Friday, November 28, 2008

Sibongile Khumalo & Jack DeJohnette’s ‘Intercontinental’ - London Jazz Festival day 8

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 21st September 2008

The surfacing of stellar talent Sibongile Khumalo by drumming legend Jack DeJohnette is something to be grateful for. Tonight’s concert provided an opportunity to air their ‘Intercontinental’ project, the result of a collaboration founded during a residency at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, an unlikely setting for the development of some unlikely music.

It’s easy to have preconceptions about South African jazz. Surprising it may be then, that ‘Priestess Mist’, the opening piece of a truly incredible concert, would be perfectly at home on a classic 1970s Krautrock album by the likes of Neu!, or the very early Kraftwerk. Jack DeJohnette opened the evening by taking a handheld microphone close to his cymbals, then lightly tapping them to amplify the complex harmonics and create a ghostly texture. Sax player Jason Yarde then added some Steve Reich-like ambient loops triggered from his soprano and Byron Wallen’s trumpet.

The second track launched with a skull slicing art noise terror attack, envelope filter and ring modulator effects liberally applied by Yarde. The track initially had a distinct avant-garde classical feel, which then mutated into a latin groove, Khumalo’s vocals clearly echoing Flora Purim from the first ‘Return to Forever’ album. The sound space then hollowed out, leaving Khumalo scat vocal drumming along with DeJohnette’s high tempo triplet-within-triplet side stick improvising.

Khumalo composition, ‘Little Girl’, began with a neatly executed descending chord sequence over a classic swing feel. Initiated by some unpredictably placed heavyweight accents from DeJohnette, the track evolved with the aid of a Coltrane inspired scalar blitzkreig from Yarde. Pianist Billy Childs’ ‘Hope in the Face of Despair’ was a good vehicle for his outstanding technique, the tune's rich harmony nodding to the sound of the great musicals. Every piece tonight consisted of several parts, this one shifting through some contemplative phases leading into DeJohnette’s centrepiece solo. His magnetic centrifugal pulse underpinned some subtle improvising on the base elements of snare, hi-hat and kick drum. It was a lesson in how to do things your own way.

An incredible solo from Khumalo, combining jazz, classical and operatic elements to phenomenal effect ended the last track, and brought the Queen Elizabeth Hall to its feet for a standing ovation. We were left quite in awe.

Review reproduced courtesy of the London Jazz Festival and Jazzwise Magazine.

Ben Allison’s ‘Man Size Safe’ Quintet - London Jazz Festival day 7

Pizza Express Soho, 20th November 2008

An intriguing band name for starters. “Apparently Dick Cheney has a man size safe in his office, something I find both comical and scary” bandleader and double bass player Ben Allison informed us. 'Man Size Safe' is Allison’s folk americana outlet, with tonight’s set featuring most of the tracks from their new album, ‘Little Things Run The World’. Totally engaging the tunes are too, capturing the audience's attention within seconds of the first track’s slouchy groove shuffling itself into the air space. It was heartening to see guitarist Steve Cárdenas embracing unextended open string chords, all too often dismissed as ‘cowboy chords’ by some jazz guitar players. The harmonic progressions were deceptively sophisticated, leading us down well trodden folk and country music paths before yanking us sideways, and prodding us with angular stabs.

Sax player Michael Blake excelled on the twitchy ‘Respiration’, his nervous squeals instilling a real sense of fear and foreboding. We were taken down gently by the sparse blues beauty of ‘The Language of Love’, this time trumpet player Ron Horton taking his chance to snarl his spurned love story at us with some fine edgy playing.

‘Roll Credits’ reaffirmed the influence of modern americana songwriting on the group sound. Paul Cárdenas’ guitar once again surprised us with a cross between a slurry John Scofield and the clipped rock n’ roll of Scotty Moore. It’s great to hear music clearly operating within the jazz/improvisational space, but without feeling the need to be reverential of the classic American songbook and swing/bebop.

The band closed with a track taking the group’s name, ‘Man Size Safe’. The tune switched between a neat metrically placed melody line, and some majestic free funk. The lithe grooves shimmying out from the limbs of drummer Michael Sarin were reminiscent of the Cinematic Orchestra’s Luke Flowers at his best. A tasty and most satisfying accompaniment to a spicy Pizza Americana.

Review reproduced courtesy of the London Jazz Festival and Jazzwise Magazine.

Manu Katché Band - London Jazz Festival day 4

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Monday 17th November

The Manu Katché Band deliver their own brand of pristine grooves with such consummate ease one cannot help be seduced, and give in to the warm vibe. From the moment the opening track 'November 99' hit cruising speed, the battle for hearts and minds was already won.

The set consisted of tracks from the 'Neighborhood' and 'Playground' albums, the simple arrangements of which are a masterclass in understated and economical tune writing. The tracks were lovingly played, each note shaped, caressed and gently passed over to us. Norwegian players Mathias Eick on trumpet and Trygve Seim on saxophone executed the graceful horn lines with crystal clear precision and just the right amount of intensity. Jason Rebello was a revelation on piano. Making almost continuous eye contact with Katché, he steered the music's harmonic backbone expertly with crafted quotients of soul, mystery and muscle, all metered out in perfect proportions. The energy levels notched up a gear during a surging grooved interlude where Rebello took the opportunity to do his funky blues thing. Double bass player Jerome Regard nailed down the bottom end with minimum fuss and maximum impact.

A minor slip for me was the centrepiece drum solo. There's no disputing Katché's fabulous feel, but the solo improvising was a little unimaginative, and just a tad too rocky. On the plus side, the solo followed through into a great version of 'So Groovy', complete with bang-in-the-pocket trumpet and piano solos. Rebello went from strength to strength and was really flying towards the end of the set. A sustained standing ovation was rewarded with a restful version of 'Rose' sending us calmly home. Unpretentious and inspired stuff.

Review reproduced courtesy of the London Jazz Festival and Jazzwise Magazine.

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Codebook plus Arun Ghosh - London Jazz Festival day 3

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, Sunday 16th November

London based Manchester exile Arun Ghosh has had quite a year, releasing his debut album ‘Northern Namaste’, and being selected for the ‘Take Five’ artists development scheme. As a new batch of ‘Take Five’ musicians get ready to carry the torch this week, we reaped the rewards of this year’s scheme tonight at the Southbank Purcell Room.

Ghosh took to the stage with his trademark swagger and launched into a fierce solo introduction to ‘Aurora’. As the band joined in however, the track was missing some of its usual impact, essentially due to the absent piano and saxophone heard on the record and previous gigs. Special guest Corey Mwamba's vibraphone provided tonight’s chordal architecture, the soft attack of which lacked the depth and punch of the piano, but he played with great charm and energy. After a few tunes my ears did adapt to the altered sonority, but there was a little too much timbral overlap with Ghosh’s clarinet.

Nevertheless, the bengali scale based ‘Deshkar’ and ‘Bondhu’ tunes were, as always, truly joyful and uplifting. New track ‘Mint’, a collaboration with composer Fumiko Miyachi, commissioned for tonight as part of the SPNM Shorts scheme, was largely successful having a noticeably different feel to the rest of the set, the chords and rhythm being more in a classic pop vein.

Dr Das’ electric bass playing was a little woolly and unsubtle compared to the double bass we often hear in Ghosh's line up, but it played its part adequately. Pat Ilingworth on drums had a lightness of touch that synched quite exquisitely with Rastko Rasic’s darbuka. By the second half of the set the band had staked out their turf, and we were treated to some forceful playing all round. Mwamba almost fell over backwards at one point with the momentum of his improvising.

Saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa’s ‘Codebook’ acoustic quartet was an altogether different affair. The opening ‘Killer’ was true to its name, being a full on attack reminiscent of the sixties avant-garde. The drumming of Dan Weiss was about as un-grooved as it’s possible to get, but his in-your-face machine gun snare was highly engaging nonetheless. ‘Playing with Stones’ was the only overtly indo-jazz track, being surprisingly similar to Arun Ghosh’s ‘Deshkar’. The most effective piece was the sax and piano duo track ‘Common Ground’, with Vijay Iyer‘s impressionistic piano flourishes complimenting Mahanthappa’s outfield sonic excursions perfectly. It was hard to judge the complex double bass playing of Carlo de Rosa in the aural mush.

Much of the material was fast, free and busy, but fundamentally lacked impact for all its bluster and bravado, often being indistinct and overbearing. Many made for the exits, and in all honesty I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic however uncomfortable that always feels. Codebook provided a few moments of insight here and there, but on the whole they weren’t a good buy.

Review reproduced courtesy of the London Jazz Festival and Jazzwise Magazine.

Frøy Aagre, Herbie Remixed and Drugstore Cowboy - London Jazz Festival days 2 & 3

Frøy Aagre, Ray's Jazz at Foyles, Saturday 15th November 2008.

I just made it to Ray's Jazz Cafe in time to catch the nordic sounds of the Frøy Aagre acoustic quartet, for a three track 26 minute taster, partly hosted to entice us to her gig at the Spice of Life with Kenny Wheeler. The first track, 'Long Distance', began with a traditional um-pah rhythm before shifting into a reflective and quite sparse folk conclusion. The mysterious arpeggiated piccolo introduction to second track, 'Cycle of Silence', had a distinct pensive and pleasing Garbarekesque ethereal quality. Industrial machine rhythm emulating piece, 'Factory', ended a charming, if frustrating, short set. As keen as I was to see the Spice of Life gig, it wasn't to be. A definite one check out again.

Herbie Remixed, Clore Ballroom, Southbank Centre, Saturday 15th November 2008.

Over then to the Southbank for 'Herbie Remixed', an afternoon of interpretations of Herbie Hancock tunes. The programme comprised of a series of up and coming young acts including 'Jazz Alive', 'Super Best Friends', Ping Lee's trio, 'Ran', and Manchester's own 'Riot Jazz'. It was a mixed bag for sure, with 'Ran' delivering a fifteen minute improvised funk groove that was especially lacking in ideas. Ten piece brass band, 'Riot Jazz', put in the most convincing performance, with some tight and well written arrangements including a convincing version of 'Chameleon', despite being a little rough at the edges themselves. Good efforts on the whole, but we await the finished products.

Drugstore Cowboy, Spice of Life, Leicester Square, Sunday 16th November 2008.

Classic Blue Note sounding stuff this, delivered with panache and buckets of energy. Branden Allen's 'Drugstore Cowboy' whipped up a veritable storm in the basement of the Spice of Life pub, the becoming atmosphere of which corrected our vision to the black and white of a fifties jazz record cover. The appropriately named opening track, 'Open Sesame', locked things into gear instantaneously, demonstrating a well rehearsed set by a group of players who clearly love playing. Suit, polo neck and plimsolled sax player Allen was on the mark throughout, and a real joy to listen to. Trumpet player, Quentin Collins matched Allen the whole way with his gritty bop lines. On 'The Misadventures of Duck Peter', Allen's already high intensity levels racked up an extra few degrees, the raised energy levels resulting in Allen shuffling around the small stage area with a dandyish quivering swagger.

The second set continued apace, keyboard player Ross Stanley's Hammond Organ placing the walking bass lines forcefully. Enzio Cirelli was quite something on the drums, his relaxed, but always driving swing feel matching the momentum of the horn players perfectly. Allen described the last tune, 'Unfinished Sympathy' as anthemic. I'm not sure I could quite tell why, as it's style seemed as much in the classic swinging jazz blues vein as much of the rest of the set, but with such a rivetting performance, no one was arguing. Compositionally, Drugstore Cowboy aren't tearing down any boundaries, but who cares when they do what they do so well?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Andy and Jo Show

I made an all too infrequent trip to the cosy and lightly regal Cinnamon Club lounge bar on Friday 24th October for a second hearing of the Andy Schofield Jo McCallum Jazz Orchestra. The evening gently geared up courtesy of the Jamie Safirrudin Quartet. Their set consisted of bunch of well trodden standards delivered with a youthful vigour often missing from renditions by more seasoned players. An assured 'Canteloupe Island' hit the spot pretty sweetly, and a cruising version of 'Maiden Voyage' maintained it's forward momentum, ably assisted by some fullsome improvising from Jamie on the keys.

The Andy and Jo Jazz Orchestra immediately kicked with a distinctly stronger performance than the previous one at this same venue. There was some powerful and tightly meshed horn line playing on a great version of brother Stuart McCallum's 'Austin Flowers'. The arrangements in general really captured an authentic vintage big band sound as well as any I've personally heard. There was an abundance of cool muted trumpet lines evoking a real forties feel, with the Cinnamon lounge enhancing the ambience.

The band didn't wallow in its nostagic moments though, and confidently sailed us through a fifties'ish 'Round Midnight' with some classic Cizerace Chisnall improv on the piano. Onwards then into the seventies for a Starsky and Hutch like '6.49am'. The impertinent bass honks emanating from the horns of Suzanne Higgins and Sam Andreae were most welcome. Richard Iles' 'Silence Again' sent us home with a suitably local hug.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nothing But A Dreamer

I'm still not sure about Brad Mehldau. Courtesy of the 'Write Stuff' scheme I got another chance to see the Brad Mehldau Trio at the Barbican in London on Monday the 20th Oct. I saw this same trio with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums at the RNCM about a year ago and I preferred this one for sure.

Brad cuts a graceful figure, politely bowing his head to receive applause with his trademark self-assured calmness. The trio hit an easy feel straight from the off with a delicate groove on the first track, 'Dream Sketch'. A early highlight was the jammed ending to the latin 'Samba Amour'. It's straight and simple chord voicings outlined an enticing seventies style repeating sequence that left plenty of harmonic space for some really expressive improvising from all the players.

My main problem with Brad's playing generally is that it can be overly dense, both harmonically and rhythmically, often leaving little room for anything else. This problem was in evidence tonight, but about half the material worked well for me. A definate plus point is his penchant for interpreting tunes from well outside the jazz sphere. A version of Sufjan Stevens' 'Holland' was another high point from a generally mixed affair.

Ring Modulator Visits The Deep South

Well I missed out on the MCR Blog Awards this year, but this has been made up for by successfully winning a place on the 'Write Stuff', an initiative between the London Jazz Festival, Serious music producers, BBC Radio 3 and Jazzwise magazine. The scheme "aims to give aspiring music writers the opportunity to work with professional journalists to improve their writing skills, receive insights into career paths and develop an understanding of jazz criticism". It looks like it will be really useful to someone such as myself.

So I went down to the Barbican a few days ago for the initial meet and greet session with Cameron Reynolds from Serious, writer and broadcaster Kevin LeGendre and the other seven students. We all got on really well from the off and it looks like it's going to be a great experience. Afterwards we were given our first journo perk of a guest spot for the Brad Mehldau gig straight after. We'll also get to see and review gigs during the London Jazz Festival, so I hope manc jazzers won't be offended by my widening of the ring modulator frequency range for that week. It's all in a good cause.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bloggers Of The World Unite

I spotted a few weeks ago that Sarah Hartley of the Mancunian Way blog and Manchester Evening News was organising a bloggers social and trip round the MEN news room. Seemed like a good opportunity to meet a few MCR bloggers, so I signed up and went along last night. Great evening it was too, being described by Sarah as a "landmark media event". I was expecting 20 min dash round the building and off to the pub, but it turned out to be a properly organised event complete with tea and biscuits.

It was interesting to get an angle on the how the web affects MEN's timing of news delivery. Paul Gallagher explained that most news goes straight onto the website, but any potential exclusives are held over for the print addition so those sneaky folk at the nationals can't nab the story. So it appears that despite the impact of the web, the print edition is still seen as the key medium.

After the tour we had a discussion with the deputy editor Maria McGeoghan where we got an insight into what makes a good story. Certain issues such as the congestion charge and a recent story about two girls getting drunk on a plane are guaranteed to get people going and generate lots of comments. There was some talk about the pros and cons of blog moderation. One person suggested that the Guardian's policy of not moderating their 'Comment is Free' section has allowed it to become a "seething pit of hatred", damaging the Guardian's brand.

It was then off to the pub where we got a chance to have a chat. It was nice to talk blogspeak with justhipper and TheLedge from The Indie Credential, MartinSFP from 14Sandwiches, Joe Gravett, jonmford from Shoplifters, Craig McGinty of This French Life and also catch up with old mate Jon Clements of the cryptically named PR Media Blog. There was talk of a crimbo get together so hoping I can make that one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Dappled Cat - The Music Place Jazz Summer School 2008

About two weeks ago I once again attended the annual Music Place Jazz Summer School hosted by the kind folk at The Cinnamon Club in Bowdon. It was another exhausting week of scales, arpeggios, triplets, grooves, vibes and mixed emotions. Don't get me wrong, it's a really great week but it can expose the raw side of one's ego when you realise what you (still) can't do, though it's all too easy to forget what you have actually learnt. I have to say I found this year quite a tough one as I wasn't really all that happy with my playing during the week. That's not to say I didn't have a good time and learn a good deal to boot. The evening jam sessions in particular were excellent, being expertly facilitated by Suzanne Higgins.

I had originally made the decision not to attend this year as I went on Mike Walker's fab guitar retreat in Andalucia, Spain. However my other 'arf, Jane has taken up jazz ivory tinkling and decided to do the course this year so I figured I'd go along partly to keep her company. The set up for most days is 'sectionals' in the morning which is based on your instrument, and ensembles in the afternoon roughly grouped by standard. The course tutors this year were Mike Walker (guitar), Iain Dixon (horns), Andy Schofield (horns), Les Chisnall (keys), Caroline Boaden (drums) and Alec Dankworth (bass).

Having been on the summer school before and having had one to one lessons from Mike, I suspected the guitar classes might be going over stuff I'm fairly familiar with but it was a pleasant surprise to find that he took a different tack this year. One thing that's been noticed is that the general standard has improved over the last few years and the bar has definately been raised. In the guitar class everyone had attended the course at least once before so we were able to look at some new areas including the finer subtleties of triplet swing feel. We went into this in quite some detail and it was clear there's a lot to getting this feel spot on. Mike employed the phrase 'Dave the dappled cat' to good effect to help master the timing of the swung '2 and' beat of the charleston groove landing on the word 'cat'.

Some interesting exploration of the melodic minor scale was very welcome too, with it's altered and lydian dominant modes useful over certain applications of dominant chords, and the Hitchcock/Debussy favoured mystical locrian natural two mode. For sure no one was left in any doubt as to how to swing the metronome on the 2 and 4.

There were some great players in my group for the afternoon ensemble sessions. This was good for keeping me on my toes and I was sometimes left for dead if asked to play the melody for a tune. Mike had us running down the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th notes of each chord of 'Solar' [I never got his "they say so-la in Liverpool" joke] and I came up with some particularly tasty 'clams' [= very wrong notes] when forced to improvise just using these notes of the scale. It's surprising sometimes how the slightest rearrangement of a scale or arpeggio brings you to a grinding halt. We did a lot of work on swing feel in the ensemble class as well, alternating between playing all of the '1 and a, 2 and a' triplet beats and then dropping playing but still feeling the 'and's to get the quaver swing feel.

The final evening of the week is always the school concert to which family and friends come. A nervous Jane did really well trading eights and fours on an Abdullah Ibrahim tune in Alec Dankworth's ensemble. In the end I think I chickened out a little by choosing to solo on the straightforward blues of 'Thing's Ain't What They Used To Be' a la BB King. Nevertheless it seemed to go down well so I guess it must have come across OK. The rather shattered tutors then sent us home with some mellow renditions of a few standards. Now it's time to practice...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

This Charming Manchester - Manchester Jazz Festival day 9

So it was tears all round on Saturday 26th July for the last day of this years Manchester Jazz Festival. The sun hung in there again for first act of the day, the Tim France Quintet in St Anns Square. The festival guide promised "a no-nonsense straight ahead repertoire" and this is exactly what we got, delivered to the highest standards from some great Manchester players including Tim on sax, Richard Iles on trumpet, Pete Turner on bass, Eryl Roberts on drums and George King on piano. This was great stuff actually. All the playing was bang on providing us with a really entertaining start to the day. A particular treat was 'Fistful of Haggis', a Horace Silver style latin groove featuring some fab slurry mute trumpet playing from Richard. Other goodun's were Wes' 'SOS' and Julian Adderley's 'Jive Samba'.

Terri Shaltiel followed with some classic style powerful blues material mixed in with a few soul classics. She's a decent enough singer for this type of thing but some of playing was a bit rough at the edges and it didn't do a great deal for me.

On the face of it putting the Wizards of Twiddly in to close the afternoon looked to be a brave and foolhardy move by the festival organisers. Judging the book by it's cover you'd be forgiven for expecting a death metal set from this lot. Sure enough there was plenty of unabashed widdly twiddly playing and some was indeed on the heavy side but there was plenty of light and shade there as well. In the end I think a cross between the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Peter Gabriel era Genesis was fairly near the mark. Some curious almost folky melodies popped out amongst the politically motivated tunes such as 'Big, Bigger, Bigot'. Including this band was stretching the festival 'jazz' brief again but they succeeded in getting the Saturday St Anns crowd on their side. For pogo improvisations this band definitely have it.

In the evening it was over to the festival one-off pavilion tent venue outside Urbis. The venue worked really well I thought and it was nice to be somewhere a little different. The sound and lighting was pretty good and I quite liked the feel of it. The first part of another double bill was a tribute to the late Emily Remler from guitarists Deirdre Cartright and Kathy Dyson. Despite being a guitar player myself I'm not normally a big fan of guitar duos but these two did have a certain something. The crowd seemed attentive and well disposed which made for a friendly atmosphere and a quite charming little set. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this one.

The final act of the evening was latin band 'Apitos' with it's 'Made in Manchester' set. I think this was a one-off festival special, the band normally going for an authentic latin thang. The gig consisted entirely of latin versions of Manchester pop and indie classics from the likes of The Smiths, the Happy Mondays and M People. Fun it was meant to be and fun it was too. Hearing a latin version of 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' was certainly quite a strange experience complete with it's percussion breaks and the full works. It took them no time at all to get the dancing going and the band went down a veritable storm. This man was charmed too.

Flamenco Sketches - Manchester Jazz Festival day 8

Another Manchester regular, Paul Farr kicked off another not so regular even sunnier Friday morning 25th July with his cryptically named Paul Farr Band. This was another quite funky bluesy Scofieldly affair with some tasty 335 guitar playing of exactly the sort I like, nicely overdriven when appropriate and teasingly just sneaking off into controlled feedback sustain at Paul's leisure. There were some good tunes too though they were perhaps getting a little samey sounding over the course of a full hour.

This was the first time I've seen Neil Yates added to this band who's great line up consisted of Luke Flowers on drums and Sylvan Richardson on bass. Neil was using a delay unit very effectively to overlay multiple horn lines creating a horn section of sorts. He also providing some nice ambient drone layers to backdrop the guitar and some general swirling reversed and pitch shifted sound effects enhancing the overall aural pleasure. This really added to the impact of the band and the material. Probably the best guitar improvising came on a slow tune near the end that I wasn't so keen on overall but it provided a good foil for Paul to kick on. It was good to hear a band that seemed well rehearsed and really on it as well.

In the same spot a good few hours later the rather odd looking Crill Bones took to the stage with fake blood stained torn dinner suits. In the course of the set guitarist Jasper Wilkinson alluded to the stage attire hinting that the story behind it may be libelous so we'll have to imagine that one. Great fun they were too. Good time vibes with some nice grooves and decent lines and horn hooks over the top. Some nice and solid funky stuff too from Ollie Collins on bass, especially on a track featuring some Parliment style wah-wah sounds and a nice bit of improv. Jasper was a very entertaining frontman and quickly got the afternoon crowd on his side.

It was over to the Green Room for the evening double bill. First on was the solo piano of Robert Mitchell. Robert has a highly impressive and enviable technique but the material left me cold. It was harmonically very complex and too dense and rich I found. It's possible that it would reward repeated listening but was too much to take in one go. Even so I still think there was too little variation in the density and I was wishing for some of the sparsity and thoughtful note placement of Les Chisnall. That well worn adage comes to mind.

The second half of the bill brought a dramatic shift of gear with the shamelessly retro fusion of the Polo Orti Quintet. It was a loud and high energy set featuring some nice playing from ex Manchester based sax player Fermin Rivero, now based back in Spain. Well there was no disputing it was classic 70s jazz-fusion through and through and received a mixed response from the audience though many clearly loved it. I think again it could have done with a bit more variation in approach for me, particularly from Polo's keyboard sounds. He clearly loves his Herbie style synth tones and stuck with them for the whole set. An entertaining enough evening but I guess I probably wouldn't end up checking these acts out again I suspect.

Raw Power - Manchester Jazz Festival day 7

Back again to some real proper hot sunburny sunshine in St Anns square for day 7, Thursday 24th July. I've only seen Mrs Colombo once before and it was in this exact same spot two years ago. They were one of the better acts that year and I was keen to check them out again. On that occasion the line up included the excellent Sam Smith on piano but he's now based in London I believe and it was left up to the addition of Jo McCallum on sax to help fill the gap. There was interesting material here but the band seemed quite hesitant and the performance lacked a bit of sparkle. The material did also sound quite sparse without the keyboard though guitar player Jim Faulkner did his best to fill the gap. What I think was the newer material worked best, especially 'Vague', a King Crimson style guitar workout not dissimilar to Crimson's 'Ladies of the Road'. The pulled off a passing version of 'Prudence vs Provocation' but again it lacked the piano. Potential here but needs a kick up the proverbial.

My affection for 'The Blessing' is well documented on this blog and tonight at Matt and Phreds they again hit the spot, though I was a bit disappointed that regular drummer Clive Deamer wasn't in attendance. No big deal it turned out as the replacement (didn't catch his name I'm afraid) did a great job with some fab high energy beating of the beats. The raw bass riffing of Jim Barr was even rawer than usual and horn players Pete Judge and Jake McMurchie kept the energy levels high and momentum moving forward apace. If anything it was a sliver of a smidgen too raw, possibly from the extra force coming from the drums but still a great gig and another highlight of the festival.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Chords That Bind - Manchester Jazz Festival day 6

There are moments when things align. The frequency and interval varies. It may take months. It may take years. It may happen in a fleeting moment or take many millennia. Everywhere there is scale and relativity. Particles line up and resonate in mutual empathy. Broken clocks tell exactly the right time. Birds migrate. Some alignments are intentional, some occur by chance. Most events conjoin these opposite and coincident bedfellows.

And so we happened upon one such event on the evening of Wednesday 23rd July 2008 at the Royal Northern College of Music. Such was the sense of occasion and expectation for ‘Ropes’, a specially commissioned piece by the guitarist Mike Walker for this year's jazz festival. Whilst he has a long established and enviable reputation as a premier guitar player on the UK and world jazz stage, it has only been this year that we've finally had an opportunity to hear Mike’s compositional skills in full, first with the recent release of the ‘Madhouse and the Whole Thing There’ album in May and now with the epic ‘Ropes’. The suite employed a twenty two piece string section alongside the clarinet of Mike’s long time collaborator and friend Iain Dixon, the piano of Les Chisnall, the double bass playing of Steve Watts and the drumming of the mighty Adam Nussbaum.

Ropes met the occasion and surpassed it, sweeping us along with its soaring beauty and near overwhelming intensity. A touching version of ‘Still Slippery Underfoot’ from the Madhouse album opened the set, its mysterious opening piano chords accompanied by the haunting cello of Hannah Roberts before giving way to the main melody on the clarinet. Headbound followed, opening with a dark and pensive repeating piano sequence. A soft cymbal accompaniment from Adam Nussbaum eased its way in, lifting the dynamic and opening the way for some classy improvisation from Iain and Mike with some graceful cushioning from the string section.

A harmonics enhanced solo guitar introduction from Mike steered us into the warm and latin-tinged wistful tones of ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’. The tune seemed to capture a certain sense of regret and isolation in parts, a mood deepened by the plaintive solos from the violin of Ben Holland and the sax of Iain Dixon.

Another short sweeping solo introduction from Mike opened the smiling nostalgia of the swing feel based ‘Clockmaker’. A fluid solo from Iain set Les up for a particularly joyful response that warmed the heart. The closing melody created a good feeling all round, returning the hope that ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ had doubted. A subtle and savvy dynamic drum intro from Adam Nussbaum kicked off the fast swing and metrical melodies of ‘Last to the Line’. There was some really sweet, clean and boppy improvising from Mike on this tune.

After the break Mike introduced ‘Moored to Water’, a collective free improvisation from the string section. To hear a 20-piece classical string section improvising was both a surprise and very effective. Mike explained a little about the layered concept behind ‘Ropes’, the broad theme being the lines on a music stave and the harmony of the chords as ropes hanging down like threads. The music also evokes many of the uses of ropes, both good and bad, from the light sounds and harmonies of sea shanties to the darker sounds for the darker history.

The first movement of Ropes opened with a series of short block string chords of varying lightness and darkness. A solo clarinet introduction of an upright folk melody then got the movement going, leading into a lush string wash and some punchy lines delivered with panache by the string section. Ropes part two began with a metrical piano phrase that became the outline for the tune’s repeated sequence and its slightly off kilter rhythm, hinting at the sounds of Steve Reich. The really quite sublime Ropes part three featured the marvellous playing of Iain Dixon on clarinet, backed by sweeping strings and evoking some intense emotions of melancholy, longing, reflective contemplation, quiet and calm resolution, reconciliation and the happiness of meeting old friends. So much was evoked by the piece and all echoed in the sense of occasion of this special evening. A long shared moment of return, closure and beginning again.

A sustained standing ovation brought the musicians back for a reprise of ‘Headlong’. A lightness and relief opened the space for an incredibly relaxed, gentle and dreamlike seductive start to the track. The momentum slowly built with Mike eventually burning us up with the most searingly powerful improvising of the evening. A really amazing, emotionally exhausting and truly unforgettable evening.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Frankly Mr Funkly - Manchester Jazz Festival day 6

We were awaken with the mighty funk of the MK-Ultras on the Wednesday morning back in St Anns Square. I've known the guitar player Nick Mellor for a few years now but for some reason this is the first time I've managed to see him play. A great slurry bluesy feel he has too reminiscent of Larry Carlton and John Scofield as outlined on a tasty version of Scofield's 'Do Like Eddie'. Much of the material had a decidedly New Orleans Meters thing going on and I quite enjoyed hearing some no nonsense grooving in the context of the jazz festival. Jonas Backman as always was great on drums and suited this style of playing perfectly. Not surprising as it turns out, as Nick informed me that the funk groove thing is where Mr Backman's true heart lies. Sound and solid stuff too from Chris Cliff on the bass and Nick Steed on the keys and vocals. As slightly odd choice for first act of the day but good stuff nontheless.

It was great to see 'Drumcake' leader and Manchester ex-pat Aaron Liddard back in the city. I've played with Aaron at a few jams going back a few years now down at the Band on the Wall and Arch Bar - both venues sadly closed at the moment though the Band on the Wall should be reopening at some point. This was another intriguing sounding prospect, the band having the two drummers Marc Parnell and Myke Wilson at either side of the stage in victoria sandwich drum cake formation. The cake filling consisted of the cream and fruit of Aaron on sax, Scott Bayliss on trumpet and keys, Stuart McCallum on guitar and Jon Thorne on bass. As promised in the program the set was largely a hard-edged groove based affair with some complex and witty tunes. I think it's fair to say this was a fun outfit with the material not meant to be taken too seriously.

They more or less got away with it but I sensed the outfit had probably had few (if indeed any) rehearsal and it did show in the scrappy delivery. At times the grooves locked and clicked and the music picked up nicely but all too often the momentum was squandered. The intentionally incongruous combination of a super fast drum and bass groove dramatically switching to classic swing and back was knowingly amus(o)ing enough but ultimately dissatisfying. 'Mayhem', the last tune was another complex angular workout that stumbled to halt in confusion. An unfortunate way to end a set that did have some high points.

Tuneful Tuesday - Manchester Jazz Festival day 5

It was back to the Bridgewater Hall foyer on Tuesday lunchtime to join the Troubadours with Kirsty Almeida, many of them back here too from their concert in the main hall a few days ago. I've tended to associate bass player Matt Owens and Kirsty more or less solely with latin music from La Gran Descarga and also from their latin jam session down at Lamarrs in the Northern Quarter.

Consequently it was really refreshing to hear some country, folk and well, just some good songs emananting from this band of merry minstrels including co-songwriter John Ellis. There was some genuinely beautiful and touching material here from these two, in particular the wistful 'Josie Brown' and the crafted Joniesque 'Cool Down Unwind'. It was an extremely relaxed, warm and welcoming performance with guest spots from Kenji Fenton playing the steel drums and a nice solo from Olivia Moore on the violin. Steve Buckley was again inspiring on the electric and pedal steel guitars. His trademark bottle necked pinched harmonic technique was used to great effect to create some soaring singing high notes. A really nice one this.

Following this I trooped over to the new Leftbank stage near the river to see 'Alex Douglas and John Ellis'. A slightly unusual spot nested in a walkway gap between a couple of cafes but it seemed to work OK. The gig however didn't really work for me. Alex Douglas on sax sounded consistenty a little out of tune to my ear. There were some quite nice versions of a few Beatles songs but the improvisations from Alex on 'Blue Monk' sounded all a bit wrong. Still, I heard someone saying to one of the festival organisers that it was the best thing they'd heard at the festival so far so what do I know?

The evening triple bill in the RNCM Studio sounded like an interesting proposition all round. First on was Olivia Moore's 'Owl Ensemble'. This looked to be a promising one consisting of a string quartet accompanied by piano, bass and drums. There was definate promise in the material but the performance was a bit timid and seemed a little under rehearsed. An admittedly brave drums and piano improvisation didn't really work, partly as Olivia's unamplified violin was inaudible at this point. It would be nice to see how this unit progresses but I think it needs some more work.

Following this was a very free and very intense performance from the riotous 'Grew Quartet'. I think it's quite amusing that free improvisation can sound almost as formulaic as your good ol' X factor winners pop tune with it's own cliches a la jerky and frantic playing of the back, side or underneath of instruments. There were elements of this classic 'free' playing in the Grew sound but nevertheless they were hugely enjoyable to listen to and indeed watch. The quiveringly neurotic percussion playing of Phillip Marks was particularly entertaining with Phillip frequently dropping or knocking instruments over and then fishing in his bag for the next thing to hit. Ping pong balls, paper and screwdrivers were duly rested on piano strings to add a nice dissonant clang to the proceedings. It left me with a smile for sure.

The duo of Graham Clark on violin and dance music legend Graham Massey on laptop, electronics and dusty old ARP synths etc. closed the triple bill set. Not that I'm one to pigeon hole what jazz is or isn't as I find such debates anal and pointless, but this set was quite unusual for a jazz festival and one would presume equally at home at something like Creamfields. I've got quite a soft spot for Krautrocky droning synth stuff so I was quite looking forward to this. Well it wasn't bad, but a little disappointing. Some parts reminded me of the fabulous Harmonia but most of it left me cold if truth be told. My main problem was the insistency of the violin which in this setting I found detracted from the sweeping electronic soundscape. It may have been a concession to give the sound a more jazzy edge but it got in the way for me. Some violin would have been fine but it was in there the whole time and by the end was proverbially doing my head in. Oh well.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Electronic Sunshine - Manchester Jazz Festival day 4

I was looking forward to seeing the Arun Ghosh Indo-Jazz Sextet down at Matt and Phreds on the Monday 21st July as soon as I saw the mjf festival program. I caught Arun's fab CD launch gig at the Contact Theatre a few months ago. That one was an amazing gig but this one managed to surpass it.

Arun started the evening with a surging solo improvisation that immediately grabbed the audience's attention and more or less hushed a packed Matt and Phreds, no mean feat and not something I've witnessed before. The band then launched into a punchy and forceful version of 'Aurora', the first track on the new CD and the perfect set opener. Arun really is a captivating and hypnotic performer with real star quality in addition to being a great song composer and lovely improviser on the clarinet. The brooding and intensely epic 'Uterine' was once again a highlight for me with the electronic tanpura accompanied timeless tune leading into a great modal vamp and some ecstatic improvising from Arun and tenor sax player Idris Rahman.

The second set opened with a guest appearance from the omnipresent John Ellis on piano joining in on a simple and expansive South Indian tune that John had introduced to Arun some time ago. Another highlight from the CD was the joyous and life enhancing 'Bondhu' delivered with such swaggering confidence and vigour that by this point the band were so much in the zone they could do no wrong. There were some great moments all through from Kishon Khan on the piano and the rhythm section players Sylvan Richardson on bass, Rastko Rasic on darbuka and Myke Wilson all aquitted themselves admirably.

It was an honour to be a witness at one of the highpoints of this years festival for sure.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Radio Free Europe - Manchester Jazz Festival day 4

Monday 21st July kicked off with some decent weather for multi-euro starred 'EU3 + 1'. The set consisted largely of mellowish contemporary original tunes with fairly sparse arrangements, the bulk of the modern chordal harmony delivered by Uli Elbracht on the guitar. Some quite sophisticated tunes and an appropriately understated delivery all round set us up nicely for the day. I was disappointed there was no referendum at the end of the set.

It was then over to the Bridgewater Hall foyer for some american country sounds from Billy Buckley's 'Waggon Train'. I've seen Steve (Billy) a few times now and have always enjoyed his playing. He has great touch and feel and gets some gorgeous valve amp enhanced deep sounds out of his collection of electric and pedal steel guitars. The set comprised of mainly blues and country tunes but there was some lovely modal jazzy playing on one of the latter tunes. Festival stalwarts John Ellis on piano, Matt Owens on bass and Eryl Roberts on drums hit the spot nicely providing a good sympathetic backdrop to Steve's playing. Nicely written tunes to boot made for a great Monday lunchtime.

I had been looking forward to some contemplative solo piano from Danilo Rea as part of the evening double bill at the Royal Northern College of Music but sadly Danilo had a heart attack the night before and was unable to perform. I hope he's now recovering OK. The Gabriele Mirabassi Trio stepped in for Danilo by playing two sets. This was what you would call a nice quiet one with the acoustic classical guitar of Peo Alfonsi and the double bass of Salvatore Maiore accompanying Gabriele's vibrant and sinewy clarinet playing. The style was quite varied wandering from folk melodies to latin jazz. Gabrielle clearly loves playing and despite the band all being seated he was frequently half up on his feet swaying around with the sheer joy of playing. I would like to have heard a bit more of the guitar featured as Peo was also a lovely player but I wasn't disappointed overall despite the relavatively short sets.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Spirit, Form and Frolics - Manchester Jazz Festival day 3

I've never quite managed to get a seat for a Sunday at the festival in the Bridgewater Hall Foyer in previous years so I made it down a good half hour early and still only just managed to get one. It's great to see so much support. As the festival Director Steve Mead said in his introduction to the first band, there was a risk of ODing on jazz today but I figured I'd risk it anyway.

First up was the Gareth Roberts Quintet from Cardiff. Some cool Horace Silvery grooves were mixed with takes on traditional Welsh folksongs amusingly introduced by cheeky chappy trombone playing band leader Gareth. The rhythm partnership of brothers Chris and Mark O'Connor worked really well, the drummer Mark having a pleasing lazy feel exemplifed on the groovy (man) 'Mop Dancing'. The improvisations from Gareth, trumpet player Gethin and piano player Paul were a tad rough at the edges but were made up for by the good feeling the boys were getting across and the strength in the tunes.

The Alcyona Mick Quintet were a different proposition entirely. The material was fast and fullsome from the off. Alcyona is a graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoire and has very impressive technique as do all the players in this group. Most of the tunes were both rhythmically and harmonically complex and frequently delivered at quite a pace too. The music was nevertheless still exciting and accessible and didn't sound academic as can be the danger when students have almost too much technique and knowledge.

By many accounts Free Spirits were the act people to check out in the foyer today and it sounded very promising as I'm quite partial to a bit of indo-jazz as readers of this blog may have spotted. I'm told sitar player Dharambir Singh and tabla player Bhupinder Singh Chaggar are leaders in their field on their respective instruments. I have to confess however that this set left me cold. To my ears the sitar playing was a little unconvincing and lacked ideas, and I didn't get a whole lot from the bass or tablas either. I felt it was left to Lewis Watson on saxophones to give the music a bit more depth and variety and he was doing more interesting stuff harmonically for me at least but the backing only allowed him to go so far.

After a couple of hours break we were in to the double bill of La Gran Descarga and Roberta Fonseca in the Bridgewater main hall. I have a bit of a love hate realtionship with latin jazz so I wasn't sure how I'd take to the evening performances but I was happy to go with an open mind. I'm really glad I did as well as La Gran Descarga put in a great performance and went down really well. This is a big 22 piece band and did they a good job of filling the stage and hall. They cooked up a tasty rhythmic brew with some great horn riffs arrangements from double bass player Matt Owens, some good solos all round with a particularly good solo spot from Neil Yates. Some gusty singing from Kirsty Almeida rounded the whole thing off nicely. Some of the audience were itching to get on their feet and a fair few didn't need asking twice when invited by Kirsty for the last song. Shame they couldn't have asked sooner. A standing ovation from the entire hall made it clear this had been a fab gig. It must be good also for Manchester jazz and the festival. I hope the Bridgewater Hall promoters took note.

Roberta and his group had quite a tough act following the energy and good feeling set up by La Gran Descarga. They did a good job of it on the whole and there was lovely high energy playing but I think I was pretty spent by then. It didn't really sustain it's interest for me for the whole set though there were some great tunes in there and they're clearly a good bunch of players. I think was a bit jazzed out so I need to reserve judgement until I get a chance to listen to some more material.

Phew, so that was Sunday.

Monday, July 21, 2008

La Manca Latino - Manchester Jazz Festival day 2

Blimey, so it's here again already, the thirteenth Manchester Jazz Festival and always the highlight of the Manchester jazz year - where did the year go? I couldn't make the opening Freedom Principle night at trof3 but by all reports the Bits and Pieces big band were especially kicking.

So I made my way down to St Anns Square on Saturday morning for the first full day. The event kicked off handsomely with Suzanne Higgins' 'Bossa Nouvelle'. Some great sunshiney sounds were proferred to fend of the mixed weather, bringing smiles aplenty to the dedicated crowd who refused to budge despite the frequent rainy spells. There were some tasty arrangements of classic latin tunes such as 'How Insensitive' and even a version of the much loved 'Girl from Ipanema' - quite brave I thought. It was good to hear a full band arranged version of this classic that can so easily sound a bit cheesy in it's usual dinner jazz duo setting. I especially liked there closing number that added a bit of a funky edge to the latin flavours and featured a ballsy bluesly solo from ever energetic Mike Walker.

This was swifty followed by the 'John Ellis Band' complete with steel drums from Kenji Fenton taking the uplifting mood set up by Bossa Nouvelle in an African and folky direction. The first track was an extended and quite jolly rolling piece that was enjoyable to begin with, but I was beginning to feel it needed to move somewhere. An irritating headache due to lack of food was doubtless not helping my appreciation though.

I returned after gaining some sustenance hoping to see '12twelve', the final act in the square. Not sure why, but they went on about 40 mins late so I was only able to catch the first track. A shame, as it sounded like it was going to be a good one. Following the great success of last years spanish import, MJF decided to play the same card again in more or less the same slot. It looked to be equally promising, the low strung guitar of Jaime Pantaleón indicating this was going to be a bit different, and the mention of krautrock giving an extra frisson of excitement.

True enough when the first track got going the free jazz and psychedelic elements were immediately present over a cruising swing beat and swaggering bass line from the rhythm section. A nice bit of echo pedal excess from guitarist Jaime reminiscent of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii was fab to hear in a jazz context. Must check their MySpace me thinks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sad News

I've only just heard the tragic news that the great Swedish piano player Esbjörn Svensson died a few days ago aged 44 on the 14th June 2008 in a scuba diving accident in Stockholm. I'm a big fan of the EST record 'Viaticum' and was lucky enough to see the group play at the Bridgewater Hall a few years ago. Very sad news indeed.


A xx

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Harpin' On

I caught the last set of Matt Halsall's gig last night at Matt and Phreds. It kicked off with a punchy rendition of 'Sending My Love', a tune I particularly like and one of the tracks on Matt's fab new CD of the same name. You can now buy the CD from his also brand new Gondwana Record label. The website shop isn't live yet so you'll need to email the label to get a copy at the moment. The band line up now frequently includes a harp and last night there was some exquisite playing from Rachael Gladwin. She treated us to gorgeous extended solo introduction to the Cinematic Orchestra classic 'Ode to the Big Sea' making for a beautific and rousing end to the set. Some tasty Tranesque playing from sax player Nat Birchall warmed the ol' cockles nicely too.
I also bumped into Manchester Jazz Festival marketing maestro Fanny Guillaut down there, which reminds me I should mention that the full programme for the festival is now listed on the mjf website. I'll do a proper festival preview taster in another post I think. The mjf also has a MySpace page and Facebook group you can join if you prefer these alternative modes of communication. The jazz festival is the highlight of the North West jazz year and is always a brilliant week. I remember chatting to Cinematic Orchestra drummer Luke Flowers last year and he was enthusiastically comparing the festival vibe to what New York must have felt like in the 50s and 60s. I suggest you go study the website this minute and get the festival week (18th to the 26th July) blocked out in your diary right now if it isn't already.