May Round-up: Nightingale in St James Square, Marsalis in Bath and a decade of Play Jazz Weekend

Mark Nightingale is probably heartily sick of bad puns on his name, but his appearance atmarknightingale the St. James Wine Vaults session in Bath in the middle of the month in a cellar bar beneath St. James Square, made allusions to singing and squares irresistible. Anyone who was there might also think it’s an apt comparison however. Opportunities to see one of our foremost exponents of trombone as the lead horn are relatively rare so this was a real treat. The fluency and agility of the playing were dazzling and Nightingale’s tone was like honey in the ear as he led the house trio through two sets of tunes from some less visited corners of the standards and jazz classics repertoire.  This was another absorbing evening in the fortnightly session’s programme, now a decade old, that continues to attract the best players on the scene.

It’s a year of anniversaries, as Play Jazz Weekend, an annual pop-up jazz jazz school held at Wiltshire Jazz Centre, reached a run of a decade under the stewardship of Rachel Kerry over the Bank Holiday Weekend . This year, as on some previous occasions, the tutors for the weekend assembled the night before for a gig at Bristol’s Be-Bop Club. Alan Barnes, Damian Cook and Andy Hague (alto, tenor, trumpet) formed the frontline of the band that also featured the fourth tutor Jim Blomfield on piano. Chris Jones on bass and Mark Whitlam secured a grooving, responsive rhythm section. This kind of gig is a Hague specialty. He arrived with a pad of arrangements in ‘roughly hard swinging, sixties Blue Note territory’  as he put it, making sure the impromptu sextet served up a fizzing set of familiar tunes  with new twists and the unfamiliar  with attention grabbing energy. So we got standards such as Like Someone in Love, Billy Strayhdorn’s UMMG, a little known rip-roaring Horace Silver, Smell my Attitude, evoking burning soloing all round. There were  moments of tender delicacy sprinkled throughout the evening as well. A rousing Marcus Printup stomper closed the evening,  loudly appreciated by  prospective Play Jazz students and regular punters alike.

The much reduced Bath International Festival took place over the week before the bank holiday weekend and the overtly jazzy gigs were on the first Saturday.  There’ll be more from me in Jazzwise about those, suffice to say that a solo Branford Marsalis gig in the Abbey, complete with tolling bells to welcome him to the stage, was a dramatic piece of billing. One man, his saxophones and a big church was certainly a challenge but Marsalis rose to it, sounding most compelling to these ears when he eased into some jazz standards, but mining  classical and contemporary sounds along the way and using the response of the natural reverb chamber to exhilarating effect.   Kansas Smitty’s House Band provided a raucous antidote later in the same evening, impossible not to enjoy.



October Moments: Another Barnes storming night at the Vaults and Andy Hague’s big birthday celebrated with a big band

Alan Barnes? He’s not bad, but after half an hour his playing does your head in – at least that the verdict of Barnes’ daughter Alan_Barnes_Press_Photo_XL01Moll as related by the man himself, introducing the tune he wrote for her.  It was more than half an hour into the first set and the signs were that the audience in a packed St. James Wine Vaults didn’t entirely share the verdict, judging by the whoops, cheers and sighs greeting the swerve through Barnes’ huge repertoire.   There’d been plenty of overt Charlie Parker references and a blistering take of The Song is You  (“… lets the get the fast one out of the way to show we can..” quipped Barnes), but a stand-out was an enchanting reading of Alice in Wonderland all wispy phrases and oblique phrasing demanding attention in a less overt way.   It was another bravura performance for what has become a regular visit from Barnes to the Vaults. The  energy seemed to flow back and forth between audience and band. With guests of Barnes’ quality,  the regular house trio of Wade Edwards, Vyv Hope Scott and Trevor Davies always seem to find something extra and different as they rise to the occasion. Jazz at the Vaults may be in its tenth year, but the longevity seems to consolidating the popularity of the fortnightly slot – long may it continue!

Earlier in the month, Andy Hague, trumpeter, drummer, BeBop Club head cook and newly AndyHagueturned 50 year old, celebrated his own longevity with a birthday bash in the shape of a Big Band assembled for the occasion performing his charts.  Some were freshly minted, some dusted down crackers and a few re-worked old ones. Manic Molluscs started with a workout from long-time sparring partner Jim Blomfield on piano and a gutsy tenor solo from Jake McMurchie. There was a big turn-out to cheer on a band of Bristol’s finest and Andy’s Friday Night at the BeBop Club gave them a chance to get whooping with a fiery solo from Ben Waghorn on the crisply swinging hard bop vibe. There were stylistic nods in all sorts of directions and the assembled talent did Andy proud. There’s not just life in the old dog, he might just be hitting his stride on this showing.

Greg Cordez Quintet, BeBop Club, Friday 27th march

Greg-Cordez-1Eight Minutes and Twenty Three Seconds is the time it takes light to travel from the sun to earth and the inspiration for a typical  Greg Cordez composition. In the hands of his formidable quintet,  it built steadily last night  from Jim Blomfield‘s simple, fragile, piano opening to a roaring, all hands on deck climax, before subsiding suddenly to a whisper.  The emotional punch was powerful, a pattern they’d followed most of the evening with bass player leader Cordez’s pieces developing an inexorable momentum over march-like, rocky pulses overlayed with themes that declared themselves steadily, given space to breath and take hold as first one soloist and then the next developed and expanded them.   This band debuted over two years ago at the BeBop and since then the repertoire has evolved into mainly originals with an album due for release soon on the New York based Ninety and Nine record label.  Tenor man Jake McMurchie‘s regular foil Nick Malcolm was absent from the line-up that recorded the album, with  Nick Dover stepping in forming a twin tenor frontline for the evening. The two horns blended beautifully, now stating another of Cordez’s compelling melodic fragments, now offering contrasting developments of the looping sequences, Jake’s throaty, warm sound swooping and crying, Nick offering an edgier sound and probing harmonic embellishments, no less emotionally laden.  The only tunes not from the leaders’ pen were by American bassist Todd Sickafoose.  Blood Orange’s hooky theme over a snappy groove set Jim Blomfield up for a blistering solo with a Rhodes sound, shimmering clouds of notes scattered between wild percussive episodes. The twin tenors came in with a shout chorus cum backing riff and suddenly everyone was blowing, Mark Whitlam‘s drumming goading theme on. It was thrilling stuff.   Later, after the Eight Minutes and Twenty Three seconds of ever brightening sunlight, another Blomfield workout, this time solo piano, segued the band into the sumptuous ballad Camilla Rose, before 1000 Paper Cranes traced another arc to end the gig, from simple chiming phrase on piano underpinned by a bass figure through swelling, building, melody and impassioned blowing back to that chiming phrase. On this showing the album, Paper Crane will be well worth catching. Meanwhile you can get some previews from Greg’s website.

Cordez teasez – album preview and taster track

Its a couple of years now since bass player, and general making things happen man Greg Cordez debuted his quintet at the BeBop club.  Since then the band has been making occasional appearances locally and their set list has been evolving.  As well as organising a series of jam sessions over the years, an email from Greg was the stimulus for getting the Bristol Composers Collective going.   A series of bands have released CDs since that include music (and musicians) first trialled at the collective’s more or less regular monthly gigs (Michelson Morley, Kevin Figes’ Octet to name two) .  Now Greg looks to be next in line.  With the same line-up still in place from that first gig, bristling with creativity (Jim Blomfield on keys, Mark Whitlam on drums, Nick Malcolm on trumpet and Jake McMurchie on sax) Greg has managed to align their busy diaries for long enough to record an album of his compositions which is near release. We know this because he’s been sneaking out a preview reel with a fun graphic and a taster track with slightly mysteriously accompanying footage from the Apollo 17 landing.  I’ve not heard a release date, but the album is coming soon and it sounds like it’ll be tasty when it arrives.

Blakeley’s Messengers, BeBop Club, Friday 31st January

IMG_0887The clue is in the name of course. Drummer John Blakeley was unashamedly celebrating his near name-sake’s work. The repertoire was anything but cliched and not confined to Art Blakey’s work with the Messengers and John’s musical director brain was fully deployed to make sure we revelled in the attention to detail arranging of even the most familiar of tunes. The formidable expanded front-line of Jake McMurchie on tenor, Kevin Figes on alto and bari, Nick Malcolm on trumpet and local ‘bone man’ Liam Treasure gave plenty of scope for rich arrangements and top drawer blowing. After limbering up on a couple of Blakey classics including Dat Dere, they made full use of that front-line on arrangements of tunes from Kenny Dorham’s Afro Cuban album first Afrodisiac then Basheer’s Dream. Jim Blomfield on piano remainded us of why he’s a local go-to man for blistering latin piano and mesmeric grooving.  The highlights were provided by some fabulous blowing. Nick Malcolm bent the familiar materials of  Love to Sale to his fluent melodic playing, inserting  angular leaps and twisted phrases to keep us guessing. Jake McMurchie blew us away on Politely swooping and wailing at the climax of driving, bluesy solo. The whole band seemed to be enjoying each others company with One for Daddy oh reaching an anarchic, glorious cacophony of a collective roar to finish the evening. Blakeley and fellow rhythm section soldier Jon Short on bass kept the whole thing grooving along. We left with a familiar warm glow and smile on our faces.  An account of the evening wouldn’t be complete without  mention of the revival of the BeBop Club’s sign, for years displayed on the wall of the club but disappearing after a late 90’s re-furb. Promoter Andy Hague’s delight at its new electronic manifestation was evident as it cast its glow on the band in the second set.

Liam Treasure, Kevin Figes and Nick Malcolm bask in the glow of the new sign

Liam Treasure, Kevin Figes and Nick Malcolm bask in the glow of the new sign

Jazz played, Play Jazz and Jazz Citizens

By last Sunday afternoon Alan Barnes, Andy Hague and Jim Blomfield had seen quite a bit of each other.  Late May Bank Holiday 2013? It must be the eighth Play Jazz Weekend at Bradford on Avon’s Wiltshire Music Centre under the stewardship of Rachel Kerry. With nearly 40 aspiring jazzers of varied background, age and experience the trio plus bass player Bill Lynn had formed the teaching faculty of this pop – up Jazz school. Alan, Andy and Jim had started on Friday evening playing the Bristol’s  BeBop club accompanied by Greg Cordez on bass and Mark Whitlam on drums. The BeBop club has been going over 20 years now, for much of that time with Andy Hague as the chief booker, animateur and worrier. What a great gig it was too. The packed club were sighing with delight as yet another unpredictable brew of classic tunes with a twist and unfamiliar corners of the jazz canon were explored. Barnes just has to reel off a few phrases to remind you of what a fabulous and fluent improviser he is and the jousting and trading of ideas with Andy Hague a delightful reminder that this was a meeting of old friends. And then an early start on Saturday, coaching and encouraging until by Sunday afternoon there were performances to be proud of and visible nerves for some of the weekend students.

A familiar thought was niggling away while I was doing some of the support (serving teas, taking sandwich orders for hungry tutors and students).  The network of clubs, festivals, workshops, weekend and longer courses that make up so much of the jazz scene in all its variety is sustained by a frequently un-sung army of people. They organise, book, ‘do the door’, promote. It makes a huge difference to a very large number of people.  One line of thought might be to try and put a price on all that and even calculate what it would  cost if all that time and effort were somehow paid for (by whom I’m not sure). There may well be something in that and there are some harsh economics that constrain what can be done (everyone had paid to come on the weekend and that was the only source of finance to cover the very real costs).  I’ve been reflecting on a slightly different angle however.  I haven’t asked Andy why he has worked to keep the BeBop club going or Rachel exactly what motivates her to organise that weekend. Even if they are able to recoup any costs they incur, it seems unlikely that’s why they do it. It’s an example of doing something that benefits others, undoubtedly deriving satisfaction from it, but the reasons and the benefits aren’t primarily material ones. I’ve enjoyed thousands of hours of music at the bebop club, met many longstanding friends there, feel connected with a community in some sense. You can see it happening on  the course as well.  I think its what the american philosopher Michael Sandel (in town recently) calls citizenship – you actually can’t buy it. It’s quite an old fashioned word, but captures something I quite like. I think we should celebrate our jazz citizens who act somewhat altruistically, yes maybe so that they get to enjoy great music too, but we all benefit. I’m sure most people could think of someone to nominate for a jazz citizen award (what to call it? ‘Order of the Jazz Community’ (OJC)?).  Maybe the parliamentary Jazz Awards should have a new category. Where better to celebrate Jazz Citizens!  Most areas of our lives depend on people with the same instincts, but I’m convinced our jazz scene simply wouldn’t exist without them.

Pig Out: Kevin Figes, Tables and Chairs; Cathy Jones, Balanca; Jim Blomfield, Wave Forms and Sea Changes

Bristol based Kevin Figes like many other musicians before him,  took the step a couple of years ago of registering his own label as vehicle for releasing his CDs. The first couple through that route, Hometime and  4sidedTriangle , were well received and have been doing time in my CD player.  Now here’s a fistful of recent and forthcoming releases under the Pig label one from Kevin with his quartet this time, another from singer Kathy Jones and the third from keys man and pianist Jim Blomfield, stalwart of the Bristol scene and ‘the best British pianist you’ve never heard of’ according to Phil Johnson in the Independent.  Three cheers then, not just for three fine albums, but for Kevin who perhaps unintentionally, is beginning to document a significant corner of a thriving jazz scene in the south west of England.  It also offers an opportunity for lots of bad gags based around ‘Pig’ (Pig Out…Pig Post …. Pig Hosts (new releases)… Pig’s (CDs) fly of shelves.. ok, I’ll stop)

tables&chairsTables and Chairs, the latest outing for Kevin’s quartet, starts as it means to go on. The title track is launched by Will Harris’s bass riff, a funky, odd time feel looping until  Mark Whitlam  joins on drums locking in with a clubby hip hop groove and Kevin’s alto snapping out melodic fragments whilst Jim Blomfield adds atmosphere with Fender Rhodes. The blowing is urgent and edgy. This is music made in cities.  There are changes of tone and mood  amongst this set of originals and Jim alternates between that Rhodes and piano but the tone is set by the opener. New Clothes, is in a similar vein   (in 7/4, rule 1 of composition seems to have been nothing in 4/4!). It notches up the energy still further with Kevin and Jim trading fours. I’m sure I caught quotes from Love Supreme in one Kevin’s impassioned bursts. A great video on his website captures something of the urgency and grittiness (filmed allegedly with an iPhone on the dashboard of his car as they trawled the means streets of Bristol). The compositions are built up from little loop like sections often with changes of feel switching in the blink of an eye. ‘Scrap Board’ alternates between a samba like feel and that clubby vibe again in an odd time. ‘Here You Are’ with a generally more languid feel is like two contrasting compositions. Despite the sharp writing and  blowing, there’s no missing the leaders instinct for a well crafted melody. ‘Fortunately Unfortunately’ has an attractive theme that floats over another off centre latin groove and ‘For Becky’ is a plaintive tune with another 7/4 time signature skewing the bossa like pulse.  Last Outpost, the most ballad like track with a hymn like theme at its core, is introduced by a sparse, spooky riff that dissolves into a thunderous solo piano workout by Jim before that tune emerges to calm us down.  Tables and Chairs is a coherent set of originals that grabs you by the ear, pulls you along and  repays repeated listens. This is a fine band at the top of their game. Kevin’s musical puzzles demand a lot of the rhythm section and Mark Whitlam and Will Harris make it sound easy.

balancaCathy Jones’ Balanca have been exploring and refining their take on Brazilian music for a few years now and this short CD, a collection of five sambas and spritely bossas by Jobim, Brazilian chanteuse Joyce, Pat Metheny and a Cathy herself is the first chance we’ve had to pop her in the CD player and bring a whiff of the beach and sunshine inside. This is a tight unit and their familiarity with each other and the music is evident from the first breath of Cathy’s wordless vocal line over the changes of Chega de Saudade doubled by  Kevin Figes’ alto, the two blending beautifully.  Tristam Cox on guitar, Thad Kelly on bass and Mark Whitlam on drums lock tight on every tune providing a liquid groove. There’s some lovely melodic soloing from the sax and guitar and the thoughtful almost understated delivery gives this taster EP a really appealing and distinctive sound.

waveforms_jimblomfield Wave Forms and Sea Changes is something of a landmark for pianist Jim Blomfield. He’s been a mainstay of the Bristol scene for close to twenty years being a fixture in Andy Hague’s Quintet as well as Kevin Figes’ Quartet, numerous latin and salsa projects, writing for experimental Resonation Big Band and more or less house pianist throughout that time for visiting soloists to the city’s long running BeBop Club.  Regular samplers of live jazz will be no strangers to his  tumultuous virtuosity.  Opportunities to hear Jim’s own compositions and an ensemble led by him have been rarer. Septimbre, a seven piece band, was the only previous recording a few years ago. This shortly to be released trio recording will eagerly anticipated by his many admirers.

If there’s an overlap with some of the territory occupied by Figes’ ‘Tables and Chairs’ release (aside from the presence of Mark Whitlam on drums and of course Jim himself), with odd metre ostinato figures on bass and clattery drum grooves on several of these distinctive compositions, another side to the pianist leader is revealed over the course of these 10 originals.  There are plenty of flowing arpeggios that evolve and develop angular harmonies resonant of  modern classical music inspirations as well as bang up to date bursts of driving post bop modal work outs, notably on the epic ‘Now and Zen’.  ‘The River runs deep’ is a flowing romantic piece with Tosh Wijetunge’s bass doubling the singing melancholic melody and then the piano’s left hand arpeggios. ‘Rum Thing’ showcases everyone’s blusey jazz chops on jaunty groover with more than a hint of a New Orleans second line. And scattered between these carefully crafted pieces, fragments like Sea Changes and Impermanence wouldn’t sound out of place in an updated Debussy piece.  If this collection has been a long time in gestation, its been worth the wait. A wider range of moods and palettes are developed than we sometimes see with him as sideman and in Tosh and the ever resourceful Mark Whitlam he has found an ideal foil.

A while back Jon Turney wrote a piece for London Jazz on the ingredients that make Bristol’s Jazz scene so fertile. Among the pool of musicians and reliable rhythm sections he pointed to as essential elements, most of the musicans on these recordings were name checked. So lets here it again for Kevin Figes and Pig Records for getting the music out to a wider audience. Go see them. Buy the CDs.