Vandermark and Nilssen-Love Blow Down Brighton's Green Door
Jazzwise Magazine - June 2018
The streets of Brighton have been overflowing with music fans thanks to this year's Great Escape Festival, whose ever more eclectic programming even expanded beyond it's indie rock remit to include some 'New Thing' jazz artists. As a coda to that event, the ever resourceful promotion partnership of Dictionary Pudding and the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival brought a pair of genuine musical free-thinkers to town.
Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love took to the stage, framed by the modishly derelict-industrial girders and brickwork of the Green Door Store, launching immediately into a furious tirade of squalling tenor sax and crashing tides of percussion that gradually coalesced into a swaggering polyrhythmic funk. Vandermark's virtuosity and conviction were instantly present, projecting into the room, but equally impressive was the metronomically insistent power of Nilssen-Love's drumming, his surging, clattering, endlessly inventive playing creating a turbulent sea over which Vandermark surfed, skimming the surface or diving into the groove, responsive to every current and squall. The drummer suddenly dropped out, allowing Vandermark to demonstrate his fluency and imagination in a solo atonal workout, with long gobbling runs, interspersed with fragments of shattered melody, unexpected squawks and honks; Nilssen-Love returning to add terse punctuation. Vandermark's sax barrage resolved into a nagging, insistent three-note phrase which Nilssen-Love converted into a pulsing, monumental beat. Together, the pair ramped up the tension into a towering structure, which then shattered apart under its own internal stresses.
Next Vandermark revealed his extraordinary voice on clarinet; woody and tender in the lower register, ascending to higher notes of laser-beam intensity, melodic lines unfurling into something approaching a jaunty swing. Nilssen-Love responded with a barrage of unorthodox percussive effects that gradually merged into what, during its closing moments, appeared to be a distant relative of a Brazilian Chorinho. Further unexpected traces of Brazilian accents surfaced briefly in the snare patterns and repurposed items of samba percussion accompanying the next searing clarinet exploration. Then, all too soon, we reached the set's climax – a protracted, more conventionally free-improv passage of gnomic dialogue between sax and percussion, all high tones and sudden startling crashes like Japanese Gagaku, growing in intensity and then cataclysmically releasing into a pounding three-beat worthy of John Bonham.
It's a shame that none of the Great Escape crowd were present to witness this radical stomp – but the small, loyal band of supporters give it their all as the dynamic duo bowed, dripping with sweat, and left the stage to make for the bar.
Zara McFarlane's Jazz-Funk Jousts Bite Deep Into The Frost At Brighton's Komedia
Jazzwise Magazine - March 2018
The night outside may be freezing, but there's already a decent-sized crowd gathered under the Komedia's notoriously low ceiling as support act Thabo does his utmost to warm them up. He gives a lesson in effortless charisma, and despite appearing with just a pianist in support he easily fills the whole stage with his expansive personality and measured nu-soul stylings.
Zara McFarlane's band play her on in true showbiz style with a piece of energetic jazz-funk, with plenty of space for her to riff and scat. Pianist and musical director Peter Edwards and sax man of the moment Binker Golding toss some trades back and forth with the assurance of star basketball players. Then bassist Jihad Darwish picks up his acoustic and we're off into 'Pride', played as a sultry afro 12/8 groove, winding through the long cascading vocal melodies before exploding into a drum/sax duet of the sort that Binker's been successfully exploring with Moses Boyd. The excellent Sam Jones on kit proves that he's fully up to the job, and the crowd are onside with whoops and hollers. Then there's 'Freedom Chain', featuring plenty of long jam-outs from Edwards on funked-up Fender Rhodes, while the rhythm section deploy a kind of mutant reggae that's hip and tight enough to avoid jazz-funk cliches. 'Allies And Enemies' is delivered with just Darwish on bass guitar and Jones on trigger pads, showcasing Zara's supple, clear-toned and accurate vocals. She steers clear of the kind of gospel-inflected dramatic affectations that are current in some contemporary jazz-and-related-music circles. The results are refreshingly unhyped, personal and sincere sounding.
The band can really play, and a substantial amount of the set is given over to loose, free-flowing jamming over heavy basslines, with a kind of open West Coast Get Down vibe, big-toned angular sax solos, lots of bravura work from behind the drumkit, and a ton of palpable fun and good humour. It's not all groove material – a version of 'Row Fisherman Row' over bowed bass and muted drums and piano gets heartfelt applause from the crowd, and Darwish even gets a superbly creative solo on stand-up bass, egged on by offstage exhortations from the rest of the band. Zara is a warm and friendly onstage presence and when she leads into some co-ordinated song-and-dance participation the whole room joins in. "Police And Thieves' is a sure crowd pleaser, a new track written by Boyd and Shabaka Hutchings extends into another potent reggae-flavoured workout, and there's a triumphant return on 'Fussing And Fighting' to conclude the night.
The set brims over with vibes and joyful, expansive energy. There's a balance struck between showcasing her characterful individual voice while still allowing the communal talents of the band to flourish; Gregory Porter has this down to a fine art, and it'll be interesting to see how the show develops when McFarlane and company return from their upcoming schedule of international touring.
Alex Hitchcock/Tom Barford Quartet's Twin Tenor Frontline Fires At The Verdict
Jazzwise Magazine - February 2018
The twin tenors tradition has a long history, stretching back to the cutting contests of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray and frequently revived by promoters with an eye to cashing in on the swaggering, macho appeal of the format. Twin tenors in a quartet, with no harmony instrument and only bass and drums backing, requires a collaborative rather than competitive mindset – tonight's gig is an object lesson in how two high-output creative minds can operate in the same sonic bailiwick without getting in each other's way.
'Hitchcock and Barford' may sound like the name of a respectably conservative gent's outfitters, but this is adventurous, risk-taking music. With no chordal instrument to tie them down, the twin frontliners are free to roam at will, pushing hard against the shifting rhythmic and harmonic boundaries sketched out by the endlessly creative team of Fergus Ireland on bass and James Maddren on drums – the latter's presence in a project seems increasingly to guarantee that something unusual will be going down. Both frontmen look so similar on the Verdict's dimly lit stage that the phrase 'twin tenors' might almost be taken literally, especially as they both seem to patronise the same optician, but when they take off to solo on a deconstruction of Jimmy Heath's 'CTA' the differences are as striking as the similarities. Hitchcock has the softer, more romantic tone – he moves effortlessly in and out of lightning fast, double-time runs, up into the highest register and out again, breaking the flow with short twisting phrases against the beat, reminiscent of, but not beholden to, the style of Mark Turner; Barford's tone is flintier, more unyielding, projecting out into the room; he slips between bop language and modernist abstraction like a true polyglot, his timing and phrasing always impeccable. It's a fascinating echo of the tough/tender tenor dichotomy that stretches back to Rollins/Coltrane, Young/Hawkins and beyond.
There are a number of questingly melodic originals by Hitchcock (above left) - 'A38' features the kind of loose-limbed polyrhythmic backbeat that Maddren specialises in underneath a striking, declamatory melody – and one by Barford (above) – 'The Highly Strung Trapeze Artist' – more austere, but no less rewarding, by contrast. Fergus Ireland on bass contributes a ballad suggestion – Nat Coles' 'Beautiful Moons Ago' – and his playing throughout illustrates why he's so in demand; with a simply awesome if unorthodox technique put in the service of a powerfully individual musical imagination, simultaneously grounding the harmony and sending it into unexpected directions, he's an inexhaustible creative powerhouse. 'Blues For JC' makes the expected venture into Ornette-ish territory, but what's striking about this band is the level of relaxed, good-humoured communication that's present to temper the tropes of the avante-garde – there'a a warm, inclusive spirit at work that doesn't compromise the fierce artistic vision, but permits a mellow, reverent reading of 'This I Dig Of You' that captures the lightness of the original, and a beautiful closing take on 'My Ideal'. Hitchock is busy leading his own band, and Barford has recently been in Real World Studios recording with Iain Ballamy in producer's chair, but let's hope that they both find time to reconvene this project in the studio some time soon.
THELONIOUS MONK AT 100 #3 - Monk At Town Hall 1959
ith Charles Tolliver
Cadogan Hall; Sunday 19th November 2017
We’re approaching the end of this year’s EFG London Jazzfest, and the end of today’s epic Monk-a-thon here at the quietly well-heeled Cadogan Hall. After working through almost the entire repertoire of Monk originals since 2pm today, you might expect pianist Jonathan Gee to look at little jaded, but his solo excursion through ‘In Walked Bud’ sounds as fresh and energetic as if he’d only just begun. He’s joined by loose-limbed drummer Rod Youngs and imperturbably swinging bassist Ben Hazleton for ‘Blue Monk’, further augmented by hip, smooth-toned Ed Jones on tenor for ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’, and then the main event commences as a further seven musicians take to the stage, headed by the suitably beret-clad Charles Tolliver. It’s a re-creation of Monk’s legendary 1959 Town Hall concert, the lost Hall Overton charts painstakingly re-transcribed by Tolliver, who attended the original gig as a teen. ‘Mysterioso’ is enlivened by a backbeat from Youngs and a solo from Gee that preserves some of the creator’s angularity without resorting to direct quotes, and a brief, full-toned statement from Tolliver himself, reminding us how unique his trumpet voice is, and how too seldom it is heard. ‘Friday the 13th’ is handed to Jason Yarde - entering with a quote from ‘Surrey With A Fringe On Top’ he proceeds to lay out a series of explosive Dolphyisms that suit the music to a T. The ensemble, warming to their task, capture some of the raw modernistic swagger of the original. ‘Monk’s Mood’ has a great intro from the indefatigable Gee; throughout he rises to the daunting task of filling the great man’s shoes, maintaining his own, smoother and more contemporary voicings and preserving the spirit rather than the letter; then Dennis Rollins plays a beautifully mellifluous lead over a hushed bed of low-end brass and reeds. ‘Off Minor’ brings back the raucous energy, with the added bonus of solos from tuba and french horn. Tony Kofi, who co-masterminded the project with Gee, is grinning form ear to ear from his baritone chair in the back row, and his own solo on the low-end horn lifts the whole ensemble with it’s strident urgency. On ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’ the band’s command of dynamics really brings out the strength and beauty of the arrangement, but the showstopper, now as back in the day, is ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ with a full orchestration of Monk’s solo played with joyful abandon and another storming Kofi solo. Tolliver gets a big, battling sound from his cohort, worthy of a far larger ensemble, and drives the band hard, punching out the accents. There’s still time for an original work-out on the fiendishly difficult ‘Brilliant Corners’ , with inspired solos from Yarde, Jones, and Tolliver himself. As he says, in soft-spoken tribute to the band, ‘They really played this music”, and there’s no doubt that they really did.
Pharoah Sanders, Denys Baptiste and Alina Bzhezhinska make for cosmic concert for Alice and John Coltrane
Jazzwise Magazine - November 2017
Banks of lights sketch out a looming angel presence on the backcloth as Alina Bzhezhinska sits at the harp and strikes an introductory chord. She reproduces Alice Coltrane's trembling flurries of high notes and swooping glissandos with uncanny accuracy, and her intensely physical relationship with her harp is mesmerising to watch. After a chiming solo sets the scene, she cues in Larry Bartley and Joel Prime who come in like thunder as Tony Kofi strides forward into the spotlight from the blue-lit wings and the band burst into 'Blue Nile'. It's the first spectacular emotional sucker-punch of the evening. The band sound great: Bartley's big-toned, magisterial bass solo draws whoops of applause, as does the climactic duet between harp and Kofi's clear-voiced soprano on 'Journey in Satchidananda' – and Alina's eccentrically effervescent personality shines through, bringing a real sense of joy.
Next up is Denys Baptiste's outfit (above), an altogether a more considered production, with Baptiste asking the audience to imagine themselves sitting on top of Everest, quipping "don't worry about the oxygen" before launching into an Expression-era group free improv, complete with electronic tambura. Next the band sets up a heavy groove reminiscent of 1970s Miles, over which Baptiste initiates a dialogue of increasing frenzy with a kimono-clad Nikki Yeoh that has the latter up off of her seat before drummer Rod Youngs lashes the kit up to the finish line. There's a duet with Yeoh on 'Peace On Earth', which allows Baptiste to give free rein to his powerful chops, then a reworking of 'After The Rain' with a simple extended major-key vamp over which Yeoh shows her impressive imagination before the piece subsides into an incongruous reggae-lite groove. Surprise guest Steve Williamson, louche and elegant in a rumpled suit, joins the leader in an extended two-tenor freak-out over Young's boiling beats – his powerful, cutting tone a reminder of just what a singular force he is; then everyone leaves the stage but Baptiste and Bartley, the bassist setting up a bolero bassline while the saxophonist shows off his awesome technique on the effect-enhanced horn.
Expectations are running high by the as Pharoah Sanders (above and top) himself is announced. The band walk onstage and the audience rises to its feet as a frail, hunched figure moves with infinite slowness from the darkness of the wings; cautiously climbing the stairs and slowly moving centre stage. Yet, once he lifts his horn to the mic the sound that emerges is undiminished – a clear powerful clarion. The band swell into a rippling crescendo as he blows a simple sequence of three falling tones, like a child's rhyme, fading away into a single held note so high and faint that it seems to suck all the sound in the room into itself, creating a concentrated vacuum of absolute silence, and the packed hall holds its breath in a moment of total stillness. Then suddenly, improbably, he blasts out the head to Trane's 'Lazy Bird' and pianist William Henderson leads the band into a crashing tide of high-speed virtuosic free-bop. Sanders sits impassively on a strategically placed chair, head bowed, as bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer Gene Calderazzo give a good account of themselves. Then he's back up again, entering with squall of notes, effortlessly riding the rhythm. Next, another surprise. A solo rendition quickly takes shape as 'A Nightingale Sang In Berkely Square', as Henderson enters, sketching out the background with deft strokes. Sanders sounds fantastic – agile, clear, impassioned – age hasn't diminished his talent, even if it has led him to be more economical in its deployment. The speed and facility over changes he acquired in later years is still there, and while the tone no longer screams as it did with Trane there's a diamond hardness still at its core as well as a confidence in the phrasing that betokens an absolute unwavering belief in the message of his music. After Hayhurst's monumental solo he returns with a spectral, unaccompanied cadenza, each note falling through the silence like a snowflake.
Next a scarlet-jacketed Yair Dalal appears onstage and takes up his oud, to lead the band into a hypnotic ostinato that turns into an extended flamenco-tinged jam, Sanders entering and leaving at intervals, his contributions never less than riveting, before the band return to a swelling minor key rubato against which the leader plays starkly beautiful, towering phrases, like mountain peaks against a darkening sky. Then the mood changes again.
Hayhurst and Calderazzo set up the familiar line for 'The Creator Has A Master Plan', and Sanders, turning and facing the crowd for the first time, is suddenly all approachable geniality, introducing the band with palpable warmth, beaming smiles between his snow-white beard and impressive moustache. Getting the audience to sing along as the beat shifts to a sprightly calypso, he essays some shuffling dance steps and executes a cautiously arthritic twerk, to rapturous applause. "My name is Farrell Sanders, and I play the tenor saxophone," he says, then breaks into a hoarse-voiced, raucous wordless folk melody. Somehow it's the most uplifting moment of the evening: a simple affirmation of life, music and everything by one of jazz's true visionaries. The only less-than-cosmic aspect of the evening is the unsympathetic Barbican sound: all harsh, over-amplified bass, with the piano often almost completely swallowed up in the blurry sonic fog. Such masters deserve more.
Dan Cartwright Quartet Captivate At The Verdict
Even comparatively hyped new artists can really struggle to fill jazz clubs outside our major cities, let alone an unknown tenor player on his very first headline engagement. Despite the chilly ambient temperature, caused by an overzealous aircon unit, there's a warm welcome and a full house for Dan Cartwright. There's a mixed age demographic – the younger audience members look like friends and contemporaries of the 24-year-old leader, while the more seasoned attendees have the air of connoisseurs, drawn to chance their evening's entertainment on the promise of promoter Andy Lavender and the implicit endorsement of the personnel now warming their hands onstage. Joining bassist and educator George Trebar are a pair of players who bring with them a considerable freight of reputation in their own right, but whom together constituted part of the last band led by that titan of UK tenor players, Bobby Wellins. From the opening bars of 'I'll Remember You" there is no mistaking the supple, driving but infinitely flexible groove that Spike Wellshas been creating on drums for nearly half a century – nor the rich, creative voicings and subtle touch of pianist Mark Edwards.
With the band settled behind him, Cartwright has all the space and support he needs. His tone is clear and true with an attractively gruff edge – think early Sonny Rollins, though he's yet to develop the master's pinpoint precision – and there's no flash or showboating, just a succession of unhurried, beautifully turned phrases. He's sparing with the 16th note passages, resists exaggerated dynamics, but demonstrates the instinctive sense of space and timing that are at the heart of the music. 'It Could Happen To You' features a perfectly pitched, melodious solo from Wells on brushes and a logical, clear-toned and swinging statement from Trebar. Edwards' solo on 'Out Of Nowhere' demonstrates the limitless fertility of his musical imagination. The seldom-played Frank Rosolino composition 'Blue Daniel' requires a brief onstage talk-through, demonstrating the ad hoc nature of the event, but it's all about the spontaneity, and the relaxed togetherness of the band proves to be more than equal to the challenge. The evergreen 'I Can't Get Started' allows Cartwright to really play to his strengths – beautifully turned phrases precisely played against the rhythm – and the band take up the baton and play up magnificently till Wells calls time at the exact right moment.
The second set has everyone really getting into their stride. 'Recorda Me' is warmly romantic, showing Cartwright's affinity for an older tradition than that embodied by its composer. 'Portrait Of Jenny' is a highlight, a typically inventive solo by Edwards takes the tune somewhere else entirely with Wells and Trebar willing partners, while 'Ask Me Now' rises to a climax of percussion and rippling piano. Throughout Cartwright's musicality, command of language and unaffected sincerity are apparent, his tone and approach reminiscent of the underrated Charlie Rouse's contributions to Monk's Columbia recordings. You might search in vain for the imprint of post-Coltrane harmonic language or contemporary polyrhythmic shifts in Cartwright's playing, but why would you when the results are this swingingly sincere? The community's backing felt thoroughly justified by the evening's end.
Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet create acoustic alchemy at Ronnie Scott’s
Mark Guiliana is associated with a certain level of jazz-fusion high intensity, but tonight's gig, in support of the new album Jersey is billed as a different turn for his career. As if to emphasise the fact, the first number begins with no sound from the leader's drums at all: a limber, curling unison from saxophone and piano unfolds in the expectant hush, until Guiliana enters, tapping the snare with his fingers over an insistent single-note bassline. The dynamic slowly builds, as the sax peels off into a flurry of spiralling phrases. Guiliana hunches over the kit, completely absorbed in the restless chattering polyrhythms, hands and feet ever busier with the rising tide, leaning into each unexpected, sudden rhythmic bomb. He and bassist Chris Morrissey skirt around the implied pulse as Fabian Almazan's piano builds up from whisper-quiet to cascading intensity and the whole band radiate a fiercely geeky energy.
In a surprise move, Guiliana leaves the kit and sits down at the back of the stage, head in hands, leaving Jason Rigby's tenor sax to play a soft, almost pastoral melody over a droning arco bass and rumbling piano. Then he's back on the stool, and they're off into a hip three-four swing that suddenly descends again into near-silence, punctuated by a few carefully positioned bass phrases, before Rigby takes flight again, his awesome fluidity complemented by his soft, clear tone. Both Rigby and pianist Almazan share a similarly remarkable command of language, at once capable of great abstraction and immense tenderness. An extended piano solo goes from mutated blues phrases and hints of expansive Peterson or Shearing chording into dense tonal clusters and shimmering, cimbalom-like textures, all delivered with a sure and subtle touch. Morrissey takes a feature on his bass, playing it as though it's a folk instrument, his strums and simple pentatonics accompanied by Guiliana's taps on the snare and slaps on his thigh.
The quartet are superbly balanced: the almost supernatural empathy and the compatibility of their voices allows them to range freely across the open structures of the compositions, using silence as a potent musical force, pushing the dynamic almost to the lowest limit of audibility before rising again, diverging then miraculously coming back together for a short, gnomic phrase or unexpected accent. The second set pays increasing dividends as the band set up a cycle of simple minor chords, like a still pool of water, with Almazan and Guiliana creating ripples of dissonance on the surface and Rigby soaring aloft on butterfly wings. His dazzling flight seems like a clear winner for solo of the evening, until Almazan equals it with another effortlessly sustained flow of ideas, with accents of everything from free-improv to calypso, and bass and drums spin an intricate filigree of rhythm out of which Giuliana finally pulls the astonishing, climatic drum solo that everyone's been waiting for. After this payoff, there's a version of Bowie's 'Where Are We Now' as an elegiac coda for the evening's journey; an outstanding performance of a unique and convincingly realised musical vision, created by four distinctive and wholly compatible players. No wonder the leader looks quietly triumphant.
Miles Mosley Melts Down The Funk At Islington Assembly Hall
Miles Mosley has already started making waves in the UK via a series of extrovert YouTube videos, then as a member of Kamasi Washington's explosive touring band, and fronting his own unit at this year's Love Supreme – now he's back as a headline act. In support are young London-based up-and-comers Vels Trio. They kick-off with a beguiling blend of shimmering keyboard arpeggios, a deep-toned snare-driven disco pulse and clipped off-beat basslines, like an update on mid-1970s Hancock, or a mash-up between Weather Report and Daft Punk. It's a deceptively simple formula; there's no displays of virtuosic limelight hogging, but plenty of creativity is in evidence in the way the trio deftly arrange and re-arrange the textures, swapping focus between Jack Stephenson's array of analogue keyboard sounds, Cameron Dawson's effect-augmented bass, and the ingeniously shifting accents of Dougal Taylor's drums. The set builds til they are making a very big sound indeed, with sweeping keys, overdriven bass and stomping grooves with some nifty details in the hi-hat work, finishing with a polyrhythmic tour de force.
Mosley takes to the stage, an impressive figure in trademark beret, shades and body armour, a look pitched somewhere between a Marvel comic character and Huey Newton. The band smash into some testifying, JB style funk, with Mosley front and centre driving things along on the upright bass and singing in a powerful but light-toned soul voice, akin to John Legend. He works that bass hard, nailing the tight funky lines in tandem with his drummer, the utterly awesome Tony Austin, throwing in slick fills whenever he's not singing, going up high for a solo, whipping out his bow and hitting a bank of effects pedals for some screaming, Hendrix-style freakout. The writing style owes a debt to James Brown, Sly Stone, and the Lenny Kravitz school of bombastic funk rock – Mosley establishes the band's credentials by namechecking work with Stanley Clarke and Lauren Hill, but also Gwen Stefani and Chris Cornell. 'Heartbreak' is a full-on bluesy power ballad that gives way to an extended effects-drenched bass solo that careers on the edge of feedback chaos, with Mosley wrangling his instrument like an unruly bronco, reining it in within a split second to belt out the chorus.
Between numbers he's engaging and effusive; his lyrics extol the virtues of hard work, dedication and collective endeavour, as personified by the West Coast Collective of LA-based musicians that launched both his and Washington's careers. He's warmly thankful towards the London crowd ("Thanks for making London my number one for streaming stats!") and they return his good vibes. This unaffected sincerity tempers the LA slickness of the show – there are solo features for Austin and impressive pianist Cameron Graves, who dazzles with a florid display, like Liszt with tattooed biceps, and the trumpet-and-tenor horn section turn in some powerful statements. But, essentially, the band are there to provide a backdrop for the leader's ebullient personality; his immensely powerful, virtuoso technique and genial good nature win the day, finishing with a direct quote from Hendrix and a triumphant rendition of his best-known number, 'Abraham'.
Hats off for Stetson's big blowout at Brighton's Duke of York
Colin Stetson has enough draw to fill this arthouse cinema on a Sunday night; his collaborative discography reads like the tracklist for a Starbucks compilation full of bands who make the sort of poignantly uplifting, evocatively progressive music often associated with hipster-indie movies, from Bon Iver to Arcade Fire to Feist to The National, so it's a fitting choice of venue.
A lone figure in jeans and white t-shirt, bearded and neatly coiffed like an urban lumberjack, he covers himself with contact mics in the mode of an undercover agent on a sting, then selects an alto-sax from the array of gleaming pipework before him, raises it to his lips and launches into 'Spindrift' from his most recent album, All This I Do For Glory. A glittering torrent of arpeggiated triads burst forth, delivered in a hard, skirling tone, amid a wash of cavernous reverb. His mastery of circular breathing is soon apparent as the streams of notes gush forth in an unyielding fortissimo, the enormous reverb causing the overtones to build into shifting, overlapping patterns, like a one-man Steve Reich ensemble, while the amplified clicking of the pads provides a rhythmic counterpoint. The ferocity of his electronically-augmented onslaught occasionally threatens to overwhelm the PA's capabilities; a pulsing major third in the low register sets up a driving bassline, and then Stetson simultaneously begins to hum a wordless melody from back in his throat, which floats spectrally over the hypnotic waves of sound.
After this first salvo, it's time to bring out the big gun - his trademark bass saxophone. The thunderous impact of its low-end draws whoops from the crowd, entirely filling the cavernous space. During 'Judges', from his 2011 release, Stetson sets up a harmonically simple bassline that cycles round a minor key chord progression, adding roars and yelps in the upper harmonics like a didgeridoo player, while the clicking of the pads add a driving percussion. The ability to play multiple parts at once, without recourse to loop pedals or other sampling technology, is Stetson's great discovery – all his compositions are cut according to the same template, with repeating bass figures marching under ghostly high-frequency melodies, and despite the occasional controlled outbreaks of skronking free-jazz chaos there's a simple, wistfully big-sky melodic sense going on that explains his fit with his indie collaborators, and which contrasts intriguingly with the undeniably macho demonstration of physical strength.
If the bass sax was low, the contrabass clarinet is even lower – 'Between Water And Wind' commences with a dense fog of low frequency enveloping the auditorium and continues with the unrelenting buzzsaw drone and hum of industrial machinery. It's fascinating and a little unnerving to see a man push himself to the limits of physical endurance in the name of art – "We usually get some fainters in the audience," says Stetson, and those susceptible to panic attacks should perhaps approach with caution. For the most part, the music arising from this unique performance style, utterly devoid of dynamic variation or any interspersion of silence, has an otherworldly, hypnotic power, but on occasion Stetson's yelping and hooting over the endless grind shades over into the cartoonish, like listening to the Clangers lost and adrift in a bottomless chasm. The Duke of York's was originally opened as a turn-of-the-century music hall and variety theatre, and one could imagine the watching spirits of it's vanished prestidigitators, quick-change artists and escapologists would have felt a kinship with this remarkable performer.
Legacies live on as Sidewinder and Coltrane hit silver screen
September can be a quiet month for music fans, after the summer festival season is over but before the autumn touring schedules kick in. Of course, expectations can be sustained by the promise of the EFG London Jazz Festival, coming our way in November, and there is heartening news from the wonderful South Coast Jazz Festival, set to return for a third triumphant time in January 2018. In addition, Brighton's The Verdict is attempting to plug the gap single-handedly by programming more jazz than at any other time in it's history, and there's the continuing series of lunchtime concerts at All Saint's church in Hove that shouldn't be overlooked. Chasing Trane is currently on limited release in selected cinemas, but I Called Him Morgan is available on Netflix – well worth the minimal bother of signing up for a month's free trial as currently on offer from the service, if you're not already a subscriber.
Coltrane is such a titan of modern music that it's almost a surprise that it's taken so long for a theatrically released documentary. Morgan's name may be less universally recognised outside the circles of jazz aficionados, but it's possible that the general public might actually be as familiar with his music – or at least with his seminal tune 'The Sidewinder'. The eponymous LP was released in 1964, when Morgan was 26, with seven Blue Note albums as a leader under his belt but still developing his career, and Coltrane was 38, already established as a major musical force, but with only three years of music making ahead of him. 'The Sidewinder''s driving boogaloo beat and powerful, bluesy soloing turned the tune into a surprise hit, breaking all previous Blue Note sales by a factor of 10 (including those for Blue Trane, the 1957 Coltrane recording on which Morgan was featured), and it's been a constant feature on soundtracks, adverts and compilations whenever anyone wants to evoke the grooving 1960s. Such was the commercial success of the record that it set a template for Blue Note for the rest of the decade – small-group records with the leading track in a driving straight-eight feel, followed by a swinging mix of original blowing heads, blues or rhythm changes, and perhaps a standard to round things off. The album marked a high point in the integration of the intricacies of bop with the earthy roots of jazz in blues and gospel, and must have seemed to some to indicate a commercial salvation for jazz; but it also marked the beginning of the end. Rock'n'roll was poised to take over as the music of young America and by 1965 the baton of musically hip standard bearing had passed to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds or James Brown.
'The Sidewinder' is a truly terrific record, without a single wasted note or empty gesture, full of virtuosity lightly worn, by players so utterly immersed in the culture of their music that it seemed they could turn out this material effortlessly – Morgan later claimed that he'd conceived of the title smash as a last-minute filler to complete the session. Yet it's very facility contained the germs of it's own redundancy – audiences at the time were looking for something deeper, more unexpected and less formulaic, that would make grander gestures – the wave of artistic neophilia that had swept the post-war world was breaking into the mainstream. Morgan's hip, polished, harmonically aware funk suddenly seemed to be approaching the corny. Blue Note tried to ride both horses by signing artists like Grachan Moncur, Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers, but their most successful record also heralded a long period of decline into both the commercial and the cultural margins.
Anyone looking for depth, unexpectedness, or grand gestures in the jazz world of 1964 would probably have turned to John Coltrane.Two of his superlative statements. Live At Birdland and Crescent were released that year – the former in particular saw him chafing against the constrictions of harmonic tonality which he had already explored with a thoroughness unmatched by his contemporaries. So titanically, monolithically freighted with significance are Coltrane's later recordings that they can overpower some of the other aspects of this supremely rounded musician – an important composer (Giant Steps is full of memorable tunes sometimes overshadowed by its titular etude), a gifted, velvet-toned interpreter of ballads, an impeccably swinging blues player, and someone who matched Morgan's jukebox 45 hit with one of his own – an instrumental cover of a hit song originally performed by Julie Andrews in the guise of a singing nun. Coltrane gave Morgan a break on Blue Trane but moved much faster than the younger man, and by the end was recording and playing music that some didn't recognise as jazz at all.
The legacy of both men continues to be influential, but in vastly different ways. Most general music fans, when they think of jazz, imagine something like one of the cuts off The Sidewinder – the Blue Note hard-bop sound and house design style have become a sort of benchmark of authentically hip jazz, regaining the popularity that drained away in the late 1960s, so that the name 'Blue Note' is hardly ever divorced from the word 'iconic' in cultural journalism. If Coltrane sought to move beyond the bop idiom he had mastered so fully, Morgan and his cohort preserved it by presenting it's harmonic intricacies in a digestible form that you could even dance to, and it's appeal has endured among audiences even if the artistic standard bearers have moved on. Coltrane, of course would be avowed as by far the greater artist by most musicians, and his multifarous legacy continues to dominate, to the extent that aspects of that dominance are being called into question. Ben Ratliff's book on Coltrane explores how the legacy of his late period masterpieces was interpreted as a cult of sheer volume married to spiritual sincerity among free players that overlooked the way that he himself was steeped in every aspect of the tradition, from blues to bop.
Coltrane's influence reached beyond jazz – the aforementioned Byrds were big fans – and he could be credited with unwittingly promulgating the idea that it's acceptable to solo for 15 minutes over a single chord – an idea seized upon by a generation of rock guitarists – and that meaningful jazz can be effectively approximated by whizzing up and down the dorian mode over a moody minor-key vamp. Pianist Ethan Iverson recently published a fascinating article comparing two 1967 performances of Ellington's 'In A Sentimental Mood' by Bill Evans and Ellington himself (Coltrane recorded a definitive version with the composer in 1963). In it he decried the influence of the scalar approach to jazz on the introductory level, stating: "Bach and Parker built structures based on internal counterpoint, where the melodic impulse was true in every dimension, while Beethoven and Coltrane offered fast-scale passagework over varied textures. The music of Bach and Parker is essentially at one volume and one affect, while Beethoven and Coltrane are able to go from quiet to thunder and back. While it would be foolish to proclaim that Bach and Parker are greater than Beethoven and Coltrane, it is true that Beethoven and Coltrane are easier to imitate (not to mention teach), simply because acquiring the essentially untheatrical craft of Bach and Parker is harder than that of the later, more theatrical masters"
Would it be pushing the analogy too far to compare the music of Morgan to that of Mozart – standing between the rigourous austerity of harmonic counterpoint exploration and the theatrical thunder of passagework and texture, to offer a version dominated by melody and a determination to make music that is rigourously ordered but also pleasing and accessible? Like Mozart, his detractors may accuse his music of being lightweight compared to the intensity of Coltrane, yet part of its lasting appeal lies precisely because it doesn't place such heavy demands upon the listener.
As with all artists whose careers were cut off in their prime, the temptation remains to speculate where their muse would have led them had they lived their full span, and how they might have changed the music we hear today. Morgan combined his bebop sophistication with an earthy, blues-drenched sensibility, which lent his music an easy populist appeal, as the crossover commercial success of The Sidewinder testified. The values that made him a superlative interpreter of what used to be called 'funk' in the 1950s – as in Horace Silver's 'Opus De Funk' – could probably have translated seamlessly into funk as it was understood in the back-beat heavy, Rhodes-drenched 1970s, and he might have challenged Donald Byrd as contender for the R&B groove heavyweight title. Or perhaps the wilder leanings that were hinted at in the Live At The Lighthouse sets would have prevailed, and he might have explored along the boundaries of free and fusion, jazz and rock, that were touched on by frontline partner Bennie Maupin and by Maupin's employer Herbie Hancock during his Columbia tenure, and which found it's deepest and darkest expression in Miles Davies' increasingly opaque series of recordings that started with the release of Bitches Brew two years before Morgan's death. Where Coltrane might have gone next is far harder to guess; such was the lightning speed at which he reset the frontiers of his art that it's hard to imagine him settling into any of the set pathways that jazz followed as the 70s progressed. Afro-haired funkateer, dashiki-clad free blower, bombastic fusion technician, staunch traditionalist – all these roles seem too small to contain him. Perhaps as the end approached he was nearing to his goal, progressing beyond all sound into the silence that surrounds every note and that waits behind every piece of music, and into which all music returns.
Edwards and Castle pursue chaotic pulse at The Verdict
'Crossover' is a word much employed by critics when talking about the current crop of young UK jazz artists, but tonight's event reminds us that cross-fertilisation has been quietly going on in the background of the scene for some time. Both the protagonists have strong jazz credentials – Mark Edwards, for instance, was longtime pianist for the late lamented Bobby Wellins, and you can find Ben Castle providing saxophone for countless recordings with the likes of Lianne Carroll, Jacqui Dankworth and Geoff Gascoyne. The setting is the impeccably jazz-centric Verdict club, and the audience is drawn largely from its pool of devotees. Yet both men can also be found, equally and effortlessly at home, roaming freely across the wider territories of pop and rock, from Radiohead to Katie Melua, and the simply uncategorisable creations of such as Matthew Herbert.
Tonight the stage is festooned with garlands of cables, banks of keyboards, blinking digital displays and dusty analogue effect pedals, giving fair warning that we're not in for an evening of hushed, reverent duo renditions. A typically effusive introduction from host Andy Lavender is immediately sampled and warped into a filtered, pulsing loop – synth arpeggios and streams of electronic bubbles sketch out an open landscape through which Edwards and Castle wander at will, scattering handfuls of half-familiar melody, alternately lushly romantic chords and dark clusters of notes from the piano, squelchy sequenced basslines and scraps of found sound. It's briefly reminiscent of the kind of territory explored by The Orb – but in this MIDI and Ableton-free environment, the tempos shift up and down at random, creating a far more unpredictable climate. All sorts of aural flotsam swirls around in the sonic maelstrom, briefly surfacing before submerging again – bits of 'Autumn Leaves' and 'Pent Up House', what sounds like the theme music to Blankety Blank and a twisted mash-up of Miles Davis and Status Quo. Suddenly everything comes together in an upsurge of ascending chords, and Castle seizes the moment, and demonstrates what a fine player he is, with a wonderful clear tone and clean articulation, as a flood of melodic ideas tumble out over a wash of Vaughan Williams chords, providing an oasis of real beauty.
Set two brings the added delight of Castle on clarinet, dropping fragments of 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' over a pulsing balearic groove – the pair visibly relax and exchange smiles as Edwards manipulates recordings of Trump speeches into horror-movie monster tones over dark synth textures. The magesterial, declamatory melody of Coltrane's 'Resolution' morphs into a nightmarish version of The Archers theme tune, an incident that instigates regrettable outbreaks of onstage corpsing; as if to make amends, 'Coronation Street" is twisted into 'Acknowledgment'. The set finishes with shards of 'Darn That Dream' drifting over spacious, otherwordly electronic tones. There's no encore, of course – "It would take another three hours," explains Edwards – but the rapturous reception to this wholly unpredictable, entirely improvised journey through sound shows how many different sonic avenues can be successfully explored while still carrying the banner of jazz forward.
Boogie at the Bandstand – the Love Supreme low-down
Ahead of the start next week of the fifth edition of the Love Supreme Jazz Festival, Bandstand programmer Eddie Myer previews the exciting emerging artists who'll be performing across the weekend
This year's Love Supreme line-up is the festival's most exciting and eclectic yet, with the trademark mix of big name headliners, led this year by the mighty George Benson and soul-jazz vocal star Gregory Porter, and more esoteric jazz acts, augmented for the first time this year by a new Jazz In The Round stage offering late-night sets from a range of intriguing UK performers. The Bandstand Stagewas described in Jazzwise as "the jazz conscience of the Festival", and it's become a central component in maintaining this musical diversity, creating a platform for a rich mix of local talent and up-and-coming UK artists, and this year it's matching the headline stages in its eclectic appeal.
Programmed by New Generation Jazz, the ACE funded new artists project run by Jack Kendon and myself at Brighton's Verdict club, it features several of the acts who've appeared as part of the New Gen roster – precocious teen trio Zeñel (top right), sax virtuoso Alex Hitchcock (top left), and fusioneers Cesca are all young talents to watch out for in 2018, while Jake Long's Maisha are set to open the Arena Stage on Saturday.
Representing the tradition are Bobby Wellins' longtime bassist Adrian Kendon and piano master John Donaldson, who brings his tribute to Bheki Mseleku to Sunday's line-up, alongside Terry Pack's epically outsized Trees Big Band and George Trebar's cinematic Nighthawks project. New Generation are also presenting Friday's roster on the Arena stage – among them, local supertrio Howes3, crossover stars Jam Experiment and Tru Thoughts signed Afrofunksters Lakuta (above centre). Add in blues from King Size Slim, New Orleans joy from The Old Jelly Rollers, classic swing vocals from Sara Oschlag, big band vibes from Seven, Kaiyote-style nu-soul from Pocket Dragon, the Neon Saints marching band, and NY-based piano prodigy Dave Drake, and you've got a weekend of musical delights waiting to be discovered.
Shobaleader One take drum’n’bass to the dark side (Jazzwise Magazine)
Four figures take to the stage of The Concorde in Brighton, masked and robed like Kendo warriors – the leader slings a mighty matt-black bass over his shoulder and the band smash unhesitatingly into the mutated cop-chase funk of 'Cooper's World'. At the first beat, the masks light up in flashing multi-coloured LED displays that alter with every note they play, chasing across their faces like the console of a 1970s movie spacecraft.
This tour is the second outing for Squarepusher's Shobaleader One and his colleagues Strobe Nazard, Arg Nution and Company Laser with their live interpretations of Squarepusher's studio classics, and it's immediately apparent that this time they are determined to push the awesomeness quotient to the limit. There's so many effects on everything that it's sometimes hard to tell who's playing what – a relentless assault of slap bass and skittering drum breaks, like Level 42 gone over to the 'dark side', sitting beneath howling storms of ring-modulated noise from guitar and keys. Deliberately woozy tempo shifts even suggest the technical chug of death metal, and indicate the levels of musical skill and precision at work behind the sci-fi aliases – the anonymous masked jazzers are among the country's finest progressive players, and the 'Pusher himself is a phenomenal high-velocity bassist as well as being a cult hero to the crowd of frantically moshing drum'n'bass fans.
There's a risk that music this intense will suffer from diminishing returns over a 90-minute set but Laser's incredible energy pushes things along, always managing to take it even higher on surge after surge of pounding drums. Technical problems send a hapless roadie scurrying to the rescue with spare bass amps, but the band rise to the occasion and ride it out, leaving the audience dazed, deaf and ecstatically happy.
Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet
Friday 17th March 2017
The harp has a very marginal history as a jazz instrument, barely even appearing in the ‘miscellaneous instruments’ category in the self-appointed arbiters that are magazine polls. However, it does possess at least one major voice, and one that’s closely linked into the very heart of the tradition; Alice McCleod, otherwise known as Alice Coltrane, released a handful of albums after her husband’s death that placed her unique harp playing at the centre of an idiosyncratic, spiritually charged and highly accessible take on modal jazz. While the cosmic trappings of the presentation of such albums as ‘World Galaxy’ and ‘Universal Consciousness’ may place them very firmly in the context of 1970s Californian counter-culture, the music within has an unflinching directness and powerful emotional intensity that transcends genre, and there’s been a revival of interest that’s seen Alice Coltrane’s work grow in popularity and influence, both within the jazz world from artists such as Matthew Halsall, and far beyond to encompass tributes from such artistically disparate fans as Paul Weller and her own grand-nephew, Flying Lotus.
Alina’s repertoire tonight is based around the classic albums ‘Ptah, the El Daoud’ and ‘Journey in Satchidananda’. The seminal‘Blue Nile’ is the archetype for this style – hypnotic, repetitive, with a stately swinging groove overlaid with sweeping harp glissandos and simple majestic melody. The performance stands or falls by the degree of gravitas which the performers are able to impart – fortunately Tony Kofi on tenor and soprano is the perfect partner, able to switch from searing Pharoah Sanders style intensity to a fluid, mellow tone on demand. His soprano sound is full-voiced and powerful – on tenor he has a gruff intensity and free-flowing melodic sense reminiscent ofBennie Maupin’s work with McCoy Tyner, shedding any traces of standard bop language. Bassist Larry Bartley adds his own imposing physical and sonorous presence to the stage; his contribution is pivotal to the success of the band with his dark tone, and starkly powerful, imperturbably swinging lines recalling Jimmy Garrison. Joel Prime provides tasteful accompaniment on drums, and exotic percussion as necessary. Alina herself attacks the harp with great vigour; her personality fizzes with energy, balancing between a suitably profound seriousness and a sense of barely suppressed hilarity. There’s a composition of her own, showing off the her instrument’s range over a pulsing groove, and a welcome reading of John Coltrane’s seldom-heard ‘Syeeda’s Flute Song’ that shows how the harp can function effectively in a more conventional jazz context, adding colour to a spacious sax-plus-rhythm trio sound. Everyone plays with total commitment and the result is fresh sounding, intense and utterly compelling; a welcome addition to the scene and a great tribute to a long overlooked but increasingly revered artist.
Photo of Alina Bzhezhinska by Rachel Zhang.
Damon Brown International Quartet With Ed Jones Deliver Hard Bop Judgements At The Verdict
15th February 2017
It's a complex web of internationalism that binds this band together; an Englishman, a Scot, an American and a German, all resident across the far east from Singapore to Seoul, joined by a saxophonist from London, and playing here tonight in the warm refuge of The Verdict. Damon Brown is dealing out the classic hand of dry wit introducing hard bop; opener 'My Deposit' is an uptempo cooker with a tricky truncated metric interlude; Sean Pentland on bass and Manuel Weyand on drums whip up a storm as Brown floats cooly above on his battered trumpet, his tone full and clear. Weyand is a terrific drummer, powerful, subtle and swinging. 'Mongolian Bossa' is introduced as "a love song... to a camel", though there's nothing flippant about its carefully constructed harmony. Then 'Han River Tales' features an artfully constructed arrangement that lets the rhythm section show off their aptitude for subtle interplay, powerfully driving behind the horns, pulling the dynamic down to build up again behind Paul Kirby's carefully measured piano solo, breaking down again to a perfectly paced bass statement and then to a drum break which is a masterpiece of control and technique. The pretty hipster standard 'When Sunny Gets Blue' is sung by Brown in an unvarnished baritone; standing forward in the club and singing off-mic, the effect is artlessly, utterly sincere, followed up by a truly breathtaking trumpet solo, a little gem of poise and soul.
Brown and Ed Jones have a long history together. As befits the leaders of an international band, they have the appearance of seasoned voyagers who have weathered many a storm; Brown in particular, a burly figure in knitted cap, hoodie and black-rimmed specs, looks like a bebop trawlerman. As players they're very well matched, both with a tough-but-tender tone that recalls the Harold Land/Clifford Brown partnership; they both specialise in long, logically constructed melodic phrases, driven forward by an unfaltering sense of time and a tone that projects outwards into the room. The set closer is a swinging 6/8 that has the clarion call quality of an Art Blakey classic.
The second set brings a minor key Blue Note-boogaloo named for Harold Land himself, that draws a real tour de force from Brown and sees Jones live up to the tune's namesake with his urgent but perfectly poised contribution. 'Lef And Lee', a tribute to pianist Leon Greening's powerful left mitt, sees intricate bass figures give way to a deep and heavy swing from the rhythm team. Pentland and Weyand really swing like the clappers; Kirby's piano favouring thoughtful harmonic depth over flash and fire, providing an effective contrast with the frontliners. Jones calls 'Out Of Nowhere' and gives a lesson in reading a standard through the art of bop. The evening's highlight though comes with 'I Don't Mind' – an original ballad by Brown with all the grace and wit of the Great American Songbook, the melody seeming to sing the lyrics which Brown himself claims to have forgotten. 'Kit Kat' closes the evening, until crowd pressure brings the band back to deliver a hearfelt 'My Ideal'.
This was a display of unpretentious musical mastery over a noble genre, delivered in exactly the intimate small club setting it was designed for, in front of an appreciative audience – judging by the smiles on the band's faces, a welcome stop-off amid their tireless globe-trotting.
Saxophonist Tim Armacost triumphant at The Verdict
24th February 2017
Tim Armacost is here tonight on one of only three UK dates as part of a Europe-wide tour promoting his new record, Time Being. His last visit to London was as part of the New Standards Quartet, the ideal showcase for his awesome technique and deep familiarity with the classic language of the Great American Music. His latest project is an exploration of the wider-ranging freedoms possible within the sax-plus-rhythm format pioneered by Rollins in the 1950s – a real test of stamina and imagination for the frontman.
After a typically effusive welcome from host Andy Lavender, the trio stampede into 'Alawain' – Austrian drummer Klemens Marktl sets up the kind of loping waltz groove that Elvin Jones deployed so effectively with Coltrane, and Armacost takes flight over the top. His tone light and clear, his articulation amazingly clean and precise, he rides Marktl's boiling polyrhythms, circling round a single repeated note like a predator stalking its prey, suddenly swooping and diving into peals of rippling phrases. Michael Janisch's accompaniment on bass has the solemn, drone-like quality of Jimmy Garrison's work, and there's even a 'Love Supreme' quote from the leader, but where Coltrane's music had the urgent, yearning quality of the unresolved seeker, Armacost offers a contrasting display of almost academic poise and restraint in his controlled tone, clean articulation and the precise confidence of his ideas. It's a bravura start – "Marktl doesn't mess around" says Armacost – and there's no mistaking the powerful musical intelligence on display from the whole trio.
'Time Being' introduces a sombre theme played in unison with the bass – Marktl colours on the kit whilst simultaneously fixing an errant cymbal stand. The tune features Armacost's experiments with multiple tempos, and though the device is used as a brief bridging device rather than the main component it's still an impressive feat to pull off as naturally as the trio make it sound. '1 And 4' has an extended solo intro from Janisch, demonstrating the breadth of his musical imagination with all kinds of extended techniques, slides and whistling harmonics – Armacost switches to soprano, his tone still rounded and mellilfluous and Marktl's brushes solo descends imperceptibly into silence, so that for a split moment he's playing the air. "We love the real acoustic atmosphere", Armacost says appreciatively.
'Darn That Dream' receives a stately treatment benefitting from another typically adventurous statement from Janisch, and the full glory of Armacost's burnished tone. '53rd Street Theme' simply flies, Armacost delivering a Joycean stream-of-consciousness of bop language, never descending into cliché, while the rhythm team perform time-stretching miracles behind him. They end with a display of protracted musical high-jinks that shows that you can take the music as seriously as your life but still retain a sense of humour. 'Teo' is a bop swaggerer, with Marktl on coruscating form and Janisch delivering a tremendous performance, worrying at a phrase and picking it apart, always in flawless time. Kenny Wheeler's 'Mark Time' is played on soprano and with reverence, with Marktl demonstrating an effortless four-way independence on drums.
This is muscular, impressive, impassioned and intense music, hard swinging and fiercely intelligent, but the good-humoured interplay between the three participants in the conversation, and the leader's relaxed confidence, make this a warm affair. They even return to encore a gut-bucket blues, though it's hard to imagine such a clean-cut, urbane trio playing anywhere remotely insalubrious.
Avashai Cohen with the BBC Concert Orchestra at The Barbican
11th February 2017
The evening starts with the restraint and decorum proper to a classical concert – the correct formalities of applause for the first violin and conductor (Bastien Still) are observed, the baton is tapped on the lectern, and the 57-strong orchestra launch into Cohen's compositions 'Noam' and 'Hayo Hayta'. We're placed firmly in the sound world of 19th century romanticism, with a passing suggestion of Gershwin's 'Summertime' emerging briefly from the sweeping strings - the effect is soothing rather than sublime. Avishai Cohen strides on from the wings; pianist Omri Mor and percussionist Itamar Doari follow, black-clad like their leader. After a spoken tribute to his late friend, London promoter John Ellson, Cohen picks up the bass that lies centre-stage and the orchestra launch into a sombre waltz. As the trio starts to play, the sonic focus switches rather abruptly from the subtle acoustics of the orchestra to the band's amplified sound coming through the PA system; but after Cohen's long, virtuosic solo full of shifting Middle Eastern accents, the strings return briefly and the sound becomes more integrated. Next comes a traditional Ladino song passed down from three generations of Cohens; backed by strings and woodwind, Avishai sings very affectingly in a light but powerful alto, and there's another brief exploration from the trio. Then 'Two Roses' takes us into more familiar territory; a pulsating polyrhythmic groove against fleet, complex unison lines from piano and bass, the orchestral arrangement sitting closely with the trio and building up with a rush to a sweeping wordless vocal melody, with Doari kicking up a storm on a hybrid array of jazz, orchestral and eastern percussion instruments that draws the biggest applause of the night so far.
The journey through Cohen's musical multiverse continues with Hank Jones' 'A Child Is Born' – the ingenious rhythm arrangement and lush orchestral texture seems to call out for a vocal from Nat King Cole; it's bold, exciting and poised all at once. There are outstanding solos from Cohen and Mor – on the final beat Cohen hits a clear, powerful bass note and lets go of the bass so that it seems to stand for a second, balanced by it's own resonance. Cohen is a commanding, almost military presence, but the mood softens as he performs an Israeli pop song from his youth and sings straight from the heart; then there's a medley of material from Lebanese singer Samira. The band move effortlessly into the language of the Levant; the string section swoop and soar, the bowed bass echoes the grainy wail of the rabab fiddle, and Mor creates a spectacular solo by imitating the frenetic shimmer of the qanun or Arabic zither on his piano to roars of applause. "In music, everybody gets along – who says I can't play Arab songs?" comments Cohen wryly.
Things are really starting to hot up; 'Morenika' shows off Cohen's power, precision and flawless intonation and builds from compelling groove into a moving coda, with the orchestral writing powerfully integrated with the trio; then 'Alon Basela' explodes into an amazing dumbek solo from Doari before Cohen leaps aboard the stirring theme and rides his bass off into the sunset. The crowd are on their feet for an encore, and Cohen obliges with a bass solo on 'Seven Seas' that demonstrates how, in a world where many hip young musos are busy playing furious, offbeat ostinato grooves in impossible time signatures, Cohen is still the original and best. The crowd won't let him go, and he returns again and again and even offers to take requests. Playing solo, singing and accompanying himself by strumming, tapping and drumming on the bass, standing proudly centre stage, he seems to be channeling all the power of his diverse heritage. After a rather measured start, it's been a captivating journey through the unique world of this immensely talented multi-cultural maverick.
Pianist Dave Drake Finds Common Ground At The Meeting House, Sussex University
January 15th 2017
Manhattan's New School Of Jazz was set up to nurture the well of the jazz tradition as it springs straight from the source; in an age where jazz has increasingly sought the security of an existence on campus, New School remains one of the first and best, and the number of applicants far exceeds the available places. Brighton homeboy Dave Drake has made the journey from local jam sessions, to NYJO alumnus, to New School student, and now returns to his hometown to present a concert of solo pieces.
Sir Basil Spence's dramatic modernist architecture provides a suitably elevating backdrop; a chequerboard of rough concrete and gently glowing stained glass. The concert is entitled 'A Common Ground" and all profits are to go to the Jo Cox Memorial fund. Without waiting for the applause of the crowd of friends and supporters to die down, Dave strides across to the piano, sits and starts playing in a single motion. A tocsin of plangent chords announce a pastoral melody, like Vaughan Williams as filtered through Keith Jarrett. Dave isn't afraid of a simple, appealing tune, but also delights in unexpected shifts of rhythm and register – jagged handfuls of notes drift like petals tossed over deep still pools of bass. The next piece is more overtly rooted in the language of 20th century jazz, with a swaggering left-hand motif somewhere between art house and barrel house. Any lingering idea that the event might capsize under the weight of it's own importance is dispelled as Dave recites an affectingly artless poetic tribute to his little bro, to whom 'The Little Warrior' is dedicated. Again the minor key melody is simple and direct, but there's an angularity or awkwardness, embraced to form an essential part of his artistic character, that's extremely compelling and extirpates any trace of the saccharine. He hits the keys with a tremendous force, especially high up in the right-hand register, drawing a strident, chiming tone from the piano that's all his own. 'Guns in the Hands of Men' references the Black Lives Matter movement; a rising tide of sonorous chords against a right-hand tremolo create a dramatic effect reminiscent of Meldhau. 'Devotion' has a powerfully plaintive theme that takes flight into thrilling cascades of 16th notes, with the feeling of a spontaneous improvisation.
There's further stylistic explorations in the second set – 'Daisaku' is lyrical and swinging. 'Bucharest' has traces of Chopin and Debussy, alternating calm and dissonance to wildly romantic effect, and 'Turning Poison Into Medicine' presents garlands of melody, beautifully executed and controlled. A true internationalist, Dave presents an incongruously wide range of influences, from Soka Gakkai Buddhism to Rudyard Kipling via a recitation of 'If', to a tribute to the late Doudou N'Diaye Rose that attempts to capture some of the rolling polyrhythms of West Africa, before finishing with a rollicking stride piece for an encore, yet the strength of his personal vision ties them together into a compelling whole. There's a powerful sense of his need to communicate and share his musical vision in the most positive way possible, set against a backdrop of awareness of the rapidly increasing stresses and strains at work in the wider world as the 45th US President takes office. The gig is being recorded; an album should be forthcoming before long so watch out for it.
Andrew Bain's Embodied Hope Quartet deal in wish fulfilment at The Verdict
November 8th 2016
Andrew Bain is a truly transatlantic talent, dividing his time between Manhattan and Birmingham UK, with an impressive list of musical and educational attainments behind him. Tonight he's here with his all-American quartet to showcase a brand new opus, underpinned by some weighty philosophical ideas borrowed from a book entitled The Fierce Urgency Of Now that links ideas of musical improvisation to struggles for social change. 'Fierce Urgency' is a perfect description of the opening number – an extended, surgingly romantic rubato with George Colligan's rippling piano and Bain's restless drumming maintaining an exhausting intensity, exhorting Jon Irabagon's saxophone to ever greater heights over Michael Janisch's resonant bowed bass. It's a mixture of the free and the lyrical that recalls Jarrett's American quartet of the 1970s. Then there's a typically wide-ranging solo excursion from Janisch, from which emerges a staccato 7/8 line, that doesn't seem to truly settle until the band hit a fat 4/4 swing and Colligan takes off on a solo of seemingly limitless power and inventiveness. Irabagon shows why he's been constantly topping polls in the US – unfazed by the fastest tempo, slightly ahead of the beat, he can deliver a torrent of the most contemporary language, but tempers it with an attractive mellowness lurking within his diamond-hard, centered tone.
We're being treated to musical interpretations of the seven necessary aspects of embodied hope, as laid down by the guys behind the Fierce Urgency book, and the next offering is another seven metre – a funk with a blues-inflected line reminiscent of Eddie Harris. It's smoking hot solos all round on this one as it breaks into a swinging extended-blues form, but Janisch probably takes the laurels for a staggeringly virtuosic display that leaves no part of the fingerboard unexplored. 'Hope' itself is a celebratory, uplifting melody, developing from a single pulsing note. Bain, his lanky form splayed behind the kit, abandons himself completely to the music, eyes closed and head thrust forward, the picture of transported absorption. His playing is powerful and instantly responsive, and he matches his bandmates in the pinpoint rhythmic accuracy for which New York players are renowned. There's a certain gawky awkwardness to his musical persona – it's probably fair to say that he's not really a groove guy, but the sheer energy of his polyrhythmic flow keeps the music surging forwards.
The second set offers us 'Surprise", a thrilling breakneck-speed slice of swing with Irabagon and Colligan vying for solo honours with superb performances, and 'Listening', a real tour de force going from eerie free explorations to latin-tinged free-bop and some high-energy drum trades. This is an outstanding band with seemingly bottomless reserves of energy and excitement and a strong concept driving the leader – the upcoming recording session should yield some explosive results.