Cheltenham Jazz Festival Round -Up, April 30th & May 1st

Cheltenham Jazz Festival  just gets better. Uncertain sunshine and icy squalls couldn’t take the gloss off, although it may temporarily have driven a few punters out of the open air festival pitch in Montpellier Gardens. Capacity of the wallet and ability to absorb sublime music limited me to a couple of gigs on Saturday and delicious trio of them on Sunday, almost all of which have been reviewed by London Jazz News’ near wall to wall coverage , so brief impressions here.

Saturday

Having in recent years come across various alumni of either Birmingham, or Norway’s Trondheim Conservartoires, I thought it was about time I caught up with the Trondheim Jazz Exchange‘s now annual showcase of the current generation of students on Saturday lunchtime. Three ensembles, each a mixture of students from both institutions performed mainly original music seasoned with a few classics. The second drumless ensemble, performed a piece based around a haunting theme that emerged after much atmospherics, and the ethereal sound of Sondre Ferstad‘s harmonica. A sparse pulse from Ben Moorhead‘s bass anchored Simon Ovinge‘s Frisell-esque guitar solo, all lingering phrases and country-ish reverb.   Vittoria Mura‘s tenor completed the quartet that rather stole an absorbing show for me, sandwiched as they were between two very classy sets full of vim and explosive and exploratory playing.  An absorbing hour or so in the present that augered well for the future.

After a bit more dodging of showers, I was back in the Parabola Theatre for The Printmakers to show just why they’ve been nominated (again) for a Parliamentary Jazz Award.  After a few introductory riffles and sighs from the band, Breath Away developed a seemingly effortless headlong momentum, James Maddren on drums and Steve Watts‘ bass a master class in how to lock together and generate propulsive energy without filling all the space up. With Norman Winstone‘s vocal twisting around Mark Lockhart‘s sax it was glorious whilst being familiar.  Niki Iles‘ Tideaway had a ‘natural effects central’ intro with Winstone and Lockhart evoking breezes whilst Mike Walker supplied the seagulls from somewhere inside his guitar. His Clockmaker had the band flying and Maddren lighting a fire under them on a vamp out, no wonder Walker was grinning. They are surely one of our finest small groups, with a playful energy and restrained lyricism that enfolds the listener.

Sunday

It didn’t take long for the FDR Big Band to warm the cavernous Town Hall early on Sunday afternoon, playing Julian Arguelles‘ arrangements of South African Jazz, much of it penned by the exiles, like Chris Macgregor, Dudu Pukwana with whom he, brother Steve and Django Bates played. Those three were the guests with the big band. Arguelle’s arrangements were sublime, packaging up the irrepressibly joyous tunes and grooves for maximum impact and bouncing the melodies around the band, so they were like a massed choir.   The repertoire was largely that of the CD release Let It Be Told,  but this was a rare, possibly not to be repeated chance to see the live set. I for one left wondering how anything was going to come close for the rest of the day (or maybe the year).

Trumpeter Christian Scott provided a total contrast later in the afternoon on the smaller of the two tented stages, the Jazz Arena.  Tony Dudley Evans (who must have been getting quite a bit of exercise as he popped up introducing every band I saw), described Stretch Music as an embracing  different types and inspirations for music beyond classic jazz. That could have been a metaphor for the whole festival as I’d arrived there via the future  of North European jazz, the cream of English bands and a German big band playing South African music.  It was ironic then, that this set stretched the definition the least although it was no less thrilling for that. This was a new line-up for Scott, with alto Logan Richardson and pianist Tony Tixier joining Scott. As a result, there were just a couple of forays into stretch territory with pre-recorded loops, heavy beats, distorted twisting melodies and lots of effects producing ghostly hoots and keening screeches from the trumpet. Most of the set however was an exuberant, burning versions of some classics with Eye of the Hurricane, Equinox, a modal Donald Harrison piece that even had Scott quoting solos from So What before the tune suddenly veered off into a racing take on Miles Davis’ Dolores.  It was exhilarating stuff, Richardson showing just why he’s so lauded currently and TIxier on piano a revelation. The packed Jazz Arena crowd loved it.

My day ended with another contrast, back in the Parabola Theatre for a Sunday evening set IMG_0002.jpgwith Gioavanni Guidi‘s trio.  The intimate space could have been designed for a set like this.  The trio weave between quite simple themes, sometimes a tone poem, at others the most delicate of Bach – like decorated melodies, still others repeating growling motifs. There may be a hail of notes, sounding like they might be pouring from a bucket, or a single bell like tone allowed to fill the room. Joao Lobo shadowed and complemented every move with rustles, disruptive flurries of rhythm and moody squeals using what looked like random ‘objet trouves’.   A delightful set, ending with an encore of, getting its second airing of the day, the South African stomper, You aint gonna know me cos you think you me dedicated by a grinning Guidi to Claudio Ranieri.

There may be bigger festivals, there may be louder festivals, but the diverse programme and concentrated buzz of Cheltenham’s annual jazz feast is surely hard to beat.

 

 

 

My little slice of London Jazz Festival

London Jazz Festival – oof! The producers Serious had a neat little strap line this year that ran ‘2,000+ artists. 300+ gigs. 50+ venues. 23 years. 1 city’.  There was even a ‘pop-up’ radio station, a first and a joint enterprise between the Beeb and JazzFM. No traffic was stopped or streets closed (to my knowledge), but the festival was surely hard to miss if you’ve even a passing interest in jazz or the very large umbrella that embraces ‘jazz inspired’ or ‘jazz related’.   My own little skirmish with the gargantuan proportions of the programme seems extremely modest, but the afterglow is still there a week later, so here’s a quick sum up together with links (I reviewed them for London Jazz News).

My nearly-a- weekend (Thursday to Saturday) was bookended by ‘An Evocation of the music of Kenny Wheeler (review here) in the august surroundings of Cadogan Hall and  ‘A tribute to Bill Evans’ in the more louche, authentic jazz club of the 606 Club (review here).  In between was the even sweatier, literally underground, scene of the Con Cellar Bar with a double header of today’s rising stars George Crowley‘s Can of Worms and Kit Downes’ The Enemy (review here).

The Kenny Wheeler had a dazzling line-up. Check the website but did they really have Ralph Towner on for just three numbers and twenty minutes?  Gwilym Simcock (poignantly, effectively a dep for John Taylor) and Chris Laurence similarly in a short ‘last quintet’ set? Well yes they did.  Somehow they hit their stride instantly.  Moments of pure ‘hairs standing on the back of the neck’ magic for me were  Norma Winstone and Ralph Towner doing Celeste. The uncanny blend of Norma’s voice and Towner’s guitar made time pause for a moment. The London Vocal Project were remarkable. Never mind their rhythm section of Dave Holland, Nikki Iles and Martin France(!), they were simply thrilling as they leapt around the melody of Humpty Dumpty their voices another exquisite blend such that I kept checking it wasn’t just one person singing.

The Bill Evans tribute had its own share of thrills. The sound an repertoire is so familiar, but the glow in the memory is from the quality of the band and the performances. Nikki Iles led the core trio and B minor Waltz, as well as starting the evening, set the bar high. From sketchy phrases, long notes and rustles from the drums, the energy and intensity seemed to grow and flower rather than self-consciously build. Magical stuff.

Con Cellar Bar’s menu was altogether more frenetic,dense but no less thrilling.  London Jazz Fest seems to hoover up some regular London gigs into its programme to everyone’s benefit. This was a home match for these players, in many cases now with big reputations,  with perhaps an audience from further afield than the regular crowd at this particular venue. Its one whose reputation has spread as so many of our current maturing talents have cut their teeth there.  There’s nervousness about its longevity as the pub is due for a re-furb. Let’s hope it continues.

Mine was a wafer thin slice through this huge, wide ranging festival. London Jazz News awesomely reviewed over 60 in total (so just 20% or so!) including this short summary of 35 or so.  Just scanning it is a little bit tiring, but inspiring that there’s so much great music being created, live, and people still going to see it.   Oof!

 

Positively the last list of 2014: My live and recorded highlights

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.

Recorded Music

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!

Live Music

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

London Vocal Project, Ronnie Scott’s, Sunday 1st June

Everyone knew. This was an extraordinary moment. There was a special hush in a packed Ronnie Scott’s as Pete Churchill relived working with the legendary Jon Hendricks, taking down the 92 year old lyricist and singer’s words for the tunes from Miles Ahead, the seminal collaboration between Miles Davis and Gil Evans. And then we got to hear them, the first three arrangements translated for voices from the Gill Evans’ arrangements by Pete with Hendricks’ lyrics added and just a few days rehearsal since Pete’s return from New York: Maids of Cadiz, The Duke and My Ship. “If you would know what beauty is…” sang Anita Wardell and we sighed along.

It was well into the second half of the gig before that moment arrived. A long first set had swept through a stylistic pot pourri. There was selection of the Kenny Wheeler settings the group recorded on Mirrors and a new one of a Langston Hughes’ poem Jazzonia. So inspired was Wheeler by the Mirrors project that occasional new pieces still arrive through the post for Pete Churchill to work on with the choir. With shuffling of the piano chair between Pete Churchill and Nikki Iles; pop-up performances by members of the ensemble on tenor, flugel, accordion, mouth organ; another selection of tunes, a legacy of Pete Churchill’s work with Abdullah Ibrahim using lyrics penned by the South African including an energetic, grooving version of The Mountain; an exquisite setting of “He wishes for the cloths of heaven by project member Andrew Wilde and we were fully reminded of the breadth of the projects the group have tackled and depth of their musical resources. Then they raised the roof with a storming gospel number (‘look we can do this too!’ they seemed to say) and closed the set with the loping waltz of Steve Swallow’s City of Dallas.

 On their return we were gradually introduced to the new project. The rhythm section of Steve Watts on bass and percussionist Andres Ticino was augmented by Steve Brown on drums and a celebration of the lyrics of Jon Hendricks ensued. Hearing the vocal project sing Basie’s Sandman brought out what a beautifully blended ensemble sound they have and goodness, how they can swing! ‘Lil Darlin taken at a deliciously sleazy tempo gave Anita Wardell a chance to dig in and then we were hanging on Pete Churchill’s words with stories of hanging with Jon Hendricks. Hendricks’ ambition to put lyrics to the whole of Miles Ahead, gestated over decades and now beginning to be realised in this collaboration with Churchill is surely a little piece of jazz history. The performance at Ronnie’s of the first three pieces leaves no doubt that the London Vocal Project are more than equal to it. What an adventure they’ve embarked on with their animateur, peerless arranger, musical director and resident curator (and maker) of jazz history, Pete Churchill.

The Printmakers, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Friday 10th May

Credit Brian O'Connor via Londonjazz

Credit Brian O’Connor via Londonjazz

I think it may be one of Nikki Iles’ characteristic traits. The trick of sidling up to even the most familiar of tunes or climatic moments, so that having been drawn in by a mysterious harmonic sequence or some textural ripples, you find yourself surprised as a singing melody or a racing groove has emerged almost un-noticed. It happens more than once on last year’s fine trio album ‘Hush’ and this gig started that way. The whole band joined in creating the atmosphere as Nikki’s resonant chords insinuated themselves into the concert hall at the fabulous, still new buildings, of the Royal Welsh College.  Somehow the music morphed and by the time they’d launched into Kenny Wheeler’s Enowena, a typically soaring melody of leaps, twist and turns over a racing even pulse, I was hooked. The repertoire, drawing on an eclectic range of sources from Steve Swallow, Ralph Towner, Joni Mitchell as well Niki Iles originals and the ever present Kenny Wheeler,  meant plenty of joyful exuberance in the playing suffused with a reflective almost sweet melancholia.  At one point, as Mike Walker explained the utterly bleak back story to Joni Mitchell’s ‘2 grey rooms’ a collective fit of giggles was needed to break the tension.

This a fabulous band of musicians who weave improvisations of real melodic beauty over complex and angular structures. Mike Walker’s gorgeous tune Clockmakers (is that one of my favourite tunes ever? .. maybe!) evoked a dazzling solo from Nikki, flowing, melodic line building on flowing melodic line. Mike Walker himself pulled out solo after a solo but a standout was on Kenny Wheeler’s Everyone’s Song but My Own. He found rhythmic figures and phrases that seemed to surprise even him. And flowing around, up and over it all, blending beautifully were Norma Winstone’s voice and Mark Lockheart’s saxophones. It was all propelled unfussily but with huge energy and subtlety by Steve Watts’ bass and the drums of James Maddren.  Just in case it all sounds a bit solemn, there was more than a twinkle in the eye as they played us out with a sort of rocky, scottish reel cum folk song written by Nikki giving Mike Walker the chance to rev up his rock chops on guitar before whipping off his glasses for the last time as if to say ‘what do think of that then?’ . They followed it with a wonky country style Steve Swallow song.  Its a testament to this band that they have quite a reputation with no recordings out there (notwithstanding the individual reputations of all them), but I hear a rumour that they may be putting that right soon. Can’t wait.

Geoff Simpkins Quartet, Dempsey’s Cardiff, Wednesday 23rd November

Geoff Simpkins’ exquisitely shaped melodic lines unfurl over a relaxed, unforced vamp from the rhythm section and gradually the shape of  How Deep is the Ocean’s melody emerges to start the set at Dempsey’s – my imagination or did everyone lean forward a bit ? This was a spell binding couple of hours from the band led by Geoff with Nikki Iles on piano, Martin France on drums and Simon Woolf on bass. These are all great players who have individually found and developed distinctive voices that complement each other beautifully. Reaching for the metaphors, they always sing and never shout at you even when they are burning it up  on Cherokee at some preposterous tempo. Much of this comes from Geoff’s sound and phrasing. Always warm with a melancholic edge, the alto spins and weaves long melodic lines. The reference points of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz are explict with tunes by both in the set (Thingin and Lennies’ Pennies).  Geoff’s own Don’t Ask has similar seemingly endless, fluent be-boppy lines  in the melody. Some of the most affecting moments came on the simple statement and then development of Kenny Wheeler’s melody Kind Folk and on the ballad Quiet Now, the title of the  latter seeming to sum it up; no-one overplayed and the phrases seemed to hang in the air.  Niki Iles’ touch and choice of harmony were perfect accompaniment with the same painterly development of solos, building a picture in sound for us without ( grabbing another metaphor) spelling  it all out in capital letters.  Alongside the delicacy and artistry, there was plenty of grit and energy. Cherokee began with an un-accompanied flurry of arpeggios and chromaticisms from the alto. When the tune arrived it was greeted with an appreciative chuckle by the audience and the band dug in at the blistering tempo, dazzling solos all round a launch pad for an intense drum solo. They certainly wove a spell over me.  A visit to Dempsey’s, a great space in which to play and listen,  wouldn’t be complete without adding another name to my mental roll of honor for unsung heroes who organise, promote and sustain jazz clubs like this. Dempsey’s angels are Alistair McMurchie and his partner, booking two nights of jazz throughout the year and with a great programme. Its hard to believe that there’ll be many gigs to top this one although I’ve no doubt there’ll be louder ones.