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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

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.

Que Vola?

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It’s so cold this morning that I’m typing this with gloves on (fingerless ones, knitted by my daughter, since you ask). But all the ambiant heat I need is being provided by the debut CD from a Franco-Cuban band called Que Vola?, who stir new and inspiring life into an old formula.

The Cuban influence on jazz has been coming and going for the best part of a century, getting its biggest boost in the 1940s, when the immortal conguero Chano Pozo joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band. The story of Que Vola? — literally, “what flies?”, or “wha’ happen?” in the vernacular — began in 2012, when the trombonist Fidel Fourneyron visited Havana and was seized by a desire to blend jazz horns with the deep rhythms he was hearing in clubs.

Back in Paris, he added three Cuban percussionists — Adonis Panter Calderón, Ramón Tamayo Martínez and Barbara Crespo Richard — to an assembly of local musicians: Aymeric Avice (trumpet), Hugues Mayot and Benjamin Dousteyssier (saxophones), Bruno Ruder (electric piano), Thibaud Soulas (double bass) and Elie Duris (drums). As I say, it’s not a particularly new idea, but Fourneyron has come up with a different sound, a new set of textures and balances, as you can hear here and here. The effect is something akin to Grounation, the classic album in which Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari fused nyabinghi rhythms with post-bop jazz soloists 45 years ago.

What makes Fourneyron’s approach different from most earlier Latin-jazz fusions, I think, is that he accepts the Cuban rhythms at their most complex and sophisticated. He doesn’t try to water them down for a popular audience, even one familiar with salsa, but matches them to the complexity and sophistication of the contemporary jazz musician. What, really, could be closer to the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo?

* Que Vola? is released on January 25 on the Nø Førmat label. The band will appear at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney) in Stoke Newington on April 10, with Oumou Sangaré and Gérald Toto.

Joseph Jarman 1937-2019

joseph jarman

By a coincidence that seems extraordinary, at least to me, Joseph Jarman’s death on Wednesday, at the age of 81, took place two days after a group of London-based artists had performed his 1966 poem-with-music “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” to a packed audience at Cafe Oto. Dante Micheaux read Jarman’s words beautifully, sharing the stage with the singer Elaine Michener, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Jason Yarde on saxophones and electronics, Alex Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. It was a surprising and welcome choice in an unbroken two-hour set that also included works by Jeanne Lee, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp and Jayne Cortez. (Here is Mike Hobart’s excellent FT review of the gig.)

Jarman, who died in a New Jersey home for actors, spent his last decades as a teacher of Shin Buddhism, having significantly reduced his involvement in musical performance from about 1993 onwards. He’ll be best remembered as a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which evolved in the mid-’60s out of Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet and Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, in both of which he played. This made him an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, now into its sixth decade.

Like many other great musicians — including Gene Ammons, Bo Diddley, Johnny Griffin, Dinah Washington, John Gilmore, Nat King Cole, Richard Davis, Eddie Harris, Freddie Below, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Hartman —  he had been taught at DuSable High, on Chicago’s South Side, by the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, the school’s music instructor from 1935 to 1962. His instrument at that time was the snare drum, which he played in the school band.

He began studying the saxophone and woodwinds while stationed in Germany with the US Army from 1955 to 1958. On returning to Chicago he met Mitchell and Malachi Favors, and his course was set. He became part of a music that absorbed, metabolised and reimagined everything from the country blues to John Cage, breaking down the conventions and creating new approaches. The impact of their arrival in Europe in 1969, together with Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and others, has yet to be properly assessed.

I was fortunate enough to hear the Art Ensemble on several occasions in what I suppose we think of as their classic incarnation — notably in Central Park’s open-air Wollman Auditorium in 1973, their first New York concert, when they played the epic “People in Sorrow”, and at the Roundhouse in London later in that decade — and on both occasions I had my consciousness rearranged in a very fulfilling way. With their slogan “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”, they took ownership of what they were doing with a visionary confidence that continues to exert an influence on new generations.

In her book As Serious As Your Life, Val Wilmer describes Jarman as “poet, philosopher and polemicist as well as musician.” On his last studio recording with the Art Ensemble, Sirius Calling (Pi, 2004), he opened a saxophone-and-drums duet with Don Moye by speaking these words:

Every day is a perfect day

Every moment a perfect moment

Every second a perfect second

We can see complete darkness simply by closing our eyes

We can see complete light by truly opening our eyes

* The photograph of Joseph Jarman is from the cover of his first album, Song For (Delmark, 1967), and was taken by Joe Banks.

Mark Lockheart’s ‘Days on Earth’

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Most of the interesting new big-band music these days tends to be of the experimental variety, from Darcy James Argue to Ingrid Laubrock. Too much is the kind of warmed-over bombast you get from people steeped in the tradition of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and the University of North Texas Lab Band. So it’s always welcome to come across someone using the established language to say new things, as Mark Lockheart does with great success in Days on Earth, a large-scale work for sextet and orchestra premiered at Milton Court in London last night.

Lockheart (above), the saxophonist and composer who first attracted attention with Loose Tubes 30 years ago and has since played with Polar Bear, Perfect Houseplants and others, was leading the distinguished core group, which included John Parricelli (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Tom Herbert (bass), Seb Rochford (drums). John Ashton Thomas conducted the 33-piece Guildhall Studio Orchestra: 14 violins, four violas, three cellos, harp, four woodwind, six brass and percussion.

Normally I don’t like doing that jazz-critic thing of describing a piece of music by triangulating it with a couple of other things it resembles, but I don’t see the harm in mentioning here that Lockheart, whether he meant to or not, has drawn together aspects of Eddie Sauter’s work behind Stan Getz on Focus with Gil Evans’s setting for Wayne Shorter on “The Barbara Song”. Which is not to suggest that Lockheart’s seven-part suite is a concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra, which it is not, or that it reflects the early 1960s, the time when those works were made. The infectious grooves alone — and there are many of them scattered throughout Days on Earth — are definitely contemporary.

The use of his resources to create new textures, however, would do credit to Sauter or Evans. I heard some imaginative groupings; two examples would be bass clarinet and double bass repeating a staccato motif as an undercurrent, and a clarinet against harp and plucked cellos . The big ensemble passages were perfectly integrated and, thanks as much to the skill and enthusiasm of the students in the orchestra as much as the pros in the rhythm section, swung like mad. That wouldn’t have happened half a century ago.

Days on Earth was conceived as a big statement: “a defining moment for me,” the composer says, “not just in the scale of the instrumental forces but also the culmination of many musical (and life) journeys.” Without burdening the listener, in both live and recorded forms it feels like a thoughtful outpouring of human emotions, choosing to deploy beauty as a response to confusion, carefully channeled through great artistry. Lockheart’s own tenor solos were exquisitely formed and perfectly flighted — it’s no news that he has a singularly beautiful tone — and some of the students, including the violinist Nicole Petrus Barracks and the harpist Lise Vandersmissen, made striking individual contributions.

Before the interval, Lockheart led nine other student musicians through five of his earlier pieces, showcasing the powerful bass of Joe Lee and the alto of Asha Parkinson, whose quietly intense closing solo — a moment of wonderfully understated drama — reminded me of how impressive she was in the Guildhall School’s concert presentation of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly a couple of years ago.

Pretty much a five-star evening, then, which really deserves to be repeated. And in its CD form, recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio and released next week on the Edition label, Days on Earth is definitely a five-star album, demanding a place at the forefront of Britain’s extremely active contemporary jazz scene.

Herbie Nichols at 100

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This week the Stone in New York City is hosting a four-night celebration of the centenary of Herbie Nichols, the composer and pianist who remained in obscurity during his lifetime but has since, thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of such admirers as Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, Buell Neidlinger, Steve Lacy and George Lewis, been acknowledged as one of the most interesting figures of his era.

I read about Nichols before I heard him, as one of the figures profiled in A. B. Spellman’s great book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, published in 1967, four years after his death from leukemia at the age of 44. By placing his story alongside those of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean, all of them much better known, the author granted him a certain standing. In career terms it was a tale of woe, very largely, but it seemed clear that public neglect never dimmed the light of Nichols’s creativity.

Then I got to hear his music — which wasn’t so easy at the time — and, like everybody else who “discovered” him for themselves, immediately recognised his great combination of complete originality and total accessibility. He was kin to Thelonious Monk, quite evidently, and also to Elmo Hope and Dick Twardzik, but with a different outlook.

Here are “23 Skidoo”, “Step Tempest” and “Shuffle Montgomery”, all from the two-volume set of 10-inch LPs recorded for the Blue Note label in 1955, titled The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums (and great abstract cover art by Martin Craig, proving that there was visual life at Blue Note before Reid Miles). And here’s “Love Gloom Cash Love”, the title track of another trio album recorded for Bethlehem three years later, with his old friend George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums.

So that’s Herbie Nichols, born on January 3, 1919 to parents who’d come to New York from St Kitt’s and Trinidad. These pieces are typical in that their characteristic jauntiness seems to be a light disguise for more nuanced feelings. He was great with titles — “House Party Starting”, “Terpsichore”, “S’Crazy Pad”, “Hangover Triangle” — but even better at coming up with combinations of melody, rhythm and harmony that sound completely fresh but also like something that’s been there all your life.

According to Spellman, he wrote a lot of poetry, too, particularly in hard times. I’d love to read that.

* The photograph of Herbie Nichols is by Francis Wolff.

Eric Dolphy, still out there

Eric Dolphy - Photo by © Hans Harzheim

When I think about Eric Dolphy, I wonder what he would be doing now, had he not died of undiagnosed diabetes in a Berlin hospital in 1964, aged 36. Quite a lot of the more adventurously astringent music to be heard today at Cafe Oto in London, The Stone in New York or Sowieso in Berlin could be described as Dolphyesque, in that it launches itself from a jazz platform in search of a relationship with other idioms, in particular the techniques of various forms of modern classical music.

He would have turned 90 this year, and there’s no doubt that he would have used those lost years productively, extending his already formidable vocabulary on alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, continuing to develop a personal improvising voice that — like his great contemporary Ornette Coleman, but in a very different way — moved beyond the influence of Charlie Parker, and exploring the possibilities of new instrumental groupings and compositional techniques. Just imagine a Dolphy quintet album with Ambrose Akinmusire, Alexander Hawkins, Thomas Morgan and Tyshawn Sorey!

A new release from Resonance Records provides a fine illustration of the things he was up to in the couple of years before he died, and of how modern he still sounds. After an apprenticeship with Chico Hamilton, Dolphy came to the attention of the jazz world primarily through his work with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, but he found a path to his own music, to be heard on such albums as Out There (Prestige, 1960), the marvellous series of quintet recordings at the Five Spot with Booker Little from 1961 (also Prestige), and the celebrated Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964).

The Resonance collection, called Musical Prophet and currently available as a triple vinyl set, is based on two days of studio sessions supervised by the producer Alan Douglas for his own label in New York over two days in July 1963. The sessions featured various instrumental combinations from a pool of mostly young players: Woody Shaw (trumpet), Sonny Simmons (alto), Prince Lawsha (flute), Clifford Jordan (tenor), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Richard Davis or Eddie Kahn (bass), J. C. Moses or Charles Moffett (drums), and the veteran Garvin Bushell on bassoon. It seems to have been typical of Dolphy’s generosity of spirit that he made solo space for other musicians who played his instruments (Simmons in particular), and featured compositions other than his own.

Two albums, Conversations and Iron Man, were issued from these sessions, but the new set also contains outtakes of all the original tracks, and more besides. Given the relatively small size of Dolphy’s output during his short recording career, anything new is particularly welcome, and it’s a treat to hear — for instance — a pithier version of Lawsha’s Caribbean-inflected “Music Matador”, two extra takes of the solo alto treatment of the standard “Love Me”, and the astonishingly inventive solos by Dolphy and the 18-year-old Shaw on an alternate take of “Mandrake” that is stronger than the one originally selected.

There’s also a bonus track from another session: a 15-minute piece called “A Personal Statement”, originally included under the title “Jim Crow” on an album culled from random tapes left by Dolphy with some friends and released by Blue Note in 1987 under the title Other Aspects. It now transpires that this striking piece was written by the pianist Bob James for his own trio, plus Dolphy and a counter-tenor, David Schwarz, and recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in March 1964, shortly before Dolphy left for what turned out to be his final trip to Europe. The fact that Dolphy didn’t write it, and that James would soon (after recording a trio album for ESP) turn away from the avant-garde towards an engagement with the more commercial form of jazz that made him famous, doesn’t make it any less interesting; it also means that Dolphy recognised the promise in these young musicians, who were students at the time.

For me, however, the heart of this set is the second of its six sides, entirely devoted to duets between Dolphy’s bass clarinet and the bass of Richard Davis: two virtuosi in conversation. The first of the three tracks, the originally released 13-minute take of “Alone Together”, is a known masterpiece (and there is another take, previously unreleased, on the final disc). The second and the third pieces, two takes of a composition by the pianist Roland Hanna called “Muses for Richard Davis”, slowly explore the timbral relationship between the two instruments with enormous care, subtlety and beauty. You can ignore the track breaks and treat the side as one half-hour piece: half an hour of genius.

* Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 Studio Session is out now as a vinyl limited edition and will be released on CD on January 25. The photograph above, by the German jazz photographer Hans Harzheim, appears in the lavish booklet, along with the work of Francis Wolff, Val Wilmer and other photographers, and many essays and interviews with musicians whose lives Eric Dolphy touched.

Jazz nights in London

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Maisha at Ghost Notes

There was a lot of excitement in the air as Nubya Garcia, saxophone in hand, squirmed her way through the crowd to join the other members of Maisha on the low stage at Ghost Notes in Peckham the other night. The whooping and cheering had already started, and it didn’t stop as the London-based band set up a series of grooves that kept the audience moving as well as listening through the long set, part of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.

This is jazz in London in 2018, or at least the part of it that is attracting a new audience. The streets of Peckham and Hackney are its incubators, and it is made by people to whom grime, hip-hop and Afro-Beat are as familiar as bebop and the ’60s avant-garde. Under their leader, the drummer Jake Long, Maisha reminded me at various times of Pharoah Sanders, Osibisa and the Santana of Abraxas and Caravanserai. Garcia, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the pianist Sarah Tandy were the main soloists. Occasionally, as on the beautiful tune called “Azure”, it was possible to hear the two string quartets, one set up at each end of the long stage, on either side of the basic seven-piece band.

What most amazed me was how this audience has clearly acquired a habit of cheering not just the end of an improvisation but individual moments with a solo: a particularly resonant phrase, or a tricky high-register figure. If you were being cynical, you might say that this was like the 1940s, when tenor-players such as Big Jay McNeely walked the bar, goading the audience with squeals and honks. And it’s true that a young soloist might be encouraged by that kind of enthusiasm into a adopting a less reflective approach. But there’s more to it than that. And on their first album, There Is a Place, which they were launching at this gig, they showed that they are capable of as much subtlety and seriousness as anyone could require, while keeping that groove going.

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Moses Boyd Exodus in Islington

That same feeling was in the air at Islington Assembly Hall a couple of nights later, in a gig by Moses Boyd’s Exodus that was not technically part of the festival but was very much of it in spirit. In this venue the band were not as close to the capacity audience in physical terms, but once again they managed to communicate very directly through the medium of storming rhythms and Boyd’s very engaging compositions: his irresistible “Rye Lane Shuffle” feels like a theme tune for the whole movement.

The trumpet-tenor-trombone front line was driven by Boyd’s astonishingly fluent drumming and Theon Cross’s tuba, a one-man perpetual motion machine, while Artie Zaits played some nice solos in a style with inflections from Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. After two or three tunes Boyd introduced a group of bata drummers, who performed a couple of chants, with Kevin Haynes taking the lead. Then the rest of the band returned and Haynes picked up his alto saxophone, sounding a little like Dudu Pukwana on “Marooned in SE6”, the highlight of the set and one of the strongest tracks on Displaced Diaspora, the band’s debut album, which I can’t recommend too highly.

Empirical Old St

Empirical at Old Street

For me, this was the defining vibe of this year’s festival. The event’s other key characteristic, every year, is superabundance. You can’t hope to make it to everything that sounds attractive, and I was sorry to miss Tandy’s solo set at the Purcell Room, Garcia’s own gig at the Vortex, the altoist Cassie Kinoshi’s band at the Vortex, two of the three nights of Ethan Iverson’s King Place residency, and much else. But on Friday evening I did make it to the Old Street subway, where Empirical spent a week doing pop-up sets for commuters and other passers-by in a very nice loft-style space.

Material from their fine new album, Indifference Culture, was played, Lewis Wright’s “Persephone” and Shane Forbes’s “Celestial Being” particularly catching the ear. As always, their staggering level of eloquence, creativity and energy captivated not just those familiar with their sophisticated post-bop language but everyone exposed to the perfectly honed and balanced collective sound of Nathaniel Facey’s alto, Wright’s vibes, Tom Farmer’s bass and Forbes’s drums.

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Amir ElSaffar at Kings Place

So much that was good about the 2018 festival was home-grown, and congratulations are due to John Cumming, its founder and outgoing artistic director, for recognising and encouraging British musicians. Of the visitors, I particularly enjoyed Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound (above), a large ensemble with which the Iraqi American trumpeter/composer explores a blend of microtonal maqam music and jazz. ElSaffar also sang and played santur, while Nasheet Waits (drums), George Ziadeh (oud), J. D. Parran (bass saxophone), Miles Okazaki (guitar) and, particularly, the Norwegian tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen made powerful contributions. Their album, Not Two, is another that I’d strongly recommend, if you can find it.

Jaimie Branch

Jaimie Branch at Cafe Oto

Cafe Oto was packed for Jaimie Branch, the Chicago trumpeter, leading her Fly or Die quartet through a set of high drama, featuring the material from the group’s eponymous album. Branch’s sound on the horn goes back to the distant origins of jazz, much like Donald Ayler’s did, but the bold, brassy attack is deployed with devastating control, particularly when she switches between two microphones: one dry, the other drenched in reverb (which sounds like a gimmick, but isn’t). The cello/bass combination was used with great subtlety, and Chad Taylor once again showed himself to be among the era’s most stimulating drummers.

Bill Frisell‘s solo concert at the Cadogan Hall was a joy from beginning to end: like sitting in the great guitarist’s living room listening to him play for his own pleasure. Apart from the lovely pieces based on country and folk cadences, I enjoyed a version of “Goldfinger” that switched between the styles of Wes Montgomery and Vic Flick, gorgeous readings of “Lush Life” and “What the World Needs Now”, a perfectly flighted snatch of “In a Silent Way”, and an eye-moistening encore of “In My Life” and “Give Peace a Chance”.

To close the festival week, I went to Kings Place to hear a vinyl repress of Joe Harriott‘s Abstract, played over a very good sound system and introduced by John Cumming, with a subsequent commentary by Soweto Kinch. I know the eight tracks of this 1962 masterpiece by heart, but I wanted to be made to sit and listen to it in undistracted silence. Every note sounded brand-new, just as startling in its freshness and beauty as it was five and a half decades ago. Then I went home to watch the final of the BBC’s Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition, won by a 22-year-old tenor saxophonist from Handsworth in Birmingham called Xhosa Cole. A life playing jazz is not an easy choice, but it seems to me that he couldn’t be joining the scene at a better time.

* Maisha’s There Is a Place is on the Brownswood label. Moses Boyd Exodus’s Displaced Diaspora is on Exodus Records. Empirical’s Indifference Culture is on Empirical Music. Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound: Not Two is on the New Amsterdam Records. Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die is on the International Anthem label.

Entangled in Berlin

Irreversible Entanglements - Jazzfest Berlin 2018 - Haus der Berliner Festspiele (C) Camille Bl ake - Berliner Festspiele -8

Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele (photo: Camille Blake)

I’ve spent the past few days thinking about the enormous wealth of music I heard last weekend during the first edition of Jazzfest Berlin curated by Nadin Deventer, who selected some very fine artists, devised interesting combinations and highlighted provocative themes while moving the festival’s furniture around sufficiently to make the event feel fresh and new.

Among the things I carried away with me included a surprise encore on the final night with Mary Halvorson joining Bill Frisell for a lovely guitar duet on “The Maid With the Flaxen Hair”, the title track of their highly recommended recent album on the Tzadik label; Kara-Lis Coverdale’s dramatic and absorbing pipe-organ solo recital in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church; Jaimie Branch’s electrifyingly bold trumpet solos with a quartet driven by the drummer Chad Taylor; the fantastically creative cello solos of Tomeka Reid with Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star International and a 12-piece Art Ensemble of Chicago; Kim Myhr’s mini-orchestra of strumming guitars; and Jason Moran’s centenary tribute to the soldier/bandleader James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, which moved me more than I had expected.

In a festival-related event, there was also a chance to see the artist Arthur Jafa’s “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions” at the gallery of the collector Julia Stoschek. Having missed it at the Serpentine Gallery last year, I was particularly struck by one of the video pieces, which cut together YouTube footage of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins, and an electrifying 10-minute performance by the gospel singer Lateria Wooten, singing “Nothing But the Blood” with the late Thomas Whitfield’s choir (which you can watch here).

The solo of the festival was played by Ingrid Laubrock with Mary Halvorson’s wonderful octet. Her tenor saxophone emerged from the warm textures of a ballad called, apparently, “No. 60” (the composer numbers her tunes before assigning them names), like Ben Webster taking his turn in an Ellington small group 80 years ago. The tone, the trajectory, the internal balance of the improvisation were all simply perfect. It was a moment of absolute beauty and the effect was spine-tingling,

But most of all I came away with the memory of Moor Mother, otherwise known as Camae Ayewa, a spoken-word artist from Chicago who was heard in several contexts, most notably with her group, Irreversible Entanglements, featuring Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Keir Neuringer on alto, Luke Stewart on bass and Tcheser Holmes on drums. Her fierce, declamatory recitations seemed like the logical evolution of the poetry-and-jazz explorations of Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez. Over a highly expressive and flexible band, she drove her words home with a caustic power intensified by a command of economy and repetition echoing that of old blues singers. And then, after a short interval, she appeared in a duo with the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell, who played his sopranino saxophone as she riffed on phrases borrowed from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Here we had the old and the new, speaking directly to today’s world.

A Mingus discovery

Mingus poster

While listening to Louis Moholo, Jason Yarde, John Edwards and Alex Hawkins come very close to taking the roof off Cafe Oto the other night, I started thinking about Charles Mingus. The ingredients of the music were so similar: the warmth, the drive, the spontaneity, the shouted cues, the sudden turns from brusque lyricism to maximum intensity, an extreme sophistication drenched in the blues at its most elemental, the way the past was metabolised into the present, the feeling that this summed up why jazz really is different from everything else.

Then, the next morning, an unexpected package dropped on to the mat: a five-CD box called Jazz in Detroit / Strata Concert Gallery / 46 Selden, a recording of a club gig by one of Mingus’s later quintets in February 1973, previously unheard and released with the approval of Sue Mingus, the great bassist’s widow and guardian of his legacy.

The recording was made by Roy Brooks, the fine drummer who was a member of the Mingus band during this period, while Dannie Richmond was off exploring the world of rock. A Detroit native who had replaced Louis Hayes in Horace Silver’s quintet in 1959, Brooks died in 2005; it is to his widow, Hermine, that we owe the discovery of the tapes.

Mingus went through something of a personal and artistic trough at the end of the ’60s. I saw him at the Village Gate one night in, I think, 1971, playing with a complete absence of fire and commitment — a devastatingly desolate experience for one who had grown up on the volcanic excitements of Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah. By 1973, however, he had recovered his appetite for battle and regained all his old characteristics, as we can hear in his Philharmonic Hall and Let My Children Hear Music recordings from the previous year.

Just about everything that was great about Mingus was on display at the Strata Concert Gallery at 46 Selden Street in Detroit’s Midtown. The band is superb: Joe Gardner on trumpet, big-toned and confident; John Stubblefield on tenor, bringing to mind the fluent bluesiness of Hank Mobley; the mercurial Don Pullen on piano, brilliantly spanning the eras as many of Mingus’s pianists (Jaki Byard, Roland Hanna) were expected to do; and Brooks himself, providing an unflagging, explosive drive.

The repertoire includes Mingus favourites such as “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress (Then Blue Silk)”, and a handful of those compositions that demonstrate how beautifully he could structure and pace a fine melodic line: “Celia”. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, “Dizzy Profile” and “The Man Who Never Sleeps”. In that respect he was the peer of Benny Golson. And anyone who wants to hear a medium-up 4/4 walking bass that hustles without hurrying should listen to “Peggy’s”, where he gives a masterclass in that difficult art. And the slow blues called “Noddin’ Ya Head” is an after-hours symphony (complete with Brooks’s musical saw).

This was a club gig, so the atmosphere is relaxed and the customers’ voices are sometimes heard. But it was recorded for broadcast on a local radio station, WDET-FM, so the balance of informal atmosphere and undistorted instrumental sound is just about perfect. There’s also an interview with Brooks, and a soliloquy by the station’s jazz DJ, Bud Spangler.

As a representation of how Mingus sounded in a club, it would be hard to beat. One of the finds of the year, without a doubt.

* The box set is released in November on the Barely Breaking Even label. Mingus fans might like to note that the programme of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival includes an event called “Jazz Experiments: Exploring Jazz through the Music of Charles Mingus”, in which the excellent band Blues & Roots will encourage members of the audience to play with them before performing their own set. It’s in the South Bank’s Clore Ballroom on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18, and it’s free. If you want to play, apply via the website: efglondonjazzfestival.org.uk