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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

On the Beat route

On the Road

In the beginning, probably around the start of World War Two, there were hep-cats. They were hip. Then they weren’t, because hip became hip and hep-cats gave way to hipsters. There were hippies, too, except they were decidedly unhip. Until they became hip, of course, in the Summer of Love. Some decades later hipsters returned, albeit in a modified form, with matching (rather than weird) beards and craft beers. How soon before the hep-cats make a comeback?

So the queue for entry to the Centre Pompidou the other day was just too long, and I decided that I’d probably get another opportunity to see the “Beat Generation” exhibition before it closes on October 3. (I saw a really good show on the same theme — “Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965” — at the Whitney Museum in New York 20 years ago, its centrepiece the unbroken roll of paper on which Jack Kerouac typed the original unparagraphed On the Road.) I consoled myself for the disappointment in Paris by crossing the Seine to the excellent Gibert Joseph store on the Boulevard Saint-Michel and buying Beat Generation: Hep Cats, Hipsters and Beatniks 1936-1962, a three-CD anthology assembled to tie in with the exhibition and just released by Frémaux et Associés, the label responsible for many fine historical compilations.

It’s a real box of goodies, a useful reminder that the soundtrack to the beat life wasn’t just composed of the super-cool stylings of Miles Davis’s “Boplicity”, Gerry Mulligan’s “Soft Shoe” and Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” (all of which are included among the 72 tracks). It was also the sheer stomping mayhem of Roy Eldridge’s “Heckler’s Hop” and Cootie Williams’s “Gator Tail Pt 2”, which features a bar-walking tenor saxophone solo by Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson so extreme that, having scaled the heights of rampantly priapic  wailing, it ends in a series of exhausted squeaks. Something like this:

“The tenor man jumped down from the platform and just stood in the crowd blowing around; his hat was over his eyes; somebody pushed it back for him. He just hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn and blew high wide and screaming in the air. Neal was directly in front of him with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed and laughed in his horn a long quivering crazy laugh and everybody else laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct.” 

That’s how Kerouac recalled a Saturday night in a San Francisco jazz dive as he tapped out the original manuscript of On the Road, which also contains descriptions of performances by George Shearing, Slim Gaillard, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. With the exception of Shearing, all of those are represented in the anthology. There’s a lot of Kerouac, too, reciting his “American haikus” with Al Cohn’s tenor saxophone, reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and giving his lecture asking “Is There a Beat Generation?” to the students of Hunter College in 1958. There’s Allen Ginsberg reciting the complete “Howl” and “Kaddish”, and Lennie Bruce’s “Psychopathia Sexualis”, and authentic hipsters like Babs Gonzales and Oscar Brown Jr and hilariously bogus ones like Edd Byrnes (“Kookie’s Mad Pad”). And satire like Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen’s “The Beat Generation” (the inspiration for Richard Hell’s “The Blank Generation”), and fine music from Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker and Stan Getz and Les Double Six and Eddie Jefferson, with a wonderful vocal recasting of “So What”. A hint of hipsters/hippies to come appears in Dave Van Ronk’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ New York”, and there’s a curious coda with a reading of e.e. cummings’s anti-war poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big” in 1962 at the Avant Garde coffee house in Milwaukee by Roger Steffens, then a 21-year-old actor and today the owner of the world’s largest Bob Marley archive.

And, of course, the set would not be complete without the immortal Lord Buckley, giving his hipster interpretation of the New Testament’s Lazarus story in “The Nazz”:

“So the Nazz and his buddies was goofin’ off down the boulevard one day and they run into a little cat with a bent frame. So the Nazz look at this little cat with the bent frame and he say, ‘What’s a matter wit’choo, baby?’ And the little cat with the bent frame he say, ‘Well, my frame is bent, Nazz, it’s been bent from in front.’ So the Nazz look at the little cat with the bent frame and he put the golden eyes of love on this here little kitty and he looked right down into the windows of his soul and he said to the little cat, he said: ‘Straighten!’ The cat got up straighter’n an arrow and everybody jumping’ up and down  and say, ‘Look what the Nazz put on that boy!’ You dug him before, dig him now!”

I read in this month’s Uncut that a film about Buckley’s life is coming out this autumn. It’s called Too Hip for the Room. Now that’s hip.

* The illustration above is a detail from Len Deighton’s jacket design for the first UK edition of On the Road, published by André Deutsch in 1958.

Bud Powell | 31 July 1966

BudPowellBud Powell never made being a genius look easy. Fifty years ago tomorrow — on July 31, 1966 — his death at the age of 41 put an end to an existence that seems to have been defined by two factors: first, his extraordinary talent; second, an incident that took place when he was not even 21, and which began the process of stifling his brilliance.

It happened in 1945, after a gig in Philadelphia with the band of the trumpeter Cootie Williams. Powell had already been marked out for greatness. While still in his teens, and thus technically underage, he had become a regular at Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse, the crucibles of bebop, and had been befriended by Thelonious Monk. But that night in Philadelphia it seems that he was beaten by police while wandering the streets in an intoxicated condition after the gig, and was thrown into the cells. After his release, persistent headaches — seemingly induced by the beating — led him to treatment first in Bellevue hospital and then in a psychiatric institution.

Alcohol was a companion to him, but not a friend. His behaviour could be erratic and aggressive and in 1947, after a fight in a club, he was sent back to Bellevue and thence to Creedmore State Hospital in Queens, where he was kept for 11 months. From late 1951 to early 1953 he was in a mental hospital again, this time committed after being found in possession of marijuana. At some time or other he is believed to have been subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which had come into use in 1938, and whose dangerous side-effects were little understood.

Some of those who heard him in his youth claimed that he was never the same player after 1945, which makes us shake our heads in disbelief when we listen to the trio recordings he made (with Curley Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums) for the Roost label in 1947, two years after that first incarceration. Through the terrible sound quality, the dazzling quality of his inventiveness on a track like “Indiana” still shines through.

Despite his misfortunes, there would be further great recordings, both live and in the studio: with Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro at Birdland in 1950, with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roach and Charles Mingus at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953, and his own recordings for Alfred Lion and Norman Granz in the early 1950s, most notably the piece “Glass Enclosure”, whose title and disturbing melodic angles reflect his experiences in hospital and other institutions. He was, in fact, a brilliant composer — check out the profound lyricism of the 1958 piece “Time Waits” — as well as the only improviser of the post-war generation who could match Parker’s standards of inexhaustible creativity.

In 1959 he relocated to Paris, where he found supportive friends such as Nicole Barclay, the wife of the record label boss Eddie Barclay, and Francis Paudras, a young jazz-loving commercial artist who later wrote a touching memoir of their association, its title — Dance of the Infidels — borrowed from one of the pianist’s best known compositions. Powell became a regular at Left Bank clubs such as the Cafe Saint-Germain and the Blue Note, where he played with kindred spirits like the drummer Kenny Clarke, a fellow émigré, and the gifted French tenorist Barney Wilen, as well as with old friends visiting from New York. In France, his colleagues, acquaintances and fans knew that to offer him a drink would not be doing him a favour. Here’s a version of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” from 1963 which I love for the subtle way he infiltrates ambiguous voicing into such a well known tune.

One of my favourite pieces of Powelliana is a film of his guest appearance with Mingus’s quintet at the Antibes jazz festival in 1960. He played only one tune with them, but this long version of “I’ll Remember April” (which he had also recorded on that 1947 Roost trio session) contains six choruses of piano that repay close attention. The diamond-cutter articulation and lightning speed are gone, and there are occasional minor missteps, but the constant stream of lovely ideas and the relaxed intensity of the performance make it something to be treasured, even before the horns — Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto) and Booker Ervin (tenor) — have their say. And note the notably respectful way Mingus, an old sparring partner, and Dannie Richmond concentrate on providing solid support while staying out of his way.

In 1964, with his health precarious, Powell returned to New York, accompanied by Paudras, for a comeback engagement at Birdland. Although he was welcomed, his playing had lost its edge and its lustre. Paudras returned to Paris but Powell decided to stay on, dying two years later in a Brooklyn hospital of a combination of tuberculosis (contracted during his final year in Paris), alcoholism and malnutrition. A vast crowd filled the streets outside his funeral in Harlem, where he had been born and where he had first been acclaimed as a prodigy.

* The photograph of Bud Powell was taken in New York in 1964 by Robert James Campbell and is taken from Rebirth of the Cool, a book of Campbell’s work edited by Jessica Ferber and published by powerHouse Books.

Archive treasure from Harry Beckett

Harry Beckett 2Harry Beckett was ordering a drink at the bar of the Beachcomber Club in Nottingham one night in 1965, relaxing between sets with Herbie Goins and the Nightimers, when I plucked up the courage to address him. The Nightimers were an excellent jazz-inflected soul band — their personnel also included former Blue Flames Mick Eve on tenor saxophone and Bill Eyden on drums, with Mike Carr on Hammond organ — and I wanted to tell their trumpeter how much I’d enjoyed his solo on their set-opening version of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”. Showing the good humour and courtesy which would become familiar over the years, Harry was happy to chat to a new fan.

A few years later I felt privileged when he asked me to write the sleeve notes for two of his early albums, Flare Up (Philips, 1970) and Themes for Fega (RCA, 1972), which featured the likes of Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, John Surman and John Taylor. The last time I saw him, a short time before his death in 2010, aged 75 (actually 86: see Gerard Tierney’s comments below the line), was at the Red Rose in Seven Sisters Road, on a night when he and Ingrid Laubrock were guest soloists with Spring Heel Jack.

One of the most distinctive London-based improvisers of his generation, he enjoyed a reputation within the jazz community that was never matched by wider public recognition. His membership of bands led by Graham Collier and Chris McGregor, as well his various solo projects, meant that his work was quite effectively documented, but much remains to be exposed to today’s listeners, particularly sessions recorded for BBC Radio.

A new vinyl album titled Still Happy represents the rescue from archive obscurity of a session recorded for Radio 2’s Jazz Club in 1974. It contains three tracks, totalling just under 30 minutes of music, and features some of his regular musical companions: the saxophonists Alan Wakeman and Don Weller, the electric pianist Brian Miller, the bass guitarist Paul Hart, the drummer John Webb and the conga player Robin Jones.

This was the era of Bitches Brew, Weather Report and Nucleus, and Harry’s music reflected the trend towards 8/8 rhythms and one-chord vamps. The rhythms here are funky and the tunes (“Bracelets of Sound”, “Still Happy” and “No Time for Hello”) are straightforwardly melodic and memorable. The title track in particular builds up a terrific head of steam as the session gathers pace.

Harry’s work on trumpet and flugelhorn possessed characteristics that, although immediately identifiable, are hard to summarise. Superficially there was a variation on the little-boy-lost quality that Kenneth Tynan ascribed to Miles Davis, blended with some of the untethered lyricism of Don Cherry: an unusual combination of deep poignancy and an irrepressible optimism. Two other factors, however, were of equal importance. The first was the Barbadian-born Harry’s very personal intonation, something he shared with a number of musicians of Caribbean origin who turned to jazz in that era. The second was his freedom from the restrictions of rhetoric, by which I mean that his solos did not proceed in the expectation of climax or even resolution but existed from moment to moment, climaxes sometimes arriving and disappearing within a single phrase, so that the improvisations were ordered on a kind of micro-cellular level. By 1974, too, it was impossible to miss the closeness of his engagement with the prevailing rhythmic flow.

Harry’s presence is greatly missed, along with the unique voice of his trumpet. There can never be too much of his work available on record, particularly when it is of the quality of this release, which is warmly recommended.

* Still Happy is released on a new label called My Only Desire. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who can identify the origin of the photograph above.

Musica franca

Evan & Alex 1 Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker were two of the winners at the recent Parliamentary jazz awards: the former for being the instrumentalist of the year, the latter for, well, being Evan Parker. Last week they appeared together at the Vortex. Alex is 35; Evan is 72. What they gave us was a demonstration of the special ability of jazz-based free improvisation to span the generations without forcing the younger man to play the older man’s music, or vice versa. Musica franca = lingua franca, you might say.

I heard one and a half sets. The first reminded me of what those famous Cecil Taylor quintet tracks on Into the Hot, “Pots” and “Bulbs”, might have sounded like if you’d taken out Jimmy Lyons, Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray, leaving only Taylor and Archie Shepp. Evan was a little gruffer than usual, while Alex produced octave-doubled figures that leapt and darted with precise aim. The whole 40-odd minutes sounded like two painters working their brushes in rapid up-strokes. It was urgent and practically unstoppable — until they contrived the most elegant of endings.

The first half of the second set was more mellow and discursive, with a stronger sense of an underlying blues tonality, putting me in mind of how Charlie Rouse and Thelonious Monk might have sounded without a rhythm section. I don’t usually like this shorthand way of writing about music, by describing one musician in terms of another. But those comparisons were what went through my head when I was listening, and they’re only intended in the most impressionistic sense.

Anyway, you can hear for yourselves what they sound like, in all the many dimensions that they bring to their dialogue through a quite magical degree of empathy, in a very fine CD called Leaps in Leicester, recorded last year at Embrace Arts in that city. A long track called “The Shimmy”, dedicated to the late Tony Marsh, contains powerful elements of the approach I heard in the first set.

During the interval they joked that, given the recent success of Leicester’s football team, they should plan a European tour to take in all the places where City are drawn to play in next season’s Champions’ League. Which, who knows, might mean a gig in Cardiff next May, to coincide with the final. (Anyone who finds analogies between jazz and football frivolous or distasteful is directed to an observation by Jean-Luc Godard, who said that listening to free jazz reminded him of the great Hungarian side of the 1950s. So maybe the best comparison is between Evan Parker and Ferenc Puskás. I can’t imagine Evan objecting to that.)

* Leaps in Leicester is out now on the Clean Feed label.

A place of worship

Arve Henriksen 2During a public conversation at the ICA a couple of weeks ago, Brian Eno mentioned his interest in churches as potential performance spaces. After all, he pointed out, they were built with the idea of providing an environment for reflection. The truth of his words was evident in London last night, when the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen presented the music from his 2014 album Places of Worship in the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s, the deconsecrated and repurposed Anglican church built in Clerkenwell by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James in 1733.

Thanks to a painstakingly sympathetic restoration, there isn’t a nicer place in London to listen to music. It certainly provided the perfect setting for Henriksen’s marvellous invention, a sequence of impressionistic pieces inspired by churches, chapels, cathedrals, cemeteries and other such places around the world, in which he was joined for this concert — and for the other dates of a short UK tour — by the guitarist Eyvind Aarset and the sound artist Jan Bang, both of them long-time collaborators, with lighting and projections by the artist Anastasia Isachsen.

Each musician had a table full of laptops and other sound-modifying tools, among them Henriksen’s mini-keyboard  and iPad, Aarset’s filters and looping devices, and Bang’s mixer and various other boxes of tricks, with a grand piano also at hand. There was a great deal of live sampling as they went about the job of re-imagining the pieces from the original album, creating soundscapes over which Henriksen could deploy his regular and pocket trumpets and his poignant counter-tenor voice.

The sounds shifted constantly in light, density and texture, making me wonder why we spend so much time listening to music that sounds the same all the way through — and also why anyone might ever have thought that electronically generated sounds necessarily robbed music of human warmth.

Henriksen’s extraordinary range of exquisite trumpet sonorities, from chapel-band brass to Zen-temple shakuhachi, found their perfect foils in Aarset’s great subtlety (including a perfect solo that consisted of widely spaced pings) and Bang’s artful manipulation of the available sonic material, including the establishment of unobtrusive rhythm beds. As the music and its visual accompaniment took shape over the course of an unforgettable 70 minutes, the hall itself, with its grey stone walls and pale columns, seemed like an equal participant in the act of creation.

Karsten Vogel in London

Karsten Vogel Soho 1Karsten Vogel made his London debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1968, alongside John Tchicai in Cadentia Nova Danica, one of the outstanding European bands of the ’60s jazz avant-garde. A little over a year later he was back as a member of Burnin Red Ivanhoe, the Danish jazz-rock band who played the Lyceum, the Speakeasy, the Marquee and other joints, and recorded their second album for John Peel’s Dandelion label. (Last year I wrote here about their reunion album.)

He was back in London this week on a rather unusual assignment, invited to play solo alto saxophone at the private view organised by a Danish galleries in a pop-up space on Greek Street in Soho. In a funky space — bare brick walls and open fireplaces, open ceiling beams, artfully minimalist lighting — and surrounded by the work of eight artists, he performed for 10 minutes or so, using a backing tape of almost subliminal sparseness.

There aren’t many alto saxophonists to whom I’d rather be listening. Kirsten has always tempered the raw passion of the music of his youth with a delicate lyricism that occasionally — and certainly in his short set on Wednesday evening — turns into a very touching fragility. He has a lovely tone — slender, fibrous and very human — and a shallow vibrato: a highly distinctive combination. If you listen to one of his improvisations and just concentrate on the shaping of his phrases, it can be a good reminder of how inventive and unpredictable a great jazz musician can be.

An audience of art lovers gathered for the show, which was mounted by Gold-Smidt Assembly and called Sølv. They seemed to find it very enjoyable — in turn, I liked the wall-hung ceramic honeycombs of Stine Jespersen and a 6ft block of South Wales coal carved into an enigmatically plain rectangular shape by Tom Price — but it would, of course, be great to hear Karsten playing at a music venue in London again.

Meanwhile he has a new album, Cry!,  on the Storyville label: a collaboration with the pianist Per Aage Brandt, his friend and compatriot, a poet and linguist who has lived for many years in France. In 1962 Brandt made a radio broadcast in Copenhagen with Albert Ayler, and the following year he became a member of Karsten’s quartet, which lasted until 1966, when the saxophonist joined Cadentia Nova Danica and Brandt went off to the Sorbonne to study semiotics.

Last October they reunited in a studio in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where Brandt has made his home. Each of them brought one other musician: the bassist Flavio Perrella was summoned by the pianist, while the drummer Klaus Menzer came with Vogel. For five days they did nothing but play, the pianist and the saxophonist providing a set of challenging  but very appealing compositions and the four musicians coalescing into a a quartet that sounds like a genuine group.

The music is fresh and constantly surprising, with driving bop-influenced tunes and some gorgeous ballad-playing, and a slightly old-fashioned recording quality that suits it perfectly (what I mean is, you get a sense of room they’re in and the space between the musicians). To put it crudely, if Cecil Taylor had kept making progress on a straighter trajectory after his first handful of recordings, this is where his band might have ended up half a century later — which is no bad place to be.

Karsten switches to tenor saxophone for the final track, a duo version of “My Funny Valentine” chosen by Brandt as a homage to Ayler, with whom he used to play Richard Rodgers’ standard. The saxophone playing reminds the listener of Ayler’s idiosyncratic way with a ballad but also manages to be pure Vogel: a perfect way to close a deeply satisfying album which deserves wider international exposure than it will probably get.

Gold-Smidt Assembly’s Sølv is open to the public this weekend (May 13-15) at 49 Greek Street, W1 — but without music, alas.

Piano trios at XJAZZ

Vijay Iyer TrioXJAZZ is the name of an annual festival held in Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin that is home to a large immigrant population. The four-day event is dispersed between a dozen or so venues, all within walking distance of each other. Most of them are rock or dance clubs, but there are also the very striking 19th century Emmaus Church, reconstructed after 1945, and the Lido, built in the 1950s as a cinema.

Of the events I attended this year, the two most striking were both by piano trios. Vijay Iyer’s group (pictured above), completed by the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Marcus Gilmore, arrived at a packed Lido on Friday night intending to play the usual hour or so after being presented with the German jazz critics’ association album of the year award for their latest ECM album, Break Stuff. Such was the crowd’s enthusiasm that they ended up playing only a minute or three short of two hours.

They began by playing without pause for more than half an hour, and the applause that greeted the closing notes might have gone almost as long had a rather bemused Iyer not manage to bring it to a halt. The response was the same throughout the set as the trio explored complex but irresistible grooves that created and released tension with an exhilarating effect. They played many original compositions, several of which — such as “Hood” — showed off a love of playing rhythmic games, as well as Thelonious Monk’s “Work” and Henry Threadgill’s “Little Pocket Size Demons”.

Sooner or later the deluge of creative piano-trio music will dry up, but perhaps not for a while yet. The following evening another interesting group took the stage at Watergate, a house and techno club whose bar looks out on to the River Spree. As the light faded on the water through the windows behind them, the Bosnian-born drummer Dejan Terzic, the Danish bassist Jonas Westergaard and the German pianist Florian Weber created three-way conversations characterised by an astringent lyricism and a wonderful ability to play with full commitment while giving each other plenty of room.

These two trios operate at a dauntingly high level of intellectual activity, but the spontaneous enthusiasm of both sets of listeners demonstrated the music’s ability to warm the spirit as well as stimulate the mind.

Connecting with Empirical

Empirical 1

How many great modern jazz ballads are there? I’m not thinking of the kind of American Songbook standards, such as “Body and Soul” or “Lush Life”, that have offered their melodies and chord sequences to jazz improvisers over the decades. I’m thinking of strictly instrumental pieces written by jazz musicians: things like Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”, Elmo Hope’s “Mirror-Mind Rose”, Stan Tracey’s “Starless and Bible-Black”, or Dudu Pukwana’s “B My Dear”.

There’s one on Empirical’s new album. It’s called “Lethe”, written by the band’s vibraphone-player, Lewis Wright. It starts with soft chimes and Tom Farmer’s double bass in a rising four-note pattern, Shaney Forbes’s pattering mallets on his tom-toms introducing an exposed theme for Nathaniel Facey’s plaintive alto saxophone. Facey’s subsequent improvisation slips easily in and out of double and triple time, encouraging the others to get busier and thicken the textures, but the band never loses the enraptured mood of the theme, which turns the whole seven-minute piece into a complete and very elegant construction, rather than something that just happened.

I’ve heard them play it two or three times in various settings over the past year, along with some of the other new material, and one the things that strikes me about the album, which is titled Connection, is the way they’ve not only captured the spirit of their live performances in the studio but even taken the process a step further.

The band’s fifth release continues their 10-year exploration of the kind of jazz first measured out in those Blue Note albums of the mid-’60s — by Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson and others — that took bebop in a late-modernist direction, very harmonically and rhythmically demanding, avoiding the easier options offered by post-Kind of Blue modal jazz. The music is challenging, often superficially austere and angular, but never academic or unfriendly. The 10 compositions by Facey, Wright and Farmer come at the idiom from a variety of angles, offering plenty of light and shade and exploiting the basic tonal palette and their internal relationships to the full.

They can do many things extremely well, and one of them is swing. Forbes’s drumming on two of Farmer’s tunes, “Driving Force” and “Card Clash”, creates classic triplet-based propulsion of the highest quality, establishing a really inspiring platform for the soloists. By contrast, Farmer’s “The Maze” explores a favourite trick of Miles Davis’s second great quartet by having the lead voices — Facey and Wright — stick to a measured written theme while the rhythm instruments are allowed complete freedom to invent. Wright’s closing “It’s Out of Our Hands” brings their innate lyricism back to the surface, with passages utilising a great asymmetrical Latin groove.

Exceptionally well recorded by Richard Woodcraft at RAK Studios in London, and mixed by Alex Bonney, this is a staggeringly good album that stands comparison with the very best of jazz in the 21st century. And from the way “Lethe” has lodged itself in my head over the past 12 months, I’d say that one deserves to become a classic.

* The photograph of Empirical was taken at Foyle’s in London last year.

Not just another chanteuse

KANDACE SPRINGS

You wouldn’t ask your worst enemy to perform at an awards ceremony, particularly a standing-only affair where the audience is milling around, enjoying free champagne and noisy gossip. So it took some guts for the American singer Kandace Springs to perform Mal Waldron’s ballad “Soul Eyes” when she was given a slot at just such a function this week.

As she began by testing out the rather indifferent piano with a few bluesily decorated arpeggios, a friend and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. It’s like the first sentence of a novel: sometimes you just know that this is going to be all right. And despite a hubbub that barely diminished in volume, Kandace Springs was able to use her allotted handful of minutes to demonstrate a talent that demanded further attention.

A couple of days later she was at the Pizza Express on Dean Street for a lunchtime showcase gig in front of a more attentive invited audience of industry and media types. One of the half-dozen songs she performed was “The Nearness of You”, written in 1937 by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington. It was Norah Jones’s version of the song, she told us, that had inspired her to embark on a career in music. Tackling the song alone, with only her piano in support, she succeeded in making it her own property, without recourse to distortion or exaggeration, thus deepening the favourable impression.

Ms Springs’s coolness factor is high. Prince called her up after hearing her cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”. She has an album out on Blue Note in July. She has been opening for Gregory Porter on his European dates, and she is at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival this coming Monday. The world is awash with female “jazz singers” who try to combine the American Songbook repertoire with contemporary sounds, some in the hope of ending up on X Factor. It’s a genre for which I have a pretty limited tolerance. But she seems to have something different and more substantial.

She is 27 years old, she comes from Nashville, and she has a likeable self-possession that gets the audience on her side. Musicians, too. On her British dates she has been expertly and discreetly accompanied by the double bass of Sam Vicary and the drums of Luke Flowers, both from the Cinematic Orchestra, and at the Pizza Express they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

“The Nearness of You” isn’t on the album, which is titled Soul Eyes and was produced — rather conservatively for my taste, but never mind — by Larry Klein. I like the way she feels confident enough to do something other than plug the album to death, and she finished off at the Pizza Express with something else that isn’t on it: a beautifully poised and understated version of Ewan McColl’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” which reminded that if you live long enough, everything comes around again.

Back in 1972 I went to another showcase, at Ronnie Scott’s, to see Roberta Flack, whose fame was secured when Clint Eastwood used her version of the McColl song on the soundtrack to Play Misty For Me. Flack brought an ace band with her, including Richard Tee on keyboards and Chuck Rainey on bass, and she was quietly sensational.  And I have to say that the woman who performed 100 yards away this week was every bit as good. As long as she wards off the dreaded melisma virus and keeps her sights high when selecting her repertoire, she’ll be an adornment to the scene.

Anyway, whenever I try to type the name Kandace Springs, the spellcheck device insists on changing it to “Candace”. I suspect it won’t be long before that particular algorithm wises up.

Trondheim Voices in Bremen

Trondheim VoicesThey were only invited at the last minute after their compatriot Mette Henriette had been forced to withdraw from the Jazzahead! festival in Bremen, but the women of Trondheim Voices provided me with what is likely to be the most lasting musical memory from this year’s event. Based in a city famous for the open-minded young musicians produced by the jazz courses taught at its adventurous and well resourced music conservatory, they have been going, with various changes in size and personnel, since 2001. Over the past year they’ve begun to explore the possibilities of individual sound-tailoring devices created by the mixing engineer and sound designer Asle Karstad: the singers wear discreet wireless boxes on their belts, with controls enabling them to modify their own output in real time.

Currently the group consists of nine members, five of whom were in Bremen. Tone Åse, Torunn Sævik, Heidi Skjerve, Anita Kaasbøll and Siri Gjære (their current artistic director) undertook a 30-minute performance collectively improvised from start to finish, using the possibilities provided by Karstad’s Maccatrol system to create a panoply of sounds, from multiple clucking effects to gorgeous echo-laden chorales. While they did so, an element of restrained theatricality was introduced as they moved around the auditorium, making use of a widened central aisle and the steps up to the stage.

All sorts of music were briefly referenced, from the highly melodic Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter mode through to the sort of fragmented expressionism that might be associated with Diamanda Galas and Yoko Ono, but nothing seemed tricksy or contrived. Their long experience of working together was evident in the way the whole thing was spontaneously shaped into a striking dramatic unity.

A deeply affecting finale featured shimmering layers of voices. After its echoes had died away, Siri Gjære told me that normally they like to give site-specific performances requiring a degree of immersion in their surroundings (in June they’ll be spending several days at Munich’s Whitebox art space). On Saturday the wonderful blend of sound and movement made it hard to believe they’d been given only a few days’ notice and a brief sound-check in a relatively bland environment. I can’t wait for further encounters.

* The photograph shows members of Trondheim Voices after their performance in one of the Jazzahead! halls on Saturday. Their Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/trondheimvoices/ — contains some examples of their work, including a clip of them using the Maccatrol system.

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