Chris Potter, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Sunday 30th April

Chris Potter and Nasheet Waits were locked together telepathically. Surely.  At the climax of ‘a blues’ that closed the Potter quartet’s set in front of a full Cheltenham Festival house , pianist Davide Virelles and bass man Joe Martin dropped out and showers of notes from the tenor, fused into jagged patterns. They  seemed to be nudged and sorted into rythmic groups by Waits’ bristling drumming as the two paused and chopped up the phrases in lock-step at a dizzying tempo.  It was an electrifying moment in a set full of burning intensity.

Playing mostly pieces from Potter’s latest release on ECM, the band tore into his compositions. Snappy angular themes and bursts of rhythmically arresting hooks bookended and provided a platform for improvisation.   The explorations were unfailingly intense, frequently abstract and dense with explosive moments.  The opener Yasodhara launched with a spiky rhythmic volley and Potter showed why he’s one of the most admired tenor players on the planet with a solo that started with exploratory, darting phrases, before building to a a blizzard of tangled lines.  Ilimba, with an atmospheric sample of drums  developed a an implied poly-rhythmic groove, before Virelles unleashed another solo.  It was an extraordinary display, squalls of notes bundled up into clusters of rhythm with two fisted pummeling of the keyboard interspersed with glittering runs.

Waits was in danger of stealing the show even before the climatic dual at the close of the set.  He boiled with energy continually, building and building momentum. On Ilimba by contrast, he developed a muted solo with beaters; call and response and space to draw breath, as the atmosphere thickened. A second solo later in the set was unbridled energy by contrast, the fusillade pinning us back in our seats. The Dreamer is the Dream was more overtly melodic and rhapsodic, Potter unfurling singing lines on soprano with Joe Martin stepping forward to solo.

On the final blues, the flavour of the form surfaced occasionally through the swirl of colour and texture; bursts of scintillating swing, a sudden switch to surging post-bop lines from the sax, a series of ringing chords from the piano.  Then it would all be chopped up again, perhaps stitched together by a hooting riff from the tenor.

The energy and invention never let up. There was a sense of elation at the end and the feeling we’d witnessed something special.  It is multi-faceted and complex music and the gig an invitation to get hold of the recording, listen again and take in more of that richness.

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A slice of Cheltenham: Arguelles, Scofield and M & M (and W)

Pic by jez matthews

Pic by jez matthews

Saving the best ’til last can be a bit a risky – will the reality bear the weight of expectation?  There were no worries on that score as Julian Arguelles‘ band, swelled to a septet at the behest of the Cheltenham  festival, delivered an exultant performance last Sunday to bring the curtain down on the sequence of gigs at the beautifully appointed Parabola Arts Centre. His core band of Sam Lassserson on bass, Kit Downes at the piano and James Maddren behind the kit were augmented by the bass clarinet and saxes of George CrowleyPercy Pursglove’s  trumpet and flugelhorn and the trombone of Kieran McCloud. IMG_1453There were so may moments to savour, with composer and arranger in chief Arguelles making full use of the expanded pallette. Fugue, gave us a typically thrilling one.  The central idea was a quintessential Arguelles theme – a mazy extended line that played straight could have had a classical, perhaps Iberian tinge to it, but in his hands had a gutsy swagger with the whiff of a New York cellar bar to it. By the time the layers had built up, there was a hue and cry to wake the dead.  Triality closed the hour and half set with a similar tumult. But even when the band were blazing, there was fiercely controlled intensity to everyone’s playing.  There were tender and more lyrical moments, ballads, individual flurries, including a segue from Percy Pursglove reminding us trumpeters do circular breathing too, that had the audience bug-eyed as he produced a sound from his trumpet that sound for all the world like a microphone in a hurricane.  And at the centre the sublime playing of Arguelles whose phrases flow and spiral, rising and falling in volume like a sigh and growling and grooving in an elemental way.  As Tony Dudley Evans reminded us, this is another voice first heard with Loose Tubes that has become a major  creative force.

That was a great end to a day at Cheltenham’s Jazz festival that had another very good year. Deep pockets are needed if you want to attend more than a few gigs so mine was a day trip on Sunday with the climax in the Parabola Theatre, dipping into a programme that started during the week and intensified over the week end (reviews of much it on Bristol 24/7 and London Jazz News from messrs Benjamin and Turney respectively including ‘Sax legend Saturday’ that saw appearances from Archie Shepp, Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano).   My Sunday started with the intriguing collaboration between fusion guitar legend John Scofield and young, making waves German Pablo Held Trio who showed the Montpellier Gardens audience why they have been getting excited reviews.  Grooves appeared out of swirling abstractions  Pablo Held built layers dissonant arpeggios and stabbing chords over fractured surging IMG_1450pulses from Jonas Burgwinkel on drums and Robert Landfermann on bass.  Somehow it fit seamlessly John Scofield’s guitar as he sometimes seemed to gouge short phrases and notes out with his unabashedly rocky sound, at others deliver silvery bursts of boppish runs thread through the trios accompaniment. At times they kicked into familiar bluesey riffs and they finished on a post- bop burn up on a standard whose title tantalisingly eluded me.  A dense, absorbing gig in stark contrast to Medeski, Martin and Wood who wowed the Big Top with there furious organ trio blend of rock, blues,  New Orleansy gospel. I picked up a fair bit of social media muttering from MMW aficionados about the second half of the gig with guest Jamie Cullum. It did have the air of a jam as they reached for Nature Boy and Caravan, the latter a natural victim for John Medeski’s howling synths and organ, but they gave every appearance of having a great time on stage and it was hard not to relax into it and enjoy from where I was sitting.

A thoroughly satisfying day of jazz immersion with the  festival vibe around the Montpellier Gardens hub and late night jam at Hotel du Vin irresistible. I’ll be back

Jazz is bursting out all over – Spring Preview : Local gigs Bristol and Bath , Cheltenham and Bath Festivals

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.

The shock of the familiar; Welcome back Loose Tubes, Cheltenham Festival, Saturday 3rd May

“I’m feeling a bit emotional” declared Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Festival host and programme advisor, as he took the stage to introduce the first gig of the re-formed Loose Tubes. He wasn’t the only one. With preview features galore in the jazz press and I’m sure a deluge of reviews to follow, I’m not going to add to them with an account of the gig and the music, but with a brief personal reflection on the emotional response.

Like a significant portion of the audience, I had never seen Loose Tubes live (Ashley Slater‘s wildly divergent repartee in between tunes included an invitation to previous initiates to raise their hands; it was a minority) and yet from the first chord of the huge ensemble, there was something breathtakingly familiar about the sound. It wasn’t the familiarity of a much listened to recording, more like the sound of an old friend’s voice, something that has made up the warp weft of life’s routine.  This was momentarily a puzzle until I reminded myself, with a quick scan of the stage, just who was in the band.   My personal discovery of jazz started around 1990 with a ‘hear something you like – listen to something connected’ odyssey that quickly led to all sorts of music that moved and excited me and was surprised to find under an umbrella marked jazz; Iain Ballamy‘s All Men Amen, Julian Arguelles‘ Phaedrus, bands like The Perfect Houseplants and Django Bates‘ Human Chain and Delightful Precipice.  Which of those bands didn’t have Martin France on drums? Hallf of them had Steve Watts on bass. There they all were on the stage.  Chris Batchlelor was there as well , animator of so many diverse bands, so too was Mark Lockheart. Without knowing it at the time I was delighting in the legacy of the creative maelstrom that was Loose Tubes and an approach to music making that was unapologetically eclectic, often politically committed, always passionate and frequently delivered with a huge grin and a wink.  No wonder the band sounded like an old friend, I’ve been listening to them all in different incarnations for approaching 25 years. And their individual and collective influences are readily apparent if you listen carefully to new generations of musicians all around. Once those Tubes were Loose, there was no putting them back in a box.  I can report that on the evidence of Saturday’s gig, their joy and exuberance in music making is undimmed (old and freshly penned alike) .  Long may they continue. It’s life enriching and life affirming stuff.

Festivals, programmes – vive la difference

A few jazz festivals have announced their programmes over the last month or so and of course Bristol’s has shown us what it was made of already a couple of weeks back.  A few thoughts have been rolling around my head so I’ll set them free here. They are however the thoughts of a punter rather than a promoter/ organiser so there’s definitely another side to all this.  Firstly Bath gets a loud cheer – jazz is back in the programme. A slight anxiety is how slender the whole programme is, more of that shortly. Secondly, some common threads are noticeable in the programmes of  a few others (Cheltenham, Love Supreme and Brecon – Jamie Cullum, Gregory Porter, Laura Mvula are going to busy this summer) but Bristol’s (feel the funk, gospel, New Orleans vibe) and Bath’s (don’t you just love it  when you have to look the names up… except Jan and Hilliard)  are different. More loud cheers – vive la difference!

Listening to comment gossip and whispering where opinions are expressed, they often seem to fall into a few camps: ‘its not jazz’, ‘its the wrong sort of jazz’ , ‘its not the right people playing the jazz … why them or why not the other?’  All quite understandable if one’s own particular favourite flavour is not well represented.  With the seeming explosion of music festivals more generally, large and small, standing out from the crowd becomes increasingly important.  An obvious point is that most of these festivals throw the net pretty wide and have quite a mix in the programming. That’s both  pragmatic in terms of selling tickets and mind expanding in that it exposes festival goers to more than their usual diet of listening.  Cheltenham, Love Supreme and Brecon have a pretty similar mix of headliners but alongside that there’s a lot of variety and some very adventurous music.  Bristol’s Jazz and Blues looks in a different direction and embraces funk and blues pretty wholeheartedly – vive la difference!

But its not just the programme on its own that marks them out. The location and how they draw on a local scene makes the experience of being there distinctive.   There’s an intriguing piece here about academic researchers working with festivals – the video’s worth a look.  Bristol’s festival is shaped by the sheer fun of being in the Colston Hall for the weekend, crammed in with thousands of others and the roster of mainly local bands playing on the free stage – ticketed programmed optional!  Brecon is defined by its location, the way the festival inhabits the whole town and a programme with plenty of  dynamic Welsh scene threaded through it (happily the drinkers in the streets, propped up against a mountain of lager gradually dissolving into stupor and raucousness seem  to be no longer a feature!).  Love Supreme has the boutique, jazz festival in field market cornered. No-one would call Nile Rogers and Chic jazz (would they?), but reeling out of GoGo Penguin, via Troyka to dance to Chic, before soaking up Terence Blanchard was quiet a ride last year – blazing sunshine helped.  Vive la difference!

And so back to hometown Bath.   For many years, under the stewardship of Nod Knowles, a music festival that embraced classical, contemporary, folk, world over three weekends had an intense jazz focus but with a determinedly European flavour. Having to look most of the names up was a near guarantee, as was hearing something magical the like of which one had not imagined (anyone remember that throat singing/ alpine horn duo?!).  After a mysterious wiping of the slate clean last year, a series of gigs is back, the grand finale is Jan Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble’s grand finale (they are ceasing to tour apparently ) in Bath Abbey.  Did I already do the loud cheers?  Brass Jaw and Stacey Kent are familiar, I confess the Canadian and Finish piano trios were not – well, good!   But look at the scope of the whole programme and reduced funding, and other priorities are clear. It’s slender. The vision  spelt out on the website is pretty exciting; I don’t see it reflected in the programme more generally.  There’s a big idea lurking there, I wonder what’s stopping it hollering from the rooftops – vive la difference?   Is it as simple as funding?

Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Saturday and Sunday , May 4th & 5th: From Douglas to James with a couple of stops

cheltenhamsignpost Cheltenham festival, back under canvas in Montpellier Gardens for that authentic festival vibe replete with signpost and smorgasboard of music. As I listened on Saturday lunchtime to a friend down from Sheffield reel off his day (Dave Douglas, Ravi Coltrane, Go Go Penguin, Sons of Kemet – possible provided no toilet or food breaks were taken) I felt a bit light weight with my somewhat less is more selection of gigs; two on each of Saturday and Sunday with liberal ‘hanging’ time.  Now, I’m relieved I held my nerve with plenty to suck on. Random images: Jonathan Blake stroking a tear shaped cymbal as Dave Douglas‘ band launch into Be Still (hairs on neck – standing); Mike Gibb explaining the coruscating abstract piece Julian Siegel has just blown the socks off is based around a double augmented scale (nervous laughter – left of stage); Gregory Porter being, well, Gregory Porter (chocolate – in my ears); Reuben James, ah Reuben James. He blew me, and the rest of the Parabola Theatre, away just pick a moment – thunderous solo on St Vitus Dance for one (tears – pricking eyes).

Saturday began with the Dave Douglas Quintet. The band started with a couple of his own tunes the first a tense piece with an insistent pulse, the second a rolling swing feel with  typically angular fragmentary lines delivered at breakneck pace in unison by Douglas and Donny McCaslin on tenor. This band was a whole that was more than its parts. Linda Oh’s bass sounded like a constantly driving pulse until close listening revealed it was an impression created as much by not playing as playing; she seemed preternaturally aware of when not to play so that the momentum was emphasised by someone else. There were layers of rhythm as well as harmony in every piece. The arrangements of hymns and folk songs that followed from his Be Still album continued the theme. Artful twists of harmony or metre beneath the vocal from Heather Masse gave familiar melodies tension or darker moods with bursts of pure emotion from soloists. Dave Douglas on the title track Be Still  produced a moment of pure magic. The return to more overtly jazz orientated material gave pianist Matt Mitchell a few opportunities to show his inventiveness. As much as this was an absorbing and delightful set, it was clear that there was plenty more to hear from in repeated listens. Cue visit to CD store.

A lie down was in order before Gregory Porter to digest some of the Douglas inspired reflections (nothing to do with the ill timed cold I was fighting off).  Gregory pushes a different set of buttons and the buzz, as the Big Top filled up,  suggested that we weren’t the only people excitedly anticipating this gig. Somehow ‘Motor City’ and the music associated with it was never far away in this set.  The band are steeped in the grooves and inflections of soul as well as jazz, no more evident than when the  percussive style of pianist Chip Crawford launched the band into ‘1960 What‘ or alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato reeled out another emotionally pitch perfect solo on the Grammy nominated song ‘Real Good Hands’. But Gregory was centre stage and that voice with its range and control caressing our ears and stirring the hearts evoked the inevitable clamour for more by the time the closed the set.

If I thought I’d planned a more muted Sunday then I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d saved the most electrifying until last!  First up was the Mike Gibbs Ensemble. This was an hour and half of pure magic. A project to mark 100 years since the birth of composer and arranger Gil Evans, it was a way of being reminded, via full immersion in sound, of how influential he was and how much of what we take as reference points for the sound of jazz,  he had a hand in.  In a set that included all sort of standards and classics either arranged by Evans or by Gibbs ‘in the style of ‘ , take Round Midnight. We learned, from Gibbs during one of his erudite and charming diversions, that the way Miles Davies’ Quintet of the 50s played the Monk standard (the ‘physical arrangement’ of the intro, coda between head and solos, variations in feel) was arranged by Evans though not credited. Gibbs took  this and gave us Round Midnight by Monk, via Gibbs, through Miles, from Gil Evans. And all of modern jazz was there. From the harmonies and abstractions of the the intro and sketchy references to the tune, until the muted trumpet played the bridge (ah.. there’s Miles) the piano inserted little chromatic embellishments (ah.. there’s Monk) and after those dramatic stabbed chords after the head (thanks Gil) a dramatic impassioned tenor solo from Julian Siegel – very contemporary but just perfect. There was much more, including that spooky piece based on a symmetrical augmented scale (ok, thanks Mike for the harmony class).  Back to the CD shop to pick up a pre-release copy of the album, coming soon on Mike Janish’s Whirlwind Records.

And so to the more intimate Parabola Arts Centre for the Reuben James Trio, my only preparation was a dim awareness of the buzz around his name and his youth and his membership of the Abram Wilson’s band in the year before Abram’s premature death.  Oh my. Lot’s of young trios will deconstruct standards, alter the metre, find hooks and riffs to slant familiar melodies. The zest with with which Reuben did it, the drive and energy in his playing with an exquisite instinct of when to stop or throttle back or delay a climax. This was of a different order. There was a fidelity and uproarious delight in the language of straight ahead contemporary jazz but of all the players I’ve seen who can play a few simple, unadorned phrases and create a sense of racing unstoppable momentum maybe only Jason Rebello springs to mind in comparison. The quality of the the rhythm section in Alex Danes and Dale Hamblett shouldn’t be underestimated but it was Reuben’s playing, harmonic freedom and rythmic drive that had me gasping. As well as St. Vitus Dance‘s relatively straightforward treatment, If I were a Bell and Sophisticated Lady were thoroughly, gloriously,  shredded.  That was enough for me. The festival is continuing today. I’m full up.

Cheltenham Festival 2012 – the wrap up

The venues and organisation of this festival have evolved over the last few years to the point where most of the action is now concentrated on a mini festival site on Montepellier Gardens and what a good move its been. With the Big Top, another large tented stage (the Arena) a free stage, smattering of stalls, a bar there’s a great feel to it. You can just hang out. The occasional beat of a different drum leaked from one stage to another , but it wasn’t disastrous. We went for the ‘less is more approach’ this year (sometimes I’ve overdone it and found myself only half listening to my nth world class gig in a few hours); just a few booked gigs, going to the festival jam at Hotel du vin after hours and lurking near the free stage. I’ve also a sneaking admiration for a booking policy that meant we could have gone from the New York cool of Jeff Williams to the very funky and loud Phantom Limb via Norwegian euro jazz and on to uber classy cabaret entertainment. There was something here for most folk and ages. Truly fabulous moments provided at the jam when Gregory Porter showed up and pushed the Birmingham Conservertoire students to outdo themselves accompanying him (was that Jeff Williams under that trilby on drums?). A bleary eyed friend told me the previous evening he’d watched Chris Potter letting rip with half of Marcus Miller’s band there into the small hours. Another great moment or two were to be had watching the finalist of the Yamaha Jazz experience on the free stage on Monday. An awesome arrangement of Eye of the Hurricane by some very young Jazz Warriors had me whooping.  The weather could have been improved on (webbed feet not compulsory, but they helped), but I’m not sure I’ve got too many other suggestions. See you next year Cheltenham – if you need any help just call.