London Vocal Project – Miles Ahead, Kings Place, Sunday 21st May

Everything on the stage at Kings Place on Sunday had taken time. A lot of it. Writing lyrics to every note of the whole Miles Ahead suite; extracting them from Jon Hendricks’ head, notating and arranging them; a choir that can make the sound of a perfectly blended  string section or the stabbing riffs of a horn section; it all takes a lot of time. Years. The reviews are popping up of the evening and the music. John Walters’ account is hard to beat – giving the achievement due recognition in its vivid detail.  This is a response more than a review.

When the now nonegenarian Jon Hendricks was nearing the completion of his self imposed, 50  year undertaking of setting lyrics to every solo, slur and nuance of every arrangement of Miles Ahead the IMG_8066reaction of his daughter Michele was  ‘Who’s gonna sing this stuff?’  History doesn’t record the reaction of the  musicians when first presented with Gil Evans’ score for Miles Ahead at the original recording session   Posterity and critical acclaim have assured the result’s place in jazz history.    On stage, behind Michele on Sunday at Kings Place was the answer to her question (gleefully pointed out by Pete Churchill):The London Vocal Project.  Pointing to Pete she cried ‘.. this guy made it happen!’  It was impossible to listen without the knowledge of all that had led up to this.   all that commitment, creativity and effort focused into forty odd minutes: sure they’ll do it again, yes they’ve been recording, but they’ll never do it again for the first time in London, here, now.

A wild imagining? A crazy dream? A magnificent obsession?  Surely Hendricks’ idea was all of these. The story of the last six years of Pete Churchill’s work with Hendricks’ to complete the job, work with the choir, premiere the work in New York and now bring it back to London is well told elsewhere . We got a little taster three years ago one special Sunday at Ronnie’s.

And then the finished article was performed, with a copy of the vinyl original ceremonially in attendance on the stage and the choir fronted by Hendricks’ daughter Michele, Norma Winstone and Kevin Fitzgerald Burke singing Miles’ solos.

And Hendricks’ lyrics.

And then it was just about the music. And the sound.

I can still feel the swell of the arrangement in My Ship. I can still hear the horn stabs in Blues for Pablo. I can still here that very last chord, like a sigh.

And I still love that line from Maids of Cadiz – ‘If you would know what beauty is’

Bravo.

Bravo.

Recent Highlights 2: Norma Winstone Celebration and Dominic Howles Quintet

The London Jazz Festival is brain-melting in the volume and variety of music and IMG_1951.jpgexperiences on offer over a ten day period in November.  I could only make one gig, but what a night it was, duly reviewed for London Jazz here. That piece hopefully captures some of the magic of being there.   The second set with a full orchestra and sublime arrangements by the late Steve Gray overwhelmed the senses. Since the gig I have also been reflecting on how extraordinary the trio is. With just clarinets, piano and voice they cover ground from Madonna, Tom Waits and exultant and dramatic originals.  Check out the CDs on ECM; a unique sound, distilled and expansive all at once.   I’ve also been giggling ever since about over hearing the man on the ticket desk explaining to someone that Manfred Eicher (ECM boss) was not now coming.  I did ask if I could use the tickets he was going to have – ‘I sat in Manfred Eicher’s seat’ was going to sound good over an expresso in a suitably hip cafe – but I was told ‘your seats are better than his’!

There’s an unexpected link between that gig and last Sunday’s visit to the Hen and Chicken by Dominic Howles’ Quintet. Norma’s gig featured the arrangements of  composer, arranger, pianist Steve Gray many of which were penned with Norma in mind. Gray died in 2008 and, it turns out was Dominic’s father-in-law. The Quintet that Howles brought to the Hen and Chicken had plenty of fire-power. With the Fishwick brothers on drums and trumpet, Dave O’Higgins on tenor and Nick Tomalin on piano, they ripped into Howles’ originals and arrangements. The repertoire was firmly in swinging, Blue Note and sixties driving jazz territory, given a thrilling edge by the contemporary sensibilities and sound of the fluent band.  The Police’s Message in a Bottle got a jazz working over, odd time-signatures and angular harmony giving it a darker edge,  the shuffling groover Ease Up got everyone going. Time after time O’Higgins sculpted graceful lines over dense, twisting harmony, with bursts and flurries of notes wriggling through,  building the excitement. The temperature went up every time he stepped forward. There was no doubting where Howles’ heart lies with nods at Benny Golson, a tribute to Coltrane firmly in Moments Notice/ Giant Steps territory over a rolling groove and a borrowed Ray Brown arrangement of Remember.  Meet me at the Deli, another bluesey shuffle and the newly formed band, easing into the arrangements were well and truly cooking. They are out and about over the next few months with an album in production, so look out for more

 

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.

 

 

 

The late list, my favourite moments and sounds of the last 12 months.

The ‘best of’/’highlights lists’ for 2015 have been and gone and there were a lot of them this year it seemed.  They are always entertaining. Jazzwise mag inveigled a huge cast list to each compile one with a complex point scoring system – always intriguing results.  I managed not to do one in December, or even early January (I just got busy… didn’t get around to it).  There is pleasure to be had in looking back however. So here we go.  It’ a very personal selection, dependent entirely on my idiosyncratic preferences and what may have appealed on a particular day or at different times.  Rules of my game are explained for Live thrills and recorded pleasures respectively.

Gigs & Live Moments  ( a small slice)

For a live gig or moment within a gig, the simple rule is  ‘Can I still conjure up the moment and the thrill?’, or maybe  it returns unbidden to give me a tingle of pleasure at the recollection.

Anthony Braxton at the Lantern, Colston Hall in Bristol for his only UK appearance. A unique and mysterious improviser I’ve remained haunted by the Ghost Trance Music

Julian Arguelles  at Cheltenham Festival with a septet playing inventive arrangements of his enchanting, exuberant music

When I looked back, I realised a trio of duos with Gwilym Simcock stuck out:

Gwilym Simcock/ Jason Rebello at Wiltshire Music Centre in the Bath Festival. Intergenerational? Maybe, but certainly interactive and plenty of fireworks alongside lyrical flights

Gwilym Simcock/ Brigitte Beraha at Falmouth University, an impromptu moment at the end of a solo concert, a moment of magic as piano and voice took flight together on I fall in love too easily

Gwilym Simcock/ Michael Wollny at a tribute to John Taylor, two former pupils of the maestro let fly on Ambleside Days, an extra ordinary moment.

Norma Winstone/ Ralph Towner Another tribute/ celebration and another duo.  These two slid into a version of Celeste that gave me goosebumps at an ‘Evocation’ of Kenny Wheeler’s music in London Jazz Festival.

Paolo Conte at the Barbican. Is it jazz? Cabaret? Pop?  Who cares – the veteran, unclassifiable  Italian crooner wove his spell and charmed everyone ( that’ll be me and what seemed like a significant proportion of Italian and Italian descended London residents)

Kamasi Washington at the Lantern again this time for one of two UK appearances(the Lantern had a good year for coups!) and demonstrating live with only septet (no massed choirs or orchestra on hand) why his debut deserved the title The Epic

I could list all those moments at my regular haunts (St. James Wine Vaults, Bath; BeBop Club; increasingly irresistible, The Hen and Chicken), however one each:

Iain Ballamy – at the Wine Vaults. Never knowingly miss an opportunity to hear him. Back in January last year at the Wine Vaults, just the theme from East of Sun was worth the trip.

Wildflower Sextet – at the BeBop Club early in the year. Any Wayne Shorter related outing is likely to get my but this sextet led by Matt Anderson were a particular delight.

Hotel Bristol –  at The Hen and Chicken. Fierce competition for this slot, but the Andy Sheppard orchestrated quartet has it with fierce blowing, delectable melodies and grooves and the inevitable top-drawer collaborators.

Recorded Music

In the case of  recorded music the question is ‘Do I still get the urge to play the CD/ Download?’     Memory can be deceptive and what happened most recently can loom larger than it should. Discovering that iTunes has sneakily logged a good proportion of my listening, reveals what have been the most frequent of my ‘just got to listen to that again’ or ‘I’m in the mood for..’ choices.  Taken alongside what has got stuck in my (old tech) six CD changer and picking a few faves from albums I’ve reviewed, generates a list that may reveal more about my preferences than anything else, but also looks pretty high quality to me.

 Heavily edited in the interests of not overdoing it –

Stuck in the CD changer

Kamasi Washington – all three discs of The Epic. It’s a throwback (whether jazz or dance music), its very current, its so the ‘next thing’, its irresistible.

Julian Arguelles – Let it Be Told,   Mining the South African repertoire and arranging for Big Band its fabulous (and coming to Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2016)

Babelfish – Chasing Rainbows was this piano, voice, bass and percussion quartet’s second outing. Understated, fizzing with energy, creativity and exquisitely twisted melody.

Reviewed with humility and repeating on the playlist

Andy Sheppard  –  Surrounded by Sea.  Trio Librero with the addition of Elvind Aarstead, whisperingly magical

Charles LloydWild Man Suite, a unique instrumentation. Maybe only Charles Lloyd would respond to the suggestion of adding strings by doing it with lyra and cimbalom, but its vintage Lloyd

The Printmakers – its been a bit of wait, but in Westerly at last we have a recording of this sublime and joyful music from Brit super group

Others, some reviewed some not, but high on the count of ‘plays’

Bebe Buchanan Tagel  – Gone . Danish outfit, featuring that Arguelles chap again. Euro? Yes, lyrical? Yes? Distinctive – oh yes.  Thanks Peter Bacon for the review tip-off

Drifter  – Flow An Edition Records orchestrated quartet with Alexi Tuomarila on piano. Vibrant, exciting contemporary jazz

Mads La Cour – Almuji  I keep returning to this loose limbed, weaving in and out of structures blowing from the Norwegian trumpeter’s quartet

Eyebrow  – Garden City hypnotic and uplifting slowly evolving grooves and hooks from this trumpet, drums and effects duo of Pete Judge and Paul Wigens

Indigo Kid – Fistful of Notes Not nearly enough fanfare around this second outing for Dan Messore’s quartet playing his enticing and quirky melodies

Veneri Pohjola Another Edition Records release, early in 2015, Finnish trumpeter Pohjola on a set of emotion packed originals and the leaders gorgeous, bang up to date trumpet sound kept calling me back

 

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!

 

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.

jazz starved? don’t be…..

The quality meter is off the dial over the next week or so in these parts. Norma Winstone on Sunday at Wiltshire Music Centre at the same time as the European Jazz Quartet at Future Inns In Bristol (featuring Alan Skidmore). That’s assuming you weren’t sated by Simon Spillet at the Be-Bop Club tonight Damon Brown is there next week with travelling guest Yutak Shuiina. Trevor Watkiss is at Wiltshire Music Centre on the Saturday (23rd) clashing this time with Clark tracey Sextet at Future Inns (are they competing?!). Blimey… don’t forget all the local talent at various venues. The Jams are still going if you want to play, although a few are falling by the way side. So its the East bristol at Greenbank on Monday, the Canteen still seems running, but the Albert and Colston Yard seem to have stopped. Don’t be jazz starved!