Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Impossible Gentlemen, Royal Northern College of Music

RNCM, Manchester. 15th October 2013

It was another historic night on 15th October 2013 at the Royal Northern College of Music; the best Impossible Gentlemen concert so far and a night to match the intensity of guitarist Mike Walker’s Ropes suite from 2008. Being home to Salford born Walker and closely associated with pianist and ex-Chets student Gwilym Simcock, Manchester always has the potential to be memorable, both players being well known and well loved locally. On this night there really seemed to be a sense that something special was about to occur.

Drummer Adam Nussbaum began the proceedings with a sharp snare drum crack into an exciting and powerful take on the Birdland like figures of new track ‘Modern Day Heroes’.  Walker started as he meant to go on with an attention-grabbing overdriven solo that set the scene for much to follow. Another new track, ‘Just To See You’, opened with a delicate and introspective octavided guitar introduction backed by a psychedelic Hammond organ drone part from Simcock. The opening segued into a graceful statement of the tune leading to some beautiful latin playing from Simcock. The energy was then upped for ‘You Won’t be Around to See It’, making way for an incredible frenzied octave guitar solo that moved grinning bass player Steve Rodby to give Walker the international ‘we're not worthy’ sign.  The old favourite, ‘Wallenda’s Last Stand’ followed, on this particular evening taking on the strange twist of a slightly deranged fairground style ending.

Some gorgeous fast flowing drumming from Nussbaum on a sweet and homely ‘Clockmaker’ set our ears up nicely for a lovely and quite mystical extended solo introduction to ‘The Sliver of Other Lovers’ from Simcock. The track’s complex decentering rhythm created an unusual counter to its richly romantic melody and harmony. Walker’s chest-punching abrasive stutter start to the gritty funk groove of ‘Heute Loiter’ shifted the gear upwards once again, with Simcock’s dirty swirling Hammond soloing meeting Walker’s biting guitar grunt at the pass. Walker really went for high register angst bent notes on a solo of fearsome intensity. We were eased down gently, if somewhat disturbingly, by some detuned guitar and atonal piano. Curiously brilliant stuff.

Simcock risked going up in flames by setting a blistering tempo for a jaw-dropping ‘Barber Blues’, gaining playfully knowing smiles from Nussbaum and Rodby. Nussbaum met the challenge with bring-it-on gusto, Rodby also stepping up to the mark and delivering a phenomenally articulate and high paced solo. Walker matched this with a crisp, clear and forceful reply, leaving Simcock to play out the tune at a break-neck speed, bringing to an end a brilliant concert and a magical evening. All of this came with the extra treat of some fantastically funny inter-song banter from Walker (with a little help from Nussbaum) that wouldn't have disgraced a respectable comedy club. Impossibly brilliant and magical even.

The band’s new album and details of the tour are available from The Impossible Gentlemen website at

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Felonious Monks - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

The Felonious Monks, St. Ann's Church. Saturday 3rd July 2013

Six o’clock in St Ann’s Church was time for some stepping around in time as part of this year’s world premiere Manchester Jazz Festival commission. Our time travel guides were 'The Felonious Monks’ led by Mike Hall on tenor sax plus various other horns, and Debbie Rogers on alto sax, vocals plus various other horns.  The Felonious Monks explored the fusion of early Renaissance music with contemporary jazz, using a mixture of modern and replica C16th instruments. Compositional devices of the period were employed to structure the compositions, introducing vintage timbres to the existing jazz palette. This concept could easily not have worked, but Hall and Rogers pulled it off with aplomb, clearly having given a great deal of thought to the involved arrangements, as well as putting a lot of time into rehearsal. Many musician’s comfort zones were stretched to include playing crumhorns, shawms, cornamuses, cornetts, sackbuts, and gemshorns to name a few.

The first 16th century sounds we heard came trumpeting out from the church balcony, these players then joining the main band at the front of the stage. Second track ‘Ballo Francese’ bluntly juxtaposed short sections of early music interspersed with short sections of full on bebop. It shouldn’t have worked, but did so gloriously. ‘Robyn’s Lament’ started with some vulnerable period singing from Rogers, Simon Lodge (otherwise on trombone) and double bass player Steve Berry, the latter reaching impressive falsetto heights. I’ve never heard this style of period singing in person before and really enjoyed it. Probably my favourite was the blues based ‘Of The Night’. The track shifted into a classic Coltrane style vamp, the modal chords fitting the sounds of the period instruments really well. This perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising given the crossover of the modal approach between these distant musical relatives. George King on piano vamped out some tasty McCoy Tyner style voicings, Steve Waterman then giving one of a number of blistering solos, this one on the flugel horn.

Berry delivered a touching solo double bass intro to the melancholic horns and vocals of ‘Three Part Intention’. The set closer, ‘Time Trip’ sounded very 1960s US detective movie to me, taking the tones of the evening in yet another unexpected direction.  Players of horns old and new: Helena Summerfield, Jim Fieldhouse, Carl Raven, Russell Gilmour, along with Paul Hartley on guitar and Eryl Roberts on drums, all added to the delivery of these quite tricky but wonderfully unusual arrangements. The evening was a true privilege to experience.

Cloudmakers Trio & Paradox Ensemble - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Cloudmakers Trio, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 3rd July 2013

First up on Saturday were the ‘Cloudmakers Trio’ featuring Jim Hart on vibes, Michael Janisch on double bass and Dave Smith on drums.  I wasn’t feeling at my most jazz-ready, but the Cloudmakers did a great job of bringing me round with a set that gathered more and more intensity as it went along. Things really started to hot up with ‘Conversation Killer’, a fast swing track of quite complex rhythmic trickery and dense harmony. It’s the sort of thing that could wear you down, but Smith’s intense drumming kept the excitement levels high, Janisch delivering an awesome solo towards the end.

‘Post Stone’ was a searching piece with abstract drums and a questioning free section, all enhanced by ghostly bowed vibes from Hart, giving the track a disturbing surreality. ‘Angular Momentum’s suitably circular overlapping motifs provided a platform for some great interactive improvising, subtle melodic and rhythmic motifs being traded between the band. A high bar was set early in the day.

Paradox Ensemble, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 3rd July 2013

I was immediately attracted to the spacey swing sounds of the Paradox Ensemble headed up by Nick Walters on trumpet and electronics. Big dense lush harmonies were mashed together with disjoint grooves and lots of intertwining lines, expertly played by the alto, tenor, trombone and sousaphone of Tom Harrison, Ed Cawthorne, Tim Cox and Ben Kelly respectively. Some really juicy flowing drumming from Yussef Dayes bedded the sound down sweetly along with the warm bass of Paul Michael. Ben Cottrell on keys and Anton Hunter on guitar added to the pot with some fine Fender Rhodes grooves and guitar echo atmospherics coming in at astutely chosen moments.  Swing became groove became swing groove, all amounting to a joyful noise unto the teepee. Positive vibes for sure.

The Moss Project: What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes? - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

The Moss Project, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Tuesday 30th July 2013

Having already checked out the Moss Project's excellent new album, I was really looking forward to this one. Moss also reminded me that I wrote his first ever gig review here on the Ring Modulator back in 2007, but somehow it’s taken me this long to catch another one of his gigs. Things have changed in lots of ways since then it appears.

Freed cooked up some groovy-wah guitar in the set opener, uplifted by the soaring long note vocal lines from the ever-amazing Alice Zawadzki. We were then introduced to author Lawrence Norfolk who read one of a number of writings inspired by the Moss Project music. ‘Anniversary’ opened with some spiky tremolo guitar and sparse violin over the beaten rumbles of Marek Dorcik’s drums. This was soon followed by the repeating Reich’ish figure of ‘What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes’. Zawadzki treated us to some even more soaring violin doubled vocal lines pitched over the bands disjoint groove. ‘Freud and Jung Ride The Tunnel of Love’ proffered some enticing abstract echo reverb guitar and dark violin tones. Once it got going it, perhaps oddly, reminded me of Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ before fully transforming into a rough and dangerous tempest.

The band finished with the precise and pushy angular phrases of ‘The Bubble’, Zawadzki and Freed lining up the lines admirably. The song’s strong chorus style hook whipped up some serious momentum, launching Freed into a bitingly angsty solo, followed apace with a Metheny-esque high register bass solo from Kevin Glasgow. This was a fine and refreshingly original set. The project’s writing is great and the band delivered with energy and passion.

You can listen to the new Moss Project album in full at the Babel Label Bandcamp page.

Locus & Moonlight Saving Time - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Locus & Moonlight Saving Time, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Monday 29th July 2013

Monday began late in the afternoon for me with the sweet but mournful tones of Kim Macari’s trumpet at the beginning of the first track from ‘Locus’. There were some great intricate compositions here, most of which were written by Leah Gough-Cooper on alto sax. It was modern / contemporary stuff, and nicely done.  Sometimes the involved harmonies perhaps got a bit lost in the teepee, but on the whole this came across as a strong set.

In the evening I caught the latin grooves of Bristol’s ‘Moonlight Saving Time’. The festival program had indicated Cinematic Orchestra and Massive Attack influences, but for me it seemed to come much more from early Return to Forever Chick Corea, especially with Emily Wright’s vocal style having a strong nod to the great Flora Purim. Easy and quite gentle, but also always seductive.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Music for Life Big Band & Benoit Martiny Band - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Music for Life Big Band featuring Mike Walker, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Sunday 28th July 2013

The expansive sounds of the Music for Life Big Band opened proceedings on Sunday, ably directed by Jo McCallum and Alastair McWilliam. Twelve contemporary composers including Mike Gibbs, Stan Sulzmann, Gwilym Simcock and Dennis Rollins were drafted in to write for this 25-piece ensemble of young musicians from Cheshire. As if this wasn’t enough, local guitar hero Mike Walker was enlisted for the live gigs. This one turned out to be a real kicker of a gig, going down a storm with the full teepee audience. Rightly so I say, as it was a fantastic set with great compositions and arrangements played really well by the Big Band, with excellent improvising added for good measure. The deep groove set opener written by ex-local sax player Andy Schofield gave Walker one of many opportunities to show that he knows how to dig in and rock out, much to the vocal appreciation of the teepee crowd.

Part of the aim of this project was to give lesser-experienced composer-arrangers an opportunity to try out their pieces with a big band. One such track was the tuneful latin piece, ‘Binson’s Lilt’ written by sax player Sam Rapley. Some fine close harmony opening chords set the scene for a gripping solo from ace guitarist Charles McDonald. Dennis Rollins’ ‘Full Fat Funk’ was duly deep and fulsome giving McDonald a chance to raise the stakes further with a ballsy overdriven solo.

A thoughtful take on Richard Iles’ ‘Sunday Soul’ supplied some mood variation. As with the Rollins track, the track echoed its title perfectly, inspiring some gorgeous soulful playing from Brad Everett on alto sax. The James Brown style ‘No Matter What’ from Mike Gibbs was the perfect funky set closer, some strident trombone playing sending us off with big smiles on our faces. Top stuff. I hope Jo McCallum gets a chance to put this outfit together again.

Benoit Martiny Band, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Sunday 28th July 2013
Having already checked out the Benoit Martiny Band in advance as part of mine and Jane’s jazz festival preview radio show, I was intrigued to see how they would go down, reason being that they’re ‘full-on’ to say the least. I’m happy to report they went down phenomenally well. It was in your face stuff for sure, but at the same time it was so strong, powerful, well rehearsed and well written that it grabbed the audience right from the off. It was hard not to be taken with the sheer energy and enthusiasm of it all.

The set started with some mystical almost tribal drumming from Martiny on drums, soon making way for generous amounts of fuzz bass from Sandor Kem and big power chords from guitarist Frank Jonas. The first few tracks reminded me of early era King Crimson and Soft Machine with a little Black Sabbath thrown in for good measure. ‘Carousel’ from their new album was more of a groover, topped off with a really strong duo sax hookline played crisply by Joao Driessen on tenor and Jasper Van Damme on alto. Both horns players were real ear-grabbing improvisers too, assisted by the rock solid grounding of the fantastically tight combination of Martiny and Kem. The sense of expert dynamic variation and control was handled especially well on this track.

The fast swing of ‘Don’t Leave a Message’ showed the band weren’t only about heavy jazz rock, Kem switching from electric to acoustic double bass to woodify the sound. ‘My Favourite Painkiller’ came complete with some fab echo scratchy guitar atmospherics and a free jazz section leading to a punctuated deep blues riff. Van Damme made good use of the latter to burn us up with some fiery alto playing. Manchester's Town Hall bells sounded over the decaying chords of final track ‘Funeral’ to complete this brilliant set perfectly.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Yazz Ahmed Quartet & Trish Clowes Tangent - Manchester Jazz Festival 2013

Yazz Ahmed Quartet, Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 27th July 2013

My Manchester Jazz Festival 2013 kicked off with the multifarious sounds and rhythms of the Yazz Ahmed Quartet on an appropriately hot and humid afternoon in the festival teepee.  The quartet comprised Ahmed on  trumpet and flugelhorn, the excellent Lewis Wright on vibes, Asaf Sirkis on drums and Dave Mannington on electric bass. 

 It’s a funny thing about the vibes. I love them for the gorgeous atmospherics you can get, especially when the overall sound is reasonably sparse. However, I’m never too sure how well they work for improv when there’s a fuller sound and more going on. I find that the richness of the harmonics and the relative lack of attack leads to an all too indistinct sound. Nevertheless, Wright sounded great when he cut through and is undoubtedly an impressive player. Not having seen Ahmed before, it did seem like her playing was a little tentative on the whole, although her flugel sound did open up sweetly later in the set, perhaps inevitably then reminding me of the great Kenny Wheeler. Sirkis drove things along handsomely in his characteristic fluid way. All good.

Trish Clowes Tangent, 
Festival Pavilion Teepee. Saturday 27th July 2013
A song title reference to the great surreal novel ‘Master and Margueriata’ is no bad way to capture my attention, and the fast groove from James Maddren on drums, the open voiced sparse chord fragments from Chris Montague on guitar and the aggro-burst improv shots from Trish Clowes on tenor sax didn’t disappoint. Despite the sweltering afternoon heat, the band had real fire in their bellies, this translating through to a bitingly forceful and edgy set. I especially liked ‘On-Off’, Montague looping a choppy clipped phrase, then over-coating with tasty fade-in guitar textures.  Clowes’ raw howls and squeaks enhanced the ominousness perfectly. 

There were softer moments, such as the lyrical ‘For Pete’ inspired by tutor Pete Churchill, Clowes steering the medium swing changes with a strong tone full of the right sort of panache.  The impassive manner of Calum Gourlay on double bass signaled a grounded and true path to keep the players safe in the sometimes dangerous harmonic waters.  Yes indeed it was good. I’ll be looking forward to catching Tangent again for sure.