Ambleside Days – the last post

The bass was parked, music scattered, instruments abandoned to be collected later.  The musicians had left the stage. As we all left  Screen 2 at Zeffirellis for the last time in the four-day-fest, there was an inescapable sense of having witnessed something momentous.

I mused mid fest about the ‘recipe’, orchestrated by Derek Hook the festival director, of a pool of musicians combined and recombined over the four nights.  Saturday saw the sublime Printmakers playing opposite a trio of Gwilym Simcock, Tim Garland and Joe Locke.  Sunday was billed as evening with Dave Holland, which turned out to be solo, quartet (Dave with Simcock- Mike WalkerNorma Winstone), trio (Dave with Nikki IlesJames Maddren), quartet (the trio plus Mike Walker) and then the ensemble flowered into a mini big band, the full cast list from the previous days with the addition of Nick Smart popping up on trumpet and flugel-horn.

What held the dizzying rotation together was that ‘contemporary music’ tag and the reference point and celebration of John Taylor.  There was a tricky to define but discernible sound, a particular use of harmony, musical choices about melody and space that gave the music identity.   It was a joyous and appropriate finale then for the mini big band to play  a couple of sections of Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Time Suite.  Holland, Stan Sulzmann and Norma Winstone were all on stage who played on the original Large and Small Ensembles recording with of course, John Taylor on piano. The final blast of Wheeler’s Foxy Trot also had the Holland-Taylor rhythm section on the original.  The Wheeler, Taylor legacy flavours so much of the music that these musicians play and it sounded like their natural habitat.

That was true even when they were playing standards or original material.   Added to that was a visible delight in each other’s presence.  Joe Locke’s quartet set had started with an angular arrangement of Autumn in New York and he was grinning delightedly at Asaf Sirkis as the drummer caught and embellished every rythmic fill.  Heads turned and eyes snapped sideways all weekend at moments of magic and hot interaction.  Mike Walker beamed slowly as Dave Holland’s solo on In Your Own Sweet Way worked its way to an intense climax in the quartet set with Winstone.  Holland visibly caught his breath and smiled as an exquisitely crafted line seemed to float from the piano and hang in the air during a Nikki Iles solo in their trio moment.

In amongst all the ‘for one night only’ configurations, The Printmakers reminded us how compelling a regular ensemble can be. Their take on Vince Mendoza’s Ambivalence was a hear-a-pin drop moment as the chanting motif faded away.   Mark Lockheart and Walker did their familiar but always enchanting evocation of a beach, the guitar providing swooping seagulls over the sax’s breathy shifting sands before the band slid into Nikki Iles’ Tideways. Walker’s scatological story telling threatened to become a stand-up routine before his own glorious, surely-nearly-a-standard-now Clockmakers made the stoniest heart swell.

We saw a lot of everyone in different line-ups.  Gwilym Simcock appeared every night and was dazzling in his range of expression from the faintest glazes of an open piano string to the tumult of Barber Blues that closed the trio set with Mike Walker and Joe Locke.   Mike Walker’s instinct for when not to play, conjure an unlikely growl or rumble from his guitar, let a fluid melodic line insinuate itself through a chord sequence or simply to rock out was a consistent delight every time he took the stage.  And what a treat to see and hear so much of Dave Holland. For all the virtuosity and command of his instrument, there was tingling thrill every time he settled into a groove and made the music pulse and glow.

Creating so many one-off line ups could have been a risk. As it was, there wasn’t a part that didn’t create special, exciting and moving moments. And the sum of all those parts? That word ‘momentous’ seems about right.

 

 

 

 

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Ambleside Days – the first post

After two evenings of the Ambleside Days ‘Contemporary Music Festival’, it’s quite hard to contain the excitement at what’s still to come. What we’ve already experienced has been quite breathtaking.  For four nights at Zeffirellis in Ambleside, a shifting roster of musicians have assembled to play music that has as its touchstone  an ‘exciting beauty’, to use the words of Derek Hook, animateur of this near magical happening. There’s an overt dedication to the memory of John Taylor; some of his compositions have already been lovingly re-interpreted.  More than this though, there’s a shared sensibility and reverence for allowing arcing, melodic lines to sing; open rich harmony to swell and ring; dancing, fizzing rhythms to animate and most of all an open-ness and receptiveness between musicians that creates drama and excitement on the fly.

On the first evening the Ambleside Quintet took the stage: Stan Sulzman, Mike Walker, Asaf Sirkis, Dave Holland and Gwilym Simcock. On the second they were distilled to Simcock, Holland and Walker, before Joe Locke’s Quartet took the stage with Simcock and Sirkis joined by Daryl Hall on bass. They briefly expanded to a quintet with Tim Garland guesting.

There are already so many glowing moments, the most compelling have been freighted with emotion as well as dazzling spontaneity.  On the first evening, Gwyilm Simcock segued from an angular Asaf Sirkis piece via a swirling, abstract improvisation that condensed into a pusating groove to launch Stan Suzmann’s Choo Choo.  Mike Walker seduced us all evening with solos that eddied, flowed and soared.  The trio of Simcock – Holland – Walker held the room spellbound whether with a sumptuous solo rendition of Everyone’s Song But My Own by Simcock, an electrifying, joyous solo from Dave Holland on I Should Care or a riotous take on Solar with a playful collective improv as an intro set off by a clang of the strings from Walker, chased by Holland with a big grin.  The Quartet set from Joe Locke was full of vitality and feeling, a dedication to Bobby Hutcherson Make Me Feel Like Its Raining another special moment.

The setting, the pool of musicians as well as performances from world class, established ensembles , is proving to be the perfect recipe for creating a unforgettable tribute to John Taylor and perhaps glimpses of future collaborations.  There’s more to come with The Printmakers taking the stage tonight and another set from a  permutation of that pool of musicians, this time Locke, Garland and Simcock.  Tomorrow, its an audience with Dave Holland and whoever he calls up to join him.

 

My little slice of London Jazz Festival

London Jazz Festival – oof! The producers Serious had a neat little strap line this year that ran ‘2,000+ artists. 300+ gigs. 50+ venues. 23 years. 1 city’.  There was even a ‘pop-up’ radio station, a first and a joint enterprise between the Beeb and JazzFM. No traffic was stopped or streets closed (to my knowledge), but the festival was surely hard to miss if you’ve even a passing interest in jazz or the very large umbrella that embraces ‘jazz inspired’ or ‘jazz related’.   My own little skirmish with the gargantuan proportions of the programme seems extremely modest, but the afterglow is still there a week later, so here’s a quick sum up together with links (I reviewed them for London Jazz News).

My nearly-a- weekend (Thursday to Saturday) was bookended by ‘An Evocation of the music of Kenny Wheeler (review here) in the august surroundings of Cadogan Hall and  ‘A tribute to Bill Evans’ in the more louche, authentic jazz club of the 606 Club (review here).  In between was the even sweatier, literally underground, scene of the Con Cellar Bar with a double header of today’s rising stars George Crowley‘s Can of Worms and Kit Downes’ The Enemy (review here).

The Kenny Wheeler had a dazzling line-up. Check the website but did they really have Ralph Towner on for just three numbers and twenty minutes?  Gwilym Simcock (poignantly, effectively a dep for John Taylor) and Chris Laurence similarly in a short ‘last quintet’ set? Well yes they did.  Somehow they hit their stride instantly.  Moments of pure ‘hairs standing on the back of the neck’ magic for me were  Norma Winstone and Ralph Towner doing Celeste. The uncanny blend of Norma’s voice and Towner’s guitar made time pause for a moment. The London Vocal Project were remarkable. Never mind their rhythm section of Dave Holland, Nikki Iles and Martin France(!), they were simply thrilling as they leapt around the melody of Humpty Dumpty their voices another exquisite blend such that I kept checking it wasn’t just one person singing.

The Bill Evans tribute had its own share of thrills. The sound an repertoire is so familiar, but the glow in the memory is from the quality of the band and the performances. Nikki Iles led the core trio and B minor Waltz, as well as starting the evening, set the bar high. From sketchy phrases, long notes and rustles from the drums, the energy and intensity seemed to grow and flower rather than self-consciously build. Magical stuff.

Con Cellar Bar’s menu was altogether more frenetic,dense but no less thrilling.  London Jazz Fest seems to hoover up some regular London gigs into its programme to everyone’s benefit. This was a home match for these players, in many cases now with big reputations,  with perhaps an audience from further afield than the regular crowd at this particular venue. Its one whose reputation has spread as so many of our current maturing talents have cut their teeth there.  There’s nervousness about its longevity as the pub is due for a re-furb. Let’s hope it continues.

Mine was a wafer thin slice through this huge, wide ranging festival. London Jazz News awesomely reviewed over 60 in total (so just 20% or so!) including this short summary of 35 or so.  Just scanning it is a little bit tiring, but inspiring that there’s so much great music being created, live, and people still going to see it.   Oof!

 

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

Dave Holland’s Prism, Ronnie Scott’s, Monday 7th July

It can get a bit cosy in the cheap(er) seats at Ronnie’s and conversations start. “I was there that night”, the guy next to me said, “when Miles came in and heard him”.  The story of how Dave Holland got the Miles gig never wears thin (after hearing the young Dave in a band opening for Bill Evans at the club, a call subsequently came from New York and Holland was on a flight to New York within a couple of weeks). The raconteur next to me remembered the bass player’s new suit on that night, although I fancy it was his playing that got him the gig. 45 years later and the man himself looked supremely relaxed as the band settled in to their places on stage and tuned up; a rap and and tap on the snare from Eric Harland, a silent tightening of a string from guitarist Eubanks, a pinged harmonic from Holland and a ripple of fourths from Craig Taborn on piano and Rhodes simultaneously. And then, what was tuning, by some alchemy had become a hypnotic vamp.  They may have crept in with a whisper, but the opener A New Day became a roar as they each took turns in rocking out on the simple, cycling chord sequence.  It was electrifying. At different stages of the evening a different member of this extraordinary group seemed to be stealing the show. Eric Harland, upright and still, laughing as if in delight at what his limbs appear to be doing -‘hey, check that out’ as an irresistible hail of rhythms layers over a monstrous groove;   Craig Taborn locked in rhythmic combat with Harland in a scarcely believable percussive two handed workout that etched out a spiraling, sinuous harmonic progression at the same time, this on his own The true meaning of determination with a theme that sounded liked he was playing two complex wonky latin tunes at a breakneck tempo, a different one in each hand; Kevin Eubanks on Holland’s elegaic and gentle bluesily rocking The Empty Chair,  a blazing guitar solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix but getting quieter and quieter the more furious and intense he got – a hold the breath moment.  Is that why they played Eric Harland’s gorgeous ballad Breathe next? Dave Holland, was the still point at the centre, with that enormous sound and transparent delight in what was happening around him. A fabulous evening. If  Miles had popped back for the evening, he’d have hired that bass player all over again for sure.