Sunday, November 21, 2010

We Got It

Gary Burton Quartet + Scottish National Jazz Orchestra - London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London. 17th November 2010

Following a warm up week in New York, tonight’s concert was the first major outing for Gary Burton’s new quartet, and compelling stuff it was too, hitting the pocket from the off. As early as the second tune, ‘Last Snow’, the band already has us with some deep sensitive playing off the back of its gorgeous melody. Guitarist Julian Lage immediately impressed, seducing us with luscious arpeggio sweeps, before showing us his chromatic bop mettle on drummer Antonio Sanchez’s angular blues, ‘Did You Get It’. Sanchez made the most of his own piece, the odd number bar lengths handled with a sure-footed confidence further exhibited on a late era Monk tune, ‘Light Blue’.

Lage’s playing throughout was something to behold, especially on a jaw dropping extended solo intro to ‘My Funny Valentine’, his speedy semi-quaver precision only ever being at the service of a soulful sensitivity that was a sheer delight to bask in. Double bass player Scott Colley took his moment in this track, laying down some thoughtful lines sculpted with a fine lyrical grace.

Mr Burton wasn’t to be overshadowed though. His improvising was so effortless and relaxed, even at the high tempos, that at times we were overwhelmed with the musical treats. I wanted to press pause so I could soak it all up better.

After the break, Burton joined the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra led by ex-Burton band tenor player, Tommy Smith. This was less successful than the first set, the energy level in the hall having dipped somewhat and the Orchestra seeming a little tired after their four gig stint at the festival. Nevertheless, there was enjoyable stuff here, notably on the Wayne Shorter classic, ‘Speak No Evil’, and ‘Virgo Rising’, when the orchestra were definitely grooving. Burton’s best stuff came through on the ballad ‘Infant Eyes’, and Smith got nice and Coltraney on an enriched arrangement of ‘Footprints’.

Lots of good stuff here, but the guitars have it.

Gary Burton photo courtesy of The Queen's Hall

Murc Off

Murcof and Francesco Tristano - London Jazz Festival, Queen Eliizabeth Hall, Southbank, London. 16th November 2010

There was promise here for sure. The combination of Fernando Corona aka Murcof’s minimalist electronica grace and the idiosynkrasia of 'not'-pianist Francesco Tristano ought to have delivered something special, but I’m not sure it did. Things started promisingly enough with Tristano scattering some deeply reverberated quizzical piano notes. Murcof then faded in a deep bass thrum overlaid with a thin shade of white noise. And, … well that’s where it stayed for quite some time. Tristano’s harmonic pepperings were more or less of the same ilk throughout. He did start to work on the piano’s acoustic textural potential, leaning in to mute pluck and scratch the strings inside the piano body creating those familiar avant-classical shimmerings. He then slapped, tapped and banged the frame, inducing various rhythmic effects, all swathed in just a little too much digital reverb. It was interesting stuff, but it needed to go somewhere somehow.

Murcof set up an even low rhythm thud on the second piece, the accompanying retro analog sounding arpeggios really reminding me of Phaedra era Tangerine Dream. Again, there was something really quite good about it, but it seemed to need more. The volume increase and aural thickness left Tristano’s continued piano body rhythm attacks somewhat outgunned, though he did later respond with some high velocity sweeps across the full range of keys that managed to cut through and make some impact.

The final piece had something approaching a groove, the lithe and partially effete Tristano swaying accordingly to the low beat emanating from Murcof’s laptop. Good this, but once again, it overstayed it’s welcome. A not insignificant number of the audience had already voted with their feet at this point, and the notably short set was not extended with an encore. Not good value I suppose, but I’m not sure too many were complaining.

These Funky Things (Remind Me of Sco)

John Scofield Trio + Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London. 15th November 2010

Hurray! I finally managed to get to see John Scofield last week. Through some bad luck with timings and being based in Manchester, somehow it’s taken me this long. Technically I did see him many years ago at the Jazz Café, but illness on my part meant an early exit after a few tracks.

Although I’ve got time for most styles of jazz guitar, Scofield’s slurry bluesy playing is pretty much bang on for me (and I guess what I try to go for in my own playing). There were no disappointments either, as Scofield was on funky fine form. The scratchy groove of ‘Chicken Dog’ was bloody great, drummer Bill Stewart’s fluid laidback feel nudging up against the lightly overdriven double stop bends that are Scofield’s trade mark. It wasn’t all bump and grind though. The trio delivered a sweet and sensitive take on ‘These Foolish Things’, Steve Swallow playing a most heart rendering bass solo up in the high upper register of his five string. Most of the tracks were of the bluesy groove variety with a little country twang thrown in for good measure. Scofield’s distinctive use of raw altered and chromatic harmony wasn’t neglected however, being in evidence aplenty on the dirty grit of ‘The Low Road’, it’s tough density enhanced by the use of delay sampled guitar self-accompaniment.

Scofield joined the Scottish National Jazz Band after the break for a set of big band arrangements led by tenor player, Tommy Smith. A highlight was ‘Groove Elation’, the big band managing to get the energy across well, with Scofield’s improvising punching through nicely. On a similar note, Miles Davis’ ‘Splatch was a good one too. The big band set wasn’t an unqualified success, the sound mix being messy at times, and the horn mix balance wasn’t quite right. Even so, it worked well in the main, with Scofield’s groove slotting in really well, and perhaps better than one might have expected within the formality of large arrangements. Top marks London Jazz Festival programming for making me a very happy bunny tonight.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Beyond Good and Evil

Esperanza Spalding Chamber Music Society + Zoe Rahman – London Jazz Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London. Saturday 13th November 2010

I’d heard lots of good things about pianist Zoe Rahman in recent years, so I was really pleased to see she was opening this double bill playing solo. The plaudits are justified, as she was great. Her playing is strident and strong, with heaps of dynamic and harmonic variety. There was plenty of tasty swing bluesy phrasing in there, but also lots of ethnic piquancy that really adds to sound palette. She really worked the timbral and textural potential of the piano into her playing too, making for an engaging solo set that many couldn’t match without accompaniment.

Zoe Rahman

Terms such as ‘prodigy’, ‘natural’, ‘gifted’ and so on get bandied around all too easily (sometimes by myself), but the amazing Esperanza Spalding has a fair right to those labels. At the concert she mesmorised the entire Queen Elizabeth Hall with ease from the start. She frequently sings either solo or accompanied just by her own double bass, and on these occasions you could hear a pin drop over the quiet hum of the hall’s sound system, it’s mains noise filters not usually exposed to such scrutiny by an audience listening so intently. What makes this even more remarkable is that much of her material is complex and quite difficult listening. Her melodies are constantly surprising, going off in all sorts of directions, and rarely follow conventional resolutions. Although they’re very different artists, it’s the same ability Polar Bear have to make what might be heavy listening very accessible.

Esperanza Spalding

A case in point would be the track ‘Knowledge of Good and Evil’, where Spalding sang a melody that dipped and weaved over a fairly hard to grasp chord sequence, but she made it work wonderfully. Same with the restless ‘Chacarera’. The technical ability required to deliver the tricky lines is demanding enough, but the way she manages to breath life and soul into them is stunning.

A minor but not insignificant downside was that Spalding’s star quality appeared to inhibit the band somewhat. Leonardo Genovese on piano and Richard Barshay on drums were perfectly acceptable, but never really sparkled. Similarly, the string trio of Olivia de Prato (violin), Lois Martin (viola) and Jody Redhage (cello) got the job done perfectly well, but didn’t catch one’s ear. Guest star Gretchen Parlato was closest to giving Spalding a run for her money when she joined for a delightful vocal duet on Jobim’s ‘Inútil Paisagem’. I’m not usually inclined to use the word, but this performance was awesome in the true sense. Spalding returns for concert at the Barbican in April next year that would be worth checking out.

Zoe Rahman and Esperanza Spalding photos copyright © 2010 Emile Holba.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Theatre of the Absurd

Simcock Meets Charnock - London Jazz Festival, Purcell Room, Southbank, London. 12th November 2010

Well this was new and strange – improvised jazz with improvised movement, Gwilym Simcock on the piano with maverick Nigel Charnock on 'movement'. Initially the whole thing seemed somewhat absurd. Simcock started with some very quiet and reflective playing that Charnock soon started contorting to. The thud of his feet on the stage was really quite loud relative to the quiet piano, and after having adjusted to the absurdity, I then became frustrated at this audible intrusion. After a short while though, it all started to make sense and became quite good fun. After the first piece Charnock explained his hyperactivity, admitting that he’d been dreading the performance, and it’s true that the intensity did seem a strange partner to Simcock’s contemplative opening gambit.

Charnock began to calm down, partly through exhaustion I suspect, and the improvisatory interplay between the two started to gel and make more sense. Simcock did a good job of trying to match Charnock’s movement with a few rhythmic punches, but there were quite a few misfires. It was hard not be won over by Charnock’s natural wit and playful vulgarity, and he raised quite a few laughs, especially on his several trips out into the audience, at one point climbing some ladders at the back of the room and banging on the sound booth.

In the second half Simcock was joined by his regular trio partners Yuri Goloubev on double bass and James Maddren on drums for some tracks from the ‘Blues Vignette’ record. Maddren is just getting better and better, managing to combine a very fluid underlying pulse with an understated busyness that matches Simcock’s harmonic density deftly. Goloubev seemed a bit bemused, having missed the rehearsal due to flight delays, and wasn’t at his most fiery, but still did the job. He seemed a little wary when Charnock reappeared to join the trio for a few tracks, but stoically got on with it.

This evening was a fun proposition and came off well as a one-off, but I did find the movement distracted much attention from the music, ultimately the music being a poor loser. Also, much of the success of the event came from Charnock’s witty asides. In some ways we were won as much by the comedy as the movement, which did get repetitive, Charnock appearing to struggle for ideas from about half way through. A good time was had by many nonetheless.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Impossibly Good?

Courtesy of Mr Walker himself, I've just found out that the Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker, Steve Swallow & Adam Nussbaum quartet have the new moniker of 'The Impossible Gentlemen'. There's a new album and tour to look forward to 2011 too. A tad more info on Gwilym's website. Their sellout concert at the RNCM was reviewed on the Modulator below.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Kind Folk

Kenny Wheeler 80th Birthday Concert, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, Saturday 23rd October 2010

A lovely evening was had at the RNCM last week for the Kenny Wheeler 80th Birthday concert. It's been a while since I've seen Wheeler, back in the days when I was living in London. I managed to catch him quite a few times at the Vortex, then on Stoke Newington Church St, and I really remember shuffling past him practising on the stairs.

Wheeler's lost none of his modest charm, opening the set in quartet formation, himself of course on flugelhorn, Manchester ex-pat John Taylor on piano, Chris Laurence on double bass and Martin France on drums. A tentative and vulnerably beautiful 'Kind Folk' was followed by a steadier 'Everybody's Song But My Own'. The UK stalwarts continued to appear, with sax players Stan Sulzman, Julian Arguelles joining next, then with Evan Parker for a top sounding short free improv banter with drummer France. Vocalist Diana Torto entered with the rest of the big band for a great set of characteristically fulsome Wheeler arrangements conducted by Pete Churchill.

Wheeler's compositional skills are in fine form, the band treating us to a series of gorgeous new pieces. 'Canta No.6' was a highlight, with some great gusto improvising from Torto and a touching autumnal solo interlude from Taylor, who was on sparkling form tonight. Catching Taylor was an extra treat for me, as I've been wanting to see him play for some time, having heard many versions of his UK standard, 'Ambleside Days' (and having put in a good few hours on it myself).

On the whole the solo improvisations were quite short and to the point, the musical centrepiece of the concert being Wheeler's warm and rich arrangements. I was really impressed with Torto who made the most of her opportunities to shine. A heart warming evening, and a great lead in to John Taylor's gig with Torto and the RNCM Big Band.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Uncanny Reveries - Manchester Jazz Festival Day Eight

The Golden Age of Steam and TrioVD, Pavilion. Les Chisnall, St Anns Church. Orca Trio, Pavilion. Friday, 30th July 2010.

I made it in the nick of time to take my pew for Les Chisnall's solo piano recital at St Anns Church. I'm no stranger to Chisnall' playing, but this was the first time I've had the opportunity to see him solo. This was really wonderful stuff and undoubtably a highlight of the festival for me. Chisnall walks the perfect line between the best of classical, while allowing improvisations to take the pieces in new directions without the constraints of written notes. Chisnall explained that he believes Chopin was one the great improvisers, then treating us to a simple two chord Chopin piece whereafter Chisnall took the harmony in all sorts of strange and wonderful directions. There were all sorts of classical references in here, ranging from Bach to Debussy, all filtered through Chisnall's introspective Bill Evans tinged harmonic lens, culminating in a luscious improvisatory take on a Chisnall fave by english composer John Odgdon. The set concluded with the now familiar Mike Walker standard, 'Clockmaker', summarising a great set perfectly.

It was another 'mjf introduces' triumph from the 'Orca Trio' in the pavilion. I hadn't come across the relaxed confident playing of pianist Dominic Marshall before today, so this was another new one for me. There were some great Evans inspired composition skills on show here, and Marshall's lyrical playing was a delight. The band exhibit a very mature sense of the importance of space in the sound, giving the trio a lovely open and inviting texture. Drummer Dan Gardner knows a thing or two about how to groove as well.

Friday evening promised to be challenging, opening with the Golden Age of Steam, a trio complete with Mercury Award nominated Kit Downes on Hammond Organ. I was initially on my guard due to the off the mark self-conscious quirky humour from bass clarinet player James Allsopp, but the band did have an intriguingly wandering sound. The ruminating harmony seemed to stagger about, but far from in a typical free jazz way. It had much more of a Freud like uncanny familiarity that was a little disturbing, but also curiously inviting. It was like you knew where you were, then all of a sudden you realised you didn't. Downes enhanced the Hammond tones with some deep echoes and reverbs, sounding at times very reminiscent of the early Pink Floyd. The band definitely take you for a walk on the surreal side. Like an early morning reverie that you can't quite capture, but want to experience again. A gig here in York ought to be a must.

I saw TrioVD at the London Jazz Festival last year, and wasn't all that taken if I'm honest. Never having been a metal fan, I suppose it wasn't likely to work for me. However, perhaps I was more attentive this time, but I definitely got much more from their Manchester performance. It's full on aggro for sure, but extremely tight and delivered with head-slicing force. Squeals and grunts rained down aplenty from the saxophone of Christophe de Bezenac whilst guitarist Chris Sharkey scratched angular shards and fired machine gun note cluster attacks with a hefty distortion. Chris Bussey provided the necessary muscular force on drums to balance this fearsome energy powerhouse with some gripping bombast.

It really struck me seeing them this time that there's striking echoes of the King Crimson approach, something I've heard in a number of the bands at this year's festival. Maybe that's inevitable when you play heavy with odd time signatures and dark tonalities perhaps. Not for everyone this lot, but they're doing their own thing and well worth checking out. It might just be you.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Party to the End of the World - Manchester Jazz Festival Day Six

Phil Bancroft’s “Home, Small as the World”, RNCM. mjf introduces: Andrew Woodhead Quartet, Pavilion. Edward Barnwell Trio, Bridgewater Hall Foyer. Jim Faulker Group, St Anns Square. Wednesday, 28th July 2010.

There's nothing like a bit of hard edged avant jazz to get your lunchtime appetite going, and the Jim Faulkner Group were happy to oblige on Wednesday. Most of the set consisted of an extended single piece ranging through different moods. The first part had something of a Miles Bitches Brew era feel, with lots of free ambient textures, mainly emanating from the guitar of Jim Faulkner. As the track's energy built, Sam Healey on saxophone roared in with some searing atonal Coltranesque arpeggio flourishes.

The next Scofield-like section provided some harmonic relief with some tasteful modern guitar voicing from Faulkner. Electric bass player Grant Russell stood out on a fast swing tune that followed, with an effective two hand tapped repeating intro, after which Healey got all intense on us again. Faulkner responded with some blues tinged deep overdriven tones, navigating the changes of this quite King Crimson like jazz rock section. The intensity continued to cycle upwards, Faulkner side-kicking the harmony with some brave 'out' phrased sequencing. Drummer Rob Turner's chance came to have his say proper with an aggressive and fiery solo that met Healey's and Faulkner statements head on. Great stuff this. Challenging for this time of the day, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

It was then a quick dash over to the Bridgewater Wall to see pianist Ed Barnwell. His rhythm section of Rob Turner and Grant Russell somehow managed to beat me there, set up and get changed as well. Barnwell has a flowing and lyrical sound that's quite delicious. He brings in classical tonalities to add to the mystery, darkness and melancholy. His compositions are strong, and wide ranging in style, as are his improvisational skills which were on show aplenty, particularly on a latin groove assisted by some great percussive hand drumming from Turner.

Next stop the pavilion for the day's 'mjf introduces' session from the Andrew Woodhead Quartet. This band had a nice easy and relaxed feel, quite unusual for a set of musicians this age. Sam Rapley on saxophone in particular was in especially laid back mode, his feel and phrasing matching pianist Woodhead's chord placements beautifully. There were plenty of well chosen standards new and old here, but the highlight for me was the Woodhead composed 'Rings'. This was a very mature sounding slowish swing track with a laconic and contemplative vibe reflecting the quartet's overall sound. A pleasing set of changes nodding to the EST sound were delivered in a delightfully unhurried way. Another strike for the young guns.

Phil Bancroft's 'Home - Small as the World' promised to be a most unusual evening at the Royal Northern College of Music, and sure enough, it was. The was the second performance of a project originally commissioned by the Edinburgh Jazz Festival last year, and originally inspired by the homecoming. The concept behind Bancroft's project is about reflecting on what 'home' means to us today, looking at how it connects with subjects such as nationalism and war, and how the internet has affected the home. The project invited people to interact via its website, and the performance included stills, film, sofas and some audience participation.

The performance began with a short home movie to give us a sense of Bancroft's home life, this being followed by a flowing contemporary groove piece. 'Home - Small as the World' was next, a really effective piece consisting of a simple repeating sequence accompanied with pictures of people in their home settings contributed through the website. There was something surprisingly affecting about how this worked, and I found it quite moving.

Next we were treated to surprise guest Mike Walker dialling in from his home in Haslingden over Skype. There was something quite surreal and somewhat big brother like about Bancroft chatting to a larger than life Walker on the big screen. After showing us a little of his lounge, including the telly, Walker joined in for the next piece, bravely improvising over the Skype connection. The simple Steve Reich style minor figure was doubtless chosen partly to keep things manageable for the remote participation, but sounded great nonetheless. The idea was that Walker would join in for two solo improvisations, but he kept playing and somehow managed to keep in time as the piece restarted despite the web latency, something Bancroft described as 'genius' when I interviewed him after the gig. You can get a flavour of this from the video below, though it is a bit rough and ready. Very curious and very cool.

The second set treated us to an audience participation musical housework race accompanied by quirky game show music from the band. The highlight of this set was a long track based around a metrical metronomic guitar line played by guitarist Graeme Stephen which transformed into a Rhodes soaked groove, Paul Harrison doing the honours on the keys. Stephen's warm valve enriched guitar tone was really sweet at this point, sounding great on some angry angular fluid soloing over a restless harmonic base. Fiddle player Aiden O'Rourke then eased us down to a warm ending with some great playing that expertly bridged the tension between angularity and traditional harmony.

After another break the band returned in bizarre home made space suits. The mood initially got heavier, the visual theme addressing issues of war and nationalism, all with an eerie phased drone backdrop driven by the double bass of Mario Caribe. Fiddle string scratch textures, atonal squeaks from Felicity Provan's cornet and percussive oddities from drummer Stu Ritchie all added to the foreboding. Sometimes it's hard to beat a drone for sheer sadness, and with some masterful melancholic tenor sax playing from Bancroft laid over the top, the sentiment of the track was expressed well. The piece segued into a dark groove before ending with all players contributing to the cacophonic aural angst. The evening closed on a green note, with Bancroft playing us a video warning from the future before ending on a high with the super funky 'We've Trashed the Earth So Let's Go Party'. An irresistibly groovy way to end a most curious evening. All good and most memorable.

I interviewed Phil after the concert about the ideas behind the project. You can have a listen here:

Adrian Stevenson talks to Phil Bancroft for the mjf by manchesterjazz

Monday, August 02, 2010

Howlin' Gwil and Big Mike Walker - Manchester Jazz Festival Day Five

Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum, Royal Northern College of Music. 27th July 2010

Following Monday night's Jazz on 3 taster, the Simcock Walker Swallow Nussbaum group were over at the Royal Northern College of Music for a full set on Tuesday. It seemed like the entire North West jazz community were here for this sold out gig, as well as a few from Midlands and South. It was clearly a key gig to be at, with guitarist Mikes Walker always attracting a loyal crowd, pianist Gwilym Simcock now making significant waves, and bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum being of legendary status.

Clockmaker once again opened the set, with Swallow delivering another sweet and memorable solo. The sad and achingly beautiful 'When You Hold Her' was the highlight of the first set, Walker's guitar feedback wails perfectly capturing the calling anguish of the tune's sentiment. Nussbaum was especially bracing on another superfast take on 'Laughlines', all the while remaining rock steady and true throughout both sets.

Nussbaum came forward to introduce 'Hey Pretty Baby', one of his contributions to the group's songwriting efforts dedicated to the great blues legends such as Howlin' Wolf and T-Bone Walker (and Big Mike Walker as Nussbaum added). Down deep grooved it was too, being a slow burner based on a simple blues riff. Walker roared with some weighty thick and long bent BB style notes. The set ended appropriately with a smiling and tender version of Swallow's 'Ladies in Mercedes'. Simcock soared throughout the two sets with highly energised and fullsome solos. Walker wasn't as on it tonight as I know he can be, and was clearly a little underpowered, but still produced many great moments. All in all, a great night at the RNCM and a great success for the Manchester Jazz Festival with such a good turnout and response from the audience.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Passion, Grace and Fire - Manchester Jazz Festival Day Four

Arun Ghosh Quintet, Stuart McCallum and Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum, Band on the Wall.

mjf introduces: Sam Rapley/Adam Chatterton Quintet, Festival Pavilion. Monday 26th July 2010

This was the first of the 'mjf introduces' series of mid afternoon concerts showcasing new jazz talent from around the UK. A great start it was too from the Sam Rapley/Adam Chatterton Quintet playing some classic straight ahead standards. I've seen this group a few times now, and they always do a cooking version of Wayne Shorter's 'Witch Hunt', today being no exception. Trumpet player Chatterton's solo was strong and strident, and there some nice prodding outside the harmony soloing from piano player Mathis Picard.

The band have a great affection for the tunes of the great Kenny Wheeler, treating us to a take on his 'Everybody's Song But My Own'. They captured the typically Wheeler wistfulness really well with thoughtful solos from Sam Rapley on the sax, and Chatterton on flugelhorn. Drummer Calum Lee continues to get better all the time, being strong and fluid throughout, and bass player Tom McCredie got a chance to show us his mettle on the vulnerable sparsity of 'Blue in Green'.

It was over to the Band on the Wall in the evening for BBC Radio 3’s Jazz on 3 live broadcast with the Arun Ghosh Quintet, a solo premiere from Stuart McCallum and the Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum group. There was a really fantastic buzz in the place for this slightly different to a normal gig setup. It was interesting in itself to observe how Jazz on 3 go about organising things so that a concert can go out live over the air. There was a little rehearsal for us the audience, so we knew when the show was actually live, and it was interesting to see the Jazz on 3 team doing their best to cue the bands in for the end their set. Not easy.

Arun Ghosh can be pretty intense any night of the week, so not unsurprisingly he was really fired up for this one, the band delivering a whirlwind of a set leaving the audience stunned. Corey Mwamba on vibes and Myke Wilson on drums played with such force I'm surprised their respective instruments survived the session. The sheer energy kick of this performance alone was enough to make it hugely enjoyable, but it did come at the expense of the music to a certain extent, the brooding darkness of the usually majestic 'Uterine' in particular being somewhat lost through a slightly overcooked performance.

It was up to Stuart McCallum to prevent the intensity levels from getting out of hand with his premiere ambient loop suite, something he managed expertly. It was classic dreamy McCallum complete with echoey washes of sound over some simple repeating sequences. The piece is intended to be a response to the over-complexity that much of jazz exhibits, and the simple and fairly static harmony reflected this aim well.

Guitarist Mike Walker's contemplative solo introduction to 'Clockmaker' continued the reflective mood for a few minutes more before the band joined in for the warming tune melody. Legendary bass player Steve Swallow was straight in for a delightful melodic and quite guitary solo. Next up was pianist Gwilym Simcock's 'You Won't be Around to See It' based on the idea of Swallow's 'Real Book' album that takes the chord sequences to standards and puts new melodies to them, in this case to 'Softly As In A Morning Sunrise'. The edgy angular head section of the tune soon gave way to a gorgeous bluesy groove. Walker never misses the chance to make the most of these opportunities, and dug in with some sparkling pinched harmonics and arpeggio flourishes. Simcock took the track in a more swing feel direction opening the way for a cruising solo from drummer Adam Nussbaum.

The band rounded off with Walker's boppy 'Laughlines' counted in at such a high tempo by Walker that he almost outpaced himself on the complex tune head. Simcock matched the velocity with a blistering high energy solo, the track ending the evening on the high that it began. A good one in the bag for Jazz on 3 I think.

You can hear the broadcast for a few more days at the Jazz on 3 website.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Folk, Funk, and a Firestorm - Manchester Jazz Festival Day Two

Magic Hat Ensemble, Glazz, Tony Woods Project, Huw Jacob, Liane Carroll Trio. Festival Pavilion, Albert Square, Manchester. Saturday 24th July 2010

What can you say about the Magic Hat Ensemble? Always good. Always fast. Always lots of tempo changes. It's straight ahead boppy stuff, if a little twisted and mangled, all delivered with panache and wit. Maybe a tad scrappy here and there, but all very charming and most enjoyable. Good start.

Glazz, a trio from Spain were for the most part a rock funk thing, overlaid with lots of overdriven blues from the guitar of Jose Manuel Recacha. There were fewer prog rock sounds in their than their influences might have suggested, though I heard a few Pink Floyd quotes on one tune in particular.

The most unusual and interesting part of their sound came from the addition of flamenco dancer Lucia Ruibal, sister of the drummer Javier. The sound engineers had somehow managed to amplify the stage so you could hear Lucia's complex flamenco foot tap rhythms clearly set against Javier's steady grooves. The set in many ways could have done with a bit more of this, as Lucia only came on for two songs. Though I prefer not to label things, I'd say the main 'jazziness' came via an homage to King Crimson called 'Stressreo', the metrical figures clearly referencing Crimson's 'Discipine' era. Glazz are not entirely my thing, but they have a strong sound nonetheless.

Returning to jazz festival after a three year break, the Tony Woods Project delivered a fine fettle of folky, free and funky sounds, perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon. You get lots of even precise lines delivered in what you might called a folk type rhythm, but the harmony is always much deeper, albeit referencing classic modal folk sounds. The precision interplay on the tune heads between Tony Woods on sax and Mike Outram on guitar was frequently delightful.

'Prayer', the final track, was a warming highlight complete with ambient textures and some warm bowed vibes from Rob Millett. The track mutated from it's homely beginning into bluesy groove, enhanced by some fade-in echo feedback from Outram, before he dug in proper with some tasty mute picked bends.

The evening session opened with a tuneful set of tunes from Huw Jacob and his band. This is all about the songwriting and the lyrics, with some well crafted sequences and lush harmony vocals nodding to the classic pop of Squeeze and the Beatles. The sound was especially ear-catching when it opened up enough to let Jamie Safiruddin's sweet and fresh piano playing come through. Some great tunes here for sure.

I hadn't actually heard or seen much about the Lianne Carroll Trio before tonight if I'm honest, and I wasn't at all prepared for the firestorm of a performance we got. Suffice to say, they totally stormed it. The massive energy kick pushed out from the stage by Carroll and the band from the very first note was worth a good many strong coffees (if not something stronger). The jury is still out for me on whether some musicians have 'natural' talent, but when you see someone such as Carroll who can perform so well and so effortlessly, I do wonder. The material is what you might call mainstream, but it's delivered with such vigour and joy, you have to be something of a sour old goat to not raise a smile. A fantastic upbeat ending to a great opening Saturday night.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Space Is The Place - Manchester Jazz Festival Day One

Ralph Alessi with the Jim Hart Trio, Festival Pavilion, Albert Square, Manchester. Nat Birchall Quartet. Friday 23rd July 2010.

Marshall Allen & James Harrar’s Cinema Soloriens and the Cosmo-Drama, Band on the Wall. Friday 23rd July 2010.

So it was finally here, the launch of the fifteenth Manchester Jazz Festival. The proceedings started in a novel way with Supertramp sax player, John Helliwell officially launching the festival playing a melody of notes stuck to a stave by members of the audience. I think John may have taken a liberty or two with the notes, but it was a lot of fun.

Vibes player Jim Hart and trumpeter Ralph Alessi got us going proper with a healthy dose of some fairly classic sounding medium swing. There was a particularly nice touch when the players synched in with the town hall bell bringing in the hour. 'Morbid Curiosity' caught my ear with it's Steve Reich'ish 'Different Trains' quality, always a winner for me. Hart's vibe sound is quite delicious, and his attack and phrasing were well on it tonight.

It was then a quick dash over to the Band on the Wall for the last few tracks of Nat Birchill's set. This is very much the sound of Coltrane's long modal vamps (or at least the tunes I heard were). Nat and his band really know how to get that sound down perfectly, and it came across really well along with the pensive piano of Adam Fairhill, and the contemplative double bass of Gavin Barras. 'Many Blessings' was suitably longing, with gently rolling piano arpeggios and ecstatic saxophone flourishes. Bang on if you like this sort of thing.

We were straight over to 1967 Haight Ashbury for the free jazz cosmic psychedelia of the Cinema Soloriens, complete with bell bottom green satin flares worn by guitarist Kamil Kruta. This was fascinating stuff, at least for the first thirty minutes or so. Ex-Sun Ra star, Marshall Allen, when not playing alto sax, was playing some kind of electronic flute. The vocals from James Harrar really reminded me of the Can sound on 'Tago Mago', and I was really quite enjoying it.

At the risk of retorts from free jazz fans, I have to say I can't help thinking that the band had run out ideas after about half an hour, and then it all became a bit repetitive. Although it may be considered to conflict with the ideas of free jazz, it's hard not to think that a bit of listening to the other players and responding for the good of the overall sound would have improved things no end. One might say they were, but not in a way I could detect. One might say, why should they? In which case, yeah, OK I guess, if that's what you're in to. A bit more …, ironically, space in the sound would have helped keep the interest level up, or at least some more shifts of shade, colour and pace. Space is indeed, the place I think, and I would have loved more of it. The overall groove from drummer Ed Wilcox was great, but it didn't change much for the whole single piece set. I believe I may now have been banned from Saturn.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Manchester Jazz Festival Is Go

Yes it all starts today! Get yerselves down. It's gonna be mega.

... and I need a new reviewing pad ASAP. I'll be getting reviews up here as fast as I can.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Sketches From Spain

Interview with Mike Walker in Andalucia, Spain. 22nd June 2010

The new Manchester Jazz Festival website includes a fifteen minute interview with Mike Walker that I managed to get while I was on Mike's advanced Jazz Guitar Master Class Retreat in Andalucia, Spain recently. I thought I'd include it here as well.

Mike talks about how the Simcock Walker Swallow Nussbaum tour came about, and how he went about writing material for this group of musicians, as well as what it was like improvising with such legendary players as bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum. He also reflects on 'Ropes', his 2008 commission for the Manchester Jazz Festival, and the upcoming mjf date at the Royal Northern College of Music. There's also exciting news on some upcoming planned new CD releases.

Give the interview a listen here:

Mike Walker Interview 22nd June 2010 by manchesterjazz

Manchester Jazz Festival Website Now Live

Red hot off the Wordpress! - full details on the 15th festival, the biggest to date. Loads of extra goodies including an interview by me with Mike Walker. Go there now:

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Manchester Jazz Festival Announces The Full 2010 Line Up

As some readers of this blog will know, I'm involved with the annual Manchester Jazz Festival that's coming up very soon now. Our lovely team have just put out a press release, so I thought it'd be handy to include it here. The fest is gonna be a goodun:

Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf), celebrates its 15th anniversary with the biggest festival to date, Fri 23 - Sat 31 July 2010

Over 80 bands will play across 8 city centre venues, at all times of the day and night - indoors and out! mjf is all about trying something new - and this year it's easier than ever to discover a world of new music, unlike any other on the jazz festival circuit.

2010 includes musical firsts from Britain and abroad, including the mjf originals commission Surroundings, a new antiphonal suite for jazz orchestra composed by Manchester trumpeter Neil Yates. International debuts come from Spanish pianist Baldo Martinez and Franco-German duo Daniel Erdmann and Frances Le Bras. Other highlights include jazz 'supergroup' Simcock/Walker/Swallow/Nussbaum, featuring Salford-born guitarist Mike Walker, and Phil Bancroft's multi-media Home - Small as the World which features one musician's contribution beamed directly by wi-fi from his Manchester home.

As you’d expect, Band on the Wall, Manchester’s legendary live music venue, is one of mjf’s main venues, with performances from the Indo-Jazz fusions of ex-Mancunian clarinettist Arun Ghosh, to the city’s most revered DJ, Mr Scruff. Even ’80s icon Kid Creole makes a comeback! Also at the venue, the BBC’s flagship jazz radio programme Jazz on 3 will broadcast live from the festival on Monday 26 July.

A multitude of jazz vocalists, all with their own personal approach to jazz, feature in the line up: Terri Shaltiel has the blues, Rodina an Irish lilt, Monika Lidke her Polish folk songs, Alice Zawadzki her Jewish folk songs and An Jacobs her French chanson.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is music for the jazz aficionado too: mjf champions artists who are crossing the boundaries and pushing the music to new limits: The Golden Age of Steam features an unusual line up of bass clarinet, organ and drums, and their soundworld – nothing to do with trains! – evokes swirling soundscapes and contemporary classical music. Jim Hart studied an unusual instrument - the vibraphone - at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester; now he’s one of the UK’s leading exponents and he’s joined forces with Ralph Alessi, the innovative New York-based trumpeter, for his gig to launch the festival on 23 July.

A whole day is also devoted to the energetic and vital rhythms of Afro-Caribbean music. From 2.00pm on Sunday 25 July, take part in special percussion and dance workshops in the Festival Pavilion in Albert Square, and at 8.00pm catch the double bill featuring two of the north west’s foremost ensembles of this genre: Diáspora, a young 11-piece band with dynamic orchestrations, and Mojito, with authentic Cuban vocalists and a lively percussion section. All you need to add is the rum and the cigar…

mjf introduces continues in the afternoons with 6 new young artists from Greater Manchester launching their careers at the Festival Pavilion in Albert Square. New to the festival this year is a series of afternoon tea events in the award winning French restaurant at the Grade II-listed Midland Hotel.

Steve Mead, mjf’s Artistic Director, says: “There’s an incredible amount of wonderful music in this year’s festival – and so much for free. Not only that, but such a wide mixture of sounds and styles, from twice BBC Jazz Award-winner and singer/songwriter Liane Carroll, bringing her relaxed pop and blues influences into the mix, to the most challenging of artists at the cutting-edge of jazz, like Stuart McCallum (Cinematic Orchestra) and the punky Trio VD. mjf guarantees you a memorable time, whatever your taste.”

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Heading South West South North in Vienna

Simcock Walker Swallow Nussbaum, Porgy and Bess Jazz Club, Vienna, Austria. Sunday June 6th 2010

Last month I was lucky enough to catch the 'Simcock Walker Swallow Nussbaum' group in Vienna at the Porgy and Bess Jazz and Music Club (seemingly implying jazz isn't music?) . Once out of the Vienna sunshine and down deep in the basement of the club two floors underground, it seemed surprisingly unstrange to be bumping into a few familiar faces.

The set opened with guitarist Mike Walker's warm and welcoming 'Clockmaker', further enhancing the homely feel. The legendary Steve Swallow on electric bass went straight in for a solo, feet apart to anchor himself to the ground while leaning forward, his fingers wrapping the fretboard where the neck joins the body to project flowing and melodic lines.

Pianist Gwilym Simcock is rapidly gaining an enviable reputation, and on the basis of tonight's performance, it's not hard to see why. His tune, 'You Won't Be Around To See It' grooved with a satisfying angularity that really dug in when both Walker and Simcock laid some punchy and aggressive lines over the top.

The band delivered the incendiary bop of Walker's 'Laughlines' at hyper-real speed, leaving the audience almost literally gasping for breath. The precision, pace and power of the complex tune head and the improvisations from Walker and Simcock had to be heard to be believed on this one, with all members playing out of their skins.

It was over to bluesy street for a fine take on 'Hey Pretty Baby' written by drummer Adam Nussbaum, a tune based on a simple blues riff in homage to legends such as Howlin' Wolf. Walker overlaid the sound with some fade-in textures before biting in hard with piercing overdriven string bends and feedback sustained harmonic headslices. Walker has a masterful ability to coax the guitar and amplifier to find the feedback sweetspot seemingly with ease. Simcock responded with a side-swiping almost Bach-like figure before taking the harmony down a delightfully airy dorian avenue. Nussbaum all the while cruised the deep groove, always resonating sympathetically to the group's ebb and flow. His dynamic range and sensitivity seems to extend beyond human hearing.

The evening concluded with the Steve Swallow favourite, 'Ladies in Mercedes'. Simcock led us in with some muted piano string percussion before Swallow treated us to a liquid gold flowing solo. A warm ending to a great jazz evening in the capital of classical music.

I grabbed Mike for an interview about the tour while I was on his advanced Jazz Guitar Master Class Retreat in Andalucia, Spain last week (highly recommended!). I'll be posting that in a few days.

Simcock Walker Swallow Nussbaum will be on tour again very soon and will be playing at the Royal Northern College of Music on the 27th July as part of the Manchester Jazz Festival. One not to miss me thinks.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Astral Week Days

Alice Zawadski & The Sky Project, Beats and Pieces Big Band, and The Rapley/Chatterton Quartet. West Didsbury Club, Manchester, 20th May 2010

There was a great buzz to be felt last night over in West Didsbury at the local Conservative club for a swiftly organised coalition of wide ranging jazz party members.

The Rapley/Chatterton Quartet opened the debate on this barmy night with a relaxed and well measured take on Wayne Shorter’s ‘Witch hunt’. Some smart and virtuoistic playing exuded from Mathas Picard on the keys, especially evident on the solo intro to Kenny Wheeler’s ‘My Old Man’. Chatterton delivered some thoughtful flugalhorn lines on this track too, with just the right touch of endearing vulnerability. Harrison Wood's double bass came through crisply on the intro to ‘Blue in Green’, Rapley’s tenor sounding especially sweet over this great tune.

The 15 piece Beats and Pieces Big Band kicked up the volume and energy levels straight off with ‘Bake’, a fast driving tune with a distinctly funky flavour. Sam Healey on alto sax matched the pace aplenty with a precise and intense solo, one of many highlights in the set. Whether intended or not, there’s a definite Starsky and Hutch seventies'ness to the band sound, as Ben Cotterill, conductor and arranger of all pieces and composer of most, indicated other reviewers have picked up on. This can only be a good reference for my part. ‘Yaffwa’ opened with an engaging repeating figure, expertly played by the tight and Corea’ish Patrick Hurley on the keys, Fin Panter on drums underpinning things with a tasty latino-funk groove. ‘Toan’ had a stompy Tom Waits/Polar Bear quality ending in a gorgeous cacophonic collective improv. Sam Andreae on tenor was particularly bracing on the following Radiohead triptych. All through, the arrangements were precise and coherent, with just the right amount of complexity, dynamics and space. The band were sounding bang-on tight as well, the overall effect clearly catching the audience’s attention. This was the first date of the band's tour, so make sure you catch 'em while they're hot.

I was intrigued to hear what the Alice Zawadski Big Sky Project would be about, as we don’t get many vocalists coming along on the jazz scene. Top stuff it was, Zawadski having very much a sound and feel of her own on top of all the craft and vocabulary of a classic jazz vocalist. Scat vocal improvising is a definite danger zone as far as I’m concerned, but Zawadaski more than got away with it on the opening ‘Austin Flowers’, accompanied by some punchy wah-wah sax improv from the twitchily intense Phil Meadows. Their take on Mike Walker’s ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ was somewhat tentative, and I’m still not sure if the character of the tune suits a big band arrangement. 'Cat’ was the highlight of the set for me, a Zawadski penned track about ‘drug-fuelled sex and spiritual possession’. The sparse bass and unexpectedly twisted vocal intro was really quite disturbing, this being followed by some comfort zone classic swing to let us down, only to be disrupted by a psychedelia-tinged free improvisation. Towards the end of set the band delivered a pensive and genuinely quite moving version of Neil Yates’ ‘Chance Melody’. Zawadski sounded quite beautiful here, conveying the lyrical sentiment in an entirely convincing way, with Graham South’s tender flugalhorn lines matching the moment perfectly. With the Sky Project being a new entity, there are things that need working on, and I’m not sure the set as a whole works just yet, especially when compared to the well-honed Beats and Pieces. There is real promise here though, so I hope Alice and the band keep the thing moving forward. Some more cats please.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fun Fun Fun Till Her Daddy Takes the Locrian #2 Triads Away

Following the latest lesson with my guitar tutor and good mate, Mike Walker, I've being doing a lot of practice using the triads from the harmonised scale of locrian natural 2 and the altered scale. These are actually modes of the same scale, the melodic minor being the usual parent scale mentioned. I don't really know quite why, but I seemed befriend the locrian nat 2 scale before I quite knew what it really sounded like. It's quite an ambivalent mysterious one, apparently used by Debussy in 'La Mer' and on the soundtrack to Hitchcock's film, 'Rebecca'.

Anyways, it's been a great month or two, as I'm starting to see how you can improvise using chords and chord fragments. This used to seem like it was impossibly difficult, but I can see now how this is a great way in.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Swiss Precision Engineering

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Band on the Wall, Manchester, 9th March 2010

Mike Chadwick, promoter of the Band on the Wall introduced 'Nik Bärtsch's Ronin', saying he was well chuffed to get the band to Manchester for their first gig in the city, and we were too. T'was another grand night.

They call it 'zen funk', and I guess that's about right. I'm thinking the even meter lines of Steve Reich and Philip Glass sitting on a cool groove, so I reckon that's about the same kinda thing. If you're into your modes, think lots of dorian with a dash of melodic minor. Andi Pupato's especially esoteric percussion set-up was an impressive sight, and he made great use of the range of sounds, all seasoned with some tasteful reverb. The other worldly Nik Bärtsch looked suitably zen-real, swaying slowly back and forth as he tapped out the spatial piano patterns, sitting behind a carefully placed fluorescent water bottle. Björn Meyer on the six string electric bass was really something else kicking out his complex lines, but always with a great sense of feel and groove. Kaspar Rast's gorgeous lazy feel on drums meshed nicely with the bass, counterposing the tight piano structures and thus giving rise to Ronin's distinctive sound. Sha on bass/contrabass clarinet was perhaps a little on the quiet side to my ears to make a decent judgement of his input, but when I could hear him in the quieter bits, it added a useful layer of harmonic meat to Bärtsch's lines.

The subtle fluorescent green strip lighting effects were really quite engaging in a gentle sort of way. It's quite refreshing to see a bit of effort going into the presentation here, something you don't usually get on a 'jazz' gig. The sound also was really impressive again tonight. The deep bass thud from one of the drum percussion instruments really took your breath away, possibly being a shade too much for me, but it highlighted the power of the great sound system the Band on the Wall has to shift some air.

Top night. Nice one Mike C.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

It Cuts Both Ways

Fencing For Losers, Studio Theatre, The Lowry, Manchester. 30th January 2010

This is the first review of a play here on the Ring Modulator, but we do like a few excursions from time to time. Having never reviewed a play before, I hadn't really thought about how it's different to reviewing music. For starters, it doesn't seem on to be scribbling on a notepad during the performance. There's also the issue of plot spoilers, so I'll try not to give too much away.

Suffice to say 'Fencing for Losers' was a really engaging play with a great story. On the surface it's a variation on posh girl meets rough bloke. In this case a successful PR woman from Cheshire, Susan, is running a fencing evening class to which unemployed Salford rough diamond, Danny shows up. Rob Johnson's excellent script calls for precise and crisp articulation of the dialogue to deliver its rhythmic punch, and actors Szilvi Naray-Davey and Phil Briggs don't let it down. Naray-Davey conveyed the complexity of Susan's haughtiness expertly, revealing the layers of repressed vulnerability with a well paced slow burn. Briggs got Danny's threatening swagger bang on, the cutting wit of his one-liners pitched with a biting Salford accent. The bantering between the characters cleverly drew out their hypocrisies and prejudices, eventually pushing Susan to reveal a raw truth. This leads to a proposition from Danny, the moral ambivalence of which makes us wonder where this is all going.

The simple staging met the shifts of mood from lightness to darkness very effectively, and there were some great soundtrack choices too, especially the Andrews and Jules version of 'Mad World', always perfect for those melancholic moments.

The play's on again tonight, so get yourself down for that last show of this run at The Lowry. More info on further shows from this great local theatre company on the Ignition Stage website.