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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Taking the long view

Coin Con Chapter ThreeMatana Roberts thinks big, encouraging us to do the same. After emerging a few years ago as an uncommonly talented young alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader, at a time when she was a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, she is now a quarter of the way through a sequence of 12 albums under the series title Coin Coin (the nickname of Marie Thérèse Metoyer, a freed slave who founded a colony in 18th century Louisiana).

The first volume, Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres, appeared in 2011; the second, Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, in 2013; the third, Chapter Three: River Run Thee, is just out. At her present rate of production, if my arithmetic is correct, she will complete the cycle in 2033, at which point those who are still around will be able to enjoy a vast, impressionistic and many-dimensioned view of the history of African Americans, seen through one artist’s eyes.

Roberts calls what she does “panoramic soundquilting”: a particularly appropriate description given the development of quilt-making into an American folk art, beginning with the earliest settlers. What her use of the term conveys is a willingness to use techniques of collage and superimposition to create layers of texture and meaning.

Although Roberts is now based in New York, all three albums were recorded at the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal. Each takes a quite distinct approach. Gens de Couleurs Libre juxtaposed her arrangements for a 16-piece ensemble with songs and readings from diverse sources, with an extended and disturbingly nonchalant depiction of a slave auction as its centrepiece. Mississippi Moonchile found the instrumental resources pared down to a conventional post-Coleman quintet, featuring Roberts’ alto and the trumpet of the excellent Jason Palmer — with the occasional intrusion of Jeremiah Abiah’s operatic tenor providing a provocative contrast.

River Run Thee continues the process of reduction, and is a more demanding experience. Unlike its predecessors, it cannot be listened to as an album of relatively straightforward contemporary jazz, with horns and rhythm sections and riffs and improvisations based on the thematic material. Essentially a solo album featuring Roberts’s voice, alto, synthesiser and piano, it resembles not so much a quilt as one of Gerhard Richter’s abstract works, in which the painter partially scrapes through his own layers of paint to reveal disarticulated fragments of colour and pattern. The 12 movements of this chapter of Roberts’s giant work are indistinctly defined: whooshes and surges of electronic noise part to expose found sounds and voices recorded during a recent trip to the South, shards of free-floating saxophone improvisation and fragments of “The Star Spangled Banner”, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, “All the Pretty Horses” and other pieces from America’s collective memory.

As a child, Roberts’s imagination was fired when her grandfather, a Louisiana man, told her about Marie Thérèse Metoyer; now the South, and particularly the experience of slavery, forms the primed canvas for the whole work to date. Literal meaning, however, is not on offer. She seems to be excavating America’s memory in search of the elements, some of them far distant in time, that shaped her own life, using notes and words but intending to convey something beyond them, something they cannot express. The richness of her gathered material is what makes Coin Coin such a fascinating project, one whose future chapters and ultimate resolution are likely to be awaited with great anticipation for many years to come.

* The painting/collage is by Matana Roberts and forms a part of the cover of Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee, released by the Constellation label.

Olie Brice at the Vortex

Olie Brice QuintetLast year I enjoyed the playing of the double bassist Olie Brice in several contexts, notably the excellent quartet of the trumpeter Nick Malcolm. Now Brice has an intriguing band of his own, and they launched their new album with a gig at the Vortex on Tuesday night.

On the CD, called Immune to Clockwork, Brice’s quintet is completed by Alex Bonney on trumpet and cornet, Waclaw Zimpel on alto clarinet, Mark Hanslip on tenor saxophone and Jeff Williams on drums. The instrumentation, and the strong commitment to collective interplay, remind me at times of the occasions on which Ornette Coleman led a band with both Don Cherry and Dewey Redman in it (e.g. the Crisis album), of the New York Contemporary 5 (with Cherry, John Tchicai and Archie Shepp), and occasionally of Albert Ayler’s Bells/Spirits Rejoice quintet. But that doesn’t mean they sound like those bands. This isn’t a ’60s thing in any sense. Brice’s thoughtful compositions and the high-grade improvising of all the individuals see to that.

The leader and his musicians certainly make use of the freedoms that were fought for in the ’60s. But they don’t share the social environment and conditions in which Ayler, Shepp and the rest worked, and they don’t try to counterfeit its effects. Their music works so well because it has a very different flavour: the textures are gentler, the attack less aggressive and more measured. The compositions, employing a welcome variety of techniques (including a Mingus-like fondness for loosely plaited horn lines) within a clearly defined emotional range, are more reflective in tone but encourage the individuals to listen and react to each other with just as much intensity. The result is music than cannot be defined by era, its own or any other.

At the Vortex, Zimpel and Hanslip were replaced by Mike Fletcher and George Crowley, with no loss of quality. Zimpel’s alto clarinet and Fletcher’s C melody saxophone give the ensemble a subtly unusual blend: the latter horn, fairly common in pre-war dance bands but now seldom seen, could be described as sounding like an alto after a quarter-bottle of brandy, its voice slightly deeper and hoarser, although still lighter than a tenor.

I could only stay for Tuesday’s first set, but that was more than enough to confirm the strongly favourable impression made by Immune to Clockwork (which is released on the Multikulti Project label). A playful version of “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” — a First World War song which the young Brice heard his grandmother sing, later discovering to his delight that Sonny Rollins had recorded in 1958 (in a trio version with Henry Grimes and Specs Wright) — lightened the mood set by something like the skittering Ornetteish lines of “Crumbling Shyly”.

The leader introduced a slow piece called “What Might Have Been” with a well constructed and emotionally compelling solo that showed how artfully he has reconciled the salient characteristics of Mingus and Charlie Haden in order to emerge with his own voice. Joined by the discreet but inspiring brush-work of the impeccable Williams, he was able to provide a sensitive framework within which Crowley and Fletcher could display their imagination and character.

There a track from the album, called “The Hands”, currently on Soundcloud (you’ll have to scroll down a bit). It’ll give you an idea of why this quintet, which stays resolutely clear of empty displays of spectacular technique, has become one of the most interesting and satisfying bands on the current UK scene.

 

Raising an Eyebrow

EyebrowMostly just trumpet and drums, with the occasional wash of electronics, Eyebrow’s Garden City is one of the most beguiling records I’ve heard in ages. I should imagine that anyone who loves the work of Jon Hassell (particularly the classic Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics album with Brian Eno) or Arve Henriksen’s series of solo albums on the Rune Grammofon label will respond to what this Bristol-based duo are up to: a music of substance and elegance that slips easily between foreground and background, unassuming in its surfaces but best rewarding the closest attention.

They were formed in 2009, and this is their fourth album. Pete Judge, the trumpeter, also plays with the excellent quartet Get the Blessing, while Paul Wigens, the drummer, has a CV including spells with Blurt, Natacha Atlas, Viv Albertine, Damo Suzuki and Gary Lucas. On a couple of tracks they’re joined by the bassist/guitarist Jim Barr, another member of Get the Blessing (and of Portishead’s live band).

The format is simple: Wigens sets up an uncluttered, cleanly articulated and sometimes deceptively straightforward basic groove — using not much more than snare and bass drum and hi-hat, occasionally a tom-tom or two — over which Judge moves between written themes and the kind of improvisation that feels as though it grows directly out of the material, with subtle use of mutes and treatments. Barr makes it a three-way conversation with a lightly distorted baritone guitar on one track, “Blind Summit”, and adds a discreet baseline to another, “Scrim”.

On “Thaw”, for example, at 13 minutes the longest piece of the set, a soft electronically-generated background figure runs in and out of phase with Wigens’s slip-sliding pattern, while Judge plays long tones that are eventually expanded by echo or superimposition. Two-thirds of the way through there are a few moments of understated drama when the drummer drops out, allowing the trumpet to soar and resound as if under a cathedral dome.

This is music of quiet imagination and intimate beauty, spare and discreet without being forbiddingly austere, and recorded with fine clarity and presence. It’s on the ninety&nine label (www.ninetyandninerecords.com), and you’ll find a few samples of the music on the band’s own website here. I hope a lot of people get to enjoy it.

* The photograph of Paul Wigens and Pete Judge was taken by Mark Taylor in Arnos Vale Chapel, Bristol.

The trouble with Whiplash

Whiplash-PosterI have very mixed feelings, to say the least, about Whiplash. As a former drummer and a jazz fan, I’m delighted by the existence of a feature film about jazz drumming, particularly one that attracts Academy Award nominations. But I hated reading the newspaper and magazine features that rehearsed all the tired old jokes and generalisations about drummers before going on to describe the film. And there’s a much more profound and serious reservation.

Perhaps I can explain it by going back 40-odd years to the time when I and a colleague at the Melody Maker, both of us drummers, although in my case no longer active, maintained a state of polite hostility over — to put it crudely — his preference for Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker and mine for Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. I’d grown up believing that jazz was music originated by African Americans and that Baby Dodds was a better drummer, and more significant to the history of jazz, than Gene Krupa, although much less celebrated, just as Duke Ellington was more important than Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie was more important than Harry James. Ditto Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. Although my colleague certainly wasn’t a racist — anything but, in fact — we found ourselves on opposite sides of a divide.

I think it was after I’d interviewed Elvin Jones for the paper in 1971 that the great man — and his wife, Keiko — read a dismissive remark Ginger Baker had made about him and issued a challenge to an old-fashioned drum battle, via the front page of the MM. It took place at the Lyceum, as part of a gig featuring Baker’s Air Force, but I didn’t go. I could understand Elvin’s motive — quite properly, he felt he deserved to be at least as famous as Baker — but I thought it was somehow demeaning for the man who played on “Chasin’ the Trane” to invite public measurement against the author of “Toad”.

Anyway, Whiplash reminded me of this because it is about the education of a young jazz drummer. And my problem is that the student drummer in question — like his brutally demanding teacher, the part for which J.K. Simmons is up for a best-supporting Oscar — is white, and idolises Buddy Rich. He is also being taught to play a cold, unfeeling kind of music that has nothing to do with jazz as I understand it — and reminds me very much of the sort of stuff the members of Rich’s own big band were trained to play.

The college band in which the young drummer tries to establish himself contains plenty of black musicians — trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonists, a guitarist and a bassist. But it seems very strange to me that the four young men competing for the drum stool, the struggle around which the film revolves, are all white. (Just as strange is the fact that there are no women in the band — probably out of dramatic necessity, since otherwise the writer could not have given such foul-mouthed homophobic rantings to Simmons’s character.**)

Of course white drummers can play jazz with feeling and originality. I’ve always loved the work of Stan Levey, Shelly Manne, Phil Seamen, Paul Motian, Han Bennink and John Stevens, and that wholehearted admiration continues to be extended to the likes of Matt Wilson, Joey Baron, Steve Noble, Jeff Williams, Tom Skinner and others. They’re as far away from the template of Buddy Rich, a boorish show-off to whom technique was everything, as you could get.

It’s nice to think of today’s jazz world as being colour-blind. But I always felt that my inquiries had taught me where this music originated, and the answer was in the African diaspora, most particularly and obviously — although not at all exclusively — in the area of rhythm. So Elvin Jones and Tony Williams symbolised the kind of drumming I most admired, along with Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Frank Butler, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Pete La Roca and Sunny Murray. There was a principle involved, and an issue of authenticity.

We could argue about this, politely or rancorously, for a very long time. But to present jazz drumming to a cinema audience in the way Whiplash does seems to me implicitly regressive. It’s an affront to a continuing tradition embodied today by such brilliant African American players as Clarence Penn, Tyshawn Sorey, Marcus Gilmore, Brian Blade, Gerald Cleaver, Eric Harland and Jonathan Barber.

Damien Chazelle, the 29-year-old writer and director of Whiplash, studied drumming at a music college in an earlier phase of his life. Miles Teller, who plays the student, is a drummer. J.K. Simmons is also a musician, as we see in the film’s only musically satisfying sequence, when he plays piano with a rhythm section in a small club (making this viewer think: “Ah — some real jazz at last!”). So it gets most of the stuff right on a technical and atmospheric level. But Chazelle inserts so many absurd melodramatic twists into his plot — which, as others have said, closely resembles a jazz version of An Officer and a Gentleman and Rocky — that I couldn’t begin to take it seriously as a story. I could, however, take it seriously in the way it presents jazz to a general cinema audience.

Nowadays we look back at Hollywood’s earlier attempt to make a film about a jazz drummer, when Sal Mineo played the lead in The Gene Krupa Story in 1959, and think what crime it was that Max Roach and Art Blakey stood no chance of such recognition. It seems to me that with Whiplash, more than half a century later, we’re doing no better.

** Correction: Since I posted this blog, it’s been pointed out to me that a female musician does make a brief appearance in the college band.

The last of Kenny

Kenny Wheeler Songs for QuintetFor a while, at the beginning, I was put off by the seemingly flawless surface of Kenny Wheeler’s music. That swooping, soaring, almost frictionless lyricism that poured from his trumpet seemed too good to be true, and I couldn’t find the humanity in it. Eventually I began to comprehend the subtle nature of Kenny’s very personal conception and, having finally got the point, joined the many who admired him so greatly.

His death last September, at the age of 84, provoked mourning and tributes around the world. Then came the news that, nine months earlier, and already ailing, he had gone into a London studio to record a last album with four of his regular musical companions: the tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, the guitarist John Parricelli, the bassist Chris Laurence and the drummer Martin France.

That album, Songs for Quintet, is released this month on the ECM label, for whom he recorded on and off for 40 years, and we must thank the producers of the session, Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake, for the decision to take this final opportunity to capture Kenny’s spirit on record.

His strength was beginning to go, but the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that occasionally shows in his work — on flugelhorn only throughout the album’s nine pieces — never obstructs the music’s clarity or emotional impact. You would not want to miss his opening statement on “The Long Waiting”, a most elegant ballad, or the way he vaults into the theme of “Sly Eyes” over France’s parade-ground snare drum.

In any case, this is a record of a group playing Kenny’s tunes, so gorgeously stimulating for improvisers, rather than a showcase for the leader’s playing. One or two are familiar from earlier records, but all confirm the impression that other musicians will be exploring their glowing contours for many years to come. Here they draw a wonderful response from each of the musicians but in particular from Sulzmann, a collaborator for many years: a quiet presence with a gift for locating the essence of each composition and never playing a wasted note, he supports and sometimes takes the initiative in what may be a career-best performance.

As a graceful coda to a wonderful career, Songs for Quintet is not to be missed by anyone who ever fell under Kenny’s spell, however belatedly.

* The photograph of Kenny Wheeler was taken by Caroline Forbes at the Abbey Road studios during the Songs for Quintet sessions in December 2013 and appears in the album insert.

Visions of A Love Supreme

A Love Supreme 1“Welcome to the London branch of the Church of St John Coltrane,” the writer, editor and concert promoter Paul Bradshaw said, introducing last night’s event at the Union Chapel, the loveliest of the city’s performance spaces, featuring Rowland Sutherland’s Enlightenment, a large-scale “re-envisioning” of A Love Supreme.

It was 50 years to the day since Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones settled into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record their masterpiece in a single session. Sutherland’s 90-minute version involved himself and 14 other musicians working their way through an unbroken sequence of episodes that sometimes took direct inspiration from the work in question and at others explored underlying or suggested tendencies, taking in and finding ways to use the implications of Coltrane’s music both before December 9, 1965 and in the further year and a half preceding his death.

To give an idea of the richness of the resources at band, here’s the personnel: Sutherland (flute, alto flute), Cleveland Watkiss and Juwon Ogungbe (voices), Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone), Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet), Kadialy Kouyate (kora), Ansuman Biswas (tamboura, santoor, conch, tablas, miscellaneous small percussion), Orphy Robinson (xylosynth), Pat Thomas (keyboard, electronics), Nikki Yeoh (piano), Yaron Stavi (double bass), Mark Mondesir (drums), Crispin Ade Egun Robinson, Dave Pattman, and Ronald Thomas (bata drums, voices).

The piece began quietly with the strings of the tamboura and the kora, evoking the cultural wellsprings — India, West Africa — from Coltrane drew as he drove his music forward through the ferment of the early 1960s. Ogunbe and Watkiss recited devotional verses, starting with words from the Hindu mystic Swami Satchidananda and later using lines adapted from the 69-line poem that Coltrane included on the sleeve of the original album (“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord…”). Watkiss scatted inventively and Ogunbe, alongside him in the chapel’s high pulpit, sang powerfully in Yoruba. Occasionally they were joined by the chants of the three bata drummers, lined up on the extreme right of the stage.

Even those who don’t get on with late Coltrane would have conceded that this ensemble brought not just passion but clarity to the methods the saxophonist used in the last months of his life, when he invited additional musicians to join the basic group (something he had been doing, in fact, since the celebrated 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard) in order to explore the possibilities of the musical equivalent of “speaking in tongues”. This was the development of a new (to the western world) language of ecstasy and catharsis, and it continues to divide opinion.

There were strikingly effective solos last night from a poised Yeoh, a ferocious Williamson, a wild Hutchings, a volcanic Mondesir, an entrancing Robinson and a cunning Thomas (who, as my friend Jody Gillett pointed out, “likes to keep the rest of them on their toes”), from Biswas on santoor (a small Indian cimbalom), and from Stavi, who produced an improvisation that fused Garrison’s suppleness with Charlie Haden’s spiritual power, provoking an ovation from the large and attentive audience.

Waves of energy surged back and forth across the stage, separated by passages of luminous serenity. A judicious pruning of 10 minutes or so might have done no harm, but even the most hardened atheist (that’s me) would have found it difficult to remain unmoved by the depth and intensity of these musicians’ creative response to one of jazz’s great cornerstones, sharing with us its undiminished power to inspire and uplift.

A threnody for Lou Reed

lou and jzIt’s already a year since Lou Reed died. You could mark the anniversary by saving up for the new super-deluxe edition of the Velvet Underground’s third album, now expanded to six CDs through the addition of alternative mixes and live stuff, or by reading the updated version of Jeremy Reed’s biography, Waiting for the Man. Or you could make a lateral move and listen to Transmigration of the Magus, written and recorded by John Zorn in memory of his late friend.

Just released on Zorn’s own Tzadik label, the album features the composer’s well established Gnostic Trio — Bill Frisell (guitar), Carol Emanuel (harp) and Kenny Wollesen (vibes and bells) — plus John Medeski (organ), Bridget Kibbey (harp) and Al Upowski (vibes and bells). The instrumentation along gives you an idea of what the music sounds like: a bright celestial noise reflecting Zorn’s interest in the numinous and his desire to write something to help Reed’s spirit through the bardo — the Tibetan word for the transitional state between death and the next incarnation.

Somewhere beneath the profanity of Reed’s music, the sacred was always lurking — whether in the exquisite melody of  “Pale Blue Eyes” or in Songs for Drella, the lovely elegy he and John Cale wrote for Andy Warhol. It’s not hard to glimpse him in the shimmering, tinkling haze of Zorn’s heavily arpeggiated compositions, but easier still in the handful of pieces where, without breaking the poise or the delicate weave of the ensemble, Frisell and Medeski get the chance to cut loose.

At the London Jazz Festival last week I listened to Frisell and Greg Leisz playing electric guitars on “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” during the Guitar in the Space Age! show and was struck by how the silvery quality of the combined strings and a general feeling of ascension reminded me of two other partnerships: Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Frisell is equally wonderful here. The title track of Transmigration of the Magus is one of the loveliest and most powerful things I’ve heard all year.

* The photograph of Lou Reed and John Zorn was taken by Heung Heung Chin at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City on September 2, 2008, at a concert in celebration of Zorn’s 55th birthday.

The road to Plaistow

PlaistowIf the Mercury Prize-nominated GoGo Penguin are the One Direction of contemporary piano trios, Plaistow are the Radiohead: intense, demanding, sometimes thrilling, sometimes stubborn. They’re Swiss, they’ve been playing together since 2007, and they made their London debut today in a lunchtime concert at the Pizza Express on Dean Street. For me, the event confirmed the good impression made by their new album, Citadelle, just released on the Two Gentlemen label.

They are Johann Bourquenez (piano), Vincent Ruiz (double bass) and Cyril Bondi (drums). Apparently they acquired their name from the title of a Squarepusher track to which they took a fancy. I don’t know if they’ve been to Plaistow, which is in East London, but perhaps they know that the meaning of the word, in one interpretation derived from the Old English Plagestoue, is “place of play”.

The 75-minute set began with Bourquenez doing what he does a lot, which is to use both hands in the middle register to set up roiling waves of sound (you can hear him do it on “Lisa”, from the new album, and on the title track of its predecessor, Lacrimosa). We are verging on Charlemagne Palestine territory here, and the club’s excellent Steinway responded beautifully, allowing the overtones to speak clearly. After a few minutes Ruiz and Bondi joined in, both playing simple patterns, the former repeating a single note in a 3/4 pulse against the drummer’s 2/4 cymbal strokes. Then it got complicated.

Another point of reference might be the Necks, but whereas the Australian trio improvise from a standing start at every performance, Plaistow clearly prepare their material with great care. Compound time signatures are used, as are sudden and unpredictable stops and starts, but there is no hint of the flashiness such devices usually encourage. It’s hard to say how much is improvised, but it doesn’t seem to matter. What they have in common is a gift for what, if this were pop music, you would call hooks: the repeated phrases and, particularly, the harmonic shifts that engage the listener’s emotions. Like the Necks, they make you wait so long for the shift to take place that the eventual resolution comes as an exquisite relief.

Ruiz played the quietest bass solo I’ve ever heard, barely touching the strings. Bondi broke out of the repetition to produce a wonderful series of clattering solos on “Cube”, a piece built around him (also from Lacrimosa). And Bourquenez, in addition to the waves-of-overtones thing, proved himself — on “Les Oiseaux”, a track from Citadelle — a virtuoso at the skill of using his left hand inside the piano to damp and bend the notes he was playing with his right hand, at times making the instrument sound like an oud or, as my neighbour suggested, like a cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer of Central and Eastern Europe. As with everything they did, the technique was put to good expressive purpose.

They make you think about sound and about time. They can sweep you away with a burst of lyricism or pin you to the spot. They’ve been one of the best surprises of this year’s London Jazz Festival. And the hauntingly beautiful “Orion”, from the new album, is likely to be one of my tracks of the year.

* The picture of Plaistow — left to right: Cyril Bondi, Johann Bourquenez, Vincent Ruiz — was taken by Raphaëlle Mueller.

 

Abdullah Ibrahim at 80

EkayaAbdullah Ibrahim opened last night’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall with the sort of extended solo-piano reverie for which he has long been celebrated, dipping reflectively in and out of various themes, occasionally hinting at the beautifully harmonised hymn tunes that bring such balm to his listeners’ hearts. Then the great South African did something completely different, introducing a new trio in which he is joined by Cleave Guyton on flute and clarinet and Noah Jackson on cello.

For the next half an hour or so they performed a series of gentle miniatures, containing little improvisation but concentrating on the close inspection of a limited tonal palette when applied to an equally restricted emotional range: the tempos were slow to medium, the dynamic range seldom venturing beyond a polite murmur. It was like walking slowly past a series of small, pale-hued watercolours of the same landscape, viewed from slightly different vantage points. That doesn’t sound very exciting. But it contained enough of Ibrahim’s seed to hold the attention, even in the occasional moments when the intonation of the cellist or the clarinetist wavered slightly.

The second half of this EFG London Jazz Festival concert saw the three men (with Guyton switching to alto saxophone and Jackson moving to double bass) joined by the other members of the latest edition of Ekaya, the septet whose membership has shifted on a fairly regular basis since Ibrahim created it around 30 years ago: Andrae Murchison (trombone), Lance Bryant (tenor saxophone), Marshall McDonald (baritone saxophone) and Will Terrill (drums).

The concert had been introduced by a Radio London presenter who promised the audience that they were in for a helping of townships jazz, suggesting that dancing would be on the agenda. But that is not what Ekaya do. Their music is characterised by an air of restraint that guides its lyrical exploration of the timbres created by the combination of its four horns.

It was fascinating to hear the softly stabbing figures of “Nisa” played by this line-up, in which Bryant occasionally stepped forward to reveal himself as a front-rank improviser of concise inventiveness and great authority. Confounding stereotypes, the stealthy “Calypso Minor” — which first appeared in Ibrahim’s soundtrack for Claire Denis’s 1990 film No Fear, No Die (S’en fou  la mort) — could have been something cooked up by, say, Johnny Mandel for a Hollywood thriller in the 1950s.

At times throughout the set there were hints of the bejewelled miniatures created by Ellington’s small groups of the ’30s. And when the rhythm section laid out on an acapella version of “The Wedding”, the mind turned back to the horns-only version of “Abide With Me” recorded by Thelonious Monk. In his brief piano opening to the encore, as if to reaffirm his allegiances, Ibrahim alluded briefly to Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie” and Ellington’s introduction to “Take the ‘A’ Train”.

Like all great jazz musicians, Abdullah Ibrahim metastasised the sources of his inspiration in the process of developing his own voice. At 80 he remains one of the most powerful and distinctive composer-performers in jazz, even when the dancing is being done in your head.

Mingus fingers

Whahay 1About 20 minutes into Whahay’s set at the Vortex last night, Paul Rogers dug out a small steel cylinder and slipped it over the little finger of his left hand. A few seconds later he was playing bottleneck double bass: a fantastic sound.

It helped that he was playing his seven-string instrument, a beautiful thing with sloping shoulders, custom-built for him by a luthier in Nîmes. The fifth string is where the extra string on a five-string bass can usually be found, tuned to B, a fourth below the lowest string on a conventional instrument. The sixth and seventh are at the upper end of the register, tuned to C and F. It also has 14 sympathetic strings, set longitudinally under the bridge and the tailpiece.

The result bears some resemblance to a medieval viola da gamba, or the Italian viola bastarda of the 16th and 17th centuries. And in Rogers’ hands it can sound not just like a contrabass but like a cello, a lute, an oud, a finger-picked acoustic guitar, and sometimes — when he grips the strings with the fingers of both hands before wrenching them violently away in opposite directions — like an explosion in a factory making industrial-strength rubber bands.

Rogers moved to London from his native Chester in the mid-’70s and was regular on the British improvising scene, notably in various groups with Keith Tippett, John Stevens, Elton Dean and others, for more than a decade before moving first to the US and then to France, where he has lived since 1992 (currently in Le Mans). He had the seven-string bass made because he wanted something lighter and more travel-friendly than his usual instrument, but it has given him an enlarged vocabulary that is brilliantly displayed in the context of his current group.

Whahay is a trio in which Rogers is joined by the tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Robin Fincker, who was born in France but has lived for several years in London, where he is a member of the Loop Collective, and the drummer Fabien Duscombs, who first met Fincker when they were both studying in Toulouse. Their newly released debut album applies the techniques of free improvisation to the music of Charles Mingus, a project they’ve been working on for a couple of years.

Here’s a way of describing their sound and approach. If you drew a line from Mingus’s Blues & Roots to Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, and called the distance x, and then continued the line until it reached Whahay, the distance between the first and third points would be something like 2.5x. That’s an attempt to explain the method by which Mingus’s tunes — including “Better Git It In Your Soul”, “Bird Calls”, “Ecclusiastics” and “Pithencanthropus Erectus” — are subjected not just to extreme abstraction but to the extended instrumental techniques that have evolved since Ayler’s heyday in the mid-’60s.

The album is terrific, but the gig was an absolute monster. After a slightly muted start, in which they sounded unexpectedly pastoral (more like a Jimmy Giuffre trio than an Ayler band), the three musicians hit their stride and didn’t pause for an hour, moving in and out of time, slipping easily from three-way conversations to duos to monologues, picking up cues with near-telepathic perception and showing how far they have advanced their interplay since the album was recorded in the spring.

Duscombs is an unusual player who seems constantly intent on taking his kit by surprise: his sticks appear to recoil from the playing surfaces, pulling the sound out of the startled drums and cymbals rather than hammering it in. Fincker, the least obviously assertive member of the group, is a hugely resourceful improviser who always found something interesting to add. Rogers was consistently astonishing in his combination of physicality and delicacy, whether sawing away with his big German bow or using all his fingers to tap out a filigree of shimmering harmonics.

What would Mingus have thought of it all? He was notoriously sceptical of free music. One summer’s day in 1972, over lunch at a table outside a cafe in Shepherd Market, he gave me a version of his standard line: “Some painters draw seriously, they draw precise lines and certain perspectives that correspond with something you’ve seen before. Then you get guys who throw paint at a canvas, throw some sand on top of it, and they say they paint. Some people let monkeys and little children use their fingers on it, and they call it good painting.” He looked up from his oxtail soup and glared at me. “It’s time for guys like you to decide what you want: bullshit, or something real.”

What Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker and Fabien Duscombs did last night was real enough. I think Mingus would have loved it.

* Whahay is distributed in the UK by the Babel label.

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