Byron Wallen, St. James Wine Vaults, Thursday 26th January

byronwallenIt 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.





Jean Toussaint, Roots and Herbs/ Art Blakey Project, Wiltshire Music Centre, Saturday 8th October

jeantThe gospel and blues fuelled, grooving and swinging jazz of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers has an enduring appeal as well as endless potential for updating and absorbing into more contemporary styles.  George Cooper’s Jazz Defenders are a great local example of that, as they have been reminding us recently.  If you wanted a live taste, 25 years after Blakey’s death,  of the repertoire and energy of the original band who better to lead, than an alumnus of the great man’s touring band that was an ever evolving school for talent.  Jean Toussaint, a graduate from the mid-eighties incarnation, brought his Roots and Herbs project to the Wiltshire Music Centre on Saturday with a line-up to die for and a pad of Wayne Shorter, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons tunes to set the the most resistant pulse racing.

They launched in with Wayne Shorter’s Roots and Herbs (of course).  With Andrew McCormack on piano, Byron Wallen on trumpet and Dennis Rollins on trombone joining Toussaint, this was an all-star line-up that guaranteed fireworks when it came to the blowing.  In the spirit of Blakey, one of Toussaint’s own students Will Theaksly took the drum chair and proved to be no passanger. Bass player Daniel Casimir  took the first solo however and showed why he won the vote at this year’s Musicians Company awards. A perfectly paced solo, playing with space so that groove and momentum just oozed out had the band whooping. He repeated the feat in Blues March at the end of the set as the band dropped out and a long space somehow left the air pulsating. The faint tap of a grinning Toussaint’s shoe was hardly necessary to bring the the band roaring back in.  There were plenty of other moments of drama and poetry.  The racing swing of The Summit saw Andrew McCormack unwind a dazzling solo, skittering runs and driving left hand chords nodding at more fireworks to come.  The sheer attack and inventiveness of Byron Wallen was riveting every time he stepped up to the microphone.   McCormack again, on the gentler waltz Sleeping Dancer Sleep On (Shorter again) conjured more magic as he brought the tune in with evocative sketching of the harmony, then took it out again with fluid melodic flights during his solo. This was a prelude to a barnstorming unaccompanied intro to Moanin of visceral blues, swelling gospel and excursions via more dissonant neo-classical clusters before the classic theme emerged. Toussaint himself really let fly on this one reminding us, as he had all evening,  of how to develop a foot stomping solo. He has been touring this project for the last year or so drawing on  a large pool of players and just occasionally the ‘come together for the occasion’ nature of the band showed, but the quality and verve of these players was more than equal to the challenge. A great reminder of the energy and inspiration of the Blakey band.

Autumn Treats to come in Bath and Bristol

There is a feast of jazz of all varieties and vintage to be sampled over the next couple of months in the Bath and Bristol area with a few intriguing, mainly co-incidental threads. The first has to do with the influential Tomorrows Warriors. They emerged in the late eighties in London as the Jazz Warriors and were sustained as an idea and incubator for talent by bass player Gary Crosby.  The roll call of players who have made their mark on the British scene graduating from the varous incarnations of this band is lengthy; Courtney Pine, Andrew McCormark and Jason Yarde all performed in Bath at the festival back in May for instance.  Tony Kofi, who has forged an international reputation, launched Bath’s Jazz at the Vaults sessions at St. James Wine Vaults in style the other week. Byron Wallen, another Warriors graduate with an international reputation returns to the Vaults on October 18th having loved his previous visit there. Meanwhile, the Lively Up Festival comes to Bristol. Its a traveling series of events celebrating 50 years since Jamaican independence and produced by the Tomorrow’s Warriors team. The latest spin-off of Tomorrows Warriors, the Nu Civilisation Orchestra performs at St. Georges Bristol on the 10th October performing music composed and inspired by the late Joe Harriot. They’ll be supported by the Bristol Reggae Orchestra, a phenomenal community music orchestra. It’ll be a great night.  A second strong thread this Autumn is the quality of the other contemporary British jazzers visiting the area.  If they’ll forgive the age reference, I’ve spotted at least three generations!  Art Themen, tenor sax man supreme and Brit jazz scene living legend who started out jamming with  Alexis Korner in the London blues scene of the sixties and inspired by Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins is back for another visit to Jazz at the Vaults in December.  Bristol’s BeBop Club has fantastic programme this Autumn and two I’ll pick out for the the succeeding generations  are Kate Williams on the 5th October, long established London based pianist and composer who brings a top notch quartet in a modern, straight ahead vein;  a little sample on youtube here . Saxophonist Trish Clowes visits the club on the 12th, representing my third generation. Both her debut and recently released second album have caused quite a stir, blending genres and influences whilst retaining real improvisational flair.  Although not a Brit, it would be odd not to mention the visit of American pianist Fred Hersch to Bristol on Thursday. Its a solo performance so his mastery of the instrument and take on the jazz canon will be on uncluttered display. Maybe not a household name, he’s definitely a giant and an influence on many current players (his former pupils include Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus).  The final thread to pull on is the richness and quality of the local scene. Many of the players are themselves genuine stars. So regular gigs in Bath include the  already mentioned Jazz at the Vaults (guitarist Denny Illett on the 4th Cotober, and be sure to check out Jake McMurchie of Get the Blessing on 29th October as well); Sunday evenings at the Ring o Bells are reliably first class and include occasional slots for Dave Newton and John Laws, that’s if you haven’t been lured by the programme at Gascoyne Place. In Bristol, in addition to the BeBop Club and St. Georges there’s a wealth of regular gigs indluding at Colston Hall Foyer (early evening and free), quirky, genre busting programmes at The Rose of  Denmark in Hotwells and El Rincon in Southville programmed by Pete Judge (also of Get the Blessing) and notably a new session starting at the Fringe Bar in Clifton every Thursday from the 4th; Staring with the incendiary pairing of Andy Shepppard and James Morton this week and continuing with a weekly programme which includes a few slots of the Pushy Doctors who raised the roof at the Bell recently.  What an embarrassment of riches. The main challenge will be deciding what to go to.

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.

Soweto Kinch, Komedia, Bath Festival, Monday 30th May

Blowing: a term used by jazzers to refer to the section of a composition over which a soloist will improvise, albeit within the boundaries suggested by harmony and form. I like the word. It’s got a definite technical meaning but it also captures the sense of the unscripted and something raw and maybe unleashed. Soweto Kinch’s quartet performing material from his new album have burned that thought into my mind. After the often tricky, mixed rythmns of many of the themes, they settled down to some full on, good honest blowing. More often than not the underlying pulse was a driving contemporary swing feel with every one playing broken stuttery rythmns that meshed around a blazing solo from sax, guitar or trumpet for the section of the second set for which Byron Wallen joined them on stage. The rapping and vocals on a few tunes felt like a natural part of the music. So after one of those blazing boppish solos on the opener Never Ending, You Want to be a Star’s lyrics examined the corrupting lust for fame. The second set started with what sounded like a jazz waltz layered on to the stop start hip hoppy drum patterns from the drums before more incendiary soloing.  That interplay with clattery cross rythmns was the other stand out element of the show, injecting energy and drama into every tune.  ‘Trade’ saw the band reduce to a classic chordless line up of alto trumpet and rhythm section and I found myself wanting to listen to Soweto in a simple trio. For all the rapping, electronics and street beats, what held and compelled me was that saxophone voice and the relentless, blazing inventiveness of it.  The serious and insightful interview and discussion beforehand with Kevin Le Gendre,  illuminating as it was  almost made this music seem too hard to listen to or understand. In the end, as we ‘did the hippo’ for the encore all you really needed to do, apart from wave your arms around, was open your ears.

Byron Wallen, St. James Wine Vaults, Thursday 16th September

An expectant buzz greeted us as we settled onto our favoured bench at the back of the Wine Vaults on Thursday. Tonight’s first gig of the season, timings contrained by the schedule of London bound trains, was none other than Byron Wallen joining the Jazz House trio. Wallen’s CV threatened to overwhelm as Tony Clark did his usual witty introductions, but he did highlight the diverse scope of our guest’s interests from classic jazz through various world and african idioms, so it was a hard to know what to expect.

The opener, Monk’s ‘I mean you’ set the direction pretty clearly. We got a tour of Byron Wallen’s jazz roots and inspirations, with influences and (recorded) mentors name checked – Woody Shaw, Clifford Brown – and compositions and choice of standards giving a dramatic illustration of his versatility from the modal like, post bop burner (For Wood), deeply jazzy contemporary composition (Merry go round) and tender, beautifully constructed ballad (Home Truth). In between were standards some re-imagined ( Bye Bye Blackbird as New Orleans shuffle) some played in familiar style. Wallen’s solos, although generally quite brief, were lovely fluent, balanced improvisations that always left us wanting more (even when he fluffed a few of the more frenetic themes a bit … Donna Lee and his own For Wood – it was a cold night out!).  And once again, the house band rose to the occasion. Presented with unfamiliar music on the night each had their moments in the spotlight; Wade on ‘merry go round’ linked solos together with his own, Trevor had a few features, especially on a couple of more ‘worldy’ grooves and Vyv seemed on fire, really pulling one out on Byron’s ballad Home Truth, delighting the composer as well as the audience.  So this was a great start to the season, with a gig that simmered nicely and then came to the boil  with a rousing encore of Don’t stop the Carnival.