Local treasures – Five Little Gems

Busyness, life and writing for other blogs and publications  have restricted posting here of late, but here are a few little gems, re-visited or discovered, that it would be wrong not to log.

In no particular order

1. Bath Festival’s Party in the City:  We loved hearing Craig Crofton’s sax echoing of the Abbey as we approached Blow-out Sax’s gaffe below North Parade by the River – they’d set up a little stage outside for the night and were competing with the legendary Gas Giants (Tony Orrell with Will Gregory) in Parade Gardens. That was before we hung out at Green Park Brasserie watching Guy Harrap’s band groove away with a youthful George Rebello on drums and his dad (Jason) roady-ing for him… and sitting in on the odd number.

2.  Don Weller @ Jazz at the Vaults:  He may be in his mid-70s, but he’s still got his mojo and Don Weller was well and truly cooking after a couple of sets with the house trio. Seeing him sparking off Vyv Hope Scott on piano was a thrill to watch.   What a treasure this gig is. How many years and counting?  7 or 8 I’m sure.  Dave Newton is the next guest (28th May) followed by Jim Mullen and Zoe Francis

3.  Frome Jazz Club:This Pheonix has had a few risings, but we caught the first of the latest re-ignitions at the the end of April with John Law dazzling a healthy crowd at the Grain Barge in Frome.  Inevitable sitters in (Sam Crockett, Iain Ballamy, Nick Sorensen) and May’s gig was Iain Ballamy.  It may be a bit below the radar, but its reliably classy – Keith Harrison Broniski is animateur in chief and has form. He was behind the long running Nunney Jazz Cafe back in the day.  Frome’s dynamism is quite a badly kept secret now with John Harris writing fairly regularly in the Guardian about it and their ‘flat pack democracy’.  But the jazz is cooking!

4. Scratch and Sniff Orchestra: More DIY.  Bristol Composers Collective have morphed into a different shape. There have been two performances this year at the Fringe in Bristol’s Clifton Village.   I caught the last one after the collective spent an afternoon rehearsing charts from Jake McMurchie (Get The Blessing, Michelson Morley), Jim Blomfield (himself, Kevin Figes’ bands and….) Will Harris (Moonlight Saving, Michelson Morley and … ) Kevin Figes (himself.. 4tet, 8et, 4sided triangle) augmented by half of Dakhla for blowing power.  This was a major treat. Jake’s ‘The one before the first‘ is still with me in the impact of layers of horns and shifts in harmony. Kevin’s writing is unfailingly imaginative and Jim’s brimming with energy. Will seems to have groove and momentum sewn into his musical presence.  Great stuff -the fruits of this collaboration, direct or indirect, will pop up somewhere around Bristol or further afield for sure.

5. Play Jazz Weekend :  This annual happening has just finished. A pop up  Jazz School I’ve written about before but another great weekend was had this year with an instant musical community, learning thrills (and spills) and the tenth time Rachel Kerry has organised it. A milestone worth celebrating.

A slice of Cheltenham: Arguelles, Scofield and M & M (and W)

Pic by jez matthews

Pic by jez matthews

Saving the best ’til last can be a bit a risky – will the reality bear the weight of expectation?  There were no worries on that score as Julian Arguelles‘ band, swelled to a septet at the behest of the Cheltenham  festival, delivered an exultant performance last Sunday to bring the curtain down on the sequence of gigs at the beautifully appointed Parabola Arts Centre. His core band of Sam Lassserson on bass, Kit Downes at the piano and James Maddren behind the kit were augmented by the bass clarinet and saxes of George CrowleyPercy Pursglove’s  trumpet and flugelhorn and the trombone of Kieran McCloud. IMG_1453There were so may moments to savour, with composer and arranger in chief Arguelles making full use of the expanded pallette. Fugue, gave us a typically thrilling one.  The central idea was a quintessential Arguelles theme – a mazy extended line that played straight could have had a classical, perhaps Iberian tinge to it, but in his hands had a gutsy swagger with the whiff of a New York cellar bar to it. By the time the layers had built up, there was a hue and cry to wake the dead.  Triality closed the hour and half set with a similar tumult. But even when the band were blazing, there was fiercely controlled intensity to everyone’s playing.  There were tender and more lyrical moments, ballads, individual flurries, including a segue from Percy Pursglove reminding us trumpeters do circular breathing too, that had the audience bug-eyed as he produced a sound from his trumpet that sound for all the world like a microphone in a hurricane.  And at the centre the sublime playing of Arguelles whose phrases flow and spiral, rising and falling in volume like a sigh and growling and grooving in an elemental way.  As Tony Dudley Evans reminded us, this is another voice first heard with Loose Tubes that has become a major  creative force.

That was a great end to a day at Cheltenham’s Jazz festival that had another very good year. Deep pockets are needed if you want to attend more than a few gigs so mine was a day trip on Sunday with the climax in the Parabola Theatre, dipping into a programme that started during the week and intensified over the week end (reviews of much it on Bristol 24/7 and London Jazz News from messrs Benjamin and Turney respectively including ‘Sax legend Saturday’ that saw appearances from Archie Shepp, Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano).   My Sunday started with the intriguing collaboration between fusion guitar legend John Scofield and young, making waves German Pablo Held Trio who showed the Montpellier Gardens audience why they have been getting excited reviews.  Grooves appeared out of swirling abstractions  Pablo Held built layers dissonant arpeggios and stabbing chords over fractured surging IMG_1450pulses from Jonas Burgwinkel on drums and Robert Landfermann on bass.  Somehow it fit seamlessly John Scofield’s guitar as he sometimes seemed to gouge short phrases and notes out with his unabashedly rocky sound, at others deliver silvery bursts of boppish runs thread through the trios accompaniment. At times they kicked into familiar bluesey riffs and they finished on a post- bop burn up on a standard whose title tantalisingly eluded me.  A dense, absorbing gig in stark contrast to Medeski, Martin and Wood who wowed the Big Top with there furious organ trio blend of rock, blues,  New Orleansy gospel. I picked up a fair bit of social media muttering from MMW aficionados about the second half of the gig with guest Jamie Cullum. It did have the air of a jam as they reached for Nature Boy and Caravan, the latter a natural victim for John Medeski’s howling synths and organ, but they gave every appearance of having a great time on stage and it was hard not to relax into it and enjoy from where I was sitting.

A thoroughly satisfying day of jazz immersion with the  festival vibe around the Montpellier Gardens hub and late night jam at Hotel du Vin irresistible. I’ll be back

Less is more – in praise of quiet; Eyebrows, Babelfish, Germans and Danes

Sometimes the most obvious things are only apparent when you look back. Hindsight, you can’t beat it. Listening (yet again) to the riveting Garden City album from Bristol based duo Eyebrow, Eyebrow_Garden-City_Coverit was hard not to reach for the well worn phrase ‘less is more’. It’s a full two minutes into the opening tack Blind Summit before the first steady, but subtly mutating groove kicks in from Paul Wigens’ drums, but a few of Pete Judge’s  ghostly trumpet phrases left hanging are somehow gripping for that introductory passage. Thaw, a full 13 minutes of an arresting phrase and heartbeat like pulse developed, re-worked, looped and layered stirs up emotions and reverie. Its a reflective, inner world somehow rendered in sound.  And then I spot the pattern. I seem to have been thinking, and occasionally writing, the same things about a string of albums recently: delighting in the confidence of musicians to allow simple ideas space to breath;  marveling at how a  a huge sound is conjured from a few well chosen and beautifully executed elements; being moved by intensity and passion expressed without furious playing  or using a lot of notes.   I’m not alone in finding those elements in Eyebrow’s great album, Richard BabelfishWilliams reviewed it warmly here Babelfish have charmed the socks of me again with their new release Chasing Rainbows,  full of quiet intensity, singing harmony and rhythm conjured from minimal instrumentation. I’ve already written about that one. Another quiet gem that came my way was the debut release, Xenon,  by the Eva Klesse Quartet  I’ve reviewed for London Jazz here.  A drummer led album noticeably missing fiery drum features,  instead  it’s an occasionally pastoral, frequently neo-romantic classical  flavoured set of originals with plenty of space and scope for interplay. A loud (but not too loud) cheer then, for the confidence to practice the gentle arts of saying more with less and quietly roaring, whooping and exulting.    Even when there’s a bit more density to the music, it’s EvaKlesseXenonpossible for it to possess some of these qualities, especially when the band has the fabulous Julian Arguelles in it.  A review from Peter Bacon at the Jazz Breakfast of GONE, by Danish trio Bebe Buchanan Tagel, had me searching out this beautiful album on which Arguelles is guesting. The 11 originals are all from the pen of one or the other of the core trio. There’s nothing dreamy about it, with plenty of flowing contemporary  jazz and opening with a tribute to Kenny Wheeler, My Old Friend Kenny (you may be tempted to check its not the man himself when the first few notes Bebe Buchanan Tagelfrom Jakob Buchanan‘s flugelhorn etches out the melody).  This one has lodged itself firmly in my playlists in the early part of this year. Maybe its hindsight, maybe just reflections revealing the obvious to me.  This quartet of albums remind me that less is more and the quiet, inner life we all have in some measure can be the source and inspiration of fabulous music in the right hands.

CD Review: Babelfish, Chasing Rainbows

BabelfishBabelfish, the quartet led by vocalist Brigitte Beraha and pianist Barry Green have released a little more quiet beauty laced with wry mischief into the world in the shape of their new album Chasing Rainbows. A set of mainly original tunes and songs from the two co-leaders are given life by the effortlessly meshed grooves conjured up by Chris Laurence on bass and Paul Clarvis on busying, rustling, bustling percussion laced through with now elegant, now acerbic lines from the piano. Brazil is never far away. Michelangelo Anonioni begins as a languid, almost bossa and then subtly changes gear into a pulsating samba-like groove as Green builds an exciting solo over a Laurence/ Clarvis magic carpet of accompaniment that sounds both like its blazing away with its intensity and hardly there with the less is more approach to playing. Beraha’s Sushi Hero is more bouncing, slightly warped latin overlaid  with a typically spikey vocal line, all leaps and dives. Nuit Blanche is darker, retaining a Brazilian edge in its gentler pulse. There are folkier themes with Salley Gardens given a joyous bouncing lilt.  Barry Green’s Confusion is an angular, interval hopping, boppish theme, sown through the album with individual ‘tryouts’ by each band member before a final performance to close the set.   This is beautifully wrought music, full of invention from Green and Beraha’s soloing but always complementing each other and developing their artfully constructed, compellingly melodic themes. This is another gem of an album to follow up their 2012 debut.   They are launching in London on Tuesday 21st at Pizza Express. Let’s hope they manage to spread the beauty around the country in the months ahead

Alan Barnes/ Dave Newton, The Hen and Chicken, Sunday 12th April

Barnes&NewtonIf Alan Barnes is to be believed, and caution is surely advisable given the occasional scatalogical departures in his legendary repartee, he and Dave Newton have been playing much of their repertoire for nearly 40 years since they first met as students. As they ripped into Art Pepper’s Chili Pepper at a blistering tempo, no counting in just Barnes’ liquid flurry of arpeggios to set the tempo, Newton’s chords instantly catching every accent of the quintessentially be-bop theme, there was no doubting the near telepathic nature of the musical partnership.  ‘He’s been taking care of the chords for most of my adult life’ quipped Barnes at one point in the evening, lauding Newton’s playing  and it’s hard to overstate the pianist’s visceral driving energy, coupled with a protean fluency whether with locked hands embellishing chord sequences or fizzing runs over an implacably grooving left hand bass-line. The one man rhythm section frequently seemed to fire himself up as the momentum built behind another dynamic solo.   It wasn’t all fire and brimstone.  Alan Barnes, gags about playing the same stuff in a different octave aside, evoked different moods and voices switching between alto, baritone and clarinet as we were quietly shepherded through a masterclass in repertoire and styles stretching from 20s writers like Don Redman, Gee Baby I Love You getting a through Newton workover, through to Hard bop master Cedar Walton with a thoroughly gospelly account of I’ll Let You Know and lingering over Barnes’ beloved Strayhorn, the quivering, final note of Lotus Blossom from the Baritone a heart stopping moment.  These two musicians have spent their professional lives absorbing and absorbed in the writing and  language of swing, big bands and be-bop onwards and its become their own language of expression.  There were laughs, joyfulness, pain and melancholy for sure. And a hugely entertaining evening greeted with roars of approval as they burned out on Cottontail at an implausible tempo.

Jazz is bursting out all over – Spring Preview : Local gigs Bristol and Bath , Cheltenham and Bath Festivals

With Easter and chocolate binges behind us, a scan of the live gig menu over the next couple months reveals a simple message; you won’t need to go far in Bristol and Bath to catch some outstanding jazz and music inspired by jazz.  There’s the obvious draw of two festivals in May (Cheltenham on the first bank holiday weekend and Bath around the second) of which more in a moment, but it would be a travesty not to notice the quality of what’s on offer week by week at regular sessions. Wade Edwards for example has excelled himself for the spring/ summer season at the fortnightly on a Thursday session at St. James’ Wine Vaults. The booker and occupier of the bass chair in the house trio has secured as a guest on the 16th April fabulous Bristol based Tenor Sax man,  Jake McMurchie (Get The Blessing, Michelson Morley) and then the unique Bristol treasure vocalist Tammy Payne on the 30th April.  Through May and June the house band will go into overdrive with a Hall of Fame series of guests from the British straight-ahead jazz scene.  Don Weller, now in his 70s famously depped for Mike Brecker in Gil Evans Orchestra in the 80s and comes to the Vaults on 14th May. Dave Newton, winner of Best Pianist in the British Jazz awards on multiple occasions takes the piano chair for a trio session on the 28th and then in June, guitar legend Jim Mullen returns with vocalist Zoe Francis.  Regular sessions in Bristol have comparable depth.  Fringe Jazz, now firmly established on Wednesday at The Mall in Clifton, continues with regular appearances from Andy Sheppard who seems to be in the creative overdrive at the moment. The Fringe Jazz sessions feature him in variety of line-ups but the Pushy Doctors are regulars (27th May for instance) and hook-ups with Birmingham based phenomenon on trumpet and bass Percy Pursglove are always worth catching (15th April). In between there’s a great variety, Michelson Morley Jake McMurchie’s looping, live elctronica meets jazz improv (now) quartet featuring guitarist Dan Messore is there on 6th May. Check out the Thursday sessions at Future Inn, an increasingly varied and interesting programme featuring plenty of visitors as well as local bands. Pianist John Law is there on April 30th with a quartet playing material from his new album.  Friday’s see the longrunning BeBop Club continue with a first class programme.  And there are plenty of occasional treats. The Lantern at Colston Hall plays host to Polar Bear on 23rd April and Bill Laurence of Snarky Puppy on 28th May.  Keep your eyes peeled for shows by The Bristol Composers Collective. Their ‘Scratch and Sniff’ Orchestra has started popping up trying out new material by the local scene’s most adventurous spirits.  The next one is on Monday 13th April at The Fringe in Clifton Village. And what of those festivals?  Cheltenham Jazz Festival has evolved into a multi layered affair on the first bank holiday in May.  You can catch Van Morrison, Rumer, Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood fame, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and the Average White Band no less.  Another strand sees  Sun Ra Akestra, Joe Lovano with his Afrobeat project, Dave Douglas and Lee Konitz Quintet, John Scofield with rising star German pianist Pablo Held‘s Trio. Yet another sees a more contemporary European flavoured programme mainly at the Parabola Theatre starting with Phronesis, ending with the sublime Julian Arguelle’s Septet and touching a lot of bases in between. With talks, films, jam sessions, a big Sinatra celebration and a Gershwin one too with the inevitable presence of Gregory Porter and Claire Teal too,  it would be hard not indulge most aspects of a musical personality at this cover the bases,  full immersion now five day festival.  Bath Festival is showing signs of recovering its mojo.  After a few years of mysteriously thin programmes and now loss of long term Arts Council funding  (no doubt funding struggles and consequent competing priorities were all part of the challenge) the festival has worked with Serious to come up with a  lean  series of gigs that offer something distinctive for the ten day festival at the end of May. Serious’ specialisms in folk and world as well as adventurous jazz is evident. A two piano gig with Jason Rebello and Gwilym Simcock rounds off Rebello’s year long association with Wiltshire Music Centre. A strong improv thread sees Orphy Robinson’s Black Top making an appearance and American pianist/ iconoclast Matthew Shipp in duo with bass player Matthew Bisio.  By way of total contrast, American exponents of hot jazz, The Hot Sardines put in an appearance early in the festival and there are uncategorisable collaborations with Mike Westbrook bringing his Westbrook Blake to St. Mary’s Bathwick joined by Bath Camerata choir whilst Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp) and drummer Tony Orrell renew an old association and perform an accompaniment to old silent film He Who Gets Slapped. The wildly, divergently creative duo will surely conjure up something magical.  The whole festival will come to a carnival like end with Hugh Masekela.

Greg Cordez Quintet, BeBop Club, Friday 27th march

Greg-Cordez-1Eight Minutes and Twenty Three Seconds is the time it takes light to travel from the sun to earth and the inspiration for a typical  Greg Cordez composition. In the hands of his formidable quintet,  it built steadily last night  from Jim Blomfield‘s simple, fragile, piano opening to a roaring, all hands on deck climax, before subsiding suddenly to a whisper.  The emotional punch was powerful, a pattern they’d followed most of the evening with bass player leader Cordez’s pieces developing an inexorable momentum over march-like, rocky pulses overlayed with themes that declared themselves steadily, given space to breath and take hold as first one soloist and then the next developed and expanded them.   This band debuted over two years ago at the BeBop and since then the repertoire has evolved into mainly originals with an album due for release soon on the New York based Ninety and Nine record label.  Tenor man Jake McMurchie‘s regular foil Nick Malcolm was absent from the line-up that recorded the album, with  Nick Dover stepping in forming a twin tenor frontline for the evening. The two horns blended beautifully, now stating another of Cordez’s compelling melodic fragments, now offering contrasting developments of the looping sequences, Jake’s throaty, warm sound swooping and crying, Nick offering an edgier sound and probing harmonic embellishments, no less emotionally laden.  The only tunes not from the leaders’ pen were by American bassist Todd Sickafoose.  Blood Orange’s hooky theme over a snappy groove set Jim Blomfield up for a blistering solo with a Rhodes sound, shimmering clouds of notes scattered between wild percussive episodes. The twin tenors came in with a shout chorus cum backing riff and suddenly everyone was blowing, Mark Whitlam‘s drumming goading theme on. It was thrilling stuff.   Later, after the Eight Minutes and Twenty Three seconds of ever brightening sunlight, another Blomfield workout, this time solo piano, segued the band into the sumptuous ballad Camilla Rose, before 1000 Paper Cranes traced another arc to end the gig, from simple chiming phrase on piano underpinned by a bass figure through swelling, building, melody and impassioned blowing back to that chiming phrase. On this showing the album, Paper Crane will be well worth catching. Meanwhile you can get some previews from Greg’s website.