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!

 

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.

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.

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.

Cheltenham Jazz Festival contrasts: Jeff Williams, Sunday May 6th; Lighthouse, Monday May 7th

Jeff Williams, American drummer and part time Londoner with a CV that stretches back to the 70s and includes stints with Stan Getz and Dave Liebman was at Cheltenham with his New York Quartet. This seemed like a deliciously contrasting gig to the earlier John Taylor one when we booked the tickets and to Lighthouse the following day which whilst back on mainly European territory seemed like another flavour again (Gwylim Simock’s piano meets Tim Garland’s sax to joust with percussionist Asaf Sirkis). If we’d had to lay bets as to which gigs we’d be humming the tunes to as we skipped down the street afterwards, I’m not sure it would be have been Jeff Williams’ group. The slightly smokey atmosphere on stage might have drifted on with the band from the streets of New York and Jeff’s trilby and shades seemed like a slightly tongue in cheek nod to the urban vibe. The alto sax, trumpet, bass and drums delivered a series of catchy themes, some more angular, some boppish with changes of pace and stops and starts a-plenty. Fez had an arabic souk hint to it and it was trumpet player Duane Eubanks’ Purple Blue and Red that we were humming as we left.  Its the approach of the band that’s stayed with me. They frequently seemed to stop and listen to each other so that there was often only one or two instruments playing – it didn’t seemed to matter, just added to the sense of a joint exploration of some ideas. Jeff Williams has assembled a group of sympathetic voyagers. His drumming is like this, as striking and interesting for what he’s not playing as what he is, even when he’s playing time you can feel the pulse more in what he’s not playing.

Lighthouse by contrast play a lot. There’s plenty of words like breathtaking and dazzling in the press to describe this trio, all richly deserved. Whether its the exuberant vibe and rich harmony wrapped around the simple pentatonic scale of the Hang drum, the slightly bonkers frenetic clubby rhythm of  Ibiza scene inspired Space Junk, the excursions into folky pastoral jazz ballads or thunderous soloing on pieces based on flamenco like grooves, its quite simply exhilarating. Tim Garland and Gwylim Simcock lock seamlessly on intricate themes with Sirkis grinning delightedly following them through every rhythmic swerve. The virtuosity was unforced, I sat back, tapped my foot (there was no dancing in the seating for sardines) and whooped as the pyrotechnics proceeded. We weren’t humming many of the themes after this one, but I was musing on another little insight of the festival; that Gwylim Simcock has a funky left hand. For all the torrent of notes and lyrical lines, he was very funky.

Martin Speake ‘Change of Heart’ with Bobo Stenson, St. George’s Bristol, Februay 14th

This was the fourth (or fifth?) gig of a week long tour by the band and they’ve been much reviewed it seems. A couple were spotted by a fellow Bristol blogger here and John Fordham had a go too here – I think these may all have been the same night; scope for  bit of redactive word there. So what to add? I think Martin Speake has had a good week. At times he seemed almost overcome by the fun they were having declaring at one point “.. these are the best muscians in the world”. The sound was nevertheless, as all the reviewers have noted, in a definite ‘space’. Often meditative, very European jazz. There was a range of moods from a gently rocking half time pulse under Lennie’s Pennies to more Ornette Coleman like swing under Fifteen Years Too Long, a Speake original. So whether you loved it seems a matter of taste – for me this music is really moving and the interplay and symapthy between the players a delight. Steve Watts on bass was quietly fabulous, frequently propelling tunes with strange broken rhythmic lines often echoing the angular phrasing of the melodies. Jeff Williams always seems to embellish and imply the groove without ever actually playing it. Need I go on about Bobo? – world class and check the other reviews for plenty of words about the leader’s intricate and thoughtful playing.  I left thinking Martin Speake’s little outburst perhaps wasn’t just an excess of enthusiasm: maybe these are some of the best musicians in the world.