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.