Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jazz Workshop with the Bobby Avey Project incl. Ben Monder, Miguel Zenón, Jordan Perlson and Michael Janisch

Leeds College of Music, Leeds. Wednesday 10th December 2014

I attended an excellent workshop at Leeds College of Music yesterday led by pianist Bobby Avey with contributions from all of the band playing as part of his latest 'Authority Melts From Me' project including Ben Monder on guitar, Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone, Jordan Perlson on drums and joining them for the UK tour, Michael Janisch on double bass.

The workshop kicked off with the band playing the opening section of the 'Authority Melts From Me' suite. Avey then explained the background to the project, it being a suite for quintet inspired by the Haitian people who've persevered through a tragic history of colonialism, slavery, and foreign occupation. The suite focuses particularly on Haiti's slave revolt. You can find more on the general background outlined on his website

Avey then gave us an example of how Haitian Vodou drumming formed the basis of the rhythms of the suite. He played a short recording of some multi-layered rhythms he'd recorded at a Vodou Ceremony in the small village of Soukri (You can download these recordings). He explained how he transcribed the recordings to break the rhythm down, then giving some of these rhythmic parts to the piano, guitar and drums. He said that although it would be possible to accurately transcribe the time of the rhythms using complex subdivisions such as septuplets, the written parts would look a bit crazy and would be very difficult to play. To convey the essence of what he wanted, it made much more sense to pass the audio files to the players and get them to understand the vibe and learn them by ear.

Someone asked about harmony of the music. Avey noted that although standard western notation and chord descriptions are used to convey the information to the players, the music is coming from places outside of western functional harmony. An example given (if I'm recalling correctly) was a chord containing the notes F, F#, G and A. Avey noted that it's a valid and real sound, but describing it in terms of root notes, b9s, natural 9s etc. doesn't really make sense. It would have been great to have heard more on the harmony but this discussion came at the end of the first part of the workshop which rounded off with a take on 'On Green Dolphin Street'.

Following this, four of the LCM students bravely performed a version of On Green Dolphin Street after which the band gave some feedback. There was some really useful stuff here and it was interesting to hear pro musicians from other countries discussing  ways to learn and get better at jazz. It was reassuring that all of this resonated with what I've been taught, mainly by guitarist Mike Walker, but also tutors such as Les Chisnall and Iain Dixon.

Janisch emphasised the importance of practising switching between the two and walking four feel to the bassist and drummer . He got the players to play several choruses switching at the top of form from one to the other. It was noticeable how much focussing in like this improved the time and feel. I think it was Janisch that also stressed the importance of recording yourself playing and improvising as much as possible. Listening back to your own playing really highlights where your own weaknesses are and what needs addressing. For him, the listening back and learning process is almost half of his practice time. 

Avey noted that some of the improv was a bit meandering and ideas were not being developed. He suggested it can be a great idea to write a plan down for solos over a number of choruses to make sure there's some strategy and conscious development. Then see if you can play it. The plan could include all kinds of different ideas. It could be using a specific comping idea for each improviser, focussing on a scale pattern, specifically using repetition, playing quieter, louder, slower, faster and so on. Avey also emphasised the importance of transcribing solos to build your vocabulary and listening to different versions of tunes to build up reference points. He compared just using the Real Book to only reading the spark notes for Macbeth. Clearly you need to read/hear the originals to get deeply into the pieces, as only so much can be noted down on paper.  

Zenón noted that some of the players were struggling a little with technical obstacles. He stressed the importance of really working on and nailing the fundamentals, relating to the feeling players have when struggling to express themselves. There's no greater wisdom here than making sure you put in the hours of practice and don't try to be too advanced too early. 

Monder said he didn't feel the students were stating the harmony as clearly as they could in their improvisation. He mentioned that it's really important to be able to comfortably play all the chord tones of the sequence of a piece. On the guitar it's important to be able to do this in position in all the positions on the fretboard, though you may find you have to jump around the neck initially to get this down. He suggested the improvisers try playing two or three choruses based on chord tones before bringing in tension notes and other approaches.

We stuck around for the concert in the evening which was phenomenal. It's challenging stuff for sure, but really engaging if you focus in on it. Avey's approach to harmony is really intriguing and something I want to find out more about. All the playing was great, but I particularly enjoyed the gorgeous fluidity of drummer Jordan Perlson who was a delight to listen to.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tomasz Stańko New York Quartet – London Jazz Festival 2014

Barbican Centre, London. Thursday 20th November 2014

Thursday’s Tomasz Stanko concert presents quite a challenge to review. No tracks were introduced though most were from the ‘Wislawa’ album with the New York Quartet. The music is frequently impressionistic, dense, free and constantly shifting.

The medium swing of ‘Assassins’ served as the uncompromising starting point for a challenging evening’s music requiring some serious concentration. Much was asked of the audience to stay with this, but the rewards were well worth it. Almost every piece seemed to contain many sub pieces, often with quite different harmony and rhythm. Asides of asides were pursued relentlessly resulting in a sometimes uncomfortable de-centering effect.

‘Dernier Cri’ supplied some contrast, the wistful and dreamy introduction from pianist David Virelles conveying a mood perfectly echoed by Stanko’s melancholy trumpet. The piece managed to capture a romanticism tinged with sadness and longing. The track eventually moved on up into a swing, Virelles keeping us on our toes with some angular side shot arpeggio flourishes.

Especially effective was the insistence of ‘Faces’, drummer Gerald Cleaver sounding gorgeously fluid, keeping up a captivatingly intense rhythmic layer for Stanko to shower his fast trumpet cluster splurges over. Bassist Thomas Morgan provided a clear backbone throughout, much in the vein of classic modal era Coltrane tracks. He frequently stuck to a one-note drone type layer, albeit presented within a complex rhythmic figure. The playing was nothing showy on the face of it, but he was always driving things along with maximum effect. His later solo was really quite unusual, comprising a root to fifth movement shifting across tonalities.

It was clear this concert wasn’t to everyone’s taste, especially coming after high energy spectacle of opening act Stefano Bollani and Hamilton de Holanda. Nonetheless, it was the sort of concert that stays with you. It’s certainly left me intrigued to seek out and understand his music more. Music shouldn’t have to be difficult and of course, often isn’t. However sometimes when it is, it can push you into places you otherwise wouldn’t go. We don’t always find the journey easy, but it can be wonderful when you get there.

Trumpeter Tomasz Stańko
Pianist David Virelles
Bassist Thomas Morgan
Drummer Gerald Cleaver

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Alice Zawadzki - London Jazz Festival 2014

Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London. Wednesday 19th November 2014.

We were treated to an enchanting performance last night from Alice Zawadzki at the Royal Albert Hall. The set opened with the gruff chords and swirling folk tones of ‘Indome Para Marsilia’ before singers Emine Pirhasan and Jessica Berry joined for ‘Ring of Fire’. Alice has added a new groove section to the end of the track that, perhaps surprisingly, worked really well, guitarist Alex Roth digging in with some tasty overdriven lines.

One of the many set highlights was the Arabic influenced Spanish tones of ‘Dicho Me Habian Dicho’, a track Zawadzki learnt from Roth. The dark brooding introduction slowly built up momentum to an ecstatic and powerful conclusion. Zawadzki introduced and explained the story behind most tracks, the lovely three part harmonies and Frisell style guitar of ‘Low Sun; Lovely Pink Light’ being inspired by a beautiful sunrise one morning in Denmark.

The track of the night was a genuinely moving take on ‘You As a Man’. Pianist Lee opened with a really good sweeping retro organ introduction, reminding me of some of John Paul Jones playing for Zeppelin. Zawadzki joined with some beautifully sensitive singing, the piece then twisting into its dark and intense section making way for great solos from Roth and Lee.

The set closed with some fantastic three-part harmonies on ‘Cat’. The band was nicely warmed up and relaxed at this point, so it was a shame we had to leave it there for this relatively short late night set. Short but certainly sweet.

Alice Zawadzki: voice, violin
Alex Roth: guitar
Pete Lee: piano, synth
Tom McCredie: bass
Jon Scott: drums
Emine Pirhasan: voice
Jessica Berry: voice

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Trish Clowes and Guy Barker with the BBC Concert Orchestra - London Jazz Festival 2014

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. Tuesday 18th November 2014

There was quite some sense of expectation last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the 'Trish Clowes and Guy Barker with the BBC Concert Orchestra' concert. Premieres of commissions can be nervy affairs at the best of times, a concert orchestra and live Radio 3 broadcast only upping the ante.

We were eased into the evening with a few pieces from the Trish Clowes Quintet. ‘Question Mark’ was a clipped angular affair followed by the gently questioning ‘Chorale’, the intro of which Clowes delivered with a sensitive lyricism. The BBC Concert Orchestra then joined for ‘Balloon’. It began nice and groovily, Clowes saxophone sounding strong and strident. I felt the orchestra could have kicked more when they came in, but they still managed to give the piece some extra depth.

Guy Barker then came on to conduct his ‘Soho Symphony’ with the orchestra, a piece based on a 24 hour boy almost meets girl story. For the most part I really enjoyed this largely classical sounding piece. I’m no expert on classical sounds, but my ears were hearing a range of elements through the piece including impressionistic Debussy, some 2001 Ligeti style floating dissonances, Psycho stabbing violins, dark growling chords with spitting muted trumpets along with some classic swing blues moments. It came together well.

Singer Norma Winstone joined the quintet and orchestra for some arrangements by Clowes and Barker of songs she's performed in the past.  ‘Peacock’ tested Winstone’s range with some very tricky wide intervals, but she pulled it off like a pro backed by a lovely lush string arrangement. My personal favourite of the night was the Clowes arrangement of John Taylor’s ‘Enjoy the Day’, a track from Winstone’s first record under her own name.  Some potent solos from Clowes and Mike Walker on guitar enhanced a really great chord sequence. It was interesting to hear an orchestra backed version of Steve Swallow’s ‘Ladies in Mercedes’ which totally worked, James Maddren’s drums sounding particularly sweet on the track’s seductive latin groove.

The evening finished with a Clowes’ composed three part commissioned piece, ‘The Fox, The Parakeet and The Chestnut’.  The first part I found a bit frustrating, being a bit jerky both rhythmically and harmonically. However this was followed by a really engaging section opened by Clowes playing some eerie sax into the sound box of Gwilym Simcock’s piano. Walker added a lovely raindrop like guitar backdrop to which the violins adding extra texture. The latter part of the piece really kicked in with Clowes sounding particularly gutsy.  There were some tentative moments for sure, but overall the piece was a genuine success.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Manchester Jazz Festival 2014 - The Story So Far

Friday 18th July 2014

An ace first night from the ‘BBC Introducing’ event at the Band on the Wall. I didn’t expect to take to Newcastle’s ‘Brassy B’, but in the live moment it was hard to resist their youthful energy and fun. Good strong big brassy New Orleans style grooves abound. The sousaphone player, who really caught the attention of the crowd, is only sixteen I believe.

Brassy B. (photo @johntravis)

The Moss Project can always be relied upon for an engaging experience. Guitarist/composer Moss definitely has his own contemporary writing style which is frequently captivating. Vocalist Alice Zawadzki was as sensuously soulful as ever, especially good on the scatty ‘The Bubble’. Bass player Ruth Goller was sounding particularly punchy too tonight.

Moss Project (photo by Peter Fay)

I wasn’t so taken with the Peter Edwards Trio myself, although they went down a storm with the audience.  It was technically sound and reminded me somewhat of Robert Mitchell's very full playing style. It just didn’t quite do it for me.

Johnny Hunter (photo by Peter Fay)
The highlight of the night was the Johnny Hunter Quartet. The music is largely chord-less, giving space for the saxophone and trumpet to fully utilise the harmonic space. Tons of energy and top playing came from all four musicians: Johnny on drums/compositions, Kyran Matthews on tenor saxophone, Aaron Diaz on trumpet and Seth Bennett on double bass. Johnny’s tunes are excellent and the improv was of the finest. One to check out for sure.

Saturday 19th July 2014

For the first few minutes of the opening New Orleans classic in thirteen time, I thought Pigfoot might drive me slightly nuts. It calmed after that and ended up being a really cool gig. They take classic old New Orleans and Chicago tunes such as Basin Street Blues and give them a quirky angular twist. Think trad jazz meets Alice in Wonderland. Wonderful stuff.


Chris Batchelor / trumpet
Oren Marshall / tuba
Liam Noble / piano
Paul Clarvis / drums

The Arun Ghosh Sextet was one not to be missed, whipping up a storm in the Festival Pavilion. The recent writing from the South Asian Suite is as good as anything Arun’s composed, showing a thoughtful and maturing musician and composer.  The band was really on it tonight too, creating a phenomenal buzz in the tent. I loved way that Arun wrapped up inspirations from his Asian and North of England roots in his compositions. For example, 'Mountain Song' was inspired by the Himalayas and by the hills of the Lake District. In the second half the band were joined by Jason Singh who added some incredible vocalised scratching and textural effects, not to mention the odd ambulance.... (check out Longsight Lagoon). Mind blowing and ecstatic music. A magical night.

Arun Ghosh Sextet (photo by Benji Reid)
Arun Ghosh / clarinet
Chris Williams / alto saxophone
John Ellis / piano
Liran Donin / double bass
Dave Walsh / drums
Nilesh Gulhane / tabla
Jason Singh / Vocal effects

Sunday 20th July 2014

John Etheridge
I'm a big fan of John Etheridge’s guitar playing and I’ve been lucky enough to study with him on a jazz workshop. However, this was my first chance to catch him playing with the Soft Machine Legacy, accompanied tonight by the legendary Keith Tippett. King Crimsonesque mighty muscular grooves and 1960s avant garde classical are just a couple of the many bases that these players can masterfully cover. They manage to combine quite unusual sequences and time signatures in a really accessible and energetic way. The liberal use of echoes and textural effects added to a very enjoyable gig, and made me a happy man on Sunday night.

John Etheridge / guitar
Keith Tippett / piano
Theo Travis / tenor saxophone
Roy Babbington / bass
John Marshall / drums

The Manchester Jazz Festival continues through to the 27th July. More info on the above and stuff still to come at

Back From The Dead(ish)

Anyone who’s caught this blog in the past may have noticed that things have been exceedingly quiet around here for a while now, such that this blog is really just covering the Manchester Jazz Festival. There's no other good reason than that of the pressure of the day job in these challenging times. I had figured I wouldn’t review anything this year, but I’ve decided to at least note a few thoughts as the festival has been so damn good so far. If interested, read on above …..