It can get a bit cosy in the cheap(er) seats at Ronnie’s and conversations start. “I was there that night”, the guy next to me said, “when Miles came in and heard him”. The story of how Dave Holland got the Miles gig never wears thin (after hearing the young Dave in a band opening for Bill Evans at the club, a call subsequently came from New York and Holland was on a flight to New York within a couple of weeks). The raconteur next to me remembered the bass player’s new suit on that night, although I fancy it was his playing that got him the gig. 45 years later and the man himself looked supremely relaxed as the band settled in to their places on stage and tuned up; a rap and and tap on the snare from Eric Harland, a silent tightening of a string from guitarist Eubanks, a pinged harmonic from Holland and a ripple of fourths from Craig Taborn on piano and Rhodes simultaneously. And then, what was tuning, by some alchemy had become a hypnotic vamp. They may have crept in with a whisper, but the opener A New Day became a roar as they each took turns in rocking out on the simple, cycling chord sequence. It was electrifying. At different stages of the evening a different member of this extraordinary group seemed to be stealing the show. Eric Harland, upright and still, laughing as if in delight at what his limbs appear to be doing -‘hey, check that out’ as an irresistible hail of rhythms layers over a monstrous groove; Craig Taborn locked in rhythmic combat with Harland in a scarcely believable percussive two handed workout that etched out a spiraling, sinuous harmonic progression at the same time, this on his own The true meaning of determination with a theme that sounded liked he was playing two complex wonky latin tunes at a breakneck tempo, a different one in each hand; Kevin Eubanks on Holland’s elegaic and gentle bluesily rocking The Empty Chair, a blazing guitar solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix but getting quieter and quieter the more furious and intense he got – a hold the breath moment. Is that why they played Eric Harland’s gorgeous ballad Breathe next? Dave Holland, was the still point at the centre, with that enormous sound and transparent delight in what was happening around him. A fabulous evening. If Miles had popped back for the evening, he’d have hired that bass player all over again for sure.
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.
‘Hip, Hip’ muttered Cassandra. ‘Hooray’ echoed half the rapt audience packing Ronnie’s early on a scorching Wednesday evening. John Davies launched a shuffling, funky groove on the drums hinting at a New Orleans second line feel and ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ felt like an explosion of energy to close the set. The gentle teasing about stiff upper lips and occasional ‘Hip Hip’ had been laced through a set drawing on material from now 20 years of material radically re-imagining everything from pop and rock to blues and jazz standards, so that from the first taut arpeggio from Brandon Ross’ guitar and languorous sigh from those vocal chords, there’s no mistaking whose sound and approach it is. We were treated to ‘Children of the Night’ with a lilting African pulse, ‘No More Blues’ (not the Jobim one – Blues), a heart stopping ‘Wichita Line Man’. The inevitable encore after a rapturous reception for that trip to Clarksville was ‘Time after Time’ with a typically angular entry and the thrill of recognition as the familiar hook emerged briefly and morphed in the stretched vocal lines.
In the live performance, the pivotal role that Brandon Ross plays in this ensemble leaps out at me. He sits towards the rear of the stage, almost motionless as the rhythms and harmonies stream from the guitar, radiating a quiet delight occasionally exchanging grins with Lonnie Plaxico on bass as a locked groove or shift in gears gives them particular pleasure. It seems to set everyone free to decorate and embellish, Jon Cowherd on piano and Gregoire Maret on harmonica frequently spinning out lyrical solos, but more than anyone Cassandra Wilson. She has the extraordinary capacity to sing a lyric as if she’s allowing us an insight into her most private thoughts. The ever insightful John Fordham in the Guardian observes that sometimes this can leave a performance a bit flat. Its a delicate line to tread between introspection and compelling engagement and on this evening it was surely the latter. As I left the club, stumbling into a still light and buzzing Soho, a women next to me was shaking her head, marvelling and saying to her partner ‘She’s a life force. She totally inhabits the music’ Just so! And maybe we’d been made to feel a bit special sharing the moment.
Will she bring the carpet? A few years ago, I finally saw Cassandra Wilson live having been by turns enchanted, bewitched, thrilled by her music for well over a decade. Never mind the fan-dom, I was still unprepared for the sensuality, electricity and charge of the live performance. On to stage she came, accompanied by a signature minimal, burning groove from the band, kicked off her shoes and stepped onto the carpet in the middle of the stage. The next year at Cheltenham Festival in the Town Hall, the carpet was there again and so was the same energy on stage, although on that occasion she gave the impression that she thought the audience might have been a bit polite.
Staying polite will be tricky in the intimate surroundings of Ronnie Scott’s, whether the carpet is there or not. What a treat this promises to be. For my money, Cassandra Wilson remains one of the most distinctive voices in jazz today, and first it is the voice that grabs the ear. A rich, husky tone, often delivering lines in a languid, stretched shape, but never free from tension. Its unmistake-able. My introduction to her music was an album perhaps least characteristic of her output; Blue Skies, released in 1988, an album of standards with the sadly recently departed Mulgrew Miller on piano and regular collaborators Terry Lynne Carrington and Lonnie Plaxico, the latter will be in the Ronnie’s band. I’d never heard anything like it. The re-imagining of familiar melodies, stretching and re-making lines so that they remained familiar but took on strange new forms.. and that voice, the timbre and tone so distinctive. I was hooked. Now I can hear some of the echoes of Betty Carter in her approach and from 1993’s ‘Blue Light til Dawn onwards she has applied those sensibilities to a rich blend of country, blues, jazz, rock inflected and pop material as well as jazz standards always with an exquisite instinct for space and lack of clutter in the sound.
The band coming to ronnie’s next week has long time collaborator, co-writer and arranger Brandon Ross on guitar so expect plenty of that now characterisic artful, minmimal arrangements, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Gregoire Maret on harmonica another regular collaborator and John Davies on drums. More unusally she brings a pianist Jon Cowherd co-founder of the Brian Blade fellowship although 2010 album ‘Silver Pony’ featured young pianist Jonathan Batiste. Anticipation is eager here, I fear this something of a ‘fan blog’ – is that a flog? – but the opportunity to see this great artist in the cosiness of this club is a coup for the club and a treat for us.
There was unquestionably a buzz as I hurried across the footbridge towards the South Bank Centre last night. Whether it was regular London bustle, my own sense of anticipation or the fizz of a crowds gathering for more of the London Jazz Festivals riches I can’t decide. I like to think it was the latter two. John Fordham described the programme as an embarassment of riches as he reviewed Brad Mehldau’s gig earlier in the week, musingly comparing him to other pianists in the programme (Herbie, Matthew Shipp, Tigran and he could pop into Chick Corea on Saturday for another reference point). Riches are not in doubt. My first evening was focussed around seeing Esperanza Spalding (of which more in a separate blog), we managed to drop into the freestage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for half an hour of Sam Leak’s Aquarium. I was impressed when I saw them in Bristol a while back and the fluent singing melodies were there on some new material they were playing, a tantalising aperitif. After the big gig, I decided to check out the Late Late Show at Ronnie Scotts. There was a house band playing the first set with the expectation of musicians joining for a jam later. It will definitely be a late one – musicians were gathering as the night wore on. I didn’t survive the first set to see how it developed however (I left when the band started playing House of the Rising Sun). There’s plenty of weekend to go and some sleep seemed in order. A reviving blast of caffeine in the Foyle’s Cafe is fuelling this reflection, the delicious afterglow of Espernza Spalding and maybe just a short visit to Ray’s Jazz upstairs to see what they’ve got.
The last night of the Marsalis Quintet’s run in front of the fabled red benches and packed in tables; what a prospect! And I have to confess to a certain quiet satisfaction at getting on the website speedily in May. As we were shown to our allotted spots, the meaning of ‘sold out’ was clear – it translates roughly as ‘sardines’. The ‘All Stars’ turned out to be a sublime trio with Tom Cawley at the piano, Jeremy Brown on bass and the irrepressible Pedro Segundo on drums. As they slid into a beautifully loose but swinging statement of ‘Like Someone in Love’ a hush fell. Pedro Segundo just nudged the groove on with tender, barely audible brush strokes of his cymbal and Tom Cawley’s choice, moving harmonies were like murmers underneath the melody. The attentiveness of the audience seemed to surprise even the band but it was clear people had come to listen (and yelp, cheer and applaud). The restrained, utterly poised, quiet, fiercely swinging set of standards was gripping and the first muted notes from Wynton Marsalis seemed to continue the mood into the Quintet’s set. They stretched their chops on All the things You Are with Marsalis nodding and grunting approval as the band set their stall out. And what a band. Opinions on what is jazz, what’s hip and what’s not can be safely left at the door (although you may have to let a few Marsalian asides slip by), this band entertain, thrill and move by turns through the medium of the jazz canon and fine writing by Marsalis. All the pyrotecnics were on display from the leader; impossibly fast fluent runs, stomach lurching range and inetrval leaps, squawking vocalised notes through a muted trumpet. The thoughtful almost minimally embellished soloing of Walter Greening on tenor and Jonathan Baptiste were a striking contrast. As on previous evenings a guest was invited up – this evening an extraordinary dancer who shivered responded and twirled to the blues the band unfurled in her honour – a fabulous moment. The rythmn section I thought were awesome. The fluent, propulsive energy of Carlos Henriquez’ bass playing was something to behold. Joining the dancer may not have been acceptable (although for one hilarious moment it seemed like a portly grey haired chap from the front row was about to – he just presented a flower to the dancer); the grooving funky shuffle of Big Hen with which they closed certainly made us want to dance. There is no substitute for a band of this class reminding us at close quarters of the sheer infectious energy of swinging jazz – Marsalis is the master of this.
Back in the early 80s there was quite a rivalry between Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson as I remember. At the time, Elvis might have claimed victory but it was with a Joe Jackson song, Stepping Out that Kurt Elling opened his first night at Ronnie’s: A victory of sorts? The club seemed the perfect setting for this band. A little theatre in a semi-circle round the stage. The rythmn section of Laurence Hobgood, Kurt’s regular accompanist, Harish Raghaven, bass and young (ish) Troy Miller on drums – 30 odd is still young right? – set up a swing vamp over a bass pedal note, Kurt steps out of the door at the back of the stage and they are stepping out. It all seemed so right and comfortable. And I felt wrapped up and embraced by the chat, the extraordinary vocal performance so apparently effortless but be-dazzling in range and agility, the burning soloing from Laurence Hobgood and the more tortured, wrung out but still bluesy, melodic lines from guest guitarist John Mclean. I found John McLean’s striking resemblance to the one of the Baldwin’s a little disconcerting (you know – movie star brothers).
Elling’s voice is a beautifully balanced part of the sound of this band. The lyrics really matter, and sometimes you get his lyrics set to what sounds like an instrumental solo line, but he can improvise like a sax when scatting or become the other half of a percussion duet with Troy Miller on drums as warm up to a funkier guitar led number. Its brilliant and his huge reputation and multiple Grammy nominations are richly deserved.
The balance of the material on this evening was towards the jazzily intrepreted pop canon, Norwegian Wood making an appearance in a heavily arranged form with poetry declaimed in the middle. But there were exquisite readings of You are Too Beautiful and Moonlight Serenade and the evening finished with Nature Boy and more wild scatting. This was music from right inside the modern jazz sensibility that at no point seemed confined by it The band’s erudition and virtuosity seemed lightly worn; perhaps there is another gear there, even for this band, amazingly this was Troy Miller’s first gig with the band. Living up to expectations is a tough call but I skipped out with grin on my face to a buzzing Soho evening hoping that was the first of many evenings with Kurt for me.