Julian Arguelles’ Tetra, Vortex, Thursday 12th June

Tetra in full cry are something to behold.  Leader saxophonist Julian Arguelles may supply all the compositions, but the process of dismantling, reassembling and playing them with joyful zest is a group effort with, it seems,  pianist Kit Downes and drummer James Maddren not so much anticipating or responding to each other  as sharing a thought process and Sam Lasserson’s bass a constant lithe, propulsive thread in the mix.  They touched touched down at the Vortex on a tour playing material from their CD File 17-06-2016, 08 15 45released last year on Whirlwind Records alongside tunes from staging posts on Arguelles’ now lengthy career.

The gentle, elegiac From one JC to Another, singing gently stroked chords moving underneath breathy tenor phrases introduced the band and gave way to a quintessential Arguelles piece. Bulerias, consciously based on flamenco dance rhythms, had a theme in which the  saxophone’s spiralling phrases were thrillingly locked with the drums and punctuated by fragments of gutsy  riffs that dragged the ear back to jazz and blues. The leader’s solo was a characteristic surge and flow of undulating phrases, listening felt a bit like surfing on waves of adrenaline with the flowing lines sculpted into melodic phrases.  Lardy Dardy was a contrasting mood full of yearning and poetry.  Circularity, first recorded with John Taylor and Dave Holland was another, bubbling swaggering riff that dissolved into a series of  fizzing duo exchanges so that each member of the quartet had a dialogue.  It was riveting, greeted with roars of appreciation from the rapt Vortex crowd.    Phaedrus,  an even older tune, also first recorded with John Taylor, File 17-06-2016, 08 16 22was another reminder that  any material sounds freshly minted in this band’s hand no matter what its vintage. Its another urgent, flowing theme, ascending harmony building flurries of anticipation.  Arguelles unfurled layers and layers of fluid phrases, building intensity then it dissolved into spacious, exploratory phrases and chords as the piano took over.  Little, by little Downes, as he had done all evening,  assembled motifs and phrases, condensing the sound until glittering lines were flying in all directions.

Tetra seem to weave magic whenever they play and Thursday’s visit to the Vortex was no exception.


April and May – Jazz in Bath and Bristol

A quick scan of what’s on over the next couple of months has persuaded me that pointing out a few mouth-watering prospects is more realistic than any attempt at an exhaustive overview.    Before getting too far with that, you really should keep a close eye on the weekly gigs at Bristol’s Be Bop Club, Fringe Jazz and Future Inns and Bath’s St. James Wine Vaults.  All are a mixture of touring and local bands, but the standard is uniformly high.  Hard not to mention Guess the Bleating (featuring three-quarters of Get the Blessing with addition of keys-man Dan Moore and drum legend Tony Orrell) on 18th May at the Fringe and Andy Sheppard‘s Hotel Bristol on 20th April at the same venue and here’s hoping you made it the launch today at the Colston Hall  of two (count ’em) albums by Kevin Figes, a quartet and and octet recording and promoting his label Pig Records, also home to fine recordings by Jim Blomfield, Cathy Jones and more to follow it seems. That assumes you weren’t lured by The Necks playing the organ in the main hall. See what I mean?  You can’t have too much great music, but still…

Here then, are those highlights.  There’s a Nordic Jazz theme to relish. Swedish pianist  Bobo Stenson  is in Bristol at Colston Hall’s Lantern with Martin Speake‘s Change of Heart Quartet.  Stenson, not heavily recorded under his own name, but to sublime effect when he has been, with a series of trio records on ECM, has been a sideman to sax players from Jan Garbarek to Charles Lloyd and his collaboration with Speake dates from a Cheltenham Festival gig in the early 2000s as an International Quartet that included Paul Motian on drums and Mick Hutton on bass. That line- up played a gig in Bristol at the QEH theatre to an audience of under twenty people (that included me). They subsequently recorded for ECM and its music from that album they’ll be playing, with two of the the crop of exceptional young British jazz players, Conor Chaplin on bass and James Maddren on drums completing the quartet. In May, the Nordic action shifts to St. Georges with Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen on the 12th.  Accompanied by Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang and a visuals show to boot,  expect plenty of electronics, sound-scapes and a unique experience.  The following week on 19th May,  legendary bass player Arild Anderson is there for an acoustic set with Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith and Italian percussionist Paolo Vinaccia. This line-up has recorded two beautifully melodic and vibrant albums for ECM and this gig is part of a very short tour with only a few gigs in UK.

There’s more.   Tucked away at the top of London Road in Bath, Burdall’s Yard is Bath Spa’s performance space and on April 22nd hosts Sam Crockatt‘s Quartet.  If you want to hear what the some of the most in demand players on the Bristol scened sound like, let loose on a a bunch of artful structured, original jazz tunes by the saxophonist leader get yourself along to this one; Kit Downes on piano, James Maddren on drums and Oli Hayhurst on bass.  Downes and Maddren will be back in Bristol in early June at Colston Hall’s Lantern (ok, its not May but this will be a great gig) this time with Julian Arguelles‘ band Tetra.  Arguelles is,for my money, one of the most distinctive composing and fluently lyrical improvising voices in British jazz over the last twenty years. Sam Lasserson is on bass for that one

Finally, that man Ian Storrer, promoter of jazz gigs in Bristol for a lot of years, has done it again.  Friday May 13th sees New York come to the Hen and Chicken in Bedminster in the shape of the Jonathan Kriesberg Quartet.  Kriesberg is one of the hottest guitarists  on the New York scene and his pianist Dave Kikoski has an eye popping CV that includes Bob Berg and Michael Brecker.  This is one not to miss.

A selection then,  from a large box of treats over the next few weeks, that’s without mentioning the jazz festival over at Cheltenham at the end of April with a incredible line up and something for everyone.



A slice of Cheltenham: Arguelles, Scofield and M & M (and W)

Pic by jez matthews

Pic by jez matthews

Saving the best ’til last can be a bit a risky – will the reality bear the weight of expectation?  There were no worries on that score as Julian Arguelles‘ band, swelled to a septet at the behest of the Cheltenham  festival, delivered an exultant performance last Sunday to bring the curtain down on the sequence of gigs at the beautifully appointed Parabola Arts Centre. His core band of Sam Lassserson on bass, Kit Downes at the piano and James Maddren behind the kit were augmented by the bass clarinet and saxes of George CrowleyPercy Pursglove’s  trumpet and flugelhorn and the trombone of Kieran McCloud. IMG_1453There were so may moments to savour, with composer and arranger in chief Arguelles making full use of the expanded pallette. Fugue, gave us a typically thrilling one.  The central idea was a quintessential Arguelles theme – a mazy extended line that played straight could have had a classical, perhaps Iberian tinge to it, but in his hands had a gutsy swagger with the whiff of a New York cellar bar to it. By the time the layers had built up, there was a hue and cry to wake the dead.  Triality closed the hour and half set with a similar tumult. But even when the band were blazing, there was fiercely controlled intensity to everyone’s playing.  There were tender and more lyrical moments, ballads, individual flurries, including a segue from Percy Pursglove reminding us trumpeters do circular breathing too, that had the audience bug-eyed as he produced a sound from his trumpet that sound for all the world like a microphone in a hurricane.  And at the centre the sublime playing of Arguelles whose phrases flow and spiral, rising and falling in volume like a sigh and growling and grooving in an elemental way.  As Tony Dudley Evans reminded us, this is another voice first heard with Loose Tubes that has become a major  creative force.

That was a great end to a day at Cheltenham’s Jazz festival that had another very good year. Deep pockets are needed if you want to attend more than a few gigs so mine was a day trip on Sunday with the climax in the Parabola Theatre, dipping into a programme that started during the week and intensified over the week end (reviews of much it on Bristol 24/7 and London Jazz News from messrs Benjamin and Turney respectively including ‘Sax legend Saturday’ that saw appearances from Archie Shepp, Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano).   My Sunday started with the intriguing collaboration between fusion guitar legend John Scofield and young, making waves German Pablo Held Trio who showed the Montpellier Gardens audience why they have been getting excited reviews.  Grooves appeared out of swirling abstractions  Pablo Held built layers dissonant arpeggios and stabbing chords over fractured surging IMG_1450pulses from Jonas Burgwinkel on drums and Robert Landfermann on bass.  Somehow it fit seamlessly John Scofield’s guitar as he sometimes seemed to gouge short phrases and notes out with his unabashedly rocky sound, at others deliver silvery bursts of boppish runs thread through the trios accompaniment. At times they kicked into familiar bluesey riffs and they finished on a post- bop burn up on a standard whose title tantalisingly eluded me.  A dense, absorbing gig in stark contrast to Medeski, Martin and Wood who wowed the Big Top with there furious organ trio blend of rock, blues,  New Orleansy gospel. I picked up a fair bit of social media muttering from MMW aficionados about the second half of the gig with guest Jamie Cullum. It did have the air of a jam as they reached for Nature Boy and Caravan, the latter a natural victim for John Medeski’s howling synths and organ, but they gave every appearance of having a great time on stage and it was hard not to relax into it and enjoy from where I was sitting.

A thoroughly satisfying day of jazz immersion with the  festival vibe around the Montpellier Gardens hub and late night jam at Hotel du Vin irresistible. I’ll be back

Jeff Williams, Green Note, Camden, London Jazz Festival, Wednesday 20th November

“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.

Dancing about Architecture: Appreciating Arguelles at the Hen & Chicken

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” . There’s a self-evident truth about this little saying (attribution is varied but see here for a bit of digging). Music is such an immediate experience. There’s no conscious processing or translation involved in experiencing it and your own response to it can be intensely physical as a result; hairs rise on the back of the neck, tears spring to the eyes. In a busy week since Julian Arguelles brought his Quartet to the Hen & Chicken I’ve been reflecting on this. Feelings an experience has evoked stay powerfully in the memory, and writing about that isn’t quite as paradoxical as dancing about architecture. A bit of the latter might be in order too, in trying to pin down why this saxophonist and composer’s music hits with such emotional force without being sentimental or melancholy.

First there’s that sound.  The tone and phrasing is unmistakeable. A flurry of notes and a little keening swoop at the top of a phrase are enough to catch your breath and sometimes set of a few butterflies in the stomach. No-one sounds quite like it. Some of his compositions sound as if they are written around this with characteristic repeated phrases giving an urgency and anticipation to tunes.  Phaedrus, one of my favourites, captures this and launched the gig as it did the last time I saw them at the Con Cellar Bar in the London Jazz Festival last year  captured on video here.

Then there’s the content.  Julian is a writer and a prolific one. He expresses himself through the structures and harmonies he creates for musicians as well as through the immediacy of performance. The first set drew on arrangements of Spanish folk music, intriguing structures conceived for a trio and underneath it plenty of rocky, swinging gospelly pulses and progressions to raise the excitement levels. ‘Piece for D’ was raucous with honking tenor, ‘A life long Moment a sumptuous ballad’.   Time and again a shift of metre or an ascending bass line would set the adrenalin racing or prompt an emotional lurch of the stomach.

And then the band. The musicians, Kit Downes, Sam Lasserson and James Maddren are undoubtedly some of the finest on the scene at the moment and as a unit with Julian their interaction and response to the material is what created the magic. The second set, a suite of 8 or 9 tunes played without a break was a tour de force. The suite showcased the intricacies of the writing (‘fiendishly difficult’ may not have been a merely jokey description by Arguelles judging by the look on the band’s faces), but when a promised fugue finally emerged with unaccompanied piano starting it off, it turned out to have funky groove and produced some pyrothechnic soloing from pianist Downes to raise the hairs on the neck.

To describe the peerless improviser and composer leader, the phenonmenal band and the by turns rocky, swinging, flowing compositions is to name the elements that make this band special – a bit of dancing about the architecture. I’m remembering the emotions long after the gig: delight, joy , often a desire to dance and  a thread somehow acknowledging of pain and struggle. Why those? Well that’s the the paradox we started with perhaps, but it’s my response to great, creative musicians.

Whose band is it anyway? No Will Vinson, but Lochrane, Lasserson, Cawley, Maddren, Arcoleo, Gardner Bateman; Coronation Tap, Bristol, Monday 16th July

Lets not dwell on the strike in Spain that meant Will Vinson was unable to get to the Coronation Tap for this gig with a fantastic band. They made it and, as first Josh Arcoleo joined in late in the first set on tenor and then James Gardiner Bateman in the second on alto, if we thought about Will, it was him who was the object of sympathy for missing out, not us.  A gig in The Coronation Tap is an intense experience simply because of the proximity of the band (I hope I haven’t caught drummer James Maddren’s cold). Top class bands often feed off  the energy and response of an audience and that effect seemed to be amplified tonight adding to the intensity.  Lochrane, maestro on flute appeared to be directing proceedings in that he was providing the repertoire. They limbered up on a Billy Strayhorn composition UMMG, the straight ahead swing had a very contemporary feel as Maddren on drums started the evening as he meant to go on, keeping a surging pulse going whilst clattering and snapping all sorts of counter rhythms behind the theme and solos, earning the first of number of grinning sideways glances from bass player Sam Lasserson.  A longer flute (alto this time) was produced for the next tune, an attractive, grooving theme by Herbie Hancock called Tell Me a Bedtime Story, but it was when Tom Cawley took a solo in this tune that everything seemed to go up a gear. He was playing an impossibly  bijou Nord keyboard (we were sure the flutes were longer than lovely red thing), but one octave per hand seemed more than  enough to build a solo that start with funky little phrases that echoed the tune and developed into increasingly extended runs and rhythmic volleys, egged on by, and egging on Maddren on drums. Looking round the room it wasn’t just me; there were grins on a lot of faces and roars of approval when he relented. Josh Arcoleo joined to pump up the adrenaline still further on a Chick Corea’s Litha, a fiendish sounding theme that switched between a triplety feel and blazing furious swing throughout the tune. Just when we thought the varnish would peel from the ceiling and the excitement was at fever pitch, another bravura solo from Cawley took us over the edge with phrase building on phrase and a peak reached with a block chorded rythmic duel with the drums. Even the band were shaking their heads and grinning.  After that we needed a break just to start breathing again.

There was no contrived or forced virtuosity in this band. Just a bunch of London’s finest apparently having a great time mining the riches of jazz repertoire. Coltrane’s Straight Street and Clifford Brown’s Sandu were enough for the second set with the frontline now expanded to include Jame Gardiner Bateman.  Lochrane was on the shortest flute of the evening for the finale and the frontline were trading choruses just to show us that it wasn’t only players of short red keyboards that get everyone’s pulse racing.  What a great way to start the week.

Babelfish, The Front Room at Queen ELizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Friday 29th March

A mini-blog to capture my recollection of a sunny Friday at London’s Southbank; Bablefish on the engagingly named Front Room stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and a large appreciative crowd for an absorbing and top class set. The quartet revolves around the partnership of singer Brigitte Beraha and pianist Barry Green. The huge rich sound of this ensemble comes from some great writing and arranging and from the seeming unerring instinct of these consummate musicians to to do just the right thing at the right moment to create that sound. They touch all sorts of reference points with African and Latin rythmns alternating with propulsive grooves, driving swing, moody introspective episodes underpinned by rich harmony that shifts and twists in unexpected ways.  Beraha’s composition Fatty Tuna summed a lot of this up (an episodic piece with most of those elements). There was a moment when a scintillating rythmn, with a devious line on piano locking perfectly with an off kilter bass line supported the wordless spiky theme delivered by Beraha. It held the chatty post-work crowd rapt; I realised that percussionists extraordinaire Paul Clarvis was only using a tambourine, Barry was playing with one hand on the piano – everyone doing just the right thing and no more to create that huge sound. This can have been no easy pick-up gig for bass player Sam Lssserson deputising for Chris Laurence but he sounded like he did it every day. Of course there was plenty of scope of fizzing and fluent soloing from everyone, but I left with the thought ‘what a great band’ in my mind. An album coming out on Barry’s own Moletone soon will be well worth checking out and keep the eyes peeled for a tour in the Autumn.