Sunday, November 20, 2011

Henry Threadgill Zooid + John Escreet - London Jazz Festival 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. Saturday 19th November 2011.

John Escreet is a New York based pianist originating from the northerly English environs of Doncaster. It's tempting to think these cultural juxtapositions are reflected in his music, as he quietly drew us into his short set, using some carefully chosen sparse bleak long notes, that slowly developed into angst ridden arpeggio flourishes. From here, we knew where this was going, Escreet attacking the keys to deliver rapid fire dense note clusters. Following a sort-of twisted psychotic rag, Escreet finally sweetened the harmony, but even then, expected resolutions were frequently side-stepped. It's difficult material, but Escreet's precision and conviction make it very engaging.

Without the fluid central groove of Elliot Kavee’s brilliant drumming, the relentless harmonic tension generated by Henry Threadgill’s ‘Zooid’ would have overwhelmed most brains used to a least the odd chord resolution here and there. The icy solo cello introductions from Christopher Hoffman were the most effective element, managing to convey strong statements within the constraints of Threadgill’s interval block system. Bass player Stomu Takeishi was engaging to watch, but unfortunately the instrument was too loud in the mix for the most part. The trombone and tuba of Jose Davila, and the guitar of Liberty Ellman played more of a supporting role, at least sound mix wise, but both managed to shine when given enough harmonic space to get their lines through. Threadgill mainly took on the role of overseer, but his distinctive contributions on alto sax and bass flute really added to the dynamic, so it would have been good if he’d taken more of a playing role.

The Zooid experience is exhausting, albeit in many ways worthwhile. I can’t deny that at times, my ear begged for a solid funky bass line to lock in with the gorgeous drumming. I do also wonder that, although Threadgill’s interval block serialism is an interesting original approach, its constraints give rise to the same sort of difficulties Steve Reich had with Schoenberg’s twelve tone serialism, in that it’s difficult to “sneak in some harmony”. I suspect I’ll continue to muse on this one.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone and the London Vocal Project - London Jazz Festival 2011

St James’ Piccadilly, London. Wednesday 16th November 2011.

It would be a sour soul who wasn’t just a little moved by the joyous atmosphere inside the St James’ Church, Piccadilly last night for an evening with Kenny Wheeler and the London Vocal Project. To get us in the mood, we were treated to the world premiere of ‘Horizons’, a piece written specially for a young singer, Kwabena Adjepong, by pianist Gwilym Simcock. I don't mind a bit of sentimentality at all, but there was a tad too much for me here (or I wasn't in the mood). The deep richness of Adjepong’s voice does however, promise much for the future.

There was an appropriately reverent reception when the great Kenny Wheeler approached the stage for this rare performance of the ‘Mirrors Suite’, a setting of poems by Stevie Smith, Lewis Carroll and W. B. Yeats for band and choir. It was really magic stuff. To hear classic Wheeler harmonies performed by the great players Nikki Iles on piano, Mark Lockheart on sax, Norma Winstone on vocals, Steve Watts and James Maddren on bass and drums, along with the 20-piece London Vocal Project led by Pete Churchill was an absolute treat.

The suite contains all the best of the Wheeler compositional devices, with rich modal harmonies sweeping their way through waves of sequences over silky swing beats. Wheeler delivered a number of his classic searching solos, firing up into the high registers of the flugal horn in that way only he does. Iles was rhythmically really on it tonight, delivering some really exciting punchy lines. Lockheart sounded the best I’ve heard him, especially when on soprano sax, his tone being quite delicious, and his lines strong and coherent, with every note counting.

I hope this wonderful piece gets recorded at some point, preferably with this same band and choir. It would be a sin if it wasn't.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Phil Robson IMS Quintet featuring Mark Turner - London Jazz Festival 2011

Purcell Room, South Bank, London. Tuesday 15th November 2011.

A themed concert seems to be a rare thing in the world of jazz, so it was really interesting to hear London based guitarist Phil Robson describing how all the tracks played tonight would reflect elements of communication, this occasion being the launch of his new album, ‘The Immeasurable Code’ from which all the tracks were taken. An impassive looking Mark Turner on saxophone, flown over from New York specially, joined Robson, along with the rest of the contributors to the album, Gareth Lockrane on flutes, Ernesto Simpson on drums and Michael Janisch on double bass.

Unresolved sequences of dense chord clusters were the order of the day for opening track, ‘Nassarius Beads’, Robson and Turner delivering appropriately spiky solos. ‘Telepathy and Telecommunication’ opened with a gorgeously exotic interplay between Lockrane and Janisch leading into Robson’s stark and unsettling arpeggio sequence. The foreboding latin tones of ‘Telegram’ were the highlight for me of this delightfully troubled set of tunes, its romantic 1940s mood being mixed with just a touch of menace. The fast swing of ‘Instant Message’ was another chance for Turner to shine with some harmonically rich note sweeps through a fast and fluid solo. Robson once again impressed with a forceful boppy solo demonstrating his pure round tone.

Simpson expertly grooved some tricky time signature changes on ‘Immeasurable Code’, Turner sweetly delivering the whirling soprano sax melody, before launching into more dense note cascades. Lockrane’s urgent biting flute then upped the energy levels, more than meeting the Turner’s gauntlet. On the graceful ‘Serenade’, Robson demonstrated he’s not immune to some classic guitar chord melody playing, with Lockrane’s flute playing perfectly complimenting the warm richness of the guitar. The track’s mood asked for a thoughtful double bass solo, and sure enough, that’s we got in-exemplar from Janisch.

I haven’t always been taken with Robson’s approach in the past, but I can happily say I’m now convinced. The playing and writing here is strong across the board. ‘The Immeasurable Code’ is definitely the right album for those dark nights of the soul, and that’s most certainly a credit in my book.

You can hear ‘The Immeasurable Code’ on Spotify.

Steve Swallow Quintet + The Impossible Gentlemen - London Jazz Festival 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. Sunday 13th November 2011.

So it is, that the Impossible Gentlemen take to the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage with one change to the album line-up: Pat Metheny’s double bass player, Steve Rodby in place of the usual Steve Swallow. Walker’s vulnerably bright and almost brittle sounding solo guitar opened the always-warming ‘Clockmaker’. The long round resonance of Rodby’s bass initially unsettled an ear used Swallow’s distinctive approach, but this was soon adapted to, Rodby visibly relishing Swallow’s seat. For me, pianist Gwilym Simcock is best heard on the beautiful solo piano introduction to Walker’s touching ‘When You Hold Her’. The guitar didn’t quite tip over into the blissful feedback sustain we hear on the album version of this track, but Walker still managed to deliver enough heart-wrench to make drummer Adam Nussbaum seem not far from tears. As usual, the groove section of ‘You Won’t Be Around to See It’ made for some tasty funky stuff from both Simcock and Walker, with Nussbaum’s groove-meistering being especially sweet tonight.

It was a brave move scheduling the incendiary paced ‘Laugh Lines’ to be the last song of the last date of the band’s current tour, and a smidgeon of raggedness was audible. However, it gave Rodby a good opportunity to prove his mettle, holding things firm in the lower registers. Tonight’s concert was another generous and high-spirited performance from the gents, and one that clearly went down well with the South Bank crowd.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best scheduling decision to have the Steve Swallow Quintet following what was likely to be a typically high-energy performance from the Impossible Gentlemen. In many ways, it was a little hard to know what to make of this set of new material from Swallow, written with Carla Bley on the Hammond B3 in mind. There’s no doubt the ethereal Bley looked amazing on the throne of the beautiful vintage B3, but the result was a little disappointing. Much of the music consisted of quite complex long through-composed pieces that would probably need a few listenings to get to grips with, and I suspect would have worked better before, rather than after the Impossible Gentlemen’s set. I am partial to the sort of Hammond organ atmospherics we know Bley does so well, such as on the classic ‘Elevator Over The Hill’, but the organ just didn’t seem to work that well tonight, perhaps as it doesn’t sit so well with Swallow’s material.

Guitarist Steve Cardenas, drummer Jorge Rossy and saxophonist Chris Cheek fulfilled there’s roles in perhaps the way Swallow was thinking, but none managed to add much in the way of energy or excitement. Some of the writing did sound promising, so I would want to reserve judgement for another hearing, but I can’t deny that tonight’s set from this composer and player we admire so much, was disappointing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

McCoy Tyner Trio - London Jazz Festival 2011

McCoy Tyner Trio featuring Jose James & Chris Potter + Blues and the Abstract Truth. Scene Iceland - London Jazz Festival, Barbican, Saturday 12th November 2011.

My London Jazz Festival kicked off with a trip to Iceland via the Barbican foyer, starting with the graceful piano sounds of Sunna Gunnlaugs, followed up by the country funk quirks of guitar player Ómar Guðjónsson, the best of which was a dirty wah-wah Hendrixy track. Iceland’s New Liberation Orchestra then delivered a selection of fab ‘In a Silent Way’ style grooves topped of with some imaginative sample textures from Pétur Grétarsson. This excellent round trip finished up with the super funky grooves of the Samúel Jón Samúelsson Big Band. Clearly Iceland is punching well above its weight in terms jazziness per capita.

The evening took us into the Barbican Hall for the McCoy Tyner Trio supported by a tribute playthrough of Oliver Nelson’s ‘ Blues and the Abstract Truth’ album. The openers set a high bar, with some sharp playing all round, trumpet player Byron Wallen and pianist James Pearson especially catching my ear with some great phrasing. Other duties were more than ably performed by Nathaniel Facey, Alex Garnett and Jean Toussaint on saxes, Sam Burgess on bass, and Shane Forbes on drums.

I have to say, I was really was taken aback with reverence when McCoy Tyner appeared from behind the curtain, as was the entire Barbican Hall. This was after all, the man who played with John Coltrane on ‘A Love Supreme’. Such legendary status can lead to over-expectations, but I can report that Tyner was totally phenomenal. That he can still generate such a level of intensity left me somewhat in awe. Graceful, almost classical flourishes would make way for characteristic high intensity surges that commanded the attention, being equally matched by the enticing knotted lines from saxophonist Chris Potter. Rhythm sectioners, Gerald Cannon on bass and someone I didn't catch the name of on drums, standing in for the great Eric Gravatt, more than kept up and held the pace. For me, the selection of tracks with singer Jose James taken from Coltrane’s collaboration with Johnny Hartman were a distraction, so it was great to hear the modal comping we know and love closing the set on ‘African Village’. This gig will stay in the memory for a good while I’m sure.