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Posts tagged ‘Empirical’

Jazz nights in London

Maisha 2

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.

Connecting with Empirical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jazz in the Round

Jazz in the Round 1Jez Nelson’s monthly Jazz in the Round nights at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone are as good a way to hear improvised music in London as anyone has yet devised. A couple of hundred listeners settle themselves down in mini-bleachers on all four sides of the floor, where the musicians set up to face each other, creating an unusual degree of intimacy radiating through 360 degrees. As a member of Empirical — I think it was Nathaniel Facey, the alto saxophonist — told last night’s audience, it makes you play differently. In a good way.

Facey and his colleagues kicked off what turned out to be a special night even by the standards of this excellent series. The evening was being recorded for transmission (on March 28) as the last-ever Jazz on 3, which Nelson presents, and after 18 years he was understandably emotional as he introduced a bill handpicked to represent the programme’s philosophy over the years. After Empirical came Django Bates, who gave the solo performance that traditionally separates the evening’s two bands, followed by a set of free improvisation from a multi-generational quartet assembled specially for this event: Laura Jurd (trumpet), Alexander Hawkins (piano), Orphy Robinson (marimba) and Evan Parker (tenor saxophone).

Empirical were coming off a week of thrice-daily gigs in a pop-up revue at Old Street tube station: a wheeze that apparently worked as well as it deserved to, attracting crowds of passers-by intrigued by what they heard. They’re an exceptional band and they played a fine set of striking new compositions by each of the four members, ending with “Lethe”, a quietly beautiful slow tune by the vibraphonist Lewis Wright. I’ve heard them play it before, and it stuck in my head. I was delighted to hear it again, and to discover that it’s on their new album, Connection.

Bates had just arrived from Switzerland, where he is a professor of jazz at Bern’s University of the Arts. He began by singing, to his own deft kalimba accompaniment, a little song about the anxiety of a man introducing himself to a piano (which turns out to be female). Then he sat down at the keyboard to play a piece in which he doubled his improvised single-note lines in the treble register with whistling of virtuoso standard. A tenor horn solo preceded a final stint at the keyboard, which included some gorgeous gospel figurations and a song about a London pub transformed by a developer into empty luxury apartments. “Empty luxury,” he repeated, sotto voce but with emphasis.

The members of the final improvising group were chosen to show how Jazz on 3 has always reflected the way this music spans the generations, with the accent on new developments. They had never played together as a unit, but the shared qualities of musicianship and sensitivity ensured that they created a genuine conversation that not only gripped their listeners but enfolded them in the act of creation. It was, as Nelson pointed out, the best possible way to demonstrate that, in the hands of such people, the music’s future is safe.

* The photograph of Empirical at the Cockpit Theatre was taken by Steven Cropper, and is used by kind permission. His blog, with more of his fine images, is at http://www.transientlife.uk. Jazz on 3 will be replaced on BBC Radio 3 by Jazz Now, presented by Soweto Kinch. Jez Nelson’s Somethin’ Else will be on Jazz FM on Saturday nights from April 2. Jazz in the Round takes place on the last Monday of each month: http://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/jazz_in_the_round_0.