My Bristol week: From Craig Handy to Thelonius

As if last Friday’s outing to see Entropi wasn’t enough, catching Craig Handy mid-tour with a mouth-watering quartet at the Hen and Chicken on Sunday was followed on Wendesday by Thelonius celebrating the centenary of their eponymous inspiration at The Fringe. Soaking up the music and earning a crust has meant I’ve yet to reflect on either gig here, so an edited highlights is what follows.   It’s hard to imagine any city in the world hosting anything better than these two gigs as part of the week’s routine fare. There was also a connection, in my mind, between them. Both transparently drew on an in-the-very-marrow familiarity with jazz from bebop onwards and everything that has flowed from it, coupled with dazzling improvisation, so that the most familiar of material had zest and IMG_2571life and freshness.  Yup, it’s been quite a week.

Handy toured with Herbie Hancock in the mid 90s playing the New Standards material, was in the legendary Betty Carter’s band, has been a fixture in the Mingus Big Band including stints as MD.  It shouldn’t be a surprising then if his sound, choice of phrase, instinct for a mischievous quote or reference sounds, whilst still being his own, as if it comes from a long line of greats, .  It was gripping, it just oozed out of him. He was clearly enjoying the company of Jonathan Gee on piano, Nicola Sabato on bass and Rod Youngs on drums.  This wasn’t a grab you by the throat and shower you with notes session, but oh my it was grooving. Cedar Walton’s Holy Land was an easy medium swing tempo and as Handy layered phrase upon phrase, building momentum the band stoked it with him. It was like sitting on a gradually swelling ocean wave; quite exhilarating.  Rod Youngs was a delight, much of that energy coming from pushy, minimal strokes of his cymbal.  The two sets were mostly standards with a couple of Handy originals and the easy fluency was a thrill.  As we crept out (a case of catching the last bus syndrome), What’s New was just fading. We’d hung on every swoop and flutter of the melody. It was easy to imagine echoes of Coltrane or Dexter Gordon playing the ballad, but that’s because they’re surely in Handy’s the musical bloodstream.

Thelonius were drinking from the same well, but restricting themselves exclusively to compositions by Monk himself as Calum Gourlay reminded the full to over-flowing Fringe  before a note was played (just in case we were there under false pretenses). They kicked of with Epistrophy and the easy swing and Monk’s instantly catchy but typically off-kilter theme grabbed the ears. Hans Koller was on keys for this tune (he played valve trombone for most of the evening) and assembled a solo that was like shards of glass, all angles and dissonant fragments. A great start. This band, with Martin Speake on alto and for this gig the peer-less Jeff Williams on drums, have been playing weekly at times at the Vortex exploring the Monk canon. There’s always the possibility of deconstruction and radical re-interpretation in a project like this, but they approach the tunes with great fidelity to the original compositions in tempo and feel. They are each formidable improvisers and composers in their own right and the exploration of the tunes is from the inside out. Williams threatened to steal the show early on with a riveting, melodic solo on Teo. For Gourlay, the band frequently just laid out and he gave a hint of why a solo bass set from him might be a treat somehow evoking the harmony and sounding like an entire rhythm section as he played off Monk’s themes..  Koller is a a top drawer pianist, so hearing where his mind takes him with just a single line to pursue on the trombone , without the added  harmonic possibilities of the keyboard was fascinating.  There’s a  muted, fragile air to his tone adding a vulnerable almost melancholic edge to his playing.  His trombone and Speake’s alto blended and interacted beautifully and gave Round Midnight a fresh twist.  It was, as Gourlay again, reminded us the day after Monk’s would-have-been 100th birthday.   It was a delicious homage.

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Fringe Jazz Notes – and a New York connection.

Fringe Jazz, the weekly gig in Clifton’s Fringe Bar that never seems to rest, is celebrating 5 years this Autumn.  They’ve moved out to the pub round the corner and back again in that time and Jon Taylor has put together the usual mouth watering programme to celebrate.   I’ve also detected an (admittedly tenuous) New York connection.

On a recent, all to brief, flit through New York, I sought out a CD store in a fairly shabby corner of lower Manhattan. The spray painted shutters and steps down to the the cellar downtown_gallerydid look a little un-promising. The Downtown Music Gallery does downtown_2have a reputation however, both stocking a huge selection of the free-er, scronkier end of improvised music and even hosting occasional gigs. Descending, I turned out to be the only customer at that time and got a quick guided tour of the stacks.   Imagine my surprise (and delight) when my eyes fell on some very familiar names in the first dunmallCDpile I looked at.   Right there in the middle, a Paul Dunmall trio album with Bristol lads Tony Orrell and Jim Barr.   Meanwhile, back at the fringe this very week (September 13), Paul Dunmall is in trio with Tony Orrell. It’s the mighty Percy Pursglove on bass this time.  Now there’s a New York connection.   That’s pretty representative of the quality of the Fringe’s programme (check out the full listings here). There’s a couple more I’ll flag.

On the 11th October, Martin Speake, Hans Koller, Calum Gourlay and Jeff Williams bring their Monk project to the bijou back room. This is a longstanding collaboration formed to play as many of Monk’s collaborations as possible and has been seen regularly at London’s Vortex club. London Jazz interviewed Gourlay about it. Speake is a creative veteran of the UK scene, last seen in Bristol with the legendary Bobo Stenson.  Koller also has a formidable CV and Brooklyn-ite Jeff Williams provides another New York connection, dividing his time between there and UK  and has a long history and huge reputation both sides of the pond.   15th November sees ECM recording artist Iain Ballamy return, this time with his unique duo with Norwegian button accordionist Stian Cartensen.  A Nordic rather than a New York connection, but a rare opportunity to catch this extraordinary collaboration.

Too many words are required to summarise the whole programme, but there are plenty more gems there with the best of our local scene well represented.   Let’s keep supporting the Fringe – and here’s to  five more years!

 

Phelan Burgoyne, Unquiet Quiet album launch, Vortex, Friday 20th January

If you check out Phelan Burgoyne‘s Bandcamp page for his just released debut as a leader Unquiet Quiet, the words offered as tags are jazz, improvisation, London (so far unsurprising) and rubato.  The last one might raise an eyebrow, given this is  a drummer led trio playing Burgoyne’s compositions.   It’s a little signal however, that listening and on the spot alchemy are part of the brew.

And so it turned out to be when I dropped into the Vortex last Friday for the launch gig.   Burgoyne’s co-alchemists were Martin Speake and Rob Luft supplying thoughtful probing alto and layers of guitar sound respectively.   The unannounced  pieces crept in with maybe a squeal from the alto, a distant rattle or a ripple from the guitar.  There was always development and a strong hook to anchor the piece invariably emerged.   A smear of cymbals announced the first tune, then the simplest of themes, a repeating off-kilter motif launched the exploration. Speake’s alto swirled and cried over the wash and bubble of guitar that swelled to a climax before the plaintive motif returned.  The drums were all colour in the midst of the collective steady momentum.

That set the tone. The loose free-wheeling vibe was a thread through the set.  Burgoyne switched to sticks and there was a more insistent clatter, giant distorting chords and clangs from the guitar before sparring with alto, trading astringent phrases.   A moody introspective theme blurred into a gentle waltz. A bright melodic tone poem delivered, yes of course – rubato, was pushed along by skittering drums and shadowed by ghostly guitar lines before morphing into a quietly insistent groove.  A throbbing, skipping, clackety pulse from drums lifted the energy and a snaking theme surfed along.

This was open, interactive music from a trio in tune with each other insisting on being listened to as intensely as the musicians listened to each other and cast its spell on me. It was an absorbing evening’s music.

Martin Speake/ Bobo Stenson, Colston Hall – Lantern, Tuesday 26th April

bobocolston2Bobo Stenson is a unique and quietly influential figure.  The Swedish pianist’s many sideman gigs with horn players have included  Jan Garbarek on some of the earliest ECM recordings and a series of Charles Lloyd releases. His distinctive, poetic sound and viscerally rhythmic  touch have most often been heard in recent years in the context of his own, telepathically sympathetic trio . His partnership with serial collaborator Martin Speake however, is an enduring one and he’s been coming to UK for short tours at regular, if not frequent intervals since their first hook-up, which led to an ECM recording with Paul Motion on drums finally released a decade ago now. The first gig  on the current tour at Colston Hall’s  Lantern was a thrilling demonstration of what is special about their collaboration.

The quartet was completed by Conor Chaplin on bass and James Maddren on drums and not only was it the first gig of the tour, but also the first time the four had performed together. It meant one of the pleasures of the evening was watching the band begin to breathe together. Early in the first set a Speake original, with a simple pretty tune, provided a platform for Stenson to develop a fiercely driving solo and by the time they band were vamping out over the theme, Chaplin and Stenson were locked together with a little rhythmic kick they appeared to find together.  In the second set, Folk Song for Paul featured an extended introduction from the piano, the rhythmic pulse of the theme seeming just to condense from the atmosphere and a quintessential Stenson solo followed, full of rippling, melodic lines, hesitations and distortions of the time. James Maddren seemed to be inside his mind by this point, following every feint and flurry.

The gig had been billed as the quartet playing music from the ECM release Change of Heart. 2016-04-26 20.06.32It was nothing of the sort of course. Speake’s prolific composing output and insatiable musical curiosity meant that we were treated to a mixture of his finely crafted, frequently yearning and reflective compositions, a tune of literally medieval provencance,  arrangements of a Puccini theme (O mio babbino caro) and a Frederico Mompou compostion (Cancon is danse No. 6).  A dip into Charlie Parker’s oeuvre had Bobo deconstructing Be-bop on Charlie’s Wig and they closed on a wryly understated reading of Some Enchanted Evening.

Speake’s own sound has a distilled quality to it, crystal clear and solos developing extended ideas and occasionally erupting into passionate flurries and squeals of emotion.  Chaplin and Maddren may have been less to the fore in this gig, but they had their moments in the spotlight and the responsiveness of the band to each other breathed vital life into the set.

The expression of pleasure and joy through a slightly melancholy tinged reflectiveness is sometimes characterised as typically nordic, Swedish ‘vemod’. To my ears, there is something of this in Speake’s music.  Its better expressed through music than words (perhaps illustrated by the last sentence!) and was threaded through this performance.   Who better to play this with him than the Swedish master.  I  left uplifted and just a bit inspired.

They are on the second of a two night residency at London’s Vortex tonight, not to be missed if you are nearby.

 

 

 

April and May – Jazz in Bath and Bristol

A quick scan of what’s on over the next couple of months has persuaded me that pointing out a few mouth-watering prospects is more realistic than any attempt at an exhaustive overview.    Before getting too far with that, you really should keep a close eye on the weekly gigs at Bristol’s Be Bop Club, Fringe Jazz and Future Inns and Bath’s St. James Wine Vaults.  All are a mixture of touring and local bands, but the standard is uniformly high.  Hard not to mention Guess the Bleating (featuring three-quarters of Get the Blessing with addition of keys-man Dan Moore and drum legend Tony Orrell) on 18th May at the Fringe and Andy Sheppard‘s Hotel Bristol on 20th April at the same venue and here’s hoping you made it the launch today at the Colston Hall  of two (count ’em) albums by Kevin Figes, a quartet and and octet recording and promoting his label Pig Records, also home to fine recordings by Jim Blomfield, Cathy Jones and more to follow it seems. That assumes you weren’t lured by The Necks playing the organ in the main hall. See what I mean?  You can’t have too much great music, but still…

Here then, are those highlights.  There’s a Nordic Jazz theme to relish. Swedish pianist  Bobo Stenson  is in Bristol at Colston Hall’s Lantern with Martin Speake‘s Change of Heart Quartet.  Stenson, not heavily recorded under his own name, but to sublime effect when he has been, with a series of trio records on ECM, has been a sideman to sax players from Jan Garbarek to Charles Lloyd and his collaboration with Speake dates from a Cheltenham Festival gig in the early 2000s as an International Quartet that included Paul Motian on drums and Mick Hutton on bass. That line- up played a gig in Bristol at the QEH theatre to an audience of under twenty people (that included me). They subsequently recorded for ECM and its music from that album they’ll be playing, with two of the the crop of exceptional young British jazz players, Conor Chaplin on bass and James Maddren on drums completing the quartet. In May, the Nordic action shifts to St. Georges with Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen on the 12th.  Accompanied by Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang and a visuals show to boot,  expect plenty of electronics, sound-scapes and a unique experience.  The following week on 19th May,  legendary bass player Arild Anderson is there for an acoustic set with Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith and Italian percussionist Paolo Vinaccia. This line-up has recorded two beautifully melodic and vibrant albums for ECM and this gig is part of a very short tour with only a few gigs in UK.

There’s more.   Tucked away at the top of London Road in Bath, Burdall’s Yard is Bath Spa’s performance space and on April 22nd hosts Sam Crockatt‘s Quartet.  If you want to hear what the some of the most in demand players on the Bristol scened sound like, let loose on a a bunch of artful structured, original jazz tunes by the saxophonist leader get yourself along to this one; Kit Downes on piano, James Maddren on drums and Oli Hayhurst on bass.  Downes and Maddren will be back in Bristol in early June at Colston Hall’s Lantern (ok, its not May but this will be a great gig) this time with Julian Arguelles‘ band Tetra.  Arguelles is,for my money, one of the most distinctive composing and fluently lyrical improvising voices in British jazz over the last twenty years. Sam Lasserson is on bass for that one

Finally, that man Ian Storrer, promoter of jazz gigs in Bristol for a lot of years, has done it again.  Friday May 13th sees New York come to the Hen and Chicken in Bedminster in the shape of the Jonathan Kriesberg Quartet.  Kriesberg is one of the hottest guitarists  on the New York scene and his pianist Dave Kikoski has an eye popping CV that includes Bob Berg and Michael Brecker.  This is one not to miss.

A selection then,  from a large box of treats over the next few weeks, that’s without mentioning the jazz festival over at Cheltenham at the end of April with a incredible line up and something for everyone.

 

 

Martin Speake ‘Change of Heart’ with Bobo Stenson, St. George’s Bristol, Februay 14th

This was the fourth (or fifth?) gig of a week long tour by the band and they’ve been much reviewed it seems. A couple were spotted by a fellow Bristol blogger here and John Fordham had a go too here – I think these may all have been the same night; scope for  bit of redactive word there. So what to add? I think Martin Speake has had a good week. At times he seemed almost overcome by the fun they were having declaring at one point “.. these are the best muscians in the world”. The sound was nevertheless, as all the reviewers have noted, in a definite ‘space’. Often meditative, very European jazz. There was a range of moods from a gently rocking half time pulse under Lennie’s Pennies to more Ornette Coleman like swing under Fifteen Years Too Long, a Speake original. So whether you loved it seems a matter of taste – for me this music is really moving and the interplay and symapthy between the players a delight. Steve Watts on bass was quietly fabulous, frequently propelling tunes with strange broken rhythmic lines often echoing the angular phrasing of the melodies. Jeff Williams always seems to embellish and imply the groove without ever actually playing it. Need I go on about Bobo? – world class and check the other reviews for plenty of words about the leader’s intricate and thoughtful playing.  I left thinking Martin Speake’s little outburst perhaps wasn’t just an excess of enthusiasm: maybe these are some of the best musicians in the world.

What January Blues?

If you live in the Bristol/ Bath area, it might seem we are getting too much of a good thing! There are loads of cracking gigs coming up with a fair sprinkling of the world class. So Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock come to St. George’s on the 15th with Asaf Sirkis ( listings here ). If you in Bath and can’t make it over, get down St. James Wine Vaults. The legendary Art Themen is there with the house trio (only a fiver). Julian Arguelles is in town with his trio on the 29th – St. George’s again, swiftly followed by Martin Speake with Bobo Stenson on Feb 13th ( see my post “In praise of Bobo”).. see you there! As if that wasn’t enough, the Bebop club programme really is storming. Not all household names, but believe me the quality is high. A few I’m drooling over: Barry Green on the 30th (here for more … very whacky website), Plastic Chandeliers (16th) – Bristol’s young but already up generation, in February (27th) Ben Waghorn and in March (13th), the sublime Jonathan Taylor in trio playing the compositions of Michel Petrucciani.

And there’s plenty more out there. No excuse for ears that aren’t thoroughly warmed.