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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Extraordinaire: Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin SalvantTwo years ago I presented Cécile McLorin Salvant and her trio at the Berlin jazz festival. At that point, most of the audience hadn’t heard of the young Franco-Haitian singer who was brought up in Miami before studying classical and baroque music at the conservatory in Aix-en-Provence. To say they were impressed by her performance would be an understatement.

For me, however, the greater privilege was to be present at her soundcheck, when she ran through two or three songs to get the feel of the hall. Among the pieces she ran down was Cole Porter’s “So in Love”, which happens to be one of my favourite songs, thanks largely to Mabel Mercer’s 1956 version. Still in her overcoat (it can be chilly in Berlin in November, and singers need to be careful), she had me transfixed by the way she drew out the song’s elegance with simple, unaffected directness.

A few hours later, during the concert itself, she gave it a very different delivery: much more highly wrought, full of decoration and elaboration and dynamic contrast, making full use of her phenomenal vocal technique and fine imagination. And it didn’t move me nearly as much.

This, I thought to myself, is a brilliant young artist still discovering and celebrating her own extraordinary abilities. At this stage, is natural for her to push everything as far as she can. Come back in 20 years’ time, I concluded, and she’ll be singing “So in Love” the way she did at the soundcheck, with an understanding that sometimes less is more.

Her new album, Dreams and Daggers, has a lot of that exuberance, and you can hear its effect on an audience in the tracks recorded live with the trio at the Village Vanguard in September of last year. There’s an almost audible attentiveness and a lot of whooping when, having executed a breathtaking series of vocal aerobatics, she finally brings a song back to earth.

She’s not a show-off, and she doesn’t scat (thank goodness). She has some of the girlish flexibility of the young Ella Fitzgerald, some of Sarah Vaughan’s ability to manipulate her tone in quietly jaw-dropping ways, and some of Betty Carter’s combination of daring and sheer musicianship. That’s a fair old combination. Occasionally she can overdo it, as in a highly dramatised version of “My Man’s Gone Now”, but most of the time her twists and turns are at one with the material.

Her originality will take time to emerge, but it is certainly there. At the moment it reveals itself most clearly in her choice of material, which is built on a foundation of standards — “You’re My Thrill”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “Mad About the Boy” and so on — but also includes items intended to prod her listeners in interesting ways, through “Si je serais blanche”, from the repertoire of Josephine Baker, “Somehow I Never Could Believe”, Kurt Weill’s setting of Langston Hughes’s lyric, and the feminist irony that bubbles away in her readings of “Never Will I Marry” and “If a Girl Ain’t Pretty”.

She and her brilliant trio — Aaron Diehl (piano), Paul Sikivie (bass) and Lawrence Leathers (drums) — make a formidable unit, particularly on something like a tightly arranged version of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”. There are delightfully insouciant treatments of the two ultra-hip Bob Dorough tunes, “Nothing Like You” and “Devil May Care”, recorded by Miles Davis in 1962.

Half a dozen studio-recorded tracks on this 2-CD set feature a string quartet, arranged by Sikivie to add a welcome astringency. By contrast there’s the singer’s penchant for covering the work of the early classic blues singers: here we get lusty versions of Ida Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and Bessie Smith’s haughtily dismissive “Sam Jones’ Blues”. “Don’t need your clothes, don’t need your rent,” she sings, “don’t need your ones and twos. Though I ain’t rich, I know my stitch. I earned my strutting shoes.”

By a distance, she is the most interesting jazz singer to come forward in the past couple of decades. The new album reaffirms the impression that her virtuosity, such a double-edged gift, could take her anywhere.

* Dreams and Daggers is released by Mack Avenue Records on September 29.

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Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

‘When You Read This Letter’

Quand tu liras cette lettre 1To be frank, I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter) at the BFI last night simply out of curiosity to see what sort of a leading actress Juliette Gréco was in 1953. Screened in a beautifully restored 35mm print, the film is an old-fashioned melodrama in which Gréco plays a novice nun who leaves the convent in order to look after her younger sister, the naive victim of a handsome, libidinous rotter. There’s a rape, a murder, an accidental death under the wheels of an express train, a very nice Cadillac Series 62 convertible, and some lovely scenes of the Cannes waterfront before it all got spoiled.

There’s also a soundtrack, featuring harpsichord doodling and sepulchral church organ. It was composed by Bernard Peiffer, a French pianist who worked with Django Reinhardt and many big American names in Paris in the early ’50s before emigrating to the US in 1954, where he settled in Philadelphia and earned the praise of critical heavyweights such as Barry Ulanov and Leonard Feather. Kidney surgery preceded his death in 1976, at the age of 53, two years after his final appearance in New York, at the Newport Jazz Festival. He had spent the last years of his life teaching piano — among his students was the young Uri Caine — and performing in clubs in his adopted home city.

I was familiar with his name, but I’d never really listened to him. So I went on to YouTube, and was immediately entranced by his versions of “Lullaby of Birdland”, made in Paris just before he left Europe, and “All the Things You Are”, a late recording from Philadelphia. Here, then, is another fine French jazz pianist of the post-war years, to rank with René Urtreger and Martial Solal, with a profound gift for improvisation and a technical imagination and a highly chromatic sensibility that may have been set free during his early studies with Pierre Maire, a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, and later at the conservatoires in Marseilles and Paris.

Thanks to the programmers at the BFI, then, for an unexpected bonus from their excellent Melville season. This was the second and last screening of Quand tu liras cette lettre, but the programme continues through September and includes the director’s classics: Le Deuxième souffleL’Armée des ombres and Le Samouraï.

Han Bennink at Cafe Oto

Han Bennink

Cafe Oto, 12 August 2017: John Coxon, Han Bennink and Ashley Wales

The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink is famous for his anarchic humour and his resistance to orthodoxy: he’s known for using the heel of his boot to alter the tone of his drums on the fly, and for finding the music in the scenery of a club — if there are pillars or heating pipes in the vicinity, he is likely to start playing them. He has an unparalleled gift for terminating a collective improvisation with a slap of two pieces of metal or the sort of rimshot that brooks no negotiation. What’s sometimes overlooked is his ability to swing in the traditional meaning of the term. Of all the European drummers to emerge in the modern era, maybe only Phil Seaman commanded the same deep sense of swing.

But he’s always been a hard man to pin down. I first heard him with the German tenorist Peter Brötzmann in Berlin in 1969, playing the most uncompromisingly loud and violent free jazz you could imagine. Maybe 20 years later I heard him in Paris with a band led by the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, playing the music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and you could tell that here was a man with a profound understanding of what Baby Dodds had been up to.

On Saturday, Han ended a three-night Cafe Oto residency in celebration of his 75th birthday with a series of collaborations in which his partners were the two men, the guitarist John Coxon and the electronics exponent Ashley Wales, together known as Spring Heel Jack; two guests from Amsterdam, the American violinist Mary Oliver and the Dutch guitarist Terrie Hessels, also known as Terrie Ex; and the pianist Steve Beresford. Amid the swirling anarchy, there were many moments when you could detect traces of the drummer who served a conventional rhythm-section apprenticeship with such visiting American giants as Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery.

Since then Han’s career has taken him through countless collaborations. He first appeared with Coxon and Wales on Amassed, an early Spring Heel Jack studio album, in 2002. The following year they took him on a short Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain, along with the saxophonist Evan Parker, the pianist Matthew Shipp, the bassist William Parker and the guitarist J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce, with whom Coxon played in the band Spritualized). I saw that fascinating line-up give an epic performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall — particularly in the second half, which began with a hyperactive duet between drums and bass and reached its climax in a long passage of richly textured improvisation over a mesmerising sequence of slowly descending piano chords that seemed, like an Escher staircase, to have no end. An album titled Live was assembled from the tour’s concerts in Bath and Brighton, and contains a version of that second half.

On Saturday, Han began with a trio set but soon left Beresford and Oliver to their own devices, listening from a chair at the side of the stage as they created a graceful two-part invention. Then the drummer was joined by Spring Heel Jack, creating a very different type of trio, the music constantly changing colours and momentum, restless but intensely satisfying (I loved a passage in which Coxon suddenly started running close-voiced jazz chords on his cherry-red Guild Starfire). Eventually Hessels, a member of the Dutch band the Ex, joined in, energetically lunging and retreating as he added jagged bursts of post-Hendrix noise.

After a third set in which the musicians joined in one by one until all six were together on stage, Han closed the evening with a short unaccompanied piece: brusque, urgent, very physical, unmistakably him but also unmistakably in the lineage of solo pieces by Dodds, Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. This is a musician who stretched the vocabulary of his instrument, even changed it, while honouring and preserving the music’s essence.

Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘Bells for the South Side’

Roscoe Mitchell uncroppedI’ve been reading Message to Our Folks, Paul Steinbeck’s new biography of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and enjoying in particular the reminder of the impact the group made when they arrived in Europe in the spring of 1969. Their voluntary exile lasted a month short of two years, ending with their return to the US in April 1971. During that time, which was mostly spent in France, they made some important albums (including A Jackson in Your House, Message to Our Folks, the epic People in Sorrow and the soundtrack to the film Les Stances à Sophie) and participated in several significant events, including the five-day Actuel festival in Amougies in October 1969 — intended, as Steinbeck observes, to be continental Europe’s answer to Woodstock and the Isle of Wight — and Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Free Jazz Meeting in Baden-Baden two months later, where they encountered Kenny Wheeler, Terje Rypdal, Albert Mangelsdorff and many others. They also met the drummer Don Moye, who became their fifth member.

What the Art Ensemble did was free up the idea of how a modern improvising group could go about its business. Their motto — “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” — was startling at the time. In terms of form and structure, their unorthodoxy exerted a widespread influence. Doing away with the notion that modern jazz could only be played in groups employing certain instrumental combinations adhering to a particular balance, they made the use of “little instruments” — particularly percussive devices of all kinds — into an essential part of their strategy. Their costumes and face-paint brought a new dimension of theatricality and historical reference to the music, while their use of irony and satire extended its range of gesture and intention.

I was lucky enough to see them a couple of times in the 1970s, at their New York debut in Central Park in 1973 and at the Roundhouse in London half a dozen years later, and they were spellbinding on both occasions. (Brian Case, reviewing the Roundhouse gig in the Melody Maker, said that “it made nonsense of any critical reading, save surrender.”) Two members of that group — the trumpeter Lester Bowie and the bassist Malachi Favors — are now gone, but the spirit of the Art Ensemble suffuses Bells for the South Side, the new album by their former colleague Roscoe Mitchell, the great saxophonist and composer.

This 2CD set was recorded live in September 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago during a project in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in which Mitchell and the other members of the AEC played a key role. For these performances the leader was joined in a series of four trios and aggregated larger groupings by James Fei (reeds and electronics), Hugh Ragin (trumpets), Tyshawn Sorey (trombone, piano, drums and percussion), Jaribu Shahid (bass, bass guitar, percussion), Tani Tabbal (drums, percussion), William Winant (vibes, marimba, percussion), Craig Taborn (piano, organ, electronics), and Kikanju Baku (drums, percussion).

For those interested in free improvisation and the way it can be directed by a great composer, here are two hours of music that provide a mosaic of marvels, from mysterious rustling and enigmatic flutters to thunderous epiphanies via passages of intense lyricism. Although the individual contributions can be isolated and admired, notably Ragin’s piercingly emotional piccolo trumpet, Taborn’s austere piano and Baku’s wild but beautifully controlled drumming, that’s not really the point. There is a much bigger picture here, just as there was in the Art Ensemble’s work. It reaches a wonderful resolution in a manner that I’m not going to spoil except to say that it achieves its full impact only if you’ve listened to the whole thing — or at least to the whole of the second disc.

As the personnel details suggest, percussion is important here, and it comes imbued with a strong sense of the Art Ensemble’s history. Baku — a young British drummer who wrote to Mitchell asking if he could play with him, and was immediately rewarded with a gig at Cafe Oto — plays Malachi Favors’ percussion set-up, Tabbal plays Moye’s kit, Winant plays Lester Bowie’s military bass drum and Sorey plays Mitchell’s own percussion cage, a thing of visual and aural wonder. The fine detail of the shifting textures is recorded by David Zuchowski and mixed by Gérard de Haro with Steve Lake, the album’s producer, to brilliant effect.

A few weeks ago, as part of a “financial stabilisation” programme, Mitchell was in danger of losing his teaching job at Mills College in Oakland, California. A petition to reverse the decision gained so much support that the college was forced to reconsider, and he remains in post as Darius Milhaud Professor of Music. For those who will come under his tutelage in the future, this is very good news. One way for the rest of us to celebrate might be to listen to Bells for the South Side, a perfect example of the continuing vitality and relevance of his imagination and a wonderful summary of his gift to generations of listeners and fellow musicians.

* Bells for the South Side is released on ECM Records. The photograph of Roscoe Mitchell is taken from the album’s insert. Message to Our Folks is published by the University of Chicago Press. Roscoe Mitchell and the latest configuration of the Art Ensemble of Chicago — with Hugh Ragin, Don Moye and the bassist Junius Paul — return to London for a short residency at Cafe Oto from October 15-17.

The return of Tony Kinsey

Tony Kinsey

At the Clock House: Dave Jones, Tony Kinsey, Tony Woods, Chris Biscoe

After six months off with an injury, the distinguished drummer Tony Kinsey returned to action last night, setting up his kit at the Clock House in Teddington High Street for one of the regular nights organised by the Way Out West collective, of which he is a member. WOW’s venues have included the Bull’s Head in Barnes and Cafe POSK, the Polish social club in Hammersmith; the latest location, the back room of a pub, feels appropriate to the informal vibe created by these West London-based musicians and their enthusiastic supporters.

Kinsey’s band mates on this evening were the double bassist Dave Jones and four saxophonists: Pete Hurt (soprano), Tony Woods (alto), Tim Whitehead (tenor) and Chris Biscoe (baritone). In the set I heard, they played in several different combinations.

The full sextet was assembled for the opener and closer, respectively Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait” (arranged by the late Eddie Harvey, a co-founder of the collective) and Oliver Nelson’s “Hoe Down” (transcribed by Hurt). The four saxophones were alone on Woods’ arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”. The trio of tenor, bass and drums tackled “I Thought About You”. Alto, tenor and drums were heard on “Stella by Starlight”, for which Woods set Whitehead a puzzle by starting the piece in a fairly abstract kind of way, having given the tenorist a list of five songs from which the chosen one would eventually emerge — the correct answer was achieved pretty quickly. And alto, baritone and the rhythm section played a couple of tunes from Biscoe’s excellent recent album, Then and Now.

The occasional misunderstanding made a pleasant change from the blueprinted precision of so much contemporary jazz. “Moving on,” Whitehead declared brightly as Woods and Hurt debated a missed cue in “Good Bait”, to the audience’s amusement.

Kinsey, looking characteristically unruffled, played with superb empathy throughout. The elements of his style — the calm ride cymbal beat, the off-centre rimshots, the discreet brushwork, the crisp 2-and-4 hi-hat and the occasional bass-drum bomb — were perfectly deployed. This is a man who played with all the heroes of post-war British modern jazz — Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott, Don Rendell, Johnny Dankworth et al — and with Billie Holiday and Ben Webster, and who in recent years has composed extended pieces for large jazz ensemble and string quartet.

Did I mention that, on October 11, Tony Kinsey will be 90?

John Coltrane 17 July, 1967

John Coltrane by Roy DeCaravaJohn Coltrane died in a Long Island hospital 50 years ago today. The singularly beautiful photograph above is by the great Roy DeCarava and was included in his wonderful book, The Sound I Saw. It was taken in 1960, and the figure dimly visible in the background is Elvin Jones.

My first encounter with Coltrane came through Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, in which he followed Cannonball Adderley and Miles with a solo that lifted an already elevated piece of music onto a different emotional plane. Then, because I’d bought a second-hand EP from a market stall, it was a quartet version of “You Leave Me Breathless” from his Prestige sessions. And then “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. Then Giant Steps, My Favourite Things, Olé, “Chasin’ the Trane” and “Impressions” from the Village Vanguard, Africa/Brass, and, most of all, “Alabama”, his meditation on the racist murder of four schoolgirls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Followed, of course, by A Love Supreme, CrescentAscension and the rest of the stages on his journey, all the way to its untimely conclusion.

No one had sounded like Coltrane before. No one had exerted that effect. The product of intense contemplation and rigorous preparation, his music expressed a constantly evolving spirituality with a transfixing directness that went beyond specific belief-systems and deep into the essence of human feelings. His legacy is immeasurable.

* Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was published by Phaidon Press in 2003.

Jazz in Britain, Part 2

Jazz in Britain 2The first instalment of this two-part series dealt with new releases. This one looks at recent reissues and archive discoveries from the second half of the last century.

Harry South: The Songbook (Rhythm and Blues Records). Some readers of this blog will most readily associate the name of Harry South with the big-band arrangements for Sound Venture, the 1965 album with which Georgie Fame demonstrated his jazz chops. Others will know that South, a Londoner who died in 1990, aged 60, had a distinguished career as a pianist, bandleader and composer. This four-CD set, lovingly compiled by Nick Duckett and Simon Spillett, brings together a wealth of music from the mid-’50s onwards, much of it by South’s big band but also featuring him with the small groups of Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Ross, Joe Harriott and others. “Hall Hears the Blues”, a 14-minute down-tempo blues recorded for Tempo by Hayes’s quintet in 1956, is almost worth the price of admission by itself, as is the gorgeously swinging “Minor Incident” by the Dick Morrissey Quartet, from 1963. Of the wide range of big-band material, much of its previously unissued, I’d pick out an unnamed and undated piece (disc 3, track 15) which sounds like a lost Gil Evans chart, and “The Rainy Season”, from 1970, which shows South integrating exotic elements into his music very interestingly. Solos throughout, although individually unidentified, are by the likes of Kenny Wheeler and Tony Coe. There’s also the theme tune to The Sweeney, which presumably made South some money. Taken together, these 64 tracks represent an exemplary tribute to an unjustly neglected figure.

Mike Westbrook Concert Band: Marching Song (Turtle). Of all the many fine British modern jazz records made in the last 50 years, the ones that probably most deserve to survive another half-century are Mike Westbrook’s large-scale pieces, including Metropolis, Citadel/Room 315 and The Cortège. In a sense, Marching Song is where it all began: released in its entirety as two LPs on the Deram label in 1969, representing a statement of scale and intent. And of moral purpose, too: this is every bit as much a portrait of the pity and horror of war as Picasso’s Guernica, making a similarly startling use of modernist techniques. This reissue also contains a third disc of previously unheard material including a nine-minute sketch of the piece recorded in 1966 by a sextet including Mike Osborne, John Surman, Malcolm Griffiths, Harry Miller and Alan Jackson — its approach very heavily influenced by Mingus — and two wonderful extended quartet tracks by Osborne with the rhythm section, making this just about an essential purchase.

Neil Ardley / New Jazz Orchestra: On the Radio: BBC Sessions 1971 (BBC Records). Much of this album is taken up by six tracks from a Jazz Club session by the 19-piece NJO, conducted by the gifted Neil Ardley and including pieces by Mike Taylor, Barbara Thompson and Jack Bruce, with solos from Ian Carr, Harry Beckett, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Don Rendell and others. It’s good stuff. But the special interest comes in “The Time Flowers”, an extended piece written by Ardley and the electronic composer Keith Winter and recorded for Jazz in Britain with the quintet of Carr, Rendell, Frank Ricotti (vibes), Barry Guy (amplified bass) and Winter, plus the London Studio Strings. Inspired by a J. G. Ballard story, it evolves from a Vaughan Williamsesque pastorale into a futuristic soundscape, settings that provoke fine solos from Carr on flugelhorn and Rendell, unusually, on alto rather than soprano or tenor. The two broadcasts are introduced by Humphrey Lyttelton and Brian Priestley — another contrast of styles, to say the least…

Daryl Runswick: The Jazz Years (ASC Records). There were some pretty handy bass players on the London jazz scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and Daryl Runswick was up there with Jeff Clyne, Ron Mathewson, Harry Miller and others. He left the jazz world towards the end of the ’70s, preferring studio employment and regular work with Electric Phoenix, the King’s Singers and other ensembles. This two-CD set of mostly live recordings is a reminder of how good he was, whether in the London Jazz Quartet (with Jim Philip, Mike McNaught and Mike Travis, a really wonderful drummer) on extended versions of Jim Webb and Harry Nilsson songs or playing his own compositions in his quartet with the likes of Stan Sulzmann, Tony Hymas, Don Rendell, Alan Branscombe and Harold Fisher. There’s also a very funny solo bass-and-vocal recording, from a gig in 1967, of “The Song of the Double Bass Player”, with a lyric written for him by Clive James, a fellow member of the Cambridge Footlights: “It isn’t cute, it isn’t sweet, it isn’t small, it isn’t skinny / It needs flags on it when you tie it to the roof rack of the Mini…”

Billy Jenkins / Voice of God Collective: Scratches of Spain (VOTP Records, download only). On its first appearance in 1987 this album caused my sense of humour to fail: the point of Jenkins pastiching the cover of a Miles Davis classic for his collection of British-eccentric jazz, with a heavy brass-band and circus influence, escaped me. It seemed disrespectful, and it made me angry. Maybe I was being a bit po-faced. But I’ve listened to again, 30 years later, and I still feel the same way — except for one thing. Near the end there’s a track called “Cooking Oil” that breaks the prevailing mood. It’s an adagio for cello (Jo Westcott) and vibes (Jimmy Haycraft) over a bowed-bass pedal point (Steve Watts, possibly with a little electronic treatment), and it’s spellbinding in its restrained melodic beauty. If I were a film director, I’d use it for something or other, and people would notice. And then, after five absolutely celestial minutes, it’s back to the circus.

Red Price etc: Groovin’ High (Acrobat Music). This is a recording from a night at the Hopbine pub in North Wembley in 1965, featuring Red Price on tenor, Ray Warleigh on alto, Chris Pyne on trombone, John Burch on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass and Alan “Buzz” Green on drums. Four long blowing vehicles, including “Billie’s Bounce” and “Groovin’ High”, and a chance in particular to get some extra helpings of Warleigh and Burch, both under-recorded throughout their careers. Price, a veteran of the Squadronaires and the bands of Jack Parnell and Ted Heath, takes “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” for himself, displaying a Hawkins/Byas tendency that makes a good contrast with Warleigh’s approach, still heavily under the Parker influence. Simon Spillett’s exhaustive sleeve note provides all the context you could need.

Alan Skidmore: After the Rain (Miles Music). First I’ll declare an interest, albeit a mild and non-financial one. When this album first appeared, almost 20 years ago, I was invited to write the sleeve note. I agreed because I thought, and still do, that Alan Skidmore’s decision to devote an album to a set of standard ballads associated with John Coltrane, with orchestral accompaniment from the Hannover Radio Philharmonic on 10 tracks and Colin Towns’ Mask Symphonic on three others, was a good one. The arrangements of things like “Nature Boy”, “My One and Only Love”, “In a Sentimental Mood” and Coltrane’s “Naima” and “Central Park West” are not ground-breaking — much closer to Nelson Riddle than Eric Dolphy, you might say — but they suit the songs, and Skidmore responds to the harps and violins with some beautifully mature and gently heartfelt playing. It’s good to see it back in circulation.

Jazz in Britain, Part 1

Jazz in Britain 1The title of this two-part series is a homage to John Muir, a friend of 40-odd years ago. As a BBC radio producer, Muir saved John Peel’s career at the corporation in 1968 by giving him a Radio 1 show called Night Ride. He also booked Roxy Music for their first broadcast on Sounds of the Seventies, and supervised a series titled Jazz in Britain, devoted to the emerging generation of John Stevens, John Surman, Tony Oxley, Trevor Watts, Howard Riley and so on. John died recently, aged 80. I thought of him as being the best kind of BBC person: calm, civilised, culturally literate and unobtrusively fearless. Here are eight new albums by artists he would certainly have booked for a series of Jazz in Britain in 2017. Together they demonstrate that we are experiencing a new golden age of British jazz.

Binker & Moses: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox). Dem Ones, a first album of duets for tenor saxophone and drums by Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, deservedly won praise and awards last year. This follow-up starts in a similar vein, with a further disc of two-part inventions, even more confident and assured. But the second disc is where things get really interesting as they add guests in various permutations. Byron Wallen (trumpet), Evan Parker (saxophones), Tori Handsley (harp), Sarathy Korwar (tabla) and Yussef Dayes (drums) join Golding and Boyd on a trip through tones and textures, creating a beautifully spacious set of improvisations, uncluttered but full of interest. The exotic titles suggest some kind of fantastical narrative is going on, but the music tells its own story.

Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH). Another two-disc set, its first half consisting of seven pieces recorded last October by Hawkins’s excellent and now disbanded sextet, featuring Shabaka Hutchings (reeds), Otto Fischer (guitar), Dylan Bates (violin), Neil Charles (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums). “[K]now”, featuring a recitation by Fischer, is a highlight. The second disc consists of pieces recorded this January by a 13-piece ensemble in which Hawkins, Bates, Fischer and Charles are joined by others including Laura Jurd, Percy Pursglove and Nick Malcolm (trumpets), Julie Kjaer (flutes and reeds), Alex Ward (clarinet), Hannah Marshall (cello) and Matthew Wright (electronics). This is dense but open-weave music, containing a composed element but sounding almost wholly improvised and writhing with invention. It’s on Hawkins’s own label (information at http://www.alexanderhawkinsmusic.com) and it’s outstanding.

Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Naim). A friend of mine describes this as “Silent Way-era Miles w/Arabic textures”, which is a fair summary. Yazz, her quarter-tone trumpet and her fine octet are investigating ways of blending jazz with the music of Bahrain, her parents’ country. At a late-night concert in Berlin last November the audience didn’t know them and they didn’t know the audience, but after an hour the musicians were able to walk away in triumph. Dudley Phillips’s bass guitar and Martin France’s drums keep the grooves light and crisp, Lewis Wright’s vibes solos are always a pleasure, and the combination of Yazz’s trumpet or flugelhorn with Shabaka Hutchings’s bass clarinet gives the ensemble a pungent and distinctive character.

Olie Brice Quintet: Day After Day (Babel). I love this band, led by a brilliant bassist and completed by Alex Bonney (cornet), Mike Fletcher (alto), George Crowley (tenor) and Jeff Williams (drums). What it has is the loose-limbed fluidity I associate with the New York Contemporary Five, the band that included Don Cherry, John Tchicai and Archie Sheep, with just a hint of Albert Ayler’s Bells ensemble. But it’s not derivative. It’s a continuation, and a worthwhile one. Brice’s own playing is exceptionally strong (he can make me think of Wilbur Ware, Henry Grimes and Jimmy Garrison), his compositions provide the perfect platform for the horns, and Williams swings at medium tempo with such easy grace that you could think you were listening to Billy Higgins.

Denys Baptiste: The Late Trane (Edition). Almost 50 years after John Coltrane’s death, there is no real consensus about the music of his last two years, when the turbulent spirituality took over and blurred the outlines that had been so clear on A Love Supreme and Crescent. Baptiste takes a conservative approach to the late material, enlisting a fine band — Nikki Yeoh (keyboards), Neil Charles or Gary Crosby (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums), with the great Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone) on a couple of tracks — to support his own tenor and soprano on Trane’s tunes (including “Living Space” and “Dear Lord”) and a couple of originals. Rather than taking them further out, he draws them nearer in through the subtle application of more recent styles, including funk, reggae and a touch of electronics. The sincerity of the homage is never in doubt.

Chris Biscoe / Allison Neale: Then and Now (Trio). One of the unsung heroes of British jazz since his arrival as a promising saxophonist with NYJO in the early ’70s, Biscoe sticks to the baritone instrument on this release, joined by Neale’s alto saxophone as they explore the mood of the albums Gerry Mulligan made with Paul Desmond in the late ’50s and early ’60s. With Colin Oxley’s guitar, Jeremy Brown’s bass and Stu Butterfield’s drums in support, the approach is deceptively relaxed: this music may not bear the burden of innovation but it demands high standards of execution and integrity. The intricate improvised counterpoint on “The Way You Look Tonight” refracts Mulligan/Desmond through the Tristano prism.

Freddie Gavita: Transient (Froggy). Fans of the Hubbard/Hancock/Shorter era of the Blue Note label would enjoy investigating the debut by this young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and NYJO, the possessor of a beautifully rounded tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn. His shapely compositions hit a series of fine and varied grooves, lubricated by Tom Cawley’s piano, Calum Gourlay’s bass and James Maddren’s drums. The obvious comparison, for Blue Note adherents, is Empyrean Isles: not such a terrible thing with which to be compared, is it?

The Runcible Quintet: Five (FMR). Recorded live in April at the Iklectik club in Lambeth, this is music in the tradition of the Karyobin-era Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which means that Neil Metcalfe (flute), Adrian Northover (soprano saxophone), Daniel Thompson (acoustic guitar), John Edwards (bass) and Marcello Magliocchi (drums) require sharp ears, focused empathy, fast reflexes and a command of extended instrumental techniques. It’s funny to think that this tradition is only two or three years younger those heavily referenced in some of the preceding records, but in such capable hands as these it retains its ability to startle and provoke. Edwards, as always, is staggering.

* Part 2 of this Jazz in Britain series will deal with reissues.

Johnny Marshall 1930-2017

If you asked me to make a short list of my favourite solos by British jazz musicians, very close to the top of the list would be the 16-bar baritone saxophone solo on Georgie Fame’s “I’m in the Mood for Love (Moody’s Mood for Love)”, from the 1964 studio album Fame at Last. A version of the Eddie Jefferson/King Pleasure recasting of James Moody’s 1949 recording, which put words to Moody’s tenor improvisation on a song by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, it’s also my favourite Fame track.

Fame sings it quite beautifully, with just his Hammond B3 — on a heavy vibrato setting — plus the bassist (probably Tex Makins) and the drummer (probably Red Reece) for company. The solo is played by Johnny Marshall, who was a member of the Blue Flames from October 1962 to April 1964. He steals in between verses, improvising in the way that jazz musicians once aspired to do: creating a new and memorable melody from the bones of the old.

The tempo is slow-medium, and Marshall allows his solo to unfurl in a completely unhurried way. His airy tone is perfect for the big instrument: using its range but avoiding any hint of gruffness or stodginess. The phrasing and overall shape of his improvised melody develop with exquisite balance. When he hints at doubling and tripling the tempo, it never sounds rushed. It’s a solo that any bop-and-after baritone player — Serge Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan, Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Ross, Lars Gullin — would be proud to own. After listening to it for more than 50 years, I know it off by heart, but it never gets old.

Today I heard, via Tim Hinckley, of Johnny Marshall’s recent death at the age of 86. Born in Cornwall, he died in North Devon, where he had lived since the 1990s, with a weekly residency at a club in Bideford. The story posted on Devonlive.com mentions that he played with Sarah Vaughan and Stevie Wonder (and Romano Mussolini, Benito’s piano-playing son). But to me he’s the man who, in a London studio one day half a century ago, used his allotted 16 bars to make a small but indelible mark on the world.