It started with a sharp report from the drums and preemptory blast from sax and trombone, before a gale force tumult of modal jazz surfing a visceral, rhythmic surge exploded, first Brandon Coleman on keyboards and then Kamasi Washington on tenor building incendiary solos. It ended, over 90 minutes later with the ecstatic, thunderous climax of Malcom’s Theme, saxes, trombone, voice, howling synths all combining in a wild incantation over the tumult of two drum kits (yes, two!). Although much used, its hard to find a better word than ‘Epic’ to describe both the music and show Kamasi Washington and his band put on. “It’s my first time here in UK – in Bristol” declared Kamasi, but word had gone ahead. The Lantern was packed (no seats, it was a standing gig), somehow the buzz has spread around his debut release, triple CD set The Epic (what else?).
The elements of the music are familiar, but mixed up and combined in distinctive ways. After the hurricane of jazz, came Final Thought, funky doesn’t quite cover it, with Coleman producing what looked like a Moog Latitude keytar (think Herbie Hancock – 1980s) and Miles Mosley on bass demonstrating what the array of pedals and effects he had in front of him could do to an acoustic bass, at one point sounding like screaming lead guitar. An epic narrative requires light and shade however and there was plenty of that. Washington’s hymn to his grandmother Henrietta our Hero had Patrice Quinn‘s warm vocal delivered over a piano sound that sounded for all the world like a slightly clanky parlour piano and Washington’s father Rickey on flute joining the leader’s tenor and Ryan Porter‘s trombone to provide an exultant choir-like backing. There were plenty of features for the band. Porter blew up a storm on his grooving arrangement of Oscarlypso, and the twin drum attack of Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr was unleashed for a firestorm introduction to The Message, another pulsating latin tinged funk workout. Kamasi Washington’s declamatory, by turns burning and occasionally wistful sax was the centrepiece however. The solos build and build and then build some more, often leading the band into anthemic choruses at the climax of tunes. It’s frequently, there’s no other word, epic.
There is an almost casual fusing and juxtaposing of styles that range from the exploratory probing of sixties jazz, through thunderous funk and beat and groove driven music. It makes for an exhilarating experience with a group of musicians steeped in the music, connected to family and community – half the band grew up together and have formed out of a Los Angeles scene. The music and lyric carries messages, its committed but delivered with a humour and verve that is irresistible. An epic gig (or course).
Alan Barnes? He’s not bad, but after half an hour his playing does your head in – at least that the verdict of Barnes’ daughter Moll as related by the man himself, introducing the tune he wrote for her. It was more than half an hour into the first set and the signs were that the audience in a packed St. James Wine Vaults didn’t entirely share the verdict, judging by the whoops, cheers and sighs greeting the swerve through Barnes’ huge repertoire. There’d been plenty of overt Charlie Parker references and a blistering take of The Song is You (“… lets the get the fast one out of the way to show we can..” quipped Barnes), but a stand-out was an enchanting reading of Alice in Wonderland all wispy phrases and oblique phrasing demanding attention in a less overt way. It was another bravura performance for what has become a regular visit from Barnes to the Vaults. The energy seemed to flow back and forth between audience and band. With guests of Barnes’ quality, the regular house trio of Wade Edwards, Vyv Hope Scott and Trevor Davies always seem to find something extra and different as they rise to the occasion. Jazz at the Vaults may be in its tenth year, but the longevity seems to consolidating the popularity of the fortnightly slot – long may it continue!
Earlier in the month, Andy Hague, trumpeter, drummer, BeBop Club head cook and newly turned 50 year old, celebrated his own longevity with a birthday bash in the shape of a Big Band assembled for the occasion performing his charts. Some were freshly minted, some dusted down crackers and a few re-worked old ones. Manic Molluscs started with a workout from long-time sparring partner Jim Blomfield on piano and a gutsy tenor solo from Jake McMurchie. There was a big turn-out to cheer on a band of Bristol’s finest and Andy’s Friday Night at the BeBop Club gave them a chance to get whooping with a fiery solo from Ben Waghorn on the crisply swinging hard bop vibe. There were stylistic nods in all sorts of directions and the assembled talent did Andy proud. There’s not just life in the old dog, he might just be hitting his stride on this showing.
With most of the near capacity crowd in the Barbican on their feet whooping, cheering and singing along with Paolo Conte as he reprised Wonderful for his second encore, the veteran Italian crooner’s conquest was complete. This audience were probably a push-over however. From the rapturous reception as he arrived on stage, through the spontaneous cheers and ripples of applause that greeted the opening bars of another jaunty theme, it was clear that his UK fan-base was out in force. He purrs and growls rather than sings. The band, consisting of multiple guitars, rotating pianists, percussionists, saxophonists, now accordion, now second keyboard by turns evoked swing era dance bands, Italian cafe music, muted Hot Club swing, playful western-style country or sentimental ballads. Lest the latter appeared too saccharine, Conte was apt to rasp his lyric through a kazoo – like device. The crescendos and swell of understated latin grooves accumulated exquisitely judged intensity before, with a flap of his arms, Conte brought them to a halt. To have resisted the charm and force of this bravura performance would have taken a stonier heart than mine.
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.
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 Cleaver (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 footed 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.
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. 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, comes 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. Another 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!
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.