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Posts from the ‘Jazz’ Category

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 within 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

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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

Anthony Braxton at Cafe Oto

Anthony Braxton

By Anthony Braxton’s standards, his ZIM Music septet is a relatively modest affair. But the hour and a quarter of unbroken music they produced during the second of their three nights at Cafe Oto this week proved to be astonishingly rich and complex in its range of gesture and effect.

The musicians — Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn and trombone), Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach (concert harps), Jean Cook (violin), Adam Matlock (accordion, recorders and voice) and Dan Peck (tuba) — responded with great enthusiasm and devotion to Braxton’s scores and to his methods of internal organisation. He supplied most of the visual cues — holding up fingers, making a diamond shape with both hands, giving nods — but sometimes letting others take over, notably Barnum but also Matlock, who seemed at one stage to be supplying pre-arranged prompts to one of the harpists.

This was a music of nudge and feint, of swells and silences, of stutter and blurt. Bynum alternated passages of a glowing beauty (his flugel reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler) with the expressive use of mutes, notably on cornet in a Bubber Miley-style wa-wa outburst which was immediately answered by the leader’s cackling alto saxophone. Matlock’s accordion was sometimes the glue that held the music together, but he also provided vocal embellishments and added the winsome sound of two recorders blown simultaneously. Kerrod and Overlach employed unorthodox as well as traditional techniques, sometimes sliding small steel rods between the strings or tapping the frames of their instruments, the combined effect not unlike that of Derek Bailey in full flow. Peck twice launched into a kind of walking-bass pattern before disrupting the tempo, like a man alternately strolling, sprinting and jogging in order to throw off a pursuer. Cook played one compelling solo that seemed to consist almost entirely of harmonics and yet somehow simultaneously employed a scraping of double and triple stops.

Braxton, who alternated between sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones, made his strongest individual contribution right at the start, with a tumbling, paper-toned alto improvisation that seemed to be powered by a perpetual-motion engine as it wove in and out of the ensemble. But the point of the evening was the way his success in blending premeditation with spontaneity gave rise to a constantly shifting set of textures and a dynamic flow that kept the audience, as well as the musicians, on their toes.

* The ZIM Septet’s final performance in London tonight is sold out, but on Thursday at 3pm Anthony Braxton returns to Cafe Oto for a conversation with Alexander Hawkins.

New tango in Paris

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Léonor Seraille’s Jeune Femme is a funny, affecting and occasionally jolting film about what happens to an attractive but rather unfocused young woman (brilliantly portrayed by Laetitia Dosch) when she becomes untethered from her former life. She’s a character who, in the writer-director’s words, “chooses discomfort”. It won the Caméra d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Festival and was released in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

The soundtrack, by Julie Roué, is mostly clubby. However, to my surprise and delight, brief extracts from Gil Evans’s Las Vegas Tango pop up quite unexpectedly, its wonderful bass riff — borrowed from Maurice Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera and played by Paul Chambers — and anguished upper-register horns adding a very different kind of exoticism to a couple of scenes.

Gil’s composition is a favourite of many. I’m also fond of versions by Robert Wyatt, who stretched and dismembered it on The End of an Ear, his first solo album, in 1970, and Michael Shrieve, the Santana drummer, who arranged a rather straighter treatment for a small band including the trumpeter Mark Isham and the guitarist David Torn on his album Stiletto in 1989. But the original is unsurpassable, as is the album from which it comes: The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve), which belongs, whether in its 1964 vinyl incarnation or as the expanded CD, in every home.

Lou Gare: a souvenir

Lou Gare album

There was a special magic about Lou Gare’s saxophone playing, as many people rediscovered when going back to his slender discography on hearing of his death towards the end of last year, at the age of 78. Now Mike Westbrook, in whose bands Gare played in the 1960s and again in recent years, has done us an enormous favour by assembling and releasing a CD containing nine examples of his mature playing in latter-day concert and club performances with the Uncommon Orchestra.

I don’t know what effect his years as a free-improvisation pioneer with AMM had on Gare’s approach to music, but these performances show that he could infuse what you might call a fundamentally mainstream-modern approach with freshness and substance. In his conception, an almost old-fashioned warmth was no barrier to modernity.

In Memory of Lou Gare, as the compilation is titled, begins with the 12-minute version of Westbrook’s “D.T.T.M.”, an adaptation of a section of the suite On Duke’s Birthday, that I mentioned in a post written for this blog soon after his death. It’s a compellin extended meditation on the blues, including a marvellous unaccompanied section, and the inclusion of an earlier version gives us the chance to appreciate Gare’s reluctance to repeat himself.

There are shout-ups, like the stomping arrangement of Chris McGregor’s “Manje” which Westbrook created for the Dedication Orchestra, and moments of exquisite invention, like Gare’s spellbindingly allusive treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, almost entirely unaccompanied and bearing, as Westbrook remarks, traces of the influence of Paul Gonsalves. The extract from Westbrook’s extended rearrangement of “Johnny Come Lately”, another slice of Strayhorn, features a Mingus-like bass introduction from Marcus Vergette leading to a beautifully “down” groove over which Gare wails before the rest of the saxophone section join him for an exuberant collective improvisation.

“These are not studio performances,” Westbrook writes in his sleeve note. “There are rough edges and the sound balance is not always ideal. Yet, captured in the real world, in the heat of the moment, ad hoc recordings like this… perhaps offer an insight into Lou’s instant creativity… that a more controlled studio session might never achieve.” Exactly so.

* Mike Westbrook: In Memory of Lou Gare is on the Westbrook Records label: http://www.westbrookjazz.co.uk.

Ten cheers for Cafe Oto

Cafe OtoIf I were given the freedom to design a place at which people could gather for the purpose of playing and hearing music, it would probably end up very much like Cafe Oto. Some of the Dalston venue’s features include an entrance straight off an interesting side street, chairs and tables on the pavement for use during the intervals between sets, large picture windows to give passers-by a glimpse of the goings-on inside, an informal and intimate performance space with no stage, with discreet lighting and perfect sound, a good piano, the option to sit or stand, unselfconscious interaction between musicians and listeners, excellent refreshments, bike parking. And, most important, an audience equipped with open ears and minds, not drawn from a single demographic.

Some of the best musicians in the world can be heard at Cafe Oto, usually for not much more than a tenner, and the atmosphere is such that I’ve never seen any of these distinguished figures — including Roscoe Mitchell, Marc Ribot, Annette Peacock, John Tchicai, the Necks and Louis Moholo-Moholo — give less than their absolute best. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in that respect, but I doubt it. In such ideal surroundings for improvised or otherwise adventurous music, what kind of musician would fail to produce a wholehearted response?

Cafe Oto is currently celebrating its 10th birthday, and two recent events fully illustrated its position in London’s creative musical life. The first was the latest of the club’s three-day residencies, this one granted to the pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins, whose breadth of knowledge and interests guaranteed that he would make the most of the opportunity to stretch out and create a diverse programme.

Alex Hawkins + 4

I went on the second night, opened by Hawkins in duets with the tenor saxophone of Evan Parker. Over the course of almost an hour the music came from many tangents and explored several different modes of collaboration: matched invention, accompaniment, dovetailing, even collision. For the second set (see photograph above) they were joined by Orphy Robinson (Xylosynth), Pat Thomas (Theremin-synthesiser), and Matthew Wright (laptop and turntable). Parker switched to soprano, and there were times when it seemed as though the others were providing a setting for him. Nothing to do with ego: that’s just how the music settled. The textures were fascinating and often beguiling, particularly when Robinson was using a bass-marimba effect to provide a slowly tolling background pulse. I was sorry to miss the third night, when Hawkins’s guests included the marvellous drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Ingrid Laubrock 4 2

This week it was the turn of Ingrid Laubrock, the German-born saxophonist who came to London in 1989 to study at the Guildhall and stayed for almost 20 years before moving to Brooklyn in 2008. The first band she formed there, Anti-House 4, with Kris Davis on piano, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums, played at Cafe Oto on Monday and Tuesday; they stunned everyone present with the impact of music which is carefully wrought but retains the best qualities of free improvisation. I was so struck by the first night’s music that I booked myself straight back in for a second helping.

Each of the individuals is a virtuoso. Laubrock now belongs in the very highest class of improvising saxophonists, blending outright ferocity with hints of the elegance absorbed from her study of Warne Marsh. Davis has a lot of Cecil Taylor in the bones of her playing, but she also makes me think instinctively of George Russell’s piano playing: those beautiful stretched arpeggios, sometimes broken, sometimes in contrary motion, enunciated with a touch poised between firm and hard, like a 2H pencil. Rainey is a master drummer who can make playing with a stick in his right hand and a beer bottle in his left seem the most logical of propositions. And Halvorson is in such command of the promptings of her remarkable imagination that, as her lines and chords slip and warp and overlap, she can convince you that there must be a second guitarist hidden away somewhere (at different times I imagined that phantom alter ego to be Derek Bailey, Link Wray or Kenny Burrell).

But it was as a collective that they left their deepest impression, thanks to Laubrock’s developing gift as an organiser of music. Her compositions are complex but seldom sound that way: there is no twiddling. The occasional hurtling unison passage grows naturally out of the improvisations, while the endings are often deliciously unexpected. One piece ended a couple of brief, cryptic phrases, guitar following piano, dissolving into silence, as if the music’s final traces had been blown away by a last puff of wind. That was every bit as dramatic as the piece with which they opened the first night: a sequence of violent stabs of sound that would have put any death-metal band to shame.

The second night began with unaccompanied improvisations from all four players, and it is a sign of the strength of the quartet’s character that this sequence never sounded like a series of solos. Even when only one person was playing, the music was that of a band — part of an overall scheme that has taken 10 years to emerge as something genuinely extraordinary, and whose fruition was enthusiastically appreciated by the audience. Perfect, of course, for Cafe Oto, one of those rare spaces that go beyond the simple function of presentation to achieve something more valuable, by providing encouragement and inspiration to creative musicians. In other words, a home.