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.