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.

Ellington in Anticipation, Saturday 26th April, Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-upon-Avon

Ant_Ell_WMCFragments of a familiar melody appeared and then evaporated at the end of a piece that was all insistent, chattering rhythms from different sections of the septet, overlayed by flowing melodic lines and fiery soloing from the consistently exciting Finn Peters on alto  and peerless, always individual Liam Noble on piano; “… ahh, its Caravan..” . Composer, arranger, saxophonist and leader Mark Lockheart  confirmed it for us with a wry smile and “that started life as ..” a phrase used more than once in the evening.

Ellington in Anticipation is transparently born out of Lockheart’s lifelong immersion in, love of and intensely personal response to the music of one of the twentieth centuries greatest composers and bandleaders. The success of  his own re-imagining of many of the classics and the performance of them  by a fantastic band as well as originals inspired by the master has been widely recognised. The CD topped many critics ‘best of 2013’ lists and they are short listed for a Parliamentary Jazz Award. The chance to catch a live performance at the Wiltshire Music Centre was one not be missed, a decision shared by a healthy audience on the night. The new sound system there and investment in managing the lively acoustic of the hall has really paid off with a really good balance and presence everywhere in the hall that makes gigs like this a great prospect.

Having launched the evening with It don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing re  – worked with a rolling African flavoured groove under it and that desconstruction of Caravan, the eclectic references continued. Satin Doll became Jungle Lady with more urgent rhythms in an endless flow from Seb Rochford‘s deceptively minimal kit and James Allsopp‘s clarinet solo upping the excitement levels. Come Sunday slowed the pace, the hymn-like vibe there but with as many folk like inflections as gospelly ones in Lockheart’s reading of the familiar melody.   The arranging was unfailing inventive and evocative. Viola player Magrit Hasler was frequently given lines that doubled the piano’s right hand or Allsopp’s bass clarinet locked with Tom Herbert‘s propulsive bass creating unususal textures and sounds that  nevertheless somehow conjured up the atmosphere of the Ellington Orchestra.

If at the halfway mark we were savouring the beautiful music but were wishing they’d just let rip a bit more, this was a line-up of some of the most creative and incendiary improvisers on the current scene after all, then in the second set they certainly stretched out. A dazzling exchange between Mark Lockheart and Finn Peters over a driving riff was viscerally exciting; Liam Noble’s solo piano introduction to Lockheart’s composition Beautiful Man was packed with rhythmic and melodic ideas explored and developed with alternating cascades of notes and two fisted percussive playing.

This was an evening of music making of the highest order, unquestionably a celebration of Ellington’s music and influence. If he’d been there he’d surely have been elbowing Liam Noble out of the way to get stuck in.

Essentially Ellington: SNJO/ Ellington in Anticipation, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23rd November

Duke Ellington is said to have avoided the word jazz, saying there was only good and bad music and referred to his own work as American and ‘beyond category’. It ‘s impossible however to make sense of all the music we celebrates as jazz and jazz inspired without acknowledging the musical language and legacy of the great composer, bandleader and pianist. This gig was the centrepiece of a series of events doing just that as part of London Jazz Festival.

Two contrasting sets first by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, re-creating the sound, look and experience of the Ellington Orchestra and then Ellington in Anticipation, reinterpreting and re-working the repertoire, made for a fascinating, entertaining and moving evening.

The attention to detail of saxophonist, leader Tommy Smith’s Scottish National Jazz Orchestra goes far beyond playing the exact arrangements with the stylistic quirks of the great band. The layout of the stage, style of the music stands and dress sense of the band were all in keeping (barring the odd fulsome beard).  The effect was enchanting. As well as now universally known standards like ‘Mood Indigo’ we were treated to lesser-known material from the Queen’s Suite ; ‘Le Sucrier Velours’, ‘The Single Petal of a Rose’ – a sumptuous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock on piano.  There were pieces written by Ellington for individual virtuosos in his band; Jack the Bear for bass player Jimmy Blanton, Concerto for Cootie for pyrotechnic trumpeter Cootie Williams, Calum Gourlay and Tom Walsh respectively stepping up to fill the shoes on the night.  If this couldn’t help but be drenched in a sense of nostalgia, the seriousness and artistry with which it was done made the music pulse with life.

The one exception to the pattern of re-creation, that duet between Smith and Kellock, made the contrast between the constraints of the big band and the very short pieces of the early 1930s repertoire all the more striking. Smith’s warm tenor swooped and embellished the melody as Kellock responded giving a very contemporary, interpretive take on the beautiful melody.

Ellington in Anticipation was all re-invention and re-interpretation.  Leader, Mark Lockheart’s very personal treatment of the Ellingtonian source material gave us a riveting set and provided a platform for some gloriously uninhibited playing from a fantastic band with a dream rhythm section of Seb Roachford and Jasper Hoiby.

The melody of ‘It don’t mean a thing’ appeared, stretched out of over a rolling 12/8 feel and the familiar repeated notes became a distinctive, African flavoured, rhythmic figure. ‘Caravan’, starting with a collective bout of percussive tapping of instruments and stamping of feet, developed a flowing even quavered feel and evoked the first of a number of explosive solos from Finn Peters.  James Alsopp’s solo on Creole Love Call was a standout moment as was Liam Noble’s solo introduction to the dark Lockheart original ‘Beautiful Man’. The distinctive addition of Margrit Hasler’s viola added unusual colours to the sound.

This was an absorbing, celebratory and emotionally charged evening of music.

Navigating the Jazz Bubble, More London Jazz Festival Wanderings

A few years worth of jazz festivals have taught me that it’s possible to overload my senses so that the remarkable can pass by in a blur. Sleeping through most of an eagerly anticipated Jim Hall gig stands as one such memory. Yesterday’s wanderings were planned with ‘less is more’ as a starting point (quantity not quality of course).  What a delightful, quirky meander it turned out to be with the wallet lighter by a mere £10 for tickets and a voluntary donation to sustain St. James Picadilly who have the best piano in London, according to Christine Allen who introduced Liam Noble’s lunch time solo gig. It’s a Fazioli concert grand (I wonder what happened to the Fazioli that used to be in Ronnie Scott’s).  Liam’s gig provided one of the day’s more random delightful moments. As he climbed inside the piano to pluck a few strings and rattle the piano, creating an abstract sound scape that was his setting for one of a cycle of Japanese poems on the theme of death (he does have an eye for the commercial has he pointed out), I wondered how he was creating more mechanical random noises that seemed to blend beautifully with what he was doing. It took a moment to realise we were hearing the city. We were in St James, Piccadilly and it was like, well, Piccadilly Circus out there. A revved scooter, a slamming door, a high pitched car horn seemed almost scripted. It was the city joining in – odd and delightful.  The mobile phone ring tone from a couple of rows in front didn’t work so well for me.

Later, a sample of the Jay Phelps Quartet was a delight on the free stage at Ray’s Jazz. He was at Ronnie’s the day before supporting Dee Dee Bridgwater, there Late Late last night, and supporting the David Murray Big Band with Macy Gray on Sunday at the Barbican.  No compromise on quality at Ray’s then and it looked like the programme had been strong all week.

That ticket was for the Con Cellar Bar. As my other pair of ears (back from a day working whilst I relaxed!) pointed out after we’d crowd surfed our way to our seat at the front of the postage stamp sized bar so that we were staring down the bell of Julian Arguelles’ sax, the contrast with the previous evening could hardly have been more extreme.  At the Festival Hall for Esperanza Spalding we’d been well back in the balcony. Distance between us? She was the size of a pin to the eye. Apart from the fact that the Con Bar would fit onto the Festival Hall stage several times over, had we been the same distance from Esperanza we’d surely have been arrested for invading her personal space.  I’m not sure of the economics of seeing so much world class music for so little outlay, but I ended the day feeling blessed.

Tim Whitehead, Future Inn, Bristol, Sunday 26th September

I’ve been wondering  whether the concept album has suddenly become popular in jazz ( listening first to Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project and then Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider for instance – links are to Guardian reviews ). It may be that I haven’t been paying attention of course, and its not new at all. But Tim Whitehead’s project, at Future inns as part of national tour, would fit right in. A suite of pieces inspired by the paintings of Turner (not Big Joe, but JMW Turner as one wag quipped in the interval) there was certainly a Concept, illustrated by projections of the paintings, advanced on cue throughout the evening by our own Jon Turney.

Tim Whitehead, photo by Bob Woodburn

There was some sublime music in these two sets. The ballad ‘To be understood’ towards the end of the second set was a standout for me. Whitehead’s fluid sound on tenor, etching out a beautiful melody over stately chords with a faintly pastoral flavour seemed to capture something of that unforced blend of American jazz and European country and classical music that I find so stirring. I was moved. There were other great moments: a rollicking, wonky funk, New Orleans type shuffle early in the first set that raised a shout of approval from the crowd and a triplety dance like theme (with bohdran like percussion from Milo Fell on the drums to boot) to open the second set.   If I have a reservation, its that the music wasn’t allowed to communicate on its own terms. There was a lot of explanation of the inspiration and construction to add to the very detailed article in the Guardian . We know that some of the tunes were harmonised and arranged free improvisations that he’d recorded– too much information? We were certainly left in no doubt how serious this all was. This was a formidable band with Liam Noble on piano  and Patrick Bettison on bass. They moved easily between freely improvised sections and complex written parts. Not all of it worked for me. There was a slow march like piece that seemed to lose its way (one of those arranged spontaneous improvisation?), which contrasted all the more sharply with some of the near ecstatic playing on some tunes. And I wondered at Tim’s decision to stop playing the sax and half chant half sing some of the melodies in the second set. I left though, with that glorious haunting melody ringing in my ears and the memory of some fabulous textures, themes and searing improvisations. Less jaw jaw please Tim.

Rollins Week Part 2a: Liam Noble Trio, Barbican Free Stage, Saturday 13th November

liamnew250Saturday of Rollins week and Liam Noble’s Trio were playing on the free stage at the Barbican giving their interpretations of Dave Brubeck tunes an outing. This was the opening weekend of the London Jazz Festival and its quite something if you can hear a band of this quality just by stumbling in out of the rain into the Barbican foyer. Liam is a phenomenal improviser and Dave’s Whitford and Wickens seemed to effortlessy follow every whimsical twist and turn.  Several of the themes they played are incredibly well known (Take 5, Blue Rondo a la Turk, In your own Sweet way) but this treatment never seemed hackneyed. The band sidled up to themes after an extended group improvisation the melody gradually emerging, or stated them with the utmost simplicity on piano over a stripped down bass line. The piano improvisations were percussive and quirkily melodic by turns. Liam Noble seems led by melodic ideas and motives and the sense of him pursuing ideas and inspiration on the hoof is almost palpable.  This is was exciting stuff. It was often dense, abstract music and not to everyone’s taste. For me, it couldn’t have sounded less like what was to come from Sonny Rollins later and couldn’t have been more in the spirit of committed, melodic and rhythmic improvisation that the great tenor player exemplifies. No surprise that the pianist seemed genuinely awed to be a kind of curtain raiser for him as well as citing him as a hero.