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.

 

The late list, my favourite moments and sounds of the last 12 months.

The ‘best of’/’highlights lists’ for 2015 have been and gone and there were a lot of them this year it seemed.  They are always entertaining. Jazzwise mag inveigled a huge cast list to each compile one with a complex point scoring system – always intriguing results.  I managed not to do one in December, or even early January (I just got busy… didn’t get around to it).  There is pleasure to be had in looking back however. So here we go.  It’ a very personal selection, dependent entirely on my idiosyncratic preferences and what may have appealed on a particular day or at different times.  Rules of my game are explained for Live thrills and recorded pleasures respectively.

Gigs & Live Moments  ( a small slice)

For a live gig or moment within a gig, the simple rule is  ‘Can I still conjure up the moment and the thrill?’, or maybe  it returns unbidden to give me a tingle of pleasure at the recollection.

Anthony Braxton at the Lantern, Colston Hall in Bristol for his only UK appearance. A unique and mysterious improviser I’ve remained haunted by the Ghost Trance Music

Julian Arguelles  at Cheltenham Festival with a septet playing inventive arrangements of his enchanting, exuberant music

When I looked back, I realised a trio of duos with Gwilym Simcock stuck out:

Gwilym Simcock/ Jason Rebello at Wiltshire Music Centre in the Bath Festival. Intergenerational? Maybe, but certainly interactive and plenty of fireworks alongside lyrical flights

Gwilym Simcock/ Brigitte Beraha at Falmouth University, an impromptu moment at the end of a solo concert, a moment of magic as piano and voice took flight together on I fall in love too easily

Gwilym Simcock/ Michael Wollny at a tribute to John Taylor, two former pupils of the maestro let fly on Ambleside Days, an extra ordinary moment.

Norma Winstone/ Ralph Towner Another tribute/ celebration and another duo.  These two slid into a version of Celeste that gave me goosebumps at an ‘Evocation’ of Kenny Wheeler’s music in London Jazz Festival.

Paolo Conte at the Barbican. Is it jazz? Cabaret? Pop?  Who cares – the veteran, unclassifiable  Italian crooner wove his spell and charmed everyone ( that’ll be me and what seemed like a significant proportion of Italian and Italian descended London residents)

Kamasi Washington at the Lantern again this time for one of two UK appearances(the Lantern had a good year for coups!) and demonstrating live with only septet (no massed choirs or orchestra on hand) why his debut deserved the title The Epic

I could list all those moments at my regular haunts (St. James Wine Vaults, Bath; BeBop Club; increasingly irresistible, The Hen and Chicken), however one each:

Iain Ballamy – at the Wine Vaults. Never knowingly miss an opportunity to hear him. Back in January last year at the Wine Vaults, just the theme from East of Sun was worth the trip.

Wildflower Sextet – at the BeBop Club early in the year. Any Wayne Shorter related outing is likely to get my but this sextet led by Matt Anderson were a particular delight.

Hotel Bristol –  at The Hen and Chicken. Fierce competition for this slot, but the Andy Sheppard orchestrated quartet has it with fierce blowing, delectable melodies and grooves and the inevitable top-drawer collaborators.

Recorded Music

In the case of  recorded music the question is ‘Do I still get the urge to play the CD/ Download?’     Memory can be deceptive and what happened most recently can loom larger than it should. Discovering that iTunes has sneakily logged a good proportion of my listening, reveals what have been the most frequent of my ‘just got to listen to that again’ or ‘I’m in the mood for..’ choices.  Taken alongside what has got stuck in my (old tech) six CD changer and picking a few faves from albums I’ve reviewed, generates a list that may reveal more about my preferences than anything else, but also looks pretty high quality to me.

 Heavily edited in the interests of not overdoing it –

Stuck in the CD changer

Kamasi Washington – all three discs of The Epic. It’s a throwback (whether jazz or dance music), its very current, its so the ‘next thing’, its irresistible.

Julian Arguelles – Let it Be Told,   Mining the South African repertoire and arranging for Big Band its fabulous (and coming to Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2016)

Babelfish – Chasing Rainbows was this piano, voice, bass and percussion quartet’s second outing. Understated, fizzing with energy, creativity and exquisitely twisted melody.

Reviewed with humility and repeating on the playlist

Andy Sheppard  –  Surrounded by Sea.  Trio Librero with the addition of Elvind Aarstead, whisperingly magical

Charles LloydWild Man Suite, a unique instrumentation. Maybe only Charles Lloyd would respond to the suggestion of adding strings by doing it with lyra and cimbalom, but its vintage Lloyd

The Printmakers – its been a bit of wait, but in Westerly at last we have a recording of this sublime and joyful music from Brit super group

Others, some reviewed some not, but high on the count of ‘plays’

Bebe Buchanan Tagel  – Gone . Danish outfit, featuring that Arguelles chap again. Euro? Yes, lyrical? Yes? Distinctive – oh yes.  Thanks Peter Bacon for the review tip-off

Drifter  – Flow An Edition Records orchestrated quartet with Alexi Tuomarila on piano. Vibrant, exciting contemporary jazz

Mads La Cour – Almuji  I keep returning to this loose limbed, weaving in and out of structures blowing from the Norwegian trumpeter’s quartet

Eyebrow  – Garden City hypnotic and uplifting slowly evolving grooves and hooks from this trumpet, drums and effects duo of Pete Judge and Paul Wigens

Indigo Kid – Fistful of Notes Not nearly enough fanfare around this second outing for Dan Messore’s quartet playing his enticing and quirky melodies

Veneri Pohjola Another Edition Records release, early in 2015, Finnish trumpeter Pohjola on a set of emotion packed originals and the leaders gorgeous, bang up to date trumpet sound kept calling me back

 

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!

 

Piano Summit: Tribute to John Taylor, Purcell room, Wednesday 9th September

The joyous, dancing theme of Ambleside Days erupted out of the boiling, rhythmic tumult of percussive chords and hand damped strings that Michael Wollny and Gwilym Simcock exchanged to launch their duet.  It was  towards the end of two hours of rotating occupancy of the piano stools by a total of eight pianists and was a scintillating, dazzling display. After exchanging phrases of the theme, the soaring climax was delivered in unison. Simcock unleashed blistering, rhapsodic run after run somehow combining exuberance and attack with a flowing lyricism in a mesmerizing passage, the effect only heightened by the percussive barrage from Wollny. It was not hard to imagine that both had enjoyed a playful mauling from John Taylor as the other pianist at some time on this very tune, both having been taught by him in Cologne and London respectively.

Wednesday night’s ‘Jazz Piano Summit’, of which this was the climax, was originally planned as a launch gig for Taylor and Richard Fairhurst’s  two piano duet album. It became, after Taylor’s sudden death in July, a tribute, celebration and, at times elegy, in music as well as words to the unique and towering figure in jazz. Wollny and Simcock’s extraordinary performance seemed like all three and a fitting conclusion to the evening as they played out on what sounded like another Taylor burner.

Throughout the evening, Jazz FMs Helen Mayhew had encouraged the pianists to say something about John Taylor and his music and what individually it meant to them.  Whether by design or unwittingly it served to the illustrate the mysterious blend and range of characteristics that made his music so distinctive.  Liam Noble spoke of an attitude and playful approach to making music, Trish Clowes instantly heard an almost orchestral dimension and richness to his playing, Gwilym Simcock recognised an unwavering commitment to giving everything in a performance.  For some, there was still a palpable sense of shock and loss as they spoke of time spent with him.

Duos in different combinations (Tom Hewson/ John Turville, Michale Wollny and Trish Clowes, Wollny/ Fairhurst, Wollny/ Simcock, Kit Downes/ Tom Cawley)  solo spots (from Liam Noble, John Turville) produced wildly differing music, some obviously from the Taylor canon or inspired by his sound ; some utterly individual and distinctive whilst being inspired by an approach or an incident. It was unfailingly absorbing.   Downes and Cawley opened the second set with music of tenderness and luminous beauty. Quietly dancing piano figures gave why to insistent grooves and soaring poetic lines from Cawley or smouldering runs from Downes. It was a moment of special magic amongst much treasure. Liam Noble delivered a typically angular and sideways approach to I’m Old Fashioned somehow making the appearance of the theme, voiced with dense chords and edgily swinging a tense emotional moment.  After a head clearing free improvisation from Wollny and Fairhurst came that thunderous finale.  It was a remarkable evening even without its greater significance. The reason for the surely never to be repeated meeting,  gave the occasion an extra and special charge.

An August Week in the West Part 2: Gwilym Simcock Solo, University of Falmouth

There are moments in music that seem so right, so beautifully judged, that they both remain suspended in the memory and can eclipse to some extent what led up to them.   After a scintillating and at times gravity defying solo set in the well appointed and intimate performance space at Falmouth University’s performance centre, Gwilym Simcock invited Brigitte Beraha to join him for the inevitable encore. The totally absorbed and universally thrilled audience was drawn mainly from students on the Jazz Summer School and Brigitte was one of their tutors for the week. What followed was a little piece of alchemy. A few stroked abstract chords, Beraha’s wordless sighs and gliding phrases and then I fall in Love to Easily unfolded. A repetition of the stanza followed with the melody distorted and tugged, Simcock following every move with chords by turns lush and sparse.  It’d be tempting to reference Shirley Horne for the sense of pacing or Betty Carter for the imagination with melody and words, but that would perhaps not do justice to Simcock and Beraha’s artistry and simply re-state a jazz truth: great musicians absorb and transmute the ideas an innovations of those that have gone before and weave their own magic. And as the last words dissolved in a sigh and the the piano’s chords faded, it was a piece of pure magic they’d created.

The solo performance that had preceded it had been magical in its own right. Simcock’s now almost taken for for granted protean talents were deployed on exhilarating rhythmic workouts, Barber inspired barely believable counterpoint on Barber’s Blues and exquisite re-workings of the familiar on Everytime we Say Goodbye and, emotionally, Everyone’s Song But My Own. No matter how furious or dense the textures, there was no stopping fluid melodic lines breaking through. It was a breathtaking performance and then followed that encore.  What a moment to stumble across on an evening, in August, in Falmouth.

January Roundup – Gigs and CDs.

A quick look back at January’s diary confirms a cracking month of listening and gig going. Aside from Anthony Braxton, and Iain Ballamy early on, I caught Tom Green‘s Septet at Burdalls Yard at the start of a lengthy national tour. A rousing start to the month and my account is on Jazzwise’s website. A couple of CDs confirmed what a service two still relatively young labels, Whirlwind and Edition, are performing for our jazz scene. Both labels were of course  started by musicians (Mike Janisch and Dave Stapleton). The-Gate-High-Res-CoverOn Whirlwind, The Gate is bass player Phil Donkin‘s debut release as a leader after an already stellar career as a sideman, (my review for London Jazz here). Edition have done it again in signing another formidable European player, this time distinctive Finnish trumpeter Veneri Pohjola. His album Bullhorn has been stuck on my playlist (review here). EDN1056_Verneri_Pohjola_Bullhorn

And then an epic weekend starting with Head South‘s authentic Latin grooves fronted by UK trumpet meister Steve Waterman at the BeBop Club. Chino Martell Morgan‘s percussion blended with Buster Birch’s rocket fuelled drumming to stir anyone’s blood, all MD’d by keysman John Harriman locked tight with Alsofredo Pulido‘s bass for the night.   The Impossible Gentlemen at Wiltshire Music Centre followed on Saturday.  Oh, its good to see them back again. Jon Turney’s review nicely  impossible_gentscaptures the thrill. They roar and raunch and sigh and swoon in equal measure. There’s a singing bittersweet voicing of  chords from Mike Walker‘s guitar blending with Gwilym Simcock‘s piano that’s almost a signature sound: my ole heart flipped over as a new tune Hold Out For The Sun launched the gig with just such a cycling sequence.  The local jazz scene were out in force to appreciate.  The weekend was topped off by Andy Sheppard and Denny Illett’s Hotel Bristol on Sunday at the Hen & Chicken. I’ve nothing to add to this. I’m not sure I can stand the pace.