My Bristol week: From Craig Handy to Thelonius

As if last Friday’s outing to see Entropi wasn’t enough, catching Craig Handy mid-tour with a mouth-watering quartet at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday was followed on Wendesday by Thelonius celebrating the centenary of their eponymous inspiration at The Fringe. Soaking up the music and earning a crust has meant I’ve yet to reflect on either gig here, so an edited highlights is what follows.   It’s hard to imagine any city in the world hosting anything better than these two gigs as part of the week’s routine fare. There was also a connection, in my mind, between them. Both transparently drew on an in-the-very-marrow familiarity with jazz from bebop onwards and everything that has flowed from it, coupled with dazzling improvisation, so that the most familiar of material had zest and IMG_2571life and freshness.  Yup, it’s been quite a week.

Handy toured with Herbie Hancock in the mid 90s playing the New Standards material, was in the legendary Betty Carter’s band, has been a fixture in the Mingus Big Band including stints as MD.  It shouldn’t be a surprising then if his sound, choice of phrase, instinct for a mischievous quote or reference sounds, whilst still being his own, as if it comes from a long line of greats, .  It was gripping, it just oozed out of him. He was clearly enjoying the company of Jonathan Gee on piano, Nicola Sabato on bass and Rod Youngs on drums.  This wasn’t a grab you by the throat and shower you with notes session, but oh my it was grooving. Cedar Walton’s Holy Land was an easy medium swing tempo and as Handy layered phrase upon phrase, building momentum the band stoked it with him. It was like sitting on a gradually swelling ocean wave; quite exhilarating.  Rod Youngs was a delight, much of that energy coming from pushy, minimal strokes of his cymbal.  The two sets were mostly standards with a couple of Handy originals and the easy fluency was a thrill.  As we crept out (a case of catching the last bus syndrome), What’s New was just fading. We’d hung on every swoop and flutter of the melody. It was easy to imagine echoes of Coltrane or Dexter Gordon playing the ballad, but that’s because they’re surely in Handy’s the musical bloodstream.

Thelonius were drinking from the same well, but restricting themselves exclusively to compositions by Monk himself as Calum Gourlay reminded the full to over-flowing Fringe  before a note was played (just in case we were there under false pretenses). They kicked of with Epistrophy and the easy swing and Monk’s instantly catchy but typically off-kilter theme grabbed the ears. Hans Koller was on keys for this tune (he played valve trombone for most of the evening) and assembled a solo that was like shards of glass, all angles and dissonant fragments. A great start. This band, with Martin Speake on alto and for this gig the peer-less Jeff Williams on drums, have been playing weekly at times at the Vortex exploring the Monk canon. There’s always the possibility of deconstruction and radical re-interpretation in a project like this, but they approach the tunes with great fidelity to the original compositions in tempo and feel. They are each formidable improvisers and composers in their own right and the exploration of the tunes is from the inside out. Williams threatened to steal the show early on with a riveting, melodic solo on Teo. For Gourlay, the band frequently just laid out and he gave a hint of why a solo bass set from him might be a treat somehow evoking the harmony and sounding like an entire rhythm section as he played off Monk’s themes..  Koller is a a top drawer pianist, so hearing where his mind takes him with just a single line to pursue on the trombone , without the added  harmonic possibilities of the keyboard was fascinating.  There’s a  muted, fragile air to his tone adding a vulnerable almost melancholic edge to his playing.  His trombone and Speake’s alto blended and interacted beautifully and gave Round Midnight a fresh twist.  It was, as Gourlay again, reminded us the day after Monk’s would-have-been 100th birthday.   It was a delicious homage.

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Fringe Jazz Notes – and a New York connection.

Fringe Jazz, the weekly gig in Clifton’s Fringe Bar that never seems to rest, is celebrating 5 years this Autumn.  They’ve moved out to the pub round the corner and back again in that time and Jon Taylor has put together the usual mouth watering programme to celebrate.   I’ve also detected an (admittedly tenuous) New York connection.

On a recent, all to brief, flit through New York, I sought out a CD store in a fairly shabby corner of lower Manhattan. The spray painted shutters and steps down to the the cellar downtown_gallerydid look a little un-promising. The Downtown Music Gallery does downtown_2have a reputation however, both stocking a huge selection of the free-er, scronkier end of improvised music and even hosting occasional gigs. Descending, I turned out to be the only customer at that time and got a quick guided tour of the stacks.   Imagine my surprise (and delight) when my eyes fell on some very familiar names in the first dunmallCDpile I looked at.   Right there in the middle, a Paul Dunmall trio album with Bristol lads Tony Orrell and Jim Barr.   Meanwhile, back at the fringe this very week (September 13), Paul Dunmall is in trio with Tony Orrell. It’s the mighty Percy Pursglove on bass this time.  Now there’s a New York connection.   That’s pretty representative of the quality of the Fringe’s programme (check out the full listings here). There’s a couple more I’ll flag.

On the 11th October, Martin Speake, Hans Koller, Calum Gourlay and Jeff Williams bring their Monk project to the bijou back room. This is a longstanding collaboration formed to play as many of Monk’s collaborations as possible and has been seen regularly at London’s Vortex club. London Jazz interviewed Gourlay about it. Speake is a creative veteran of the UK scene, last seen in Bristol with the legendary Bobo Stenson.  Koller also has a formidable CV and Brooklyn-ite Jeff Williams provides another New York connection, dividing his time between there and UK  and has a long history and huge reputation both sides of the pond.   15th November sees ECM recording artist Iain Ballamy return, this time with his unique duo with Norwegian button accordionist Stian Cartensen.  A Nordic rather than a New York connection, but a rare opportunity to catch this extraordinary collaboration.

Too many words are required to summarise the whole programme, but there are plenty more gems there with the best of our local scene well represented.   Let’s keep supporting the Fringe – and here’s to  five more years!

 

CD Round Up-Part 3: Ones that got away – Koller and Williams (Huw V)

I seem to be pairing musicians up for these little round ups and the connection between these two might seem a little tenuous. Firstly, their recordings have been with me for a while and secondly they are both dazzling demonstrations of the depth, quality and imagination of musicians on the current scene.  Pianist, composer, arranger Hans Koller has been around for twenty five years or so, bass player Huw V Williams for maybe five.

Are triple album releases  becoming a ‘thing’?  Kamasai Washington’s much feted debut hans-koller-retrospection-cover-stoney-lane-records-sThe Epic has been hard to miss. If Koller’s triple release on Stoney Lane Records,  Retrospection,  hasn’t attracted the same number of column inches that’s not a reflection on the quality of  either the writing and arranging or the playing. All three albums have large ensembles of varying personnel, the third volume is a set with Germany’s NDR Big Band. Volume 1 has a twelve piece with Steve Swallow and Jeff Williams guesting, Volume 2 two guitars (Jakob  Bro and Phil Robson), Brooklyn alto fiend John O’Gallagher and Christine Tobin‘s spine tingling vocal on a striking setting of a poem Half of Life.  The mix is Koller originals and arrangements of jazz classics (Parker and Tristano get an airing) but Bach gets a turn and contemporaries like Jeff Williams.  Koller’s stylistic erudition embraces the approaches of  George Russell and Gil Evans and there’s playing to do it justice throughout.  John Fordham sums it up as music for the mind and body and if its taken me a few months to find some words, well its a feast that’s best enjoyed at leisure (and on repeat).

honHuw Williams’ album Hon may not be a triple (or a large ensemble), but it’s no less of a feast of music.  It’s  a set  absolutely bursting with ideas that are realised with patience and  conviction, the frequently anarchic collective energy notwithstanding.  Stately, dance like themes, Laura Jurd‘s trumpet in counterpoint with Alam Nathoo‘s tenor, jostle next to stagey marching pieces with Elliot Galvin clattering all over with prepared piano. Swirling collective improvisations give way to what could be a cross-over between a punkish pulsing groover and a folk tune with swirling accordion.   A Nod at a free-boppish theme morphs into visceral swing.  Pete Ibbetson’s drives it all along from behind the kit shadowing  every move of William’s earthy  bass sound .  The album pulls off with aplomb the trick of skipping lightly across styles, being deadly serious with a mischievous glint in the eye all the while. Its a treat. Did I mention the dazzling quality of the playing?

Hans Koller Quartet/ Percy Pursglove Trio, Kings Place, Friday 4th March

Birmingham based Stoney Lane Records invaded London’s Kings Place with a Venn diagram of a double-bill on Friday and, as I happened to be town, the lure was irresistible. Pianist Hans Koller and  trumpeter –  bass player Percy Pursglove were the common factor between the two bands.  Pursglove’s trio was completed by Paul Clarvis, for once restricting his rhythmic alchemy to use of a conventional drum kit and Koller’s Quartet by a slice of New York, in the shape of drummer Jeff Williams and newly re-located to Birmingham, altoist John O’Gallagher.

The music was overlapping and contrasting as were the personnel. The trio were playing versions of music originally written by Pursglove as a choral and large jazz ensemble work, Far Reaching Dreams of Mortal Souls. With long composed sections of smoothly unwinding melodic lines, shadowed by singing harmony and unexpected shifts, there was a reflective air to much of the short set of of four pieces, inspired by text or ideas from Anne Franck, Nelson Madela, Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Darwin. Clarvis was a joy, often subtly nudging and colouring the implied rhythm of the trumpet’s lines, at others stepping forward and driving things along.  Pursglove alternated between trumpet and bass, keeping up a subtle dialogue with Koller on piano, the bass in particular weaving around the pianist’s thoughtful, fluid lines.

The quartet, playing a handful of Koller originals, exploring George Russell’s methods according to the leader, had a similarly melodic thread but with sharper edges, the phrases zig-zagging and swooping across the saxophone’s range. O’Gallagher and Williams’ partnership crackled as they pumped up the energy generating a grooving, anguished swing as the saxophonist explored, dissected and re-worked Koller’s pieces.   They brought a whiff of fierce, serious-minded New York style exploration to the hall, matching  Koller’s cerebral but thoroughly grounded, communicative approach.  They closed the set on a distorted almost bluesey shuffling groover leaving the audience wanting more.  ‘We’ve got another hard one’ said Koller.  We cheered.