The funky environs of The Forge, tucked away in Colston Yard, was the venue for We are Leif‘s launch of their EP back in May, reviewed approvingly at the time by Tony Benjamin. They were back on Wednesday to record live and film, meaning headphones were supplied. Heads nodded and bodies swayed as the beautifully balanced grooves were fed direct to our ears. The band’s sound is firmly anchored in the tight grooves and lightly worn sophistication of R&B flavoured nu-jazz. If attention drifted for a moment we could have fancied we were in a hip New York loft. The headphones may have invited comparisons to Snarky Puppy videos, but the band headed these off with a few self- deprecating gags. The music however suggested only favourable reference points with the best on the scene. Skip to Love came first with with layered rhythms from Chris Jones‘ bass and Mark Whitlam‘s drums under Louise Victoria‘s appealing chant- like vocal hook. Transition started with an infectious groove implied by an off-kilter vocal riff. Less is more with this band and Dale Hambridge’s tasteful soloing pulled of the trick of stoking the energy, bringing a smile to faces of the band without ever over-playing. Louise Victoria’s vocal is naturally in the foreground. Her lines flow effortlessly across grooves with subtle shifts of meter and harmony. There’s an emotive fragility to the sound, balanced by occasional shifts up through the gears. We Are Leif are steadily building a buzz around themselves. Look out for gigs and get hold of the EP, satisfaction is guaranteed.
The round up of my listening of the last few months has been slightly interrupted but another pair of artists (and three CDs) have been in the pipeline for a while. The opportunity to see them both this weekend is a good prompt to quickly highlight them both.
Firstly Kevin Figes who released something of a bumper crop of music earlier in the year on his own label Pig Records . There was a quartet album, Weather Warning, with his longstanding and regular collaborators Jim Blomfield on piano, Will Harris on bass and Mark Whitlam on drums but released at the same time, an Octet album Time Being with the same core band augmented by the drums of Lloyd Haines, Nick Dover‘s tenor sax and vocals from Emily Wright and Kathy Jones.
There’s quite a bit of overlap between the two albums. The quartet album has guest appearances from Dover, a couple of tracks with the vocals of Wright and Jones and Nick Malcolm adding his trumpet occasionally. The Octet is sometime stripped back. The best approach is to get both albums and enjoy them as a feast of Figes’ prolific output as a writer making full use of the palette this fantastic group of musicians offers. There are driving grooves with with zig-zagging intricate lines over shifting, cycling chords sequences; swelling anthemic pieces making full use of the blend of horns and human voice (on both albums), more experimental jig saw like constructions and free-er dialogues between instruments and plenty of nods Figes’ prog rock pre-dilections with crunchier riffs and Blomfield on Fender Rhodes duties. The writing is full of drama and invention giving the band plenty to work on when they improvise and there is great playing on these two sets. Figes appears at the BeBop Club on Friday (28th October) with a sextet that looks like a blend of the two bands.
Pianist Andy Nowak is a fixture on the Bristol scene in a variety of other people’s band. He released an album Sorrow and the Pheonix with his own trio (ANt) just before the summer, and its been a regular in my speakers and headphones ever since. This set of eight originals draws on plenty of sources to make a very personal statement. First Light is a dancing, quicksilver theme giving way to fluid, melodic improvising, (We’ve Got To) Bring it Down is a groover, Falling a swirling waltz with rich shifting harmony, Raining in Bristol all urgent arpeggios and intricate patterns before a sharp change of mood and the band build the atmosphere. Spencer Brown on bass and Andy Tween on drums are locked in and follow every and intricate twist, Brown pulling out out singing, lyrical solos. Andy Nowak’s playing is a delight throughout. A flexible and nuanced touch at the piano combined with a sure instinct for developing and building solos make this an engaging and expressive performance. There are two chances to see them live coming up. ANt are at the Colston Hall Foyer on Saturday (29th October) and at the BeBop Club on Friday 25th November
Michelson Morley are approaching the end of a tour playing music from the just released, tour de force Strange Courage and played a home-town launch gig last night, before heading up to London for a launch at the Vortex tonight. What a treat is in store for that London audience.
The recording Strange Courage is, whilst audibly from the same stable as the excellent debut release Aether Drift (reviewed here), an even more powerful and compelling experience. It’s a cocktail of effects; atmospheres concocted in the moment with electronics; quietly looping motifs; thumping, distorted, headsplitting riffs; jaunty melodic themes with a jagged edge. Leader and composer Jake McMurchie‘s sax is at the centre of the action . The original trio is now augmented by guitarist Dan Messore, joining Will Harris on bass and drummer Mark Whitlam. He brings another dimension, thickening the sound with textures and effects as well echoing and countering melodies and unleashing occasional crunching chords. If the album is an assured, gripping group performance, the live show is an even more pulsating ride.
The music seemed to seep up through the stage at the start of the set as eerie effects, clatters and howls emerged, apparently un-related to the conventional sounds expected from the instruments on the stage. Tamer as Prey offered plaintive melodic hooks that distorted and changed shape over the an insistent throb. Ammageddon nodded to its mis-spelt name in the churning rocky riff before the The Last Of Me Will Wait set up an attractive little groove and McMurchie’s warm tenor sound ebbed and flowed. They dissolved into more ghostly washes as a prelude for the catchy looping bass riff of There Are No Perfect Waves, a delicate phrase then alternated with another crunching power riff and blistering solos. It was a dramatic, exciting performance enhanced by evocative visuals provided by Cornwall based film maker Jo Mayes, always another turn or twist around the corner. They played out to whooping applause with the rocker Rice Rage.
The first, shorter set was by the peer-less Eyebrow. McMurchie acknowledged the inspiration of the approach of the duo of Pete Judge and Paul Wigens , their sparse, looping and layered improvisations are as riveting conjured live as on CD. Wigens place was ably filled at the last minute by Mark Whitlam due to illness but they still evoked the magic of the recent release Garden City to the delight of the audience filling the Wardrobe Theatre’s fabulous new home.
The two sets were a celebration of some of the more creative and imaginative music that has been brewing gently in Bristol over recent years and now, happily getting wider recognition.
Mark Nightingale is probably heartily sick of bad puns on his name, but his appearance at 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.
A cycling sequence of ringing chords, sax and trumpet in full flight, wordless vocals weaving in, out and over, an effortless groove from the bass and churning drums building the excitement: it was an exhilarating musical tumult as Views reached a climax towards the end of Moonlight Saving Time’s first set of the Bristol launch of their album Meeting at Night. The Bristol based band have been getting deserved exposure, including national radio play, since the official release in the autumn and the Hen and Chicken’s upstairs room was packed for the first gig of the 2016 season.
The band’s distinctive sound is a potent brew of jazzily melodic, gliding lines with occasional folk-like inflections; artfully crafted shifting harmony; never over-stated but propulsive and snappy grooves. The arrangements make the most of the cocktail of timbres and pitch in the line-up. This is a collective enterprise. Emily Wright’s clear toned, supple vocals were frequently in the foreground carrying lyrics, invariably personal and reflective, but then became another instrument blending beautifully with Nick Malcolm’s. trumpet in wordless swoops and flights. The jigsaw of rhythms and harmony from Dale Hambridge on keys, Will Harris on bass and Mark Whitlam behind the kit locked it all together.
In this band of leaders and composers there was plenty of scope for individual personalities to make their presence felt. After the flowing grooves of Clouds, Silence is Here breathed more easily and Dale Hambridge gave his expressive, fluent touch at the piano full rein. On this and the playful, joyfully lilting Arthur’s Dance Nick Malcolm flung out by turns lyrical and biting trumpet solos adding citric zest to the sophisticated palette of sound. There were ‘just so’ changes of pace and mood that caught the attention, like leaving Will Harris’ bass to state a groove, imply a melody and a chord all at once whilst letting the space breath – little moments of magic
If the regular ensemble have visibly developed an easy confidence over the last three years or so, the addition of saxophonist Jason Yarde for the evening seemed to step everything up a gear. From his first solo on Clouds, the forceful, fluid exploration of the harmony; song like declamatory phrases and then burning intensity as momentum built, all served to get everyone grinning and nodding. The rest of the band responded in kind. This would have a great gig without the addition of Yarde, as it was it made for a real treat to start the year. Moonlight Saving Time are going from strength to strength.
It’s taken a while. Bass player Greg Cordez had the tracks recorded a year ago we were hearing, having herded the frighteningly busy team of Jake McMurchie (tenor sax), Nick Malcom (trumpet), Jim Blomfield (piano) and Mark Whitlam (drums) into the studio. The occasional teaser has appeared on his website but now Paper Crane is released on Ninety and Nine records and the artefact is here, the CD cover artfully designed to look like it might have been recovered from a batch of a 1000 Paper Cranes and the quintet were at The Hen and Chicken on Sunday to launch it.
But first that CD: If an un-rushed build-up to the release was a deliberate strategy to stoke tension and anticipation, it mirrors much of the music on the compelling recording. A throbbing, repeated bass note launches Real and Imagined, Brown Bear begins with a lightly stepping repeating motif, piano and bass spelling it out, 8’23” with chiming piano chords, Black Bear arrives through clattering percussion and an insistent piano note. Each time, layers accrete and momentum builds as the piano binds things to together and the horns conjure affecting, slow moving melody lines. No need to rush. As these pieces reach their climax there’s a powerful emotional charge. There’s plenty of scope for soloing to grow out of the ensemble playing. Shcrodinger vs Cat with a thumping rock vibe and Up Quark with its rolling, propulsive momentum really build up a head of steam. Ballad November is a lyrical song, Malcolm’s keening trumpet sculpting beautiful lines over the cycling harmony. There’s a coherent musical vision running through the set, providing a frame for these formidable musicians to really sing and stretch.
If the recorded music draws the listener in and holds them, the live experience added another dimension. As carefully constructed as these compositions are, the repeated figures and riffs and driving grooves seemed to liberate McMurchie and Malcom further, Brown Bear stimulating a volcanic solo from McMurchie and Malcolm really letting fly on Blood Orange, a rare imported tune. Blomfield cut loose on 8’23” spiralling off into a solo piano interlude now rhapsodic now an eruption of two fisted rhythm, exploiting all the piano’s quirks.
They launched this music in style with a few ‘new’ ones from the Cordez pen whetting our appetite for more recorded output to come. No need to rush. The steady evolution will be compulsory viewing. Cordez himself supplied one the moments of the evening as he and Blomfield played All That Is as a duo, the bass channeling Charlie Haden with a sonorous melody and singing harmony from the piano.
A delight of an album, a fabulous gig.
The audience, packed into The Bear’s back room like sardines, appeared all to be holding their breath as James Partridge wove an impassioned, growling baritone sax phrase through the changes of Duke Ellington’s Solitude. It was mid-way through the second set of a fizzing quintet gig. If the band wasn’t quite the one billed, the jazz was still top drawer. Friday’s gig at the BeBop Club was another great example of airlines conspiring to disrupt a gig, only to be defeated by the magic of new musical alliances formed at a moment’s notice (it’s happened before in Bristol). Hotly anticipated doesn’t quite cover the buzz around the return of the The Session. The New Orleans based band of young and already feted musicians wowed Bristol audiences last summer, including a hastily scheduled appearance at the BeBop Club in August. Their heady brew of hard swinging jazz, visceral New Orleans grooves and bang-up-to-date harmonic sensibility set the jazz grapevine buzzing and they are back this summer with a sprinkling of gigs and a residency at Musicfest Aberystwyth Big Band & Jazz Course
Friday was the inaugural gig, back at the BeBop, and the audience created a New Orleans – like atmosphere in temperature and humidity in the tiny club room with late arrivers disappointed and waiting their turn to cram in at the back. But bad weather back in the Crescent City meant that flights were delayed, so that only bass player Jason Weaver, pianist Andrew McGowan and ex-pat Englishman, saxophonist James Partridge were there on Friday, with hot young drummer Charles Burchell and trumpeter Steve Lands stranded the other side of the pond. The three who made it were in safe hands however. It’s a fairly badly kept secret that BeBop Club maestro Andy Hague has assembled a collection of charts and arrangements of near library proportions over the years, mining the repertoire of classic Blue Note era writers onwards as well as artful arrangements of standards. He’s also a very fine trumpeter. A quick call to local drummer Mark Whitlam who’s fast acquiring a national reputation in a variety of ensembles and a cracking quintet was assembled, with a repertoire covering Ellis Marsalis grooving New Orleans standards, irresistibly swinging fare from the pens of Tad Dameron, Bob Brookmeyer, Wayne Shorter and a sprinkling of classics from Ellington and the standards book. The magic emerged as the newly formed quintet explored the material together. The Session’s instinct for drama appeared as backing for solos sometimes dropped to minimal, giving them space to breath and build; Andy Hague reminded us (if we needed it) what a fine improviser he is, with solos on flugelhorn particularly, full of elegant phrases and warm toned flurries over Weaver’s driving, propulsive bass lines; Andrew McGowan’s angular and scattered phrases on piano accumulated to build exciting solos and a standout trio reading of the ballad I Want to Talk About You was greeted with roars of approval. With Bristol forming more regular links with New Orleans, this is a collaboration it would be great to see again. For Bristolians keen to see the The Session in full, they should be at the Hen and Chicken in early August.