John Law is a man in constant motion. On a gig there is an often dazzling flow of ideas from the keyboard and piano. There’s also a restless forward momentum to the various projects he puts together. After a stream of acoustic trio albums he popped up with a band he called Boink!, three years ago now, playing with electronics alongside the more familiar acoustic jazz format. We got to see them early on as ideas were taking shape. The current line-up of his band Congregation he brought to BeBop Club on Friday marks a shift up-wards of gears. The samples, synths and pedals were all in the mix and the most recent addition James Mainwaring of Roller Trio fame, had a bewildering array of pedals for his saxes and guitar. There was a sense of them all now fully integrated with the music and the formidable improvising powers of the band to compelling effect. The quartet was completed by the dazzlingly virtuosic Ashley John Long and the relentlessly grooving Billy Weir on drums.
The repertoire drew on Law’s extensive back catalogue with by turns hypnotically pulsing soundscapes filled with elctronic squeals and loops and then blistering soloing and exchanges within the band. An early stand-out was And Them. It started as a skipping little groove with a catchy melodic hook from synth, doubled by the sax that could almost have been an early 80s electro-pop anthem. Then the mood thickened and suddenly a rampant exchange between just piano and drums with Law’s glittering, sinuous runs and two handed flurries hurling layers of rhythm at Weir which he returned with interest. A shimmering, free, dialogue between Long and Mainwaring, dissolved into a take on Naima with an insistent drone from keys and bass underpinning hoarse, soulful cries from the sax. I Sink Therefore I Swam raised the temperature further. A frantic, mazy pattern in Laws’s left hand, doubled by bass, bubbled under a dark theme. The soloing was incendiary, especially from Long. Scampering runs were a prelude to driving, wedge like chords on the bass building a volcanic momentum. Each of the quartet had moments like this. On Through a Glass Darkly the band laid down a shifting carpet of sound while Mainwaring found almost vocal, gutteral cries and squalls from the tenor to raise hairs on the neck. They played out on Giant Stabs, a rollicking Samba and plenty of Coltrane references to leave everyone on a high. A vintage night at the BeBop Club
There’s only one place to be, if you happen to find yourself in Sheffield on a Wednesday night. Off to The Lescar I went. This week they were hosting guitarist Alex Munk’s Flying Machines touching down in Sheffield on an extensive tour promoting their album.
They took off straight away with a throbbing bass line from Conor Chaplin, Dave Hamblett‘s drums and the guitar locking in a groove that had a whiff of a skirling dance to it. Rainbow Line followed with a fractured, funky bass line and a snapping, off-kilter feel. As Long As It Lasts after a ruminative intro from Munk, had a hymn like melody traced out by ringing chords. Chaplin unwound a fluid melodic solo before handing the baton to Munk. The leader has a knack of stringing crisply articulated motifs into long arcing phrases even as the rhythm section revs up underneath him and they collectively lean towards rocking out. Matt Robinson on keyboards is the fourth, indispensable element of the sound. Subtle synth washes and tastefully judged chordal stabs or melodic flurries were ever present. On a new, as yet untitled Munk tune, a plaintive, folky melody accelerated over Hamblett’s hip, driving drums and Robinson let fly with a blistering solo, blending darting lines and blocked chords to build to a climax. There were a couple of excursions into out and and out prog rock meltdowns, but always lurking were artfully layered rhythms and harmonic shifts. Towards the end Robinson guided a more reflective piece with a gorgeous reflective intro before the gently rocking groove of A Long Walk Home drew another bass solo, packed with ideas and long fluid lines.
Munk’s music steers a path through all sorts of references with a seasoning of a rocky groove or a kicking riff never far away. It was rapturously received by a full house at The Lescar. Their tour continues so catch them if you can. The remaining 16 (count-em) dates are here
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.
Was that a deliberate typo on the booking page of Jazz Steps Nottingham’s website that turned this trio into Green – Grass and Rain (ey)? There was no sabotaging the quality of the music however. If you’re going to hook up with a kick ass New York rhythm section then you may as well go for the top drawer and Barry Green did just that when he recorded his just released Almost There trio album in New York with Drew Gress and Tom Rainey. Now there’s a short tour and my own roamings meant I was crossing their path in Nottingham.
The material expresses different sides of Green’s personality. From muted, glowing renditions of pop ballads and hymns, through tumbling free improv, a sprinkling of originals that are jagged polished little jewels of rhythmic jigsaws and fragmentary melody, some viscerally driving swing and bursts of rhapsodic lyricism. In Gress and Rainey he has perfect foils who anticipate, play off each other and shadow every move.
In the first set Paul Simon’s A train in the distance sucked the air out the room, as the piano chimed the affecting melody, floating on a pulsing, insistent sizzle from Rainey’s drums. Then they launched into Green’s own My Spy a jagged left hand riff doubled with Gress’s bass and stabbing chords and glittering fragments of melody from the right hand. If little clusters of notes and angular turns in the piano solo hinted at Monk, it was overt as they ripped into a tumbling, free-wheeling take on the master’s Work. This is a tour on the back of the album release, but they were stretching beyond that material. More Green originals, another clattering tumultuous deconstruction this time of McCartney’s Her Majesty and a burst of sunshine and joy with a lilting calypso like piece, Pim, that drew a fluid, singing solo from Gress on the bass. Rainey was a revelation throughout. Sometimes adding colour, at others rhythm and clatter that tugged the band in new directions, at others sitting on the simplest of driving pulses. The choice of materials may have been Barry Green’s, but this was a group conversation and performance. A delight.
And another delight for me was to visit the Bonington for the first time and dip into Jazz Steps’ programme. They are another bit of the live music and jazz network on which we depend and run of course by volunteers. Loud cheers.
It took just a couple of notes from Byron Wallen‘s trumpet to infuse the Wine Vault’s atmosphere with a crackle of excitement on Thursday night. He led the band into Kenny Dorham’s Lotus Blossom, an easily swinging groove with a bluesey theme; a quintessential sixties Blue Note vibe. The visitor unfurled a blistering solo, gracefully shaped phrases following the arc of the harmony and little accelerations and flurries of notes building the excitement. By the time he’d finished, bass man and the Vaults’ impressario Wade Edwards was grinning like a cheshire cat. We all were.
This was Wallen’s second visit to share the stage with the house trio. The last (here), several years ago now, still glows in my memory. Then as now, there was plenty of engaging chat and a reminder from DJ Tony Clark in his introduction of the weight and length of the trumpeter’s CV. This time the theme was trumpet heroes and we got a slew of classics associated with various legends and music firmly rooted in classic jazz. Orthinology was for Fats Navarro, Sky Dive for Freddie Hubbard, Tom Cat for Lee Morgan and Budo for Miles. In between a sprinkling of Wallen originals added another flavour to the mix, his artfully constructed pieces always having a twist or darker tone to them.The Little Giant, for Booker Little, was a lilting waltz with bitter-sweet harmony and an angular rhythmic hook to nudge the band in different directions. It also occasioned the name drop of the evening as Wallen recounted hanging out with the legendary Charles Lloyd after a gig and asking him about Little, with whom Lloyd had been at school and apparently, according to the sax man, ‘showed him the blues’. We got some jazz history as well as scintillating music. Home Truth got an airing as it it did on Wallen’s previous visit, a dark, brooding ballad with echoes of the music of Kenny Wheeler.
Every time the trumpet spoke, there was an easy fluency and energy that fired the house band up and brought new sounds out of them. As soon as Vyv Hope Scott launched into his piano solo on the opening Lotus Blossom he’d found a slight different more open sound compared to the familiar muscular swing of the trio’s warm up number You and the Night and the Music, the gear shift somehow cued by Wallen’s exploratory playing. It’s a testament to the quality and flexibility of the house trio that they respond readily to the sound of their varied guests. Deep into the second set Wallen called You Don’t Know What Love Is and brought the house down with a keening, emotional reading of the standard.
This was top drawer jazz from an A list name in British jazz. Let’s hope he’s return is even quicker next time.
If you check out Phelan Burgoyne‘s Bandcamp page for his just released debut as a leader Unquiet Quiet, the words offered as tags are jazz, improvisation, London (so far unsurprising) and rubato. The last one might raise an eyebrow, given this is a drummer led trio playing Burgoyne’s compositions. It’s a little signal however, that listening and on the spot alchemy are part of the brew.
And so it turned out to be when I dropped into the Vortex last Friday for the launch gig. Burgoyne’s co-alchemists were Martin Speake and Rob Luft supplying thoughtful probing alto and layers of guitar sound respectively. The unannounced pieces crept in with maybe a squeal from the alto, a distant rattle or a ripple from the guitar. There was always development and a strong hook to anchor the piece invariably emerged. A smear of cymbals announced the first tune, then the simplest of themes, a repeating off-kilter motif launched the exploration. Speake’s alto swirled and cried over the wash and bubble of guitar that swelled to a climax before the plaintive motif returned. The drums were all colour in the midst of the collective steady momentum.
That set the tone. The loose free-wheeling vibe was a thread through the set. Burgoyne switched to sticks and there was a more insistent clatter, giant distorting chords and clangs from the guitar before sparring with alto, trading astringent phrases. A moody introspective theme blurred into a gentle waltz. A bright melodic tone poem delivered, yes of course – rubato, was pushed along by skittering drums and shadowed by ghostly guitar lines before morphing into a quietly insistent groove. A throbbing, skipping, clackety pulse from drums lifted the energy and a snaking theme surfed along.
This was open, interactive music from a trio in tune with each other insisting on being listened to as intensely as the musicians listened to each other and cast its spell on me. It was an absorbing evening’s music.
It’s still January, so I can just about get away with thinking about all the jazz related stuff I enjoyed over the last year (can’t I?). I hope I don’t stop noticing and being amazed (and not a little overwhelmed) by how much new music, live music, wildly creative music there is around us. My listening is pretty strongly channeled into jazz related (whatever that is) zones and still its a fabulous all enveloping wave. Here’s what I noticed in my usual idiosyncratic swim through the last 12 months or so.
Pianists. I saw live some longstanding heroes and people who’ve long made me shake my head in wonder. Dave Kikoski was one. When was he last in UK? If it was recently I missed him. In full flight a sight to behold and I didn’t have to leave town to see him. He was smuggled in with Jonathan Kriesberg’s band at the Hen & Chicken (one of several Storrer coups last year). Also in Bristol, also smuggled in with another band (Martin Speake’s this time), Bobo Stenson, the Swedish maestro. An evening at Colston Hall’s Lantern to remember. I finally saw Enrico Pieranunzi, Italian maestro, astonishingly debuting at Ronnnie Scott’s in August . Julian Arguelles got my vote in the LondonJazz end of year accolades after the tumultuous gig with the FDR Big Band playing South African Jazz at Cheltenham, then the sublime quarte Tetra at the Vortex later in the year. They all fulfilled stratospheric expectation. Another highlight was the slightly more apparently left field, until you actually see them, double bass duo of Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer at St. George’s during Bristol’s (once again Jazz and Blues Festival). Here’s a little taste
There was plenty of recorded music to taste as well, that all enveloping wave was even more overwhelming. There’s a few that got stuck, catching me at a particular moment or just demanding to be listened to again. Early in year a typically divergent but compelling Charles Lloyd release I long to See You and around the same time, Sam Crockatt‘s Mells Bells (that one got my London Jazz end of year vote). Sam lives out west and there were a few releases from local (or near local bands) that really caught my ear. The prolific Kevin Figes released two albums, a quartet and and octet, and Andy Nowak‘s trio recording was a little beauty. Two from slightly further afield that really got lodged in the play list was the rocky grooves of Duski led by Cardiff bass man Aidan Thorne and (keeping a Cardiff connection, albeit a now former resident) Huw Williams’ Hon was an excitingly varied, scintillating album. But I’ll finish where I started, with a pianist. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the joy of re-visiting, via a re-release, the Erskine trio and its the piano of John Taylor that stays with me. A good note on which to look forward into 2017
Here’s to a happy, music filled New Year – even if I am a bit slow starting!