September inspiring moment: Jamie Cullum, a piano and a Swindon school.

Here’s a tale to warm the heart.

Just over a year ago Jamie Cullum decided to run a competition for the public to win a piano. Not just any piano. His piano which had been round the world with him. Find any live shot (except from from the last year) and chances are it’ll be the piano in question. A very fine, very big Yamaha Grand.

Swindon comprehensive school, The Commonweal submitted their entry ‘Come on Jamie (give is your old piano)’ which promptly went viral and won the public vote.

He may have played the Hollywood Bowl this summer, but on Monday night Jamie Cullum returned to his old manor to bid a final farewell to his ‘old joanna’. Swindon’s Old Town was the scene of some of the Cullum’s earliest gigs. He grew up and went to school not far away, his family are still in the area and most jazzers of a certain age in these parts have a story of playing with ‘that Jamie Cullum’. So it was a satisfying twist of fate when a Swindon school won the piano, not to mention a surreal journey for them.  The handover took place on the Andrew Marr show one Sunday last January on the same day David Cameron was on, giving Headteacher Keith Defter the opportunity to bend his ear about education policy.

The Swindon comprehensive, with a track record in boosting young musicians and organising a town wide piano competition, wasted no time in inviting Cullum to come and play and give them a few tips. Nine months later they found a gap in the diary and for two hours, to an audience of students and friends of the school, Cullum sang, whipped up his trade-mark percussive storms on the piano, answered questions, demonstrated what it means to “play around and make stuff up” (at one point inventing a song on the spot about the evening) and staged an impromptu group lesson in playing the blues for three students who’d just performed short pieces.

The questions came thick and fast, mainly from students and they learnt about his formal training (he failed grade three piano), inspirations (brother Ben, early mentor Ray), great gigs (Ray Charles memorial concert – too many names to drop at once were in attendance) and could feel the love of jazz, singing and exploration that drives him. One of the lessons those students could be taking away after an audience with Jamie Cullum is how to count your blessings and wear the fame and stardom lightly.  The reception was rapturous and who knows, may just spark the beginnings of another jazz revival in Swindon.   It was a very special evening.

September’s live moment to savour and a CD recommendation: Barry Green’s ‘Great News’ Trio

Pianist Barry Green has been haunting my September.  After popping up on Alan Barnes’ quartet recording One For Moll as a sideman, his trio with  two A-list American partners, saxophonist Chris Cheek and drummer Gerald BarryGreenH&ChickCleaver (yes, no bass), provided the gig of the month and a hot CD recommendation.  Barry recorded an album last year at the legendary System Two studios in New York with the two Americans and they were touring, promoting the album in September. They touched down at the Hen and Chicken in the middle of the month and tore into a varied set, skipping through a sizzling take on Ornette Coleman’s ‘Happy House‘ after moody abstraction on Paul Motian’s ‘Owl of Cranston’ and the lyrical ebb and flow of Green’s own ‘Stubblerash’. After a grooving workout on the John Martyn tune ‘May You Never’, they thoroughly deconstructed ‘Off Minor’ before completing the evening with a heart stopping reading of ‘When I Grow to Old Dream’.  The fleet BarryGreenGNewsfooted switches and lightening interaction of the trio are all captured on the CD as well as the quirky swerves in repertoire.  Green can sound like several different pianists, now impressionistic colour and pensive exploration, now driving Ornette-ish free bop, followed by a folky Jarretish tinge to his playing on the album’s closer Getting To Be A Habit With Me and unsentimental lyricism and and richness of harmony on many of his compositions.  The live set and the album reveal a distinctive musical personality and Gerald Cleaver and Chris Cheek are peer-less collaborators. Cleaver enlivens, goads and colours the music with every twitch, flourish and pause. Chris Cheek’s sound weaves through the mix sometimes sweetly melodic at others spooling out long spiky lines. It’s an intoxicating brew.  You can get the album here.

September listening: Barnes, Drifter and Janisch

There’s been plenty of listening in September with with a steady flow of albums reviewed for London Jazz News offering a cross section of jazz.  First up was One for Moll from Alan Barnes. abofm  The tone is set by the first track, the Barnes original Blue Note, a swinging funky groove in the spirit of the legendary record label.  It’s a set bristling with great tunes, some of them standards, and committed straight ahead playing from a top drawer band assembled for the recording. It’s making my heart skip and putting a smile on my face with every listen. The full review is here. Alan Barnes comes to Bath’s Wine Vaults to play with the resident jazz House trio on October 22nd.  From a different stable but no less passionate, EDN1059-Drifter-Flow-Front-Cover-600x600comes Flow by Drifter. Edition Records boss Dave Stapleton persuaded Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila and Belgian saxophonist Nicolas Kummert to re-establish a partnerhsip that ended ten years ago after they shot to international fame in the early 2000s. The new band are recording powerful anthemic themes and hooky melodic pieces but its Tuomarila’s dazzling playing and Kummert’s passionate nuanced blowing that grab the ear. Full review here. Paradigm-Shift-Front-Cover-PicAnother sharp contrast was Michael Janisch‘s Paradigm Shift.  Based around a live recording of a quintet of breathtaking quality at Pizza Express some four years ago now, the double CD set has the suite from which the album’s name comes, a set of Janisch originals traversing styles with wild punky thrash, free playing, electronics, hair raising grooves and moody textures all part of the brew and then a set on which the band really stretch out – seething contemporary jazz to match the best. The full review is here. Janisch is currently on an epic tour playing this material which arrives at Bristol’s Hen and Chicken on March 11th.  Strikingly, these were all released on record labels started by the musicians, Woodville, Edition and Whirlwind respectively. Buy the albums in whatever format takes your fancy!

Piano Summit: Tribute to John Taylor, Purcell room, Wednesday 9th September

The joyous, dancing theme of Ambleside Days erupted out of the boiling, rhythmic tumult of percussive chords and hand damped strings that Michael Wollny and Gwilym Simcock exchanged to launch their duet.  It was  towards the end of two hours of rotating occupancy of the piano stools by a total of eight pianists and was a scintillating, dazzling display. After exchanging phrases of the theme, the soaring climax was delivered in unison. Simcock unleashed blistering, rhapsodic run after run somehow combining exuberance and attack with a flowing lyricism in a mesmerizing passage, the effect only heightened by the percussive barrage from Wollny. It was not hard to imagine that both had enjoyed a playful mauling from John Taylor as the other pianist at some time on this very tune, both having been taught by him in Cologne and London respectively.

Wednesday night’s ‘Jazz Piano Summit’, of which this was the climax, was originally planned as a launch gig for Taylor and Richard Fairhurst’s  two piano duet album. It became, after Taylor’s sudden death in July, a tribute, celebration and, at times elegy, in music as well as words to the unique and towering figure in jazz. Wollny and Simcock’s extraordinary performance seemed like all three and a fitting conclusion to the evening as they played out on what sounded like another Taylor burner.

Throughout the evening, Jazz FMs Helen Mayhew had encouraged the pianists to say something about John Taylor and his music and what individually it meant to them.  Whether by design or unwittingly it served to the illustrate the mysterious blend and range of characteristics that made his music so distinctive.  Liam Noble spoke of an attitude and playful approach to making music, Trish Clowes instantly heard an almost orchestral dimension and richness to his playing, Gwilym Simcock recognised an unwavering commitment to giving everything in a performance.  For some, there was still a palpable sense of shock and loss as they spoke of time spent with him.

Duos in different combinations (Tom Hewson/ John Turville, Michale Wollny and Trish Clowes, Wollny/ Fairhurst, Wollny/ Simcock, Kit Downes/ Tom Cawley)  solo spots (from Liam Noble, John Turville) produced wildly differing music, some obviously from the Taylor canon or inspired by his sound ; some utterly individual and distinctive whilst being inspired by an approach or an incident. It was unfailingly absorbing.   Downes and Cawley opened the second set with music of tenderness and luminous beauty. Quietly dancing piano figures gave why to insistent grooves and soaring poetic lines from Cawley or smouldering runs from Downes. It was a moment of special magic amongst much treasure. Liam Noble delivered a typically angular and sideways approach to I’m Old Fashioned somehow making the appearance of the theme, voiced with dense chords and edgily swinging a tense emotional moment.  After a head clearing free improvisation from Wollny and Fairhurst came that thunderous finale.  It was a remarkable evening even without its greater significance. The reason for the surely never to be repeated meeting,  gave the occasion an extra and special charge.

Never mind the width, feel the quality – Autumn Jazz coming up for Bristol and Bath

There is so much exciting music happening over the next two or three months, that a comprehensive overview of  the Bristol/ Bath corner of the jazz planet would be a little overwhelming and occupy too much space.  Instead, let’s dwell on a few fantastic programmes that local promoters have put together. First up, here’s why you should really be paying a few visits to the Hen and Chicken  in Bristol on Sundays over the next couple of months. Ian Storrer’s series of promotions starts with Kevin Figes Octet on Sunday 13th September. Figes has been releasing a steady stream of original  music for various ensembles over the last few years and this Octet, featuring two singers and two drummers as well as the leader’s saxophones spreads his pallette further.  The following week, September 20th, a bit of a coup for Bristol, British pianist Barry Green brings a trio he recorded  in New York 18 months ago with Americans, saxophonist Chris Cheek and drummer Gerald Cleaver. It’s a short tour also taking in Barcelona and London’s Ronnie Scotts and The Vortex. The Americans’ combined CVs include Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Craig Taborn, Roscoe Mitchell, Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel and this is a meeting of musical hearts and minds not to missed.  Jumping forward to October 4th, there’s a more conventional line-up for celebrated pianist Kit Downes‘ new trio, but nothing conventional about the music.  The new collaboration with Swedish bass player Peter Eldh and drummer James Maddren, is called The Enemy and these are perhaps three of Europe’s finest young (ish) improvising musicans.  This will be another exciting ride.   Whirlwind Records boss and bass payer Michael Janisch brings a another transatlantic collaboration on the 11th, his formidable sextet Paradigm Shift that includes Jason Yarde and Paul Booth on saxes as well as live electronic wizardry.  The range and quality of this sequence of gigs is slightly boggling and it continues through to December.   If you go to all those, you’ll have had a hard choice on Sunday 13th as Get the Blessing are launching their new album at the Colston Hall. But that’s just on Sundays.  The weekly Fringe Jazz gig at The Mall in Clifton on Wednesdays would be a good focus of your mid-week attention. Jonathan Taylor has worked hard to establish this as a weekly gig and the roster is reliably top drawer and frequently world class. They kick off with local sax man Ben Waghorn‘s quartet on September 23rd, If you don’t see him very much locally, its because he’s in such demand elsewhere. Expect blistering post-bop jazz. Then a guitar theme kicks in (when its not more world beating saxophonists). Andy Sheppard‘s collaboration with guitarist John Paricelli was a highlight amongst many fantastic collaborations and the pair are at the Mall on the 30th. The following week another guitar legend, Jim Mullen appears with an organ trio. Then ECM recording artist Iain Ballamy appears, another unique British sax voice with an international reputation. Fringe Jazz regulars Dave Newton and John Pearce, Celestine and James Morton and Moscow Drug Club all put in an appearance then London based guitarist Maciek Pysz visits with the dazzling rhythm section of Yuri Gloubov and Asaf Sirkis followed by saxophonist Theo Travis’ quartet with the fantastic Mike Outram on guitar.  This another wildly varied programme of incredible quality given a final twist on 25th November by the improvising trio of saxophonist Paul Dunmall, John Edwards and Mark Sanders.

These are not the only regular or top quality gigs over the next few months.   Of course you should check out Bath’s  St. James Wine Vaults (fortnightly on Thursdays) kicking of of with Art Themen on 10th September and drop in on regular Sunday sessions at The Ring o Bells in Widcombe or Gascoyne Place. Bristol’s BeBop Club continues every Friday (watch out for 50th birthday Big Band led by promoter Andy Hague)and there’s  Jazz at Future Inns on Thursdays  going from strength to strength.  The bigger halls, St. Georges and Colston Hall both have eye catching gigs (not least Aaron Parks Trio on October 8th at St. Georges for anyone who wants see one of the hottest tickets in the new generation of American pianists).  The strength of the programmes at the Hen and Chicken and The Mall are signs of a very healthy scene and, we hope audiences to match.


An August Week in the West Part 2: Gwilym Simcock Solo, University of Falmouth

There are moments in music that seem so right, so beautifully judged, that they both remain suspended in the memory and can eclipse to some extent what led up to them.   After a scintillating and at times gravity defying solo set in the well appointed and intimate performance space at Falmouth University’s performance centre, Gwilym Simcock invited Brigitte Beraha to join him for the inevitable encore. The totally absorbed and universally thrilled audience was drawn mainly from students on the Jazz Summer School and Brigitte was one of their tutors for the week. What followed was a little piece of alchemy. A few stroked abstract chords, Beraha’s wordless sighs and gliding phrases and then I fall in Love to Easily unfolded. A repetition of the stanza followed with the melody distorted and tugged, Simcock following every move with chords by turns lush and sparse.  It’d be tempting to reference Shirley Horne for the sense of pacing or Betty Carter for the imagination with melody and words, but that would perhaps not do justice to Simcock and Beraha’s artistry and simply re-state a jazz truth: great musicians absorb and transmute the ideas an innovations of those that have gone before and weave their own magic. And as the last words dissolved in a sigh and the the piano’s chords faded, it was a piece of pure magic they’d created.

The solo performance that had preceded it had been magical in its own right. Simcock’s now almost taken for for granted protean talents were deployed on exhilarating rhythmic workouts, Barber inspired barely believable counterpoint on Barber’s Blues and exquisite re-workings of the familiar on Everytime we Say Goodbye and, emotionally, Everyone’s Song But My Own. No matter how furious or dense the textures, there was no stopping fluid melodic lines breaking through. It was a breathtaking performance and then followed that encore.  What a moment to stumble across on an evening, in August, in Falmouth.

An August week in the west – Part 1 : The Session in town

The Session_H&ChI’m not sure I can remember the last time I was at  jazz gig that wrapped up with a sing-a-long, but trumpeter Steve Lands was irresistible as he declaimed the verses and egged on the cheerfully dis-inhibited crowd for the responses and chorus of L’il Liza Jane.  It was the encore and the packed Hen and Chicken had been thoroughly won over by two blistering sets from the return of the New Orleans based band last Sunday. The trio of pianist Andrew McGowan, bass player Jason Weaver and saxophonist James Partridge (on Baritone for the evening) have been constants in the line-ups that have visited over the last year. This visit saw Willie Green III powering the quintet from the drum chair.  It was two sets that covered plenty of bases.  They launched with dense contemporary jazz, drifting horn hooks over spikey bass and percussion figures and urgent swing and furious blowing from Lands and Partridge on Sitting Bull Beckons.  Newly minted originals, Andrew’s Blues, Steve’s Samba, Andrew’s 6/8 thing showed their skill in taking familiar jazz materials and forms, twisting them and opening them up for fluid improvising.   A howling, squealing bleak solo from Lands over the chiming piano chords of a Partridge penned ballad was a stand-out moment of the first set – no surprise that the trumpeter is an increasingly in demand player.  Partridge was formidable all evening. Whenever he stepped up the emotional temperature went up, whether blowing flurries of notes or letting long notes and a delicious tone from the baritone sax carry his thoughts.  As the gig went on, the dynamism and fluency  of Weaver’s bass playing shone through and by the time the inevitable second line groove kicked in on  one of his originals, the band were steaming and the smiles broad all round.   A band of mainly New Orleans natives who all met on the Crescent City’s scene, they bring an exuberance and desire to connect which is infectious and once again it wowed the near capacity crowd at the Hen and Chicken.   Another side of their generosity and musicianship was on display the following evening when they showed up at the regular fortnightly jam session at The Canteen.  The occasion was captured beautifully here by Tony Benjamin, who is once again chronicling much what’s interesting and exciting in Bristol on the Bristol 24/7 site.