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.
Its a couple of years now since bass player, and general making things happen man Greg Cordez debuted his quintet at the BeBop club. Since then the band has been making occasional appearances locally and their set list has been evolving. As well as organising a series of jam sessions over the years, an email from Greg was the stimulus for getting the Bristol Composers Collective going. A series of bands have released CDs since that include music (and musicians) first trialled at the collective’s more or less regular monthly gigs (Michelson Morley, Kevin Figes’ Octet to name two) . Now Greg looks to be next in line. With the same line-up still in place from that first gig, bristling with creativity (Jim Blomfield on keys, Mark Whitlam on drums, Nick Malcolm on trumpet and Jake McMurchie on sax) Greg has managed to align their busy diaries for long enough to record an album of his compositions which is near release. We know this because he’s been sneaking out a preview reel with a fun graphic and a taster track with slightly mysteriously accompanying footage from the Apollo 17 landing. I’ve not heard a release date, but the album is coming soon and it sounds like it’ll be tasty when it arrives.
May has been been a rather special and musical month. Kicking off with the Cheltenham Festival and the long awaited much heralded return of Loose Tubes, now thoroughly reviewed and lauded (a couple of tasters here and here) local gigs have kept up the intensity. Jon Turney was gripped by the Hilliard Ensemble‘s Bath Festival visit with Jan Garbarek, a lovely account in LondonJazzNews. The exhilarating trio Phronesis touched down in Bristol late in the month for a great gig (preceded by an epic day, hanging out with Bristol musos by all accounts). My account of that will appear in Jazzwise in due course (the gig that is..), but they made waves wherever they played. Peter Bacon, as ever, captures the thrill from their Birmingham visit. That had been preceded by a frenetic week of quality from Printmakers in Bradford on Avon, Jazz at the Vaults in Bath and Riff Raff in Bristol. In between, there’s been plenty of listening and the opportunity to review two very different, but great new CDs for LondonJazz – very nice to get the chance. Tim Garland‘s Song to the North Sky showcases the breadth of his interests in a two CD set, one of his small band Lighthouse and the other with an orchestral string section (My review here). If that one draws on a career of music making, so too does Jake McMurchie‘s debut release with Michelson-Morley, Aether Drift. It’s been a long time coming, but worth the wait. Some of this material had its first airing at the Bristol Composers Collective, a reminder that their monthly below the radar gigs are well worth checking out. My review, again for London Jazz here. The annual workshop weekend, Play Jazz Weekend was sold out, intense and a lot of fun, I performed my usual tea making, sandwich ordering duties with a bit of accompanying singers thrown in – a separate post coming about that one. The connection between musicians and an extensive networks of courses and weekly workshops (a taste of just how many there are here) is worth musing on briefly. Rounding it all off with a visit to Ronnie Scott’s to hear the London Vocal Project was icing on the cake. If they start crowd-funding to make a recording of their ‘Jon Hendricks lyrics to Miles Ahead’ project, I’ll be first in line.
After gate-crashing the Collective’s informal meeting last week, the lure of this week’s performance was strong. They’d had a last minute change of plans as Jake McMurchie, originally scheduled to lead the session, was away on Get the Blessing duties. Most of what transpired is summarised here on Jazzwise’s site. Intimate probably underplays the atmosphere. When all the assembled musicians clambered on stage for a final, genuinely unscripted and spontaneous composition, those of us left in the audience were outnumbered. There were a handful of different contributors of compositions; Keven Figes, Nick Dover, Jeff Spencer, Greg Cordez, Mike Willox – his absence notwithstanding! Some had come with sketches that the band on stage turned into a ‘moment’ . Greg Cordez arrived with a couple of sections of harmony hastily sketched out on a till roll – ‘this is what my day dream sounds like’ ; that turned out to be a resonant, singing, sighing folky ballad full a melancholic peacefulness expressed in breathy soaring phrases from saxes. Jeff Spencer’s Anti Freeze was the result of a ‘Sarasate moment’ he explained; this involved leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to scribble an idea down as the Spanish violinist/ composer was reputed to have down. The result, a series of instructions along the lines of “.. do this sort of thing, and when the sax does something, you do the next sort of thing…” produced the most satisfying freely improvised piece of the evening with real shape and drama. It was all great fun, hugely entertaining and wonderful music making. These regular sessions deserve a bigger audience even if the bigger pay off in the long run may be the projects with which this eclectic bunch of musicians are involved.
Dropping into the White Bear on St. Michael’s Hill one day last week, I caught the core group of the Bristol Composers Collective discussing their next monthly session. Our illuminating and reflective chat over a drink is summarised on LondonJazzNews. The gig on Monday (17th) will be quite varied, with compositions from several different people in the group (I met up with Jeff Spencer, Greg Cordez, Will Harris, Kevin Figes, Jake McMurchie and Nick Dover) rather than the Jake McMurchie feature advertised on their website – Jake is away on Get the Blessing duties.
Asking them what they wouldn’t put on at one of their performances prompted a thoughtful discussion. The respect in which other musicians are held and the desire to be open minded about what would be welcome was clear, but at the same time ground rules like ‘each set should have something freshly composed’, ‘it should be new music – its not just a gig for established bands’ mean that if you go along, even if it’s something that has been played before, it won’t have been played quite like this and there’ll always be something new. Listeners should come with an open mind too.
All gigs are at the Wardrobe Theatre, above the White Bear, St. Michael’s Hill. They are monthly – the next gig is Monday February 17th, then Monday 17th March when collectivist Jeff Spencer features a set with his London based band Nightjar, the then April 14th and May 12th.
What a stroke of inspiration: The packed stage (was it eleven or twelve of the collective up there?), instruments stilled, reduced to a choir with just composer Dan Messore’s Metheney-esque guitar quietly etching out the hymn like melody of ‘Passing Vision’ underneath layers of vocal harmony. After an action packed evening it was a magical way to close.
A relatively new venture, the Composers Collective have held three or four sessions previously, performing short sets of one or the other of the gradually expanding membership’s original music. Making music and working together is the priority. Self promotion and publicity have come a poor second. This was my first taster of what is emerging having found out about a couple of previous sessions after they happened and this one proved rather special. For the occasion the pattern had changed a bit and the rough rules seemed to be: select your band/ ensemble for the occasion from the members (newly launched website tells us who most of them are), write/ arrange original music for them, preferably rehearse, definitely perform. Given the quality of players and writers on that list it’s a recipe for something special, the prospect of a few under rehearsed rough edges only adding to the high wire act thrills and so it proved to be with no holding back on the complexity and drama of the writing.
The second half of the evening featured the collective as an ‘orchestra’ with a small string section (double bass, cello, violin) as well as the full rythmn section (bass, drums, guitar, keyboards) and a frontline shuffling all manner of reed instruments and flutes and judicious use of effects. A simple flowing motif on guitar pegged by a sparse bass riff introduced Will Harris’ Damp Squib before a gorgeous pallete of sound coloured a soaring melody that launched an impassioned
solo from Jake McMurchie on tenor. Jim Blomfield stripped the ensemble back to a mere six piece but he certainly made them work. If this wardrobe had any doors, they’d have been kicked open by his ‘Pregnant Pause’. Odd time fragments and riffs played variously and separately by Kevin Figes on baritone, Nick Dover on tenor, McMurchie now switched to soprano until a crackling funky groove gradually merged and locked into a rocking pulse with a few handbrake turns between solos and switches to solo riffs before screeching to a halt with a tumbling riff from the keyboard. That raised the roof before Dan Messore’s ‘Passing Vision’ charmed us out of the door.
The first half had been a short set from ‘the slightly more established’ Kevin Figes Octet (two rehearsals and one previous performance apparently) with double drums including Mark Whitlam who was a fixture for the evening, double vocals from Emily Wright and Cathy Jones as well as a more regular front-line and rhythm section. ‘Loft Space’ had an epic feel to it with a slower section all rousing melody and jazzy prog rock anthem before the angular grooves and fiery soloing kicked in.
If all that emerged from this collective was nights like this giving the creative muscles of the group the opportunity to work out and experiment, then it will surely have been worth it. What a delight it was just to listen and watch. But keep an eye on this. Put such a rich mix of talent and creativity together and who knows what surprises and new directions will emerge. If the word spreads much more, the Wardrobe may need an extension. The next session is January, the website is www.bristolcomposerscollective.co.uk/ and there’s a twitter feed @BristolNewSound.