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 PantaleĆ³n 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.