I seem to be pairing musicians up for these little round ups and the connection between these two might seem a little tenuous. Firstly, their recordings have been with me for a while and secondly they are both dazzling demonstrations of the depth, quality and imagination of musicians on the current scene. Pianist, composer, arranger Hans Koller has been around for twenty five years or so, bass player Huw V Williams for maybe five.
Are triple album releases becoming a ‘thing’? Kamasai Washington’s much feted debut The Epic has been hard to miss. If Koller’s triple release on Stoney Lane Records, Retrospection, hasn’t attracted the same number of column inches that’s not a reflection on the quality of either the writing and arranging or the playing. All three albums have large ensembles of varying personnel, the third volume is a set with Germany’s NDR Big Band. Volume 1 has a twelve piece with Steve Swallow and Jeff Williams guesting, Volume 2 two guitars (Jakob Bro and Phil Robson), Brooklyn alto fiend John O’Gallagher and Christine Tobin‘s spine tingling vocal on a striking setting of a poem Half of Life. The mix is Koller originals and arrangements of jazz classics (Parker and Tristano get an airing) but Bach gets a turn and contemporaries like Jeff Williams. Koller’s stylistic erudition embraces the approaches of George Russell and Gil Evans and there’s playing to do it justice throughout. John Fordham sums it up as music for the mind and body and if its taken me a few months to find some words, well its a feast that’s best enjoyed at leisure (and on repeat).
Huw Williams’ album Hon may not be a triple (or a large ensemble), but it’s no less of a feast of music. It’s a set absolutely bursting with ideas that are realised with patience and conviction, the frequently anarchic collective energy notwithstanding. Stately, dance like themes, Laura Jurd‘s trumpet in counterpoint with Alam Nathoo‘s tenor, jostle next to stagey marching pieces with Elliot Galvin clattering all over with prepared piano. Swirling collective improvisations give way to what could be a cross-over between a punkish pulsing groover and a folk tune with swirling accordion. A Nod at a free-boppish theme morphs into visceral swing. Pete Ibbetson’s drives it all along from behind the kit shadowing every move of William’s earthy bass sound . The album pulls off with aplomb the trick of skipping lightly across styles, being deadly serious with a mischievous glint in the eye all the while. Its a treat. Did I mention the dazzling quality of the playing?
I’ve had a bit of summer break from the blog as will be evident from the absence of posts, but there has been plenty of music, both recorded and live, to quicken the pulse and make the ears tingle, not to mention a few posts and reviews for other websites (Enrico Pieranunzi at Ronnie Scott’s, reviewed here, will likely be on the highlights of the year list). There have been a few regular gigs out here in the west that have kept going right through the summer and provided some highlights, this then is the first of a couple of posts about delights sampled and more to come in the Autumn programme. We popped into Fringe Jazz last week to catch the Jazz Defenders, an end of August treat in the reliably classy programme now firmly re-established in it’s original bijou back-room off Princess Victoria Street. The quintet are animated and led by quicksilver and rhythmically electrifying pianist George Cooper and wear their Blue Note heart on their sleeve. The suite of originals, writing credit’s spread around the formidable band but invariably with Cooper’s guiding hand, take the classic sound as a launch pad rather than a restrictive template. The themes and hooks are reliably catchy, grooves unvaryingly tight and propulsive whether swinging or with a funky edge (the combination of Will Harris on bass and Matt Brown behind the kit is dynamite) and arrangments lovingly crafted so that the front-line of Nick Malcom on trumpet and Nick Dover on tenor frequently sound like one Horace Silver’s bands in full flight. The improvising is always edgy however, Cooper’s solos veering from delicious bluesey licks to sizzling modal work outs; Malcolm suddenly taking flight, surfing a polyrythmic surge from the drums firing off angular phrases; Dover finding surprising melodic paths through familiar sequences. The Defenders are a collaboration of some of Bristol’s finest so the quality and freshness of the band should come as no surprise. A real treat nevertheless and lookout for an album due for release soon.
The Fringe has a packed Autumn programme of jaw dropping quality including ECM recordings artists, award winners by the legion but more importantly, fabulous music. Andy Sheppard is back for a regular visit with The Pushy Doctors on 14th September with Dave Newton‘s Trio, including Nat Steel on vibes in Early October. In between West Coast based former Bristol resident Jon Dalton returns. ON 19th October, Iain Ballamy is the guest followed the week after by the increasingly high profile funky alto of James Morton riding high on his well received album release The Kid. The rosta of tourist in November includes the legendary Trevor Watts on 9th November with the contrasting moods of Josh Kemp the week before and Phil Robson‘s organ trio the week after. Promoter Jon Taylor seems almost to defy gravity by putting on a programme of this quality in a tiny back room, but of course its regular paying audiences that make it possible, so we know what to do.
“That one was about airport security” said Jeff Williams as the band juddered to a halt. A spooky, stuttering swing had built to a frenzy, with Phil Robson’s guitar blurting zig-zagging runs in a wildly distorted synth voice whilst Williams lashed his drums. Airport Security; it all made sense. This quintet’s off-beat vibe reflect the oddities in everyday life that provide inspiration for the drummer leader’s compositions. There’s no shouting, just a quiet intensity that draws the listener in before wrongfooting with a swerve or surprise burst of energy. Williams is all colour and nudging, no spelling out the obvious. The caress of his sticks makes the kit an orchestra. On Hermeto, named for the Brazilian composer, a rattle of the cymbal doubles the rhythm of the melody whilst a tap on the tom ghosts the guitar’s accompanying stabs and Sam Lasserson’s propulsive bass figure gets a helping prod from a click on the snare. Wonky bossas, twisted calypsos, loose limbed swing; Williams’ writing, all sidelong glances at familiar forms gives this band plenty to work on. Josh Arcoleo’s tenor nods at absent from this year’s festival, Sonny Rollins, in fullness of tone and inventive routes through angular harmony. Finn Peters, switching between alto and flute, repeatedly pulled out fiery impassioned solos. Williams left the stage for ‘Lament’, a hold your breath, haunting hymn in memory of a gone too soon friend; he returned to Arcoleo taking the tune out with long notes and hoarse cries on tenor and whipped up a storm on the drums. Not so much a crescendo as a howl of anguish. A treasure of a group, a gem of a gig.
‘A 24 carat voice’ says the Guardian, and I can’t improve on that. The voice, crystal clear tone with a rich timbre, was the compelling key to this gig. Whatever style or genre the trio touched on (and they were varied), the sound and identity was unmistakebale. Tobin frequently sings the lyric of songs more than once, progressively stretching and reshaping it over the accompaniment; it has the effect of really focussing on the story of the song as well as upping the emotional tension. The departures into wordless scat become totally natural extensions. This was in part what gave the set a distinct personality despite including as it did diverse material from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance me to the end of Love’, through Carole King’s ‘Home Again’ via Brazilian tunes with Portugese lyrics, to classic standards like Cry Me a River and I thought About You. A second element was the awesome combination of Phil Robson on guitar and Dave Whitford on bass. The rythmic intensity and flow of their playing never diminished, even with dazzling, lyrical solos from Robson on some of the more up-tempo tunes. A masterclass in making us all feel a rythmn is there by playing ‘as if’ it is without anyone beating it out. Had drums been there, they would have added colour and sound but we didn’t miss them. What a trio. There should have been no surprise, these musicians are long standing stars of the British scene. That wasn’t enough to draw a crowd to the Vaults on this particular Sunday, who knows why – perhaps the fact it wasn’t in the usual pattern of gigs. The sparse numbers made this a slightly low key date for the band, but no less a delight for those of us there.