Positively the last list of 2014: My live and recorded highlights

I think the first review of the year I saw was definitely early December, so I’m surely near the curfew for this.  But this is mostly a personal idiosyncratic review of the year based entirely on what I happened to have listened to, and live moments I’ve happened upon. One criterion (the only?) for inclusion is  being moved or excited beyond the norm, definitely a very personal response.

Recorded Music

I have an old fashioned 6 CD changer in the living room, so a good starting point is what gets stuck in that during the year

I see that these three are still in there despite a fairly heavy turnover.

Joy in spite of Everything, Stefano Bollani  – title captures the spirit of the album

Circularity, Julian Arguelles – super group playing Arguelles’ sublime compositions

Present Joys, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine – what is it with Dave Douglas and hymns?  Be Still was on my fave list last year

Popping up repeatedly on the iPod playlists and somehow  never getting replaced (limited space means more turnover!) these gems

Under the Moon, Blue Eyed Hawk – Chaos Collective luminaries collaborating on uncategorisable collection. Great listening

Songs to The North Sky, Tim Garland – A double CD seeming to sum up the breadth of the mighty Garland’s writing and playing

Weaving the Spell, Busnoys – Does what is says on the tin (er… CD cover) for me. Quirky trio led by vibes man Martin Pyne

Live in Hamburg (72), Keith Jarrett – a reminder, if needed, of the unbridled, dazzling energy of the trio with Motian and Haden as well as moments of breathtaking tenderness ( I admit I can take or leave Jarrett’s soprano sax sounding like wounded animal episodes)

There are so many more great albums, but these are the ones that seem to have kept coming back to this year. Two I haven’t heard (so much music, so little time) but mean to seek out:  Michael Wollny (see below for reasons),  Jason Moran, Elegy to Waller – on the basis that looking at Peter Bacon’s Festive Fifty Fifty, tow of my top faves are in his top three and the third is Jason.. maybe I should check it out!

Live Music

Is it a cliché to say what a privilege it is to see so much amazing music live?  Excuse me if so, but saying wow, whooping and explicitly acknowledging now and then seems only proper.

Just a few fabulous gigs then..

Charles Lloyd in the London Jazz Festival (the DVD of the film Arrows into Infinity would be on the recorded list as well if it was a CD!) – entrancing and uplifting.  My thoughts at the time here

Kit Downes Quintet at the Hen & Chicken, one of a few fantastic gigs there this year, but this was a standout – My thoughts at the time here

Michael Wollny Trio Brecon Festival.  Ok, first time I’d seen them live. Blown away doesn’t quite cover it – impressions here

Dave Holland’s – Prism – Ronnie Scott’s.  Just simply (although not very), groovily (very), sublime. My thoughts at the time here

And of course, for anyone who was there, these get on the highlights of the year – not one but two Loose Tubes gigs (for me) first at Cheltenham, then at Brecon again.

Moments within gigs sometime burn even brighter in the memory. Here are a few.

An ordinary Friday with another out of the ordinary local line-up at the BeBop club (this time Andy Hague’s Quintet) with 2014 British Jazz Award winner Dave Newton in the piano chair. Dave Newton’s trio feature, Alice in Wonderland, had me holding my breath but the moment Will Harris’  bass entered, so perfectly judged is still making me tingle.

A Sunday lunchtime at Ronnie Scott’s with the London Vocal Project. Pete Churchill just returned from New York working with Jon Hendricks on lyrics for Miles Ahead, has just recounted the latest episode. The first performance, the first words out of Anita Wardell‘s mouth ‘If you would know what beauty is’. The frisson is still there.

Involuntary weeping can be misunderstood at a gig I guess.  The opening chords of Nikki Iles‘  Hush, as the Royal Academy Big Band burst into life at their London Jazz Festival gig playing Nikki’s arrangement, in that moment was near overwhelming. I think I got away with it though.

Top that 2015


London Jazz Festival Recollections – Part 2: Pianists, Blue Notes and all-star bands

Musical stimulation overload is an occupational hazard if you choose to dive into a festival as all encompassing as the London Jazz epic. Just hanging out at the South Bank Centre or Barbican guarantees exposure to jaw slackening variety and quality. And that’s without parting with a penny for tickets. Find some cash and even more possibilities are opened up. There’s a guide to be written there (Working title: Festival for a fiver a day?).  Now the dust has settled, a couple of threads are still glowing in my memory. Jason Moran and Robert Glasper‘sIMG_1289 two piano work out in the first half of the The Blue Note 75th anniversary celebration was a slightly unanticipated stand-out.  Two pianos can make a lot of noise and fill up a lot of space but these two modern masters were out to make music, not indulge in a four fisted cutting contest.  In an unbroken hour’s music they started with a gritty blues, accompanying each other and leaving plenty of space,  moved through all sorts of  moods, an electrifying percussive episode with all manner of junk thrown in the pianos to create rattles and crashes and solos spots that accentuated their different muscial identities. Glasper veered more to expressive touches, rich harmony and soulful grooves, Moran was more acerbic, with jagged lines, spiralling boppish lines and dissonant abstractions. It was a magical hour.

The next day,  in the middle of the Chaos Collective’s takeover of the Barbican free stage, Elliot Galvin‘s trio showed why they won a European prize earlier this year – the connected thread with the previous evening was that he was matching Moran and Glasper in the amount of junk hurled into the piano to whip up more percussive storms. The trio’s set was a standout of the weekend  veering between wild reveries and furious storms of notes and moments of exquisite tenderness.

The Blue Note celebrations were ubiquitous and having seen the all-star band with Glasper, Marcus Strickland, Ambrose Akinmusire, Lionel Loueke, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott on Saturday followed by Soundprints, the Dave IMG_1292Douglas, Joe Lovano Quintet with Linda Oh, Joey Barron and Lawrence Fields it was hard not to feel we should have seen the best of modern jazz.  There’s a heavy weight of expectation however. The Blue Note all-stars delivered a roaring set starting with a comprehensive deconstruction of Witchunt and plenty of of catch the breath moments.  Akinmusire’s Henya was pure distilled beauty although Loueke conspired to disrupt with some oddly jarring guitar synth sounds. He redeemed himself with an astonishing solo display sounding like two guitarists, drums and vocal chorus all in one. Soundprints’ music is Shorter inspired and their already electric set really took off with two Shorter originals written for the band.  It might have been showstopping except Charles Lloyd was still to come.

The annual ten day festival is now bewildering in its variety and scope but its almost impossible not to be uplifted, enriched and caught unawares by moments of magic. Ticket price is a poor guide, open ears and heart an essential.   London Jazz News managed to co-ordinate reviewing 34 of the 250+ gigs a with a round up of another 20 or so a perusal of those offers a good insight into some of what went on.

2013, my gigs and listens

There’s a distinct pleasure in recalling and re-living some of the most thrilling moments of live music lodged in the memory.  Here goes, as I  join in with the welter of  lists and round ups of the year.  My CD picks are a bit more random, as they include recordings I have come across this year, although not necessarily released in 2013.  As ever, it’s reflective only of my own sampling of the impossible to absorb panoply of choice, both live and recorded, constrained of course by time, finances and the vagaries of life.

Live Music

Jason Rebello – he never really went away, but it’s a delight to see him out and about more regularly. Never mind the extraordinary talent on the British scene, he still stands out. Two gigs: Trio at St. James Wine vaults with son George on drums (review here); quartet, again at St’ James Wine Vaults, with Iain Ballamy no less (review here)

Julian Arguelles at the Hen and Chicken in Bristol with his quartet (review here); I’m still getting a warm glow when I think of it.

Cassandra Wilson at Ronnie Scotts; the intimate atmosphere heightened the thrill, she is unique (review here)

Love Supreme Festival: Snarky Puppy just will not permit anything less than total enjoyment; grab you by the throat uproarious fun; Terence Blanchard the opening phrases of Magnetic I can still conjure up; Brandford Marsalis it was his band but what I remember is the excitement Joey Calderazzo‘s solo generated as they launched into The Mighty Sword. (round up of the festival  here and here)

and finally three gigs that captured my imagination beyond already high expectation

Mike Gibbs Ensemble celebrating Gil Evans (note to self, must get the CD, available on Whirlwind as ‘plus 12’) – occasionally forgot to breath when I wasn’t chuckling at a Gibbs anecdote or shaking my head – big band arrangements of Ornette Coleman anyone? Reuben James a tantalisingly short piano trio set just dazzled me. There’s a special magic about his touch and feel – he’s young, so hopefully there’ll be plenty more chances to catch him. Both of these were at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

And late in the year Corey Mwamba Trio at Burdall’s Yard in Bath. Constant invention, surprises and delights (review here)

Recorded Music

The main criterion here is CDs that I’ve come by this year that seem to get stuck in the CD player or head phones – I just keep wanting to listen to them.

Be Still – Dave Douglas released in 2012. Hymns and folk songs plus a smattering of originals; The title track is utterly transporting every time, beautiful, lyrical melodic playing throughout.

Quercus – June Tabor/ Iain Ballamy/ Huw Warren More folky fare, this trio are something special and June Tabor is surely a national treasure

Swept Away – Marc Johnson/ Elaine Elias  Straight ahead (ish) jazz on ECM! A set of mainly originals just gloriously delivered with Joe Lovano on a good few adding the icing on the cake. Yum

MirrorsKenny Wheeler/ London Vocal Project mainly Kenny’s settings of Stevie Smith poetry with Pete Churchill’s amazing London Vocal Project and a good proportion of Nikki Iles’ Printmakers making up the band. What’s not to love?

Magnetic – Terence Blanchard On lots of critics’ lists but I can only agree, it’s a great album. Contemporary, small group jazz at its best.

First Hello to Last Goodbye – trio red Another 2012 release I think, but I spent a lot of early 2013 listening to it. A quirky project from scottish drummer Tom Bancroft with Tom Cawley on piano and swede Per Zanussi on bass. There’s a reason Tom Cawley is a regular in the Ronnie Scott’s house band; for my money one of the most creative players in this sort of band on the British scene. Perhaps less visible thnan some however. This trio popped up at the London Jazz Festival (missed it sadly)

and also getting a lot of plays: Birds – Marius Neset;  Concert in the Amazon – Jeff Williams; Ground Rush – Julian Arguelles Trio (released 2010.. but new to me); In Full View – Julia Hulsmann Quartet; and it’d be rude not include a Keith Jarrett album, this year’s much heralded trio release Somewhere was well up to their sublime standard.

Summer Listening: A Tale of Three Trumpets

After a bit of a break from blogs, gigs and work,  three albums in particular have continually been finding their way onto lounging about listening through iPod playlists, or into car CD player on  journeys and hiding from the sun afternoons. Is it BeStillcoincidence that trumpet players are central to each of them? Perhaps, but it did send me back to something I read a few years ago which intrigued, amused and has stayed with me. More of that in a moment.   First up is Be Still from the Dave Douglas Quintet. The leader’s trumpet features centrally, but it’s the repertoire, arranging and ensemble on this album  that is transporting on every play.  A collection of hymns folk songs, there are borrowings of melodies from traditional tunes, themes from Sibelius and Vaughan Williams alongside originals. The atmosphere is reflective and celebratory with melancholy and loss not far below the surface. It’s a triumph from the the first mesmeric figure on Linda Oh’s bass and clear toned phrases from Aoife O’Donovan on the opening title track ‘Be Still’ to the the soaring phrases of Douglas’ somagneticlo on ‘Whither must I Wander’ on the last track. In between there’s plenty of energy and an organic group feel on collective improvisations like ‘Middle March’, a dedication to Paul Motian. In more overtly jazzy territory is Terence Blanchard’s Magnetic.  Once again, it’s the writing and group dynamic that seem to give this a album a special feel. The material is mainly Blanchard originals but with all his youthful band getting writing credits. Bass player Joshua Crumbly’s ‘Jacobs Ladder’ evokes an impassioned, standout solo from tenorman Brice Winston as the attractive melody over an even pulse builds, and Winston’s flowing lines emphasise the shifting harmony. Blanchard’s Hallucinations, a spooky atmospheric themes is vehicle that shows what an emotional storm the leader can whip up with a keening sound and squalls of notes. It’s a consummate contemporary jazz album that has been demanding repeated listens (even with a few, to my ears, slightly unnecessary  electronic excursions for the trumpet).  And completing the trio is the Julia Hulsmann Quartet’s album In Full View the trumpet supplied by Tom Arthur to complement the leader’s regular piano trio. What a little treasure this has turned out to be. The tunes mostly build from repeated phrases or looped chord sequences some with stately melodic themes, others more lively with interlocking figures between bass, trumpet and piano. The atmosphere is thoughtful and the ECM label signature sparseness is there, but the blending and interplay of Hulsmann’s piano and Arthur’s trumpet is exquisite whether on a written theme or in improvised passages. It makes for tension, interest and a quiet, austere beauty.  And there is a connecting thread for these three albums.  There is some magic created between musicians in sympathy with each other that is more  present and affecting than the sum ofIn Full View individual performances. Another other thread is those three trumpets.

A chapter in an anthology edited by an American academic and writer Krin Gabbard (Gabbard, K., 1995. Representing jazz, Duke University Press Books) has provided me with a quick categorisation of trumpeters that’s seems to have stood the test of time. The chapter has the eye catching title ‘Signifyin (g) the Phallus:“ Mo’Better Blues” and Representations of the Jazz Trumpet’.  In the midst of a very scholarly discussion, is the observation that the playing of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie for example, stand in sharp contrast to,  say, Miles Davis’s sound at its most fragile and vulnerable. He describes them as Phallic and non-Phallic (or post- Phallic).  I’m sure I’ve missed some of the subtlety of his argument and have grossly simplified the idea over the years but it does work surprisingly well. The tone, phrasing and expression of any trumpeter has me instantly deciding are they phallic/ non phallic?  Of  course the same person can move between one or the other in the same set or even tune, and the gender of the musician is not particularly relevant, but usually they stay on one side or the other.  And what of my three trumpeters? Well I would say they all ‘use the trumpet to reveal emotional depth, introspection even vulnerability’ as Gabbard puts it, notwithstanding some swagger and occasional bursts of brash blaring tone.

On the basis then of an eclectic repertoire, the magic of world class ensembles interacting, great writing and arranging  and beautiful non-phallic trumpet playing here are three albums that repay repeated listens. Now, back to the beach…

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.

In praise of Bobo ….. and micro gigs

Bobo is coboboming! In the new year, Martin Speake is touring his Change of Heart Quartet. I’m excited – this has sparked off two parallel trains of thought. One is a bit of a meditation on why I love the playing of Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. The other is the experience of being part of a very small audience at a jazz gig. To deal with the second of these here’s why I thought of it. Back in 2001, I heard that Martin Speake was performing in Bristol with a Quartet he was calling his International Quartet. It consisted of Martin (!), Mick Hutton on bass, Bobo on piano and the legendary Paul Motian on drums. Wow – unmissable surely. So along I went to a little theatre attached to a school (very nice venue… but slightly weird place to find this band), saw my mate Trevor there and about 10 other people. And that was it. So this extraordinary collection of musicians played for us. What a strange gig. If I’m honest what I remember most is Paul Motion telling jokes about tomoatoes (I can’t remember the punch line though). This band then recorded for ECM (at the Rainbow studios) and the album was released as Change of Heart in 2006. Martin and Bobo are back in Bristol in February (http://www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk/event.php?pid=544, http://www.martinspeake.co.uk/),  playing this music but this time with Jeff Williams on drums and Steve Watts on bass – I’ll be there. That was not the only time I’ve seen worl class musicians playing to tiny audiences; Dave Douglas’ Magic Triangle Quartet playing to 17 people at Sweet Basil in New York; Geri Allen and Buster Williams playing to around 20 in the Village Vanguard (I just had to count) – a bit horrifying, but amazing to be there.

And so – why do I love Bobo? I’ve had my ipod on perma shuffle recently, and every so often a piece starts. There will be a ringing resonant chord, a gentle pulse from the drums, a fluttering run on the piano and a delicate melody emerges. ‘What’s that?’ I think – of course its Bobo, from a few different albums; Serenity under his own name; Leosia, or Litania with Tomas Stanko; War Orphans again under his own name. There’s often something really groovy about it, mixed with a really strong melodic sense – its often not swinging, but its deeply jazzy. I first really noticed him on a Charles Lloyd album, Canto and have rather randomly explored his other recordings from then on.  For me, he rarely fails to delight. http://www.myspace.com/bobostenson

Opinions…. or ?

I’ve been planning to muse on the difficulty firstly, of writing about music and secondly holding opinions about it. Now I’ve had two little prompts.

The first is from a post by trumpeter Dave Douglas on his Greenleaf Music site (http://greenleafmusic.com). He says

(Ear training) is about sound in a given place in a given time. Text can’t capture that…

He’s talking about Ear training and its an interesting post for musicians… you get quite an insight into the stuff he’s done as well as about 10 years’ worth of practice material! It captures the difficulty rather neatly though I think; how do you write about music sensibly, especially jazz, when its essentially of the moment evokes an entirely personal and highly individual response and is an experience more like sensation or feeling than a conversation; words can only hint at the experience to the extent that we recall similar ‘sensations’ as the writer when prompted by particular words . Which brings me to the other dilemna….

Georgia wondered whether I’d nodded off in a Ballad at a Brandford Marsalis gig – in fact the opposite was the case. That’s the problem with opinions and responses – the former are formulated and deliberated on, the latter instinctive. In fact I have loved that Quartet’s music on CD, so was baffled by my response.

So, I’m coming to a few conclusions. Our response to music, performed live or recorded, is quite a complicated mix of what the musicians are doing and what we bring to it – mood, ears (pace Dave Douglas), experience, taste. Opinions are, in part but not exclusively, informed and shaped by the responses.

I’m inclined to think our response is more to do with ourselves than with what the musicians do.