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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

The Berlin variations

Dylan Howe 2Dylan Howe and his band wrapped up their short tour in front of a full house at Warwick University’s Arts Centre last night, performing the versions of David Bowie’s Berlin-era instrumentals heard on the drummer’s excellent new CD, Subterranean. Only the pianist Ross Stanley remained from the recording line-up; for the tour, he and Howe were joined by Andy Sheppard (soprano and tenor saxophones), Steve Lodder (synthesiser) and Dave Whitford (double bass), creating a compact line-up fully capable of the subtlety and range of gesture demanded by the project. And the timing could hardly have been better, given that Bowie himself has just revealed an intriguing and vaguely jazzical track called “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”, the result of a collaboration with Maria Schneider’s big band.

The instrumentals adapted for Subterranean from Low and Heroes — among them “Neuköln”, “Warszawa” and “Moss Garden” — happen to represent the Bowie I like best, and Howe’s arrangements work with the original moods through careful use of texture (often via the restrained employment of Lodder’s Korg) while opening them up to thoughtful improvisation. Sheppard responded like the master he now is, never straining for a climax as he unfurled his variations, and Stanley’s solos displayed a lovely open-hearted lyricism. Whitford, a member of the new generation of bassists who decline to show off, made a telling contribution both in support and as a soloist.

Above and behind the players, a screen showed evocative Cold War-era documentary footage of West and East Berlin. The visual counterpoint slightly lost its freshness in the second half, when the same sequences were reshuffled, but at the end of two hour-long sets the audience responded with great — and, for the drummer-leader, surely very gratifying — enthusiasm.

* Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans at Warwick Arts Centre (left to right): Steve Lodder, Ross Stanley, Dave Whitford, Andy Sheppard, Howe.

 

Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance before an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

Now here she was, getting ready for the BBC’s cameras, in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.

Ida

IdaAmong the many reasons for seeing Pawel Pawlikoski’s new film Ida — briefly: the story, set in Poland in the early 1960s, of a novice nun who discovers that she is Jewish and that her parents were murdered during the war — is its use of music, and in particular that of a young modern jazz quartet whose leader, an alto saxophonist, plays a role in the nun’s story.

The group is heard in a club playing a couple of John Coltrane tunes, “Naima” and “Equinox”. (In his flat, the saxophonist slow-dances with the nun to Coltrane’s famous 1960 studio recording of the former.) Everything about the quartet appears to be patterned on the Zbigniew Namyslowski Modern Jazz Quartet, the first Polish jazz group to make an impact in Britain.

By coincidence, it’s 50 years this autumn since they arrived in London. Namyslowski (alto), Wlodzimierz Gulgowski (piano), Tadeusz Wojcik (bass) and Czeslaw Bartowski (drums) played a short series of dates, including the Marquee and the Richmond Jazz Festival. Among those who heard them was Derek Jewell, then the jazz and pop critic of the Sunday Times, who wrote: “Few visitors, even Americans, have surprised us more with their intensity, technique and originality.”

Zbigniew Namyslowski

By that time I suppose some of us were familiar with Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, with its great jazz soundtrack by the pianist and composer Krszysztof Komeda (of whose group Namyslowski had been a member). The surprise, to many, was that the altoist and his colleagues — the leader was the oldest, at 24, while the others were all 20 or 21 — had so clearly been listening to Coltrane and had so thoroughly absorbed the message. Those unable to see them in person could hear what they were up to via an album, titled Lola, which they recorded in London for Decca under the supervision of Mike Vernon, who would soon be making his name as a producer with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac and other British blues bands. (The young studio engineer, Vic Smith, later became the Jam’s producer.)

Reissued on CD a few years ago, Lola still sounds great, the musicians perfectly at ease with the new language, even capable of playing it in 5/4 with confidence (on the longest and most ambitious track, “Piatawka”). The tartness of Namyslowski’s tone is reminiscent of Jackie McLean — another altoist who came out of bebop but whose conception was reshaped by later developments.

The band in Ida not only look perfect but reproduce the plaintive intensity of their predecessors. Dawid Ogrodnik, in the character of the alto saxophonist, is a musician as well as a gifted young actor, and it really is he who plays “Naima” and “Equinox” (** see footnote).

The film is beautifully made in an austere but gentle black and white, each shot but one (*** see footnote)  employing a fixed camera and framed with an interesting eye for composition, and with an unforgettable performance by Agata Kulesza as the nun’s aunt. Pawlikowski finds a calm, reflective and historically resonant way to tell a harrowing story.

* The still is from Ida, showing Dawid Ogrodnik as Lis, the saxophonist, and Agata Trzebuchowska as the eponymous young nun.  The photograph of the Zbigniew Namyslowski quartet was taken by David Redfern at the 1964 Richmond Jazz Festival, and is borrowed from the original sleeve of Lola.

** On second viewing, I’m pretty sure the actor only plays when the band are accompanying a female singer in a party scene. I think the two Coltrane tunes are probably overdubbed by two saxophonists named alongside Ogrodnik in the credits: Michal Kabojek and Zbigniew Zeno.

*** Again after a second viewing, I think it’s three shots in which the camera moves: each with a significance.

Jazz in the Round

Partisans 2On the last Monday of each month the broadcaster and radio producer Jez Nelson, probably best known as the front man of the BBC’s Jazz on 3, presents live jazz in an environment just about as close to ideal as it is possible to imagine. The series is called Jazz in the Round, and it takes place at the Cockpit Theatre in London NW8, where an audience of about 100 is seated on all four sides of the room while the musicians perform in the centre, on the floor.

If you choose to sit at the front, you can be close enough to lean over and turn the page of the pianist’s sheet music, or to stretch out a leg and operate the guitarist’s foot-pedal. It’s a remarkably intimate environment, and on both my visits I’ve been struck by the positive way the musicians respond to the unusual proximity of listeners who demonstrate a high degree of appreciation and concentration.

Nelson arranges each night in three parts. There’s a group of young musicians to start with, then a solo performer, and finally the headline act. This week the opening set was by a quintet playing the music of the alto saxophonist Tommy Andrews, drawn from their debut album, The Crux (here‘s a taste). Andrews graduated from the Guildhall in 2010 and formed the band the following year; his pieces are impressionistic, quite intricate, and show considerable promise.

The solo set came from the extrovert trombonist Ashley Slater, who has worn many hats since coming to notice with Loose Tubes in the 1980s. His idea of a solo performance was to bring along an iPad loaded with three backing tracks, over which he played (and sang a bit). There was a funky one, and a reggae one, and a townships one. He was generously received, but it didn’t seem quite the right response to the opportunity.

Last came Partisans, the quartet of the saxophonist Julian Siegel, the guitarist Phil Robson, the bass guitarist Thaddeus Kelly and the drummer Gene Calderazzo, formed 18 years ago to play the compositions of Siegel and Robson. This appearance marked the release of their fifth album, Swamp (Whirlwind), which shows them to be still exploring the possibilities available to such open-minded and spirited musicians (here‘s their new promotional documentary).

They played five of the album’s eight varied and carefully detailed pieces, infusing them with the fire and the willingness to tolerate rough edges that can be the difference between a record and a live performance. By enabling the players to face each other all the time, thereby focusing and intensifying the element of conversation, the in-the-round format seemed to open the music up.

If you look at the top of the picture, by the way, you’ll see a woman at an easel, painting Partisans as they play. That’s Gina Southgate, who produces a canvas for each performance. She’s been a fixture since the beginning of the series.

Now coming up to the end of its third year, Jazz in the Round has built a loyal and highly appreciative audience. Here‘s a very nice clip from the first edition, back in January 2012, featuring Black Top: Orphy Robinson, Pat Thomas and Steve Williamson. Orphy was in the audience this week. It’s that kind of gig.

City of Poets

City of Poets 3City of Poets is the name of a quintet led by two musicians from whom we’ll be hearing a lot more: the French pianist Cédric Hanriot and the American trumpeter Jason Palmer. The group is completed by three aces, the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the bassist Michael Janisch and the drummer Clarence Penn, and they appeared at the Pizza Express in London last night to perform their current project, a series of pieces titled The Hyperion Suite, jointly written by the two leaders and inspired by a sequence of novels — The Hyperion Cantos — by the science fiction writer Dan Simmons.

Each piece, Palmer told the audience, is based on one of the seven “modes of limited transposition” devised by Olivier Messaien. But the themes and settings he and Henriot devised are instantly beguiling and, although complex, not remotely academic: this is music with its roots in the Miles Davis Quintet of 1963-68, a combination of intellectual rigour, technical brilliance and graceful lyricism.

The solos were uniformly full of substance, and the structures ever-changing. The opener, for instance, began with a bass solo, moved into a classic trumpet-tenor-and-rhythm head, shifted into piano-trio mode, changed to a three-way improvisation for the two horns and the drums, morphed first into a tenor-bass-drums trio and then (with the addition of trumpet) into a pianoless quartet, and went out with what sounded like a variation on the first head.

Of the individuals, the North Carolina-born trumpeter was hugely impressive. If Ambrose Akinmusire is this generation’s Booker Little, Palmer might be the Freddie Hubbard, with the same bright strength but greater mobility and variation of phrasing, timbre and attack. Henriot comes out of Herbie Hancock, on the Bill Evans side: a player who never overplays his hand, but who, late in the evening, produced one solo that built to the sort of rocking climax in which Bobby Timmons specialised during his days with the Jazz Messengers.

McCaslin delivered several well-turned solos in the post-Shorter mode favoured by the majority of today’s young tenorists, and Janisch again showed his pronounced gifts of thoughtfulness and invention. I don’t understand why he switched for two tunes to the bass guitar, dialling in a distracting echo effect during his solos, but otherwise he was immaculate.

As for the phenomenal Penn, as sensitive and propulsive a drummer as you could wish to have in your band, he did something remarkable: nearing the climax of a McCaslin solo, he began a broken-rhythm figure on the snare drum, increasing its volume and stuttering intensity (the effect was like that of one of Art Blakey’s tidal-wave press rolls, refracted through smashed glass) until suddenly landing in intuitive unison with the saxophonist, like a pair of Olympic gymnasts nailing a dismount from the uneven bars with perfect synchronisation.

Full of such moments of delight and surprise, the evening was recorded for release on Janisch’s Whirlwind label. I can’t wait to hear it again.

* In the lo-fi photograph (left to right): Cédric Hanriot, Donny McCaslin, Mike Janisch and Jason Palmer.

Soft tissues

Artchipel Orchestra 3If you happen to be in Italy, and you get a move on, you can probably still buy the September issue of the monthly magazine Musica Jazz, which has a cover-mounted CD: Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra Play Soft Machine. For several reasons, this is a good thing to own.

Faraò set up the orchestra four years ago, with an unusual mission: to reinterpret the work of British jazz and jazz-rock composers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After making a start on Mike Westbrook, Fred Frith, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, he moved on to the Soft Machine. Most recently, in June, the orchestra’s guests at the Fasano festival were Keith and Julie Tippetts. Their leader obviously sees something he likes in the music being made in London during an all too brief era when young rock and jazz musicians worked freely together and anything seemed possible.

The CD that comes with Musica Jazz concentrates in particular on the compositions of the late Hugh Hopper, the Softs’ bass guitarist from 1968 to 1973. Five of Hopper’s tunes — “Facelift”, “Kings and Queens”, “Noisette”, “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” and “Moustrap” — are among the seven tracks on the 55-minute CD, which was recorded in a Milan studio last December. The other two are Faraò’s “Facelift: Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction to the set , and Robert Wyatt’s classic “Moon in June”, concluding the album in a loose but well organised interpretation featuring Filippo Pascuzzi and Serena Ferrara, two of the ensemble’s four singers.

Faraò and his fellow arranger, Beppe Barbera, aren’t making carbon copies of the originals here. They’re devising revisions that bring unusual resources to bear on the material, exposing facets of beauty that we might not have imagined to be present, even in embryo. To “Kings and Queens”, first heard on Soft Machine’s 4 in 1971, they bring the vocal quartet, a bass riff doubled by Simone Mauri’s bass clarinet, and colouristic interventions by Flavio Minardo’s sitar, Eloisa Manera’s violin and Paolo Botti’s viola. “Dedicated to You…”, which dates from 1969, is successfully rearranged for acapella voices in a treatment inspired by the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s version.

This band has improvisers of substance, too, as we learn from the thoughtful contributions of Germano Zenga’s tenor saxophone, Felice Clemente’s soprano and in particular Massimo Falascone’s unaccompanied alto on an expansive reading of “Noisette”, which Hopper wrote in 1969 and which first appeared on the Softs’ Third in 1970.

I’ve been listening recently listening to Hopper’s solo album, 1984 (released in 1973), and to Canterburied Sounds, the four-CD set of archive material recorded between 1962 and 1972 in mostly informal situations by the various early members of the Softs, and released in full last on the Floating World label. The Artchipel Orchestra’s album presents another perspective on the work of a fascinating musician, and deserves a proper commercial release.

(Addendum: See Alessandro’s reply for information on how to get hold of the relevant issue of Musica Jazz.)

* The photograph of Ferdinando Faraò and the Artchipel Orchestra was taken by Angela Bartolo at the Ah Um festival in Milan in 2011 and is taken from the band’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/artchipelorchestra/

 

 

Gerald Wilson 1918-2014

Gerald Wilson PortraitsThe news of Gerald Wilson’s death this week at the age of 96 reminds us of the sheer scale of his career: he wrote his first arrangement in 1939 (for Jimmie Lunceford) and was still making fine records with his own large ensemble well after the turn of the millennium. In between times he produced an enormous amount of worthwhile music, as is recounted in a good Los Angeles Times obituary by Don Heckman here. But three albums that he made with his own big band for Pacific Jazz in the early ’60s — You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth and Portraits — have always been particularly precious to me, for the way they blend the influences of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans with a receptiveness to then-current developments in modal jazz and the avant-garde, and for the presence of a bunch of smoking soloists.

Wilson wrote music that swung hard, but he never disengaged his brain or his imagination — Portraits includes tracks dedicated to Aram Khachaturian, Ravi Shankar and Eric Dolphy — and he provided a stimulating framework for such hand-picked improvisers as the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonist Lou Blackburn, the altoist Jimmy Woods and the tenorists Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.

Here’s a clip from the episode of Frankly Jazz, a Hollywood TV show sponsored by Pacific Jazz, that featured Wilson’s band. It shows them performing a snatch of “Blues for Yna Yna”, the hit tune from You Better Believe It! (on which it featured the organist Richard “Groove” Holmes), before going into Wilson’s storming arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, from Moment of Truth. The leader picks up his trumpet to kick off a solo sequence that also features Buddy Collette on alto, Blackburn on trombone, Edwards on tenor and Jack Wilson on piano. The drummer is Mel Lewis, the bassist is Jimmy Bond and other recognisable faces include the altoist Joe Maini and the baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz.

If you want more, here’s Wilson’s original version of “Viva Tirado“, also from Moment of Truth, with Joe Pass on guitar and Carmell Jones on trumpet. It’s how one part of LA sounded in 1963. Still pretty hip, if you ask me.

* The photograph of Gerald Wilson is from the cover of Portrait and was taken by Woody Woodward.

Strings attached

Bird with strings 2Charlie Parker’s album with strings was the record that persuaded Gilad Atzmon to become a jazz musician. “Now I wish I’d never heard it,” the Israeli-born, London-based alto saxophonist and bandleader announced at Ronnie Scott’s last night, giving his listeners a reminder of the sort of sardonic humour not regularly heard at 47 Frith Street since the club’s founder died in 1996.

Supervised by Norman Granz in 1949, and also featuring oboe, French horn and harp along with a five- or six-piece string section, the Bird with Strings sessions broadened Parker’s audience but were despised by critics. You can see why: on the face of it, this is the equivalent of covering a monastery refectory’s fine, plain oak table with a fancy lace cloth. And there’s no Bud Powell or Dizzy Gillespie or Max Roach to interact with the greatest improviser of his age. But the weird thing is how great the records sound today: Parker, who never spoke ill of the project, soars above the background, his inventions dizzyingly crammed with substance and always propelled by that extraordinary life-force.

Atzmon was performing some of the pieces from those recordings with his quartet, the Orient House Ensemble (Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums), and the Sigamos Quartet (violinists Ros Stephen and Marianne Haynes, viola-player Felix Tanner and cellist Laura Moody). Stephen’s arrangements update the work done on the original sessions by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, making effective use of the pared-down resources and creating a strong bond between the two sides of what is in effect a double quartet. They recorded some of them in the same format on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America in 2009, and the following year Atzmon and Stephen joined Robert Wyatt on For the Ghosts Within, where the ghosts included the spirit of Bird with Strings.

At Ronnie’s they featured “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, all of which featured Atzmon’s pungent sound and urgent triple-time flurries, with Harrison’s delicate soloing providing the occasional oasis of calm reflection. Unlike those pieces, which remained close to the approach and mood of the Parker recordings, “If I Should Lose You” contained noir-ish sound effects from the string quartet while “What Is This Thing Called Love” came retrofitted with a trip-hop beat and deadpan string riffs. Several of Atzmon’s own compositions also varied the mix, including one called “Moscow”, from a recent album devoted to portraits of major cities, its hint of bombast capturing the sometimes oppressive ambiance of the Russian capital.

They finished with a piece that is, as Atzmon observed, one of the most beautiful of all jazz-associated tunes: David Raksin’s “Laura”, composed for Otto Preminger’s 1945 movie but transformed four years later into a vehicle for Parker’s genius, and the perfect way to end an enormously enjoyable evening of homage and rebirth.

* The photograph of Charlie Parker with his string players is taken from Gary Giddins’s book Celebrating Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), where it was used by permission of Maely Daniele Dufty and the Bevan Dufty Collection. 

Marius Neset / Trondheim Jazz Orchestra

http://youtu.be/watDRZJLB6U

It was a liberating moment for large jazz ensembles in general when Carla Bley and Charlie Haden decided, while putting together the first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1968, that big bands no longer had to operate according to a policy of strict precision. The informality of the amateur bands assembled for Balkan weddings, Sicilian funerals or Andalucian saints’ day parades seemed more appropriate to the spirit of jazz than the militaristic discipline associated with, say, the Buddy Rich Orchestra. It was something that Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus had always known, but they were thought to be exceptions to the rule that if you have four trumpeters, they should start and finish a phrase as if they were four mouthpieces attached to a single instrument, rather than the voices of four individuals.

Something similar happened in rock music when the Band came along. The voices of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were distinct from each other, each with its own tone and grain. This cross-textured quality set their harmonies apart from those of, say, the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, who aimed to produce a unified, homogenised choral sound.

I was thinking about that while listening to the saxophonist Marius Neset and the 11-piece Trondheim Jazz Orchestra perform pieces from their recent ACT album, Lion, at Ronnie Scott’s last night. These conservatory-trained Norwegians are phenomenal technicians, and the compositions Neset has provided for them are complex and challenging, to say the least, but the collective attack of the ensemble has nothing to do with nanosecond exactness and everything to do with the human element of a dozen people playing together. That humanity was the overriding impression left by an hour and a half of exceptional music.

The breadth and subtlety of Neset’s writing for this usual ensemble (two trumpets, trombone, tuba, three saxophones, accordion, piano, bass and drums) demonstrates that he is a musical thinker of great qualities, with a gift for unexpected combinations of instrumental timbres that is handed down from Ellington and Gil Evans (the opening of the ballad titled “Raining”, for instance, was ravishing). His long, often discursive pieces left plenty of room for solos by each of the musicians, all of whom made handsome use of the opportunity. Eivind Loning’s trumpet multiphonics, Eirik Hegdal’s rampaging baritone saxophone (imagine John Surman after swallowing a bag of rusty nails), Jovan Pavlovic’s delicate accordion and Espen Berg’s discreet piano — occupying a clearing that suddenly appeared in the middle of the otherwise densely eventful “Weight of the World” — were outstanding. The individual highlight of the whole night, however, was a long, long bass solo by Petter Eldh, whose energy and inventiveness seemed inexhaustible; somewhere inside my head, his sprung rhythms were still unwinding themselves the next morning.

I don’t think Neset himself is a great improviser yet. He has all the equipment, but in the arc of his solos and his mannerisms — the horn comes out of his mouth and his left hand flies off the keys at regular intervals, while his blond hair flops rather fetchingly as his body flexes in ecstasy — he’s less like a conventional jazz musician than a lead guitarist in a prog-rock band, whose playing always has to build inexorably to a climax guaranteed to lift listeners from their seats. Which, in his case, it does. But once a night is enough. After that it begins to feel predictable. At 29, however, he has time on his side.

The New Yorker vs Sonny Rollins

Sonny RollinsI grew up reading Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker, admiring the work of a writer who, with infinite sensitivity and imagination, used words to evoke the sound and humanity of jazz and of the individuals who played it. Balliett died in 2008, aged 80; whenever I open his Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, I learn something about how to listen and how to write.

So it was with horror that I read the other day, on the New Yorker‘s website, a spoof interview with Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist. Under the headline “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words”, someone calling himself Django Gold invented an interview in which the musician trashes his own life and work in the most caustically dismissive terms. Here it is.

A lot of people were upset, leading to the insertion of the italic paragraph indicating that the piece was intended to be a work of satire. But damage had been done, and not all of it can be undone by hurried clarifications. On their respective blogs, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the critic Howard Mandel expressed their anger with considerable eloquence.

I associate myself with their sentiments. Whether or not Rollins is one of your favourite saxophonists, few have worked with greater dedication to extend a command of both instrumental technique and the idiom’s inner workings. In this connection it’s still worth reading Gunther Schuller’s ground-breaking essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”, published in the first issue of the short-lived Jazz Review in 1958. Whatever its intention, Django Gold’s piece insults a great and much revered artist.

Rollins, who turns 84 next month and has not been in great health lately, was given the chance to express his feelings in a video interview with Doug Yoel. It’s half an hour long and sometimes repetitive, but stick with it. Looking back over a career that began in the late 1940s, Rollins says he remembers articles proclaiming “Jazz is dead” in magazines every five or 10 years throughout that time. “Jazz has been mocked, minimalised and marginalised throughout its history,” he says. Now Django Gold and the editors of a magazine’s website have done their bit. Jazz is still a part of New York, but evidently no longer an important part of the New Yorker.

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