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.


Fringe Jazz Notes – and a New York connection.

Fringe Jazz, the weekly gig in Clifton’s Fringe Bar that never seems to rest, is celebrating 5 years this Autumn.  They’ve moved out to the pub round the corner and back again in that time and Jon Taylor has put together the usual mouth watering programme to celebrate.   I’ve also detected an (admittedly tenuous) New York connection.

On a recent, all to brief, flit through New York, I sought out a CD store in a fairly shabby corner of lower Manhattan. The spray painted shutters and steps down to the the cellar downtown_gallerydid look a little un-promising. The Downtown Music Gallery does downtown_2have a reputation however, both stocking a huge selection of the free-er, scronkier end of improvised music and even hosting occasional gigs. Descending, I turned out to be the only customer at that time and got a quick guided tour of the stacks.   Imagine my surprise (and delight) when my eyes fell on some very familiar names in the first dunmallCDpile I looked at.   Right there in the middle, a Paul Dunmall trio album with Bristol lads Tony Orrell and Jim Barr.   Meanwhile, back at the fringe this very week (September 13), Paul Dunmall is in trio with Tony Orrell. It’s the mighty Percy Pursglove on bass this time.  Now there’s a New York connection.   That’s pretty representative of the quality of the Fringe’s programme (check out the full listings here). There’s a couple more I’ll flag.

On the 11th October, Martin Speake, Hans Koller, Calum Gourlay and Jeff Williams bring their Monk project to the bijou back room. This is a longstanding collaboration formed to play as many of Monk’s collaborations as possible and has been seen regularly at London’s Vortex club. London Jazz interviewed Gourlay about it. Speake is a creative veteran of the UK scene, last seen in Bristol with the legendary Bobo Stenson.  Koller also has a formidable CV and Brooklyn-ite Jeff Williams provides another New York connection, dividing his time between there and UK  and has a long history and huge reputation both sides of the pond.   15th November sees ECM recording artist Iain Ballamy return, this time with his unique duo with Norwegian button accordionist Stian Cartensen.  A Nordic rather than a New York connection, but a rare opportunity to catch this extraordinary collaboration.

Too many words are required to summarise the whole programme, but there are plenty more gems there with the best of our local scene well represented.   Let’s keep supporting the Fringe – and here’s to  five more years!


Kit Downes Quintet, Hen and Chicken, Sunday 9th February

kitd5tet Although nearly a week ago now, Kit Downes’ visit to the Hen and Chicken still glows in the memory. I’d have paid the entrance fee just for a second set  segue of Two Ones and Bley Days, two tunes from his quintet’s recent album Light from Old Stars . It began with a whining, scraping, pitch blending  workout from Lucy Railton on cello,  first banshee like and then an added drone evoking bagpipes. The gentle groove with a theme of interlocking figures and counter melodies that crept in  gave way to the freer more urgent Bley Days, its repeated melodic fragments were distorted, slithering boppish lines with a hint of something more wild and country-ish twisting their tails,  all delivered as tightly locked harmonised lines belying their apparently casual delivery. It set the scene for a dazzling piano work out,  all tumbling phrases and rippling runs before a duet between James Allsopp on tenor and James Maddren on drums rattled the windows more than the storm sweeping in from the Atlantic .  They started at sizzling, Maddren’s broken rhythmic phrases swirling round exploratory runs and arpeggios from Alsopp, moved up gears into racing swing and a Coltranesque barrage from the tenor before notching it up again drawing involuntary whoops from the sizeable, storm braving crowd.   The playing was inspiring all round, but Downes’ and bass man Calum Gorlay’s writing was a winner too.   Wide ranging tastes were reflected in differing moods that embraced a whisperingly quiet rendition of Swedish folk music inspired melodies and and a quietly intense, rocking, celebration of delta blues man Skip James. A  fabulous, uplifting  gig.

Essentially Ellington: SNJO/ Ellington in Anticipation, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23rd November

Duke Ellington is said to have avoided the word jazz, saying there was only good and bad music and referred to his own work as American and ‘beyond category’. It ‘s impossible however to make sense of all the music we celebrates as jazz and jazz inspired without acknowledging the musical language and legacy of the great composer, bandleader and pianist. This gig was the centrepiece of a series of events doing just that as part of London Jazz Festival.

Two contrasting sets first by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, re-creating the sound, look and experience of the Ellington Orchestra and then Ellington in Anticipation, reinterpreting and re-working the repertoire, made for a fascinating, entertaining and moving evening.

The attention to detail of saxophonist, leader Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra goes far beyond playing the exact arrangements with the stylistic quirks of the great band. The layout of the stage, style of the music stands and dress sense of the band were all in keeping (barring the odd fulsome beard).  The effect was enchanting. As well as now universally known standards like ‘Mood Indigo’ we were treated to lesser-known material from the Queen’s Suite ; ‘Le Sucrier Velours’, ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ – a sumptuous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock on piano.  There were pieces written by Ellington for individual virtuosos in his band; Jack the Bear for bass player Jimmy Blanton, Concerto for Cootie for pyrotechnic trumpeter Cootie Williams, Calum Gourlay and Tom Walsh respectively stepping up to fill the shoes on the night.  If this couldn’t help but be drenched in a sense of nostalgia, the seriousness and artistry with which it was done made the music pulse with life.

The one exception to the pattern of re-creation, that duet between Smith and Kellock, made the contrast between the constraints of the big band and the very short pieces of the early 1930s repertoire all the more striking. Smith’s warm tenor swooped and embellished the melody as Kellock responded giving a very contemporary, interpretive take on the beautiful melody.

Ellington in Anticipation was all re-invention and re-interpretation.  Leader, Mark Lockheart’s very personal treatment of the Ellingtonian source material gave us a riveting set and provided a platform for some gloriously uninhibited playing from a fantastic band with a dream rhythm section of Seb Roachford and Jasper Hoiby.

The melody of ‘It don’t mean a thing’ appeared, stretched out of over a rolling 12/8 feel and the familiar repeated notes became a distinctive, African flavoured, rhythmic figure. ‘Caravan’, starting with a collective bout of percussive tapping of instruments and stamping of feet, developed a flowing even quavered feel and evoked the first of a number of explosive solos from Finn Peters.  James Alsopp’s solo on Creole Love Call was a standout moment as was Liam Noble’s solo introduction to the dark Lockheart original ‘Beautiful Man’. The distinctive addition of Margrit Hasler’s viola added unusual colours to the sound.

This was an absorbing, celebratory and emotionally charged evening of music.

Will Vinson – Take 2 at the Cori Tap, Bristol, Tuesday 23rd July

It felt the same (hot, sweaty and packed), it smelt the same (let’s not go there), it even looked a bit the same (James Maddren in the corner, a red Nord keyboard facing him, James Gardner Bateman organising, hovering nervously and warming his horn up to join in late on in the evening). But there was one big difference from almost exactly a year ago.  No unforseen delays, no Spanish air controller strikes, Will Vinson was in the house. Anticipation was high. Had any of the band been taken ill, there were at least a handful of able deps for each in the audience,  one or two with international reputations of their own.  As James (Gardner Bateman) stepped up to sit in on the last number ‘ The End of The Love affair’, I’m sure Will said something like ‘let’s not go too mad (with the speed)’ , so presumably the burning tempo he counted in is what passes for a stroll in the park in New York. As he and James traded first whole choruses or more, and gradually worked down to fours, the lightening runs, boppish riffs, squeals, squawks and swoops mounted up and I think the visitor almost broke sweat. It was blood fizzing, adrenaline rush stuff from both, but it was all to clear why Will is getting plenty of work in New York from world beating band leaders. There’s a smoothness of phrase and easy clarity of articulation at the most blazing of tempos that hints at the technical facility, but the warmth of tone and swing feel carries an emotional charge that’s special. It really came through in the second set as a floating, straight feel under ‘All or Nothing at All’ allowed space for some soaring lines before a segue into a heart stopping reading of Henry Mancini’s ‘Dreamsville’ had everyone sighing. The first set had rolled in on the triplety African feel of keyboard meister Sam Crowe’s composition ‘Bad Science’ and rolled out on another triplet flavoured composition ‘Cherry Time’ this time one of Will’s.  Both drew fine solos form Calum Gourlay on bass and gave James Maddren plenty of opportunities to tease and disrupt with all the implied metres buried there. Somehow the first set felt like a streching of limbs and settling in of the band, they really caught fire after the break culminating in that furious work out to close. What a treat for the sardines in the Cori Tap – three cheers to James Gardner Bateman for reprising the booking and not even the ’10 year’ storms of the previous evening could conspire to deny us again.

Julian Arguelles Quartet, Con Cellar Bar, Friday 16th November

Who doesn’t have favourite albums?  Ones that you just keep playing no matter who many new sounds jostle for attention.  Julian Arguelles’ Phaedrus has been one of mine since I first bought it not long after it was released, and as he launched the band into the title track to kickstart this gig at a completely rammed Con Cellar Bar,  it was hard to supress a grin. Why try?, you may ask. We didn’t want want to distract him or the band  as we were sitting close enough to turn pages of music for them or pick a bit of stray fluff off his jacket!

In two totally absorbing sets of mainly Julian’s compositions from two decades of writing, the strength of the writing stood out as much as the almost taken for granted fluency and quality of the playing from the whole band.   If Julian’s route into jazz, like so many people, was being transfixed by be-bop and Charlie Parker, his writing and playing seems to blend so many other sources into a coherent distinctive sound. And the trio of Kit Downes, Calum Gourlay and James Maddren seem perfectly attuned to it all. The one composition contributed by Downes was entirely in keeping; an urgent even quavered, at times mazy theme, providing a perfect vehicle for the flowing arpeggios  that fused into long melodic lines from both piano and tenor that characterised so much of the improvising.  The exuberant Mr Mac with gospelly, country shifts in the harmony changed up the atmosphere in the first set, a ballad Wilderness Road touched another mood in the second set and the closing number based on a flamenco pattern raised the roof and prompted the pleas for more.  Ornette Coleman’s Chronology followed and showcased the chemistry between the quartet that makes this a really special collaboration.