Monday, November 30, 2009

The Ecstatic Kaleidophone

Tortoise + Cluster, Royal Festival Hall, London Jazz Festival, Sunday 22nd November 2009

Well what a treat and a half this inspired bit of programming from the jazz festival looked to be, and sure enough it didn't disappoint. I've been a big fan of both of these bands for a good few years. I was a krautrocker in my teens (and still am), so I've been up for a bit of Cluster since then. I picked up on Tortoise from my London days and have seen them three or four times, but not for a few years. I was actually quite surprised to see them playing such a big venue as the Festival Hall.

Via the wonders of Spotify I'd been able to check out Cluster's first record in over a decade, 'Qua' before the gig. Whilst Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius aren't exactly breaking new ground here, it is a fine record. With a combined age of over 140, there's a certain regal charm to their presence on the stage, but somehow the music they produced tonight didn't quite seem to grab me. Given the sound Cluster make, I'm certain its lack of impact wasn't helped by the low volume and constant distraction of having people walking past going in and out. The Festival Hall wouldn't allow this for classical concerts and most of the other jazz concerts, and I think the same respect should have been given to Cluster. Tortoise shuffled onto the stage to join them for last ten minutes which was a nice respectful touch.

The mutual respect was returned after the break when Cluster joined Tortoise for a short ambient jam before the set started proper. With our ambience quotas boosted, it was time for a kick, and Tortoise did the job with an incendiary version of 'High Class Slim Came Floatin' In' from their new record, 'Beacons of Ancestorship'. It's all there in this track, the twin drum driving groove, the square-on-the-beat arpeggiations, all topped off with a gorgeously fat moog lead line. Two changes of tempo, and we're into a surging Stereolab metronomic powerhouse ending much reminiscent of the anthemic 'French Disco'.

The centre stage twin drumming is a key part of the Tortoise sound, and one they make work so well. Drum duties are shared more or less equally by John McEntire, Dan Bitney and John Herndon, with the deep groove pulse being at the heart of many of the tracks. It works brilliantly on everything from the packing case thrash of 'Northern Something' to the narcotic shambling haze of 'Monica', the latter tune being mesmerically phenomenal tonight. Doug McCombs keeps the bass backbone true and Jeff Parker fills in with guitar sheen, overdrive bite and metrical synth lines in varying mystical proportions. This is no fixed configuration however, with all players sharing rhythm, lead, harmony and textural tasks to cook up the timbral alchemy. They make the punk clatter of 'Yinxianghechengqi' sit side by side with the mournful latino twang reverb of 'The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One'. The cymbal splashy fast shuffle groove of 'TNT' was, as usual, messianic, and 'The Suspension Bridge At IguazĂș Falls' a marimba-vibraphonic delight. At times this felt like an illicit kaleidophonic ecstasy.

They encored with a mature and graceful take on the majestic 'I Set My Face To The Hillside' that oozed pure solar coziness, following up with a punchy quarter/triplet fooling 'Charteroak Foundation' to conclude a dream-like evening. Quite brilliant stuff. Truly a dream come true.

'Monica' live in Barcelona:

Friday, November 27, 2009

Total Bollani

Stefano Bollani's 'I Visionari', Kings Place, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 21st November 2009

Pianist Stefano Bollani had a busy week at the London Jazz Festival, being in residence over four nights at King's Place with a different set of musicians each time. The I Visionari Sextet was the last of these on the final Saturday night. There's no doubting Bollani has considerable ability and technique, but I'm not sure things fell into place this evening. There was a sense that it wasn't gelling, and the players looked tired despite putting in a sterling effort. The ability of players to come together for an evening is one of the great things about jazz, but it can also be one of its frustrations, and sometimes there’s no beating a well rehearsed group. I don’t know how often these players get together, but it didn’t feel tight. One of the things I like about Polar Bear for example, is that they play together all the time, and the consequent rock solidity knocks you over the head from the first bar.

So to the music. Well of course there was some great stuff in here. The simple uplifting opening ditty based around a major to minor-major movement was pleasing enough. There was some great playing from Enrico Rava on the second tune, and a gripping dark double bass solo on the third. Other tracks paid their dues to requisite angular quirkiness, and a ‘Black Orpheus’ style latin groove track was one of the highlights of this second set. Bollani then introduced us to a soundtrack suite to close the evening, one that apparently has been rejected by the producers of the film it was intended for. The first section revolved around a rising bass line beneath a minory groove, appropriately portraying a late night jazz feel. The main section consisted of a two chord groove that didn’t quite happen and flagged from being over long. A highpoint was what seemed like an afterthought encore solo piece that did contain some very impressive playing. The final track demised into some awkward humour that seemed staged, and is probably best forgotten.

Sir Gwilym and the Gorgeous Freedom

Gwilym Simcock & The Voice Project, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Jazz Festival, Saturday 21st November 2009

From the off this was a spine tingling performance. The opening quartet based track, 'Longing to Be', was a thing of beauty, its solo piano introduction creating a delicate and subtle balance of the best of contemporary jazz with touches of classical tonalities. The drumming from the continually surprising James Maddren was also quite phenomenal here.

Simcock then introduced the singers from the Norwich based Voice Project for the London premiere of 'I Prefer the Gorgeous Freedom', a full-length work for choir and jazz quartet, which premiered in May in Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. The second piece of this, 'Homeward Bound', was really something special, being inspired by a poem written by a Guantanamo Bay detainee. The track began with some free and fragmented playing abound with saxophone squeals conveying a real sense of foreboding. The track mutated through a number of moods, the sound containing an almost overwhelming wealth of riches. Following a kind of operatic section with some great singing from the soloists, the space opened out for another exquisite solo piano section of dark and profound beauty.

The third piece started with a distinctly celtic sounding whistle melody, expertly played by reeds player Klaus Gesing, accompanying a vulnerable single voice part. When the piano joined in, the familiar melody was set against some classic jazz harmony to shift the context, giving the line a very different mood. It was moving stuff that produced some genuine tears from this listener.

A straight soul snare drum backed a slow steady drone from double bass player Yuri Goloubev and Simcock to open the concluding piece. A mighty storm was kicked up, with some great liquid improvising from Gesing, perfectly enhanced by the interplay from Maddren and Goloubev. Simcock was also at his fearsome best with a blistering fast note attack leaving the audience breathless. A really top concert. Chick Corea describes Simcock as a "creative genius". Who am I to disagree?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Overtone Patterns

Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Jason Moran & Eric Harland Overtone Quartet, London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday 20th November 2009

One can be forgiven for being a little awed by the sense of presence when the stately Dave Holland takes to the stage. This man is ex-Bitches Brew era Miles after all. He introduces the band in such a relaxed and self assured manner, you know this guy knows what he’s doing. Holland then headed us straight for saxophonist Potter’s composition ‘Outsiders’. A great start too, loosely hinting at the lilt and circular lifting sequence of Corea’s ‘500 Miles High’. There was some lovely lyrical playing from pianist Moran, and an immediately seductive deep fine groove from drummer Harland. The bass and drum introduction to Holland’s ‘Walking the Walk’ was a gorgeous treat with some fine sprinkle washes of Fender Rhodes keyboard setting up a bluesmeister bass solo. Holland combines a strong weighty pulse with a precise articulation that ensures every note counts.

The Harland composed ‘Patterns’ hosted the first appearance of some metrical trickery, albeit being well disguised by the loose grooved drumming. The intensity slowly upped and upped, giving Moran and Potter the opportunity for some fearsome trading spurred on by the rhythmic surge. A track from the classic ‘Conference of the Birds’ album, ‘Interception’, took us into hardcore fast manic angular territory, Potter at times squawking through both soprano and tenor sax simultaneously. It takes quite some listening to this, but respite occurred with a two-note groove lockdown giving us a temporary breather. Some fluid side stick drumming accompanied by a quite overwhelmingly fast and precise bass section was a marvel. The aural space then opened out to expose a rumbling low kick drum thud, this clearing the path for a relentless and highly percussive drum solo from Harland.

We were eased down gently with the introspective encore track, ‘Sky’. Some gentle bowed double bass, decorated by sympathetic brush and bell strokes from Harland calmed our neural firestorms, and readied us for the journey home. Exhausting at times, but well worth it. You know your world is better for it.

This Is The Sound Of America

Bill Frisell, Mike Gibbs & The BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Jazz Festival, Barbican, Thursday 19th November 2009

This gig had all the hallmarks of being a really special evening, but somehow it didn’t quite happen.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra set the evening in motion with Copland’s grandiose ‘Appalachian Spring’. Images of great American landscapes and windblown plains were divvied up aplenty, and it was all very epic. Perhaps it was never going to do it for me, but it set an appropriate tone for an evening of classic American sounds. The piece had some interesting dark flourishes, but was too twee on the whole.

Charles Ives' ‘Three Places in New England’ was a definite improvement. The first movement was melancholy, mysterious and pensive in all the right ways. The second movement clattered a pastiche of musicals over a chromatic underlay, the melody lines delighting in leading you in predictable ways, but then twisting away at the most unlikely times and places. Some fearsome cacophonous climaxes were crashed over some cross cutting familiar themes.

After the break the paternal presence of a cosy checkered Bill Frisell joined the orchestra along with composer/conductor/arranger Mike Gibbs, and drummer Joey Baron for the premier of ‘Collage for a Day’ commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the festival. The piece had an over-arching classic country blues tone that was set right from the off, Frisell coming in over a suspenseful opening section with characteristic twangy tremeloed swampy blues lines. There were some tasty deep resonant cello parts in a waltzy section that followed, and Frisell decorated these by digging out some pinched harmonics with a grittier guitar sound. Some aspects echoed 1970s John Barry film scores despite the general American tone. A stark strident crash chord then set up a reversed loop backdrop which Frisell used to scatter more overdriven grit liberally across the chugging bolero rhythm.

The second movement opened with a promising Hitchcock-like short intro, this being followed by a biting rock blues riff accompanied by some great percussive finger drumming from Joey Baron. The strings then picked up the line and Frisell hit the echo reverse overdrive. It was gripping stuff, but could have done with a change of direction a little sooner, as it did start to flag. The heart rendering pathos of the next section invited us to fall into the warmth of its open voiced wide intervallic abstractions.

Frisell’s improvising was especially exploratory tonight, and just a shade on the wrong side of ponderous. A tad more commitment to the ideas would have gone a long way, though the approach maybe suited some of the more playful references. The romantic slow waltz of the next movement had some nice minor-major chord side kicks embellished with a thick Fripp-like tone, it all ending in a satisfying modal wash.

The encore tune was the finest of the evening, shades of sadness being contrasted and counter posed with dark ominous harmonies. A poignant and pensive end to an evening of mixed emotions.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blue Monks

Mass in Blue, St George's Singers with Tina May, and the RNCM Jazz Collective, RNCM, Sunday 8th November 2009

A slightly different outing for me this one, Will Todd's 'Mass in Blue' being "an exuberant jazz setting of the latin mass for choir and twelve piece band". The evening kicked off with a selection of standards from the youthful RNCM Jazz Collective led up by the spirited and somewhat feverish conducting of Mike Hall. The group's improvising did exhibit some scruffiness at the edges, and perhaps a degree of youthful naiveity, but nontheless there were some great sections here. I especially liked the contemporary sounding 'Beneath the Underdog', a piece by Dean Sorenson which contained some sweet spacious modern harmonies and voicings.

After the break we were back for 'Mass in Blue' complete with the St George's Singers and jazz vocalist Tina May. It was immediately quite strange to hear the latin words in 'Kyrie' over a very strong and classic bluesy setting. Tina May's vocal inflections were well delivered, and as classic as they come. A rousing 'Gloria' took us into fast swing territory, and was followed by the laid back Summertime-like shuffle blues of 'Credo', rounded off with some call and response between May and the choir towards the end of the piece. The tempo was back up to fast swing for 'Sanctus', the pace of which gave the St George's choir a good workout. The overall effect of this and the previous pieces was inevitably reminiscent of American gospel choirs, and the effect was as warm and uplifting as you would expect. 'Benedictus' was the first significant shift from the definitive blues harmonies of the previous movements, being something closer to a ballad. This gave the choir the first opportunity to really shine with some rich deep resonant harmonies and contrasting lines that really showed what they could do. 'Agnus Dei' was May's show piece, starting with touching piano accompaniment that followed through into a show closing rousing fast shuffle.

Overall this was good stuff and came across well. I had presumed the composition would be more of a fusion of jazz/blues harmony with classical harmony, and this would have been really interesting to hear. However that's clearly not what Will Todd had in mind with his actually quite reverential composition. Appropriately reverential for what is after all a Mass one might think.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Little Ray of Charles

A Tribute To The Music Of Ray Charles: Sassoon, Bentley And Friends, Cinnamon Club, Bowden, Manchester, 30th November 2009

I couldn't make it to this one, so here's a guest blog post from the lovely Mrs Ring Modulator:

The Cinnamon Club provides a rather unlikely location for catching up with some of the local jazz talent. The large hall often echoes to the sounds of cha cha chas or waltzes, with the ever-popular ballroom dancing classes. But it was recently turned over to an evening paying tribute to the legendary Ray Charles. For those who attended the Manchester Jazz Festival, there was a similar event in St Ann's Square, which went down a storm. This was essentially a repetition, but being covered, there was no change of any other kind of storm dampening the scene.

The evening commenced with a set by Jem Sassoon and Paul Bentley, long-time collaborators. They have an album coming out and they ran through some of the classic tunes that they have recorded, including 'Amazing Grace' and 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel (To Be Free)', which is the TV theme tune for the Film programme lately hosted by Barry Norman. This was fairly standard fayre. It got the evening going nicely, but was a little tame for me. However, the highlight was our first taste of the full compliment of musicians on a rockin' version of the 1970s Spiderman cartoon theme tune. I used to watch the cartoon when I was young, and the theme tune was really the best thing about it.

My biggest gripe about the evening was the very long interval. We started thinking we might give up and go home when the band eventually appeared at about 10.30. It was worth staying for. The arrangements by Iain Dixon were really superb, sometimes giving the impression of a much larger horn section that the two saxophones, trombone and trumpet and achieving a fine balance between all of the component parts of the band. I particularly enjoyed 'Let the Good Times Roll' and the whole thing stepped up a gear when the backing singers came on to give a particularly fine performance on 'Hit The Road Jack'. One of the highlights for me was Mike Walker's guitar solo on 'Heat of the Night'. The sound was beautifully sweet and immense and the playing was, as usual, awesome. But all of the musicians really gave it some and their enjoyment of the music really came across to a very receptive audience.