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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

The return of Tony Kinsey

Tony Kinsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Coltrane 17 July, 1967

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

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

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

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

Jazz in Britain, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jazz in Britain, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Marshall 1930-2017

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

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

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

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

Thomas Morgan, among friends

Thomas Morgan LJ2One of the gifts of Thomas Morgan, the unassuming 35-year-old bassist from Hayward, California, is to make every collaboration he undertakes sound like a perfect meeting of minds. No wonder Manfred Eicher, the founder of the ECM label, where intimate conversation between musicians is the dominant mode, likes him so much.

A week or so ago I heard Morgan with the trio of the Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi, making a return visit to the highly sympathetic environment of the Rosenfeld Porcini Gallery in London. Of all the current piano trios, this one — completed by the Portuguese drummer João Lobo — is my favourite: not the most blatantly adventurous, by any means, but a collective marvel of touch, precision, empathy and lyricism, the threat of sentimentality in something like their wonderful version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” held at bay by Lobo’s unpredictable colouristic interventions (a repertoire of mysterious tapping, scraping and scratching).

Morgan also works well with guitarists, including Scott DuBois and Jakob Bro, and last year he appeared on Bill Frisell’s album of film themes, When You Wish Upon a Star. In March 2016 Frisell and Morgan played a week as a duo at the Village Vanguard, and a selection of recordings from that engagement makes up Small Town, the first ECM album on which Morgan has been given a leader’s credit, jointly with Frisell, who makes a return visit to the label with which he established his reputation in the 1980s.

The 30-year gap between their ages vanishes as they peel the layers off Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago”, respond to Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee” with serpentine bebop lines, relish the deep lyricism of the country classic “Wildwood Flower”, conjure a spooky, spectral blues mode in Frisell’s “Small Town”, distil the spirit of Fats Domino’s “What a Party”, and amuse themselves and their audience by turning John Barry’s “Goldfinger” into something so slinkily and teasingly seductive that 007 might have been happy to slip it on to the hi-fi in his Chelsea apartment.

Perhaps the heart of the album is a 12-minute piece titled “Poet — Pearl”. Credited to both musicians, it is full of rich melody and satisfying harmonic movement, but it would be no surprise to discover that it was spontaneously improvised. Frisell’s singing tone takes the lead most of the way but Morgan moves to the forefront for a solo that demonstrates not just his spiritual connection to the late Charlie Haden but his lovely ability to make modesty an artistic virtue, with every note carefully considered and weighted for its contribution to the whole.

After the Guidi gig, Morgan told me in his diffident way that he has been composing pieces with an album of his own music in mind. After so much distinguished work in collaboration with or support of others, that’s something to look forward to. Meanwhile, Small Town is a place to visit.

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

So many trios, so little time

Trio Elf 2A few years ago, in response to a realisation that a phenomenon was under way, I reorganised my jazz CDs to provide a special alphabeticised section for piano trios. There were a lot of them, going back to Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and incorporating Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, René Urtreger, Mike Taylor, Martial Solal, Howard Riley, Bobo Stenson and many others, and the number grew fast as the influence of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Necks, EST and the Bad Plus took hold on the younger musicians who formed trios such as Phronesis and GoGo Penguin. Like the string quartet in classical music and the two-guitars–bass-and-drums group in rock and roll, its components are held together in perfect structural tension and offer limitless flexibility.

But I’ve just spent two and a half days at the Jazzahead festival in Bremen, a sort of trade fair for musicians, managers, agents, labels and promoters at which the public can buy tickets for a series of showcase gigs, with each band strictly limited to a set of 30 minutes. Of the 17 bands I caught during those two and a half days, no fewer than eight were piano trios. It’s a format I love, obviously, but during that time my enthusiasm for the genre began to undergo a degree of modification.

I wouldn’t say this was necessarily the result of bad programming on Jazzahead’s part. A plausible case could be made that it simply reflects the response of young musicians to the demands of the market. But such exaggerated exposure to a single format did provoke the thought that many of today’s trios feel not just inspired but obliged to offer a different slant on a familiar set of tools.

In Bremen, the extremes of this approach were probably represented by Britain’s Elliot Galvin Trio and Germany’s Trio Elf. The brilliant Galvin, with Tom McCredie on bass and Corrie Dick on drums, opened and closed one of his sparky tunes with a doctored recording of a Punch and Judy show (as featured on his recent album, Punch). Trio Elf  –pictured above, with drummer Gerwin Eisenhower, bassist Peter Cudek and pianist Walter Lang — closed a set displaying an interest in hip-hop beats by inviting the audience to choose between covers of songs by Blink-182 and Kraftwerk for their last number (unsurprisingly, given the location and the median age of the audience, Kraftwerk won — the song turned out to be “Showroom Dummies”).

In between, stylistically speaking, came Finland’s highly creative Aki Rissanen Trio (with Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen on drums), the comparatively gentle modalities of the trio led by the Swedish drummer Emil Brandqvist (with Tuomas Turunen on piano and Max Thornberg on bass), and a set from Germany’s Lorenz Kellhuber (with Arne Huber on bass and Gabriel Hahn on drums) that seemed uneventful and subdued on the surface but slowly blended its undertows into a compelling mood.

The best of those I heard, however, was the most familiar: the trio of the German pianist Julia Hülsmann, with Marc Muellbauer on bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. Together for almost two decades, they treated us to material from their new ECM album, Sooner and Later, written and run during a recent world tour that included a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where a traditional song sung by a 12-year-old girl provided the melody for one composition. The mature, thoughtful music of Hülsmann’s trio is about substance rather than effect — which is not necessarily intended as a criticism of those who, in the fight to establish themselves in a competitive world, look to distinguish themselves through gesture.

I was momentarily disappointed when Hülsmann announced that she and her colleagues were going to finish the set with a tune by Radiohead, who are to today’s jazz musicians (and piano trios in particular) what Lennon and McCartney were to an earlier generation — a sub-phenomenon that was probably kicked off by Mehldau’s trio version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” almost 20 years ago. The decision seemed a little predictable. But then they turned “All I Need” (from In Rainbows) into something of such quiet poise, purity and radiance that any uncharitable thoughts I was beginning to entertain about the entire genre were instantly vaporised.

Sun Ra touches down in NW8

Sun Ra Alex HEveryone has their own Sun Ra. Mine is the one who made the Heliocentric Worlds albums for the ESP label in the mid-’60s, and whom I saw a few times in the early ’70s — at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Festival Hall and the Village Gate. Jez Nelson, the host of the monthly Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre, had barely heard of him before interviewing him for Jazz FM in 1990, but quickly embraced the whole Sun Ra trip and gave us some lovely stories at the tribute evening he organised on Monday, as did Gilles Peterson, who came along with a bag full of rare Ra vinyl to play in the bar during the interval.

The first of the evening’s two performances was by Alexander Hawkins, who has studied Ra’s piano work and gave us a solo sequence at an upright instrument stripped of its casing. He begins with gentle strums of the strings and proceeded through a many-hued tapestry of Ra forms and sounds, with Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” at its heart, occasionally cutting to brief snatches of boogie-woogie figuration with great dramatic and emotional impact, and finishing by quietly singing the refrain of “We Travel the Spaceways”. Hawkins is now among the front rank of today’s improvising pianists and this was a stirring demonstration of his sensitivity to the tradition and its exponents.

Sun Ra PathwaysAfter Peterson’s DJ set came Where Pathways Meet, a nine-piece band comprising Axel Kaner-Lidstrom (trumpet), Joe Elliot (alto), James Mollison (tenor), Amané Suganami (keyboards and electronics), Maria Osuchowska (electric harp), Mark Mollison (guitar), Mutale Shashi (bass guitar), Jake Long (drums) and Kianja Harvey Elliot (voice). Named after a Sun Ra tune, and dedicated to making music animated by a reverence for his spirit, they went about their work with energy and enthusiasm. Any rawness in the execution seemed unimportant by comparison with the good feeling they imparted.

This was a perfect example of what Jazz in the Round, which takes place on the last Monday of each month, has to offer: a selection of interesting musicians at different stages of their careers performing in close proximity to a respectful audience consisting of old listeners and new listeners and some in between, all sharing a 360-degree experience. The next one, on May 29, features the harpist Alina Bzhezhinska playing the music of Alice Coltrane, a new band called Project M led by the bassist Dan Casimir, and a solo set from Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone. Presented in a small, unpretentious setting by a warm and knowledgable host, it’s my favourite gig these days, by a long way.

* Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, celebrated last weekend’s Record Store Day by releasing an EP with Sun Ra playing solo piano in the Jazz FM studio in 1990 on one side, plus Jez Nelson’s interview on the other. It’s a limited edition, but you might still find one if you hurry.

Smokin’ in Seattle

Smokin' in SeattleRecord Store Day seems to have made a natural partnership with the vinyl revival, and one excellent way of marking tomorrow’s 10th anniversary of a very worthwhile institution would be to invest in the specially timed 12-inch 33 1/3rd rpm release of Smokin’ in Seattle, 50-odd minutes of newly discovered 1966 club recordings by the trio of the pianist Wynton Kelly, with Ron McClure on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, plus their special guest, the nonpareil guitarist Wes Montgomery.

This line-up, with Paul Chambers on bass instead of McClure, was responsible for the classic Smokin’ at the Half Note, recorded in New York the previous year. The excerpts from two nights of music at the Penthouse in Seattle which make up the new release were broadcast live by a local radio station, limited by a dictate of the musicians’ union to the first 30 minutes per night. This means that each of the two sides begins with two tracks by the trio before the guitarist makes his appearance, and that the final track on each side is faded out, as it had to be on the original transmission.

These are no drawbacks. As the years go by more and more people are drawn to the special quality of Kelly’s playing, something that to me has always been summed up by one word. In one of several interesting interviews and essays contained in the large-format insert, the pianist Kenny Barron uses it over and over again: “The joy. Joy. That’s the word. He had such joy when he played. His playing was so joyful and infectious.”

It’s something that first impressed me when I heard Miles Davis in Person: Friday Night at the Blackhawk, recorded in San Francisco in 1961, when Kelly was still a member of Miles’s quintet. The joy in full bloom in these recordings, particularly on the sparkling trio versions of the standard “There Is No Greater Love” and a funky blues by Blue Mitchell, “Sir John”. Kelly’s gloriously romantic ballad playing is perfectly displayed in a reading of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”.

The pianist — who died of an epileptic seizure in 1971, aged 39 — is assisted by some beautiful (and beautifully recorded) playing from his bassist and drummer. McClure talks in the notes about how, aged 23 when he was first called to deputise for Chambers in the trio, this was a career-defining gig for him, and also typical of a period in jazz that has now almost passed: “In those days I played with all sorts of groups where there was no music, no conversation, you just started to play.”

Partly that’s because there was a core repertoire. When Montgomery makes his appearance, he storms through several familiar items, including the originals “Jingles” and “West Coast Blues” and the standard “What’s New”. On an untitled blues in F he gets as soulful as Grant Green, and his rapid chordal playing on “O Morro Não Tem Vez” is the sort of thing that set new standards for jazz guitarists in the ’60s.

Pat Metheny remains one of his most ardent admirers. “I always feel like I am enriched in ways that transcend music when I hear Wes,” Metheny says in the notes. “There was something special about who he was as a person contained in each note he played.” The same was true of Kelly, and the benign spirits of both men are very evident throughout this marvellously vivid document.

* Smokin’ in Seattle is released by Resonance Records. The vinyl edition is out on April 22, the CD version on May 19.