CD: Alex Hutton Trio, Magna Carta Suite

ahmcsSuite? Concept Album?  Whatever the tag, history since  the Magna Carta represented in music is both a connecting thread and an ambitious idea for this new album from pianist and composer Alex Hutton.  Consciously referencing musical styles down the ages, and drawing inspiration from historical events and movements over the last 800 years turns out, in Hutton’s hands, to be no dry technical exercise but to result in a compelling collection of twelve pieces . Checking in at just under 40 minutes, it’s a set packed with distilled musical ideas and yet with plenty of space for the trio to stretch out. Its a little triumph. As well as adding Cor Anglais, played by Liesbeth Allart and Liz Palmer on Baroque flute  on some tracks for this album, Hutton’s core trio do the heavy musical lifting and what a trio. The virtuosic and ever versatile Yuri Goloubev is in the bass chair and percussive magician  Asaf Sirkis at the kit.  Old Yew sets the scene with an elegant, stately melody from Gloubev’s singing arco bass. Plaintive folk tunes and lively jigs follow as King John’s Hunting Lodge and June 15th 2015 mark out the history. Three longer pieces at the heart of the album give the trio more scope to explore. Gutenburg Press has a gently funky groove under a baroque style harmonic progression and Goloubev is at his fluent melodic best with a singing solo and Hutton matching him with a fluid response, full of evolving ideas and swooping phrases.  Gunpowder and Compass, based on Bach a fugue, is infused with urgent rhythms and and a workout for Sirkis, goaded on by insistent repeated notes from Hutton and Goloubev. Self Made Man’s self declared romanticism evokes more sweet lyricism from bass and piano. The final section, with Neil Sparkes declaiming his poetry over the bands’ accompaniment may be more of a ‘marmite’ element for listeners, but adds another dimension.  This compact set has plenty of promise for a thrilling live performance but the recorded set stands on its own and has already wormed its way into my playlist for the summer.

Spring is here – April perambulations and Alex Hutton at the Be Bop

After icy blasts and un scheduled snow showers in April and an intense dose of other preoccupations, I did manage a few excursion to gigs. May promises to be a bonanza, starting with Cheltenham festival this weekend. Colston Hall sees a visit from Kit Downes on Thursday and the Bad Plus next Sunday (12th) and  Niki Iles’ Printmakers are not so far away at the Royal Welsh College in Cardiff  in between on Friday 10th. And then Iain Ballamy pops up at St James wine vaults in Bath with Jason Rebello and the rest of the regulator house trio. A feast, a feast! Sadly no pudding with jazz absent from the Bath Festival at the end of the month.

April’s samplings included Mike Mower at the St James Vaults. Despite his reputation as a writer and composer, he confined himself to standards and like so many visitors, visibly warmed and stretched out as the evening proceeded and the quality of the house trio nudged and pushed him on.  Alex Hutton passed through on a tour with his trio. Sadly I was only able to catch the end of an appetising evening in Bath organised by John Law. Bass player Yuri Goloubov and drummer Asaf Sirkis form the rhythm section of both Law and  Hutton’s trios so the evening was a double bill of both trios. Happily I caught up with Alex for his visit to the Be bebop club on the 27th April.

As with his album Legentis, the gig put a spring in the step as much for the writing as the playing. Writer/ composer – composer/ writer Hutton wheeled out attractive melodic themes over insistent rocky vamps,  hymn like stately themes, hummable catchy tunes over loosely swinging grooves. The playing had a fair bit of piano history condensed and personalised. From romantic delicacy, through plenty of Keith Jarrett like fluency and melodic invention with no shying away from muscular block chords with more than a nod to Errol Garner. And that rhythm section! There is always the possibility that they’ ll steal any show. Yuri Goloubov’s unaccompanied intro and then playing of the theme of the one standard of the evening, I hear a Rhapsody, was a highlight.

This was a delightful tour through Alex Hutton’s music and, via a few stream of consciousness anecdotes, a bit of personal history. It put a spring in my step.

CD: Legentis, Alex Hutton

Pianist/ composer or composer/pianist? Alex Hutton’s album, released on the F-IRE collective’s label, forces you to pay attention to both in equal measure. The opener, JJ is typical. An elegant melody accompanied by a singing, bowed bass-line is given a weird twist by a spooky vocal counterpoint; it dissolves in a shimmer of percussion before being restated over a insistent riff on the piano, then embellished in a moodier atmosphere by a virtuosic Yuri Goloubev on bass. The careful, artful often complex and extended construction of the compositions, love of a good riff (never as simple as first they appear), unabashed embrace of a rocky groove are all essential ingredients of this album. It was only on the second listening that I realised this was essentially a trio album. There are additional vocals and woodwind on a three of the tracks but most of the time Alex, Goloubev on bass and the peerless Asaf Sirkis on drums manage to sound like a full orchestra. It is pianist Hutton as well as composer Hutton. The Legentis Script after another carefully arranged theme gives way to an extended solo sequence, the long flowing, melodic lines and a rolling rythmic pulse driven from the drums combining to raise the intensity. Elsewhere, a tender side and classical touch on the piano are evident.  There are hymn like ballads (including one actually called Hymn II) and a lovely elegaic lament, Farewell 296,  majestic thundering chords, and out and out rocky grooves. Through it all an attractive melody is never far away.  Yuri Goloubev and Asaf Sirkis put in absolutely storming performances. Goloubev gets plenty of soloing space and doubles or shadows plenty of melodies; Sirkis is always doing something surprising, I suspect there wasn’t much overdubbing as I’ve heard him sound like this live but at times its hard to believe there’s just one drummer. This is an album that rewards a few listens; almost every tune is packed with twists, turns and varying moods. At the heart of it is a really great trio giving life to a fine, distinctive set of compositions.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival contrasts: Jeff Williams, Sunday May 6th; Lighthouse, Monday May 7th

Jeff Williams, American drummer and part time Londoner with a CV that stretches back to the 70s and includes stints with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman was at Cheltenham with his New York Quartet. This seemed like a deliciously contrasting gig to the earlier John Taylor one when we booked the tickets and to Lighthouse the following day which whilst back on mainly European territory seemed like another flavour again (Gwylim Simock’s piano meets Tim Garland’s sax to joust with percussionist Asaf Sirkis). If we’d had to lay bets as to which gigs we’d be humming the tunes to as we skipped down the street afterwards, I’m not sure it would be have been Jeff Williams’ group. The slightly smokey atmosphere on stage might have drifted on with the band from the streets of New York and Jeff’s trilby and shades seemed like a slightly tongue in cheek nod to the urban vibe. The alto sax, trumpet, bass and drums delivered a series of catchy themes, some more angular, some boppish with changes of pace and stops and starts a-plenty. Fez had an arabic souk hint to it and it was trumpet player Duane Eubanks’ Purple Blue and Red that we were humming as we left.  Its the approach of the band that’s stayed with me. They frequently seemed to stop and listen to each other so that there was often only one or two instruments playing – it didn’t seemed to matter, just added to the sense of a joint exploration of some ideas. Jeff Williams has assembled a group of sympathetic voyagers. His drumming is like this, as striking and interesting for what he’s not playing as what he is, even when he’s playing time you can feel the pulse more in what he’s not playing.

Lighthouse by contrast play a lot. There’s plenty of words like breathtaking and dazzling in the press to describe this trio, all richly deserved. Whether its the exuberant vibe and rich harmony wrapped around the simple pentatonic scale of the Hang drum, the slightly bonkers frenetic clubby rhythm of  Ibiza scene inspired Space Junk, the excursions into folky pastoral jazz ballads or thunderous soloing on pieces based on flamenco like grooves, its quite simply exhilarating. Tim Garland and Gwylim Simcock lock seamlessly on intricate themes with Sirkis grinning delightedly following them through every rhythmic swerve. The virtuosity was unforced, I sat back, tapped my foot (there was no dancing in the seating for sardines) and whooped as the pyrotechnics proceeded. We weren’t humming many of the themes after this one, but I was musing on another little insight of the festival; that Gwylim Simcock has a funky left hand. For all the torrent of notes and lyrical lines, he was very funky.

Bristol’s stealth jazz festival in March?

It must be spring. Suddenly there’s a rash of premier league gigs in the next couple of weeks overlaying the regular fare of the merely top drawer. I’m not sure if its co-ordinated, but I fancy not. Just gone was Get the Blessing’s album launch gig at the Arnolfini, despite best intentions work and illness prevented my attendance. So I’ve missed the ‘post jazz’ (as I saw them referred to) thread of the non-festival, curses! Will have to make do with  listening to the excellent new release OCDC . Next week sees an ECM micro thread with Tord Gusatvesn on Thursday night (22nd March) at St. Georges followed by Andy Sheppard’s latest project Trio Librero at the same venue on Friday. There’s an illuminating interview here with Andy to whet the appetite. Both these gigs see an intriguing new departure for st. George’s with free gigs in the bar afterwards – a fringe element to the non-festival? On Thursday night, singer Emily Wright (who impressed me recently in Jake McMurchie’s Trio) performs with her band Moonlight Saving Time and on Friday night it’s Andy Hague with his Quintet of Bristol’s finest.  The following week the focus shifts with the hottest contemporary properties from both sides of the Atlantic at Colston Hall2 on 27th: Ambrose Akinmusire and Robert Mitchell 3io in support. Akinmusire’s album ‘When the Heart Emerges Glistening’ was definitely  well up on my top play list of last year. As if all this wasn’t enough, the non festival rounds off with a rhythmic/world/ soul flavour on Friday 31st  back at St. George’s: Roberto Fonseca supported by Ayannah Griffiths. The St. George’s site does the eulogies nicely. And if this isn’t enough, the fringe/ regular local scene offers a few tantalising alternatives. On Thursday 22nd, Iain Ballamy, world class tenor player with a compositional and improvising voice to equal local hero Shepps in my book, pops down to st. James Wine Vaults in Bath to perform with the resident Jazz House Trio. Friday 23rd see Asaf Sirkis Trio at The Be Bop Club in Bristol. The only drawback with all this is that total outlay on tickets would run into three figures so tough choices to be made. I wonder what I’ll go and see….

John Law OPT Trio, Be Bop Club, Friday 11th March

John Law, virtuosic pianist capable of traveling from deepest left field avant garde, to straight laced classical or to elegant, lyrical contemporary jazz piano trio  sounding more like Keith Jarrett than the man himself, has been touring an acoustic trio playing ‘other peoples tunes’. On Friday they arrived at Bristol’s Be-Bop club with a line-up to die for: percussionist and drummer extraordinaire Asaf Sirkis and bass tyro Tom Farmer who first came to national attention with Empirical.  This may have been a set of compositions by people other than John Law, but they had all been dismantled and lovingly re-assembled preserving the essence and melody, but giving them  an utterly distinctive stamp and  providing great vehicles for improvisation and interplay. We were greeted by the back room of The Bear that is the BeBop club in mid re-furb with a new entrance and something of a jumble chairs, and a glorious version of Somwhere performed by Tom Waits bleeding out of the PA: gradually John joined on piano and as the band took over a beautifully re-harmonised version of the tune emerged with John’s flowing tumultuous phrases, two handed unison lines, and flurries of counterpoint embellishing and warming us up. Then, In your Own Sweet Way became an odd-time latin groover, Straight No Chaser’s distinctive melody was stripped down to the rhythmic stabs that start its phrases. A spooky ostinato figure, doubled by the bass and piano utterly transformed the ballad Never Let me Go and So What was a dissonant funky groover in 7/4.  In other hands, these adjustments might have seemed contrived, but it was all so effortlessly delivered and created such a distinctive sound that I was simply enthralled. Sirkis on drums was unobtrusive but was never less than utterly sympathetic and propulsive. Soloing honours were shared pretty evenly between piano and bass. John Law has an engagingly quirky imagination so that his improvising is always absorbing and surprising without losing the sense of an evolving melody. His arranging skills took a slightly mind bending turn as the long first set closed with Oleo and Rythm-ing (both tunes written over the chord changes of I Got Rhythm) played simultaneously – Rythming in the left hand and Oleo in the right. It hurt just to think about it! This gig was a delight. We crept out towards the end with the strains of a gently grooving version of Sting’s Field’s of Gold following us, feeling good to be alive and warmed by the glow of great live music.

What January Blues?

If you live in the Bristol/ Bath area, it might seem we are getting too much of a good thing! There are loads of cracking gigs coming up with a fair sprinkling of the world class. So Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock come to St. George’s on the 15th with Asaf Sirkis ( listings here ). If you in Bath and can’t make it over, get down St. James Wine Vaults. The legendary Art Themen is there with the house trio (only a fiver). Julian Arguelles is in town with his trio on the 29th – St. George’s again, swiftly followed by Martin Speake with Bobo Stenson on Feb 13th ( see my post “In praise of Bobo”).. see you there! As if that wasn’t enough, the Bebop club programme really is storming. Not all household names, but believe me the quality is high. A few I’m drooling over: Barry Green on the 30th (here for more … very whacky website), Plastic Chandeliers (16th) – Bristol’s young but already up generation, in February (27th) Ben Waghorn and in March (13th), the sublime Jonathan Taylor in trio playing the compositions of Michel Petrucciani.

And there’s plenty more out there. No excuse for ears that aren’t thoroughly warmed.