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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

ECM in London

Craig Taborn at RAM

No apologies for returning, one last time, to the continuing celebrations of ECM’s 50th anniversary. For a short festival at the Royal Academy of Music, the director of the jazz programme, Nick Smart, invited several of the label’s luminaries — the bassist Anders Jormin, the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the singer Norma Winstone and the saxophonist Evan Parker — to spend a week working with students before presenting the results in two public concerts on Thursday and Friday night.

Jormin’s compositions — very much what many people would think of as archetypal ECM music, with a restrained lyricism that seemed to have its deepest roots in Nordic folk music — were played by a septet notable for the outstanding singing of Ella Hohnen-Ford and Alma Naidu. Downes and his colleagues in the trio called ENEMY, the bassist Petter Eldh and the drummer James Maddren, enhanced their tricky compositions with arrangements for string quartet, three woodwind and two percussionists, of which the most successful were “Last Leviathan”, a piece from Downes’s ECM debut, Obsidian, fetchingly rearranged for strings and piano, and Eldh’s eventful “Prospect of K”, cunningly scored by Ole Morten Vågan.

For the festival’s closing set, Smart led the Academy big band through a sequence of rare and unheard compositions by the late Kenny Wheeler, another ECM stalwart, featuring Winstone, Parker and Stan Sulzmann. The juxtaposition of the two tenors of Parker and Sulzmann created a contrast that exemplified the breadth of Wheeler’s conception — although their thunder was almost stolen by the alto saxophone of Lewis Sallows, a student whose long solo displayed a disinclination to plump for stylistic orthodoxy and a powerfully dramatic imagination. The crisp and flexible drumming of Ed Richardson, an Academy graduate, also took the ear.

Twenty four hours earlier, Sallows had also been part of the 12-piece band (pictured above) which provided the festival’s highlight. Craig Taborn is already known as one of the most creative and original pianists of the current era; those who were present at the Vortex for his solo gig last year speak of it in awed tones. Friday’s set showed him to rank alongside Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson and Eve Risser as an adventurous composer-leader who knows how to exploit the resources of a larger ensemble while retaining all the spontaneous interaction of a small group.

Although this was music of great sophistication, there were times when its sheer fire put me in mind of those great Mingus units of the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the members of the Jazz Workshop learnt their parts by ear and took it from there. The trombonist Joel Knee, the trumpeter Laurence Wilkins and the two altoists, Sallows and Sean Payne, threw themselves into the project with enormous skill and gusto, and the ear was also taken by the guitarist Rosie Frater-Taylor, whose opening solo was strikingly thoughtful and who made significant contributions to the riff-ostinatos on which several of the pieces were built.

Taborn’s own solos on acoustic and Fender-Rhodes pianos demonstrated his gift for gathering all the energy once associated with Cecil Taylor and using it to activate the coiled springs of his own imagination. During an unaccompanied introduction, he made the Rhodes roar in a way that completely divested the instrument of its familiar role as a provider of a cool funky background sound. It was one of many moments, individual and collective, that made the event such a success.

Big bands at the Vortex

Calum Gourlay 3

A big band in a small club can be a thrilling experience. The Scottish bass player and composer Calum Gourlay has been playing a monthly gig at the Vortex with his large ensemble for four years now, and last night I finally got around to acting on the advice I’d been getting to check them out. My informants were correct: Gourlay’s band has not only youth and enthusiasm on its side but also a powerful character of its own.

Three trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, piano, double bass and drums, all arrayed in the conventional style; this is a mainstream-modern band with no fashionable touches. The originality comes from within, which is the usually best place. And in this case it comes from the way Gourlay’s compositions set up his array of fine soloists.

This isn’t surprising, since Duke Ellington is one of his models — and no one ever knew how to write for a band full of soloists like Ellington. Unless it was Charles Mingus, of course, and I felt I heard a lot of Mingus in this band’s freewheeling spirit, not just because the leadership comes from the man with the bass.

He kicked off with “Evening”, a 6/8 tune featuring a take-no-prisoners tenor solo from Riley Stone-Lonergan. “Blue Fugates of Kentucky”, contrasting boppish unison riffs with brief passages of mayhem, contained one of the solos of the night, in which the altoist Alice Leggett tied together slurs, stutters and triple-time flourishes with an impressive sense of architecture. “Ro” showed off Gourlay’s sense of humour and love of sudden dynamic contrasts, and set up an effective skirl behind Kieron McLeod’s forceful trombone solo. The slow, wandering “Solstice” became a feature for James Allsopp’s content-rich baritone improvisation, and the set closed with Tom Rideout’s Shorterish tenor on “New Ears”.

Not everyone writing for big bands realises that you might have three trumpets and three trombones, but you don’t have to use them all the time. It was apparent that Gourlay loves to mix and match elements within the horns, rather as Ellington and Gil Evans did, making couple of passages of straightforward writing for the reed section all the more exhilarating for the contrast they provided.

The second set was an even more impressive demonstration of Gourlay’s skill at creating landscapes for individual soloists. On two pieces by other composers, he employed the tactic of giving the improviser space to say her/his piece, then bring them back for the coda. On a fascinatingly radical recasting of Monk’s “Pannonica” the solo voice was Laura Jurd’s trumpet; on a startlingly different arrangement of Coltrane’s “Naima” it was Stone-Lonergan. Other original compositions featured fine solos from the pianist Alcyona Mick, the trumpeters James Davidson and Sean Gibbs, and the trombonist Owen Dawson. Dave Ingamells was the alert and propulsive drummer.

Davidson and Mick were also featured in another big band gig at the Vortex a week or so earlier, this one celebrating what would have been the 90th birthday of Kenny Wheeler, who died in 2014. Scott Stroman directed the London Jazz Orchestra — of which Wheeler was an early member almost 30 years ago — through the great Canadian’s charts, filled with glowing brass chorales. There were fine solos from Henry Lowther and André Cannière on trumpets, Martin Speake and Pete Hurt on altos, Matt Sulzmann and Tori Freestone on tenors and Stuart Hall on guitar, all urged on by Alec Dankworth on bass and Paul Clarvis on drums.

The second half was taken up by “Sweet Time Suite”, the extended work featured on Wheeler’s classic Music for Large and Small Ensembles, released 30 years ago by ECM. The singer Brigitte Beraha took the role originally performed by Norma Winstone of the lead voice in the flaring ensembles that filled the room with Kenny’s unique lyricism.

* Calum Gourlay has a new quartet album out on the Ubuntu label. Called New Ears, it contains stripped-down versions of several pieces from the big band’s repertoire and features McLeod on trombone, Helena Kay on tenor and James Maddren on drums. It’s highly recommended.

Visions of the abstract

Evan P in Vilnius

The news of the death of the photographer Jak Kilby has saddened all those who called him a friend. I met him in 1969, when he was a year or two into his work of chronicling a section of London’s jazz scene bracketed by two bands: the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes. That lasted through ’70s and into the ’80s, resulting in a valuable record of the work of musicians such as John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and many others.

Jak was a warm, kind man, and he was close to the musicians. He shared houses with some of them and drove them to their gigs in, as Trevor Watts told me, a series of vehicles that invariably broke down. He loved the music — and that was how it was always known: the music — because, I think, of its human qualities and a spirituality that was inherent even in the playing of those who did not think of themselves in such terms. (Later he converted to Islam, adopting the name Muhsin, and moved to Malaysia, the base from which he travelled to explore the Muslim world.)

Since the news came through I’ve been listening to a new CD by the saxophonist Evan Parker, the bassist Barry Guy and the drummer Paul Lytton: three musicians regularly captured by Jak’s camera in his early years on the scene. It’s called Concert in Vilnius and was recorded in the Lithuanian capital in October 2017, making it the fruit of almost half a century of collaborations.

Starting out when jazz-based free improvisation was in its infancy, each of them achieved a great deal in terms of expanding the vocabulary of their instruments, which was always part of the project. Now we can listen to them expressing all the wisdom and confidence of their maturity in a language — individual and collective — that they created.

Of the four pieces that make up almost an hour of music, perhaps the most ear-popping is Part III, which opens with a prodigious solo by Guy, using many different resources to make his bass sound like a regiment. It moves into a passage of astonishingly detailed and dynamic percussion/bass dialogue, and then reaches full trio-sized fruition with the arrival of Parker, who unfurls one of his most astonishing tenor improvisations, moving from brusque lyricism to those mind-bending skirls that seem to exist in two or three adjacent dimensions.

The idiom may be half a century old, but it will never be an easy-listening experience; it demands attention and commitment from the listener as well as from the player. What Jak Kilby and other lovers of free improvisation recognised early on is how risk is answered by reward to a degree unavailable in any other kind of music. In those moments it can reach the sublime, touch the infinite.

* Concert in Vilnius is released on a Lithuanian label called NoBusiness Records. The photograph of Guy, Lytton and Parker is from the CD insert and was taken by Vytautas Suslavičius.

ECM at 50

manfred-eicher

By the end of the 1960s, jazz had gone right out of fashion. If it was by no means dead in creative terms, it was no longer good business for the music industry. So the arrival of a new jazz record label was quite an event, which is why I can remember quite clearly the first package from ECM arriving on my desk at the Melody Maker‘s offices in Fleet Street, and opening it to extract Mal Waldron’s Free at Last. I knew about Waldron from his work with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and others. But an album from the pianist, recorded in Europe and packaged with unusual care on an unfamiliar label based in Munich, came as a surprise.

Pretty soon it was followed by Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, and then by Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun. Before 1970 was out further packages had included an album by the Music Improvisation Company (with Evan Parker and Hugh Davies) and Jan Garbarek (Afric Pepperbird). It became obvious that something special was happening under the aegis of ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher.

I guess it was in 1971, with solo piano albums from Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Terje Rypdal’s first album and two albums of duos teaming Dave Holland with Barre Phillips and Derek Bailey, that the label’s character really became clear. Eicher stood for jazz with a high intellectual content, saw no reason to privilege American musicians over their European counterparts, and set his own high standards in studio production and album artwork. All these things — particularly his fondness for adding a halo of reverb to the sound of acoustic instruments, inspired by how music sounded in churches and cathedrals — were eventually turned against him by the label’s critics. The sheer volume of great music produced over the past 50 years is the only counter-argument he ever needed. His greatest achievement has been to make us listen harder, deeper and wider.

ECM’s golden jubilee is being marked by events around the world. On January 30 and February 1 there will be a celebration over two nights at the Royal Academy of Music in London, featuring the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the bassist and composer Anders Jormin and the Academy’s big band playing the music of Kenny Wheeler with guests Norma Winstone, Evan Parker and Stan Sulzmann. I thought I’d add to the festivities by choosing 20 ECM albums that have made a particularly strong impression on me since that first package dropped on my desk half a century ago; they’re listed in chronological order. Although there are many other contenders, I stopped at 19; the 20th is for you to nominate.

1 Terje Rypdal: Terje Rypdal (1971) The guitarist’s debut was an early sign of Eicher’s determination to capture and promote the new sounds coming from northern Europe, and from Norway in particular. Rypdal was one of the first to present himself as a wholly original voice.

2 Paul Bley: Open, to Love (1972) For my money, the finest of ECM’s early solo piano recitals, with Bley examining compositions by Carla Bley (“Ida Lupino”), Annette Peacock (“Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”) and himself.

3 Old and New Dreams: Old and New Dreams (1979) Don Cherry, one of Eicher’s favourites, is joined by Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell in this homage to the music of their former colleague, Ornette Coleman. The 12-minute “Lonely Woman” is astonishingly lovely.

4 Leo Smith: Divine Love (1979) The trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith was among the squadron of American innovators who arrived in Europe at the end of the ’60s and whose influence gradually became apparent in the ECM catalogue. Divine Love is a classic.

5 Bengt Berger: Bitter Funeral Beer (1981) A Swedish ethnomusicologist, composer and percussionist, Berger put together a 13-piece band — Don Cherry being the only famous name — to record this strange and compelling multicultural mixture of jazz and ritual music.

6 Charlie Haden / Carla Bley: Ballad of the Fallen (1983) Fourteen years after the historic Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Bley reunited for a second studio album featuring music of resistance.

7 John Surman: Withholding Pattern (1985) A solo album in which Surman developed his skill at overdubbing soprano and baritone saxophones, piano and synths, this opens with “Doxology”, in which Oslo’s Rainbow studio is turned into an English church.

8 Bill Frisell: Lookout for Hope (1988) One of several guitarists whose careers were nurtured at ECM, Frisell recorded this with a lovely quartet — Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) — before moving on.

9 Keith Jarrett Trio: The Cure (1991) Includes an eight-minute version of “Blame It on My Youth” in which Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette achieve perfection, no matter how many times I listen to it in search of flaws.

10 Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (1996) In a dream line-up, the Canadian trumpeter is joined by the alto of Lee Konitz, the guitar of Bill Frisell and the bass of Dave Holland.

11 Tomasz Stanko: Litania (1997) The Polish trumpeter interprets the compositions of his compatriot and sometime colleague Krzysztof Komeda. A wonderful group features the saxophonists Joakim Milder and Bernt Rosengren, with a core ECM trio — Bobo Stenson (piano), Palle Danielsen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) — as the rhythm section plus Terje Rypdal’s guitar on two of the tunes.

12 Trygve Seim: Different Rivers (2000) Most ECM music is for small groups, but here the Norwegian saxophonist and composer permutates 13 musicians in an exploration of subtle textures and gestures. The great trumpeter Arve Henriksen is among the soloists.

13 Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (2005) Ever listened to Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and wished there had been more post-bop jazz with that kind of relaxed intensity and melodic richness? Here it is. Tomasz Stanko and Jan Garbarek are the horns, Marcin Wasilewski and Slawomir Kurkiewicz the pianist and bassist.

14 Masabumi Kikuchi: Sunrise (2012) Kikuchi, who was born in Tokyo in 1939 and died in upstate New York in 2015, was a pianist of exquisite touch, great sensitivity and real  originality: a natural fit with Eicher, who recorded him with the veteran drummer Paul Motian and the quietly astounding bassist Thomas Morgan.

15 Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (2012) The label that released Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in 1978 is the perfect home for the group led by the Swiss pianist and composer, who explores the spaces between minimalist repetition and ecstatic groove, between gridlike structures and joyful improvisation.

16 Giovanni Guidi: This Is the Day (2015) With equal creative contributions from Thomas Morgan and the drummer João Lobo, the young Italian master leads a piano trio for the 21st century: always demanding close attention but never short of refined lyricism.

17 Michel Benita + Ethics: River Silver (2016) Led by an Algerian bassist, a quintet including a Japanese koto player (Mieko Miyazaki), a Swiss flugelhornist (Matthieu Michel), a Norwegian guitarist (Eivind Aarset) and a French drummer (Philippe Garcia) create music that incarnates the ECM ideal of reflective, frontierless beauty.

18 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (2017) A double album recorded live in Chicago in 2015, featuring Mitchell with four trios — including the trumpeter Hugh Ragin and the percussionist Tyshawn Sorey — who finally come together in a memorable celebration of the legacy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

19 Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (2017) Knotty but exhilarating compositions, solos packed with substance from Graham Haynes (cornet), Steve Lehman (alto) and Mark Shim (tenor): a statement of the art as it moves forward today.

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* The photograph is a still from the 2011 film Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher, by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer. There’s a chapter containing further thoughts on ECM’s place in the evolution of modern music in my book The Blue Moment: Miles Davis and the Remaking of Modern Music, published in 2009 by Faber & Faber.

Namysłoswki at Café POSK

Namyslowski poster

There was quite a stir when Zbigniew Namysłowski arrived in England with his quartet in 1964. He and his musicians were the first of their kind to come here from behind the Iron Curtain; they were young and adventurous, and made quite an impression with their performances at the the Marquee and other places around the country. The producer Mike Vernon took them into Decca’s studios to record an album titled Lola, which showed them to be capable of blending an interest in John Coltrane with a loyalty to the folk melodies of their native Poland. It was an early sign that European jazz could develop its own distinctive range of flavours, and it still sounds good today. Fifty years later Namysłowski’s career provided the inspiration for the male lead in Paweł Pawlikowski’s wonderful Oscar-winning film Ida.

Last night he returned to Britain with a quintet to play a concert divided between his own compositions and those of Krzysztof Komeda, with whom he played in the mid-’60s, mostly notably on the album Astigmatic, alongside the great trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. The venue was the Jazz Café POSK in the basement of the Polish cultural centre on King Street in Hammersmith, which ensured not only decent sound but a large, warm and attentive audience.

Playing alto and sopranino saxophones, Namysłowski was joined by his son Jacek on trombone, Łukasz Ojdana on piano, Andresz Święs on double bass and Patryk Dobosz on drums. The two horns played while seated throughout, which seemed less a concession to the leader’s age — he turned 80 in September — than a hint of the relaxed mood that pervaded the group’s beautifully controlled version of post-bop jazz.

Komeda’s tunes came first, including “Ballad for Bernt” from the soundtrack to Polanski’s Knife in the Water, “Svantetic” and “Kattorna” from Astigmatic, and the less familiar theme from Skolimowski’s Le Départ. By the time the interval arrived, it was clear that we were in the presence of a complete unit of first-rate improvisers: each musician had something to say every time they were called on, and all were so good that you wouldn’t want to single out any of them.

In the second half Namysłowski gave us a string of his own fine and strongly lyrical pieces, including “Jasmine Lady”, “Western Ballad” and “Kujaviak Goes Funky”, some of which re-emphasised his longstanding ability to make 5/4 and 7/4 swing effortlessly. His solos showed that while his tone may have lost some of its youthful tartness, he is in no danger of running short of ideas. In this unusual but highly effective alto-trombone front line (offhand, I can only think recall Mingus’s The Clown as a precedent), his son proved the ideal foil.

Finally, in response to ardent applause, they gave us an encore of Komeda’s gentle theme from Rosemary’s Baby: a gorgeous piece, exquisitely rearranged, demonstrating the effectiveness of short solos when deployed within an imaginative frame, and closing a thoroughly memorable evening.

Joe Pesci sings again

the-irishman-robert-de-niro-joe-pesci-social

In New Jersey sometime in the late 1950s, according to legend, Joe Pesci introduced his friend Frankie Valli to the young songwriter Bob Gaudio, a meeting that gave the Four Seasons their career. Pesci’s own singing career never reached such heights. His fame came from elsewhere, mostly from the terrifying “Do I amuse you?” scene with Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.

If you’ve seen The Irishman, you’ll know that Pesci, on his emergence from a 20-year screen hiatus, steals the film: he sets its temperature and provides its emotional core, without raising his voice once. He has also taken the opportunity to revive a recording career which hitherto produced only two albums: Little Joe Sure Can Sing! in 1968 and Vincent LaGuardia Gambino Sings Just For You — performing as his character from My Cousin Vinny — in 1998.

Pesci… Still Singing sees a return to his first love: singing ballads in the piercing, often anguished style of the late, great jazz-lounge maestro Jimmy Scott. Three years ago I wrote about Pesci’s appearance on two tracks of Scott’s posthumously released album, I Go Back Home. One of those duets, on “The Nearness of You”, reappears here. There are also two pleasant collaborations with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on a suave “My Cherie Amour” and the cha-cha groove of “Baby Girl”. Otherwise Pesci’s high, soulful voice is alone with a bunch of orchestral arrangements which are lavishly appointed but never to the extent that they turn the music into mush. Anyone with a fondness for the work of Nelson Riddle will appreciate the use of cor anglais on “Falling in Love Is Wonderful”, while space is made for fine trumpet, tenor and guitar solos, and the playing of the rhythm section is beautifully supportive. Only a melodramatic “Exodus” goes over the top.

I wish I could credit the arranger and the musicians properly, but the curse of streaming — the only way this album is currently available — is that you have to do without the sort of information that listeners of earlier generations depended on as we joined the dots in our quest for musical knowledge. Maybe eventually there’ll be a physical manifestation of Pesci… Still Singing, on which these mysteries will be solved and credit properly apportioned. (Since first posting this I’ve been told that the personnel — on some tracks, at least — includes the pianist Kenny Barron, the guitarists Pat Martino and Vinnie Corrao, the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Lewis Nash, which explains a lot.)

What I can tell you for certain is that Pesci sings with an exemplary attention to meaning, phrasing and tone. He treats some fine songs — “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “If I Should Lose You”, “Round Midnight”, “In My Solitude”, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and so on — with the necessary respect, and they repay his courtesy. This is an album made with love. And to those who don’t get the point: it’s entirely your loss.

* I streamed Pesci… Still Singing from Amazon Music, at a cost of £7.99. The photograph above is a still from The Irishman, with Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran.

‘Porgy and Bess’ revisited

Porgy 2

As he surveyed the ranks of musicians preparing to play Gil Evans’s score for Porgy and Bess at St John’s, Smith Square last night, Nick Smart knew that he had everything he needed: a 21-piece orchestra including the correct complement of French horns (three), bass clarinets (three), flutes of various sizes (four, when necessary), and a quartet of wonderful trumpeters — Henry Lowther, Martin Shaw, Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita — prepared to hand around the role of soloist. Since that soloist was, of course, Miles Davis, the task facing the four men was not without its challenge.

Smart also had the benefit of dealing with Evans’s actual score. As John Billett, the concert’s promoter, pointed out in his introduction, even the best intentioned reproductions of Evans’s pieces for Davis have been forced to make do with transcribed versions which inevitably miss some of the infinite subtlety of the original orchestrations. Thanks to the Evans family’s generosity, last night’s orchestra — consisting of alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, where Smart is in charge of the jazz programme — were able to work from the notes as Gil wrote them.

Of the three much loved albums Davis and Evans recorded together between 1957 and 1960, Porgy and Bess may be the most ambitious and fully realised, the pinnacle of the highly original approach to large-ensemble music that the arranger had been developing since his days with the Claude Thornhill band in the 1940s. Sixty years later, the richness and variety of gesture Evans applied to George Gershwin’s show tunes remain a source of wonder. And it can only be said that, under Smart’s direction, last night’s ensemble did the score complete justice in both execution and spirit.

To watch and listen as the ensemble brought Evans’s unorthodox instrumental deployments and love of dynamic contrast to life was a delight, from the whispered accompaniment of the French horns behind the trumpet solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the sudden brassy flares of “Prayer”. To hear each trumpet soloist pay the proper homage to Davis without forfeiting his own character was enormously impressive (and I’m not going to compare them: they were all outstanding). To admire the way Jeremy Brown coped with the bass lines written for Paul Chambers and the restrained panache with which Ed Richardson attacked the drum parts played in the studio by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb was hugely impressive. Nor can one forget the trumpeter who didn’t solo: George Hogg, who played Ernie Royal’s lead parts with perfectly judged power and precision.

The nave of St John’s was packed for the occasion. The sessions for the original album took place in Columbia Records’ studio on East 30th Street in New York City, in a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church whose dimensions created a famously perfect natural reverberation. Apart from a hum that briefly emerged late in the set, the amplified sound in the former Anglican church in Westminster, built in 1728, severely damaged in the war and then restored as a concert hall, was equally sumptuous, revealing all the fine detail of the scoring.

This was the last night of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and earlier in the evening the pianist Chris Ingham had led a sextet through downscaled versions of pieces from Miles Ahead, the first of the three Davis/Evans albums. They included “Blues for Pablo”, “New Rhumba”, “Maids of Cadiz”, and a rearrangement of “The Duke” on which the combo managed to sound like a big band, and there was also a lively account of “Boplicity”, an earlier Evans arrangement for Davis’s 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. Paul Higgs played the Miles parts on trumpet and flugelhorn with great finesse, flanked by two outstanding saxophonists, Jamie O’Donnell on alto and Colin Watling on tenor.

A long relationship with the music that Gil Evans and Miles Davis made together a lifetime ago tends to create an unusually strong emotional bond. Probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to the evening at St John’s is that the listener emerged with that bond not only confirmed but strengthened. Congratulations, then, to everyone involved in a sublime experience.

 

Soweto Kinch’s ‘The Black Peril’

Soweto Black Peril 2

Soweto Kinch doesn’t really do unambitious. That’s certainly true of The Black Peril, his 70-minute work for 18-piece band, string quartet, narration/rap, back-projected film and four dancers, which received its world premiere at the EartH arts centre in Dalston last night. The piece is a commission from the University of Hull, the EFG London Jazz Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, all of whom could feel satisfied as their judgement was endorsed by the prolonged applause from a near-capacity crowd.

It was an absorbing, multi-faceted and often exhilarating experience as Kinch created a portrayal of the condition of people of African origin arriving on alien shores and attempting to make new lives in the early years of the 20th century. So many narrative strands were going on at once — visual, musical, verbal — that it was hard to disentangle and make sense of them on first exposure, particularly when so little of Kinch’s extended raps and the occasional audio clip of a voice from history was as audible as he would surely have intended. This morning I’ve been listening to the CD, which is just out and makes it possible to appreciate more clearly the historical connections he is making.

I suppose I went along for the music, first of all, and was amply rewarded by richly detailed writing that spanned the jazz spectrum from ragtime to no-time with a fluency and empathy that prevented the occasional bursts of wah-wah brass, chinking banjo, fruity tuba and New Orleans-style clarinet from feeling like mere pastiche. Kinch’s own alto saxophone playing burst through to brilliant effect from time to time, switching at will between his normal modernist voice and an early-jazz timbre. The distinguished orchestra also included Byron Wallen (trumpet), Rosie Turton (trombone), Giacomo Smith (clarinet) and Xhosa Cole (tenor), supported by the superlative rhythm section of Robert Mitchell (piano), Sonia Konate (guitar, banjo), Junius Paul (bass), Makaya McCraven (drums) and Yaheal Onono (congas and other percussion). The writing for the string quartet — whose members were drawn from the ranks of the LSO — was beautifully integrated.

And then there were the dancers: four of them, one woman and three men, dressed in period clothes acting out narratives in which the most minimal props — some chairs, a few sacks, a Union Jack — were used to echo and amplify the scenes from old newsreel film projected onto big screen at the rear of the stage: scenes of disembarkation, of street life, of troops marching off to war, of children dancing for coins in the street, and of dancers demonstrating the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Jade Hackett’s choreography, superbly executed, was a highlight of the evening.

At the end I had an unexpected feeling: I’d like to have sat through it alongside Charles Mingus. Within the teeming universe of this work, Kinch mirrors so many of the emotions and strategies that Mingus explored in his work, from miniatures like “My Jelly Roll Soul” through “Fables of Faubus” to the larger scale of “Epitaph”, while moving them forward into a new century through a subtle infusion of contemporary rhythms and attitudes. Mingus, too, had huge ambitions, often frustrated more by circumstances — a black jazz musician of his generation wasn’t encouraged to venture outside a circumscribed world — than by his volcanic temperament. Would he have admired The Black Peril? I’m sure of it.

Berlin in London

Lucia Cadotsch Purcell 2

One of the dividends from three years of going back and forth between London and Berlin was an insight into the phenomenal amount of interesting music being made in the German capital by young musicians of many nationalities. In my first year I went to the Jazz Kollektiv festival in a Turkish theatre in Kreuzberg and heard a trio called Speak Low, led by the Swiss singer Lucia Cadotsch and completed by two Swedes, the bassist Petter Eldh and the tenorist Otis Sandsjö. While Cadotsch delivered standards — “Don’t Explain”, “Willow Weep For Me”, “Strange Fruit” — in a clear, steady voice somewhere between jazz and cabaret and all the more powerful for a sense of understatement, Eldh and Sandsjö used the extended instrumental vocabularies of free jazz to provide a dynamic underpinning. It felt fresh and creative.

Last night they played in London for the first time in three years, mixing material from their first album, released by Yellowbird/ENJA in 2016, with songs from their forthcoming release, due next year. What they demonstrated was how the strength of the original concept is providing a platform for further explorations. They chose to perform the songs grouped together mostly in twos and threes, so that Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” bled into Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and Brian Eno’s “By this River” prefaced “Wild Is the Wind”. The most ambitious of these sequences linked Henry Mancini and Norman Gimbel’s “Slow Hot Wind” with Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke’s “What’s New” and a real surprise, Tony Williams’ “There Comes a Time” (which provided the title track for an unjustly neglected Gil Evans album of the mid-’70s). Other songs heard during the course of the 70-minute set included Duke Ellington’s “Azure”, “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair”, Rickie Lee Jones’s “So Long” and, as a delicious encore, Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River”.

Every time I’ve seen them, I’ve been struck by the way they gradually draw an audience into the spell of their music. Sandsjö uses circular breathing and false fingerings to create skeins of feathery-toned notes that can function either as an obligato or a countervoice, while Eldh deploys the combination of strength and mobility that make him one of the most compelling of all current bassists, with the kind of emotional generosity that once belonged to Charlie Haden. Both were given the opportunity to create lengthy unaccompanied passages of startling inventiveness. As for Cadotsch, she deploys none of the usual tricks and only the barest minimum of gestures but relies on the quiet confidence of her delivery to create the tension between her poised, free-floating phrasing and the often roiling contributions of the others. It’s a brave project, but I’ve yet to see it fail to work its magic, and last night at the Purcell Room was no exception.

Julia Hulsmann Purcell

On Sunday afternoon, in the same intimate South Bank recital hall and also as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, another Berlin-based band, the all-German quartet led by the pianist Julia Hülsmann, played a set that came very close to perfection in its balance of thoughtful writing and expressive improvising. Based on the contents of their new ECM album, Not Far From Here, the material included compositions by Hülsmann, the tenorist Uli Kempendorff, the bassist Marc Muellbauer and the drummer Heinrich Köbberling, all of them outstanding. They played two covers: Leslie Feist’s lovely waltz “The Water” (familiar from an earlier album, In Full View) and David Bowie and Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” — which, as Hülsmann gently pointed out, is a song that carries greater resonance today than its composers could have foreseen when they wrote it in 1985 for the spy film The Falcon and the Snowman.

Nik Bärtsch at the Barbican

Nik Bartsch Barbican

This is how is began, with a seven-foot Steinway marooned on a dais in a lagoon of water installed on an enlarged stage at the Barbican Hall, silhouetted against a rhombus of light projected on to the back wall. As the house lights dimmed to blackness, the Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch, as usual shaven-headed and dressed in the black robes of a ninja monk, emerged from the wings and made his way to the instrument across a causeway which was then removed by stagehands. Bärtsch settled himself before launching into an hour-long piece called When the Clouds Clear, a “light and sound poem” created in conjunction the London-based visual artist Sophie Clements.

Bärtsch’s music is utterly sui generis: a highly personal version of minimalism that is most often expressed with the other musicians of his quintet Ronin, a project developed over almost 20 years at weekly sessions in a Zurich club that he co-owns. Each of his compositions is titled “Modul” and given a number. This mirrors the seemingly industrial precision with which they are conceived and performed, based on small melodic cells and exacting rhythmic overlays whose teasing syncopations generate tension, but it gives no idea of the emotion generated when, on a sudden shouted cue, one locked groove instantly gives way to another, the intensity rising exponentially.

All this was reflected in his unaccompanied playing last night, opening with a single repeated note tested for overtones and modified for attack and decay before evolving through an hour of contrasting moods and densities, often displaying his highly personal use of the prepared-piano techniques now common among those of his and subsequent generations of acoustic keyboard improvisers. Bärtsch can stun a note so that it acts like a rimshot from Philly Joe Jones or Clyde Stubblefield, laying it against a frantic weave of arpeggiation or letting it punctuate in a moment of silence. Sometimes he reached inside the instrument to make it hiss or growl, before building fantastic cataracts of sound that forfeited all note-definition and seemed about to burst the walls of the auditorium.

Sophie Clements’ lighting and projections began with minimalistic monochrome geometries creeping across the set before she introduced backdrops of waves and skies, washed in blue or grey. This seemed worryingly literal — waves of water, waves of sound — but only for the briefest moment until it became apparent how beautifully the visuals and the music were creating (to paraphrase Wallace Stevens) something beyond them, but themselves. Towards the end, drops of water began to fall from the roof into the lagoon: an illusion of the elements invading the music. (There was some wry amusement about this afterwards, given that parts of Britain had spent the week battling floods.)

The  austere, almost hieratic air of Bärtsch’s music and self-presentation is utterly deceptive; its end product is human warmth, and the prolonged ovation he shared with Clements was generated by art that, for all its refinement of technique and conception, communicated on the most immediate level. I’d be surprised if there were a soul in the hall who, having absorbed a genuinely extraordinary experience, wouldn’t have been happy to sit through it all again straight away.

* Nik Bärtsch and Sophie Clements were appearing on the first night of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival. This was the second performance of When the Clouds Clear, which was co-commissioned by the Enjoy Jazz Festival and the Barbican and received its première in Mannheim earlier this year.