Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Ones That Got Away - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

It was tricky getting to as many festival gigs as possible, writing these blog reviews and managing to do my day job as well, so inevitably I didn't quite manage to review all the acts I'd like to have done while the festival was on.  I thought rather than pass them by, I'd get a few sentences down.

Avalon Trio, St Ann's Church, Friday 20th July 2012.

I really enjoyed this trio paying homage to some early 20th Century English composers, in particular Delius and Finzi. It was a real ear opener to hear the minor chord repeating arpeggio introduction to their first piece, Delius' 'Summer Night on the Water' that could have graced any John Coltrane modal tune. Pianist Pete Churchill's song introductions were really informative too, making this gig as much a music lesson.  He mentioned that the great Bill Evans was influenced by Delius, this making a lot of sense on hearing the gorgeous harmonies. Some indian flute from Tony Woods, and tabla percussion from Rob Millett were used to great effect, introducing additional colours and textures, especially on another Delius piece, 'Brigg Fair'.

Pete Moser: Sound Games. MJF Originals. Festival Pavilion, Friday 20th July 2012.

This was a curious one for sure, but great fun. Moser introduced the concert as the Manchester Decathlon, each of the pieces being one of the races, and with all band members coming on wearing some sort of sports kit and a number on their back. The material was composed to reflect the character of each race, along with accompanying images and video. The compositions embraced a wide range of sounds from modal sequences, Africa township sounds, 'Cucumber Slumber'esque Weather Report vibes, Steve Reich rhythms, to funk grooves and beyond.  Certainly an oddity, but the band connected well with the audience, and a happy time was had.

Spoonful, Matt and Phreds, Friday 20th July 2012

Keys player John Ellis was treated to the use of a genuine piece of Hammond organ furniture hired in for this stomp through classic Blue Note/Lou Donaldson tunes at a busy Matt and Phreds. Great stuff it was too, being a masterclass on how to do boppy funky blues from tutors Ellis, Neil Yates on trumpet/flugel, Andy Ross on sax and Eryl Roberts on drums. Ellis and Ross tended to stay within the genre sounds for the most part, but I really liked the way Yates' managed go a little further, riding the edge of the harmony with some really spicy notes, but without resorting to brutal outside playing, which can so easily be to the detriment of the track and the group vibe. A rocking gig.

Prestwich Deluxe, Festival Pavilion, Saturday 21st July 2012

Prestwich Deluxe comprised trumpet maestro Richard Iles and his band of excellent musicians playing classic straight ahead stuff to a pleasingly packed festival tent on Saturday afternoon. It was great to see such a big audience for a jazz gig, something Richard noted too.  The written horn parts from Richard and Tim France on sax were all played with masterful precision, the solos from both also reaching a consistently high watermark. Most of the tunes were standards from the likes of Charles Mingus, Horace Silver and Eddie Harris, with Jamie Sheriff on piano, Pete Turner on double bass and Eryl Roberts on drums all honouring the spirit of the pieces admirably.

Eventually Iles enlightened us as to the meaning of their evocative band name, it being a mythical jazz club set in the small country village of Prestwich, north Manchester, as seen through the imagination of the players. The Iles penned 'Prestwich Deluxe' track was also one of the best, displaying a compositional subtlety that's his very own.  No great surprises here you might say, but it was classic stuff delivered with genuine panache.

Hackney Colliery Band, Festival Pavilion, Saturday 21st July 2012

The Hackney Colliery Band have quite a unique take for a brass band, proffering an eclectic repertoire including funk, hip-hop and rock, Balkan brass, ska and just a little contemporary jazz.  They were the perfect choice for the festival closer, being a self confessed 'feet friendly band' who sure enough, got the audience dancing within a short space of time. It's hard not to like this kind of thing, even if it was a little scrappy at the edges, but this seemed to suit their style and ethic. The band closed the set by continuing to play while exiting the stage and then walking through the audience up to the bar, the crowd then following Pied Piper style. A good time was had by all.

So that's about it for this year's Manchester Jazz Festival gig reviews. I had a fanatastic time as always. Hats off to Steve, Mick, Sunny, Rachel on the MJF team, the volunteers and everyone else involved in putting on this year's event. Roll on next year!

Breach - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

Breach, Festival Pavilion, Saturday 21st July 2012.

I've been a fan of the Scottish guitarist Graeme Stephen since his appearance at the MJF a good few years ago now, so I was keen to hear what Breach were all about. There was a suite of interesting sounds in here, ranging from electronica, rock and folk, all delivered with a distinct jazz nous.  Stephen went for a looping angular motif on 'Roon Toon', then layering over some long echoed twangy textures that reminded me of the best of Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd.  He then picked up speed with some fretful fast improvising that made for really exciting listening.  The live electronica style drumming from Chris Wallace worked really well on this too, ensuring the track didn't stray too far into retro territory.

'The City From The Window' opened with more of Stephen's trademark echoed psychedelic tones, these following through into a raw and, to this blogger's delight, ring modulated guitar improvisation. Paul Harrison laid some rich reverbed long swirling Hammond organ chords below in support. Both restful and restlessly evocative stuff this was, veering in the direction of classic prog rock, but with a 5/4 time signature sequence coming in to keep things on the jazz end of the scale.  Announced as an 'Aberdonian Macedonian folk song', the final track topped a fabulous afternoon set off with a cooking swing groover, both Wallace and Harrison getting in fine punchy solos. I bought the CD, so I guess that says it all.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

George King: Songs of the Caged Bird - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

George King, Doreen Edwards and the Manchester Camerata Chamber Strings, Royal Northern College of Music. MJF Originals Commission. Thursday 19th July 2012.

Thursday was the airing of the first of this years MJF Originals commissions, 'Songs of the Caged Bird', a song-cycle by Manchester composer/pianist George King written for Manchester diva Doreen Edwards and the chamber strings of Manchester Camerata. 

George opened the evening with four solo piano improvisations that set the mood perfectly for the commission, played to what was an extremely attentive RNCM crowd.  George's style is very much on the classical end of the scale, and he delivered some lovely and quite simple improvisations in the vein of Satie and Max Richter. He closed the solo sections with a sweet sparse take on 'Secret Love'

The commissioned piece opened with some long lush chords interspersed with just a few surprising and unsettling tones. This segued in a Steve Reich like rhythmic part before Doreen Edwards came in to add her rich deep voice to the dark descending sequence. George's aim with the commission was to convey a "snapshot or racial tension in America, taking poems and aural accounts" of slaves in the USA. George absorbed these poems and accounts into his piece as a series of audio samples overlaid on the music at various points throughout the piece, giving an overall quite cinematic feel. 

Generally the sections were very melodic and accessible, with some beautiful long chords played out by the strings. A fewer darker moments were conveyed by train like rhythms and harder harmony. Particularly impressive was a re-setting of 'Strange Fruit', Doreen singing a verse very movingly on her own, the strings and piano then coming in for a second verse to give the melody a somewhat unexpected twist.  I think George could have made more of the piece's darker moments, but this was a warm and very satisfying evening's music.

Rick Simpson Quartet - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

Rick Simpson Quartet, Festival Pavilion, Thursday 19th July 2012

The London based Rick Simpson Quartet were playing music from their debut album, ‘Semi Wogan’ on Thursday afternoon. This lot were a very accomplished and engaging set of players. 'Semi-Wogan' was the track that initially caught my ear, being a nice groover with some neat contemporary style piano on top from pianist Rick.  I didn't catch the name of what was my favourite track, but it started with a very cool funky double bass riff from Tom Farmer, coming across with what has to be one of the finest amplified double bass sounds I've ever heard, the woodiness of his gorgeous tone making it through the sound system brilliantly. When drummer Jon Scott came in, the whole thing really lifted off the ground, these two really working together well. 

 There were some obligatory quirky numbers in the set, but for me they were at their best on the more contemporary flowing and reflective pieces. The fast swing of 'Chairman Meow' did however, give sax player George Crowley the chance to continuous-quaver his way through its winding sequence admirably. Top stuff. I hope to be catching the Rick Simpson Quartet again soon if I can.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dan Whieldon & Alice Zawadzki - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

Dan Whieldon & Alice Zawadzki, St Ann's Church. Wednesday 18th July 2012.

Jaw droppingly good is no overstatement for this special duo concert I had the privilege of attending today. From the very first note of the first piece, Alice's sensitive vocal improvising interweaved with Dan's contemplative piano playing in a way that was genuinely captivating, this introduction leading into 'Para Ti', a light and airy latin composition from Dan. One of many highlights from the set was Alice's 'You as a Man and I as a Woman'. Her voice managed to communicate a brave and touching expression of feelings on the topic of obsessional love in a way that most singers would struggle to get close to.

Alice Zawadzki (photo by John Quinn)
Alice doubtless has great technique and clearly knows her jazz genres well, but what especially impresses is a strong sense of rawness, edginess and 'real'ness that makes the performance so much more convincing and touching. I really hope this is something she can hang onto as she continues to learn and develop. Dan is also a master of solo and duo playing, providing the perfect partner, with his exceptional playing.

Photo by John Quinn
Blues, ballads, swing and grooves were all covered with finesse, but perhaps the highest point was the final track before the encore, 'Low Sun Lovely Pink Light', which opened with a beautiful piano and vocal improvisation that moved through some difficult sequences and modes, both musicians making the technical journey whilst sounding totally convincingly and in touch with the music. The track developed with some crisp strong playing from Dan, Alice backing with some sweetly melancholic violin. This one really had it all. Catch these people before they get to playing the big venues, because there's a damn good chance they will be, and soon.

The concert was also a very special day for jazz festival visitor Suzy Duncan who, following an operation earlier this year, regained her hearing after being deaf for a quarter of a century. Today was her first live music event since the late 1980s. Read more on the MJF Facebook page.

Stan Sulzmann Big Band - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

Stan Sulzmann Big Band, Royal Northern College of Music. 17th July 2012.

A big band at the Manchester Jazz Festival is always something to look forward to, so an evening with the legendary Stan Sulzman plus some great players young and old was not to be missed.  Sulzmann sounded a local resonance early in the set with an arrangement of Mike Walker's 'Clockmaker'. I've heard Walker play this in many guises, so it was really interesting to hear it another setting, this take being a little more upright than versions I've heard before. It's a tough call for a guitarist to stand in Walker's shoes on one of his own tunes, this possibly unsettling Alex Munk who's solo could have been stronger, but it was a brave crack. The band were also perhaps just a shade on the tentative side for much of the first set, but even so, many sweet sounds occurred, a version of John Parricelli's latiny 'Alfredo' being a good example.

The first set's highpoint was the lightly grooved Kenny Wheeler composition, 'Jigsaw', the band getting up to speed at this point, with some lovely improvising all round.  Other tracks that really caught my ear were the Sulzman composed ' Chow Chow', and a thoughtful take on one of Gwilym Simcock's tunes, 'I Know You Know'. This wasn't one of those concerts that imposed itself on you with strident dynamics, in your face improvising, nor were there any ear-brow raising harmonic kicks. It was one that rewarded attentive listening with many quiet moments of happiness. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dakhla, Im & Roller Trio - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

BBC Introducing with Gilles Peterson and Jez Nelson, Band on the Wall. Monday 16th July 2012. 

This was a little different to other MJF gigs. One, because it's recorded for Radio 3 and two, because the artists were chosen by Jez Nelson, Gilles Peterson and Kevin LeGendre, all from the BBC in some guise. The artists were selected from acts that had applied to the BBC Introducing scheme.

Bristol's 'Dakhla' were a perky two sax, trumpet and drum affair. This band were more about the horn arrangements than improvisation as such, drawing on a wide selection of traditions from balkan music to afro beat and funk. I particularly enjoyed Matt Brown's vibrant open ringing drum sound, giving his fab loose grooves an added low rumble tastiness.  There were hints of Seb Roachford in there, as well as the Polar Bear sound generally, but Dakhla have very much their own thing, and very engaging it is too. 

If 'Dakhla' weren't about the improvisation, 'Im' very much were, largely of the free variety. There was a certain genteel and rustic charm to this outfit, some elements of the sound having stirred up a little nostalgia for the BBC Radiophonic workshop themes. The deep echo reverb Hammond organ sound was also reminiscent of early 70s Pink Floyd, along with the filtered minimoog sounds adding to the retro vibe. Despite the generally unstructured approach, a number of arranged horn parts were layered in by the excellent sax and trumpet players. There was also some lovely woody sounding manipulated trumpet improvising that I eventually worked out was reminding me of Jon Hassell's contributions to David Sylvian's work. 'Im' inevitably are not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but hats off to them for a great little set, and the BBC for giving them this airing.

The last act of the night for me were 'Roller Trio'.  They're one of those acts that cram lots of different styles in a track in what can sometimes sound like a bit of a scissor and paste job to some ears. The tracks tend to be quite long and complex, having lots of sections with dramatically different tempos, dynamics, time signatures, harmony etc. This can be a little frustrating from a listening point of view, especially when you really like a section, but it's what they do, so that's fair enough I guess. The playing's of a high standard, with some really nice grooves emanating from the drums of Luke Reddin-Williams (whose fragmented style and mannerisms were not a million miles from Manchester's own Luke Flowers). Sax player James Mainwaring and guitar player Luke Wynter can both also get round a tricky time signature while laying down some decent sounds. Ultimately though, there was something about it that I couldn't engage with to any great extent.  Reductio ad absurdum summary: Trio VD without the distortion pedals.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stevie Williams and The Most Wanted Band. A Greater Horror - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

Stevie Williams and The Most Wanted Band, Festival Pavilion. Saturday 14th July 2012.

Saturday kicked off with some excellent blues and roots from Stevie Williams and the well honed Most Wanted Band.  Top stuff this was if you like a guitar solo or two, with consistently excellent playing from both Steve Buckley and Markie Creswell on said instrument. An authenticly down home swamp feel was perfected for a cover of Tom Waits 'Chocolate Jesus', Creswell somehow managing to get a lovely deep reverbed banjo sound from his electric guitar, with Buckley laying some suitably moody pedal steel slide over the top. The band have Zelig like skills, tapping into a range of vintage sounds, with 50s rock n'roll and bebop, 60s funk, and 70s laid back California folk rock all delivered with a knowing subtlety of the right sort. I especially loved the tight groove and grind of their excellent take on The Meters' 'Ride a Pony'. A standing ovation was received for a justifiably great set. I'll be checking them out again for sure.

A Greater Horror, Festival Pavilion. Saturday 14th July 2012.

A Greater Horror get a 'challenging jazz' rating of around medium.  There were no hard edges as such, and indeed, Rodrigo Constanzo's always present Fender Rhodes sound frequently fired off comfortable Weather Report and Chick Corea neural paths for me.  Nevertheless, the arrangements were disorientating and rhythmically insistent. Constanzo was often sampling and looping himself, then playing over the top. This generally worked, but too often resulted in a rumbling harmonic density that obscured any movement and direction. The band were at their most effective on the good number of sparse track introductions, managing to convey an effective sense of threatening mysteriousness.  An upper range octavided solo from bass player Mauricio Pauly provided a welcome textural intrusion at one point, somewhat reminiscent of early King Crimson. There was plenty of interest here for sure, but it was a bit of a mixed bag.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pocket Central. Alice Zawadzki - Manchester Jazz Festival 2012

Pocket Central. Band on the Wall. Friday 13th July 2012.

It's seven years apparently since Pocket Central's last MJF gig, but they still have the groove aplenty. Tonight's gig at the Band on the Wall mixed classics from the likes of Prince and Chaka Khan with plenty of home spun tunes, this lot giving the festival a bright and fresh kick start. Neil Fairclough on bass nailed the bottom end handsomely, assisted by Bryan Hargreaves on drums.  There was tons of tasty stuff on top too, notably from the guitar of Johnny Hayes and the vibrant sax of Sam Healey. The centre of the pocket was indeed struck.

Alice Zawadzki: Songs from Around the World. Matt and Phreds. Friday 13th July 2012.

Over then to Matt and Phreds for the second set from Alice Zawadzki and her band of merry men and women. Alice and the band did a fine job of putting things across to a bustling and vibed up Friday night crowd, but it was a little tricky on some of the quieter sections. There's no doubt Alice really has something, her voice managing to convey a real passion and intimacy. Much of her song writing was enticing too, usually coming across best in the opening sections of the tunes. One track's fab opening (sorry didn't catch the name) led into an improvisation section of dark chords over an awkward time signature that I felt had the band a little on the edge, but there's promise of great things to come here I'm sure.  Wednesday's duo with pianist Dan Whieldon looks to a must.