by Ian Mann
May 13, 2012
Ian Mann on a day of adventurous, cutting edge jazz with performances by John Taylor, Roberto Fonseca, Bill Frisell, Helge Lien Trio and the Anglo/French co-operative Tweedle Dee.
Sunday at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 06/05/2012.
For me Sunday proved to be the strongest day of the festival musically speaking with interesting and frequently innovative performances coming from a truly international line up featuring John Taylor, Roberto Fonseca, Bill Frisell, the Helge Lien Trio and the Anglo/French collaborative Tweedle Dee.
First up was a suite of new music from a British jazz institution. Pianist and composer John Taylor has been a frequent visitor to Cheltenham and this performance marked a BBC Radio 3 commission to celebrate his 70th birthday. The concert is to be broadcast on Jazz on 3 on Monday 14th May 2012 at 11.00 pm. I spotted Taylor being interviewed by the programme’s presenter Jez Nelson in the open space of Montpellier Gardens as we made our way to the Jazz Arena venue.
Taylor had assembled a hand picked octet for the performance, a fascinating mix of old associates including Chris Laurence (double bass) and Julian Arguelles (saxophones) and family members, sons Leo Taylor (drums) and Alex Taylor (guitar, vocals). The line up was completed by trumpeter Chris Batchelor, my second sighting of him this weekend following a Saturday appearance with Liam Noble’s quintet, plus Henning Berg (trombone) and the always wonderful Oren Marshall on tuba.
For his theme for the commission Taylor turned once again for inspiration to his favourite author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Vonnegut’s works were also the basis of Taylor’s 2007 suite for jazz quartet “Requiem For A Dreamer”, subsequently recorded for Camjazz by a line up featuring Arguelles plus long term Taylor trio colleagues Palle Danielsson (bass) and Martin France (drums).
This time Taylor based his suite around Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron”, a satire on enforced equality in a future world where the talented are forcibly handicapped by government legislation. Taylor described it as “a work of dark equality”.Alex Taylor’s brief vocal cameos towards either end of the suite helped set the scene and the younger Taylor acquitted himself well. However his guitar playing was largely superfluous and added little to the ensemble sound. Here the focus was on the richly textured ensemble passages and the fluent soloing of Taylor, Arguelles, Batchelor, Berg and even the amazing Marshall.
Opener “Dosy” began with typically elegant solo piano before incorporating rich ensemble horn voicings, the theme leading in turn to the first of a series of excellent solos from Batchelor, Berg, and Arguelles on tenor. John Taylor’s solo was particularly vibrant and he was followed by Marshall, an astonishing player who brings both grace and emotional depth to what is routinely regarded as the most cumbersome of instruments-and as for his electronically enhanced solo projects….
“2081” (the year in which Vonnegut’s story is set) began with a solo drum intro with piano, tuba, bass and guitar incrementally added before a further round of solos featuring Berg (another player who also brings a litheness and agility to another so called ungainly instrument), Arguelles on soprano, Batchelor and John Taylor at the piano. The piece ended as it began with Leo Taylor, a highly competent drummer who I last sighted at Cheltenham in 2008 as part of saxophonist Pete Wareham’s short lived The Final Terror project.
“Empress” brooded and simmered following a solo bass intro and a brief vocal interlude from Alex Taylor. John Taylor’s sombre but lyrical solo was followed by Marshall, again wringing an incredible degree of emotion out of his tuba, and then by another vocal commentary by Alex Taylor. John’s solo piano outro acted as abridge into the more forceful “D.M.G.”, named after Diana Mary Glampus, one of the more unpleasant characters in Vonnegut’s story. Solos came here from Arguelles on soprano and John Taylor at the piano. These two have worked together regularly since Taylor guested on Arguelles’ début solo album “Phaedrus” some twenty years ago. The pair appeared at Cheltenham last year in an acclaimed duo performance with the title track from “Phaedrus” still a central part of their repertoire.
“Deer On The Moon”, the title coming from Vonnegut’s phrase “dancing like deer on the moon” was a celebration full of fanfaring horns and scintillating solos from Arguelles on tenor, Berg, John Taylor and Batchelor with Arguelles and Taylor reprising their contributions. Taylor’s solo piano provided the bridge into a reprise of the opening “Dosy” with Alex Taylor’s sung verses leading to instrumental solos from Berg and Batchelor, the latter on searing high note trumpet as his colleagues summoned up a swaggering gospel swing prior to Alex Taylor’s closing vocal coda.
The audience gave the octet a rousing reception, a measure of the quality of the music and playing and the genuine affection with which Taylor is accorded by the British jazz public. The band were tempted back to play a rip roaring encore (I’m not sure what this was but I doubt that it was part of the suite) full of stunning set pieces such as a fiery trumpet/tenor duet , a galumphing trombone solo and an absorbing duel between Marshall and Leo Taylor. The four horns reprised the theme in blustering, barnstorming fashion as John Taylor smiled on munificently.
This had been an excellent start to the day. Taylor’s writing may not have pulled up any tress but it provided the framework for some stunning playing with the composer and the always excellent Arguelles just shading it as the pick of a very good bunch. The radio broadcast should be well worth hearing and it would also be nice if Taylor could get his second Vonnegut inspired work documented on CD.
Back in 2009 I reviewed Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca’s then current album “Akokan” (Enja Records) and was very impressed. A supremely talented pianist and composer Fonseca’s music avoided the clichés of much Latin music to produce something much more multi cultural and musically sophisticated. It’s an approach that he has continued to hone and his current album “Yo” (Jazz Village) looks both forwards and backwards, exploring Cuba’s African heritage whilst simultaneously dipping a toe into contemporary club culture by means of sampled voices and a brace of bonus remixes. It’s bold, inventive and exciting, qualities Fonseca also brings to his stage shows alongside a crack band including Baba Sissoko from Mali on vocals, African percussion and doussn’ gouni. Joel Hierrezuelo on Cuban percussion and the superb drummer Ramses Rodriguez both made vital and brilliant contributions alongside electric bassist Yandy Martinez. Guitarist Jorge Chicoy drifted in and out but played several outstanding, rock influenced solos. This was a tightly drilled ensemble with an admirable togetherness but, as on his albums, there was no doubting that Fonseca was the star of the show.
Things began quietly with almost subliminal organ rumblings and snippets of sampled vocals before the band kicked in, Sissoko trading lines played on the doussn’ gouni, the ancient “hunter’s guitar” of Mali, with Fonseca, now at the piano.
“80’s”, the opening track of the “Yo” album was a stunning melange of percussion, scorching guitar, bubbling electric bass and stabs of sampled vocals all held together by Fonseca’s mercurial piano work. This was complex, dazzling stuff full of tricky, thrilling unison melody lines.
On occasion the group pared down to a core quartet of piano, bass, drum kit and Cuban percussion. On the first performance in this configuration the stylish, be-hatted Fonseca exhibited an even greater degree of showmanship with an audaciously fast and percussive piano solo. A one time member of the Buena Vista Social Club band Fonseca has technique to burn and his style is clearly influenced by such great US jazz piano stylists as Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. After bringing his solo to a climax Fonseca wandered off to the wings to allow Hierrezuelo and Rodriguez a chance to shine. It was an opportunity they grabbed with all four hands with congalero Hierrezuelo’s super-fast, rhythmically charged playing particularly impressive. At this point rising star American jazz vocalist Gregory Porter wandered in and sat just in front of me. He was clearly impressed by what he saw and stayed for much of the rest of the set. An amiable bear of a man Porter was frequently spotted wandering around the site, I’d like to think he rather enjoyed his time in Cheltenham.
From the album “Yo” the song “Bibisa” was a feature for the singing and doussn’ gouni of Baba Sissoko, his warm voice and personality quickly marking him out as an audience favourite. He proved to be an excellent instrumentalist too, again duetting effectively with Fonseca. At the conclusion of this beautifully melodic piece he encouraged the audience to sing along with the refrain “Bibisa”. To English ears it sounded like “be bizarre”, not a bad mission statement.
From “Yo” the tune “JMF” featured the whole band but began with a further dialogue between Fonseca and Sissoko, the latter now on African percussion and voice. Chicoy’s blistering, Santana like solo abruptly jerked the music bang up to date with Fonseca shadowing him on organ/synth. This was truly Afro Cuban music for the 21st Century.
Pared down to a quartet with Fonseca again on synthesiser the next piece added a North African element to the proceedings, a comment perhaps on the spread of Islam from North to West Africa. Whatever, the music was stunning, with rumbling electric bass and peppered with explosions of sampled vocals. The piece was climaxed by a furious keyboard and drum duet with Rodriguez turning in an astonishing display of precision, power and sheer stamina. A drum hero was born and the audience loved it.
Finally we heard “Connection”, a delightful dedication to the late Ibrahim Ferrer (1927-2005), Fonseca’s predecessor in Buena Vista Social Club. Highlights included another Chicoy guitar solo and yet another delightful exchange between Fonseca on piano and Sissoko on voice and percussion.
There seemed to be a real empathy and respect between the Cuban and the Malian, something that encapsulated the spirit of the remarkable “Yo” album.
For all the showmanship of Fonseca’s band there’s a real musical intelligence at work. Fonseca borrows from many cultures to make a music that is very much his own but still has a Cuban soul. This was a show that exceeded expectations, often thrilling and enlivened by brilliant musicianship but with an important social message. This wasn’t your average salsa “get down and party” fluff. It wasn’t exactly jazz either but in this case that hardly seemed to matter. This was just brilliant pan-cultural music whatever label you wish to hang on it. Fonseca is building an impressive body work and deserves to be considered as a major world musician.
I saw Bill Frisell give a brilliant performance with his quintet at the much missed Everyman Theatre at the 2008 Cheltenham Jazz Festival playing music from his then current project the excellent two CD set “History Mystery”. Following this I guess that it was virtually inevitable that today’s show would be something of a disappointment in comparison.
The trouble started with the late start for the Roberto Fonseca group over in the Jazz Arena. Introducing the Fonseca band Tony Dudley Evans assured us that there would be a corresponding delay at the Big Top for Bill Frisell but when dozens of us made our way swiftly between the two venues it was to find that the Frisell show had already started. Initially we were ushered into the vacant wing blocks with the stewards intending to show us to our proper seats during a convenient break in the performance. However there were too many of us and I never did find my way to my designated spot. The gig wasn’t a sell out and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I moved seats a couple of times before I found somewhere satisfactory where I could see the band properly. All the hassle made it difficult for me to engage fully with the music but once I was settled there was still much to enjoy.
Frisell had brought along his “Beautiful Dreamers” trio (from the 2010 album of the same name) consisting of long term associate Eyvind Kang on viola and drummer Rudy Royston, the latter having made an impressive contribution to the 2008 date. The cavernous Big Top did not represent the most sympathetic of environments for the trio to work in, one sensed that this configuration would have worked much better in the more intimate setting of the Everyman or even the new look Jazz Arena. To compensate for the size of the venue Frisell had cranked up his amps and Kang’s contribution was frequently drowned out. This was a shame as it was the first time I’d seen him play live and I didn’t really get the opportunity to appreciate his playing fully.
Frisell’s unique blend of jazz, rock, country and Americana influences is well known to listeners by now. His is a signature sound and today’s performance touched all of his bases. He bookended his set with two Beatles tunes, beginning with “In My Life” and ending with a stunning version of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. In between we heard Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and a number of archetypal Frisell originals, Bill is a man who prefers to let his guitar do the talking so tune announcements were not forthcoming. He did acknowledge his colleagues at the end though.
“In My Life” was culled from 2011’s “All We Are Saying”, Frisell’s collection of interpretations of John Lennon songs, both Beatles and solo. Here he took fragments of the melody and expanded upon them in his own inimitable style. “Strawberry Fields” didn’t make it on to the album but today’s version was still hugely impressive with Frisell updating Revolver’s sonic experiments for the 21st Century.
Elsewhere Bill gave us folky, dreamy and quirky, the twang of rural Americana periodically punctuated by barrages of noise as Bill turned up his amps and stepped on the pedals in a series of surprisingly thrashy interludes. Kang played as much without the bow as with, producing remarkable pizzicato bass lines. At other times he doubled up with Frisell on the melody lines, sawing and soaring and utilising some FX pedals of his own. Particularly effective was a fiery duet with Royston as Frisell temporarily stood back. Eventually the guitarist joined in, matching his colleagues for intensity. Royston was impressive throughout, his playing crisp, precise and immensely powerful when required. He’s an adaptable, inventive and versatile drummer, innately musical and at home in whichever situation he finds himself.
Not surprisingly the audience gave the trio a great reception but personally I couldn’t help feeling a little underwhelmed. I still love Frisell’s unique sound and rate his recordings highly (particularly the live double set “East, West”) but for me today’s performance was fundamentally flawed, in part due to elements beyond Frisell’s control. Nevertheless he’s a restlessly inventive musician and one I’d be more than happy to see again, especially in a more conducive venue.
HELGE LIEN TRIO
Back at the Jazz Arena the Festival’s Norwegian strand continued with a memorable performance by pianist Helge Lien and his trio featuring double bassist Frode Berg and drummer/percussionist Knut Aalefjaer. The trio first came to international attention with their 2008 album “Hello Troll” which offered a Norwegian version of the groove based dynamics and hummable melodies of Swedish jazz superstars E.S.T. 2011’s “Natsukashii” offered a more contemplative but no less melodic approach. Today’s performance drew on both albums and both styles, the music blending the pastoral lyricism of Tord Gustavsen with the rhythmic sensibility of E.S.T.
Introducing the group Tony Dudley Evans told of seeing the trio at the Natjazz Festival in Bergen and determining that they would be perfect for Cheltenham. As so often his judgement was spot on and the trio didn’t disappoint. They began with a lengthy segue of tunes spanning both albums with “Living Different Lives”, “Axis Of Free Will” and “Small No Need” coalescing into a an engrossing and coherent whole. The music built from Berg’s delicate solo bowed bass intro, he’s a superb arco player who makes frequent use of the bow. Lien added interior piano scrapings and Aalefjaer added delightful small percussive details from a custom made kit that incorporated bells, chimes, small cymbals and sundry other eclectic percussive devices. The patter of his hand drums above Berg’s grainy arco bass developed into an E.S.T. style groove with Lien soling in dazzling fashion above solidly plucked bass, Berg’s sturdy pulse also providing the backdrop for a mercurial Aalefjaer drum feature. As the piece mutated into its final part Lien once again soloed expansively above Aalefjaer’s subtly propulsive brushed grooves and Berg’s meaty bass. This had been a great start and something of a tour de force.
Lien explained that he wrote the tune “Human” when he was just fourteen, the piece featuring a simple, unadorned but exquisitely beautiful melody which the pianist picked out in a lengthy, limpid solo piano intro. Berg’s lightly plucked bass solo demonstrated the sensitive side of his playing before a further passage of lyrical piano from the composer.
Lien’s English is excellent and he displayed a sense of humour by referring to Aalefjaer’s drum set up as the “kitchen department”. That humour was also reflected in the music, particularly in a spirited dialogue between Lien at the piano and Berg on bowed bass. As for Aalefjaer the drummer played virtually the whole set with an impish grin on his face. The next tune (the only title I didn’t catch) developed from this exchange into a typically irresistible groove.
At this point the trouble started as sound from Imelda May’s sound-check in the Big Top leached into the Jazz Arena to detract from the flowing lyricism of a segue of “Small Bears” and “Bon Tempi”. It wasn’t as bad as the problems that blighted Brecon last year but it was still an irritant. Berg expressed his displeasure with a scowl and this is an issue that must be addressed next year. It’s not fair to either audiences or musicians and may result in reduced ticket sales. My mate Paul who attended and enjoyed this gig, his only event of the festival, had intended to come back to see Lighthouse the following day but decided against it in case the circumstances were repeated, there was a distinct possibility of Lighthouse having to battle it out with Paloma Faith. The problem persisted during the Gustavsen like ballad “It Is What It Is, But It Is”, the joky title concealing one of Lien’s most lovely melodies, one with a quietly anthemic quality.
At this point the trio decided to fight fire with fire and increased their own volume with two of the more up-tempo pieces from their breakthrough album “Hello Troll”. “Troozee” was powered by Lien’s powerful left hand grooves, the platform for a stunning Aalefjaer drum feature. The title track mixed light and shade with hypnotic grooves, the soft/loud dynamic bringing the set to a dramatic climax.
As this was the final show of the day in the Jazz Arena the trio were afforded the luxury of an encore. As May’s sound-check had now concluded we were able to enjoy a brief, lyrical version of the wistful “Natsukashii” with the dialogue between piano and arco bass a particular highlight.
I’ve been an admirer of the trio’s two most recent albums and this opportunity to see the trio’s only scheduled UK live appearance this year was too good to miss. Even I was pleasantly surprised by just how good they were with Berg and Aalefjaer making strong contributions to the group sound. Both are highly individual players who, together with their leader, help to give the trio a unique sound that demands that they be considered as one of the finest contemporary jazz piano trios in the world.
This late night session at the Parabola Arts Centre brought together an aggregation of musicians drawn from North London’s Loop Collective and the Paris based Coax Collective. The common link between the two organisations is Robin Fincker, French born but living and working in London where he is an influential member of the Loop Collective. Fincker is a regular visitor to Cheltenham and has performed here with the bands Blink and Outhouse. His co-leader in the Tweedle Dee project is Coax Collective guitarist Julien Desprez with trombonist Fidel Fourneyron and drummer Yann Joussein completing the French contingent. With the nationalities even distributed within the group the British presence came in the form of familiar faces Alex Bonney (trumpet and electronics), Dave Kane (double bass) and Kit Downes on organ and synthesiser, fulfilling a very different role to that of the previous evening when he gave a wonderful duo performance at the same venue with drummer Sebastian Rochford. The centre was less crowded than it had been for that performance but there were still enough of us-maybe fifty or sixty-to provide a suitable atmosphere and ensure that the gig was an artistic success.
Tweedle Dee’s music was often visceral and full on, a little ragged at times and obviously rooted in improvisation but there was much to enjoy in their adventurous and uncompromising approach, a youthful vitality sparking their often spiky dialogues. In a series of four lengthy pieces passages of collective improvising were punctuated by individual dialogues between two or three instruments as the music ebbed and flowed. Desprez proved to be a sparky guitarist with a strong rock influence ,his playing often reminiscent of Marcs Ducret and Ribot. At one point the other instruments dropped out to leave Desprez, Kane and Joussein in power trio mode for a series of vigorous exchanges. Following slightly more conventional jazz solos from Fincker and Fourneyron the guitarist then entered into spiky dialogue with Downes’ keyboards before the storm blew itself out and the piece ended with a lyrical, more obviously jazz coda. An adventurous and enjoyable start.
Desprez’s solo guitar introduced the next piece (“Ipijam”?) before making way for the impressive Fourneyron, a powerful trombone soloist who made inventive use of the mute to vary the sound of his attack. As his solo gained momentum Fincker joined in, the two horns carousing raucously above the backdrop of Joussein’s brutal drumming.
And there was to be no let up in the intensity on the next item, Joussein’s opening drum patterns establishing a template for abrasive, jagged time signatures which provided the basis for solos from Bonney on electric era Miles styled muted trumpet with Downes following him at the keyboards. Desprez’s axe shredding was answered by Joussein’s volcanic drumming before Downes switched to the Hammond exclusively to partner first Fourneyron and then Fincker.
The set closed with “Tweedle Three” a brief but atmospheric and strangely beautiful coda featuring the eerie sound of Dezprez’s bowed guitar. The title referred to the fact that this was only the ensemble’s third gig (they do have a couple of other coming up in France) but it was clear that the collaboration holds a lot of promise. Ragged but often glorious this was a rousing way to end a varied day of excellent cutting edge jazz, the only quibble being the sound leaching that threatened to spoil the Helge Lien Trio’s performance.
Ian’s Star Ratings;
John Taylor 4 Stars
Roberto Fonseca 4.5 Stars
Bill Frisell 3.5 Stars
Helge Lien Trio-4 Stars
Tweedle Dee-3.5 Stars
Overall 4.5 Stars
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