Quercus, St. George’s Bristol,Thursday 9th February

June Tabor started the performance at St. George’s by declaring “We are Quercus”, and then musing on the contradiction of the plural ‘we’ (herself, Iain Ballamy and Huw Warren) and the singular Quercus. Well it’s simple June. Three peer-less musicians, one exquisitely blended sound.
The music was by turns dancing then meditative; brightly sparkling then dark and brooding.  The repertoire was their trademark eclectic confection, centred on the English folk tradition but touching the jazz standards book, breezing past Brazil and drawing on more contemporary folk and rock. And only ever sounding like this band. Tabor’s note bending slide between two pitches; a subtle harmonic inflection and ripple of notes from Warren on piano; a breathy, astringent phrase from Ballamy’s saxophone all suffused the most familiar
of melodies with a distinctive flavour.
Southern Sea launched the show, Tabor’s crystal clear sonority underpinned by simple piano chords with just a hint of rich colour and an artful modulation giving the sax enough to sweep and swell over to an emotional climax. Jobim’s Meditation, shifted the gears, The  Irish Girl injected an overtly folky pulse then Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice took on an irrestibile momentum with a gently rocking implied groove form Warren’s thickening and propulsive chords.
This rare live gig found the band airing material from their forthcoming second release on ECM and on this showing it will be a ‘must buy’. As the second set proceeded, the intensity peaked and readings of You Don’t Know What Love Is and Beating the Retreat evoked a rapturous response from the generous audience. We were rewarded with a take on Auld Lang Syne that seemed to breathe the personality of the band whilst honouring the original.

That voice and the lyrics were the centre of the evening, but Warren and Ballamy were  extraordinary. The piano accompaniment somehow contrived to maintain the simplicity
and openness that much of the music demanded whilst imbuing every chord and flourish with colours that evoked the mood. Ballamy’s sound is like no other and the restraint and occasional bursts of lyricsm were judged to perfection

This was a magical evening which, for all the pain and loss expressed in the lyrics, left this listener feeling uplifted, a bit more human and more alive.

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Vein with Dave Liebman, St. George’s Bristol, Thursday 4th December

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.

David Murray Infinity Quartet, St George’s Bristol, Wednesday 16th October

As a twenty something year old in the mid 70s, David Murray started a loft jazz space in New York called Studio Infinity, part of scene that was characterised by the sort of free jazz playing for which he’s now legendary (hard to improve on the All Music‘s biography description  of ‘slurred glissandi, indefinite pitches, ambiguous rhythms, and altissimo flights’). It’s surely not too fanciful to make a link between that venture and the quartet of the same name he brought to St. George’s. There was a whiff of a late night New York club about the band as they strolled on stage, had their respective pedigrees rehearsed by Murray (including winning this year’s Downbeat Poll for drummer Nasheet Waits) and launched in into ‘Sorrow Song’  a medium tempo swing tune over which Murry seemed to drape the melody with a big fat tenor sound, before reeling off into melodic lines that slid over and round the chord changes or ignored them all together as he squawked and honked before sliding  back to the tune. It’s a style he’s made his own. It gripped me when I first heard it on a record more than twenty years ago playing on a ballad and was powerfully reminded of it again last night as he drenched ‘Body and Soul’ with emotion, deconstructed the harmony and then left the rhythm section to continue. Whenever he was playing it was riveting.  The bass clarinet came out for one, Art Blakey like tune and provided the evening’s most compelling moment as he exploited the full range of the instrument, snapped and squawked intensely rhythmic phrases and departed on a low feeding back note reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders exploitation of that technique. It’s impossible not to be moved by his playing. At its best it’s like being exposed to raw emotion.  Like all raw emotion it  feels a bit unstable at times and the band seemed a bit chaotic at times, with Murray and pianist Rod Williams constantly disappearing on mysterious errands out of the door at the back of the stage during and between tunes (Williams even missing the cue in to a tune at one point) and bass player Jaribu Shahid visibly and audibly explaining what should happen next as a flight of fancy or ambiguity of rhythm from Murray seemed to lose the pianist. More than one tune was rescued by thunderous drum solos by Waits. And then they would find their pace and as on ‘Obi’, a Butch Morris tune, the trio of Williams, Shahid and Waits delivered a sizzling post bop workout. Edgy, chaotic, exultant and never dull. The Infinity Quartet certainly blew any stray cobwebs out of St. George’s last night.

Aruan Ortiz/ Michael Janish Quintet, St. George’s Bristol, Thursday 8th November

Invisible connections.  That was the idea running through my head as I left this gig, a few personal but mostly there on stage to be discerned by all. The first connection: this gig started as the last one I went to, with unaccompanied bass setting out the stall (and it was the same bass by all accounts,  Greg Cordez having loaned it for the evening). The flashing grin from the drummer was familiar too. We last saw Rudy Royston being surgically removed from the kit at the late night jam at Cheltenham Festival; he just loves to play! And he was endlessly playful throughout this gig.  The rythmic connection was one of the threads that bound this quintet. It was palpable but not always obvious or direct.  It would feel like there was a flow and groove, but no-one would be playing it, and playful Rudy would be cracking out a rhythm that sounded like it was from another tune with huge grin exchanged with Michael Janish on bass or Aruan Ortiz on piano. More often, one or other of this peerless apparently telepathically connected group would set things going with a stacatto riff or jerky pattern, soon to be joined by the rest jumping in the gaps or mysteriously doubling a phrase as it re-appeared in an unexpected place.

A solo piano passage preceded and introduced Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ that crystallised another dimension of this gig.  Every chord Aruan Ortiz laid down had a delicious ambiguity about it; They sounded like major and minor at the same time. They led the ear in different directions simultaneously – will it resolve or is that the resting place?  Each little run of notes had similar traits, not quite starting or ending somewhere safe. And through all that there was a ghost of a familiar melody, never quite stated openly. The acoustic in St. George’s was  another instrument at this point and throughout the evening. The band were truly unplugged, not an amplifier in sight so the piano’s sound just hung in the air enhancing a meditative almost ethereal air. The band joined and Raynald Colom’s trumpet teased and played with the melody providing the quietest moment of an intense evening.  That ethereal atmosphere was there all evening, even in more energetic number, something to do with the space and the way the band responded to it – this would have been an altogether different experience in a cellar bar.

Have I made this sound like a gig at which you had concentrate and do some work to get the payback of  delight when a group of assured improvisers performs a high wire act and far from falling off create something special?  Well you did have to concentrate and the payback was there.  This band had Greg Osby in it as well as those younger turks.  It had the sound of jazz well within the recognisable boundaries of bebop onwards; they even played a few standards, Jitterbug waltz was another. They stretched and teased with harmony, they stretched and teased with time and pulse. It was always there though and the invisible connection between them palpable.  I want to listen again, one my signs of a connection made.

Round up – Ray d’Inverno at the BeBop, Marius Neset & Daniel Herskedal at St. Georges, September 14th & 17th

An auspicious start to what looks like a feast of live music throughout the autumn in the Bristol/ Bath area. Ray d’Inverno returned after a visit in January with his Quintessential Groove to launch the Be Bop Club season on Friday night. Interestingly, almost none of the material they played was the same although running a similar gamut of folky, hymn like ballads, driving post bop swing, hip contemporary American jazz (you know –  that feel with almost even quavers, retains a swinging feel and a hint of a backbeat), the odd latin burner and even a standard or two. A good start to what looks like a great programme this autumn. St. George’s launched a similarly enticing programme with a free gig by a saxophone and tuba duo. The saxophonist was Marius Neset. It was hard to miss the buzz around his debut Golden Xplosion album last year and the reports of a couple of previous visits to the area, so no doubt like a few others, that reputation, curiosity and the ticket price (!) drew me there. What a weirdly beautiful, quirky delight it turned out to be. I can report that the tuba, as well as being a conventional low pitched brass instrument, is also in fact a tuned didgeridoo and an excellent, entirely acoustic device for beat boxing. The range of accompaniment this offers and Neset’s prodigious and protean facility on the saxes meant there was scarcely a moment when there wasn’t something riveting happening. I must confess a wave of nostalgia for the Bath Jazz Festival of a few years ago  when it seemed the continent of Europe had been combed to unearth unlikely ensembles that somehow combined their own folk and classical tradition with the jazz instinct for groove and improvisation creating moments of pure magic. This was one one such evening and the acoustic at St. George’s was perfect for the occasion.

Terry Seabrook’s Milestones, Kind of Blue, St. George’s Bristol, Thursday 15th December

Listening to this sextet, brought to St. George’s by pianist and leader Terry Seabrook, play quite possibly the most widely known repertoire in all of modern jazz  -Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue in the order it appears on the album – was always going to be a slightly  different sort of jazz gig. They played it split across a break with mainly Seabrook’s Miles inspired compositions before and after the Milesian material. I wasn’t quite prepared for just how familiar the music was. Every phrase, every harmony was like a well loved friend. At one point, Terry Seabrook actually played Wynton Kelly’s solo on Freddie Freeloader rather than improvise. This was doubly spooky as its a solo I, like a number of piano obsessd friends, have transcribed and learnt so that every miniscule departure by Terry from Wynton’s feel or emphasis was immediately audible.  But there’s a reason this album is loved, and not just by self-confessed jazz obsessives: it is fantastic music and quintessential jazz of a timeless quality. That coupled with some fabulous soloists in the band (Alan Barnes, Byron Wallen, Ian Price) meant I departed with a warm glow. The standout moments for me were where the band seemed to bring themselves to the music and not just recreate the sound of Mile’s 1959 band. Alan Barnes’ baritone solo on Boplicity (one of the pre-Kind of Blue tasters in the set) seemed a distilled version of the apparent ease with which he creates excitement and freshness with flurries of notes and flowing lines whilst staying within the stylistic sound of this era’s music. He is a master. The whole band made Flamenco Sketches breath and sigh, but especially Byron Wallen: an anthem for today as well as 1959. A welcome pre-Christmas warmer at St. Georges then with a healthy turn out to appreciate it.

Joe Lovano – Us Five, St. Georges, Bristol, Tuesday 29th March

‘Hotly anticipated’ doesn’t quite do justice to the buzz in the St.Georges bar before Us Five ambled onto the stage on Tuesday night. The blizzard of admiring reviews that followed the Ronnie Scotts gig (take your pick: Guardian, Evening Standard, FT) give some sense of the reverence in which the tenor man is held by jazz aficionados and the collective power of this latest venture with which he’s recorded the two most recent albums of his twenty five for the iconic Blue Note label.  And his band, whilst yet to acquire house hold name status were extraordinary both in their individual virtuosity, and in the empathy and responsiveness between them. What has stayed with me is the strength of the  connections within the band that were played out on stage. Lovano was always the connecting thread; the evening started with an unaccompanied, breathy tenor sketching out melodic lines and sliding off into little flurries of notes. And then those different relationship took hold, sometimes between the two drummers, sometimes between drummers and piano. An up-tempo almost frenetic latin groove evoked a storming, percussive piano solo from James Weidman which seemed to urge Franciso Mela on to an even greater clatter of rythms. The acoustic in St. Georges did the band no favours at those moments. I could feel the excitement, but I could only hear the drums.  John Fordham quotes Joe Lovano as saying he doesn’t play free jazz, but plays jazz free. That is a lovely summary of the way this band swings. Some of the  most transporting moments were when the band was swinging together on tunes like Donna Lee – there was a looseness, almost as if some were rushing and others hanging back but the sum of the whole was a perfect almost heart stopping lilt with the tenor’s phrases sliding over the top. Other tunes were utterly deconstructed with Parker’s Yardbird Suite appearing as an out of time plaintive sighing theme before some quite free soloing from the band.  This was music led by a master steeped in all the jazz of the last 60 years so that its just seems to leak out of him effortlessly.  A spell binding evening.