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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Matana Roberts in Hackney

Matana Roberts Oslo 2Matana Roberts asked for “comments, questions and critiques” at the end of her remarkable performance at Oslo in Hackney last night (“Well, maybe not the critiques,” she added). That doesn’t happen at every gig. There were many questions from an enthusiastic audience, and she answered them all — whether on David Cameron’s attitude to reparations for slavery or the influence of early ’60s free jazz on her music — with conviction, insight and wit.

A genuinely extraordinary artist of our time, she pursues a vision that places her beyond category. Last night she gave us a version of her latest record, the third chapter of the Coin Coin series, in which she is exploring various aspects of American history. On Oslo’s low stage she sat in front of a screen showing a loop of film she created with the use of family ephemera and other images, and divided her time between cueing and modifying the sound bed created from all sorts of audio sources (the “panoramic sound quilting” of which she speaks) and playing brief alto saxophone passages with her fibrous tone and hymn-like delivery, singing snatches of seemingly half-remembered songs, and reading from an old, scuffed, pocket-sized Bible into which she had pasted the various texts used in Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

She is a natural actor, with a powerful presence even in repose. She can draw us in with the warmest of smiles but suddenly switch and flash her eyes with a Simone-like disdain. Her powerful voice sometimes dissolves into strange mumblings and twitterings.

Some thematic fragments recurred. “Come away with me,” she crooned. “Black lives matter / All lives matter.” “I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance to… I pledge allegiance… to a flag with liberty and justice for some.” And, frequently repeated, “I like to tell stories…” That, most of all, was how it felt. In her voluminous skirt, grey shawl, face paint and wild locks, patiently thumbing through her defaced Bible, fiddling with her laptop and electronics, taking her time as the story unwound, she had brought the meaning and textures of the lives of her ancestors into her own existence — and, quite unforgettably, into ours.

Phil Woods 1931-2015

Phil Woods 2Phil Woods, the great alto saxophonist, died yesterday, aged 83. He was featured on the first jazz LP I ever bought, with money saved from a paper round: East Meets West: The Birdland All Stars on Tour, recorded in 1956, with Kenny Dorham, Conte Candoli, Al Cohn, Hank Jones, John Simmons and Kenny Clarke. It was a second-hand copy, found on a market stall. Not a great album, but not a bad place to start, either. More important, Woods went on to play a wonderful solo on one of my very favourite records: the version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” on the expanded reissue of The Individualism of Gil Evans, recorded in 1964.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of things I love about music that are contained in this 14-minute piece, from the deepest blues to the most sophisticated modern jazz. In strategic terms, it creates, intensifies and sustains an extraordinary mood that is quite unlike anything else I know. The tactical details include Gil’s Zen piano and his at times almost subliminal arrangement (those woodwinds painted across the horizon!), the magical combination of Paul Chambers’ calm bass and Elvin Jones’s brooding drums, Kenny Burrell’s super-cool guitar ruminations, Johnny Coles’ heart-piercing trumpet, the brilliant use of Harry Lookofsky’s tenor violin… and the sense of space, space, space, and time, time, time. Time and space became what Gil made of them, and never more so than here.

In the eighth minute the tension rises as the arrangement prepares the way for a passage of two and a half minutes in which Woods’s improvisation makes the most of the landscape Gil has established, exploiting the freedom offered by the modal framework to drill down from a different angle into the essence of the blues. As elegantly funky phrases coalesce into a double-time flurry, the solo reaches its climax — the climax of the whole 14 minutes, in effect — before meandering carefully back to its starting point, finally decompressing though a series of beautifully syncopated two-note phrases into a light-fingered imitation of the walking bass, deliberately lowering the temperature before an ensemble section leads to the drifting, dissolving finale.

I have no idea whether for Woods this represented more than just another good day’s work in the middle of a long and distinguished career. For me, it’s an example of perfection.

Remembering Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond Down Beat 2Fifty years ago this month, Paul Desmond was on the cover of Down Beat. The other day, when I was buying a new reissue of some of his early recordings, the man behind the counter told me his theory, which in essence was that if it hadn’t have been for Desmond, we’d never have heard of Dave Brubeck.

I had to agree with him, for two reasons. First, the graceful sound of Desmond’s alto saxophone was the first thing you heard when you heard the Brubeck Quartet. It was the identifier. Just as important, Desmond wrote “Take Five”, the group’s biggest hit, the one you heard on Sunday lunchtimes on Two-Way Family Favourites. Probably a lot of people assumed that it had come from Brubeck’s pen, the one that wrote two genuine jazz standards, “The Duke” and “In Your Own Sweet Way”. But its ingenuity was the altoist’s work.

The Fresh Sound album, Desmond: Here I Am, starts with five 1954 tracks with a quintet featuring the bassist Bob Bates and the drummer Joe Dodge from the early Brubeck group, and continues with four from the same year with the Bob Bates Singers, originally issued together as Desmond’s first solo album, on the Fantasy label; then come eight tracks recorded two years later with a quartet for the same label.

Interestingly, there is no piano to be heard on any of the three sessions. One could make a mildly cruel joke about the relief of being temporarily free from Brubeck’s heavy-handed accompaniment, but it would be neither fair nor entirely true. But the pianoless setting certainly suited Desmond: there’s an airiness appropriate to his sound.

Desmond was noted for his dry wit. In the Down Beat interview, talking to Dan Morgenstern, he discussed Brubeck’s most recent attempt to team the quartet with a symphony orchestra, in an extended piece called Elementals. “I kind of hope it stays the last,” he said. “That sort of thing is more gratifying to the composer; to perform it is a kind of struggle. It’s a little frustrating when you’re on stage with 80 symphony musicians and succeed in functioning just about as well as you ordinarily do, and it’s considered a great accomplishment — like tap dancing under water.”

He was a bit of a curmudgeon, in an amusing way. “Between the discotheques and the avant-garde and the folk scene, there isn’t much left,” he observed. But he had kind words for Charles Mingus — “He can be fascinating and very moving to listen to, as well as hitting you with something very difficult” — and his idea of a discotheque would be something that played the music of Muddy Waters, Count Basie and Mose Allison, which sounds pretty good to me.

There was never a sense of struggle or difficulty in Desmond’s music. He was even capable of rising above the kitschy sound of the Bates Singers (although not to the degree that he transcended Bob Prince’s workaday arrangements for strings and woodwind on the RCA album Desmond Blue a few years later). The 1956 quartet tracks, with Don Elliott switching between mellophone and trumpet, require no allowances to be made: these are gloriously lucid, lyrical inventions on standards and originals, the absence of strain and challenge more than offset by the calm, balanced inventiveness of the leader’s improvisations.

By 1965, however, the caravan of jazz was moving on. I remember feeling a surge of righteous anger, after handing over half a crown for this copy of the magazine, when I noticed that the editors had chosen to feature him on the cover rather than the second-billed Ornette Coleman. Desmond died of lung cancer in 1977, aged 52, and time has told the truth about him, which is that he was a player of genuine originality who couldn’t have played a banal phrase if he’d tried.

* Desmond: Here I Am is on the Fresh Sound label. Desmond Blue is available on a six-CD box called The Complete RCA Albums Collection, released by Sony Legacy and including his much admired collaborations with the guitarist Jim Hall.

Loud, louder, loudest…

BerghainThis building, for those who don’t already know it, is Berghain, probably the world’s most famous techno club. It opened in 2004 in a building formerly used by East Berlin’s electricity company, now surrounded by waste ground near the Ostbahnhof station. Its sound system is said to be the best of its kind in the world, and it was put to good use this week at the opening night of a four-day festival called A l’Arme!, which is billed by its curator, Louis Rastig, as an “international jazz and sound-art meeting”.

The first highlight was the opening DJ set by Mieko Suzuki, who spent an hour making a simple drone evolve into something rich and strange, with mesmerising subtlety. Then came a duo performance by the saxophonist Colin Stetson and the bass guitarist Bill Laswell, who exploited that legendary sound system to the full.

In my time I’ve stood next to a nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster as it warmed up for a four-second, 300mph quarter-mile run, underneath a Vulcan bomber as a combined 80,000lb of thrust propelled it in a steep climb from low level, and within spitting distance of the Who’s PA. All of those would be in the range of 120-150 decibels. Stetson and Laswell were louder than any of them.

For the best part of an hour they made great waves of noise in which pulse and pitch were subordinate to the overall intention of filling every cranny of the concrete and steel space. The muscular, athletic Stetson made his bass saxophone howl and groan, using effects to produce many simultaneous sound-layers. The expressionless Laswell prodded at his pedal-board and picked at his strings with a deceptively delicate touch while filling the room with stomach-loosening lines. If you were standing a few feet from one of the speaker stacks, the volume generated a breeze that ruffled your hair and made the fabric of your clothes ripple. Ear plugs were available.

It was brutally exhausting, but somehow magnificent. Goodness knows what Adolphe Sax and Leo Fender, creators of the instruments that Stetson and Laswell were taking to the limits and beyond, would have made of it.

Ornette Coleman 1930-2015

Ornette by Ian DuryIt was 1961 when I first heard the sound of Ornette Coleman. I was 14 years old and I’d somehow scraped together the money to buy This Is Our Music, his latest release. I’d been getting interested in jazz, devouring anything I could find. Every word I read about Ornette, even the scornfully dismissive stuff that was about at the time, made him sound interesting. And, of course, I loved the cover, with its Lee Friedlander photograph of four young men — Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette, and Charlie Haden — looking impossibly cool.

So I took it home, put it on the Dansette, switched off the lights, and lay down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes I moved only to get up and turn it over. And then I listened to it again. The effect has never gone away.

To me, Ornette’s music sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Nothing about it — the raw timbre of the horns, the lack of conventional chord sequences — bothered me in the slightest. What it had, apart from undoubted modernity, was the “cry” that went back to the origins of the blues.

(That sound impressed me so much that three or four years later I bought a white plastic Grafton alto saxophone, just like Ornette’s, and invested in some lessons with the lead altoist in a local dance band, who also worked the music shop from which I bought it, and was more of a Paul Desmond man. I didn’t get far. Particularly after the night when, during a club gig with the R&B band in which I played, I got up from behind the drums and attempted to insert a bit of free-form improvising into the middle of a Bo Diddley medley. This was 1965: eat your hearts out, Magic Band, Contortions, Pop Group. And even Prime Time, come to that. But it didn’t go down well, and I couldn’t afford to keep the horn. I think I got £30 for it. They’re rare now, not least because they stopped making them in the ’60s, after which the tools and jigs were destroyed. If you dropped them, they cracked and couldn’t be repaired. The last one I saw for sale in a shop, a couple of years ago, had a price tag of £1,500.)

Later on I was fortunate enough to meet Ornette several times, and to discover his unusual mode of verbal expression. Like Captain Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks, he had a way of answering your questions by taking off in a wholly unexpected direction, making several detours, and finally ending up with a completely logical pay-off. That process could take several minutes, and you had to align yourself to the cadences of his thinking if you wanted to get the most from it.

The most striking encounter was at Abbey Road in 1972, when he was recording The Skies of America, his extended orchestral piece, with the LSO, conducted by David Measham. The work had been written to feature his quartet alongside the orchestra, but union rules made that an impossibility. So it was just Ornette and the straight players, some of whom displayed a ready disdain for his score. To be fair, it did make some unorthodox and occasionally severe demands — usually in terms of the upper range of the wind instruments — on a bunch of players including one or two who liked to fill the gaps between takes by propping a copy of the FT on their music stands and checking the progress of their shares. Some inaccurate copying of the parts didn’t help.

The trumpeters made an informal deal between themselves to alternate the highest notes in order to save their lips from damage. At one point, after the orchestra’s percussionist had observed, quite seriously, that it would help to have three conductors working simultaneously, Ornette took a pair of sticks and showed him exactly what he wanted.

So a degree of pain and struggle was certainly involved in the recording, but it sounded marvellous as the composer took out his alto to play along with them. He was wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, a silky cream shirt, and multicoloured patchwork leather boots. Ornette’s self-designed wardrobe was just another facet of his originality.

When the album appeared, it was with a sleeve note in which Ornette wrote: “The skies of America have had more changes to occur under them this century than any other country: assassinations, political wars, gangster wars, racial wars, space races, women’s rights, sex, drugs and the death of god, all for the betterment of the American people.” And somehow he managed to get a sense of all that into his 41 minutes of pure American music.

I heard it performed live a couple of times in New York and London, featuring the quartet with the larger ensemble, as originally intended. As time went by it was gussied up a little to smooth away some of the rough edges and make the orchestra players’ lives a little easier, but I don’t think it ever sounded nearly as good. It needed those tensions to bring out the ideas behind its conception. To me, it still sounds like a masterpiece, the product of a mind in which simplicity and complexity achieved a perfect coexistence.

* The image of Ornette Coleman is from Ian Dury’s design for the first UK edition of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, A.B. Spellman’s classic portrait of Ornette, Herbie Nichols, Jackie McLean and Cecil Taylor, published by MacGibbon and Kee in 1967. You can find a short piece I wrote about Ornette’s significance for the Guardian’s music blog here:

On the tracks of Tina Brooks

Tina BrooksTina is certainly an unusual name for a man. But 50 years ago, in a world including an Ornette and a Thelonious, it didn’t seem all that strange. What mattered was the way Tina Brooks — born Harold, but rechristened with a corruption of Teenie, a childhood nickname — played the tenor saxophone.

Born in North Carolina in 1932, at the age of 12 he moved with his family to New York, where he studied music and took his first gigs with R&B bands in the early 1950s. Subsequently he became one of the many gifted jazz musicians whose lives were blighted, either through early death or prolonged inactivity, by the heroin plague of the post-war years. He died in obscurity in 1974, after more than a decade of silence.

The years of notable activity were brief. The trumpeter Little Benny Harris recommended him to Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s co-founder, and in 1958 he took part in his first session for the label, Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon. Sessions as a sideman with Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean and Freddie Hubbard would follow. Of his own four Blue Note albums, only one — True Blue — was issued during his lifetime. The others — Minor Move, Back to the Tracks and The Waiting Game — were put on the shelf, for reasons about which we can only speculate. They appeared long after his death, when it had become apparent that a coterie of fans cherished his special qualities.

All those albums are now available together on a two-CD package called Tina Brooks Quintet: The Complete Recordings (Master Takes), released on the Phono label, one of those companies shrewdly taking advantage of music falling out of copyright. To say it represents a bargain is an understatement, and since none of the musicians involved is still alive, I don’t suppose anyone is going to suffer financial duress as a result.

Brooks was a middleweight tenorist, like Hank Mobley or Oliver Nelson, with the fluid inventiveness of the former and the graceful balance of the latter. In terms of substance, his improvising was exceptionally creative. Every solo contained something worth hearing. And, within the hard bop idiom, he was a composer of the highest quality: listen to “Street Singer”, which has the graceful melodic shapes associated with Benny Golson (and is an interloper, being borrowed from the McLean session, in which the quintet became a sextet).

The sidemen chosen for these albums form a roll-call of Blue Note favourites. The trumpeters: Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell and Johnny Coles. The pianists: Sonny Clark, Duke Jordan and Kenny Drew. The bassists: Doug Watkins, Sam Jones, Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. The drummers: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor, who never sounded better in his life, as you can hear on “Street Singer”.

I know of only one piece of film featuring Brooks: a DVD of Ray Charles in São Paulo in 1963 titled O Gênio: Live in Brazil. issued by Warner Music Vision in 2004. He’s in the reed section alongside the altoists Danny Turner and Geezil Minerve, his fellow tenorist Fathead Newman and the baritone-player Hog Cooper. Newman, the band’s music director, gets most of the solo space, but on Quincy Jones’s “Birth of a Band” he’s joined by Brooks, with whom he trades choruses and fours. Clearly new to the band, Brooks appears unsure of the routine, and his more oblique style is somewhat overshadowed by Newman’s robust bluesiness, but you could just about close your eyes and know it’s him. See it here.

I’ve always thought that if I could put together a dream quintet of musicians who fell victim to the infernal plague, he’d be there alongside Dupree Bolton, Dick Twardzik, Albert Stinson and Frank Butler. What a band that would have been. But his own four albums form an imperishable legacy, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

* One of Tina Brooks’s few pieces of certified good luck was to have found himself in front of the lens of the great Roy DeCarava at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx one night in 1956, when he shared the stage with Benny Harris. I’ve used one of DeCarava’s shots from that evening at the top of this piece; it’s taken from the Mosaic vinyl box set of complete quintet recordings, compiled by Michael Cuscuna and released 30 years ago this month. If you don’t know DeCarava’s work, look for The Sound I Saw, his classic essay on the jazz life. He put it together in 1962, but had to wait until 2001 — eight years before his death at the age of 89 — to see it published, thanks to the good offices of the Phaidon Press. Here, if you’re interested, is the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.

Introducing Anna-Lena Schnabel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of a long afternoon of listening to German bands at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen last weekend, I heard something that really brought the senses alive: the alto saxophone of Anna-Lena Schnabel, a 22-year-old musician from Hamburg appearing in the Aquarian Jazz Ensemble, a quintet led by the drummer Björn Lücker.

The group was impressive all round, notably the leader’s thoughtful, highly melodic compositions and the restrained lyricism of the trumpeter and flügelhornist Claas Ueberschaer. But it was when Schnabel stepped forward for her first solo that the music really took wing.

There’s a poise to her delivery, a fibrous, pliable quality to her tone and a sustained intensity that remind me a little of the young Mike Osborne. In the context of a half-hour set featuring several tunes, it was interesting to hear how much substance she was able to get into each of her short solos — an endangered art. The varied contouring of her phrases makes you feel as though you’re being taken for a very interesting ride. And on the occasional improvised duets between the two horns, she more than held her own with the experienced Ueberschaer.

The next day I was telling someone about what I’d heard, and he told me a little story about Schnabel. It came from a while ago, when she was a member of the national youth jazz orchestra. They were undertaking a project with one of Germany’s several radio big bands, which are stuffed full of case-hardened professionals, and she was due to be featured on one particular piece. She is, apparently, not the most organised of people, and on this day she got her transport arrangements mixed up and arrived late in a bit of a flurry. My informant mimed the looks of exasperation on the faces of the senior players as they watched this flustered novice unpack her horn. But as soon as the first notes came out, he said, they started taking surreptitious looks over their music stands to confirm that such a stream of eloquence really could be coming from this young woman. Yes, they discovered, it could.

You don’t need to take my word for it: the performance in Bremen was filmed, and here it is. It’s worth a half-hour of anybody’s time, and her longest solo of the set, beginning at 25:50 and climbing out of a lovely ballad with surprising chord changes called “Mellow”, is a particular beauty. I suspect, and very much hope, that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the rather extraordinary Ms Schnabel.

In the gallery

Giovanni Guidi TrioArt galleries can be good places to listen to creative music, and the small Rosenfeld Porcini gallery in London — in Fitzrovia, actually, with entrances in Rathbone Street and Newman Street — provided a near-perfect environment for last night’s concert by the trio of the young Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, who has yet to become well known but is one of the most interesting musicians on the current European jazz scene.

Along with the American bassist Thomas Morgan and the Portuguese drummer João Lobo, Guidi was celebrating the release of This Is the Day, the trio’s second album for ECM. On its cover is a painting by the French artist Emmanuel Barcilon, who exhibits at Rosenfeld Porcini. Over the last couple of years Guidi has twice given solo recitals at the gallery, but this was the first time the trio has been heard in the UK.

The album is a thing of great beauty (as was its predecessor, City of Broken Dreams, which made my best-of-2013 list), displaying three musicians bringing new thoughts to a familiar format. While Guidi applies his restrained yet ardent lyricism and super-refined touch to melodies that sometimes resemble children’s hymns and to improvisations that drift and reshape themselves like high clouds, Morgan and Lobo provide something more than commentary. These are three-way conversations conducted with a wonderful collective sense of space. The drummer occasionally intervenes to spike the mood of romanticism with the astringency of scraped cymbals or dry rattling sounds. The bassist provides a running counterpoint that can move gently into the foreground.

But, as so often, live performance brought the music fully to life, allowing them to enhance the gorgeous cadences of Guidi compositions such as “Where They’d Lived” and “The Night It Rained Forever” and to dwell on the quiet sensuality of their version of the old favourite “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, written in the 1940s by the Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés.

This was the second time I’ve seen Thomas Morgan play live (the first was with Tomasz Stanko’s quartet two years ago) and it confirmed the first impression that he is a genuinely original musician. Over the last three or four years he’s become virtually ECM’s house bassist, turning in discreetly outstanding performances on albums by Masabumi Kikuchi, Enrico Rava, John Abercrombie, David Virelles, Craig Taborn and Jakob Bro, but Guidi’s group offers him the ideal environment for the full expression of his special gift.

On the face of it, he is a member of a generation of jazz bassists who’ve moved away from the ideal of technical virtuosity embodied by Scott LaFaro and Ron Carter, two great players whose influence became, through no fault of their own, overbearing and destructive. Now we hear more from bassists like Larry Grenadier — a member of Brad Mehldau’s trio for the past 20 years — and Olie Brice, who take their cue instead from the likes of Wilbur Ware and Charlie Haden and seem to believe that playing as fast and high as possible is not necessarily a desirable ambition. Morgan belongs in that camp, but he has something very different.

Born in California 1981, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, he has the air of a shy schoolboy who is still in the early stages of learning his instrument. If you watched him through soundproof glass, you would think that his playing was awkward, diffident, even indecisive. His fingers shape themselves for a note or a phrase, hover over the strings, and then appear to change their mind. Remove that glass and you discover that his note choices, while unpredictable and surprising, are almost always perfect. He has a lovely command of tone: the true sound of the instrument, beautifully shaded, full of humanity. If a note doesn’t need to be played, you can see him deciding to leave it out. His combination of resolute modesty and emotional directness will inevitably remind listeners of Haden, but it comes from a different and very intriguing place.

This Is The Day offers the best possible showcase for his qualities, but it works so well only because this is a balanced trio in which the parts function together perfectly, the individual contributions shining all the brighter for the richness of the interplay. Much of the music is played in tempo rubato, free of strict time, swelling and receding with a collective instinct for pulse and flow; there was one busy passage, however, in which they seemed to be hurtling forward together in metred time, and you had to listen hard to discover that this was a brilliant illusion.

Last night’s performance was the final date of a short European tour. The sustained warmth of the London audience’s response, which seemed to surprise and delight them (and led to a perfect encore with a dead-slow version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”), can only have encouraged them to continue their remarkable work together.

* The photograph of the Giovanni Guidi Trio is from the insert of This Is the Day, and was taken by Caterina di Perri.

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.



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