitarist Matt Chandler’s MC3 organ trio. Here he was playing electric piano with his own group with Lluis Mather on tenor sax, the ubiquitous Nick Jurd on bass and Tymek Jozwiak at the drums. The general hubbub in the Café made listening difficult and all the tune announcements were inaudible, plus I was taking advantage of the downtime between ticketed gigs to get some grub myself. Nevertheless I enjoyed what I heard with Ratcliffe contributing some fine electric piano solos. It was also good to hear Noose leader Lluis Mather in a more straight-ahead context. His fluent soloing was hugely enjoyable too.
MIKE FLETCHER QUARTET
Following some of the heavy stuff we’d heard in the Hexagon as part of the Tasting Notes series the more straightforward jazz offered by Birmingham based saxophonist and composer Mike Fletcher came as a breath of fresh air. Fletcher’s performance took place in the MAC’s main theatre and featured the leader alongside London based pianist Sam Watts and the young rhythm section of bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Euan Palmer.
Fletcher is a good few years older than his colleagues, though hardly ancient, and has taken some time out from the jazz scene to go travelling. His pieces are either inspired by his experiences or are tributes to his jazz or literary heroes. The first piece “AF” was one of the latter, a tribute to the great flugelhorn specialist Art Farmer with Fletcher on alto and including features for all the members of the quartet. This was standard head/solos/head fare and as such rather forgettable but the set soon began to take off with “Don Quixote”, a piece written in Spain and inspired by Fletcher’s travels there. The travel inspired tunes were far more individualistic and descriptive and consequently far more interesting. Fletcher’s use of the rarely heard C melody saxophone also added a distinctive touch to a piece that featured solos from Watts, Fletcher and Jurd.
“A Dino” straddled the categories, partly inspired by Fletcher’s travels and partly by the great Argentinian bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi. Watts began the tune with a sumptuous passage of solo piano followed by solos from Fletcher on flute and the increasingly impressive Jurd at the bass.
The modal “Desolation Angels” was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s book and featured Fletcher’s biting alto alongside Watts’ piano. “Untitled” began with another splendid passage of solo piano and again featured Fletcher on flute.
The sprightly jazz waltz “This Is This” featured sparkling solos from Fletcher on C melody sax, Watts on piano and Jurd at the bass before Fletcher’s bebop homage “Flexterity” took things storming out with the composer on alto and with a wonderfully exuberant solo from Watts, probably his best of the set. Euan Palmer, who impressed throughout with his crisp, clean and subtly propulsive drumming enjoyed a series of breaks.
I thoroughly enjoyed this set which saw Fletcher in fine form and bringing out the best in his young colleagues. Let’s hope Fletcher can get to record some of these compositions.
Taking their name from the Swedish for “to electrify” or “set alight” this trio consisting of Chris Mapp on bass guitar, Aaron Diaz on trumpet and electronics and the versatile Mike Hurley at the drums played in the Café area. Again picking up announcements was difficult but the three pieces I heard came from the pens of Mapp, Diaz and Arve Henriksen. Diaz is clearly influenced by Henriksen and incorporates electronics into his music courtesy of a free standing effects unit. His trumpet and electronically generated textures merged with Mapp’s liquid bass guitar with Hurley anchoring things from the drums. The Café wasn’t perhaps the best place to appreciate the subtleties of their music and in any event I had to leave early for the next ticketed event. I was intrigued by what I did hear and would like to hear more of the trio at some point in the future.
PERCY PURSGLOVE’S ENCHANTED HEART
Taking place in the MAC’s main theatre this project consisted of a series of intimate duets featuring Percy Pursglove on trumpet and occasional double bass and his long term friend and collaborator Hans Koller at the piano. Born in Germany Koller has been resident in the UK for many years and has taught with Pursglove at Birmingham Conservatoire. Koller’s large ensemble album “Cry, Want” featuring Pursglove and special guest Bill Frisell (guitar) is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
This relaxed and understated set featured some lovely playing from both men. Most of the compositions came from Koller, some of them his settings or adaptations of Bach pieces such as the opener “Evensong”.
Koller’s “Footloose” featured Pursglove on double bass but in the main he stuck to the trumpet which appears to be his main instrument these days. It’s certainly the one that’s winning him the plaudits as he establishes himself increasingly on the London jazz scene.
“Enchanted Heart” itself was suitably lush and romantic with Pursglove back on the trumpet and this was followed by “Secret Garden” and the deeply emotional “Heart & Soul”. The forbiddingly titled “The Bitter Passion Time” was followed by an instrumental setting of the John Masefield poem “Sea Fever”.
Throughout the set fragments of a tune had acted as a kind of coda to other pieces, sometimes rather jarringly so. Pursglove and Koller played “Reflections Of Moods” in full at the end of the set, a neatly symmetrical way to conclude a concert that was intimate, beautifully crafted and high on interaction and mutual respect. The Koller/Pursglove collaboration sometimes reminded me of that other splendid British trumpet/piano duo Tom Arthurs and Richard Fairhurst.
The final Best Of Cobweb session came from Greyish Quartet, a band led by young pianist and composer David A.Grey and featuring Sam Wooster on trumpet, Nick Jurd on bass and Jim Bashford at the drums. The Café was absolutely packed at this time and no tables were available so I stood at the back and took in what I could. Wooster’s bright trumpeting impressed, cutting clearly through the hubbub and Grey delivered a series of fluent solos at the electric piano. Jurd and Bashford were a propulsive and swinging rhythm section and the whole performance had an appealing energy about it although the subtleties couldn’t really be appreciated. The quartet is due to record soon, I hope I get the chance to hear the album when it comes out as this performance suggested considerable potential.
Saturday’s headline act was another Anglo/Norwegian electro improvising collaboration courtesy of the duo Food comprising of English saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen. Food began way back in 1998 and originally featured Ballamy and Stronen alongside bassist Mats Eilertsen and, in a nice touch of symmetry, Harmonic’s Friday night headliner Arve Henriksen on trumpet. With Eilertsen and Henriksen now ploughing their own furrows the slimmed down Food now perform with guest artists. The duo’s 2010 debut for ECM records, “Quiet Inlet” featured contributions from trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and guitarist and soundscaper Christian Fennesz. It’s a good introduction to Food’s sound-world and consists of seven concise and often highly melodic improvised pieces.
In a live context Food tend to prefer lengthy single piece improvisations that fill an entire set, their splendid performance at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival alongside Fennesz being a case in point. Today’s Birmingham performance again found them working alongside a guitarist, the Norwegian Bjorn Klakegg in his first appearance with the group.
As Ballamy explained the group’s music is totally improvised and the lengthy first item was typical of Food’s modus operandi with Stronen dictating the proceedings from his customised drum kit, a mind boggling mix of conventional drum kit, a dizzying array of small cymbals, bells and gongs plus an arsenal of electronic percussion and other computerised gizmos. Ballamy inserts glorious snippets of colour and texture into Stronen’s soundscapes via his tenor and soprano saxophones plus EWI (electronic wind instrument) and also has his own electrical devices, including live looping, to shape both his own and the group sound. Klakegg initially sounded a little tentative and unsure of his role, less integrated into the group than Fennesz, but his playing gained authority as the set progressed. Like his colleagues he had a battery of pedals and other electronic effects at his disposal.
Food’s densely layered soundscapes were strangely hypnotic and compelling and in a concession to theatricality were accompanied by swirling dry ice, which personally I could well have done without. Not that this detracted from the music itself, which, with its unique blend of jazz, electronica and folk influences has its own kind of chilly beauty. Conventional jazz solos are hardly appropriate to the Food ethos but each musician took turns in sharing the lead with Klakegg on guitar and Ballamy on tenor both delivering passages that were broadly speaking “solos”.
The group’s initial, subtly shifting magnum opus was very well received and for their second “stretch” ,as Ballamy put it, the trio were augmented by the twin trumpets of Percy Pursglove and Aaron Diaz, the latter bringing even more electronic gadgetry to the already crowded stage. The two Birmingham based musicians acquitted themselves well, filling Molvaer’s role between them with a mix of open horn and muted trumpeting plus Diaz’s electronic effects. They slotted in very nicely with Food’s distinctive group ambience.
This was an excellent final concert to conclude Harmonic 2011’s ticketed programme. It probably fell just short of Food’s Cheltenham performance last year and of course comparisons with the previous evening’s event featuring former Food member Arve Henriksen were inevitable. For me Arve and Dreams Of Tall Buildings get the nod, possibly because I had seen Food before and thus knew roughly what to expect, but the standing ovation granted to the Henriksen/DOTB suggests that most of the audience (I’m sure there were many that attended both gigs) agreed with me.
STEVE TROMANS DIRECTIONS IN MUSIC
While we had been absorbing all the music described above Birmingham based pianist Steve Tromans was sat in the MAC gallery pounding away at the keyboard of an electric piano. Nobody could hear him unless they had hired a set of headphones to listen to Steve’s piano marathon. He played for the best part of eleven hours solid, starting at midday and finishing after 11.00 pm. During the brief breaks between bands on the other stages fans could be seen listening to Steve’s magnum opus unfold, there were lyrical, classically inspired moments, Keith Jarrett gospel style vamps and torrential percussive motifs clearly inspired by Tromans’ love of John Coltrane and his pianist McCoy Tyner. Of course anybody dipping into the performance may have heard something entirely different.
At the end of the evening a small knot of fans and festival staff gave Tromans a hearty round of applause as he lifted his fingers from the keys for the final time and the headphones from his ears. His lugs looked red and raw, his fingers more so. This had been a remarkable feat of both physical endurance and sheer musicality delivered in a unique way. I’d even been out exploring the environs of Cannon Hill Park with Steve’s music ringing in my ears. It was also odd to hear the music and not have any visual input, the facial expressions, workings of the fingers etc. although some listeners did position themselves in such a way as to ensure they caught this. For me this aspect had parallels with Phronesis’ “Pitch Black” performance at this year’s Brecon Jazz Festival.
I had to head for home at this point but I hope somebody headed for the bar and got him a well earned beer.
Artistically Harmonic 2011 was a huge success with memorable performances from a wide array of musicians with Henriksen and DOTB the pinnacle and the perfect blend of the local with the international. Financially I hope it broke even and that it can be repeated. Harmonic fills a niche in the Birmingham festival calendar giving “cutting edge” or experimental music a place to be appreciated and giving local, often very young musicians a platform to demonstrate their skills. It offers a good alternative to the largely trad to mainstream Birmingham International Jazz Festival and the funk and soul orientated Mostly Jazz Festival and thus ensures that Birmingham’s main festivals cover a wide variety of jazz. Harmonic also complements the ongoing work of Birmingham Jazz under the leadership of Tony Dudley Evans with the Food concert being financially supported by Birmingham Jazz.
Much of the success of this year’s festival was due to the move to the MAC. Focussing the festival in a single location led to a good atmosphere and praise should also be given to the MAC staff who were extremely friendly, courteous and efficient throughout whether stewarding, working in reception/information or in the Café, well done you guys.
However the main praise should go to festival organisers Chris Mapp and Percy Pursglove for their hard work in ensuring that the festival ran smoothly all weekend. They were everywhere, announcing, playing, liaising and generally doing a fine job. They’re probably still recovering as I write. Well done to them and thanks for the gift of a Harmonic 2011 staff T shirt. It will be worn with pride. Here’s to 2012.
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