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.

 

 

 

Barry Green/ Stan Sulzmann, Vortex, Friday 22nd April

It was a routine Friday night at the Vortex, and the music was routinely out of the ordinary. Barry Green has had a semi-regular slot there with a variety of guests and this time he was joined by jazz national treasure Stan Sulzmann.  The tenor silenced the room with a few exploratory hoots and phrases to start the gig.  Then, with a flurry, a slide and a slither, a sinuous melodic line hinted at I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and suddenly everyone was playing. Tim Giles on drums somehow played off not quite stated rhythmic feints from the piano and Steve Watts’ loping bass line created momentum with subtle nudges and pushes.  It was magical stuff.

This may not be a regular band, but they know each other of old. Tim Giles’ debut recording at age of 14 with the Hungry Ants had Steve Watts on bass, Giles has been playing with Green since the pianist’s college days and Watts has been a bass player of choice for just about everyone since the days of Loose Tubes. The long acquaintance and pleasure in each other’s company was tangible from the off.

They continued with a nod to John Taylor playing first his tune Ambleside  and then How Deep is the Ocean, played frequently by Taylor. Ambleside’s soaring, spiralling melody evoked lyrical solos all round, before Sulzmann really took off on the standard. Long, melodic ideas just swept us along over a racing pulse from the band, extended single notes stretching over the tune’s form, the intensity suddenly relieved by cascades of notes.  Everyone responded.  After a grooving arrangement of You’ll Never Get to Heaven, Green pulled out a fiery solo on Kenny Wheeler’s Old Time. Glittering runs were punctuated by fiercely percussive episodes, the interaction with Giles on drums electrifying.

It was smiles and whoops all round as the familiar sprang surprises and a top drawer quartet had some fun.  Just an average Friday at the Vortex then.

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 shock of the familiar; Welcome back Loose Tubes, Cheltenham Festival, Saturday 3rd May

“I’m feeling a bit emotional” declared Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Festival host and programme advisor, as he took the stage to introduce the first gig of the re-formed Loose Tubes. He wasn’t the only one. With preview features galore in the jazz press and I’m sure a deluge of reviews to follow, I’m not going to add to them with an account of the gig and the music, but with a brief personal reflection on the emotional response.

Like a significant portion of the audience, I had never seen Loose Tubes live (Ashley Slater‘s wildly divergent repartee in between tunes included an invitation to previous initiates to raise their hands; it was a minority) and yet from the first chord of the huge ensemble, there was something breathtakingly familiar about the sound. It wasn’t the familiarity of a much listened to recording, more like the sound of an old friend’s voice, something that has made up the warp weft of life’s routine.  This was momentarily a puzzle until I reminded myself, with a quick scan of the stage, just who was in the band.   My personal discovery of jazz started around 1990 with a ‘hear something you like – listen to something connected’ odyssey that quickly led to all sorts of music that moved and excited me and was surprised to find under an umbrella marked jazz; Iain Ballamy‘s All Men Amen, Julian Arguelles‘ Phaedrus, bands like The Perfect Houseplants and Django Bates‘ Human Chain and Delightful Precipice.  Which of those bands didn’t have Martin France on drums? Hallf of them had Steve Watts on bass. There they all were on the stage.  Chris Batchlelor was there as well , animator of so many diverse bands, so too was Mark Lockheart. Without knowing it at the time I was delighting in the legacy of the creative maelstrom that was Loose Tubes and an approach to music making that was unapologetically eclectic, often politically committed, always passionate and frequently delivered with a huge grin and a wink.  No wonder the band sounded like an old friend, I’ve been listening to them all in different incarnations for approaching 25 years. And their individual and collective influences are readily apparent if you listen carefully to new generations of musicians all around. Once those Tubes were Loose, there was no putting them back in a box.  I can report that on the evidence of Saturday’s gig, their joy and exuberance in music making is undimmed (old and freshly penned alike) .  Long may they continue. It’s life enriching and life affirming stuff.

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.

Martin Speake ‘Change of Heart’ with Bobo Stenson, St. George’s Bristol, Februay 14th

This was the fourth (or fifth?) gig of a week long tour by the band and they’ve been much reviewed it seems. A couple were spotted by a fellow Bristol blogger here and John Fordham had a go too here – I think these may all have been the same night; scope for  bit of redactive word there. So what to add? I think Martin Speake has had a good week. At times he seemed almost overcome by the fun they were having declaring at one point “.. these are the best muscians in the world”. The sound was nevertheless, as all the reviewers have noted, in a definite ‘space’. Often meditative, very European jazz. There was a range of moods from a gently rocking half time pulse under Lennie’s Pennies to more Ornette Coleman like swing under Fifteen Years Too Long, a Speake original. So whether you loved it seems a matter of taste – for me this music is really moving and the interplay and symapthy between the players a delight. Steve Watts on bass was quietly fabulous, frequently propelling tunes with strange broken rhythmic lines often echoing the angular phrasing of the melodies. Jeff Williams always seems to embellish and imply the groove without ever actually playing it. Need I go on about Bobo? – world class and check the other reviews for plenty of words about the leader’s intricate and thoughtful playing.  I left thinking Martin Speake’s little outburst perhaps wasn’t just an excess of enthusiasm: maybe these are some of the best musicians in the world.

In praise of Bobo ….. and micro gigs

Bobo is coboboming! In the new year, Martin Speake is touring his Change of Heart Quartet. I’m excited – this has sparked off two parallel trains of thought. One is a bit of a meditation on why I love the playing of Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. The other is the experience of being part of a very small audience at a jazz gig. To deal with the second of these here’s why I thought of it. Back in 2001, I heard that Martin Speake was performing in Bristol with a Quartet he was calling his International Quartet. It consisted of Martin (!), Mick Hutton on bass, Bobo on piano and the legendary Paul Motian on drums. Wow – unmissable surely. So along I went to a little theatre attached to a school (very nice venue… but slightly weird place to find this band), saw my mate Trevor there and about 10 other people. And that was it. So this extraordinary collection of musicians played for us. What a strange gig. If I’m honest what I remember most is Paul Motion telling jokes about tomoatoes (I can’t remember the punch line though). This band then recorded for ECM (at the Rainbow studios) and the album was released as Change of Heart in 2006. Martin and Bobo are back in Bristol in February (http://www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk/event.php?pid=544, http://www.martinspeake.co.uk/),  playing this music but this time with Jeff Williams on drums and Steve Watts on bass – I’ll be there. That was not the only time I’ve seen worl class musicians playing to tiny audiences; Dave Douglas’ Magic Triangle Quartet playing to 17 people at Sweet Basil in New York; Geri Allen and Buster Williams playing to around 20 in the Village Vanguard (I just had to count) – a bit horrifying, but amazing to be there.

And so – why do I love Bobo? I’ve had my ipod on perma shuffle recently, and every so often a piece starts. There will be a ringing resonant chord, a gentle pulse from the drums, a fluttering run on the piano and a delicate melody emerges. ‘What’s that?’ I think – of course its Bobo, from a few different albums; Serenity under his own name; Leosia, or Litania with Tomas Stanko; War Orphans again under his own name. There’s often something really groovy about it, mixed with a really strong melodic sense – its often not swinging, but its deeply jazzy. I first really noticed him on a Charles Lloyd album, Canto and have rather randomly explored his other recordings from then on.  For me, he rarely fails to delight. http://www.myspace.com/bobostenson