Their publicity says ‘sure to put a smile on your face’ and Laura Jurd‘s Quartet, on their first visit to the BeBop Club, more than lived up to the promise. In two sets of bracingly original music, the almost diffident delivery of these dazzlingly accomplished musicians allowed the beautifully crafted and arranged music to have the starring role. Melodies, often deceptively simple and with a folky edge to them are stated and elegantly developed; sudden switches of pace or the entrance of urgently dancing grooves keeps the listener guessing, but its never jarring, just beautifully judged. The ebb and flow of ideas around the band is constant and keeps the mood buzzing. And then someone cuts loose. Lady of Bruntal had a spritely swirling theme that gave way to a rockier passage of rasping trumpet calls and darting runs before Corrie Dick let rip with a storming solo. Sognefjord, all rumble and clatter and a rubato theme developed a racing, clattery backing to another blistering trumpet solo from Jurd, Tom McCredie’s pulsating bass-line locking it all down. Then hints at more clubby beats from the drums sparked an electrifying piano solo from Elliot Galvin all misshapen blues riffs, silvery runs and a visceral groove.
For all the bursts of virtuosity and temperature raising solos, those episodes didn’t dominate the music. These were carefully constructed pieces with strong themes and episodes that developed and complemented them. Oh So Beautiful took the simplest of delicate melodic phrases and pulled it around, stretching over different rhythms, bending and distorting the motif until it went back into shape.
There’s been plenty of glowing music press about Laura Jurd both as composer and player and it was more than borne out by this gig. Its a tribute to the musicians that its the spirit of the music that lingered on after the band had packed up and gone and we were back home. Now there’s a rare gift.
It’s rather fun to arrive at a gig with only the vaguest intuition of what the music might sound like. I’ll confess I had only the faintest impression of what the trio Vein might be about (European jazz, maybe a bit left field?) but their guest Dave Liebman, ex-Miles sideman and a fully fledged innovator and adventurer in his own right, was both a vote of confidence and a draw. And a hint that there might be a few exploratory abstractions in the music. I panted into the hall almost late to find the respectable sized audience settling and the band having a team talk by the stage shuffling large piles of manuscript (not a completely free improv gig then).
Pianist Michael Arbenz started proceedings with rippling, florid arpeggios rolling up and down the piano and sketching out abstract sounding runs. Then gradually some familiar phrases poked through the layers of sound and by the time brother Florian Arbenz’s rustles and sizzles from the drums took shape and Thomas Lahn‘s bass was nudging things along with fragmentary phrases and pushes, Stella by Starlight was breezing along. Classic standards was not what I’d expected. With Liebman digging in, mining the harmony and stretching the range of the soprano it was a brush away the cobwebs opener. There were plenty of originals in the two sets. Florian Arbenz’s Climbing had blizzards of notes from the sax, with calmer episodes punctuating grooving section. Evolution did as it names suggests moving through racing swing and sinuous sax lines for its theme and creating little clearings for each of the quartet to feature. And then another classic standard, I loves You Porgy, with Liebman bending notes and sliding around the melody making it a fiercely emotional reading with the piano rippling around him. The second set showcased a varied set of originals, mostly from a new release with Dave Liebman. Black Tortoise‘s dreamy melody floated on thick swirling harmony form the piano before the first of a number of dazzling melodic solos from Lahn on bass. Jamming in the Children’s Corner had a funky edge to it with spiky phrases from the sax outlining the theme before once again an imaginary spotlight seemed to swing from first one player to the next whilst the whole band seemed to solo. Clear Light was a delight with a tumbling rubato momentum maintained throughout and bewitching passage on a wooden whistle from Liebman.
What an absorbing evening’s music this was, making what was superficially, stylistically familiar sound somehow a collective and quirky effort. Sometimes they were a classic piano trio, or blazing quartet, then a contemporary trio of equals demolishing a theme, then a freewheeling improvising unit. Mysteriously, I think this may have been one of a few, if not their only date in UK on this trip. Well done St. George’s for lassooing them.
Musical stimulation overload is an occupational hazard if you choose to dive into a festival as all encompassing as the London Jazz epic. Just hanging out at the South Bank Centre or Barbican guarantees exposure to jaw slackening variety and quality. And that’s without parting with a penny for tickets. Find some cash and even more possibilities are opened up. There’s a guide to be written there (Working title: Festival for a fiver a day?). Now the dust has settled, a couple of threads are still glowing in my memory. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper‘s two piano work out in the first half of the The Blue Note 75th anniversary celebration was a slightly unanticipated stand-out. Two pianos can make a lot of noise and fill up a lot of space but these two modern masters were out to make music, not indulge in a four fisted cutting contest. In an unbroken hour’s music they started with a gritty blues, accompanying each other and leaving plenty of space, moved through all sorts of moods, an electrifying percussive episode with all manner of junk thrown in the pianos to create rattles and crashes and solos spots that accentuated their different muscial identities. Glasper veered more to expressive touches, rich harmony and soulful grooves, Moran was more acerbic, with jagged lines, spiralling boppish lines and dissonant abstractions. It was a magical hour.
The next day, in the middle of the Chaos Collective’s takeover of the Barbican free stage, Elliot Galvin‘s trio showed why they won a European prize earlier this year – the connected thread with the previous evening was that he was matching Moran and Glasper in the amount of junk hurled into the piano to whip up more percussive storms. The trio’s set was a standout of the weekend veering between wild reveries and furious storms of notes and moments of exquisite tenderness.
The Blue Note celebrations were ubiquitous and having seen the all-star band with Glasper, Marcus Strickland, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lionel Loueke, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott on Saturday followed by Soundprints, the Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano Quintet with Linda Oh, Joey Barron and Lawrence Fields it was hard not to feel we should have seen the best of modern jazz. There’s a heavy weight of expectation however. The Blue Note all-stars delivered a roaring set starting with a comprehensive deconstruction of Witchunt and plenty of of catch the breath moments. Akinmusire’s Henya was pure distilled beauty although Loueke conspired to disrupt with some oddly jarring guitar synth sounds. He redeemed himself with an astonishing solo display sounding like two guitarists, drums and vocal chorus all in one. Soundprints’ music is Shorter inspired and their already electric set really took off with two Shorter originals written for the band. It might have been showstopping except Charles Lloyd was still to come.
The annual ten day festival is now bewildering in its variety and scope but its almost impossible not to be uplifted, enriched and caught unawares by moments of magic. Ticket price is a poor guide, open ears and heart an essential. London Jazz News managed to co-ordinate reviewing 34 of the 250+ gigs a with a round up of another 20 or so a perusal of those offers a good insight into some of what went on.
I’ve been dipping in and out of a Charles Lloyd induced trance all week. The closing gig of London’s 10 day multidimensional jazz takeover (festival hardly seems to do it justice) saw the newly endowed NEA Jazz Master weave his spell over a packed Barbican that had just been transfixed by Soundprints, the Dave Douglas/ Joe Lovano led quintet. A double bill of these two bands seemed like impossible riches, but I confess it’s the strange magic that Lloyd weaves that has had me re-entering the spell he cast. It was a near continuous set of textures, melodies, insidious rhythms and occasionally, startlingly, spasms of loose driving swing. The tenor sound, that seems to rise out of the stage like a vapour, is reedy, sometimes acerbic and can sound like an incantation, a quiet prayer-like chant, the most heart stopping gorgeous melody and then with a twitch of a knee or a nod of the head it gains weight and energy and bluesy inflections. The extraordinary band swirl around the master, rustles and clicks from Eric Harland on drums, little rippling runs from Gerald Clayton on piano. Harland was a marvel to watch. The transitions from absract floating textures to insistently grooving pulse just seemed to emerge, Joe Sanders‘ bass suddenly locking in just when the meditative vibe might have been too much to stay with. This project is called The Wild Man Suite and incorporates Greek and Hungarian musicians. Whatever image that conjures up, rest assured: its a Charles Lloyd band. It was amazing how the Socratis Sinopoulos‘ lyra ( a lute like bowed instrument) and Miklos Lukacs‘ cimbalom (what looked like the strung frame of a piano laid flat and played with vibes mallets) blended with the Lloyd sound. The lyra sound was weirdly like Lloyd’s sax as it etched out haunting melodies. Lukacs provided some furious solos sounding like an edgy, prepared piano over a storm whipped up by Harland. Wild it wasn’t. Intense; taking us beyond the moment; entrancing it was.
Listening to little ear tweaking melodic phrases, Jeff Spencer’s bass doubling Gareth Lochrane’s flute whilst a subtly distorted guitar chord hangs underneath them, the penny drops. Indigo Kid leader, writer and guitarist Dan Messore is a regular tunesmith. The band’s first album has featured regularly in my playlists over the last couple of years. That, coupled with a tantalisingly brief but widely remarked set at last year’s Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival were more than enough to lure me to Fringe Jazz’s new, roomier home at The Mall in Clifton against stiff competition elsewhere in town (since when did Thursday become peak jazz night?). The all too rare opportunity to catch the quartet was part of their tour playing material from their latest release Fistful of Dollars.
At times they sound like a restrained bluesy rock band, at others like a subversive eclectic country/folk outfit with artless themes twisted by little harmonic shifts and bursts of fierce, fluent improvising from all quarters. All hands to Dance and Skylark could have started life as a shanty with its overtly dance like rhythms, Waiting for Paula switched between a flowing waltz and an edgier slower pulse, Quiet Water merged into The Bay with a catchy folk like melody. Its a subtle engaging brew. Messore has chosen his partners carefully – not any dep will do for this music. Jeff Spencer’s lively feel on bass underpinned everything, but he brought a fluent lyricism as well with some elegant solos and locked tight shadowing of melodies. Gareth Lochrane’s credentials are well established and his rhythmically exciting and fluid lines on flutes of all shapes and sizes quickened the pulse whenever he stepped up (this despite a 5 hour journey from London and walking straight in to the start of the gig as a result). It’s music to warm the heart and put a skip in your step and great to see it at Fringe Jazz’s new berth now confirmed as a fixture into 2015 (loud cheers).
Today’s simple jazz knowledge exercise: Complete the following sentence – X has been a professional musician for 20/25/30 years (delete as applicable), has established a big reputation as a sideman/ collaborator in …….., ……., …….. (insert names of widely celebrated artists/ projects) and is only now releasing their first album as a leader.
It struck me when I was reflecting on Simon Purcell’s thoughts about recording as a leader (and of course his name fits in that sentence nicely), that its been a year of ‘about timers’, some slightly more visible than others. Jake McMurchie has a few projects to insert in the collaborations section, but after 20 years Michelson Morley‘s Aether Drift is his first release as a leader. We caught Alison Rayner’s Quintet in fine form at the Hen and Chicken recently playing material from her debut release August, a landmark that’s taken more than 20 years. I may be wrong, but I think bass player Dominic Howles’ recent release Bristolian Thoroughfare may be his first as a leader, a journey that started 20 years or so ago in Bristol. What to make of this? No doubt the vicissitudes of life play their part alongside more internal inhibitors alluded to by Simon, but it just makes me wonder if, for all the challenges of the seismic changes in the music industry, one benefit is that getting music out to a potential audience is more achievable now. What ever the reason, it’s a cause for celebration and these releases are unquestionably those of musicians who know how they want to sound, they are very personal.
Even if it is more achievable to get music out, it still takes organisation and cash! Another much recorded and celebrated musician, Mike Walker broke through the ‘about time’ barrier just once and released Madhouse and the Whole Thing in 2008, but so far it remains his only album as leader. Now he’s stared a crowdfunding for another album. I want to hear that album! So I’ll pay for it now, even if I may not get my copy until 2016! That would be ‘about time’ too I reckon, more than ten years after the first was recorded (although released in 08). Anyone can join in here. Its just another option open that wasn’t 20+ years ago. He’s halfway to his goal of 5,000 at the time for writing.
A little related end thought: as I’ve been writing, the participants for the 10th edition of ‘take 5′ have been announced. The scheme, run by Serious with a raft of backers works with musicians of the calibre I’ve mentioned here but earlier in their careers (adventures?). Its professional development and career development for jazz musicians. I was fortunate to get an insight into the course on a visit to their residential last year – I wrote about it here link at the bottom of the page. Would those ‘about timers’ have benefited from something like this? Definitely maybe I’d say. So a little hurah to that coalition of funders and Serious for making this happen for over 100 musicians over ten years.
If you need to have a couple of deps for the home-town launch gig of your new single, then its hard to imagine two classier picks than John Turville (keeping the piano seat warm for Dale Hambridge) and Jake Mc Murchie on saxes (filling the space left by Nick Malcom’s trumpet). Moonlight Saving Time‘s brew of funky, soulful grooves held by just so fizzing bass riffs, locked tight drums, sophisticated harmony, the front line blend of voice and horn, plenty of space for fierce blowing and an eclectic mix of styles and source material, all got an extra twist from the guests. A wash of piano chords and keening and vocalised cries from the soprano stilled any chatter from the sizeable crowd to start the gig at possibly the best appointed jazz venue in Bristol. It quickly gave way to a trade-mark riff from Will Harris‘ bass and they launched into their arrangement of David Gilmour’s Douala, Emily Wright‘s vocal soaring over the afro-tinged pulse. When they take a tune, this band make it their own. The Future Inn gig marked the release of a single, a cover of Calvin Harris’ 2009 club hit ‘I’m not alone‘. The contours of the original remain, with the melody and lyric there (check the original out here), but its transformed into a ballad with an understated, effortless groove and space for lyrical soloing (take a listen). Easy on the ear and a stony heart would be required to resist its emotional tug. By the time the live show delivered that punch they’d played a bunch of the increasing number of originals in their set. A Nick Malcolm original , Views, had a bravura McMurchie solo intro with layers of sax built up with the loop pedals and a spooky drone lingering over the funky ostinato figure that emerged. A John Turville solo was one amongst many of the evening that set my heart racing. Little glancing runs sparking off another pulsing hook up between the bass and and Mark Whitlam‘s drums, building up into lyrical flowing lines. Whenever a space cleared for Turville to let rip the temperature went up a few notches, the peaks of intensity always somehow emerging from development of lines and rhythms. He’s a class act. The setting of a Masefield poem, Sea Fever, is becoming a highlight of the band’s set with voice and piano alone hushing the room and reminding us of their versatility. They were in confident form and on this showing the soon to come album will be a treat. London bound folk can catch them at Pizza Express on Monday in the festival. Tickets are still there, but not for much longer I suspect.