New Year Post 5: sort of best of

It’s still January, so I can just about get away with thinking about all the jazz related stuff I enjoyed over the last year (can’t I?).   I hope I don’t stop noticing and being amazed (and not a little overwhelmed) by how much new music, live music, wildly creative music there is around us. My listening is pretty strongly channeled into jazz related (whatever that is) zones and still its a fabulous all enveloping wave.  Here’s what I noticed in my usual idiosyncratic swim through the last 12 months or so.

Pianists. I saw live some longstanding heroes and people who’ve long made me shake my head in wonder.  Dave Kikoski was one. When was he last in UK?  If it was recently I missed him. In full flight a sight to behold and I didn’t have to leave town to see him. He was smuggled in with Jonathan Kriesberg’s band at the Hen & Chicken (one of several Storrer coups last year).  Also in Bristol, also smuggled in with another band (Martin Speake’s this time), Bobo Stenson, the Swedish maestro.  An evening at Colston Hall’s Lantern to remember. I finally saw Enrico Pieranunzi, Italian maestro, astonishingly debuting at Ronnnie Scott’s in AugustJulian Arguelles got my vote in the LondonJazz end of year accolades after the tumultuous gig with the FDR Big Band playing South African Jazz at Cheltenham, then the sublime quarte Tetra at the Vortex later in the year.  They all fulfilled stratospheric expectation.  Another highlight was the slightly more apparently left field, until you actually see them, double bass duo of Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer at St. George’s during Bristol’s (once again Jazz and Blues Festival).  Here’s a little taste

There was plenty of recorded music to taste as well, that all enveloping wave was even more overwhelming. There’s a few that got stuck, catching me at a particular moment or just demanding to be listened to again.   Early in year a typically divergent but compelling Charles Lloyd release I long to See You and around the same time, Sam Crockatt‘s Mells Bells (that one got my London Jazz end of year vote). Sam lives out west and there were a few releases from local (or near local bands) that really caught my ear.  The prolific Kevin Figes released two albums, a quartet and and octet, and Andy Nowak‘s trio recording was a little beauty.  Two from slightly further afield that really got lodged in the play list was the rocky grooves of  Duski  led by Cardiff bass man Aidan Thorne and  (keeping a Cardiff connection, albeit a now former resident) Huw Williams’ Hon was an excitingly varied, scintillating album.   But I’ll finish where I started, with a pianist. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the joy of re-visiting, via a re-release, the Erskine trio and its the piano of John Taylor that stays with me.  A good note on which to look forward into 2017

Here’s to a happy, music filled New Year – even if I am a bit slow starting!


New Year Post 4: A few words of fan mail to the erstwhile Erksine trio

End of year/ New Year lists tradition seems to demand the best of highlights from the previous year.  An unquestionable highlight for me was a re-release.  My first ‘new year post’ nodded at sounds that lured me jazz-wards.  It wasn’t long after that I discovered the trio led by Peter Erskine, then in the midst of a run of 4 albums recorded on ECM between 1992 and 1997 (You Never Know, Time Being, As It Is,  Juni).  Something about the trio and its sound  transfixed me with, at different times, one or another of the albums on repeat.  ECM released all four as a set halfway through the year under the title As It Was (ha ha).   asitwasWhat a delight it was to review it for London Jazz. My recollection was that I’d held the instinctive gushing of a fan back: reading the review I’m not sure I entirely succeeded.  Never mind.   The plan for this post is to give it full rein.  Listening to the albums again I realised that I’ve never stop listening to them. They’ve become another bit my personal soundtrack.  Its seems also that the sound of the trio has become a unique reference point for other listening.

Since this is a blogpost, I thought a ‘listicle’ was in order, albeit breaking the rules with the omission of numbers.

Things I love about the Peter Erskine Trio

  • How Peter Erskine, the drummer leader, is often hardly playing (try New Old Age on the first album, You Never Know; nearly two minutes before there’s a shimmer of a cymbal)
  • How rhythmic and grooving are so many of these pieces… even though it sounds abstract and floating at first listen, with Erskine hardly playing, just ticking on a cymbal or rustling on a snare.  (Almost anything but try For Ruth on As It Is
  • How repeating, quite abstract phrases, usually the themes of pieces, have little twists of ‘catch your breath’ melody,  and become like old friends after a few listens. (John Taylor’s Windfall on Juni is a bit like this)
  • Bursts of lyricism, like beams of sunlight ( How about Esperanca and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part on As It Is or Liten Visa Til Karin on Time Being)
  • Eruptions of blistering swing that seem to to build like a huge ocean swell (try Everything I Love on You Never Know or Twelve on Juni

But more than anything

  • Its John Taylor – the touch, the way just one chord both stretches your ears, makes your heart flutter and foot tap. How did he do that?
  • And Palle Danielsson. The perfectly placed bass note that opens up the harmony and sounds so rich
  • And the three of them together. Sometimes the music sounds like them breathing steadily as one (try Liten Visa again)

I know I’m not alone in loving these albums, but when music works its magic on us we may be sharing it, but it becomes part of us.  So this is my music as well now.  Thanks Peter, John and Palle.

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.

Looking back at July: Plenty of listening and RIP John Taylor

Early in the month my ears were wrapped around an intriguing Danish quartet led by Mads La Cour called Almuji. My review of their CD for London Jazz is here. They steer the line between free unstructured pieces and more arranged works. Without a chord based instrument and striking an unambiguously jazzy note whilst drawing on their own musical traditions, they create a distinct identity. It’s a similar path trodden by Avashai Cohen’s band who I saw on their trip  to London (another review for London Jazz News here ) albeit on a bigger stage. He brought his regular trio, doubled in size by trumpet, trombone and guitar, the latter wielded by one Kurt Rosenwinkel. The bigger group gave his already compelling music rocket boosters and a very jazzy vibe. They brought the house down.

And then some sad news.

The shock waves of pianist John Taylor’s sudden death just ten days ago are still rippling through the jazz world. Much has been written  of  the admiration and awe with which he was regarded, frequently by people  of whom I am similarly in awe. There are also plenty of anecdotes about his humanity and humility.  So it’s with a certain humility that I’m adding just a few more words .

All I knew of John Taylor was his music: the sounds he created through composition; through what he chose to play; through the way he played in ensembles and, above all, his touch and the sound that he conjured from a piano.   I have been entranced by his playing for much longer than I realised, until I looked back at recordings purchased and recalled gigs attended.  My reaction to that music is what I wanted to record. Simon Purcell, in the middle of his heartfelt and thoughtful piece written from a deep understanding and immersion in the man’s music refers to ‘the grace of recognition’.  That captures beautifully for me what it was like so often when hearing a few caressed chords or an obliquely stated theme. Surprise initially: ‘What is that? … I’ve never heard anything quite like that’ and then, a feeling more than an expressed thought, ‘of course – that’s what it (music? jazz?) is supposed to sound like’. A kind of recognition in other words – I knew it when I heard it, the sound of beauty or an exquisitely expressed emotion.  Strangely, it seems to work even when its the 100th time I’ve played something.   John Taylor is gone. The man will be missed and those who knew him and were touched by him directly (and they were many) will grieve.  There’s also a tug of loss even for those like me who didn’t know him. An extraordinary thing about music of course is that it establishes a connection even across space and time.  And because of that mystery, the connection will remain for as long as we keep listening.  So thank you John Taylor.

Here comes London Jazz Festival – An eleven pianist route through the programme

Thud. The London Jazz Festival brochure’s audible arrival on my doormat hinted at the bewildering choice on offer.  Running to over sixty pages detailing the 10 days, 250+ gigs in 50+ venues,  where do you start if you want to look beyond some of the already sold out headliners? Well here’s a completely idiosyncratic set of choices based on my personal history with jazz.  Having fumbled and crashed around on piano for almost as long as I’ve been listening, pianists have often caught my attention.

First a list: Geri Allen, John Taylor, Jacky Terasson, Brad Mehldau, Danilo Perez, Enrico Pieranunzi, Tom Cawley, Marcin Wasilewski, Gwylim Simcock, Kit Downes, Reuben James.

They are all appearing at the festival although not necessarily under their own names, the list is in the order, very roughly, of when I discovered them and started listening to them.  Geri Allen an early one, never quite understanding what I was hearing just knowing it had a subtle blend of beauty and excitement in the context of superficially familar jazzy styles; John Taylor just took my breath away – the richness of the harmony was the first thing that grabbed me, and its never let me go; Jacky Terasson seemed to be able to play in any style but his sense of space and understatement always captivating. A one off album with Cassandra Wilson remains a favourite – whose inspired ideas was that? Brad Mehldau a unique new voice since I excitedly bought ‘Introducing’ and an early ‘Art of the Trio’ on a trip to New York (was that one when we saw Geri Allen at the Vanguard with Buster Williams wearing a blouse with sleeves too long and sitting on telephone directory… Geri Allen that is, not Buster Williams!…? Maybe). Danilo Perez, his music introduced to me by a friend and thinking I’d never seen anyone play with such freedom and passion when we saw the Motherland project at Ronnie’s and Enrico Pieranunzi, who I was convinced was an Italian John Taylor for a while so unlike anything I’d heard before, so rich a harmonic palette rooted in the jazz canon – maybe Bill Evans would sound like them if he’d been born later and in Europe. And then a new generation emerged, almost fully formed it seemed and I’ve listened to them explore and reveal new delights in all sorts of contexts, only Reuben James remains unrepresented in my CD collection. I’m sure that won’t last much longer.
Looking at their gigs in the programme,  the projects and bands they are appearing with are pretty varied (some clash), so they offer a satisfyingly wiggly route through large and small gigs, and all over London

Geri Allen – with ACS at the Barbican, part of Shorter Sunday (17th); John Taylor, with Kenny Wheeler on Monday 18th at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; Jacky Terasson – guest with Jazz at the Philharmonic, Sunday 17th, Milton Court Concert Hall; Brad Mehldau – Brad Mehaldau and Mark Guiliana, Thursday 21st Barbican, Danilo Perez – with Wayne Shorter Quartet, Barbican, Sunday 17th, Enrico Pieranunzi, with his trio, Friday 15th, Bishopsgate Institute; Tom Cawley, with Trio Red at King’s Place, Saturday 23rd (double bill with Nik Baertsch); Marcin Wasilewski with Arild Anderson Quintet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Saturday 16th; Gwilym Simcock, three night residency ‘Eurozone’ at Pizza Express Friday – Sunday 22nd – 24th and a solo gig Tuesday 19th at St. Stephen’s Rosslyn Hill; Kit Downes, with julian Arguelles at the 606 Tuesday 19th and the same evening later on, Reuben James at the 606. Something tells me both of these guys may be playing elsewhere as well that I haven’t spotted.

There’s so much more, even just sticking to pianists, this is just one slice through based on my listening history.  Enough to melt the sturdiest, most frozen heart I’d say.

John Taylor, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Sunday 6th May

I have to confess to being a little apprehensive as I took my seat for this gig: John Taylor’s playing and writing never fails to thrill and move me in equal measure so that anticipation levels can be a bit high. Add to the mix a newly commissioned suite to be played by a newly assembled eight piece band and there was just the risk that it might not be quite as extraordinary as I anticipated – so much newness! The first of the six pieces, inspired by a Kurt Vonegut story Harrison Bergeron, allyed my fears. A stately chord progression in 7/4 with familiar ringing tones and harmonic shifts that catch the breath provided the accompaniment for a  gorgeous melancholic melody. It was not to be the first time in the gig I thought either Henning Berg on trombone or Julian Arguelles on tenor were going to steal the show with gloriously paced inventive and singing improvisations. John Taylor’s playing is something to behold. He sometimes seem to float, stroking out spacey chords on the piano without any apparent pulse, but don’t be fooled – he may stretch the time or play across it but suddenly its there, locked with the bass or drums. The ear is drawn to the distinctive and bitter sweet harmonic shifts, but its often the deeply felt and artfully constructed rhythmic variation that makes me sit on the edge of my seat. Chris Laurence on bass is a great partner. I’ve mused in the past about a previous Cheltenham occasion where these two captivated me and this gig was no different. The freshly minted compositions gave plenty of different moods to explore. 2081 seemed liked a wonky post bop theme with a triplety feel over another odd time signature as the platform for soloing with the harmonised front line (completed by Chris Batchleor’s trumpet and Oren Marshall’s tuba) evocative of the sound of a Kenny Wheeler band. The flowing even feel of DMG produced soaring lyrical solos with Julian Arguelles threatening to make the afternoon his again. The device of a repeated descending ssequence of chords was used more than once and provided the backing for the vocal of son Alex Taylor on Empress. This premier wasn’t without wrinkles or challenges for the front line negotiating some complex writing – there were a few grins of relief and claps on the back exchanged at different moments, but the sense was of of gradually accumulating intensity as this genuinely beautiful set of compositions unfolded and finished with an anthemic reprise of the first tune Doosie.  There’ll be chance to listen again. Jazz on 3 as commissioners will be broadcasting it next Monday (14th May).  I’ll be there.

A meditation on ‘touch and feel’

What is it that makes an individual’s playing distinctive? Here’s a brief muse, not on the potentially existential ramifications of that question, but somewhat more prosaic technical thoughts. This was prompted by seeing Tim Richards recently (a fine pianist) and wondering what it was that had put me so much in mind of Cedar Walton as I listened. I don’t think it was just that he played one of his tunes ( as my fellow listener pointed out). Tim’s got quite a ‘heavy left hand’. He really whacks out some of those chords – so does Cedar. What pianists will call touch is a very delicately nuanced thing – it comes down to the force with which keys are struck, the variation in that force between notes, the instinct to separate one note  clearly from the next or let them flow into each other .. it all adds to a very personal distinctive touch. If you listen a lot, it becomes quite recognizable.  There’s often a difference too between players who’ve learnt their trade on the stand (listening to, imitating, adapting other players stuff), and those who’ve been through a longer formal training (frequently these days on a jazz course, not necessarily classical). I’d wager that Cedar and Tim have that learning on the stand experience in common. A second dimension to this is ‘feel’ – its the timing of notes against the beat or pulse. All the best players can control this, but there’s something about their preference for where they place it, how more or less evenly spaced notes are combined with where stresses are placed. So Keith Jarrett is unmistakeable, so too is Herbie . John Taylor is masterful and makes my heart sing just by playing two chords (another one who learnt on the stand – so no generalising is safe!).  In full flight no- one is thinking about this, we are just hearing something of their musical personality, but its also a very physical connection  so technical mastery is needed  so that fingers respond to brain. Nobody gets good without the hours shut away ‘woodshedding’.