Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Manchester Jazz Festival 2014 - The Story So Far

Friday 18th July 2014

An ace first night from the ‘BBC Introducing’ event at the Band on the Wall. I didn’t expect to take to Newcastle’s ‘Brassy B’, but in the live moment it was hard to resist their youthful energy and fun. Good strong big brassy New Orleans style grooves abound. The sousaphone player, who really caught the attention of the crowd, is only sixteen I believe.

Brassy B. (photo @johntravis)

The Moss Project can always be relied upon for an engaging experience. Guitarist/composer Moss definitely has his own contemporary writing style which is frequently captivating. Vocalist Alice Zawadzki was as sensuously soulful as ever, especially good on the scatty ‘The Bubble’. Bass player Ruth Goller was sounding particularly punchy too tonight.

Moss Project (photo by Peter Fay)

I wasn’t so taken with the Peter Edwards Trio myself, although they went down a storm with the audience.  It was technically sound and reminded me somewhat of Robert Mitchell's very full playing style. It just didn’t quite do it for me.

Johnny Hunter (photo by Peter Fay)
The highlight of the night was the Johnny Hunter Quartet. The music is largely chord-less, giving space for the saxophone and trumpet to fully utilise the harmonic space. Tons of energy and top playing came from all four musicians: Johnny on drums/compositions, Kyran Matthews on tenor saxophone, Aaron Diaz on trumpet and Seth Bennett on double bass. Johnny’s tunes are excellent and the improv was of the finest. One to check out for sure.

Saturday 19th July 2014

For the first few minutes of the opening New Orleans classic in thirteen time, I thought Pigfoot might drive me slightly nuts. It calmed after that and ended up being a really cool gig. They take classic old New Orleans and Chicago tunes such as Basin Street Blues and give them a quirky angular twist. Think trad jazz meets Alice in Wonderland. Wonderful stuff.


Chris Batchelor / trumpet
Oren Marshall / tuba
Liam Noble / piano
Paul Clarvis / drums

The Arun Ghosh Sextet was one not to be missed, whipping up a storm in the Festival Pavilion. The recent writing from the South Asian Suite is as good as anything Arun’s composed, showing a thoughtful and maturing musician and composer.  The band was really on it tonight too, creating a phenomenal buzz in the tent. I loved way that Arun wrapped up inspirations from his Asian and North of England roots in his compositions. For example, 'Mountain Song' was inspired by the Himalayas and by the hills of the Lake District. In the second half the band were joined by Jason Singh who added some incredible vocalised scratching and textural effects, not to mention the odd ambulance.... (check out Longsight Lagoon). Mind blowing and ecstatic music. A magical night.

Arun Ghosh Sextet (photo by Benji Reid)
Arun Ghosh / clarinet
Chris Williams / alto saxophone
John Ellis / piano
Liran Donin / double bass
Dave Walsh / drums
Nilesh Gulhane / tabla
Jason Singh / Vocal effects

Sunday 20th July 2014

John Etheridge
I'm a big fan of John Etheridge’s guitar playing and I’ve been lucky enough to study with him on a jazz workshop. However, this was my first chance to catch him playing with the Soft Machine Legacy, accompanied tonight by the legendary Keith Tippett. King Crimsonesque mighty muscular grooves and 1960s avant garde classical are just a couple of the many bases that these players can masterfully cover. They manage to combine quite unusual sequences and time signatures in a really accessible and energetic way. The liberal use of echoes and textural effects added to a very enjoyable gig, and made me a happy man on Sunday night.

John Etheridge / guitar
Keith Tippett / piano
Theo Travis / tenor saxophone
Roy Babbington / bass
John Marshall / drums

The Manchester Jazz Festival continues through to the 27th July. More info on the above and stuff still to come at http://www.manchesterjazzfestival.com

Back From The Dead(ish)

Anyone who’s caught this blog in the past may have noticed that things have been exceedingly quiet around here for a while now, such that this blog is really just covering the Manchester Jazz Festival. There's no other good reason than that of the pressure of the day job in these challenging times. I had figured I wouldn’t review anything this year, but I’ve decided to at least note a few thoughts as the festival has been so damn good so far. If interested, read on above …..

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Impossible Gentlemen, Royal Northern College of Music

RNCM, Manchester. 15th October 2013

It was another historic night on 15th October 2013 at the Royal Northern College of Music; the best Impossible Gentlemen concert so far and a night to match the intensity of guitarist Mike Walker’s Ropes suite from 2008. Being home to Salford born Walker and closely associated with pianist and ex-Chets student Gwilym Simcock, Manchester always has the potential to be memorable, both players being well known and well loved locally. On this night there really seemed to be a sense that something special was about to occur.

Drummer Adam Nussbaum began the proceedings with a sharp snare drum crack into an exciting and powerful take on the Birdland like figures of new track ‘Modern Day Heroes’.  Walker started as he meant to go on with an attention-grabbing overdriven solo that set the scene for much to follow. Another new track, ‘Just To See You’, opened with a delicate and introspective octavided guitar introduction backed by a psychedelic Hammond organ drone part from Simcock. The opening segued into a graceful statement of the tune leading to some beautiful latin playing from Simcock. The energy was then upped for ‘You Won’t be Around to See It’, making way for an incredible frenzied octave guitar solo that moved grinning bass player Steve Rodby to give Walker the international ‘we're not worthy’ sign.  The old favourite, ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ followed, on this particular evening taking on the strange twist of a slightly deranged fairground style ending.

Some gorgeous fast flowing drumming from Nussbaum on a sweet and homely ‘Clockmaker’ set our ears up nicely for a lovely and quite mystical extended solo introduction to ‘The Sliver of Other Lovers’ from Simcock. The track’s complex decentering rhythm created an unusual counter to its richly romantic melody and harmony. Walker’s chest-punching abrasive stutter start to the gritty funk groove of ‘Heute Loiter’ shifted the gear upwards once again, with Simcock’s dirty swirling Hammond soloing meeting Walker’s biting guitar grunt at the pass. Walker really went for high register angst bent notes on a solo of fearsome intensity. We were eased down gently, if somewhat disturbingly, by some detuned guitar and atonal piano. Curiously brilliant stuff.

Simcock risked going up in flames by setting a blistering tempo for a jaw-dropping ‘Barber Blues’, gaining playfully knowing smiles from Nussbaum and Rodby. Nussbaum met the challenge with bring-it-on gusto, Rodby also stepping up to the mark and delivering a phenomenally articulate and high paced solo. Walker matched this with a crisp, clear and forceful reply, leaving Simcock to play out the tune at a break-neck speed, bringing to an end a brilliant concert and a magical evening. All of this came with the extra treat of some fantastically funny inter-song banter from Walker (with a little help from Nussbaum) that wouldn't have disgraced a respectable comedy club. Impossibly brilliant and magical even.

The band’s new album and details of the tour are available from The Impossible Gentlemen website at http://www.impossiblegentlemen.com/

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Felonious Monks - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

The Felonious Monks, St. Ann's Church. Saturday 3rd July 2013

Six o’clock in St Ann’s Church was time for some stepping around in time as part of this year’s world premiere Manchester Jazz Festival commission. Our time travel guides were 'The Felonious Monks’ led by Mike Hall on tenor sax plus various other horns, and Debbie Rogers on alto sax, vocals plus various other horns.  The Felonious Monks explored the fusion of early Renaissance music with contemporary jazz, using a mixture of modern and replica C16th instruments. Compositional devices of the period were employed to structure the compositions, introducing vintage timbres to the existing jazz palette. This concept could easily not have worked, but Hall and Rogers pulled it off with aplomb, clearly having given a great deal of thought to the involved arrangements, as well as putting a lot of time into rehearsal. Many musician’s comfort zones were stretched to include playing crumhorns, shawms, cornamuses, cornetts, sackbuts, and gemshorns to name a few.

The first 16th century sounds we heard came trumpeting out from the church balcony, these players then joining the main band at the front of the stage. Second track ‘Ballo Francese’ bluntly juxtaposed short sections of early music interspersed with short sections of full on bebop. It shouldn’t have worked, but did so gloriously. ‘Robyn’s Lament’ started with some vulnerable period singing from Rogers, Simon Lodge (otherwise on trombone) and double bass player Steve Berry, the latter reaching impressive falsetto heights. I’ve never heard this style of period singing in person before and really enjoyed it. Probably my favourite was the blues based ‘Of The Night’. The track shifted into a classic Coltrane style vamp, the modal chords fitting the sounds of the period instruments really well. This perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising given the crossover of the modal approach between these distant musical relatives. George King on piano vamped out some tasty McCoy Tyner style voicings, Steve Waterman then giving one of a number of blistering solos, this one on the flugel horn.

Berry delivered a touching solo double bass intro to the melancholic horns and vocals of ‘Three Part Intention’. The set closer, ‘Time Trip’ sounded very 1960s US detective movie to me, taking the tones of the evening in yet another unexpected direction.  Players of horns old and new: Helena Summerfield, Jim Fieldhouse, Carl Raven, Russell Gilmour, along with Paul Hartley on guitar and Eryl Roberts on drums, all added to the delivery of these quite tricky but wonderfully unusual arrangements. The evening was a true privilege to experience.

Cloudmakers Trio & Paradox Ensemble - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Cloudmakers Trio, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 3rd July 2013

First up on Saturday were the ‘Cloudmakers Trio’ featuring Jim Hart on vibes, Michael Janisch on double bass and Dave Smith on drums.  I wasn’t feeling at my most jazz-ready, but the Cloudmakers did a great job of bringing me round with a set that gathered more and more intensity as it went along. Things really started to hot up with ‘Conversation Killer’, a fast swing track of quite complex rhythmic trickery and dense harmony. It’s the sort of thing that could wear you down, but Smith’s intense drumming kept the excitement levels high, Janisch delivering an awesome solo towards the end.

‘Post Stone’ was a searching piece with abstract drums and a questioning free section, all enhanced by ghostly bowed vibes from Hart, giving the track a disturbing surreality. ‘Angular Momentum’s suitably circular overlapping motifs provided a platform for some great interactive improvising, subtle melodic and rhythmic motifs being traded between the band. A high bar was set early in the day.

Paradox Ensemble, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 3rd July 2013

I was immediately attracted to the spacey swing sounds of the Paradox Ensemble headed up by Nick Walters on trumpet and electronics. Big dense lush harmonies were mashed together with disjoint grooves and lots of intertwining lines, expertly played by the alto, tenor, trombone and sousaphone of Tom Harrison, Ed Cawthorne, Tim Cox and Ben Kelly respectively. Some really juicy flowing drumming from Yussef Dayes bedded the sound down sweetly along with the warm bass of Paul Michael. Ben Cottrell on keys and Anton Hunter on guitar added to the pot with some fine Fender Rhodes grooves and guitar echo atmospherics coming in at astutely chosen moments.  Swing became groove became swing groove, all amounting to a joyful noise unto the teepee. Positive vibes for sure.

The Moss Project: What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

The Moss Project, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Tuesday 30th July 2013

Having already checked out the Moss Project's excellent new album, I was really looking forward to this one. Moss also reminded me that I wrote his first ever gig review here on the Ring Modulator back in 2007, but somehow it’s taken me this long to catch another one of his gigs. Things have changed in lots of ways since then it appears.

Freed cooked up some groovy-wah guitar in the set opener, uplifted by the soaring long note vocal lines from the ever-amazing Alice Zawadzki. We were then introduced to author Lawrence Norfolk who read one of a number of writings inspired by the Moss Project music. ‘Anniversary’ opened with some spiky tremolo guitar and sparse violin over the beaten rumbles of Marek Dorcik’s drums. This was soon followed by the repeating Reich’ish figure of ‘What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes’. Zawadzki treated us to some even more soaring violin doubled vocal lines pitched over the bands disjoint groove. ‘Freud and Jung Ride The Tunnel of Love’ proffered some enticing abstract echo reverb guitar and dark violin tones. Once it got going it, perhaps oddly, reminded me of Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ before fully transforming into a rough and dangerous tempest.

The band finished with the precise and pushy angular phrases of ‘The Bubble’, Zawadzki and Freed lining up the lines admirably. The song’s strong chorus style hook whipped up some serious momentum, launching Freed into a bitingly angsty solo, followed apace with a Metheny-esque high register bass solo from Kevin Glasgow. This was a fine and refreshingly original set. The project’s writing is great and the band delivered with energy and passion.

You can listen to the new Moss Project album in full at the Babel Label Bandcamp page.

Locus & Moonlight Saving Time - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Locus & Moonlight Saving Time, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Monday 29th July 2013

Monday began late in the afternoon for me with the sweet but mournful tones of Kim Macari’s trumpet at the beginning of the first track from ‘Locus’. There were some great intricate compositions here, most of which were written by Leah Gough-Cooper on alto sax. It was modern / contemporary stuff, and nicely done.  Sometimes the involved harmonies perhaps got a bit lost in the teepee, but on the whole this came across as a strong set.

In the evening I caught the latin grooves of Bristol’s ‘Moonlight Saving Time’. The festival program had indicated Cinematic Orchestra and Massive Attack influences, but for me it seemed to come much more from early Return to Forever Chick Corea, especially with Emily Wright’s vocal style having a strong nod to the great Flora Purim. Easy and quite gentle, but also always seductive.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Music for Life Big Band & Benoit Martiny Band - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Music for Life Big Band featuring Mike Walker, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Sunday 28th July 2013

The expansive sounds of the Music for Life Big Band opened proceedings on Sunday, ably directed by Jo McCallum and Alastair McWilliam. Twelve contemporary composers including Mike Gibbs, Stan Sulzmann, Gwilym Simcock and Dennis Rollins were drafted in to write for this 25-piece ensemble of young musicians from Cheshire. As if this wasn’t enough, local guitar hero Mike Walker was enlisted for the live gigs. This one turned out to be a real kicker of a gig, going down a storm with the full teepee audience. Rightly so I say, as it was a fantastic set with great compositions and arrangements played really well by the Big Band, with excellent improvising added for good measure. The deep groove set opener written by ex-local sax player Andy Schofield gave Walker one of many opportunities to show that he knows how to dig in and rock out, much to the vocal appreciation of the teepee crowd.

Part of the aim of this project was to give lesser-experienced composer-arrangers an opportunity to try out their pieces with a big band. One such track was the tuneful latin piece, ‘Binson’s Lilt’ written by sax player Sam Rapley. Some fine close harmony opening chords set the scene for a gripping solo from ace guitarist Charles McDonald. Dennis Rollins’ ‘Full Fat Funk’ was duly deep and fulsome giving McDonald a chance to raise the stakes further with a ballsy overdriven solo.

A thoughtful take on Richard Iles’ ‘Sunday Soul’ supplied some mood variation. As with the Rollins track, the track echoed its title perfectly, inspiring some gorgeous soulful playing from Brad Everett on alto sax. The James Brown style ‘No Matter What’ from Mike Gibbs was the perfect funky set closer, some strident trombone playing sending us off with big smiles on our faces. Top stuff. I hope Jo McCallum gets a chance to put this outfit together again.

Benoit Martiny Band, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Sunday 28th July 2013
Having already checked out the Benoit Martiny Band in advance as part of mine and Jane’s jazz festival preview radio show, I was intrigued to see how they would go down, reason being that they’re ‘full-on’ to say the least. I’m happy to report they went down phenomenally well. It was in your face stuff for sure, but at the same time it was so strong, powerful, well rehearsed and well written that it grabbed the audience right from the off. It was hard not to be taken with the sheer energy and enthusiasm of it all.

The set started with some mystical almost tribal drumming from Martiny on drums, soon making way for generous amounts of fuzz bass from Sandor Kem and big power chords from guitarist Frank Jonas. The first few tracks reminded me of early era King Crimson and Soft Machine with a little Black Sabbath thrown in for good measure. ‘Carousel’ from their new album was more of a groover, topped off with a really strong duo sax hookline played crisply by Joao Driessen on tenor and Jasper Van Damme on alto. Both horns players were real ear-grabbing improvisers too, assisted by the rock solid grounding of the fantastically tight combination of Martiny and Kem. The sense of expert dynamic variation and control was handled especially well on this track.

The fast swing of ‘Don’t Leave a Message’ showed the band weren’t only about heavy jazz rock, Kem switching from electric to acoustic double bass to woodify the sound. ‘My Favourite Painkiller’ came complete with some fab echo scratchy guitar atmospherics and a free jazz section leading to a punctuated deep blues riff. Van Damme made good use of the latter to burn us up with some fiery alto playing. Manchester's Town Hall bells sounded over the decaying chords of final track ‘Funeral’ to complete this brilliant set perfectly.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Yazz Ahmed Quartet & Trish Clowes Tangent - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Yazz Ahmed Quartet, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 27th July 2013

My Manchester Jazz Festival 2013 kicked off with the multifarious sounds and rhythms of the Yazz Ahmed Quartet on an appropriately hot and humid afternoon in the festival teepee.  The quartet comprised Ahmed on  trumpet and flugelhorn, the excellent Lewis Wright on vibes, Asaf Sirkis on drums and Dave Mannington on electric bass. 

 It’s a funny thing about the vibes. I love them for the gorgeous atmospherics you can get, especially when the overall sound is reasonably sparse. However, I’m never too sure how well they work for improv when there’s a fuller sound and more going on. I find that the richness of the harmonics and the relative lack of attack leads to an all too indistinct sound. Nevertheless, Wright sounded great when he cut through and is undoubtedly an impressive player. Not having seen Ahmed before, it did seem like her playing was a little tentative on the whole, although her flugel sound did open up sweetly later in the set, perhaps inevitably then reminding me of the great Kenny Wheeler. Sirkis drove things along handsomely in his characteristic fluid way. All good.

Trish Clowes Tangent, 
Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 27th July 2013
A song title reference to the great surreal novel ‘Master and Margueriata’ is no bad way to capture my attention, and the fast groove from James Maddren on drums, the open voiced sparse chord fragments from Chris Montague on guitar and the aggro-burst improv shots from Trish Clowes on tenor sax didn’t disappoint. Despite the sweltering afternoon heat, the band had real fire in their bellies, this translating through to a bitingly forceful and edgy set. I especially liked ‘On-Off’, Montague looping a choppy clipped phrase, then over-coating with tasty fade-in guitar textures.  Clowes’ raw howls and squeaks enhanced the ominousness perfectly. 

There were softer moments, such as the lyrical ‘For Pete’ inspired by tutor Pete Churchill, Clowes steering the medium swing changes with a strong tone full of the right sort of panache.  The impassive manner of Calum Gourlay on double bass signaled a grounded and true path to keep the players safe in the sometimes dangerous harmonic waters.  Yes indeed it was good. I’ll be looking forward to catching Tangent again for sure.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Sound of Silence

Alice Zawadzki + Silence Blossoms, Freedom Principle at the Sand Bar, Manchester. Tuesday 20th November 2012

A milk frother is not generally known for its rhythmic properties. Nor have walkie-talkies established themselves as a means to simultaneously bow and amplify a double bass as far as I'm aware. Nevertheless, these were just two of the many innovative approaches to sound generation brought forth by Sweden and Macclesfield's 'Silence Blossoms'. Comprising Gus Loxbo on double bass, guitar, voice, frother and walkie-talkies; Hanna Olivegren on voice and synthesiser, and a repatriated (at least for now) Sam Andreae on tenor sax, voice and electronics, this curious trio take poetry as the basis of most of their pieces. The words are under-layered with various blends of folksy harmony, lo-fi white noise, environment textures and a little free jazz abstraction.

Silence Blossoms (photo by Angela Guyton)
There's a danger of novelty leading to boredom with this kind of approach, but Silence Blossoms steered well clear of this territory, delivering a more or less perfect blend of sweet harmony and art noise. The stuttering echoes and earthy folk tones of first track 'Lady White' led into 'Not Waving But Drowning', probably the most conventional piece of the set. There was some lovely soulful playing from Andreae on sax here, accompanied by Loxbo's warm rounded double bass and Olivegren's deep sparse vocal. Some wonderfully vulnerable vocal harmonies from Olivegren and Andreae on final track 'King of Everything' rounded things off perfectly. This really worked.

Silence Blossoms rehearsing (photo by Angela Guyton)

Now based in London but no stranger to Manchester's music scene, Alice Zawadzki once again delivered an engaging set in the city last night, this time in trio formation with Stuart McCallum on guitar and Rosie Toll on Cello. Zawadzki rarely fails to impress, not only with her extensive range of vocal styles and strong technique, but also the way she manages to convey an authenticity and intimacy through the styles that make her performances consistently captivating. Whether it's a sephardic song, a portuguese tune, a rootsy blues number or some folk whimsy, she puts everything over convincingly and with real passion.

Alice Zawadzki with Stuart McCallum and Rosie Toll
A highlight was the self-penned 'Ring of Fire'. The track begins with a really strong tune sung by Zawadzki that opens out to an instrumental section allowing McCallum's modulated echo reverbs plenty of sonic space to breath, all backed by Toll's strong and unfussy cello parts. It's not all that often I can hear the harmonic subtleties of McCallum's expansive layering, so many thanks to Zawadzki's relatively sparse line-up choice, the sound man and an attentive Sand Bar.  Another very memorable gig. Hat's off to Freedom-Principle @ Sandbar.

Zawadzki is playing again at the Manchester Jazz Festival Re-Live MJF 2012 this Friday at Matt and Phreds. Take your opportunites when you can.