rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
When I was in London last month, I went back to one of my old haunts, the Vortex jazz club in Dalston. I had noticed a tweet from a band I like that they were playing whilst I was in town, booked a ticket, and here I was. Well, after an excellent meal and three bottles of wine with friends. (That was about a bottle of wine each of those drinking. I would notice that the next morning.)

Led Bib are an interesting band. Part of the modern British jazz movement - stable-mates with Polar Bear (and occasional band mates, too) - they have two alto saxes in the front line. Their music is kind of danceable improvised-jazz-funk-dub - with a nod across to Ornette Coleman. I guess that's to be expected with two altos.

It was a great gig.

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rhythmaning: (Saxophone)
Yesterday afternoon, I gave a brief introductory talk to Miles Davis' iconic 1959 album "Kind of Blue". My friends (and current paymasters!) at Edinburgh Jazz Festival were invited to introduce the record to a Sunday afternoon Classic Album session, and, unable to make it, asked if I wanted to do it.

I was naturally very curious. It sounds interesting - I never listen to an album all the way through with no other distraction - and not in such a social setting, either.

I won't write out what I said; much of it was derived (with full credit given!) from Ashley Kahn's excellent "biography" of the record. If you're interested, you've probably already read the book.


my kind of notes...

But it was an interesting experience. I re-read Kahn's book, and played the record through three times in the last week - on digital releases. What was played this afternoon was a vinyl reissue.

Each time I played it, I heard different things. The vinyl yielded more, too. It was played through a very good system. That's A VERY GOOD SYSTEM. One that cost many thousands of pounds: the event was organised by an upmarket hifi shop. It is the first time I have listened to vinyl close up for many, many years.

I was surprised by the rumble of the turntable and the crackle of the vinyl. But the top end speakers (KEF, like my own - not top end, though...) had immense depth. The cymbals and the bass were both crystal clear.

The things that I noticed this afternoon which I hadn't before - and this is a very minority sport! - were
  • Jimmy Cobb moving from brushes to sticks - you could hear him actually picking the sticks up
  • Paul Chambers bowing his bass at the end of one track
  • Miles fluffing a couple of notes.

I noticed Miles' bum notes because I'd been listening out for them when playing the record during the week. And I hadn't heard any.

Miles Davis was a genius. Really. The greatest trumpet player one could hear. But his genius didn't necessarily lie in his technical ability. If you listen to much of his output, you will hear duff notes. "Porgy and Bess" is full of them, for instance.

I reckon that the slow tempo of many of the tunes on "Kind of Blue" favoured Miles' soloing, reducing the technical needs and eradicating bad notes. I didn't hear any listening to my digital version of the album during the week.

I was therefore very amused to hear a couple creep in when listening to the vinyl.

I haven't played much vinyl for fifteen years or so, and not at all for at least five years. I still have a turntable, but it is in a box upstairs, and it hasn't left it's box since 2007.

I can't honestly say I noticed the difference vinyl made. The rumble of the turntable; surface noise between tracks; a scratch - yes, a scratch on virgin vinyl! - in Miles' second solo in "Flamenco Sketches": Sod's law demanded it be in a quiet, contemplative passage.

Maybe the music had more depth than I get playing my iPod through my old but pretty good hifi; it maybe that was the speakers or amp...

People seemed pleased with what I said in my introduction. I think it would be possible to talk for hours about "Kind of Blue"; I probably have - though not this afternoon. As well as books being written about the record, Google suggests many people have written PhDs about it, too.

I tried to keep it to about fifteen minutes or so - just a bit of context. One of the things about "Kind of Blue" is that it is the jazz record that people that don't like jazz like. (People that DO like jazz rave about it. As you may have noticed...) I asked the audience of forty or so people how many considered themselves jazz fans - about ten people stuck their hands up. But thirty of them had a copy of the record!

All in all, a fascinating experience. Just listening to music - and nothing else - is so rare; doing so in a social situation felt almost privileged.

And maybe I should dig out my vinyl...
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At the end of October and the beginning of November, it felt like I was practically living at the Queens Hall: I went to four concerts there in two weeks.

First up were two jazz gigs: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played a concert of Ellington pieces, and a week later I saw Tommy Smith's Karma. (Smith is also director of SNJO.) The Ellington gig started off a bit delicately, as if the repertoire was more important: it felt very much like they were reading rather than playing, the dots being a bit precious. But they stretched out at the end of the first set with a great version of "Rockin' in Rhythm" which laid the foundations for a roaring second set. They played tunes from the whole of Ellington's (and Strayhorn's) career - from "Harlem Airshaft" through to some tunes from The Queen's Suite, the Nutcracker Suite and the Peer Gynt Suite. "Single Petal of A Rose", from the Queen's Suite, was a gorgeous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock, pianist for the night (who was on great form all night). They closed the second set with storming "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", with Smith blowing chorus after chorus in the role made famous by Paul Gonsalves.

I last saw Smith's Karma quartet in last year's London Jazz Festival when they played a single, truncated set. I had felt a bit ambivalent about the band, so the opportunity of seeing them play a full gig seemed interesting. I am still ambivalent: the playing was superb, particularly Steve Hamilton on keyboards, but every time they got going, the rhythm or the tempo would change. It felt like 1980s prog, as if they couldn't let their playing alone long enough to get on with the music. Very fiddly.

A few days later, Angela Hewitt played a concert of solo piano pieces by Bach. The second half was taken up with (I think) twelve pieces from The Art of Fugue. It was exquisitely beautiful and at times quite jazzy, but despite Ms Hewitt explaining that bits were improvised, it also felt formulaic - inasmuch as it was clear what would happen next. Programmed music, perhaps.

The last concert of my self-curated series was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the (erm) wackiest. I have been aware of Matthew Herbert's role as a big band composer for a long time, though I only have one of his recordings, and he has recently got a new job, so when I saw his show "One Pig was coming to Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to see it. It was - well, hard to describe. Musically, the nearest experience I have to it was a concert of "industrial music" created by chainsaws and sledgehammers that I saw in one of Edinburgh's cathedrals about 30 years ago. (It might have been Test Dept; which, I read, were founded by Alistair Farquharr, who went on the form NVA who produced "Speed of Light". A definite feeling of connectedness...) "One Pig" was music, but of a strange, different kind. It was even danceable, but - well, noise.

There wasn't much to look at: a drummer sitting at a kit of electronic drum pads (Tom Skinner, who I'd seen playing avant garde jazz before), an electronic keyboard player, and two people (including Herbert) operating computers. The fifth member, Yann Seznec, stood in the middle of the stage enclosed within what looked like a boxing ring: this was what Herbert called the "sty-harp", created by Seznec. (This post describes how you could make one of your own.) Seznec pulled on the strings to interact with the sounds: much of the sound in "One Pig" was sampled from the pig; its bones used to make percussion instruments, its skin used as the head of a drum. The sty-harp as well as the computers and samplers operated by Herbert changed the sounds coming from other sources - the drums and the keyboard. It was difficult to tell what was actually making the noises - there was little to connect the musicians' actions to the sounds they created.

Towards the end of the piece, a chef appeared behind the musicians and started to cook some pork (not the one pig, I hope - that was slaughtered some months ago), the sounds from the frying pan sampled and used in the music.

But the strangest effect came at the end: the noises stopped and Herbert sang a simple song, accompanied by an untreated piano. It was startling and jarring. A most curious concert.
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Suddenly it is nearly two months on from Edinburgh International Jazz Festival; so I really ought to get my thoughts down on this year's festival. (And in another week it'll be time for Islay, too...)

I thought it was a pretty good festival this year: ten gigs in ten evenings, and only one which I didn't really rate - most of the gigs were excellent, and one superlative that I'll be very lucky if it isn't my "gig of the year"; a mixture of local talent and international stars; small bands and big bands; and a range of styles.

Big Bands

The two big bands I saw were playing from the repertoire and, I think, both were essentially one-off projects for the festival - at least, neither seems to have much presence outside the festival.

The first up was the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra, playing the music of Gil Evans. The third such gig in a year (after Mark Lockheart's leading the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble in the music from "Out of the Cool" and, on Gil's one hundredth birthday, his son Miles playing first trumpet with the London Jazz Orchestra performing music from "Miles Ahead") - all of which were wonderful gigs, not least because it is just such a pleasure to hear music familiar through recordings played live. The Edinburgh Festival Jazz Orchestra, lead by Tim Hagans, had wanted to play Evans' "The Individualism of Gil Evans", but they couldn't source the charts - instead they played a first set of Evans' early work - arrangements of bebop tunes for Claude Thornhill, mostly - and a glorious second set of "Sketches of Spain", complete, with Hagans taking the lead trumpet part. It was a pleasure all the way - the music sounded fresh and vibrant, the orchestra bringing the music alive.

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The second big band was the World Jazz Orchestra under local boy Joe Temperley playing the music of Duke Ellington. And, in his slipstream, Billy Strayhorn, too. Temperley also had some problems with the charts - they hadn't made it across the Atlantic (along with his suit and his wife!). This meant that the band leaned on standards more than they had anticipated - though Ellington produced enough of those. For the first couple of numbers it seemed as if they were coasting somewhat, and it wasn't clear what Temperley was bringing to the bandstand. But then he started playing - mellifluous baritone sax and bass clarinet - and it all clicked: his reeds made all the difference. The highlight was a gorgeous version of "Single Petal of a Rose" - quite magical.

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International Bands

The one gig that didn't work for me was the Jeremy Pelt Quintet's headlining show. It might have been because it was in a tent and there was a lot of spillage from neighbouring gigs; or because it was a windy evening - which, coupled with the tent, caused a lot of interfering flappage; or maybe because the band were jetlagged. Whatever, it didn't really catch. I don't think it help that the following first chorus was a long bass solo. It just felt like the show lacked energy.

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I saw the same band the following evening - and it felt like a different band: full of energy this time, they seemed excited to be playing, and that excitement spilled over. Which just goes to show that every band can have an off-night - but that might be the one chance that punters get to see you, and that is all they can go on...

I hadn't planned to go to the second night of Jeremy Pelt - though I'm glad I did. They were supporting the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman; I was going to see the Bad Plus the following evening and I have been disappointed by previous collaborations with the Bad Plus (their trio work makes for a very high hurdle), but since I had never seen Redman I decided to go along. This was a very good decision: this music played was the most engaging and exciting I had heard for a long time. The Bad Plus have been touring with Redman during the summer, and he fitted in seamlessly - it felt like he had been part of the group for a long time. His presence seemed didn't inhibit the trio at all, adding more depth. As a quartet they created marvellous music, by turns powerful, moving and humorous. (This video of one number from the gig is typical of their playing.)

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After such a superlative performance, the Bad Plus as a trio the following evening could only be disappointing. Their performance was very good, but it just couldn't match up. This was not the band's fault: if I felt pretty drained after the superlative performance of the night before, how must they have felt? Perhaps I shouldn't have gone to the gig; but then I'd always have felt I was missing out...

There were two gigs which mixed up Scottish and European musicians. First up was Laura MacDonald and Joakim Milder, together with Mattias Stahl on vibes. Stahl stole the show: the two saxophonists played some lovely music, but the vibraphonist stole the show. Without a pianist or drummer, much of the rhythm-duties fell on Stahl's shoulders.

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Trumpeter Colin Steele and pianist Dave Milligan - one of Scottish jazz's little known heros - played an all too short duet - just a couple of numbers, which left me feeling a little short changed (Steele and Milligan work very well together!). Before, that is, Enzo Favata and his trio took to the stage and opened the way for something more interesting still. With Danilo Gallo on bass and U. T. Gandhi on drums, the saxophonist lead an energetic exploration of the space between jazz and folk improvisation, with music with its roots in (he said) Sardinia and southern Italy. It got more interesting still when the trio was joined by Steele and Milligan for a full set of exciting jazz. Much of Steele's music is tinged with folk from the celtic fringes - his big band Stramash is active at the crossroads between jazz and folk - and Milligan has played in many folk settings. Together as a quintet, playing tunes from both their repertoire, they proved music as a universal language: each brought something different, to create an evening that felt unique. Steele and Favata had a natural ease together - their styles, though different, blended superbly. This was exciting because it was unexpected.

Scottish Bands

Steele's own quintet played a cracking gig on their own account. With Milligan on piano, Michael Buckley on tenor, Stu Ritchie on drums and Callum Gourlay on bass, Steele played his familiar, celtic post-bop with verve and panache. He is an exciting player - lots of high notes - with space for the contemplative, too. My one quibble is that the music was a bit too familiar - some new tunes would have livened up the mix even more.

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Supporting Steele was the Konrad Wiszniewski Quartet, with Euan Stevenson on piano and the powerhouse drumming of Alyn Cosker driving the quartet from behind. Wiszniewski has a full, powerful saxophone sound, with a very slight tendency towards saxophone-histrionics (as many tenor players have!). Stevenson played Tyner's role, supporting Wiszniewski with lots of block chords and rhythmic solos. Wiszniewski played tenor and a curved soprano, the saxophone looking almost toylike in his large hands.

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Altoist Martin Kershaw opened the festival with his quartet of Paul Harrison (excellent on piano), Doug Hough on drums and Euan Burton on bass. Kershaw's music is intelligent and thoughtful, his tunes often inspired by works of literature or art. Much of this show came from his latest album The Howness, with numbers based on his reaction to Mervyn Peake and Philip Larkin, as well as tunes from earlier projects like his reworking of Charlie Parker pieces.

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After ten nights at the jazz festival, the next bit of culture I went to was... a jazz gig! This was a one-off gig at Summerhall, opening their Fringe festival programme - though the rest of the fringe hadn't kicked off by then. Summerhall used to be the veterinary school, and the main space was formerly the dissection lecture hall. Former firebrand Archie Shepp has mellowed slightly, his music solidly based in the blues and much more accessible than his free-playing from the 1960s and 1970s. Playing both soprano and tenor, and with just Tom McClung on piano in support, Shepp played a couple of great sets in front of a very appreciative audience. This music felt rooted in the tradition - Shepp played a couple of Ellington numbers - but also completely modern. McClung's piano was unobtusive but solid, and he too summoned up the spirit of McCoy Tyner at times.

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There's a debate about photography at jazz gigs over on LondonJazz. A lot of people don't like it - understandably. It is a topic that has been on my list to write about for a while...

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Here was my comment:
It is not professional v amateur photographers: it is people who show consideration to others in the audience against those who believe they have a right to disturb others.

I frequently take photographs at gigs. I believe I am sufficiently sensitive to the music to minimise disturbance to those around me: my camera's screen is switched off so there is no light pollution, the autofocus aid is switched off so there are no red dots illuminating musicians, I don't hold my camera above my head to get in the way of those behind me, nor do I stand (unless it's a standing gig!).

I don't take photographs in quiet passages with my SLR, I NEVER use flash (musicians hate it - it momentarily blinds them, dreadful if they are reading the music), I try to time my photograph to the beat and, most importantly, if I feel I will disturb anyone, I don't take don't take the picture. If it is apparent I am disturbing those around me, I stop.

If possible (ie small gigs!), I ask the musicians if they mind me taking pictures - I have only once been asked not to, because the musician in question wanted to control copyright of his image, and I happily complied.

Several musicians have told me how much they appreciate the photos I have taken: several have used them on their websites or CD covers.

I have frequently been disturbed at gigs by those given official sanction to take photographs - you may call them professional, but their attitude to the audience is one of disdain: they move around during numbers, get in people's way and make a lot of noise. They often appear uninterested in the music.

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I could - maybe should - have added that if anyone asks me to stop, I do. It has only happened once. Years ago, using my old (non-digital, heavy, loud) SLR, I was taking pictures at a gig. The stranger next to me asked if I was actually going to take any - I had taken about 30, but she hadn't been aware of the shutter at all.

There is a certain hypocrisy about venues asking people not to take pictures and then letting "professional" photographers wander around taking pictures.

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The Cockpit Theatre in London has been hosting a new, monthly jazz night, hosted and (I think) curated by Jez Nelson, called Jazz in the Round - because the audience sit on all sides. A square rather than a round, but hey.

This makes it a pretty intimate venue - it seats about 200, but it feels much smaller. That said, it is a theatre rather than a club: it has a different, distinct feel. Nelson has a specific agenda, too - to mix things up. he aims for each event to have both familiar and less familiar names; he doesn't expect everybody to like it all.

For three bands a night, he charges only £7, all of which apparently goes to the musicians. (Personally I don't understand why they don't set the price to £10 - I bet they'd get the same number of people paying, and the musicians would get more money. I doubt anyone would object to paying less than the price of a pint of beer more.) One of the bands is a solo artist.

Strangely, there are no encores.

By chance, I've reviewed both nights for the LondonJazz blog. The first evening I bumped into Sebastian, who runs LondonJazz, who couldn't stay and asked me if I could put something together; the second, I'd been tweeting about the gig, and Sebastian again asked if I could write another review.

Being in the round means that there are always some musicians who are not facing you; which makes photography a bit of a challenge! It is hard to work out where is the best place to sit, since the different bands face different directions. Someone will always have their back to you. The bands seems to like the set up, though - it is unusual for them to have so much contact with each other and with the audience.

The first Jazz in the Round featured Blacktop - Steve Williamson on saxes, Orphy Robinson on vibes and Pat Thomas on keyboards and electroncs. Free improvisation - pretty exciting, one-off and original. Plus wacky electronic noises...

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The second night had a beautiful solo set by pianist Andrew McCormack, and then the somewhat bizarre - but very exciting - Sons of Kemet, featuring Shabaka Hutchins on saxes, Oren Marshall on tuba and Seb Rochford on drums... and Tom Skinner on drums! (The first night had not one drummer; they were clearly trying to go two better.) Amazing, but pretty hard to describe music.


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More jazz... Brass Jaw in Finchley. At an arts' centre. Where they were advertising their Christmas show, "The Gruffalo's Child"...

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Read more... )

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Still trying to catch up with things I meant to post about - and getting further behind... - I spent a lot of time at the London Jazz Festival last November - something like fifteen gigs over ten days.

I took a lot of photographs.


Here are my favourites... )

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(An edited version of this review appeared on LondonJazz last week. With fewer photos.)

Part of the Spitalfields Music Festival, this gig felt more like a rock than jazz gig. It was standing-only in a large, barn-like space in Shoreditch; the audience seemed decades younger than most jazz crowds; and there were large stacks of speakers on stage. And they started dead on time, unheard of for a jazz gig… (So I missed the first fifteen minutes!)

Neil Cowley Trio were first up, and they lived up to the billing of their second album, “Louder… Louder… Stop!” They were loud, and they tailored their set to their louder, more rocky numbers. This was high-energy music, and they got people dancing at the front – not your usual jazz crowd! Cowley’s physical, percussive piano playing and Evan Jenkins’ powerful drumming dominated the sound, sometimes overwhelming new bassist Rex Horan’s playing. By concentrating on their more dynamic, louder tunes from all three of their albums as well as some new material, the trio sounded a little one dimensional – including some of Cowley’s more subtle, contemplative pieces would have added a bit of variety. But it was hard to fault their performance – this was a great set.

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Polar Bear have a completely different aesthetic: from the start, their set was dominated by Seb Rochford’s off-kilter drumming – his bass drum laid down patterns pushing the music along. They created brooding ambient jazz-dub soundscapes, the double-tenor sax frontline of Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham often working as much against each other as in unison. This felt like crazy reggae created by Ornette Coleman: slow and intense, but still danceable. Much of the time Tom Herbert’s bass was lost in the mix, though he played an extended solo.

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Polar Bear’s music felt cutting edge and experimental at the same time as harking back forty years to early Pink Floyd or Popol Vuh: they sounded like the soundtrack to an apocalyptic movie, dark and moody. There was humour there as well, as “Leafcutter John” Burton added a range of textures, from choppy guitar through electronic noise to complementing the saxes by playing a balloon – a playfulness that was startling in its effectiveness. Polar Bear create a curious mixture, but it worked superbly on Tuesday night.

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It was a cold, gloomy evening before Christmas when I wandered to the relatively local King's Head pub to see Chris Biscoe. The saxophonist is one of my favourite British musicians, and I reckoned if he were to play in my back yard, I ought to do him the honour of turning up and supporting him. (Some might call this "community". I'm sure they'd be wrong...) I am very glad I did.

Firstly, the music was great: the quartet were playing the music of Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. I love Mingus' music. Dolphy's I find a lot harder: free-er, it isn't music that I listen to at home; it requires full attention. Live, though, free jazz comes into its own. And this band played it very well. (As a measure of its freedom, most of Dolphy's tunes seemed to include the word "Out": I have "Out to Lunch" and listen to it often; I didn't know "Out There" or any of the other Outs that were played.)

But secondly, I was glad to be there to support the music I love. Because when the band started, the audience numbered just six, including me. Only six people could be arsed to go out and here these great musicians play such brilliant music?

By the end of the evening, there were twenty or so in the audience.

I don't know why so few people were there. It was coming up to Christmas, so people were busy. It was a grotty night - I nearly didn't go out, so manky was the weather. It was a one-off jazz gig in a pub more famed for its comedy club. Who knows why else?

Frankly, that so few people were there made it feel rather special: there was no distance between the band and the audience. Jazz gigs are often low-key affairs where the musicians chat to the audience in the interval, but this felt like it was in my front room. (If my front room were a basement bar... Now that's an idea!) I felt so strongly that I wanted to support the music that I bought Biscoe's latest CD. And lots of beer. (Complete self-sacrifice, obviously.)

So: a great gig, bizarrely unattended.

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The London Jazz Festival finished last weekend, and seven days on, it seems like a good time to take stock. I went to nine paid-for gigs, two free gigs which I had planned to see, I caught a couple of free gigs which I hadn’t planned, and a couple of other free events. I had a busy ten days – possibly too busy: it felt like trying to cram six months’ live jazz into ten days – and many clashes: the curse of the festival. I had to chose what music to miss as well as what to see.

I deliberately experiment with LJF: whilst I go to some gigs where I know the musicians’ work (and expect to enjoy the gig), I also seek out people I haven’t seen before or who are doing things I haven’t heard before. I also seek out artists I’m unlikely to get a chance to see at other times of the year – this means that my selection is skewed towards foreign “big name” artists rather than London-based musicians. (Though I have long decided not to see artists just because I think they are likely to die: I saw Art Blakey the year before he died for this reason, and I wish I hadn’t – he was a shadow of his former self, and that’s not how I want to remember my heroes.)

All in all, then, it was an eclectic mix of musicians and styles over the ten days.

I started off with Manu Katché. Part of the festival’s French programme (there was a fair bit of jazz nationalism this year: there were French, Danish and Scottish streams – it somehow seems a bit against the grain to me, since I see jazz as an inclusive art form, encompassing peoples regardless of race or origin), he played with a quartet with saxophone as the lead instrument. Though Katché is a drummer, this wasn’t a drum-heavy sound, but it somewhat lacked the full balance of his recorded work. His drums sounded great from the back of the Royal Festival Hall – a rarity, since they are often mixed to mud in large halls. I enjoyed this set, but I didn’t think it was great music.

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After a fascinating session by musicians Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchins exploring the roots and evolution of jazz (part of the festival’s free education programme, they had two conversations over two days – these were a really interesting couple of afternoons), I ventured out to Kingston for Andy Sheppard’s Movements in Colour and Didier Malherbe’s Hadouk Trio. I wrote about this gig for the LondonJazz blog, so I won’t repeat myself here. This was very “world” tinged jazz. Malherbe’s band were interesting, lively and unexpected; Sheppard’s more – well, chilled. It is no surprised that they record on ECM – they have that very cool, European sound. Despite Sheppard’s excellent – though controlled – sax playing, the star for me was bassist Arild Andersen. I’d go a long way to see him play.

Which I did the next day, venturing across London to see him play with John Etherdige and John Marshall. This was just a brilliant gig. It covered a range of moods, from relaxed to energetic, whilst maintaining a cohesive voice. Both Andersen and Etheridge used electronic looping to construct tracks to play along to, building up the layers of sound. They were, frankly, great. Marshall added so much – playing without amplification (the Bull’s Head, though one of London’s foremost jazz venues, is still really just a pub…), he was simultaneously subtle and powerful. This gig was just wonderful – they played exciting, adventurous music. Exactly as I expected.

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Monday night was one where my high expectations weren’t fully met. It started with John Scofield in a trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, his regular rhythm section. (Last time I saw Swallow play, it was with Andy Sheppard…) They played a mixed set of standards and Scofield’s tunes – a couple of their standard ballads were exquisite – and all three were excellent. The disappointment came with the second set, which matched Scofield with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra - and only because I was really looking forward to it! Playing arrangements of Sco’s tunes and some from his time with Miles Davis, it felt at times as if Sco and the SNJO were pulling in different directions – as if Sco’s loud guitar was fighting with the orchestra. Knowing both Sco and SNJO’s music, this seemed like such a waste: Sco’s record Quiet has some beautiful, haunting brass arrangements, and those commissioned by SNJO didn’t really match up.

There were some great moments – Ryan Quigley on trumpet, Martin Kershaw on alto and Alyn Cosker on drums all played good solos, and Tommy Smith, SNJO’s director, was on his usual fine form, but this was just a good rather than great gig.


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Next up was Frech pianist Martial Solal in a solo gig. This was one of my wild cards, and I’m very glad I went. In the refined setting of the Wigmore Hall, Solal played a fascinating set of standards. He took a theme, dissected it, and then took off in all sorts of new directions, time and time again, in ways which reminded me of his compatriot Michel Petrucciani in his approach to the music, if not his playing style. This was quite dense music – Solal filled all the space – and it was not easy to identify what he was playing: in the interval, the people sitting behind me ran off a list of tunes they had heard, none of which I heard! What I heard over the two sets included Autumn Leaves, My Funny Valentine, Autumn Leaves, Caravan, Round Midnight, Well You Needn’t, In A Sentimental Mood, Satin Doll and All The Things You Are. Solal barely spoke to the audience, and at times it felt a bit like a classical recital – perhaps because of the venue. But there was also something very personal about Solal’s music: it was like he was sharing some secrets with us. He was brought back for several encores, joking before the third “…I like to play the piano!” This gig was a joy as Solal explored these tunes for all he was worth leading us down unexpected byways. Marvellous stuff.

After a (well deserved…) night off, two more pianists featured in a double bill. I wrote this gig for LondonJazz, too. First came Curios, a British trio featuring pianist Tom Cawley. Curios’ music left lots of space; Geri Allen’s just the opposite, as she filled every moment with notes. She had name checked Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner, and the influences were clear. This was one of my “experimental” gigs – I’d seen Allen before, but never solo, and she was performing in collaboration with a filmmaker. It wasn’t wholly successful, but it was very interesting. The music felt very intense; the encore, based on music by Charlie Parker, was lighter and more playful.

Before the main gig, I caught a free duo set by Scots saxophonist, flautist and piper Fraser Fyfield and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Whilst their roots were clearly in traditional Scottish music, they were also improvising. Fyfield’s piping sounded like a heavily peated whisky – this was heady stuff. I liked it so much I bought the CD!

Another double-bill followed: well, Louis Moholo-Moholo followed by Louis Moholo-Moholo… Actually a triple bill: first was Jez Nelson interviewing Moholo about his experiences as a black musician in apartheid South Africa (alternately surreal and harrowing) and then as an exile in Europe, playing with the Blue Notes, the Brotherhood of Breath and a wealth of free-jazz players. This was followed a duet set by Moholo and pianist Keith Tippett – half an hour or more of imaginative, inspiring improvisation. The second set was Moholo’s septet commemorating his birthday, “Seven for Seventy”. This band made a glorious sound, mixing township rhythms with improvisation. Featuring Jason Yarde and Ntshuks Bonga on saxes, Henry Lowther on trumpet, free-jazz firebrand John Edwards on bass, Alex Hawkins on piano and Francine Luce on vocals, this was a great band. Moholo was pushing them forward from the drum-stool, full of energy – quite how he can keep up that force and power at 70 is beyond me. This was definitely one of my favourite gigs of the festival, together with the John Etheridge Trio – things that I was really pleased to have seen!

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I caught a couple of numbers by Brass Jaw in a free set at the Royal Festival Hall, but I was a bit passed it by that time. They sounded good, and it’s great they are getting recognition – they are fine musicians – but I had had enough for a Saturday night.


The Bad Plus were playing a three-night residency at Kings Place, one of the more original bits of programming during the festival. They did one night on their own, one night with singer Wendy Lewis (which had excellent reviews on Twitter!) – and the night I saw them, with Django Bates. This was one of the gig I must post in the “good but disappointing category”: I’ve seen the Bad Plus play many times, and I was looking forward to hearing their augmented quartet tackling some of the tunes I love; what I got was ninety minutes of, I think, wholly improvised music. Some of it was inspired, some very good, but a fair chunk sounded self indulgent, too. A bit like they were trying too hard. Pianist Ethan Iverson seemed to take a backseat to Bates – Iverson seemed very reticent, as if he wasn’t wanting to get involved in the music. Bates pushed forward, with Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King being as inventive as I expected. I wanted more Iverson, though.

The last day I took advantage of more free music – in both senses of the term. There was a triple bill down at the Festival Hall – or, at least, I saw three bands... The first was a trio of Steve Lawson on bass, Otto Fischer on guitar and Tony Buck on drums. This trio didn’t grab me much – it seemed a bit like they were each playing their own thing without adding to each other; perhaps I couldn’t just make sense of it.

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They were followed by Shabaka Hutchins on clarinet, Tony Bevan on sax, Phillip Barre on bass and Tom Skinner on drums. This grabbed me much more – Bevan and Hutchins played some fiery solos, Barre and Skinner pushed things along. This was much more exciting.

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Best of all, though, was Orphy Robinson’s Cosmic Raw Xtra Four. I saw Orphy’s Cosmic Raw Xtra big band last year, and that was a brilliant gig. This quartet was quite different: with Lawson on bass and Fischer on guitar, and the great Steve Noble on drums, Robinson created some amazing music. It was a step above the rest – brilliant vibes and steel pan from Robinson, and energetic drums from Noble. They were all together: they played as a unit, not four individuals. It was a really exciting end to the festival.

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Islay is a special place. It is an island – so you have to really want to be there: it takes some planning and effort to actually make the trip. It is famous for its whisky – it now has eight distilleries, producing a wide range of spirits – and its bird life. And for one weekend each year, it is home to a jazz festival.

Which makes it a very special event indeed.

The island is large, but has a small population – 3,000 or so; and it has no ordinary venues – no jazz clubs or concert halls. Instead, concerts are housed in unconventional surroundings – previous years have seen gigs in the Round Church and the bottling room of a distillery (one of my favourite all time venues!); this year they went to several distilleries and the island’s bird sanctuary.

The festival starts on a Friday evening; but it really starts on the Friday lunchtime ferry across. The boat was packed with punters, musicians, and the festival’s organisers, waiting anxiously to make sure the musicians actually make it. There was a audible sigh of relief when, with moments to spare, the last musician on the list turned up. (Though one musician was stranded on the island for the return trip, having gone to the wrong port!)

Others fly to Islay, though they miss the grandeur of the trip, leaving the hills of the mainland, passing islands before the ferry sneaks through Caol Ila (the strait, not the whisky) between Islay and Jura. It is a wonderful way to travel.

The way it works – more or less – is that a couple of more famous musicians are booked – people from the London scene, Europe or the States – and then a load of Scottish musicians come across (usually from Glasgow or Edinburgh). The ferry is a bit of a jazz Ark, because essentially there are two of each instrument. The programme basically mixes everyone up: lots of scratch gigs, and by the end of the weekend one has seen most of the musicians several times. Musicians and punters hare around the island from venue to venue.

The first gig was a duo between (Scottish) pianist Paul Harrison and the visiting US alto player Jesse Davis at the Lagavulin distillery. Lagavulin were sponsoring the festival this year, which meant they handed out ample drams at each gig – this is a very good thing! (Though I’d have been as happy if it had been Bowmore, or Bruidladdich, or Buhnnahaven, or… well, they’re all good whiskies!) Davis and Harrison opened with “I Want To Be Happy”, which seemed like a pretty good philosophy for a jazz festival. Davis, who’s been to Islay before and seems to like it there, is an altoist in the bebop-Bird mold, bringing a soulful, bluesy feel to the slower numbers; Harrison can play in a lot of different styles (from funk to free), and his accompaniment was suitably bluesy, too. A great start to the festival!

The other “guest” was pianist Zoe Rahman, up from London. All her gigs were in the Bowmore gaelic centre, which housed a grand piano for the weekend. It seemed a bit like she sat there as a stream of some of Scotland’s best jazz musicians flowed through. First up later on Friday evening were bassist Mario Caribe, drummer Stu Brown, tenor player John Burgess and trumpeter Colin Steele. Caribe is a bit of an Islay fixture, the only musician to have been at every jazz festival – this was the twelfth. This quintet had only met an hour or so before the gig but they quickly built a rapport. Caribe and Brown became Rahman’s rhythm section for the weekend. Brown took a bit of warming up, but he got better with each gig. Caribe was excellent throughout, combining subtlety with energy – a great passionate player. Rahman was great throughout the festival, too. Burgess brought his muscular toned saxophone, whilst Steele added the pyrotechnics. They played several of Caribe’s numbers, including a couple from his Islay suite, written for the 10th anniversary of the festival. An interesting combination.

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Saturday lunchtime saw John Burgess leading a quartet at Lagavulin, with Harrison on piano, Caribe on bass (looking very cool in his dark glasses – the lights were pointing straight at him!) and Doug Hough on drums. Burgess played both tenor and clarinet. A set of standards with a couple of Burgess’s tunes thrown in, this was a fun, slightly light set. Harrison played some great solos, Caribe really swung, and Burgess tried the set the gig on fire – in a shirt to match.

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I skipped the afternoon gig, choosing to walk in the rain instead (not a great decision…) before getting to Bowmore for a trio gig with Rahman, Caribe and Brown. Playing a bunch of standards as well as Caribe’s and Brown’s tunes, this was a lovely gig. Caribe shone once more, and he and Raman worked really well together – there was real musical chemistry going on. A couple of the tunes came from a suite written by Brown for Islay last year (I wasn’t there…), about the birdlife – a drunken swan, a lonely egret. It was all lovely stuff.

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The late night show on Islay is a thing of legend. I’d not been before, but I decided to stay in Bruichladdich so I could sample Colin Steele’s Melting Pot. The gig started later than its usually late start because so many people were trying to cram into the village hall. It was packed until there were no more chair, and packed a bit more. It was wonderful to hear Steele and co in such a different vibe: this time they were playing the most soulful of soul jazz. Subie Coleman sang, and she’s got a really bluesy voice, way down low. Andy Sharkey’s bass was simultaneously solid and funky – his sense of soul-time was immaculate. Steele and Phil Bancroft were a fiery frontline. I left at the interval, missing out on the party as the space cleared by those heading to their beds was apparently filled by dancers.

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Sharkey was back on bass fort Davis’ quartet lunchtime outing at Ardbeg, another enjoyable set of standards.

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But it was the following gig, Caribe, Rahman, Steele and Bancroft back at Bowmore which was the highlight of the weekend. Caribe opened with an exquisite, slow solo piece bearing a melancholy beauty; I’d love to hear him play an entirely solo set. Then he was joined the other musicians in a variety of combinations – bass and piano, then trumpet added, then sax. Rahman played a couple of solo numbers, and then the quartet finished their session together. This was marvellous music making.

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There were two more gigs, a lively trio set by altoist Martin Kershaw with Andy Sharkey and Doug Hough, and a great tribute to Cannonball Adderley with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”, featuring Steele, Kershaw, Caribe, Harrison and Hough. They make the musicians work hard at Islay…

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Over a month ago, I went to one of the best gigs of the year so far. I’ve been meaning to write about ever since, but other things seemed to get in the way…

The gig was Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra, the final night of Ronnie Scott’s celebration of British jazz. The Denys Baptiste Quartet were on first, and they played an excellent set of new tunes – some fine playing by all concerned, with great solos by pianist Andrew McCormack and Baptiste. They played some very enjoyable music. Baptiste has lots of ideas and an interest in science and complexity: one number was called Fractal Realms, another Quantum Sax. Schrodinger’s sax, perhaps…

In some ways, though, it was a shame that Baptiste was supporting Colin Towns: as far as I was concerned, it was very much Towns’ night. Towns’ 18 piece Mask Orchestra were crammed onto the stage, with Towns conducting from the front row of the audience together with some of the saxes.

It was an all-star band, featuring some of the best of British jazz, including Guy Barker and Henry Lowther on trumpets, and Alan Skidmore, Nigel Hitchcock and Julian Siegel on saxes. Siegel played a lot of baritone, producing a beautiful tone.

Towns writing and arranging is unique – the rich soundscapes he creates sound like no other composer: the standard yardsticks for big band writing don’t apply.

Much of the set was taken up with a suite based around themes from Kurt Weill – lots of “Mack the Knife” and “September Song”, but twisted and bent by Towns. He told a story about how he’d missed a call from his mentor, and by the time he could get back to him, Johnny Dankworth had died; he dedicated the suite to Dankworth.

The band made a glorious sound, lots of brass and saxes. On a hot summer’s evening, this was powerful music: the band gave it their all. Through it all, Stephan Maass’ energetic percussion powered away, bring a strand of continuity.

A rare outing for Towns’ orchestra, and a truly great gig.

* * *

I went to a venue new to me last week, the upstairs room of a pub in Kilburn, the North London Tavern. Fitted out with leather sofas, it felt much like someone’s front room, albeit one housing a jazz band. First up was Tom Hewson’s Treehouse, with Hewson on piano, Calum Gourlay on bass and Lewis Wright on vibes. I sat right by the vibes, and was impressed by the way Wright danced up and down the bars. It was fascinating watching the vibes up close, the motor spinning and the bars ringing. The band played gentle jazz, featuring tunes by Jimmy Guiffre and Oliver Nelson as well as Hewson. A lovely sound.

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They were followed by Gourlay’s own band, with Jim Hart on drum, George Crowley on tenor, and Gareth Cochrane on a range of flutes. This was more muscular music, sax and flutes blowing along.

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It was a really enjoyable evening – good to get to a new venue!
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Last night found me at Ronnie Scott’s for the second night of their Brit Jazz Fest, a double bill featuring Phronesis and Led Bib. A full – and young - house for these two, very different bands bodes well.

Phronesis are a piano trio, but the dominant voice seems to be Jaspar Holby’s bass. Perhaps taking their lead from other European trios like EST and the Tord Gustavsen trio, they have an energetic yet subtle presence – drummer Mark Guiliana combining the difficult trick of playing softly but with power, at times just swishing the air with his brushes.

Their set was interesting but ultimately their complex music failed to work its magic on me: their use of quirky rhythms and jerky time signatures made the music feel spiky and angular, and I had to concentrate to keep up.

Led Bib were a very different prospect. From the very start, they had me grinning broadly: there is something infectiously fun about their music. Drummer Mark Holub seems to do most of the writing, but they felt very much a unit. An unorthodox line-up – two alto saxophones plus a keyboards, bass and drums rhythm section – they manage to create incredibly funky improvised punk-jazz. Maybe with a touch of heavy metal thrown into the mix, too.

Electric bassist Liran Donin is central to their sound, putting down line after line of danceable bass. Toby McLaren’s keyboards added a lot of flavour - he was getting some great sounds from his treated electric piano, as well as playing the grand piano - whilst Holub’s drums were pushing the whole thing along with a mixture of rock and jazz beats. Over the top the two altoists - Chris Williams and Pete Grogan – were given the space to improvise, sometimes together, chasing each other up and down, and sometimes in vivid, cascading solos.

The whole is like a funkier, danceable version of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, without the really out-there free phases. Watching the quintet, it felt like it shouldn’t work, but actually, it works very, very well. I’m not sure if it would be so good in the comfort of one’s own home – it felt like it needed the live setting – but it works brilliantly live. Now I want to see them somewhere where the audience could dance – that’d be some gig!
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A couple of weeks ago, Wynton Marsalis lead the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra on stage at the esteemed Hackney Empire, bringing the sound of midtown Manhattan to the East End of London.

JALCO had been playing a series of gigs at the Barbican and elsewhere, together with a whole load of educational events, and their visit to the Hackney Empire marked the end of their London residency. The Barbican gigs, featuring different jazz styles each night and a host of local guests, sold out well in advance (I know cos I tried to get tickets…!).

The crowd seemed quite adoring of Wynton and the band, giving them a roaring cheer to welcome them onstage. This last gig was entitled “Modern Jazz Masters”, and Wynton promised music by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Jackie McLean. We didn’t get any Shorter, but lots of new compositions from members of the band interspersed with their arrangements of tunes by Hancock, McLean (an intricate arrangement of “Appointment in Ghana”), Joe Henderson and Thelonious Monk.

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The orchestra was joined by Jean Toussaint on tenor sax (both he and Marsalis are graduates of the Jazz Messengers’ finishing school), pianist Julian Joseph, vibe player Jim Hart and vocalist Cleveland Watkiss. The calibre of the JALCO’s musicians is such that the guests could have seemed superfluous, but they were given a lot of space in the arrangements and all delivered. Cleveland’s vocal acrobatics sounded great against the orchestral backdrop, and Toussaint’s sax playing was in fine form, but for me Julian Joseph stood out: his playing brought an intensity that had been missing, creating solos which built the tension like many modern masters before him.

For all the excellent music on stage, it felt like something was missing. It was as if the orchestra was too reverent or too smooth: it needed some grit. The concert felt a little too worthy, too refined. The neither musicianship nor the arrangements could be faulted, but it needed more – a rougher edge, more risks; some East End grime to balance the midtown smooth.

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Lee Konitz

May. 26th, 2010 09:22 pm
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I saw one of the jazz greats, Lee Konitz, play in London last week. Konitz’ career spans seven decades – he was one of the players behind one of jazz’s most famous recordings, “Birth of the Cool” in 1957.

He played four shows over two nights at Pizza Express; the intimate atmosphere suited him. In a quartet with young pianist Dan Tepfer (Konitz and Tepfer have just released a CD of duos), bassist Mike Janisch and drummer Jeff Williams, Konitz stuck mainly to standards – he said – but he deconstructed and rearranged them so that they became new pieces.

Last Wednesday, his early show comprised of familiar tunes made new and viewed from a fresh perspective. There were tunes by Miles Davis (“Solar”, which Konitz said Davis appropriated from Chuck Wayne), versions of “Cherokee” and a fast “Lullaby of Birdland”, and a Monk tune; all sounded new and fresh – a hard trick for such well known repertoire. Konitz took an oblique take on each number, abstracting them in surprising and inventive ways.

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The first show was so good that we took up the offer to stay for the second, which surprisingly still had seats available; apparently the others shows were all sold out. Sticking with standards – “Get Happy” and “Oleo” featured this time around – Konitz was once more oblique, making the tunes sound even more abstract. Pianist Tepfer really came into his own with some extended solos and a couple of excellent duets with Konitz. The second show was even better than the first, engaging and exciting by turns.

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I’ve been to several jazz gigs in the last month or so that I haven’t done anything with yet. I was going to write about one for LondonJazz, but by the time I got around to it, it didn’t make the cut. None of these gigs set the world on fire: they were good, but…

First up was Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Not Sun Ra himself – he died seven years ago; or, if you believe his mythology, he returned to Saturn; no, this was the Arkestra led by alto player Marshall Allen. They’ve played in London a fair bit over the last year, quickly selling out every gig: I only managed this one because it was part of a special, extended run which I noticed on Twitter: the Arkestra had been due to play a couple of gigs at Café Oto, and been unable to move on because of the volcanic ashcloud. So they played another gig, and then another, and another, hoping to pay their way – stuck in London, they had to eat and pay their hotel bills.

So I saw them on what was, I think, their fifth night at Café Oto in Dalston. I’d not been there before: apparently it has been described as one of the coolest places in London (or possibly Europe – I can’t find the reference!) but that isn’t how it appeared. No stage, a random selection of chairs, it had the air of a village hall. When I got there, most of the chairs had gone – I sat right at the back, on a bench – and people kept arriving. By the time the band came on, an hour later than advertised (perhaps they were still on Saturn-time), it was packed.

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This version of the Arkestra was a septet: a front line of four saxophonists/percussionists, and a trumpet player, drummer and guitarist/bassplayer. I was expecting great things – the Arkestra have a reputation for playing some formidable, funky space-jazz (true, not a crowded genre), but having seen two other superlative bands playing Sun Ra’s music in the last few months - Orphy Robinson’s Spontaneous Cosmic Rawxtra and Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra - the Arkestra seemed a bit flat. Maybe they were tired (I certainly was!), or homesick, or… Whatever, I’d say they were good but lacklustre: I expected more. I enjoyed the gig, particularly the humour they brought – these were serious musicians bringing some fun to the gig. But they weren’t great, whatever everyone else was saying.

The following night I went to see the Stan Tracey Octet. Tracey is one of the grand old men of British jazz: even his website describes him as the “godfather of British jazz”, an apt moniker and one of which he seems justly proud. His current octet features three generations of British players, with a front line featuring survivors from the 1980s jazz revival such as Guy Barker on trumpet and Dave O’Higgins on saxes as well as relative youngster Simon Allen on tenor sax.

Tracey plays in a variety of formats – in the past couple of years I have seen him play solo, in piano duet, in a quartet and leading his glorious big band. His octet fits right in the middle, producing a suitably rich sound for Tracey’s Ellingtonian compositions. These two nights at the Pizza Express – rapidly becoming one of my favourite London venues – saw the launch of Tracey’s latest CD, “The Later Works”, and all the numbers played were from the CD’s two suites. Guy Barker was on great form throughout, playing with verve and energy; Dave O’Higgins also played powerfully, with some great solos on soprano as well as tenor.

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Stan played some lovely, thoughtful solos, too, though he seemed to keep a fairly low profile. His long standing rhythm section of his son Clark on drums and Andrew Cleyndert on bass kept things swinging along, with a couple of energetic solos from Clark.

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Finally, last week saw guitarist John McLaughlin grace London. I’d not seen McLaughlin – one of electric jazz’s great – play before, so I thought I’d take the opportunity. His quartet featured Mark Mondesir on drums, another survivor of the 1980s jazz revival, and one of my favourite drummer: I hadn’t seen Mondesir play for many years, and he was the main draw. Multi-instrumentalist Gary Husband played (mostly) keyboards, and bassist Etienne Mbappé completed the quartet.

Once more, this gig was something of a disappointment. It was all a bit soulless, something I’d not expected from McLaughlin – much of his music has been rooted in eastern spirituality, though not this quartet. It was technically excellent, and went along at a cracking pace, but I found it very unconvincing.

Husband played some great piano, but he also made some electronic farting noises which added nothing. He sat down at the drum kit to play a couple of drum duets with Mondesir – and added less than nothing. His drumming was good, and they interplay between him and Mondesir was good, but frankly drum solos are boring, and drum duets doubly so. Mondesir is more than capable of holding his own, and Husband’s interventions didn’t add any more rhythmic interest – so why bother hauling an extra drum kit around? It just felt like showing off – good theatre, perhaps, but not great music.

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McLaughlin and Mbappé got a good groove going – Mbappé laying down some funky lines – and Mondesir was great, but all in all I felt the music lacked something.

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I am aware I haven’t been writing on LJ much recently. It’s nothing personal, but I do think it would be healthy to write some more. I often have a running list of things won’t to write about, so maybe I should by catching up a bit… Also because I want to show off my photographs! (Why else do I post?)

Back in January, I saw the Alyn Cosker quartet play in London. I meant to write about it at the time, but it got lost in a trip away; and also – well, it was good, but really not my kind of music. It is harder to write about things I don’t like so much (but maybe a useful trick).

I know Cosker from his work with Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Tommy Smith; he can be a very loud brash drummer, but he can also be very gentle and delicate, too – a rare mix.

His own music is strictly jazz fusion – the bits fused being rock-funk. He plays in complex time signatures, with great energy – there wasn’t so much of the thoughtful, gentle Cosker here.

He featured Seamus Blake on saxophone – another forceful, muscular player. It sounded to me like he was playing what he would have played in any other setting – as if there wasn’t a natural fit to their music.

Mike Janisch was on bass – both electric and acoustic. I much preferred the sound of his acoustic playing – acoustic bass just seems so much more subtle.

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cut for length; and pictures! )
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The January issue of Jazz Journal contained an article called “How To Write About Jazz, written by John Robert Brown. (I would have copied some of it here, but there is a pompous note on his website forbidding any reproduction. I had half a mind to paste some of his inanity here just to piss him off.)

Anyhow, Brown’s article created a bit of a stushie, because he was trying to be funny, and completely missed the mark.

But he did get me thinking about how to write about jazz. I sometimes write about jazz – both on this journal and occasionally as a guest reviewer on the LondonJazz blog.

I like writing about jazz, but I don’t feel comfortable writing about jazz. One reason I like to write about jazz is to accompany the many photos I take at jazz gigs; but also, I like to record the gigs I have been too.

The thing is, I find it hard to describe music without resorting to clichés – which form a kind of shorthand, a quick way of explaining something. This extends beyond writing, though: it is hard to talk about music and adequately explain. The other day before I headed off to see Vijay Iyer at the Vortex [neither are my reviews – though I did stand next to John Fordham at the gig!], my partner asked what kind of music he’d be playing. “Modern improvised piano” was my unimaginative response. It was true – that is exactly what Iyer, whom I have seen play many times, plays in a variety of formats. But as she pointed out, it doesn’t really convey much information – not enough to decide whether to go to the gig.

When I got back, she asked again, “what did he play?” This time I replied, “Modern improvised piano… in duet with an alto saxophonist with an indo-twist!”. A bit more meaning perhaps, but not a huge amount.

It is the same when writing about jazz. It is really hard to convey what music sounds like. I resort to comparisons – trumpeters in relation to Miles Davis, saxophonists in relation to Coltrane, pianists in relation to Monk or Bill Evans… It doesn’t really work unless you know the compass points; if you do know the reference points, you can probably work it out for yourself.

It may be allegorical, but Elvis Costello allegedly once said
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture… it's a really stupid thing to want to do."

Maybe he had a point!
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Tuesday saw the tribute to Ian Carr, who died last year. It gathered together musicians who had worked with Carr in various bands from the 1950s on, playing his music.

It was an eclectic evening, reflecting the depth of Carr's interests and influence – he was an educator and writer as well as a player (he wrote one of the definitive biographies of Miles Davis, and I attended a big band workshop he ran once in Edinburgh about ten years ago).

Julian Joseph was the compere for the first half, and he spoke warmly of Carr's influence on him through regular weekend music schools. Then Nikki Yeoh took to the satge and played a couple of pieces she dedicated to Carr. These pieces seemed a little knowing – deliberately complex in their form, lots of changes in tempo – but they held the audience's attention.

Then came the Michael Garrick sextet, featuring musicians who had played with Carr in the 1950s and 1960s. Garrick was the pianist in the seminal Don Rendell/Ian Carr quintet, and Rendell himself came up for a few numbers at the end of the set. Rendell looked quite old (he must be in his seventies) as he walked on stage, but with his saxophone playing he could have been one of the young turks – the music sounded fresh and contemporary.

Don Rendell

There was a clean simplicity to many of the numbers; at one point, Garrick accompanied a poet with a simple two chord backing, before the band came in to fill the sound out. Norma Winstone sang to several tunes; normally I don't get jazz vocals, but here her words fitted perfectly. Dave Green on bass held it together really well: there was a solidity to his playing.

This was a great set, summing up the post-bop milieu of the band's 1960s heyday. Henry Lowther took the trumpet chair, doing justice to Carr's memory.

Dave Green, Norma Winstone, Henry Lowther and Trevor Tomkins

After the interval, Kevin Whately – perhaps better known as Inspector Lewis – spoke about Carr's connection to north east England, before Guy Barker on trumpet and Tim Whitehead on reeds were joine by a string orchestra to play Carr's Northumbrian Sketches. This suite was superlative. Normally, I don't like strings in jazz: too many syrupy, sentimental arrangements. This suite is one of the exceptions. There was nothing sentimental here: the arrangements merged the two disciplines of jazz and strings exceptionally. Barker's playing was excellent, as was Whitehead. The suite seemed magnificent: the writing had depth and subtlety, creating a spiritual mood of remembrance. There is a real folk feel to some sections, the strings at times producing sounds reminiscent of the northumbrian pipes. It was a wonderful performance.

Guy Barker, Tim Whitehead and strings

After the sketches, Nucleus seemed a little – well, ordinary. This was not what I had been expecting: I have several Nucleus disks, and ordinary isn't the way I'd describe them. Carr was one of the innovators who created jazz-rock, but unlike any of the other music in the evening, this sounded rather dated. The performance was good – the playing seemed fine - but a bit of a let down after what had preceded.

Until, that is, John Marshall came on for the last half of the set. His playing seemed to energise the others in the band, and suddenly they were playing better: they all stepped up several gears. Nic France, who moved from drums to percussion when Marshall arrived, had been doing a great job – but Marshall just propelled the band into a different league. They seemed like a different band. The last few numbers powered along, pushed by Marshall’s excellent drumming. The evening ended on a yet another high.

Rob Statham, John Marshall, Ray Russell and Chris Batchelor

Ian Carr
photo © Roger Farbey, from Ian Carr + Nucleus Website


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June 2017



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