Ambleside Days – the last post

The bass was parked, music scattered, instruments abandoned to be collected later.  The musicians had left the stage. As we all left  Screen 2 at Zeffirellis for the last time in the four-day-fest, there was an inescapable sense of having witnessed something momentous.

I mused mid fest about the ‘recipe’, orchestrated by Derek Hook the festival director, of a pool of musicians combined and recombined over the four nights.  Saturday saw the sublime Printmakers playing opposite a trio of Gwilym Simcock, Tim Garland and Joe Locke.  Sunday was billed as evening with Dave Holland, which turned out to be solo, quartet (Dave with Simcock- Mike WalkerNorma Winstone), trio (Dave with Nikki IlesJames Maddren), quartet (the trio plus Mike Walker) and then the ensemble flowered into a mini big band, the full cast list from the previous days with the addition of Nick Smart popping up on trumpet and flugel-horn.

What held the dizzying rotation together was that ‘contemporary music’ tag and the reference point and celebration of John Taylor.  There was a tricky to define but discernible sound, a particular use of harmony, musical choices about melody and space that gave the music identity.   It was a joyous and appropriate finale then for the mini big band to play  a couple of sections of Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Time Suite.  Holland, Stan Sulzmann and Norma Winstone were all on stage who played on the original Large and Small Ensembles recording with of course, John Taylor on piano. The final blast of Wheeler’s Foxy Trot also had the Holland-Taylor rhythm section on the original.  The Wheeler, Taylor legacy flavours so much of the music that these musicians play and it sounded like their natural habitat.

That was true even when they were playing standards or original material.   Added to that was a visible delight in each other’s presence.  Joe Locke’s quartet set had started with an angular arrangement of Autumn in New York and he was grinning delightedly at Asaf Sirkis as the drummer caught and embellished every rythmic fill.  Heads turned and eyes snapped sideways all weekend at moments of magic and hot interaction.  Mike Walker beamed slowly as Dave Holland’s solo on In Your Own Sweet Way worked its way to an intense climax in the quartet set with Winstone.  Holland visibly caught his breath and smiled as an exquisitely crafted line seemed to float from the piano and hang in the air during a Nikki Iles solo in their trio moment.

In amongst all the ‘for one night only’ configurations, The Printmakers reminded us how compelling a regular ensemble can be. Their take on Vince Mendoza’s Ambivalence was a hear-a-pin drop moment as the chanting motif faded away.   Mark Lockheart and Walker did their familiar but always enchanting evocation of a beach, the guitar providing swooping seagulls over the sax’s breathy shifting sands before the band slid into Nikki Iles’ Tideways. Walker’s scatological story telling threatened to become a stand-up routine before his own glorious, surely-nearly-a-standard-now Clockmakers made the stoniest heart swell.

We saw a lot of everyone in different line-ups.  Gwilym Simcock appeared every night and was dazzling in his range of expression from the faintest glazes of an open piano string to the tumult of Barber Blues that closed the trio set with Mike Walker and Joe Locke.   Mike Walker’s instinct for when not to play, conjure an unlikely growl or rumble from his guitar, let a fluid melodic line insinuate itself through a chord sequence or simply to rock out was a consistent delight every time he took the stage.  And what a treat to see and hear so much of Dave Holland. For all the virtuosity and command of his instrument, there was tingling thrill every time he settled into a groove and made the music pulse and glow.

Creating so many one-off line ups could have been a risk. As it was, there wasn’t a part that didn’t create special, exciting and moving moments. And the sum of all those parts? That word ‘momentous’ seems about right.

 

 

 

 

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Troykestra, Purcell Room, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 23rd November

What extra do you get with an ‘estra’?  Troyka, the sizzling. electronica orientated trio of Kit Downes on keyboards, Chris Montague on guitar and loops and Josh Blackmore on drums, who have made such a splash with their blend of rock, jazz and clubby loops and grooves, added the ‘estra’ by collaborating with the Royal Academy of Music’s big band and its conductor Nick Smart, made possible originally by a commission from Jazzwise.  This gig launched the CD, a live recording of their 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival performance.

One extra is the impact of stabbing, syncopated riffs from the squeakily tight horn sections, artfully arranged so that the jagged phrases locked and retained the momentum of the quick-fire techno exchanges of the trio. From the off, ‘Rarebit’ began with a looped rocky feel and the force of the big band’s richly voiced chords pinned us to our seats.  ‘Dropsy’ starting with atmospheric washes of sound from the trio developed into a real groover, the brass storming in with joyous declamatory phrases.

The repertoire was mainly the trio material reworked and arranged for this bang up to date big band, although given that this was a CD launch, only two or three of the tunes were from that recording. What is lost in the translation  to a larger ensemble is some of the manoeuvrability of the trio with less scope for pieces to evolve new directions and develop organically in performance.  A gain, alongside that rich palette of sound, is space for some incendiary soloing from the ranks of the sections. Mick Chillingworth on alto and James Allsop on tenor in particular cut through and produced wild and exciting moments surfing the hubbub of riffs and grooves.   ‘Chaplin’, a quieter piece, built around an acoustic piano figure and singing guitar lines from Montague, evoked a more tender emotional solo from Allsop and a standout moment of the gig.

The extension of Troyka to Troykestra provides for plenty of excitement and energy with more to come. The set closed with new pieces written specifically for the combined band as one of the twenty one commissions celebrating the festival’s twenty one years.  A great pointer towards some of what might be coming in future years.