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.