June has involved a fair bit of listening and in particular two reviews for London Jazz. The first was a set of five albums from Keith Jarrett, his first five as leader and released fetchingly in little card board sleeves with the original artwork. My review for London Jazz is here . It’s remarkable how familiar it sounds. You’d have to say the quality both of recording and delivery is a bit patchy, if only by the now established benchmark of ‘genius’ and the high-water mark of some of his astounding recordings. They are great listening nevertheless and the characteristic blend of jazz with blues, rock and country threads its way through along with some astonishing free-for-all improvisations, especially with the later quartet album. The other gem I’ve been listening to is Indigo Kid‘s second album Fist Full of Notes. Dan Messore has been touring the material with various line-ups and touched down in Bristol late last year, but the album is only now officially released on Babel. What a treat it is. My review is here. There is something of the same open-minded attitude to all styles of music here as Jarrett displays in those early recordings ( I don’t think its just the effect of listening to them back to back!). There’s no direct read across, but perhaps something about Jarret’s approach and use of the cadences and melody from rock and country in a jazz context, has found its way into language of jazz. Wherever it comes from, Messore makes it his own and brings plenty of contemporary references to bear with subtle but pervasive use of electronics and effects. It’s a great follow up and development from the first album three years ago now. More please!!
I think the first review of the year I saw was definitely early December, so I’m surely near the curfew for this. But this is mostly a personal idiosyncratic review of the year based entirely on what I happened to have listened to, and live moments I’ve happened upon. One criterion (the only?) for inclusion is being moved or excited beyond the norm, definitely a very personal response.
I have an old fashioned 6 CD changer in the living room, so a good starting point is what gets stuck in that during the year
I see that these three are still in there despite a fairly heavy turnover.
Joy in spite of Everything, Stefano Bollani – title captures the spirit of the album
Circularity, Julian Arguelles – super group playing Arguelles’ sublime compositions
Present Joys, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine – what is it with Dave Douglas and hymns? Be Still was on my fave list last year
Popping up repeatedly on the iPod playlists and somehow never getting replaced (limited space means more turnover!) these gems
Under the Moon, Blue Eyed Hawk – Chaos Collective luminaries collaborating on uncategorisable collection. Great listening
Songs to The North Sky, Tim Garland – A double CD seeming to sum up the breadth of the mighty Garland’s writing and playing
Weaving the Spell, Busnoys – Does what is says on the tin (er… CD cover) for me. Quirky trio led by vibes man Martin Pyne
Live in Hamburg (72), Keith Jarrett – a reminder, if needed, of the unbridled, dazzling energy of the trio with Motian and Haden as well as moments of breathtaking tenderness ( I admit I can take or leave Jarrett’s soprano sax sounding like wounded animal episodes)
There are so many more great albums, but these are the ones that seem to have kept coming back to this year. Two I haven’t heard (so much music, so little time) but mean to seek out: Michael Wollny (see below for reasons), Jason Moran, Elegy to Waller – on the basis that looking at Peter Bacon’s Festive Fifty Fifty, tow of my top faves are in his top three and the third is Jason.. maybe I should check it out!
Is it a cliché to say what a privilege it is to see so much amazing music live? Excuse me if so, but saying wow, whooping and explicitly acknowledging now and then seems only proper.
Just a few fabulous gigs then..
Charles Lloyd in the London Jazz Festival (the DVD of the film Arrows into Infinity would be on the recorded list as well if it was a CD!) – entrancing and uplifting. My thoughts at the time here
Kit Downes Quintet at the Hen & Chicken, one of a few fantastic gigs there this year, but this was a standout – My thoughts at the time here
Michael Wollny Trio Brecon Festival. Ok, first time I’d seen them live. Blown away doesn’t quite cover it – impressions here
Dave Holland’s – Prism – Ronnie Scott’s. Just simply (although not very), groovily (very), sublime. My thoughts at the time here
And of course, for anyone who was there, these get on the highlights of the year – not one but two Loose Tubes gigs (for me) first at Cheltenham, then at Brecon again.
Moments within gigs sometime burn even brighter in the memory. Here are a few.
An ordinary Friday with another out of the ordinary local line-up at the BeBop club (this time Andy Hague’s Quintet) with 2014 British Jazz Award winner Dave Newton in the piano chair. Dave Newton’s trio feature, Alice in Wonderland, had me holding my breath but the moment Will Harris’ bass entered, so perfectly judged is still making me tingle.
A Sunday lunchtime at Ronnie Scott’s with the London Vocal Project. Pete Churchill just returned from New York working with Jon Hendricks on lyrics for Miles Ahead, has just recounted the latest episode. The first performance, the first words out of Anita Wardell‘s mouth ‘If you would know what beauty is’. The frisson is still there.
Involuntary weeping can be misunderstood at a gig I guess. The opening chords of Nikki Iles‘ Hush, as the Royal Academy Big Band burst into life at their London Jazz Festival gig playing Nikki’s arrangement, in that moment was near overwhelming. I think I got away with it though.
Top that 2015
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.
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)
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
Mirrors – Kenny 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.
This trio have released so much of their music on CD (17 albums worth apparently) often live recordings, that you can take them for granted. Of course the performance is flawless; of course the interplay and communication seem telepathic (this is a long and successful marriage). In fact barely a word was spoken, so naming of tunes was down to our own radars. We did about as well as all the newspaper reviewers ( In Your Own Sweet Way, Basin Street Blues, Slow-ish pop tune sounding number, Sandu, ballad I didn’t know but apparently ‘What now my love. Second set, Bop-be, Yesterdays, When Will the Blues Leave; four encores – God Bless the Child, ballad, blues, When I fall in Love). I don’t see many gigs where the player’s sound is so familiar. Like many lovers of the piano in jazz, this trio has been a constant soundtrack to life (for pushing twenty years for me). On this evening a couple of things stood out to my ears. The first was how increasingly classical Jarrett’s touch sounds sometimes; there were exquisitely rendered intros and lullaby like ballads where the simplest of single note lines were singing and hanging in the air. Then, in contrast, the blues was never far way, always a strong part of his playing but particularly present this evening whether on a blues form or lace through the improvisation on the standards. The first set was unquestionably low – key, almost introspective (my other pair of ears experienced it as a bit flat). The energy ramped up in the second set by the time they were playing Ornette Coleman’s When will the Blues Leave they really seemed to be cutting loose. Jarrett’s rocky take on God Bless the Child makes it hard not to grin and dance along. The man seemed in form to me. The characteristic blizzards of notes fused together into long melodic lines that were utterly compelling. Like the best gigs, I’m still recalling some of those moments now a couple of days later. To paraphrase Jack de Johnette’s words as he appealed for no photos, I took the music home with me. Having read a few of the other reviews now Guardian, London Jazz, Evening Standard, I see there are plenty of different or opposite responses, so for the record, another of my impressions was how good I thought the sound was.
I’m off to the Festival Hall later for the ‘one night only’ appearance of the now legendary Standards Trio. Spending the week as I am with a bunch of musos at summer school there has been the inevitable chewing over of the phenomenon that is Keith Jarrett and, as jazzers do, telling of stories. My personal favourite relates to an un- named musician ringing Jack de Johnette up to discuss asking Jarrett to play on his forthcoming album. de Johnette’s response? “Well the thing is, Keith’s a bit an ass-hole”. The stories of preposterous Jarret rants at gigs because of red lights in the audience or too much coughing are now legion (not to mention YouTube clips). But the music! Its hard to listen to much acoustic jazz without hearing echoes of Jarrett’s style – those flowing, soaring lines, the endless melodic invention. He is a towering figure and a peerless improviser. Another common theme amongst the ruminating musos is whether or not the trio is the most exciting setting for his playing (although hard to hear an acoustic piano trio without in some way using it as a reference point). For lost of those musing musos the two quartets form the 70 s were muscially more exciting especially the American one. So, to the Festival Hall. What we’ll get who knows. The trio has on occasions played hour long improvised vamps. Whatever, for a piano devotee, this seems like one not be missed – lets hope he plays a lot and talks little. Let the glorious music speak.
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’.