Ellington in Anticipation, Saturday 26th April, Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-upon-Avon

Ant_Ell_WMCFragments of a familiar melody appeared and then evaporated at the end of a piece that was all insistent, chattering rhythms from different sections of the septet, overlayed by flowing melodic lines and fiery soloing from the consistently exciting Finn Peters on alto  and peerless, always individual Liam Noble on piano; “… ahh, its Caravan..” . Composer, arranger, saxophonist and leader Mark Lockheart  confirmed it for us with a wry smile and “that started life as ..” a phrase used more than once in the evening.

Ellington in Anticipation is transparently born out of Lockheart’s lifelong immersion in, love of and intensely personal response to the music of one of the twentieth centuries greatest composers and bandleaders. The success of  his own re-imagining of many of the classics and the performance of them  by a fantastic band as well as originals inspired by the master has been widely recognised. The CD topped many critics ‘best of 2013’ lists and they are short listed for a Parliamentary Jazz Award. The chance to catch a live performance at the Wiltshire Music Centre was one not be missed, a decision shared by a healthy audience on the night. The new sound system there and investment in managing the lively acoustic of the hall has really paid off with a really good balance and presence everywhere in the hall that makes gigs like this a great prospect.

Having launched the evening with It don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing re  – worked with a rolling African flavoured groove under it and that desconstruction of Caravan, the eclectic references continued. Satin Doll became Jungle Lady with more urgent rhythms in an endless flow from Seb Rochford‘s deceptively minimal kit and James Allsopp‘s clarinet solo upping the excitement levels. Come Sunday slowed the pace, the hymn-like vibe there but with as many folk like inflections as gospelly ones in Lockheart’s reading of the familiar melody.   The arranging was unfailing inventive and evocative. Viola player Magrit Hasler was frequently given lines that doubled the piano’s right hand or Allsopp’s bass clarinet locked with Tom Herbert‘s propulsive bass creating unususal textures and sounds that  nevertheless somehow conjured up the atmosphere of the Ellington Orchestra.

If at the halfway mark we were savouring the beautiful music but were wishing they’d just let rip a bit more, this was a line-up of some of the most creative and incendiary improvisers on the current scene after all, then in the second set they certainly stretched out. A dazzling exchange between Mark Lockheart and Finn Peters over a driving riff was viscerally exciting; Liam Noble’s solo piano introduction to Lockheart’s composition Beautiful Man was packed with rhythmic and melodic ideas explored and developed with alternating cascades of notes and two fisted percussive playing.

This was an evening of music making of the highest order, unquestionably a celebration of Ellington’s music and influence. If he’d been there he’d surely have been elbowing Liam Noble out of the way to get stuck in.

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.

Jeff Williams, Green Note, Camden, London Jazz Festival, Wednesday 20th November

“That one was about airport security” said Jeff Williams as the band juddered to a halt. A spooky, stuttering swing had built to a frenzy, with Phil Robson’s guitar blurting zig-zagging runs in a wildly distorted synth voice whilst Williams lashed his drums. Airport Security; it all made sense. This quintet’s off-beat vibe reflect the oddities in everyday life that provide inspiration for the drummer leader’s compositions.  There’s no shouting, just a quiet intensity that draws the listener in before wrongfooting with a swerve or surprise burst of energy. Williams is all colour and nudging, no spelling out the obvious. The caress of his sticks makes the kit an orchestra. On Hermeto, named for the Brazilian composer, a rattle of the cymbal doubles the rhythm of the melody whilst a tap on the tom ghosts the guitar’s accompanying stabs and Sam Lasserson’s propulsive bass figure gets a helping prod from a click on the snare.  Wonky bossas, twisted calypsos, loose limbed swing; Williams’ writing, all sidelong glances at familiar forms gives this band plenty to work on. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor nods at absent from this year’s festival, Sonny Rollins, in fullness of tone and inventive routes through angular harmony.  Finn Peters, switching between alto and flute, repeatedly pulled out fiery impassioned solos.  Williams left the stage for ‘Lament’, a hold your breath, haunting hymn in memory of a gone too soon friend; he returned to Arcoleo taking the tune out with long notes and hoarse cries on tenor and whipped up a storm on the drums. Not so much a crescendo as a howl of anguish. A treasure of a group, a gem of a gig.