My Bristol week: From Craig Handy to Thelonius

As if last Friday’s outing to see Entropi wasn’t enough, catching Craig Handy mid-tour with a mouth-watering quartet at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday was followed on Wendesday by Thelonius celebrating the centenary of their eponymous inspiration at The Fringe. Soaking up the music and earning a crust has meant I’ve yet to reflect on either gig here, so an edited highlights is what follows.   It’s hard to imagine any city in the world hosting anything better than these two gigs as part of the week’s routine fare. There was also a connection, in my mind, between them. Both transparently drew on an in-the-very-marrow familiarity with jazz from bebop onwards and everything that has flowed from it, coupled with dazzling improvisation, so that the most familiar of material had zest and IMG_2571life and freshness.  Yup, it’s been quite a week.

Handy toured with Herbie Hancock in the mid 90s playing the New Standards material, was in the legendary Betty Carter’s band, has been a fixture in the Mingus Big Band including stints as MD.  It shouldn’t be a surprising then if his sound, choice of phrase, instinct for a mischievous quote or reference sounds, whilst still being his own, as if it comes from a long line of greats, .  It was gripping, it just oozed out of him. He was clearly enjoying the company of Jonathan Gee on piano, Nicola Sabato on bass and Rod Youngs on drums.  This wasn’t a grab you by the throat and shower you with notes session, but oh my it was grooving. Cedar Walton’s Holy Land was an easy medium swing tempo and as Handy layered phrase upon phrase, building momentum the band stoked it with him. It was like sitting on a gradually swelling ocean wave; quite exhilarating.  Rod Youngs was a delight, much of that energy coming from pushy, minimal strokes of his cymbal.  The two sets were mostly standards with a couple of Handy originals and the easy fluency was a thrill.  As we crept out (a case of catching the last bus syndrome), What’s New was just fading. We’d hung on every swoop and flutter of the melody. It was easy to imagine echoes of Coltrane or Dexter Gordon playing the ballad, but that’s because they’re surely in Handy’s the musical bloodstream.

Thelonius were drinking from the same well, but restricting themselves exclusively to compositions by Monk himself as Calum Gourlay reminded the full to over-flowing Fringe  before a note was played (just in case we were there under false pretenses). They kicked of with Epistrophy and the easy swing and Monk’s instantly catchy but typically off-kilter theme grabbed the ears. Hans Koller was on keys for this tune (he played valve trombone for most of the evening) and assembled a solo that was like shards of glass, all angles and dissonant fragments. A great start. This band, with Martin Speake on alto and for this gig the peer-less Jeff Williams on drums, have been playing weekly at times at the Vortex exploring the Monk canon. There’s always the possibility of deconstruction and radical re-interpretation in a project like this, but they approach the tunes with great fidelity to the original compositions in tempo and feel. They are each formidable improvisers and composers in their own right and the exploration of the tunes is from the inside out. Williams threatened to steal the show early on with a riveting, melodic solo on Teo. For Gourlay, the band frequently just laid out and he gave a hint of why a solo bass set from him might be a treat somehow evoking the harmony and sounding like an entire rhythm section as he played off Monk’s themes..  Koller is a a top drawer pianist, so hearing where his mind takes him with just a single line to pursue on the trombone , without the added  harmonic possibilities of the keyboard was fascinating.  There’s a  muted, fragile air to his tone adding a vulnerable almost melancholic edge to his playing.  His trombone and Speake’s alto blended and interacted beautifully and gave Round Midnight a fresh twist.  It was, as Gourlay again, reminded us the day after Monk’s would-have-been 100th birthday.   It was a delicious homage.

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We are Leif – Forge Session, Wednesday 4th October

The funky environs of The Forge, tucked away in Colston Yard, was the venue for We are Leif‘s launch of their EP back in May, reviewed approvingly at the time by Tony Benjamin.    They were back on Wednesday  to record live and film, meaning waleifheadphones were supplied. Heads nodded and bodies swayed as the beautifully balanced grooves were fed direct to our ears. The band’s sound is firmly anchored in the tight grooves and lightly worn sophistication of R&B flavoured nu-jazz. If attention drifted for a moment we could have fancied we were in a hip New York loft.   The headphones may have invited comparisons to Snarky Puppy videos, but the  band headed these off with a few self- deprecating gags. The music however suggested only favourable reference points with the best on the scene.  Skip to Love  came first with with  layered rhythms from Chris Jones‘ bass and Mark Whitlam‘s drums under Louise Victoria‘s appealing chant- like vocal hook. Transition started with an infectious groove implied by an off-kilter vocal riff. Less is more with this band and Dale Hambridge’s tasteful soloing pulled of the trick of stoking the energy, bringing a smile to faces of the band without ever over-playing.  Louise Victoria’s vocal is naturally in the foreground. Her lines flow effortlessly across grooves with subtle shifts of meter and harmony.  There’s an emotive fragility to the sound, balanced by occasional shifts up through the gears.   We Are Leif are steadily building a buzz around themselves. Look out for gigs and get hold of the EP, satisfaction is guaranteed.

October Fest – Bristol: Be-Bop Club & Hen and Chicken gigs

I’m pretty sure no-one co-ordinated it, but if we all start saying it, maybe the word will get out. It’s October Fest! The Be-Bop Club’s every Friday gig schedule, combined with a for-one-month-only every Sunday flurry from the Hen & Chicken, makes a October a bustling month for gigs.  And you already know about every Wednesday at The Fringe.  No-one need to go anywhere, some of the best, hottest tickets on the UK (Europe/ World?) are coming to us.

Starting tonight at the BeBop Club, up and coming former local lad (somewhere near Frome again!), now based in Europe, Mark Pringle brings an International Quartet to the BeBop. LondonJazz News spoke to him. Next week it’s Dee Byrne’s Entropi touring on the back of their loudly praised album (Guardian 4* review here). That band features former local residents Olie Brice and Rebecca Nash.  With SW based Sam Massey following and Josephine Sartori rounding off the month (in case you missed her at the Hen and Chicken last week), its a bumper BeBop month.

Meanwhile over at the Hen & Chicken, Ian Storrer has cooked up a no less varied month. Sarting with Christian Garrick on Sunday, next week its Craig Handy (yes that Craig Handy, former Herbie Hancock sideman and…  book your ticket now). Following that up with Ollie Rockberger the month is rounded off by the sublime, uncategorisable Malija comprising Mark Lockeart, Liam Noble and Jaspar Hoiby.  I reviewed their album here.

And finally.. it’s not quite October, but don’t forget, Andy Sheppard is launching his new ECM album with Michel Benita, Eivind Aarset and Seb Rochford at St. George’s on 7th November (it’s not quite sold out. Yet)

Ambleside Days – the first post

After two evenings of the Ambleside Days ‘Contemporary Music Festival’, it’s quite hard to contain the excitement at what’s still to come. What we’ve already experienced has been quite breathtaking.  For four nights at Zeffirellis in Ambleside, a shifting roster of musicians have assembled to play music that has as its touchstone  an ‘exciting beauty’, to use the words of Derek Hook, animateur of this near magical happening. There’s an overt dedication to the memory of John Taylor; some of his compositions have already been lovingly re-interpreted.  More than this though, there’s a shared sensibility and reverence for allowing arcing, melodic lines to sing; open rich harmony to swell and ring; dancing, fizzing rhythms to animate and most of all an open-ness and receptiveness between musicians that creates drama and excitement on the fly.

On the first evening the Ambleside Quintet took the stage: Stan Sulzman, Mike Walker, Asaf Sirkis, Dave Holland and Gwilym Simcock. On the second they were distilled to Simcock, Holland and Walker, before Joe Locke’s Quartet took the stage with Simcock and Sirkis joined by Daryl Hall on bass. They briefly expanded to a quintet with Tim Garland guesting.

There are already so many glowing moments, the most compelling have been freighted with emotion as well as dazzling spontaneity.  On the first evening, Gwyilm Simcock segued from an angular Asaf Sirkis piece via a swirling, abstract improvisation that condensed into a pusating groove to launch Stan Suzmann’s Choo Choo.  Mike Walker seduced us all evening with solos that eddied, flowed and soared.  The trio of Simcock – Holland – Walker held the room spellbound whether with a sumptuous solo rendition of Everyone’s Song But My Own by Simcock, an electrifying, joyous solo from Dave Holland on I Should Care or a riotous take on Solar with a playful collective improv as an intro set off by a clang of the strings from Walker, chased by Holland with a big grin.  The Quartet set from Joe Locke was full of vitality and feeling, a dedication to Bobby Hutcherson Make Me Feel Like Its Raining another special moment.

The setting, the pool of musicians as well as performances from world class, established ensembles , is proving to be the perfect recipe for creating a unforgettable tribute to John Taylor and perhaps glimpses of future collaborations.  There’s more to come with The Printmakers taking the stage tonight and another set from a  permutation of that pool of musicians, this time Locke, Garland and Simcock.  Tomorrow, its an audience with Dave Holland and whoever he calls up to join him.

 

Magical musical moments a-plenty in the last month.

Note to self:  In amongst the hurly burly of ‘yet another thing’, jostling for attention or needing to be done, remember to stop and appreciate the moments of of magic. The mind can play tricks.  With non-musical pre-occupations distracting me (a lot) the last month or so, I’d been thinking live music had taken a back seat. Until I wrote a list

There were the ones that I actually wrote about: Chris Potter at Cheltenham Jazz Festival; London Vocal Project (LVP)‘s UK premiere of Miles Ahead; Bath Festival gigs (these for Jazzwise)Brad Mehdlau, Georgie Fame with Guy Barker Big Band and ‘Stormy‘, a one women theatre show about Lena Horne. Of that little crop Mehldau, and LVP still give me a physical tingle if I stop and think about it.

It seems we are never short of great live music at the moment for the local scene. We took in an outing of Andy Hague‘s Quintet.  As well as being a fine trumpeter and drummer, Andy is a prolific and inventive writer and arranger, making these gigs a bit of a roast for his band. It’s a good job they are all top drawer.  A scintillating arrangement of Ladies in Mercedes still glows in the memories and George Cooper in peak form (only depping mind) absolutely burning on an Andy tune inspired by Giant Steps.

We took in a double bill of Zoe Rahman and Jay Phelps at the Colston Hall’s Lantern stage. Rahman’s was a solo set at the piano and she was simply glowing.  A set of mainly originals with a sprinkling of other sources were vehicles for fiery improvisations.  Elbows, snaking glissandos, plucking and muting strings inside the piano, all were melded into fluid lines that ebbed and flowed, full of drama. Never far away was a meaty groove, sometimes implied, often explicit.  If we’ve seen less of her over the last two or three years on the live circuit, this is timely reminder that she must be one of our most assured and individual voices.   More!!   Jay Phelps band are also, individually, some of the busiest and hardest grooving musicians around. They let rip on a collection of Phelps originals inspired by a couple of years of globe trotting on his part. Sophisticated funk, latin grooves and soulful hip hop inflected themes were the order of the day.  Phelps made is mark as trumpeter as a very young man.   His writing for voice seemed to stretch his own vocal technique however.

As if all that wasn’t enough – catching a set of Alex Hutton stretching out on what sounded like a Bill Evans themed set at the Archduke (just on London’s southbank ) was a delight.  With Dave Whitford on bass and a drummer whose name I didn’t quite catch, they were nonchalently swinging like mad and Hutton reminding me what fine, lyrical improvise he is.

Maybe not such a quiet month then.   Wherever you are, it seems you may not be too far from some great live music.

 

 

 

Sterland-Temmink, Be Bop Club, Friday 31st March

Dipping into the BeBop Club on Friday just as the quartet had kicked off, I caught a little  fizz of excitement as tenor man Greg Sterland dug into Blues for Philly Joe over a pulsating swinging groove.  Pasquale Votino on bass and Paolo Adamo have been ubiquitous IMG_2145around Bristol of late, a first call rhythm section and that moment captured why.  The energy and propulsive momentum was palpable.  Sterland is an adventurous and fluent improviser.  Even on the blues, familiar phrases were twisted and pulled into long lines, occasional gutteral cries and rasps adding colour.  And then a change of pace and a moody Kenny Kirkland piece brought a more smoky, brooding sound from Sterland and Daan Temmink his co-leader on keys, spun rhapsodic and lyrical flurries over Kirkland’s distinctive angular harmony.  All was set fair for an absorbing and exciting evening’s music.  Bird Food ramped the energy levels further still, Sterland pulling out another, twisting, volcanic solo. Paolo Adamo was all ears on drums seeming to anticipate and catch every rhythmic swerve. A lovely Temmink original followed, Song for Helen. If we didn’t already know that he plies his trade as a composer for film and TV, someone might have been tempted to commission him on the strength of that one.  Sterland’s Nothing Serious was a ghostly latin number, making the most of the simplest of motifs and breathy tenor, wheezing and fluttering. It inspired an incandescent solo from Temmink, all glittering runs and sinuous melodic lines.  A second set saw more originals, a wonky Coltrane tribute by Votino, Dear John. If Coltrane didn’t write in 5/4 maybe he should have done; another Temmink original, Dragonfly all dance and skitter then a gorgeous reading of Monk’s Reflections to finish, Sterland growling, rasping and fluttering again around the melody, in between the perfectly crafted swoops of the melody.

I’m not sure if this is a regular band, but the busy, collaborative, Bristol scene mean these players know each other well and it showed in this performance.   A evening that delivered all the promise of that first tune.

CD catch up: Dominic J Marshall & Friends – Triolithic; Jonathan Silk – Fragment

I’m still catching up with 2016’s recorded largesse as 2017 rolls on. These two excellent albums  are wildly different but give a flavour of the diverse creativity honed and unleashed by now well established jazz programmes at top music colleges. Drummer Silk hails from Scotland originally but went to Birmingham, whilst pianist  Dominic Marshall went to Leeds before migrating to Holland for further study.

Marshall’s latest recording Triolithic, released towards the end of last year, finds him  dmarshall_triolithicreunited for half the dozen tracks with fellow Leeds alumni Sam Vicary on bass and Sam Gardner on drums.  The rest are recorded with regular collaborator Jamie Peet on drums and Glenn Gaddum Jr on bass.   There are plenty sources of inspiration blended into Marshall’s playing and writing but the lodestar is the blending of melodic lines, jazz drenched harmony, fluid improvising and the beats of hiphop.  It’s territory he’s been exploring for a while, but this collection has the assured feel of an artist confident in his own voice. A liquid groove may never be far away but different atmosphere’s are conjured up with a playful hook from the synth on 80 Campbell Road, a dark modal work out on Deku Street with Jarret-like spiraling invention. Blue Lotus takes off with dazzling counterpoint.  The pieces evolve and the developments suggest little stories.  This is music that draws on influences and makes something fresh from them.

jonathan-silk-fragment-stoney-lane-records-slr1977-150x150Jonthan Silk‘s Fragment is another set of original music, but using an altogether different palette.  Silk has written for a big band augmented by a 13 piece string section. He’s put his studies with Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider to  good use creating sweeping, dynamic pieces. Some, like Introduction, Prelude, Reflection are very short setting us up for more prolonged development. After swelling strings, the trumpet entrance on Introduction is a catch the breath moment before Buchaille kicks in, layers build up and solos swoop over stabbing interjections from the ensemble. The title track Fragment  is high octane, burning improv over a rocky clatter. Fool’s Paradise’s succession of episodes uses the full range of the the band building to a climax, the trumpet section soaring over a clamorous sax solo before calm descends.  There’s some glorious playing from individuals and the whole ensemble. This is a notable achievement and too many strings to count added to the bow of Birmingham’s Stoney Lane Records who put this one out.

If 2017’s crop of recordings produces many like these two, it will be a very good year.