New Orleans pops up in Bristol: The Session, BeBop Club, Tuesday 5th August

There was no kidnapping involved as far as we know, but after an Ian Storrer promoted gig at The Hen and Chicken for New Orleans based quintet The Session, whose members have been touring Europe with The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a two day lull in touring became a shopping trip and playing break with a visit to the regular Canteen jam session on Monday and this pop-up gig at the BeBop club engineered by Ian and Andy Hague. Impromptu gig it may have been, but  as Ashlin Parker pointed his trumpet at the ceiling one last time and with an ear piecing blast led the quintet into a down-home New Orleans stomp, there was no doubt it was a roaring, joyous success of an evening.  The TheSession@TheBeBoptheatrics of leading the horn section off in procession (temporarily boosted by Bristol resident Julian Alenda for the last number) was only slightly undermined by the difficult they had squeezing between the rows of chairs to get out.  The word of social media campaign to conjure up an audience at 24 hours notice had resulted in jam packed room at The Bear (shh… don’t tell ‘ealth and safety).   And what a gig it was.  A bubbling bass figure from Jason Weaver, given rocket boosters by occasional Christian Scott sideman Charles Burchell on drums, then Parker, himself a regular in Ellis Marsalis’ band,  and tenor man James Partridge eased into Horace Silver’s Doodlin. It was effortless, intensely grooving  and hair tinglingly thrilling.  They mined familiar resources to the full, the impassioned blowing of Parker and Partridge rousing whoops and cheers every time. More complex original material (Untitled Numbers one and two!) introduced a different dimension, a flowing harmonically angular piece by pianist Andrew McGowan and a stately ballad by Jason Weaver drawing out meditative and lament like solos.  There was no keeping the sheer exuberance and energy down for long though and the second set surfed to its stomping conclusion via a freshly minted funky groover in honour of temporary surrogate tour manager Ian Storrer.  The band were off to Cardiff the next day, but for the dispersing crowd it was hard to believe they were going to have more fun than this.

Good things come in threes: three trios (plus one)

Looking back at CDs I’ve listened to recently for review on London Jazz News, I notice that trios have been figuring of late. I mentioned Michelson Morley in a previous post and review here, since then the three I’ve reviewed have all been trios. Maybe the reason I hadn’t particularly noticed was because they are all so different.  Tenor player Melissa Aldana‘s Crash Trio (review here)melissa-aldana and pianist Andrew McCormack‘s First Light (review here)  were both recorded in New York  and are both firmly rooted stylistically in that city’s rich, still  evolving sound.  Both leaders have migrated there, McCormack from these shores and Aldana from Chile. They are  great albums of mainly originals and sound so different. Aldana is a still andrew mccormack first lightrecent Berklee graduate but has somehow absorbed and made her own the influence of all the great tenor masters she’s listened to and studied with (Lovano and Rollins loom large). Andrew McCormack’s lovely touch and fluent melodic playing are always a delight and his writing shines here too, an ear for melody threaded through plenty of driving swing.  Two top class trio albums.

My third trio, BusnoysWeaving the Spell is a different proposition (review here) but no less beguiling. Led by vibes player Martin Pyne, the references and inspirations are broader and quirkier.  Its a little gem of an album packed with melody, surprises and adventurous collective improvisation.  This album illustrates how much can be suggested and evoked by not playing and sometimes, just two well chosen sounds. Its an approach shared by Michelson Morley (my plus one of course). Both these albums were recorded in Bristol at Jim Barr‘s JnJ studios. Co- incidence? buswtsMaybe, but two treats for your ears nevertheless.


Jazz local and national; Riff Raff in Sheffield – What a difference a grant makes?

The back room of a pub, something ear tweakingly interesting leaking out of the PA as a respectable sized crowd gathered , settling amongst a mis-matched jumble of chairs and tables. It was the Lescar in the backstreets of Sheffield, but could have been almost anywhere. It was my first visit. In Sheffield for non-jazz reasons serendipitously on a Wednesday, I nipped along.  It felt like visiting a distant branch of an extended family. The Lescar’s back room hosts a well established weekly session programmed and promoted by the energetic and discerning Jez Matthews with  a crew of willing volunteers making it all happen on the night (Jez’s energy had taken him off to the Copenhagen jazz festival on this particular evening).  The gig turned out to be the penultimate date of Dave Mannington’s Riff Raff  tour . I’d caught them early on in May  at the BeBop Club in Bristol so knew I was in for a treat.

Riff Raff are a band of band leaders. With Ivo Neame in the piano chair, squeezing in this leg of Riff Raff’s tour before dashing of to continue Phronesis’ relentless international schedule,  and Tim Giles on drums this is no ordinary rhythm section . Tom Challenger, Rob Updegraff and Brigitte Beraha complete the band and Mannington has a premier league outfit to negotiate his complex compositions. They unfold, rarely doubling back on themselves, exploring different styles and with references from around the globe, but a soaring melody or electric atmosphere is never far way. The impact of touring and playing the material was evident as the evening wore on. The already riveting music seemed to have  grown and relaxed and deepened since Bristol. Early on, their cover of Bjork’s Anchor had everyone sighing as an extended  climax built behind Brigitte Beraha’s swooping vocals with the whole band blending beautifully. Ivo Neame’s intro to Catch Me the Moon was even more expansive and edgy, and a spacy cadenza from Rob Updegraff emerged to keep everyone on the edge of their seats.  There was new material with Iliad having the whole band glued to their charts for the epic, adventurous piece. What a treat.

Like many others, this club hosts local and regional bands with a fair sprinkling of national tours that are often  subsidized by a  grant, this visit of Riff Raff being no exception.  Occasional infusions of small amounts of cash from grant schemes also helps build a club’s programme and an expectant audience and the Lescar has been a beneficiary in the last year.  This visit took place just as the controversy got going over Jazz Services failure to secure  guaranteed three year funding from the Arts Council (the unfolding story captured by Peter Bacon here). They of course have been one of the main conduits for these small grants. Through all the anguish (and a certain amount of restrained claim and counter claim) one message has been clear. Promoters and musicians know the  value of the grant schemes that support touring and small promoters.  My lovely, uplifting evening was a little cameo of the difference quite a modest investment can make to the development of new music, the development of the artists themselves and on the other side, the  ability to invest enough to develop a sustainable programme for a small venue.  It seems like a good return to me.




Dave Holland’s Prism, Ronnie Scott’s, Monday 7th July

It can get a bit cosy in the cheap(er) seats at Ronnie’s and conversations start. “I was there that night”, the guy next to me said, “when Miles came in and heard him”.  The story of how Dave Holland got the Miles gig never wears thin (after hearing the young Dave in a band opening for Bill Evans at the club, a call subsequently came from New York and Holland was on a flight to New York within a couple of weeks). The raconteur next to me remembered the bass player’s new suit on that night, although I fancy it was his playing that got him the gig. 45 years later and the man himself looked supremely relaxed as the band settled in to their places on stage and tuned up; a rap and and tap on the snare from Eric Harland, a silent tightening of a string from guitarist Eubanks, a pinged harmonic from Holland and a ripple of fourths from Craig Taborn on piano and Rhodes simultaneously. And then, what was tuning, by some alchemy had become a hypnotic vamp.  They may have crept in with a whisper, but the opener A New Day became a roar as they each took turns in rocking out on the simple, cycling chord sequence.  It was electrifying. At different stages of the evening a different member of this extraordinary group seemed to be stealing the show. Eric Harland, upright and still, laughing as if in delight at what his limbs appear to be doing -‘hey, check that out’ as an irresistible hail of rhythms layers over a monstrous groove;   Craig Taborn locked in rhythmic combat with Harland in a scarcely believable percussive two handed workout that etched out a spiraling, sinuous harmonic progression at the same time, this on his own The true meaning of determination with a theme that sounded liked he was playing two complex wonky latin tunes at a breakneck tempo, a different one in each hand; Kevin Eubanks on Holland’s elegaic and gentle bluesily rocking The Empty Chair,  a blazing guitar solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix but getting quieter and quieter the more furious and intense he got – a hold the breath moment.  Is that why they played Eric Harland’s gorgeous ballad Breathe next? Dave Holland, was the still point at the centre, with that enormous sound and transparent delight in what was happening around him. A fabulous evening. If  Miles had popped back for the evening, he’d have hired that bass player all over again for sure.

Andy Nowak Trio, Fringe Jazz, Thursday 3rd July

AndyNowak_FringeAnyone who pays attention to the wider Bristol  music scene will know Andy Nowak  is a musician with eclectic tastes . He’s to be seen on the acoustic folk circuit, playing guitar and singing and he holds  the keyboard chair in the grooving Duval Project.  This outing at Fringe Jazz  for his determinedly jazz orientated trio was a prelude to a ‘Kickstarter’ campaign to fund a recording. ‘Thanks for listening to us practice’  he said with a wry smile as B7 Blues finished with a snappy flourish. For the Thursday night punters , the banter between the trio about the tricky time signature (7/4) and unusual key for a blues (B) was the only clue that the shuffling funky number was anything other than a familiar well worn part of the set. With a repertoire drawing on sources as diverse as Duran Duran (no… really!), Nick Drake and Joey Caldarazzo as well the standards book and the leader’s own compositions, there was plenty of variety to keep us hooked.   The rhythm team of Andy Tween and Spencer Brown on drums and bass are top drawer and made the odd metres, Brazilian grooves and pulsating swing that Andy threw at them sound effortless.  It was the playing of Andy Nowak however that held this gig together and made it just a bit special. There are elusive qualities that mark any player out. A Pianist’s touch on the keyboard, their feel for rhythm and swing, the instinct of when to play and what to play, all combine to create an individual sound. In Andy there’s a light but assertive touch, seductive sense of groove and an instinctive sense and feel for space. He never over plays. The sound of bop inspired jazz is never far away and there’s a delightful instinct for developing melodic and rhythmic ideas in his solos. It was most transparent on standards like It Could Happen to You, but originals like Bloodstone with its rich harmony and that Brazilian groover stimulated lovely fluid solos.  This is a very fine jazz piano trio and I for one would like to hear that album (although I must confess I think they could drop the Duran Duran cover). Keep an eye on the Kickstarter campaign here.

A quick footnote: This was another little triumph for the weekly session at The Fringe. They are going all through the summer. The July programme is here and I hear the August programme includes John Pearce with Dave Newton, Andy Sheppard’s intriguing quartet with Denny Illet and another consultation with the Pushy Doctors featuring that Andy Shepard bloke again.


Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra. Colston Hall, Bristol, Thursday 26th June

The Jazz at the Lincoln Center roadshow swept into town on Thursday and a mini festival popped up around their show at Bristol’s Colston Hall. The Bristol Schools Jazz Band performed to a buzzing foyer before the evening gig. That was after an  open soundcheck for the young musicians followed by an impromptu seminar with the Lincoln Center Orchestra‘s alto player Sherman Irby and trombonist Eliot Mason.  The enthusiastic foyer performance’s varied repertoire of niftily arranged classics (Girl from Ipanema via Birdland to a Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess like Summertime) warmed us up for the main event and we emerged after over two hours of a riveting celebration of ‘The Best of Blue Note’  to Andy Hague’s Quintet in full cry on the New Orleans funk of Hands Up, an Andy original. The energy levels only went up from there as the jam session got going. This was unquestionably an occasion.

J@LCOThe catalyst for all this buzz, the relatively rare regional visit of Wynton Marsalis’ gobally renowned big band had a lot of expectation to live up to. And they delivered in buckets. The hook for the repertoire, the back catalogue of the legendary Blue Note Records, was focussed on the label’s heyday in the 50’s and 60’s and the hard swinging, blues and gospel inflected style of Hard Bop.  That was almost always delivered by small bands like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.” I played in the Jazz Messengers.. it’s how I learned this music”  muttered Marsalis as he introduced the opener ‘Free for All’.  The translation of the small group sound to a big band  was in the hands of the skilful arrangers drawn from the ranks of  this band. It was exhilarating stuff. Little fills and embellishments from the originals became horn sections parts and backings, solos became shout choruses delivered rousingly by the whole band. The sample from the enormous library of Blue Note on this evening overlapped with other performances on the tour (Seb Scotney saw them in Cambridge) but they’ve got plenty to draw on.  There was the the occasional foray into the later sixties.  Chick Corea’s The Matrix was an electrifying moment with Marsalis delivering a blistering solo over more contemporary racing swing, just a nod towards the post-bop with which the leader launched his early career.  A trio of Horace Silver compositions, a tribute to the legendary pianist composer who died recently, was a tour de force.  Senor Blues kept morphing into different tempos and styles behind each soloist under the playful direction of drummer Ali Jackson and finished with a keening lament like solo from Walter Blanding on tenor over Carlos Henriquez‘s quietly bubbling bass riff; impossible not to hear its as a heartfelt ‘farewell Horace’.  The arrangement of the beautiful, melancholic ballad Peace gave full rein to the rich, lush harmonies possible with a big band before the exuberant samba like groove of Cape Verde Blues, with an incendiary piano solo from Dan Nimmer, raised the roofEarlier the writings of Lou Donaldson, Woody Shaw, Lee Morgan had all featured. If this was a look back to something of a golden age then there was nothing backward looking about the blowing. Shirman Irby on Blues Walk, was hair raisingly thrilling. The first purred note from Walter Blanding on the opener had my heart fluttering before Marcus Printup let rip

An encore of a quintet formed by the rhythm section behind Marsalis and Blanding was a lovely bit of icing on an enormous cake before we exited to the buzz in the bar.  What a great evening, with international and local contributing. The band are in residence in London at the Barbican after this tour. Maybe next time the regional tour could be series of short residences and capitalise on the energy this visit created.

Play Jazz Weekend – why a workshop weekend creates a lot of winners

Play Jazz Weekend is held annually at the end of May and is a weekend long ‘jazz school’ for all abilities and experience.  It always gets me thinking…

“They told me I wouldn’t be able to see you”. The shaky exclamation from a debutante performer was greeted with a warm chuckle from the clearly visible audience of mainly fellow workshoppers.  Midway through the concert at the end of the of an intensive pjaz_concertweekend, everyone shared in a significant moment for what turned out to be a remarkably assured singer.

This weekend was the ninth edition under Rachel Kerry‘s direction of this annual pop up jazz school for all-comers held at the Wiltshire Music Centre.  Having been pretty closely involved with the course each year, lending a hand with catering logistics and general factotum duties, I’ve had a chance to muse on different aspects of this type of increasingly common and well attended mini- course. Last year, I wrote about the people who make it happen. This year I’ve been thinking more about the people who come and the musicians who work with them, prompted in part by that moment in the concert that brought into sharp focus the personal significance making music and performing can have for anyone who dares, whatever their skill or experience.

The weekend students are a varied group. There are seasoned work shoppers for whom music making is a regular part of their life but not a source of income; just a few aspiring musicians or serious semi-pros for whom its manna from heaven to have the opportunity to work with tutors equally at home with conservatoire students; less experienced players nervously exploring new territory both technical and emotional. Motivations and expectations are complex and sometimes conflicting and what unfolds over the weekend isn’t quite within the control of anyone.  It’s a heady brew and the skill of the tutors, Nikki Iles, Andy Hague, Craig Crofton, James Chadwick and Brigitte Beraha were this year’s team, is that they can be demanding of these volunteer, paying students formed into small bands for the weekend without losing them. A genuinely thrilling performance of Dave Holland’s Pass it On by Nikki’s group was another highlight of the concert . Serious leisure time music making guided by professionals is not unique to jazz. Just checking out how many community choirs, amateur orchestras and folk sessions there are in a locality will illustrate that. The fact it is jazz though adds a special dimension. It’s music that demands a lot of the performer and improviser.

pjazz_groupshotThe connection between tutors and students is another striking feature of this and other weekends like it. Peter Bacon has been running occasional pieces on ‘Jaz Biz’ over the last few months, exploring some of the challenges and issues for musicians, particularly jazz musicians, trying to make a living. Those discussions understandably focus on gigging and playing and selling stuff with some references to teaching. This weekend suggests another way of contributing to longevity. It obviously provided a ‘teaching gig’ as do others like it, but there seemed to be more going on than that. A connection and relationship was being established (and in some cases re-established and strengthened) between the musicians and people who will perhaps connect more deeply with their music, seek it out more as well as related music. To sustain that process of ‘making connections’ over time and years in the case of this group of fantastic musicians means, I suspect, they get back at least as much as they invest, probably in unexpected ways. It may be materially, perhaps in appreciation of their music, perhaps  in new opportunities and they may benefit from others who have been doing the same. I suspect musicians and jazz musicians have always known, if only intuitively, that they are sustained by a large community and they help sustain and grow it in many ways other than just playing; that process was going on in front of my eyes over the weekend.

And finally, an obvious point but worth reflecting on. The hard cash invested in the Wiltshire Music Centre has created a space that allows people to create and make without any further help. On this weekend people paid, played, learned, had fun and sometimes literally life changing moments. Musicians were paid, worked, made connections, played and had fun. Money circulated; the weekend is not subsidised but pays for itself and the Wiltshire Music Centre receives income from the hire. The money isn’t why anyone did it of course, but nothing could happen without it. If the centre, managed by a charitable trust didn’t exist, the course would be a lot harder to run. The investment in the centre has made possible a huge return that won’t appear on its balance sheet. The relatively small but significant amount of income in pockets aside, much was created that was valued by everyone there. You could see it, it was just harder to count.

As the final rousing chorus of Free at Last faded away to end the concert and instruments were put away one last time, the warm hugs and contented smiles were probably a more eloquent summary of everything that had been going on than this slightly extended ramble.