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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

Cassie Kinoshi at the Roundhouse

Cassie Kinoshi 1

Since the SEED Ensemble’s Mercury Prize-nominated Driftglass is likely to be one of my albums of the year, I was keen to see Cassie Kinoshi, the group’s leader and composer, at the Roundhouse last night. This was a different kind of gig, arranged by Skin Deep, the race and culture magazine, in their Sonic Transmissions series. On these evenings, an individual musician is put under the spotlight in the venue’s small theatre: they perform live, they play selected recordings, and they are interviewed by Anu Henriques, the magazine’s founder. Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd have been previous subjects of a series clearly angled towards the new London-based jazz movement in which contemporary forms of racial and cultural diversity are brought to bear on the traditions.

Thoughtful, engaging and not afraid to express an opinion, Kinoshi was keen to acknowledge the vital role played by Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors in her career and those of her predecessors on the Sonic Transmissions stage. The TW workshops had not just been an education in jazz, she said, but an introduction to the idea of the music as the product of a community. The bands in which she currently plays — SEED Ensemble, the co-operative Nérija and Sheila Maurice-Grey’s Kokoroko — all provide evidence of that philosophy, which she summed up as “a sharing of minds”.

Born in 1993 to parents of Nigerian, Sierra Leonean and Caribbean origin, brought up in the less than funky surroundings of Welwyn Garden City and subsequently a graduate of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, she is already strongly aware of the value of “representation”: the need to present herself as an example to young black females of achievement in a field that might once have seemed beyond their reach. She herself, she said, had had no such benefit early on.

She also spoke of how, when confronted by a predominantly white audience, she found herself compelled to emphasise the blackness of her music: an example of how she doesn’t want to make her listeners feel too comfortable. Her compositions might be inspired by literature and places, but also by the Grenfell Tower tragedy (Driftglass‘s “Wake”), the uncovering of the Windrush scandal, the divisions revealed by Brexit, and the need for young black women to resist the imposition of white standards of beauty.

For the live pieces she brought along a new sextet featuring two alto saxophones (herself and Tyrone Isaac-Stuart), vibes (David Mrakpor), guitar (Richie Aikman), bass guitar and synth bass (Isobella Burnham) and drums (Ayo Salawu). The music was loud and aggressive, inspired in part by Kinoshi’s fondness during her schooldays for metal and indie rock (she mentioned Pantera and Nirvana), but it also provided a platform for thoughtful solos by the expressive Aikman and Mrakpor, whose poise reminded me of Bobby Hutcherson. The two-alto front line is rare — I thought of Eric Dolphy with Ken McIntyre or Oliver Nelson — and the sweet-and-sour blend reflected Kinoshi’s admiration of Jackie McLean, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthapa.

She also played us a recording of a startling orchestral piece titled “If She Could Dance Naked under Palm Trees”, indicating the breadth of her resources and ambition. In the live set, however, the music — like so much of the new jazz emerging from south and east London — was rhythm-heavy, meant to make you move. Whatever others might think, this reunion of jazz and the body is a very good thing.

* Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble will be at the Jazz Café on November 24 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Driftglass is on the jazzre:freshed label. Nérija’s new album, Blume, is just out on the Domino label.

Punkt 2019

Punkt poster

Kristiansand’s Punkt festival was the brainchild of Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, who had the idea of setting up an annual event featuring instant remixes of every performance. The first edition was held in 2005, and last weekend they celebrated their 15th anniversary with three days of music in the festival’s home, a port on the southern coast of Norway, where the faculty of the university includes Bang as professor of electronic music, with Honoré in a less formal role.

This year Punkt’s group of designated remixers also included the trumpeters Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvær, the guitarist Eivind Aarset, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken, the producer Helge Sten and the duo of the drummer Pål Hausken and the keyboardist Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim, who called themselves Elektroshop. At each concert one or two of them could be seen onstage seated at their laptops behind or alongside the performers, who included Trondheim Voices in the Domkirken, the city’s cathedral; Thurston Moore’s four-piece band in a club called Kick Scene; and Kim Myhr’s septet and Rymden, the new trio featuring Bugge Wesseltoft, Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, in the Kilden concert hall on the waterfront.

Immediately after each set the designated remixers would play a set of their own, based on the material they had just recorded. Sometimes they added live instruments: Henriksen’s trumpet and voice, Molvær’s trumpet, Aarset’s guitar, Hausken’s tom-toms and, on one occasion, the voice of Sidsel Endresen. If it wasn’t often easy to detect the salient characteristics of the original material in the remixes, that didn’t seem to matter much.

My favourite example came when Henriksen, Sten and Storløkken — who comprise the long established trio Supersilent — took the thunderous, heavily strummed, highly structured, ecstatic instrumental music created by Moore’s group — with the leader and James Sedwards on electric 12-strings, Deb Googe on six-string bass guitar and Jeb Doulton on drums — and reshaped it into blocks of even more thunderous but harshly fractured noise. During both sets, it was fun to stand behind the conventional mixing desk and watch the decibel meters climbing: peaking above 120dB and inching past an average of 100+. Those who chose to wear earplugs, I felt, lost out on something worthwhile.

Punkt Kim 1

Twenty four hours later, Kim Myhr’s band (above) offered a very different kind of strummed ecstasy while reinterpreting the two long compositions from his 2018 album YOU | ME. Whereas Moore built his chordal symphony on a highly disciplined rock-based, backbeat-driven vision, its transitions strictly defined, Myhr summoned the looser weave of folk music. Just as propulsive but lighter in tone and more subtly textured, the music had a life generated less by the structure of the composition than by the sensation of the individual instruments — the electric and acoustic six- and 12-string guitars of Myhr, David Stackenäs, Daniel Meyer Grønvold and Adrian Myhr, and the drums and percussion of Tony Buck, Ingar Zach and Michaela Antalová — rubbing up against each other. As far as I was concerned the stretchy 9/4 chordal riff of the second half could have gone on all night, its jangling strings and tinkling bells creating a narcotic momentum and going far beyond the recorded version.

For me, the other big highlights of the weekend were provided by Dark Star Safari, a Nordic-noir prog-rock quartet,  in the Sorlandet art museum and by Trondheim Voices in the cathedral. The concert debut of the former, consisting of Bang (transformed into a lead singer), Aarset, Honoré and the brilliant Swiss drummer Samuel Rohrer, was striking enough to send me back to re-investigate their album, released earlier this year.

New ideas on the capacity of the human voice were provided by the nine women of Trondheim Voices, singing “Folklore”, an hour-long composition by Sten and Storløkken (who had prefaced the performance with an extended solo on the pipe organ). Microtonal clusters slid and swerved to thrilling effect and Natali Abrahamson Garner, the latest recruit to this extraordinary group, emerged from the ensemble with a solo passage making staggering use of glottal manipulation. For 40 minutes or so they achieved a transcendent beauty until one of the nine, feeling ill, had to remove herself, requiring the others to react quickly. There were no audible glitches, and they were back at full strength for the closing sequence, but the on-the-fly adustments inevitably disrupted the narrative tension. The release of “Folklore” on the Hubro label later this year will offer a better chance to assess what is obviously a remarkable piece.

Not everything in the weekend worked perfectly. Dai Fujikura’s Symphony for Shamisen and Orchestra, performed by Hidejiro Honjoh and the Kristiansand SO, suffered from an inherent dynamic imbalance between solo instrument and orchestra, I wasn’t moved by the duo of the guitarist Steve Tibbetts and the percussionist Mark Anderson, Rymden had little new to offer, and a set by the Ensemble Modern demonstrated that while classical musicians are better at improvising than they used to be, the demands of free improvisation are better left to specialists. But Punkt is an opportunity to examine various directions in which music is heading and to enjoy the results in sympathetic surroundings. Its ambitions — summed up in Bang’s motto: “If you have some information that is useful, spread it” — have led to projects in more than two dozen other cities around the world, including Shanghai and Montreal, and there will be a three-day Birmingham Punkt Festival, featuring Norwegian and British musicians, next March.

Bang and Honoré, who are both in their early fifties, have worked together since they were teenagers, nurtured by a music-education system that prioritises open-mindedness and in turn passing on the results of their own experiences to an emerging new generation. They can also be very funny. As Bang spoke of their collaboration, he mentioned that in all the years of programming Punkt they have never had an argument. “I’ve been arguing all the time,” Honoré responded. “You just didn’t notice.”

Ornithology, Murakami-style

Bird Bossa

Supernatural visitations are a regular feature of the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, many of which also benefit from a well chosen musical soundtrack. He combines the two in an unusually intimate way in a new short story titled “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, published in the latest edition of Granta, the literary quarterly.

It begins with a student exercise in which the tale’s protagonist writes a review of an imaginary album, recorded in 1963, in which Charlie Parker — who has not, after all, died in 1955 — is accompanied by the piano of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the bass of Jimmy Garrison and the drums of Roy Haynes. The repertoire consists of well known Jobim tunes, including “Insensatez” and “Chega de Saudade”, and bossafied versions of a couple of Bird’s own classics, for which Hank Jones replaces the Brazilian at the keyboard.

The essay has been long forgotten when, after many years, its writer wanders into a small New York record store and, while browsing the racks, comes across what appears to be a bootleg version of the very album created by his own imagination. Later, while pondering on this mystery, he receives a visit from Parker himself.

Not wanting to spoil the reader’s pleasure, I’ll add only that it’s a delightful invention which reaffirms Murakami’s deep love of music — as lightly worn as ever, even when it provides the essence of the story. And the accompanying illustration, by Jon Gray, is perfect.

* Granta 148, a summer fiction special, is out now.

More music for a new society

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik - Jazzfest Berlin 2017 - 4 Nov -® Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-2

The first time I saw Christian Lillinger, with a trio called Hyperactive Kid at Berlin’s X Jazz festival a few years ago, I found it impossible to take him seriously. It was as if some New Romantic poseur had decided to become a free-jazz drummer for the night. The hair, the gestures: they got in the way of listening. Then I saw him a few more times, and it became impossible not to take him very seriously indeed. Not to think of him, in fact, as one of the most interesting musicians working in Europe today.

He has a septet called Grund: two saxophones (Toby Delius and Wanja Slavin or Pierre Borel), vibes (Christopher Dell), piano (Achim Kaufmann) and two basses (Jonas Westergaard and Robert Landfermann). If you don’t know the names of his sidemen, you should; they’re all exceptional improvisers. What makes the music so distinctive, however, is Lillinger’s composing. Imagine something Andrew Hill might be doing today and you might get an idea: knotty but satisfying themes, surprising structures, brilliant interplay.  When I saw them at the Jazz Kollektiv festival in Berlin a year after the Hyperactive Kid gig, it was one of those sets I never wanted to stop. (Another comparison might be with those intense but brilliantly organised quintet and septet sides Cecil Taylor recorded for Impulse in 1961: “Pots”, “Bulbs” and “Mixed”.)

Then, another year later, I saw Lillinger in two more groups: the quartet Amok Amor (with Slavin, the trumpeter Peter Evans and the bassist Petter Eldh) at the Vortex in London and a trio called Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, with Eldh and the pianist Kaja Draksler, at Jazzfest Berlin. In both cases the music was of phenomenally high quality and gave me the chance to appreciate the breathtaking detail of Lillinger’s playing. He is indeed hyperactive, flying around a kit that includes many auxiliary percussive devices with extraordinary deftness and precision, seldom settling on a pattern for more than a few seconds. But once your ears are attuned, they can discern the incredible responsiveness and egoless interaction he brings to the music.

His new album, Open Forms for Society, is something different: a series of 13 densely woven compositions and five improvisations for a group featuring Dell, Draksler, Landfermann and Eldh, plus Lucy Railton on cello, Antonis Anissegos on piano, Elias Stemeseder on piano and synthesiser, and Roland Neffe on tuned percussion. Again, these are all remarkable musicians, perfect for Lillinger’s seamless blend of composition and improvisation, so beautifully integrated — in a form of musical quilting — that you can’t tell where one bleeds into the other.

There are beautiful textures and unexpected juxtapositions of timbre, fragments of melody left hanging in space, sudden bursts of shuffling momentum, abrupt silences, a sense of alertness and inquiry in every ting, squiggle, sigh and shuffle. It’s not easy music, but neither it is at all forbidding: pieces like “Titan” and “Lakat” are disciplined essays in dramatic tension, creating grooves for a world that hasn’t yet quite come into existence.

* Grund’s albums are on the Pirouet, Clean Feed and Plaist labels. Albums by Amok Amor and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik are on the Intakt label. Open Form for Society is on Plaist. The photograph of Christian Lillinger was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake; more of her work can be found at http://www.camille-blake.com.

Laura Jurd and friends

Laura Jurd__7852-Credit - Monika S. Jakubowska

Laura Jurd is a prolific musician, so it was an unselfish gesture on her part to invite friends and collaborators to provide compositions to go alongside her own pieces on Stepping Back, Jumping In, her new release on the Edition label. Taking advantage of the palette offered by an unusual combination of instruments, the composers offer a variety of approaches that makes for a kaleidoscopic and satisfying experience.

The 14-piece line-up consists of a brass trio (Jurd’s trumpet, the trombones of Raphael Clarkson or Alex Paxton and the euphonium of Martin Lee Thompson), the Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram and Patrick Dawkins on violins, Richard Jones on viola and Cecilia Bignall on cello), Soosan Lolavar on santoor and Rob Luft on banjo and guitar, and a rhythm section containing the other members of Dinosaur, Jurd’s regular quartet: Elliot Galvin on piano, Conor Chaplin on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, plus Anja Laudval on synthesiser and electronics and Liz Exell on a second drum kit.

There’s a lot of scope, and Jurd is the first to take advantage with a bracing piece called “Jumping In”, its crisp syncopations occasionally disrupted by a sudden rallentando, her bright-toned trumpet to the fore. Galvin’s “Ishtar” locates a darker mood, with ululating violin and eerie glissandi over an intermittent slow groove carried by minimalist drums. Soosan Lolavar’s “I Am the Spring, You Are the Earth” begins serenely, the sound of her santoor (an Indian version of the hammered dulcimer) percolating gently through the drifting veils of strings, guitar and electronics. “Jump Cut Blues” is an interestingly deceptive title for a string quartet in which Jurd explores skittering pizzicato lines and unorthodox bowing techniques before plunging into a fast ostinato passage reminscent of Terry Riley’s work in the same field, and thence to a pensive conclusion. The austere opening textures of “Companion Species”, by Anja Laudval and Heida K. Johannesdottir, seem to grow out of the preceding piece, but soon mutate into something very like the surging, growling free-jazz shout-ups associated with the Jazz Composers Orchestra under Michael Mantler or Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra; when the sky clears, it’s to reveal a brisk, purposeful 4/4 groove over which Jurd solos — with a lucid lyricism reminiscent of Henry Lowther — against the low brass. Jurd’s closing “Stepping Back” begins like a brass band gatecrashing one of Terry Riley’s solo organ concerts before some lovely writing for the string players and a calliope effect add extra dimensions.

That’s a rapid tour through an album which shows what can be done with open minds, fresh ideas, an appropriate degree of ambition and a willingness to transcend idioms. Everyone involved deserves enormous credit — most of all Jurd, a musician who knows exactly what she is doing, and for whom Stepping Back, Jumping In represents something of a triumph.

* The photograph of Laura Jurd is by Monika S. Jakubowska.

Fat John & John Burch

Fat John Burch

In the UK between about 1962 and 1964 you could detect, beneath the excitement of the Beat Boom, the emergence of a music that made anything seemed possible. Largely inspired by the Charles Mingus of Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah!, a new generation of British musicians applied jazz techniques to the form and spirit of the blues in an effort to give their music a strong emotional impact. The nodal point for this was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, in which a guitarist who loved the music of the Delta chose to surround himself with a shifting cast of younger players who were listening to Mingus, Coltrane and Ornette. When these musicians moved on, some of them became a powerful force in the British rock movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The transitional period didn’t last long. Some of its most interesting bands never got beyond the clubs and pubs and the occasional BBC radio broadcast, and didn’t even get as far as releasing a record. That’s partially rectified by the appearance of new collections of mostly unheard music from two of them: the Fat John Sextet, led by the drummer John Cox, and the octet of the pianist John Burch.

Cox, born in Bristol in 1933, wasn’t all that fat; he was useful drummer who started out as a bandleader in London with a group playing “half mainstream, half trad”. That changed quite quickly. In 1962, with John Mumford on trombone and Dave Castle on alto, they had a Monday-night residency at the Six Bells in Chelsea, playing music of a more contemporary cast. Art Blakey’s “Theme” was among the three tracks they recorded at the Railway Hotel in West Hampstead for a Decca compilation titled Hot Jazz, Cool BeerIn December 1963, when they recorded an unreleased session at the Pye studio just off Marble Arch, the line-up featured Chris Pyne on trombone, Ray Warleigh on alto and flute, Tony Roberts on tenor, Pete Lemer on piano and the great Danny Thompson on bass.

Those two sessions make up Honesty, a new 2CD set that is, I think, the only memorial to John Cox’s career. The 75-minute Pye session includes such standards-to-be as Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie”,  Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not” and Junior Mance’s lovely “Jubilation”, indicating that the prevailing wind was blowing from a hard-bop direction, with occasional gusts of soul. More than half a century later, it holds up well. And while any opportunity to hear Warleigh’s eloquence is not to be missed, it’s also good to be reminded of what a very expressive player Tony Roberts has always been, and how scantily represented he is on record (Henry Lowther’s Child Song and Danny Thompson’s Whatever and Whatever Next being the only examples that spring to my mind). This is fine post-bop jazz with a hint, in Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul” and the Latin rhythms of which Cox was fond, of how the music would have sounded in a more informal live setting .

Pyne, Warleigh and Thompson had all been members of Blues Incorporated. So had Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who appear on Jazz Beat, by the Johnny Burch Octet. A fourth member of both Burch’s and Korner’s bands, the saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, was committed elsewhere when the band recorded a BBC Jazz Club session in 1963. Stan Robinson depped for him, joining a front completed by Mike Falana (trumpet), John Mumford (trombone), Bond (alto) and Miff Moule (baritone), with a rhythm section of Burch (piano), Bruce (double bass) and Baker (drums).

The music here has a rougher edge (and has survived with an appropriately raw sound quality) and at times it can be electrifying. I remember hearing this broadcast, and the version of “Early in the Morning” — a work song borrowed from Murderers Home, the Alan Lomax recording of prisoners’ songs at Parchman Farm — stayed with me through the decades until I heard it again. Apparently arranged (very effectively) by Baker, it was also in Blues Incorporated’s repertoire. Here it inspires good solos from all the horns and an absolutely incendiary one from Bond, very much on the form he showed a year or two earlier on Don Rendell’s Roarin’. Brewing up a fusion of Cannonball Adderley’s soulfulness and Eric Dolphy’s out-there angularity, he shows here what was lost when his instincts and appetites led him elsewhere. Burch’s nice arrangements of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” and Jimmy Heath’s “All Members” are other highlights of this session. Two years later Burch led a different line-up on a BBC Band Beat session. The mood on tracks like “The Champ”, “Oleo”, “Milestones” and “Stolen Moments” is relatively restrained by comparison with that of the Bond/Bruce/Baker line-up, but there is fine work from Hank Shaw (trumpet), Ken Wray (trombone), Ray Swinfield (alto) and Peter King on tenor, and the bass is in the hands of the young Jeff Clyne. The approach is more polished, and the fidelity is higher.

The vinyl version of Jazz Beat has eight tracks, three from the first session and five from the second. The CD has six from 1963 and lots of outtakes from the later broadcast, including Tony Hall’s introductions. I wrote the sleeve note but since no money changed hands I feel no embarrassment in drawing your attention to a release that, along with the Fat John CD, helps to fill an important gap in the history of British jazz. Within a short time, of course, some of the people featured on these records were taking their place in bands heard around the world.

Neither of the leaders is still with us. To judge from Simon Spillett’s notes for Honesty, Fat John led an eventful life after his career in jazz came to an end. Burch, a year older than Cox, died in 2006, his life having been made reasonably secure by the royalties from a song called “Preach and Teach”, which appeared on the B-side of “Yeh Yeh”, Georgie Fame’s No 1 hit, earning as much in songwriting royalties as the A-side. Many deserve a break like that; few get it.

* Honesty is out now on Turtle Records. Jazz Beat is on the Rhythm and Blues label: the LP came out on Record Store Day and the CD is released on April 26.

Guidi plays Ferré

Giovanni Guidi Avec le Temps

From left: Francesco Bearzatti, Giovanni Guidi, Thomas Morgan, João Lobo and Roberto Cecchetto (photo: Clément Puig)

Léo Ferré’s “Avec le temps” is one of the most exquisite sad songs ever written (Avec le temps va tout s’en va / On oublie le visage et l’on oublie la voix…). Giovanni Guidi is a lyric poet of the piano. The combination of the two, assembled for the title track of Guidi’s new album, is a natural. The pianist’s touch is at its most effecting on a piece like this, with never a note wasted as he searches for the song’s essence. But it’s not just him and Ferré. It’s Thomas Morgan, the double bassist who combines Gary Peacock’s ardent fluidity with Charlie Haden’s deep soul, suffused with a pensive quality that is all his own. It’s also João Lobo, who adds a dimension that makes this group something more than a conventional piano trio, his discreet splashes, scrapes and sussurations disrupting the perfection in a subtle and highly creative way.

It’s a seductive start, but the album has much more to offer. On the second track, guests appear. The first is the guitarist Roberto Cecchetto, whose opening duet with Morgan on the modal “15th of August” reminds me of Gabor Szabo and Al Stinson in that great Chico Hamilton group of the early ’60s. The comparison extends to the other guest, Francesco Bearzatti, who turns up later in the same piece, playing tenor saxophone with some of the contemplative quality of the mature Charles Lloyd, like a Coltrane who finally found that inner peace. Lobo’s playing behind Morgan’s thrumming figures on the closing section of this is so stunning that you just don’t want it to stop.

Gradually the album travels further out, very interestingly so as Bearzatti’s Aylerish squalls on “Postludium and a Kiss” add another disruptive element to roil the prevailing balladry before, in a thrilling process, the other musicians rise to match his energy. “No Taxi”, by the trio, turns in another direction, towards a meeting of Thelonious Monk’s angles and Lennie Tristano’s seamless flow, with Bearzatti playing the Charlie Rouse/Warne Marsh role. “Caino” is a pre-dawn tone poem, with fine shading from Cecchetto’s guitar, and “Johnny the Liar” feels like a continuation of the same dream-state. “Ti Stimo”, a Guidi favourite, has a lovely rustic simplicity that Bill Frisell would enjoy, and “Tomasz” — a dedication to the late trumpeter Tomasz Stanko — finds the trio summoning the ravishing beauty heard on their previous albums, City of Broken Dreams and This Is The Day, both released, like this new one, on ECM.

As far as I know, Guidi, Morgan and Lobo have played together in London only twice, both times at the Rosenfeld Porcini art gallery. Someone should bring them back as soon as possible. This is one of the finest groups in contemporary jazz, and Avec le temps is not to be missed.

Gebhard Ullmann’s Basement Research

Gebhard Ullmann Jazzfest Berlin 2017 © Camille Blake - Berliner Festspiele-4

When Peter Brötzmann declined — in somewhat unnecessarily brusque terms, I thought — my invitation to join Tyshawn Sorey in a late-night duo performance at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017, my thoughts very quickly turned to Gebhard Ullmann, the highly experienced saxophonist, composer and bandleader who deserves to be a great deal better known outside his native Germany. The way it worked out, I was only sorry that I hadn’t asked Ullmann first. He and Sorey (the festival’s artist in residence) had never met or spoken before; their set was completely improvised, and provided a perfect exposition of what magic such musicians can create together in the right circumstances. I won’t forget it, and neither will anyone else who was in the Seitenbühne at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele that night.

Ullmann is one of those musicians whose inquisitive nature leads him to explore all sorts of environments. One of them is a multinational quintet called Basement Research, in which he plays tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and is joined by Steve Swell on trombone, Julian Argüelles on baritone saxophone, Pascal Niggenkemper on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Their new album, Impromptus and Other Short Works, is just out.

When he sent me a copy, Ullmann expressed his puzzlement that the early reviews had described the music as “free jazz”. “I’m not sure I get it,” he wrote. “Maybe times changed and now for the average people this is free jazz. Not that I have a problem with the term … but I do have a lot of other ‘free’ projects while this one focuses a lot on my compositions. I see myself here in the lineage of Mingus transferred using my and today’s composition techniques — but maybe Mingus would be call a free jazz musician today as well. Strange.”

Whatever you’d call Mingus, you could call Ullmann as well. To me his pieces for this group take their cue from Blues & Roots and Oh Yeah! — the bands with three or four low or low-ish horns, no trumpet or other high-pitched instrument on top, the spontaneity of their interpretation and the occasional burst of collective polyphony ensured by Mingus’s method of teaching them the pieces by ear. I doubt that’s how Ullmann does it, but whatever his method he achieves a similar level of warmth, flexibility and sheer humanity.

The tunes are often bluesy, sometimes hymn-like, encouraging each voice to interact with the others. Some of them have 12-tone components, adding a tart flavour to the underlying bluesiness. Each of the 11 tracks lasts between two and a half and six minutes, and the sense of compression may remind you pleasingly of the sort of event-density jazz records used to have before the invention of the LP.

Individually, the musicians are ceaselessly creative. I always love to hear Argüelles on baritone, and his solo on the opening “Gospel” is nothing short of magnificent. On “Lines — Impromptu #2” Swell reminds me of a young Roswell Rudd, with a wider repertoire of extended techniques. Ullmann’s impassioned and beautifully tapered bass clarinet solo on “Almost Twenty-Eight” receives excellent support from Niggenkemper and from the other two horns, who supply the sort of lightly sketched backgrounds that turn up throughout this very carefully structured album. Every track benefits from the presence of Cleaver, who is one of the most stimulating drummers around; here he gets a warm, slightly fuzzy sound from his snare-drum and tom-toms that suits the overall picture perfectly.

If you don’t know Ullmann’s music, this album is a very welcoming place to start. What it’s called is completely beside the point.

* The photograph of Gebhard Ullmann was taken in Berlin in 2017 by Camille Blake. The Basement Research album is on the WhyPlayJazz label.

Sarah Tandy at Ronnie Scott’s

Sarah Tandy at RS 1

The first time I heard the pianist Sarah Tandy in person, with Camilla George’s band at the Vortex, I was struck how far she went inside the music. As she improvised, mind and body seemed completely engaged at an unusually deep level. I’ve heard her a number of times now —  with Maisha, with her own trio and with the quintet with which she launched her debut album in London last night — and that impression remains just as strong.

Her keyboard technique is pretty impressive. She was a prodigy in the classical field — a finalist in the BBC’s young musician of the year competition — before turning to jazz while studying Eng Lit at Cambridge. As an improviser, therefore, she can make her hands do pretty well anything her mind suggests. In jazz, this is not invariably an advantage. But what Tandy does at all times, however fast her fingers are flying, is to convey a sense of soul and lyricism. It was no surprise to me when she mentioned, during a conversation a couple of years ago, that she admires Wynton Kelly, a pianist whose ability to convey joy through his playing was second to none.

Last night she led a band consisting of Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Binker Golding on tenor, Mutale Chashi on double bass and bass guitar, and Femi Koleoso on drums. That’s the line-up heard on her album, Infection in the Sentence, which is released at the end of this week by Jazz re:freshed. When she asked Ronnie Scott’s if she could launch the album at the club, she was shocked to be offered two 45-minute sets. “The album’s only 50 minutes long,” she told the audience, “so we’re going to have to get creative.”

It’s hard to imagine them being anything else. Tandy’s tunes were consistently stimulating — particularly the extended opener, “Under the Skin”, which included a ferocious section of very fast straight-time blowing and ended with a delicate fade. For “Timelord” she switched to electric piano, locating an irresistible late-night/big-city groove. Her rousing arrangement of “Afro-Blue” was more Mongo Santamaria (who wrote it) than John Coltrane (who made it famous); a packed house loved it, responding to the relaxed interaction between the musicians, and to the sense that although the music is serious, it’s still fun to play like this.

When she had a residency for her trio at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, I used to wait for her to play “Everything Happens to Me”, the Matt Dennis/Tom Adair ballad first recorded by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, an exceptionally beautiful and poignant song with which she seemed to have a special rapport. She didn’t play it last night, but she did open the second set with her own “Half Blue”, a graceful solo piano piece which demonstrated the qualities of touch and voicing that help to make her so special.

She also loves to hit a groove, and there was a lot of that last night. It never lacked subtlety, thanks to the endlessly inventive Koleoso — who blends Billy Higgins’s floating grace with Alphonse Mouzon’s brusque power, adding flourishes of his own — and the excellent Chashi, who manipulated his bass guitar on a couple of tunes with the purring authority of Marcus Miller.

A motif of both sets was the way pieces often ended with a long, carefully improvised collective diminuendo tapering to silence; so much more dramatic than a crash-bang-wallop coda. And at the end of the night the groove changed, with Maurice-Grey singing “You Are My Sunshine”: not the way Ray Charles or Sheila Jordan and George Russell did it, but with a New Orleans second-line feel. A terrific night, and a launch that should give impetus not just to a single album but to an important career.

Riot in Dalston

Riot in Dalston

There are many worthwhile things going on in jazz at the moment, and one of them is the collaboration with open-minded young musicians from the straight world. Last night at Cafe Oto there were two such efforts, both featuring an eight-piece contingent from the Riot Ensemble, a London-based group who might be compared, I suppose, to Berlin’s Stargaze Orchestra.

The first half of the evening began with two members of the ensemble, Ausiàs Garrigós on bass clarinet and Amy Green on baritone saxophone, playing a fully composed piece called ‘We Speak Etruscan’, written 20 years ago by Lee Hyla, a New York composer who died in 2014. Beautifully conceived as two voices twirling around each other, it was performed with an irresistible momentum and a virtuosity that left plenty of room for the human sound of the instruments.

Then came the other members of the group — Mandira de Saram and Marie Schreer (violins), Jenny Ames (viola), Louise McMonagle (cello), Marianne Schofield (double bass) and Sam Wilson (percussion) — to play a sequence of pieces by Alexander Hawkins, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, with Hawkins on piano and Evan Parker on soprano saxophone. Parker led off with unaccompanied solo, quietly joined by the strings and a bowed vibraphone, holding a cloud-like chord. Already the textures were new and gorgeous.

The four pieces making the continuous sequence could be played in any order, discreetly cued by the conductor. The music shifted tone and weight constantly, using extended instrumental techniques (including one fantastic passage of drifting harmonics from the strings), and occasionally making space for solos, including one from Hawkins in which he used devices on the piano’s strings to get a kalimba effect. The music was intense and rarified, but never overbearing.

The Riot Ensemble musicians returned for the second half, this time to work with the trio known as ENEMY — Kit Downes on piano, Petter Eldh on bass and James Maddren on drums — on pieces written and arranged by Downes and Eldh. This was a very different formula: much more predetermined, much more vertical and horizontal structure, but enormously dynamic and involving, and greatly appreciated by the audience.

Everything played at Cafe Oto is professionally recorded. This was one of those nights when you leave with the hope that what you’ve just heard will eventually be released, so that you can enjoy it again and think about it some more.