RIP John Critchinson (1934-2017)

John Critchinson (foreground) with Dave Green
at the 2013 Herts Jazz Festival
Photo credit: Melody McLaren

The sad news is just out of the passing of pianist John Critchinson earlier today at the age of 82. It was less than 48 hours after a benefit night was held for him at the 606, in advance of which Jacqui Hicks wrote this appreciation, which now serves as a tribute to a universally liked, gentle man and a superbly melodic pianist who graced bands from being a fixture at Ronnie Scott's to Morrissey Mullen. Biography. In sadness.



NEWS: UK Showcase at Winter Jazzfest in NYC

Clockwise from top left: Oscar Jerome, Yazz Ahmed, Nubya Garcia and The Comet Is Coming.
A bunch of the UK’s finest young jazz musicians are heading to New York in January for a Winter Jazzfest showcase. Peter Bacon reports.

Young UK jazz talent gets to strut its stuff for a Manhattan audience next month when saxophonist Nubya Garcia, vocalist Oscar Jerome, The Comet Is Coming and Yazz Ahmed jet out to play Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on Wednesday 10 January.

The opportunity is courtesy of the PRS Foundation and BBC Music Introducing, and doing the introducing on the night will be BBC Radio 6 Music presenter, and Brownswood Recordings founder Gilles Peterson.

Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed told me: “I’m so excited to be playing at the festival, it’s really like a dream come true.”

And she is especially keen on the 2018 Winter Jazzfest’s social justice theme.

“I was very interested to discover that this year's festival has a focus on social, racial, and immigration justice as well as gender rights, subjects I feel very passionate about,” she said.

“As a female trumpet player, with an Arabic name, I hope that through my music I can bring people together, building bridges between cultures, being an advocate of peace and changing perceptions about women in jazz and about people of Muslim heritage. These are not subjects I shout about through my music, perhaps it’s more of a quiet catalyst, an invitation for people to notice something different.”

In addition to that social justice theme, January’s NYC bash includes a tribute to the late pianist Geri Allen; Ravi Coltrane celebrating the work of his mother, Alice Coltrane; Pulitzer-nominated trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith paired with Indie rockers Deerhoof; and a line-up which stretches from the flamenco-tinged singing of Buika to the avant-drumming of Tyshawn Sorey.

LINKS: Winter Jazzfest
PRS Foundation
BBC Music Introducing 


INTERVIEW: Huw Warren (new solo album Nocturnes and Visions)

Huw Warren
Photo credit: Tim Dickeson

Pianist HUW WARREN has a new solo album, Nocturnes and Visions (released earlier this month). Gail Tasker asked him about recording alone, the album concept and his favourite solo albums by other pianists.

LondonJazz News: How long has this album been in the making?

Huw Warren: My initial idea was to record a live solo concert in 2015. It was part of a Bach festival so I played some new arrangements of Bach pieces alongside my usual mixed programme and I brought a Cardiff-based engineer, Sam Barnes, in to record it all. It was a really beautiful Steinway D piano at Cardiff University Concert Hall, and also a lovely concert; but somehow the recording didn't quite match up to my expectations of a solo record. However it did fire my enthusiasm to complete another solo record! We went back to the same hall a couple of times, and re-recorded most of the tunes. A couple of the Bach pieces even made it onto the record!

LJN: Do you find solo piano albums easier or harder than recording with a band?

HW: I think most pianists would agree that playing and recording solo is the ultimate challenge. However, I have recorded quite a lot either solo or in duo/trio situations without bass and drums, so the setting feels quite familiar. The bigger challenge is find a musical integrity and a personal language within the solo setting. For me this is definitely a continuation of the approach I used in my 2002 solo album Infinite Riches in a Little Room (listen here). On both records I'm trying to find freedom without using an explicitly jazz language. If anything, the sound and approach are heavily influenced by classical music, but the music is actually a mixture of composed pieces (with improvisation) and completely improvised pieces. The idea of an ultra-personal and comfortable musical skin that can absorb many different styles and angles seems so much more attractive than the conventional concept of fusion - "Jazz meets Classical /Folk", etc. It's also very much at the heart of the Quercus collaboration with June Tabor and Iain Ballamy.

LJN: How different is this album from your 2002 solo piano album?

HW: Both albums have a really diverse set of source material and a mixture of compositions and improvisations. However, Nocturnes and Visions has more of a 'live' feel and less of the prepared piano/over-layered approach that I was exploring on several of the pieces on Infinite Riches. The title also reflects a desire to create a slightly more meditative vibe across the whole record.

LJN: What other solo piano albums do you like/listen to?

HW: Oh wow, there are so many great solo records out there! For me, I think Keith Jarrett's Facing You (1971) was a major landmark in the approach to a solo piano recording. Far less about virtuosity and much more about the music. On a completely different tack, I was really into a record of Morton Feldman's solo piano music - very soft, gentle and slow. Almost like each sound becomes it's own world. There's a great Egberto Gismonti solo album Alma (1986) that I listened to a lot and recently I've really liked Craig Taborn's The Avenging Angel (2010) and Tigran Hamaysan's An Ancient Observer (2017). We are also blessed with some incredible UK musicians such as Django Bates, Kit Downes, Gwilym Simcock, Jason Rebello, Elliot Galvin, (amongst many others), and I try my best to keep up with what they are doing solo or otherwise!

LJN: Did you intend the album to be listened to as a continuous whole?

HW: Yes definitely. I'm still from the generation that thinks carefully about running order, mastering volumes, gaps between tracks, etc. All these aspects add to the narrative of the whole form, and that's something that I've definitely given attention to. For instance on Nocturnes and Visions the last chord of the last track, Noturna, is actually the first chord of the intro to the opening track - a happy accident rather anything planned, but something that now feels an important part of the album's structure! I'm also aware that many people will want to listen to it in a completely different way, maybe downloading a track at a time or creating their own order. In which case, I'm fine with that.

LJN: There is a range of styles, from Brazilian to Bach... Is there a concept or underlying theme?

HW: I didn't start out with a definite concept of what material to use. As is so often case, it kind of evolved and morphed into its own identity as that process unfolded. I also have quite a number of pieces I didn't use, so I'm thinking of releasing those further down the line either as bonus tracks or as a whole other record.

LJN: You choose to keep the longest track till last?

HW: In terms of the running order, the two Brazilian pieces seemed a very natural way to bookend the record. Both are pieces that I play frequently in various line ups, and I've found that they have a kind of universal appeal everywhere I play them. (From North Wales to New York and China!) O Farol Que Nos Guia by Hermeto Pascoal is an incredible tune that Iain Ballamy and myself have played in a duo arrangement many times. The title means "The Light that Guides Us" or "Our Guiding Light" and it is a most remarkable combination of short sections. The tune moves from hymnal melodic shapes to scampering faster sections and a euphoric final section. A perfect dramatic overture! Noturna is a beautiful piece by Guinga (That I also recorded on the most recent record with Maria Pia de Vito) and has a wonderfully rich harmonic language (think Puccini or Verdi) and a killer melody that, as is the case in much of Guinga's music, never quite goes where you expect it to.

The album also includes two personal dedications. Up There is dedicated to my brother-in-law, Jeremy Lamburn (a cellist and composer) who died unexpectedly in 2014 and Pure (for JT) is dedicated to pianist and composer John Taylor who died in 2015. The former is very much a personal and family dedication, and we were working as a family on Jeremy's music before his untimely death. I was lucky enough not only to meet JT, but also to get to know him over a number of years and perform with him several times. In keeping with many of my generation, he was a massive influence as a pianist and composer. Perhaps even more importantly he was hugely influential as a human being and role model, and hopefully his spirit lives on in the writing and playing of musicians now and in the future.

LINK: Nocturnes and Visons on Bandcamp


REVIEW: Scott Willcox Big Band with Georgia Mancio at the Bull’s Head

Samuel Eagles (centre) with the Scott Willcox Big Band

Scott Willcox Big Band with Georgia Mancio
(The Bull’s Head, 13 December 2017. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Scott Willcox first awoke to jazz when he heard Fats Waller. “The piano playing, not the singing. I’m a pianist, so I loved Art Tatum, too.” Scott doesn’t play piano in the big band he leads, but he does the arranging and writes almost all the material. He doesn’t cite any arrangers as an influence, but rather his classical training — “That’s why I write contrapuntally.” Though he does admit to a liking for the arrangements of Bob Florence. Scott’s big band has been in existence for years, although this smaller (ten-piece) unit is of more recent origin. It consists of some outstanding players and on this winter’s night in Barnes the band was joined by guest vocalist Georgia Mancio singing her own material, written in collaboration with Alan Broadbent.

African Dance was a jaunty, exploratory piece presenting unison sax (Chris Biscoe and Sam Eagles on alto, Julian Costello and Steve Main tenor) and developing into a sound somewhat reminiscent of a skilful Mingus traffic jam — with trumpets (Gabriel Garrick and Andy Gibson) and reeds playing car-horn interpolations when they weren’t unfurling the cheering melody.

“There are a few shocks in this,” announced Willcox as Where Next began with a repetitive bass figure (Ben Hazelton on electric bass) and a staccato pattern of rim-shots by Gary Willcox on drums which set the horns on a mysterioso excursion with Martin Gladdish’s trombone rising above the group for a forceful, concise solo. Chris Biscoe played his alto with a plaintive rapture. Steve Main’s purring tenor went low as Andy Gibson’s trumpet went high. Gladdish and Biscoe had some beautiful pairings and the steady, unwavering pulse ticked out by Willcox on the rims propelled the combo as the saxes fell away, playing themes and solos. Steve Main was outstanding and Dave Frankel’s dreamlike piano fashioned the conclusion. The only real shock was finding musicians of this calibre playing complex, original music in a pub in south London on a snowy Wednesday night.

The Journey Home was an original written by Georgia Mancio and Alan Broadbent and presented by the singer with just the rhythm section. Mancio’s voice was fresh and vivid, richly delivering the lyrics. For Bud was an opportunity for Ben Hazelton to solo on his bass with singing musicality. On Listen Up, a Wilcox composition, Andy Gibson led the brass in, Sam Eagles playing a beguiling figure with sustained concentration. Georgia Mancio’s vocals see-sawed with the sax section, then traded places with muted trumpets. Eagles’s tenor was pulsing and brooding, giving way to a glittering wail of a solo by Gabriel Garrick. Mancio’s voice floated lightly through the lines of the ensemble playing, like a bird through evening trees.

Slane was an adaptation of an Irish folk song, opening with thrumming bass from Hazelton, skimming cymbals from Willcox and an utterly lovely alto statement from Eagles. This ballad introduction was picked up by Main and Gibson, with adroit support from the others and a beautiful fill by Biscoe. But it was Eagles, playing sad and sweet and gorgeous alto, and Dave Frankel’s piano which made the hair stand up on the back of your neck, abetted by the tight, perpetual ticking of Willcox’s flawless drums. And when the whole combo came in, like friends turning up for a party, we were reminded why the principle of big bands exist. Gabriel Garrick brought the piece to an end — which arrived all too soon.

The Water is Wide was another folk song setting, with an aching lyrical intro by the tenor saxes and Andy Gibson on trumpet. Then Biscoe’s alto and Georgia Mancio’s vocals offered a heart-ringing refrain. When Dave Frankel’s piano and Gladdish’s trombone came in, the piece opened like a flower in sunlight. Gibson soloed with great taste and judgement and Frankel played with the lightest of touches. The combination of voice and large instrumental unit was at its most memorable on this evocation of an ancient, simple ballad. Among the many pleasant astonishments of this evening was the revelation that this was the first time Georgia Mancio had sung with these musicians. It’s unlikely to be the last.


BOOK REVIEW: Clark Tracey - The Godfather of British Jazz: The Life and Music of Stan Tracey

Clark Tracey - The Godfather of British Jazz: The Life and Music of Stan Tracey
(Equinox, £39.95, 342pp. Book Review by Chris Parker)

‘A unique man in music, who doggedly said it his way, come what may … a true example of an original and passionate artist who, ultimately, wanted little more from life than to play the piano with friends.’ This is the way the life and work of Stan Tracey are summed up by his son Clark Tracey at the end of this sensitive, thoughtful and meticulously detailed biography.

Drawing extensively on his father’s diaries, Clark traces Stan’s life from his birth in Dulwich in 1926 through to his death in December 2013, dedicating an introductory chapter to his south London childhood, but quickly moving on to his jazz career, via stints as an accordionist with ENSA (the organisation set up to perform for British troops in the Second World War, the Entertainments National Service Association, or, as it was popularly known, Every Night Something Awful); post-war call-up into the RAF (where he worked with the Ralph Reader Gang Show and first encountered the likes of Tony Hancock and – a lifelong friend – Bob Monkhouse); service in ‘Geraldo’s Navy’, the transatlantic-liner work that enabled him to sample New York jazz first-hand; and then immersion in London’s jazz world with the likes of baritone singer Barry Martin, drummer Laurie Morgan and, subsequently, Kenny Graham, Vic Ash and the larger units of Basil Kirchin (‘the Biggest Little Band in the Land’) and Ted Heath (‘stifling … Ted was a very stiff and autocratic leader’).

By 1960, however, Stan was homing in on the jazz work that really interested him: weekly gigs at the famous Flamingo, a record date with Tony Crombie’s Jazz Inc. octet and a Decca EP with the MJ6 (Modern Jazz Six), and by 1961 he was working regularly at Ronnie Scott’s club, backing Zoot Sims, Lucky Thompson and other visiting Americans. Having thus established himself as a highly original, gifted pianist with a pungently individual, immediately recognisable style, Stan went on to record what is still his most celebrated work: Jazz Suite: Under Milk Wood. It would be tempting at this point to say that the rest is history, but it is the great strength of Clark’s book that it documents Stan’s career in such unflinching, unswerving detail, with all its frustrations, rebuffs and setbacks (mostly the result of the establishment’s apparent determination to ignore or undervalue jazz), that it never becomes a routine hagiography, a simple list of achievements.

Instead, Clark’s personal perspective enables him to bring the career of his father to vivid life, via a wealth of direct quotations from the man himself on subjects including his wife Jackie’s indispensable support (both for him and for British jazz generally), his struggle with heroin addiction, the attitude of the musical establishment to his music, the often parlous state of the pianos upon which he was expected to perform, ‘free’ music and its effect on his musical outlook, his supposed debt to Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, the support of fellow musicians etc. etc.

Like the music (and life) of its subject, Clark’s biography, which is supplemented by an admirably thorough discography, is single-minded, almost dogged, in its purpose: unsentimentally and dispassionately to document the career, in all its sometimes uncomfortable detail, of one of this country’s greatest musicians. It’s a considerable (and valuable) achievement.


INTERVIEW: Aaron 'Laszlo' Wheeler of Lydian Collective

Lydian Collective: Ida Hollis, Aaron 'Laszlo' Wheeler, Todd Baker and Sophie Alloway
Artists' publicity photo
London-based jazz fusion outfit Lydian Collective comprises Aaron 'Laszlo' Wheeler on keyboards, Todd Baker on guitar, Ida Hollis on electric bass and Sophie Alloway on drums. Sebastian asked Aaron some questions:

LondonJazz News: Where are you from originally?

Aaron Wheeler: Todd and I grew up in Worcestershire, myself in Redditch and Todd in neighbouring Evesham. We’re based in London now; it’s a great place to be for music artists, but we also value the perspective coming from smaller towns. Sophie and Ida both grew up in South West London.

LJN: And can you tell us about your (busy?) musical life away from this band?

AW: We all lead very busy creative lives outside the band.

I’ve built a successful career as a composer for media and production music, working with some of the biggest names in music publishing. In the 2010s I switched focus to my solo instrumental project: Laszlo. I also own a studio complex/co-working space in Finsbury Park (actually called ‘Lydian Workspace’) which has become a really great social and creative hub.

Todd (Baker) is a music and sound artist working mainly in the world of games and interactive, but has also worked on many media music projects. He’s created music and sound design for a number of high-profile games, most recently Monument Valley 2, which has been played by tens of millions over the world.

Ida (Hollis) has being playing and teaching bass professionally for over 10 years, working with a variety of names including Tate Britain artist-in-residence Tim Whitehead. She is also an extremely talented photographer specialising in fine art, portraits and nature.

Sophie (Alloway) is in high demand as a session drummer and live musician in London. She’s played with such acts as Roots Manuva, Clean Bandit and many more. Here’s a recent podcast with a detailed insight into her musical life!

LJN: And the idea of the band Lydian Collective is the result of a very long term friendship?

AW: Todd and I were 16 when we met at Stratford-Upon-Avon College studying Popular Music. We’ve stayed friends and have worked on many musical ventures since. With relationships like this you influence each other heavily and form a kind of musical language together.

LJN: And he's also your composition partner?

AW: Yes we’ve been writing together since our teens! We’ve also released an electronic/hybrid collaboration called Musicbox - a project that started in 2005, which was really the start of the whole journey towards to the Lydian Collective.

LJN: And the other two band members how did you get to know them?

AW: Todd met Ida met via Ida’s partner Ed Hargrave, who is one of Todd’s collaborators in the game audio/music world. The three of us started jamming on the Laszlo material in around 2012. With keys/guitar/bass covered, we turned our attention to finding a great, versatile creative drummer that would share the passion for our music.

I met Sophie at a weekday music night in my local pub - it was a small gig and I was one of the only people in the audience! She was performing with a fusion band - they played some Chick Corea Elektric Band covers, and I thought she would be perfect. After speaking to her that evening I e-mailed over some of the Laszlo sessions. She made us wait for a few weeks, but eventually joined us at rehearsal... and the Lydian Collective was born!

LJN: How long has LC existed as a quartet?

AW: That first rehearsal was in July 2013.

LJN: For those not into the modes can you explain the band’s name?

AW: Yeah, the Lydian Mode (the fourth mode of the major scale) is my favourite scale. I think it's where so much of the magic lives in music!  When I first experimented with composing as a child I would notice these certain notes and chords gave me a shiver down my spine - and I started to recognise this harmony in songs and soundtracks to films that I really liked, such as music from John Williams' ET and Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future soundtracks.

I didn’t come across these extra modal scales with my classical piano lessons, and it was only when I started to have guitar lessons that this whole new world of harmony was released into my knowledge. I finally felt like I had come across the tools to recreate the spine tingling emotion that I enjoyed so much in music I grew up with - and I have been obsessed with using the modes in music ever since.

LJN: You have mentioned Frank Zappa, Steely Dan and EST as in your collective ears? What is the common thread?

AW: The common thread is the fact that they have all have a special approach to harmony and groove/rhythm that really appeals to us. Adventurous and intelligent, but rooted in a pop-like sensibility. Another artist that has been a massive influence on myself and Todd is the beautiful harmony and rhythmical ideas of (bassist) Avishai Cohen. We also consider all of these artists to have a musical voice that doesn’t conform to genre - which is absolutely what we are trying to do with the LC.

LJN: Can you explain how all these (how many?) YouTube views (of what?) have happened?

AW: Todd and I started making YouTube live sessions back in 2011 for my first Laszlo album. Our first piano/guitar duet video of my track Lydia’s Dream really took off, attracting the interest from an instrumental music channel: Candyrat - in the USA. They shared our videos and helped us grow our audience. With a host of live sessions on our channel, we currently have over 1.2 million total views. These view are entirely organic (i.e. no marketing), and all of the music is 100% original and instrumental.

LJN: What is Monument Valley and how does that fit into the story?

AW: Earlier in the year, Todd composed the soundtrack for one of the biggest iOS games of the year: Monument Valley 2. It’s a very beautiful looking, story-based game about a mother and child. We recorded a live session of one of the tracks from the game, which then also featured on the official soundtrack release.

LJN: And you have singles and an album in the process of being released. What is the sequence of events? 

AW: We have so far released two singles. The first - Thirty One - was on 10 November (currently sitting with over 85k Spotify streams), the second - Legend Of Lumbar (below) - was released on 3 December. The third will be released on the 12 January, and the album will drop in early February!

LJN: And where can people hear the band live?

AW: We recently played an intimate gig at the Troubadour, and we’re currently in the process of organising an album launch, as well as some shows outside of London.

LINKS: Lydian Collective are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube


REVIEW: Patty Waters at Cafe Oto

Patty Waters at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved

Patty Waters
(Cafe Oto, 6 December 2017. First night of a 2-night residency. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Cafe Oto keep a wish list tucked away in their back pocket just waiting for the right moment. Patty Waters has been on that list for some time and her long-awaited appearance more than rewarded expectations. The Art Ensemble of Chicago (reviewed), another wish list special, had already made a triumphant return visit in October after their first in February, and two years ago Annette Peacock (reviewed here) had graced this tiny venue with a stunning solo residency. Waters was in good company.

To make this debut even more special, she had in tow Burton Greene, the pianist with whom she has worked since the mid-sixties. He's been based in Amsterdam for many years and completed the trio with bassist Tjitze Vogel (an independent spirit from Friesland, as Greene told me), hand-picked to achieve the perfect complement to Waters' incomparable delivery and to Greene's virtuosic invention.

Waters articulates lyrics which might normally wash over the listener with a visceral, anarchic passion, transforming them to become poetry in the extreme. Spotted by Albert Ayler when she arrived in New York she made a couple of key albums in the 1960s, Sings and College Tour, which revealed a radical approach to song and which have become beacons for singers such as Diamanda Galas who explore vocal possibilities out at the edge. Like Henry Grimes, the magnificent bassist with whom she toured in Europe ten years ago, she retired for around 30 years, before being tempted back to performing in the mid-'90s by pianist Jessica Williams.

Evident at Cafe Oto was a fluid democracy imbued in the trio's interplay which saw Waters focusing on a select handful of songs and allowing Burton and Vogel to stride out into jazz improvisation territory with the intensity and lightness of touch of masters.

Burton, who celebrated his 80th in the summer, revealed an open-minded approach to the keyboard that brought to mind Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, even Misha Mengelberg, with a touch of Monk thrown in. Greene joined Taylor's Jazz Composers' Guild in 1964 and subsequently played with the ICP Orchestra's co-founder, Willem Breuker, so the heritage was ingrained.

The quality of Cafe Oto's Yamaha grand shone at Greene's fingers. Just after launching in to Nature Boy Waters paused to ask him to play inside the piano, one of several interventions that could have qualified the piano as 'unprepared'! Vogel's fleet fingerboard work blended relaxed precision with an inventive streak that mirrored Greene's dextrous technique. Greene also dropped in a bright piece by Silke Löhr, Say Yes.

Their spiralling opening duo paved the way for Waters to break the ice with her opener from Sing, Moon, Don't Come Out Tonight, introducing the echoing repetition of 'broken heart', to invest each word with additional weight, as she did in Nature Boy. 'The greatest thing you'll ever learn Is just to be loved and be loved in return', repeating 'love, love, love …', kneading the words to carry the emotional power of experience.

Billie Holiday's unnervingly timely Strange Fruit with its acutely shocking imagery, 'Then the sudden smell of burning flesh', and her bittersweet Lover Man rubbed shoulders with the spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. In each were found anguished resonances as Waters drew out the crushed poetry embedded in the crevices of the lyrics. Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, which looks over its shoulder at Ellington's Mood Indigo for its title, took on a deeply personal slant as she wrung every nuance of emotional meaning from just those few loaded words. The nursery rhyme Hush Little Baby Don't You Cry, a line also famously appropriated by Gershwin's Summertime, popped up in various guises laden with far more than the surface innocence of the text. Waters ended the set with an impassioned Wild Is The Wind and the heartfelt repetition of ' wild, wild, wild, … wild is my love for you'.

And all bound together with the most lyrical of accompaniments and improvisations by Greene and Vogel.


CD REVIEW: London Music Works with Joe Stilgoe, Liane Carroll, Shane Hampsheir and Keith Ferreira – A Swinging Big Band Christmas

London Music Works with Joe Stilgoe, Liane Carroll, Shane Hampsheir and Keith Ferreira – A Swinging Big Band Christmas
(Silva Screen Records SILCD1557. CD review by Mark McKergow)

You surely can’t get more Christmassy than this collection of festive favourite songs given a smooth big band treatment and performed by a host of the UK’s most in-demand talent.

Silva Screen Records specialise, as their name suggests, in music for film and TV; their website is a treasure trove for those interested in the likes of collections of Thunderbirds incidental music from the 1960s (as well as more recent incarnations, Gerry Anderson fans). They clearly have first call on many of the country’s top session musicians, and the playing throughout this CD is bullseye perfect.
These evergreen songs have been arranged by Evan Jolly (with a couple by trombone ace Callum Au) for big band, string orchestra and vocals.    

Joe Stilgoe leads off with a swinging take on Let It Snow, the horns letting loose in the finest Nelson Riddle tradition, plenty of drum breaks from Elliott Henshaw and buttock-clenching high trumpet notes aplenty. Liane Carroll, her voice and personality well suited to bringing life to such classic material, follows along with a zippy Jingle Bells, perhaps my pick of the album, with insistent backing passages conjuring up the tinkling brassware of the song’s title. Indeed, Carroll’s work on Sleigh Ride, Santa Baby and Silent Night all bring distinctive readings which make the most of the lush musical setting.

Shane Hampsheir gets to tackle White Christmas and It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, and serves up tuneful renditions with some nice dynamics to ride along with the brass section.  ‘Singing Accountant’ Keith Ferreira completes the vocalists, his take on Winter Wonderland leaving space for a sparkling full-band interlude and Frosty The Snowman ushering in a flute solo from Martin Williams. The CD features a number of these shortish solos in the big band tradition, which are of course more in the nature of variations on the theme than full-on Coltanesque explorations.

The CD closes with the entire company gathering around the piano (and the orchestra) with We Wish You A Merry Christmas, supported by Martin Williams’ tenor saxophone. The music throughout is polished, swinging and full of good-natured seasonal tidings. If you’re looking for something to put on at the office party that will offend nobody and bring a bit of genuine jazz to the occasion, get this recording now – it’s downloadable as well as on CD so you can act instantly. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for more cynical and higher jazz-component Christmas music you might try Barbara Dennerlein’s Christmas Soul album which I reviewed here a couple of years ago.

LINK: London Music Works' A Swinging Big Band Christmas on Silva Screen Music website 


REVIEW: Guy Barker's Big Band Christmas 2017 at the Royal Albert Hall

The Guy Barker Orchestra
Photo credit: Paul Wood

Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas
(Royal Albert Hall, 10 December 2017. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Judging by the packed house, arranger and trumpeter Guy Barker’s Christmas Big Band show at the Royal Albert Hall is in danger of becoming an annual fixture. Setting out his stall briskly, Barker’s setting of Tidings of Comfort and Joy released descending strings which yielded to the trombones taken at a big band clip then segued into wild hot Hammond organ by Jim Watson with staccato percussion and an exultant horn section. But it was the crazy, looping chords of Watson’s Hammond that raised the roof. Martin Shaw’s trumpet solo sealed the deal.

Clare Teal
Photo credit: Paul Wood
On Jingle Bells schmaltz was kept at bay by a scorching tenor solo. This band is big but it moves like a solo entity, and it swings wildly, with Watson on the Hammond again. In support of Clare Teal’s gutsy rendition of Cool Yule, Guy Barker blew a powerful Dixie-influenced solo on his trumpet. Please Send Me Someone to Love by Percy Mayfield was introduced with sleepy, bluesy brass which supported Tony Momrelle’s soulful school-of-Sam-Cooke vocals, as the strings maintained the blues strain. The drums and the brass section came down like a hammer while the strings rose in a sweetly soulful keening. The song concluded in a Joe Williams-Count Basie tropical storm.

Mica Paris
Photo credit: Paul Wood
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town saw Guy back on trumpet, paired with Giacomo Smith’s clarinet. It was like Christmas Carol with the ghost of Glen Miller turning up. Joe Stilgoe’s singing had a terse sophistication which — again — worked to counter the corniness of the material. Merry Christmas Baby got an agreeably raucous screech of an intro from the orchestra. Watson’s Hammond was back to reinforce the R&B flavour which fitted Mica Paris’s gritty molasses-sweet vocal to perfection. Fat, fertile chords from Al Cherry’s electric guitar rose swelling and swaggering to fill the Royal Albert Hall. Mica Paris’s singing was soaring, gospel gutbucket. Add Ray Charles to the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

Georgie Fame
Photo credit: Paul Wood
The young Guy Barker’s first letter to Father Christmas was a request for the single The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde by Georgie Fame, and he went on to work with Fame — for 27 years and counting. Fame’s Yeh Yeh is irresistibly groovy, with rapid fire, toe-tapping rhythm. Tasteful and tasty string writing added immensely to the song, as did the tumbling tenor and wild, wailing alto. It’s the essence of hip. Slinky piano and melancholy, diaphanous strings set the mood for Going to Kansas City with Fame on vocals again. The song was taken slow, with moments of suspension to savour the mood. It segued into Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid which kicked off as a piece of compact, precision swing, Fame bouncing his vocals off stabs from the brass section.

Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve featured Clare Teal’s honeyed singing, and Barker’s gift for integrating this large band to achieve a graceful, poised and focused sound was tremendously in evidence here. These orchestral forces could easily be overwhelming, but they’re anything but. The deft, concise clarinet solo was by Martin Williams.

Winter Wonderland was taken at a hell of a lick and has a badass, big city vibe, setting the scene for Giacomo Smith’s high speed clarinet. At this pace, even the straightest of jazz blowing begins to acquire a boppish urgency and compressed complexity. With Jim Watson’s Hammond adding colour and weight, this was another example of a piece where the kitsch factor had been cunningly defused. Smith’s final cry on the clarinet landed us somewhere between the land of Raymond Scott and the territory of the great blues shouters.

Joe Stilgoe
Photo credit: Paul Wood
Sleigh Ride saw Joe Stilgoe playing the piano as well as singing, and his flowing vocals entwined with Giacomo Smith’s clarinet to intoxicating effect. A radical slowing of pace and the most ethereal shimmer of strings made this an unlikely highlight of the evening. We Three Kings was given a remarkable film noir makeover and showcased Jim Watson on Hammond again, but the real hero here was Alistair White’s trombone. The band’s pleasure in these charts was palpable. For Hallelujah I Love You So Mica Paris returned and the orchestra sounded like a tight and on-the-ball R&B unit — no mean feat. While it might be the guest stars who grab the headlines, the really outstanding achievement of this evening is Barker’s big band writing and the way it avoids the seasonal scourge of saccharine. A festive treat to savour.

Nathan Bray trumpet
Pat White trumpet
Andy Greenwood trumpet
George Hogg trumpet
Martin Shaw trumpet solos
Alistair White trombone
Nichol Thomson trombone
Winston Rollins trombone
Mark Frost trombone
Graeme Blevins alto saxophone
Sam Mayne alto saxophone
Martin Williams tenor saxophone
Alex Garnett tenor saxophone
Jessamy Holder baritone saxophone
Jim Watson piano and organ
Peter Edwards piano
Chris Hill bass
Al Cherry guitar
Sebastian de Krom drums
Ed Richardson drums
Tom Rees Roberts bonus trumpet
James Copus bonus trumpet
Ryan Quigley bonus trumpet
Danny Marsden bonus trumpet
Clare Teal vocals
Georgie Fame vocals
Tony Momrelle vocals
Joe Stilgoe vocals and piano
Mica Paris vocals
Giacomo Smith clarinet
Guy Barker trumpet, conductor, arranger

LINKS: Preview of the 2017 concert
Review of the inaugural 2016 concert


REPORT: Hitch On Jazz Juniors International Exchange in Kraków

One of the many posters advertising the competition
seen all over Kraków.
Photo by Mary James

Hitch On Jazz Juniors International Exchange 
(Kraków, 3-6 December 2017. Report bt Mary James)

The annual Jazz Juniors International Exchange, which attracted 78 bands from around the world to audition and showcase, was won by Quantum Trio from Poland and Chile. Mary James attended for London Jazz News and here is her report:

The Hitch On Jazz Juniors International Exchange, held annually in Kraków, is not just any old competition with clear winners and losers. There were highly enjoyable concerts and at times it felt more like a festival than a competition. It is a very clear statement that mutual exchange brings short-term and long-term benefits to everyone who takes part.

There are two strands: the Juniors competition for those under 25 years, and the Showcase aspect for all the rest. The juniors were competing for a cash prize and recording opportunities. The showcase bands had the chance to play in front of festival directors and get themselves some work around the world. Each showcase entrant had to provide a “sponsor” – either a club, festival or record label – who would offer an opportunity to other entrants in exchange for their sponsored band taking part in Kraków. The juniors were also seen and heard by the sponsors which could lead to future partnerships for them too. So everyone benefited from the experience.

Jazz Juniors has been going for over 40 years, but the showcase aspect was new. The exchange showcase idea was the brainchild of pianist Pawel Kaczmarczyk, who realised that mutual exchange could overcome the financial and other barriers to stepping onto the international stage. He has since toured China and other countries, proof that the concept works. The CEO Tomasz Handzlik said he was proud to see young Polish musicians such as Mateusz Pałka step on to the world’s stage via success in competitions such as this.

The auditions and showcases took place in a very interesting part of Kraków, Dolnych Młynów, just 10 minutes walk from the main square, where disused factories have been transformed into a vibrant hub of dance schools, craft beer bars, vegan restaurants and nightclubs, including Zet Pe Te where the music happened. Over three days six predominantly Polish bands performed auditions in front of a Jury for the Juniors. And eight bands from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Russia and Poland showcased to a Programme Board comprising Festival and Club Directors from Serbia, Spain, China, Russia, Croatia, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. Bands were pre-selected by a Qualification Commission which included Dave Douglas and Lars Danielsson who had the task of listening to the submissions of the 78 entrants and creating the audition list. It was striking that we heard only one standard in 14 concerts.

At a Gala concert in Radio Kraków on 6 December 2017, the winners were announced. It was probably no surprise to those of us present at the auditions that First Prize went to Quantum Trio from Poland-Chile. The band comprises Michal Jan Ciesielski (saxophones), Kamil Zawislak (piano) and Luis Mora Matus (drums), where a rhythm section of drums and piano more than compensated for the lack of bass. In addition to a cash prize they won the opportunity to release a CD on the Italian label Emme Records and several invitations to international festivals. They were impressive from the moment they walked onto the stage. Their enthralling short set of catchy physics-inspired titles was unashamedly full-on and gutsy, with memorable hooks tightly held together. Think early Roller Trio with an Eastern inflection.

Special mention must be made of the winners of the Second Prize, Vibe Quartet. They had a nervous start, possibly there was a fault in the monitors, and for a few anxious moments their set seemed to fall apart. But then the vibes player Michal Puchowski seized the moment, calmed the nerves and nailed it with a captain’s innings.

Alongside the competition there were concerts in the cosy Harris Piano Jazz Bar. I caught the album launch of violinist Mateusz Smoczyński’s solo album, Metamorphoses. Smoczyński won the Second Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition in 2016 and this album release by the Zbigniew Seifert Foundation is further proof that lasting relationships are one of the main outcomes of Polish competitions. It was an emotional set of own compositions where Smoczyński overlaid chunky danceable pizzicato and ghostly reverb with heart-stopping improvisation. This wasn’t about technique, this was music straight from the soul and it was warmly received on a very cold night.

Next year the competition will be renamed as the Hitch On Music Exchange with many more entrants and partners.

Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter working with Maciek Pysz and others. Twitter @maryleamington

Mary James attended the competition as a guest of the organisers.


Maciek Pysz and Daniele di Bonaventura Coming Home

Maciek Pysz and Daniele di Bonaventura Coming Home
(Caligola 2232. CD Review by Peter Jones)

Coming Home is a stunningly beautiful album that very nearly got my vote for best of the year. A triumph of understatement and restraint, it features the acoustic guitar of Maciek Pysz and the piano and bandoneon of Daniele di Bonaventura. The sweet melancholy of the tango is what this is all about: these are all original tunes but they sound as if they have been haunting the backstreet cafes and dusty dancehalls of Buenos Aires for decades. And the melodies of tunes like Nadir and More and More are so strong that they’re crying out for lyrics.

Having collaborated on Pysz’s A Journey in 2015, the duo premiered this new album at the London Jazz Festival a few weeks ago. Polish-born Pysz is a specialist in the music of South America. He’s been based in London since 2003, and has played all around the UK with the likes of Asaf Sirkis, Tim Garland and Ivo Neame, as well as in mainland Europe. I’d assumed Di Bonaventura was Argentinian but in fact he was born in Italy. He records for ECM and has worked all over the world, collaborating with everyone from Toots Thielemans and Lenny White to Mathias Eick.

The music on Coming Home is acoustic. The bandoneon sounds like an accordion but is played like a concertina, and one of the many pleasures of listening to it, apart from di Bonaventura’s intensely melodic improvisational gift, is the way it huffs, clacks and wheezes. You’re just not going to get that from an electronic keyboard. Pysz is a wonderfully subtle player, and likewise, whilst his runs and chords are gorgeous, you also appreciate the squeaks and creaks and scrapes of the strings. This is particularly noticeable on the slow numbers, such as Lights and Tree (no Xmas connection intended here, I’m sure).

Some electronic effects are used. On the title track, for example, one of Pysz’s compositions, both musicians appear to be using volume pedals to ‘bow in’ the notes, which are sustained through the use of plate echo.

On some tracks, such as di Bonaventura’s Tango and Pysz’s More and More and Blue Tango, di Bonaventura plays piano, giving the tunes a more stately treatment. And on both the funkish Paquito and the waltz I Gazzillori you can readily picture dancers twirling away in the background.
Anyone who likes latin music, or guitar music, or just good music in general, would surely enjoy the richness and warmth of Coming Home.


INTERVIEW/FEATURE: Mica Paris sings Ella Fitzgerald 5-date Valentine's Tour, Feb. 2018)

Mica Paris
Ahead of a five-date UK Valentine's Tour and a new album, Mica Sings Ella, AJ Dehany interviewed MICA PARIS, a major presence on the UK music scene since first emerging in 1988. He writes:

Nothing in life really compares to being called "darling" by Mica Paris.

The soul superstar’s voice and surpassing presence have made her a cherished figure over three decades in music. She’s worked with Prince, Alexander O’Neal, and Lemar, and become a fixture on TV, radio and the stage. This year she added another string to her bow with her powerful interpretations of Ella Fitzgerald. I spoke to Mica ahead of her forthcoming tour and album, taking for my "angle" that Mica Sings Ella represents "the First Lady of British Soul meets the First Lady of Jazz". To my surprise she embraced it with graceful style: “Yeah, totally! I agree, darling. Absolutely!”

Throughout 2017 the jazz community has been celebrating the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. Mica has been performing the songs made famous by the First Lady of Jazz, appearing with the Guy Barker Orchestra and her own band to equal acclaim.

“It’s been a whole year of Ella. I started in February and it’s just been building up. I didn’t expect it to go so well! We did the Love Supreme festival and had seven and a half thousand people in my tent. People go crazy for this stuff, honey! I don’t even understand what’s going on! If I knew that I would have done it earlier!”

Mica is recording the album Mica Sings Ella with the Guy Barker Orchestra, due to be released in April following a tour in February 2018. Guy Barker’s epochal arrangements and Mica Paris’s soulful delivery are a potent combination, holding their own even against Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington’s defining work together in the 1950s. “With Guy, his interpretation of Duke Ellington was so fabulous! When I’m working with Guy I feel like Guy and I are doing Duke and Ella, it feels great!”

In classic style they are recording the album live in the studio, with the whole orchestra around Mica (who is singing into the iconic C-12 valve microphone). “It’s a fabulous feeling. You feel like you’re weightless. You feel like you’re being carried by 80 musicians. It’s incredible to have that as the backdrop to your voice. It’s interesting—when I’m singing with my ten-piece band, I’m driving them. When I’m singing with the orchestra, I’m being carried by them…”

The arrangements stand up to comparison with the classic recordings but have a force and modernity all their own. “The thing is it was never about copying Ella. It was always about interpreting her in my way. She did that all the time. She would sing the Beatles, Gershwin, rock 'n' roll. She always made it her own and that’s what’s important. If you copy somebody you’re basically doing karaoke.”

Musically, both Ella and Mica come out of gospel. Ella’s parents were Methodists; Mica’s were Pentecostal. The singers almost share a birthday: Mica, April 23; Ella April 25. Mica shares and even expands on Ella’s eclecticism, bringing the full force of her own personality to bear on the material. How does she feel about the different energies of gospel, pop, soul and jazz?

“When you sing gospel it’s a very, very different energy. Gospel is about empowering and making people feel that they’re gonna get through their problems. Pop is more about emoting this feeling of love, the love vibration. Jazz is different, you have to be very open to where you’re taken because it’s the timing of jazz. Jazz is all about timing. You have to really feel what the musicians are doing and you have to work with it. No two jazz shows are the same. It’s very raw, very naked, so if you’re not a great interpreter of music you’re gonna have problems singing jazz. You’re really naked!”

The Mica Sings Ella tour in February is being styled as a ‘Valentines tour’. Is this one for the lovers?

“Yeah, which is really beautiful! One of my favourite songs is called You’re My Thrill. It emotes that feeling: you know when you’re really into someone and they just blow your friggin’ mind and you can’t actually cope? When they walk in the room and you can’t breathe. You know the universe is telling you they’re gonna be a big problem to you later on. Anyway,” she laughs, “moving swiftly on…”

Just as Ella’s life had its dark clouds, Mica has had more than her share of sadness. Since 2003 she has acted as an ambassador for anti-gun crime after her brother Jason was shot dead in South London. Her extraordinary strength as a performer comes from her resilient attitude to facing down the pain of life.

“It’s the pain that makes you able to touch people with the gift. If you didn’t have the pain you wouldn’t be able to do what you do and be effective with it. The music has always healed me. That’s what’s kept me in the game for 30 years. It’s the music: writing, and performing on stage. Cos’ when you’re on stage, darling… that’s it! There is nothing else compares to that. It’s out of body. That’s why so many artists end up taking drugs. Nothing can replace the high you get on stage. We’d like to be up there all the time, wouldn’t we?”

On that note, I asked if Mica has any favourite singers interpreting Ella. Her answer was thought-provoking.

“Everybody does Billie! You don’t really hear people do Ella much, funnily enough. Hey, it’s great. I’m doing it; maybe this is the start of something. I want her to be celebrated for what she’s done. Billie Holiday got all the press cos Billie was the face—and the media glamorize drugs. But Ella was superior vocally.”

It’s great to hear an artist appreciate another artist for their art rather than the myths that can misrepresent them. Mica Paris takes a long view. “I wanted to resurrect Ella because she lasted longer than all of them! You know, my girl was singing in a wheelchair with no legs. And she was still killin’ it! Amazing. The story of her life is incredible. It’s not just the centenary, I’m doing a theatre show about her next year as well, and a documentary. For me it’s important to educate people about the greats. I wanted to bring back Ella so the younger generation know that this woman had a voice that transcended her race, just like Nat ‘King’ Cole. They managed to transcend race, which is a very powerful thing. I want to celebrate her because we’ve heard her all our lives but she’s in the background to everyone’s life, she’s on every damn advert you can think of.”

Jazz is a great means of rediscovery and making things new again…

“That’s right. You got it! That’s why I’m doin’ it, baby! It’s not just a centenary, she’s an unsung hero—and I wanna give Ella her props.” (pp)

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.


11 February - Islington Assembly Hall, London

13 February - The Fleece, Bristol
14 February - Ruby Lounge, Manchester
15 February - The Jamhouse, Birmingham
16 February - 2funky music cafe, Leicester

Mica Paris website


CD REVIEW: Various Artists (incl Stan Sulzmann) - Live At The Spotted Dog

Stan Sulzmann/John O’Gallagher/Jonathan Silk/Ben Lee/Sean Gibbs/Various Artists - Live At The Spotted Dog
(Stoney Lane SLR1878. CD review by Mark McKergow)

This collection of new music recorded live at The Spotted Dog in Birmingham gives a fascinating and tantalising glimpse into the second city’s thriving jazz scene and its up-and-coming stars.

The Spotted Dog has been home to weekly Tuesday jazz sessions which allow the local talent, particularly those springing from the Birmingham Conservatoire, space to present new music late into the night. Founded by saxophonist Mike Fletcher with Miriam Pau and then continued by Jonathan Silk, Richard Foote, Dave Ferris, Sean Gibbs and Chris Young, the pub in a formerly industrial area off Digbeth brings an intimate connection between musicians and audience. This collection was recorded over three nights in 2016, and presents a real treasure trove of musical collaboration.

The album leads - both on the sleeve and on the disk - with three tracks from Stan Sulzmann and a big band of Birmingham Conservatoire graduates plus a few regular associates. Of course it’s all very well played, Sulzmann is on good form on tenor saxophone and there is a particularly nice solo from trumpeter Tom Walsh on the ECM-ish The Thrill Is Gone. However, this is far from the main attraction of this collection – it serves more like an hors d’oeuvre for the four outstanding smaller groups who come later.

First up is an extraordinary trio led by Scots-born drummer Andrew Bain and featuring Americans alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher and double bassist (and 2016 MOBO award nominee) Michael Janisch. Both Bain and O’Gallagher have been studying for jazz-based PhDs at the Conservatoire, and they clearly know a thing or two about how to put together top-class music making the most of this rather sparse line-up. O’Gallagher combines boppish virtuosity with bluesy, rootsy intensity and an expressive tonal palette to conjure up sustained solos on both his own Extralogical Railman and Janisch’s The JJ I Know. Janisch himself participates with huge concentration and interaction, his bass sounding warm and full even in this relatively informal live recording. Bain - allegedly the leader here but never taking more than his share of the spotlight - is right in there too, and the 20 minutes of music flies by in a heartbeat. If these three made a full CD, I’d play it till it wore out.

Jonathan Silk’s Fragment ensemble takes that unusual move of putting a string quartet - two violins, viola and cello - alongside a jazz quartet. First Light starts with the strings to the fore, before Percy Pursglove’s trumpet takes a splendidly fluid solo.

The Ben Lee Quintet takes a more energetic route, having the instrumentation of an organ trio (Dave Ferris on organ holding down the bassline, Lee on guitar and Euan Palmer on drums) combined with a juicy front line of alto sax (Chris Young) and the trombone of Richard Foote. The quintet make great use of the range of the alto/trombone combination to give some rich harmony lead lines on Beginning Of The End before Young’s full-on growling solo. Talk To You starts with a heavy Hendrixy riff which ebbs and flows through the number, giving Lee a fine opportunity to show delicacy as well as power in his soloing.

Although this is a live album, the applause at the end of the performances has mainly been edited out.  This helps with building the collection as a sustained listen and it’s easy to forget the context - until the last number starts with Sean Gibbs addressing the audience and introducing his Fervour quintet to appreciative applause. Cheer Up Old Bean gives an upbeat bouncing conclusion to the album with Andy Bunting’s Rhodes piano and Gibbs' trumpet loping along over the confident bass of Nick Jurd.

With very comprehensive sleeve notes from Tony Dudley-Evans (who has played a leading role in Birmingham’s jazz scene for well over 30 years), this is a fine showcase for both the city’s musicians and the output of the Stoney Lane label.

LINK: To the album on Stoney Lane’s website, where one track can be previewed before release of the full collection on 26 January 2018


REVIEW: Penny Rimbaud's What Passing Bells (The War Poems of Wilfred Owen) at the Vortex

REVIEW: What Passing Bells (The War Poems of Wilfred Owen) — Penny Rimbaud, Liam Noble, Kate Shortt
(The Vortex. 6 December 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity.”

11 November 2018 will mark a century since the end of the First World War—the war to end all wars. Wilfred Owen is one of the major poets of the conflagration. He was killed exactly a week—almost to the hour—before Armistice Day. His mother learned of his death just as the bells were ringing out in Shrewsbury. Owen left behind a body of poetry including unforgettable monuments to the horror of war, Dulce et Decorum est, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. These poems have become part of the language, known and recited by schoolchildren, even if not - as some have said they should be - read at the Cenotaph.

Penny Rimbaud, activist polymath and co-founder of seminal anarchist punk band Crass, last month released What Passing Bells (The War Poems of Wilfred Owen), his readings of the poems with pianist Liam Noble and cellist Kate Shortt. They have performed these on many occasions during the ongoing centenary period. It’s an important undertaking. It’s an important record. In a detailed recent interview with Patrick Clarke for The Quietus, Rimbaud explained “When the centenary of the war came round I thought ‘I’ve got to do it’. I was really worried there was going to be a horrible degree of jingoism and nationalism rising, which in a less direct way has risen. I wanted to present a counterpoint. I vowed that from 2014 to 2018 I’d perform it as often as I could, wherever I could.”

No one of the poems takes more than a few minutes to read, and Rimbaud has ordered them for thematic continuity with the sense of an overall shape, beginning with Song of Songs ("Sing me at morn but only with your laugh”) and concluding with a final reflection on memory and age, The End. The sequence is a punch to the gut for audience and performers alike. Penny Rimbaud says: “When I’m performing live, fighting back tears and fighting back explosions of real anger is unbelievably horrible. It’s not a nice piece to do.”

They used to do this as two sets but now it’s an unbroken 80 minutes, leading through the album’s programme of 27 poems with the music improvised. Penny Rimbaud says: “Every performance is completely different, it’s a golden rule in progressive jazz that you don’t repeat yourself. Just because we manage to pull something off in what we all agree works really well, that doesn’t mean we’ll ever try to replicate it. I think the three of us are just finding deeper and deeper meanings and expressions within the words."

Penny Rimbaud
Photo published by Red Bull Music Academy
without indication of copyright resttriction 
The immediacy and intimacy of their presentation of the poems does justice to their stylistic and thematic range. Penny Rimbaud’s delivery has a gravitas that underlines the timeless importance of these verbal monuments, as well as expressing their Shakespearean dramatic qualities. Rimbaud crawks the broad cockney of the soldiers in Inspection, concluding The Chances with a roar: “Jimmy’s MAAAAAD!”, capturing the bleak black comedy in The Last Laugh of “‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said; and died” and the patrician clip of the Doc in The Dead-Beat: "That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!"

The sonnet On Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action is like Shakespeare in the original Klingon: “May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!” He sobs, he barks. Throughout, there’s a peculiar warmth to it, the humanity of the men in the no man’s land of the machine coldness the settings often express: Liam Noble hammering on the keys and pulling at the open strings of the piano, Kate Shortt’s extended cello techniques including whistling open harmonics in a cold sonic world reminiscent of the bleak microtonality of Pēteris Vasks’ cello writing. The Send-Off stresses the administrative elements of war - roads, trains, signals, journeys, tedium - which seem well served by these kinds of atonality that were coming into being at that time not just as obscure Viennese experiments but as an expression of what was happening in the world: no melodies, just numbers, numbers.

At times Liam Noble seems to be playing a demented inversion of the jaunty piano music accompanying the silent cinema, which would have been accompanied by newsreel footage from the war. Apologia Pro Poemate Meo (“in defence of my poetry”) has a relevance that has grown as news media has permeated our lives and gone on to not just report but to foment history. The poem criticises "you" at home for whom war propaganda and images are entertainment, "These men are worth/Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.”

Wilfred Owen enlisted in 1915 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment in 1916. He suffered significant trauma. He was blown up by a trench mortar and lay unconscious for several days on an embankment surrounded by the remains of his fellow officers. Diagnosed with shell shock he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (as documented in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration) under whose influence he moved away from the patriotic modes of earlier war poets like Rupert Brooke, coming to write haunting evocations of the horror of war that have echoed through history ever since.

Yet Wilfred Owen was not a pacifist. He was an officer, with a professional attitude to leading his men into battle. Initially he even wrote with contempt for the "loutish behaviour" of the troops, calling them “expressionless lumps.” After Craiglockhart, he came back to fight, and he died for it. He is sometimes viewed retrospectively as possessing a wholly negative attitude to war, but in fact he is nuanced and complex and ambivalent—to an extent that disturbs us today.

Owen’s use of mythic parallels both upholds and undermines notions of heroism. Owen reduces the opening of the Aeneid from “Arms and the man I sing” to the title Arms and the Boy. There’s no Ovidian transformation of man into a murderous minotaur, just a boy with his bayonet blade. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is a bitter reverse parable of Abraham slaying his son “And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Anthem For Doomed Youth remembers the fallen as individuals rather than numbers. Dulce et Decorum est sets a detailed account of a gas attack against the abstractions of nationhood and patriotism. These are two of the most famous and important poems in the language. Rimbaud, Noble and Shortt avoid actorly chewiness in favour of simplicity, pacing and space. Strange Meeting is given a minimal treatment to foreground the slower storytelling and atmosphere of the poem. This one in particular is the key to Penny Rimbaud’s conception of the poems. “In my late teens I was introduced to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and from one line in his Strange Meeting I was awoken to an entirely new way of being - “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” - no malice, no terrible vengeance, only love; a true expression of human possibility.”

The performance of the whole sequence began with an utterance from the draft of Wilfred Owen’s Preface: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity.” The document continues “Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.” Did they offer consolation to that next generation who went on to live and die in the Second World War? Did they offer consolation to those who died in Vietnam, and subsequent and current wars? They can’t console, they are current. They are not a warning from history, but a description of the present. That’s what’s so chilling. We cleave to hope, but the word ‘cleave’ means both to split and to hold dear. For Penny Rimbaud activism is a role of the avant garde (The Guardian 29 November 2017): “Essentially, the avant garde is about changing the world. It must be, otherwise it wouldn’t exist.” But how can the avant garde change the world if even the deaths of 18 million people couldn’t prevent all that has happened since?

Rather than concluding on an “expression of human possibility”, Rimbaud, Noble and Shortt close on an ambivalent note with one of Owen’s bleakest statements, The End. “Shall Life renew these bodies” he asks… but he finds no solace in religion, no hope or ardent glory in either victory or defeat: “It is death./Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified/Nor my titanic tears the seas be dried."

A single piano note, repeating, ebbing away...

Then silence.

There was silence for a long time.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.

LINK: What Passing Bells (The War Poems of Wilfred Owen) is released on One Little Indian


CD REVIEW: Glen Manby - Homecoming

Glen Manby - Homecoming
(Mainstem MSTCD 0059. Review by Frank Griffith)

This finely integrated quintet speaks hard bop fluently while embracing other modern jazz idioms in a forward-thinking fashion. Glen Manby, a Cardiff-based altoist, is joined by a top London band with Steve Waterman, trumpet; Leon Greening, piano; Adam King, bass; and drummer Matt Home. They all fully rise to the occasion, with both cohesion and a familiarity with the elegant and clean arrangements.

Manby has contributed seven distinguished themes, all with an incisive and quirky hard bop edge that drives this collection relentlessy throughout. The inclusion of Wayne Shorter's Yes or No, Kenny Dorham's Una Mas, and Quincy Jones' Quintessence all provide variety and changes of mood.

Waterman's shimmering trumpet is in cracking form throughout and is followed closely in the solo stakes by Leon Greening's piano. His free-flowing lyricism provides an inspired foil to the horn's outings. Bassist King is surely one of the finest of the younger players to have emerged for years. He scores highly alongside Home's drums on Skippy with their eloquent "theme rumble" over the repeated closing melodic statement.

Manby is a graduate of the Jazz and Contempary Music Programme at The New School in NYC and went on to earn his MA in Jazz at the Royal Welsh School of Music and Drama in Cardiff. He was also awarded an Arts Council of Wales Research and Development grant to study with the late saxophonist George Robert (1960-2016), founder and director of the Jazz Department of the Lausanne Conservatory (HEMU) in Switzerland.

Homecoming was funded by an Arts Council of Wales Project Grant and what a great investment this turned out to be. More of this please as this sort of funding is clearly lacking for jazz projects in recent times. A promising debut and one hopes that this band will have the oppportunity to tour. Hard bop lives and is in no better hands than the Glen Manby Quintet.


INTERVIEW: Trish Clowes talks about British Composer Award-winner Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian

Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian with her award
Photo credit: Mark Allan

At the British Composer Awards (BASCA) ceremony at the British Museum on Wednesday, CEVANNE HORROCKS-HOPAYIAN was named 2017 winner in the Contemporary Jazz Composition category for her piece Muted Lines, recorded by Trish Clowes. Trish talked to us about the composer.

LondonJazz News: How did you first get to know Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian?

Trish Clowes: I think we met through Chris Montague in the first instance. They had both been part of Serious’ Take Five scheme at the same time. Cevanne then came to a Tangent quartet concert at Wigmore Hall in 2013.

We’ve kept in touch since then, and there have been subsequent connections too. Cevanne had worked with or alongside friends/colleagues of mine such as Kerry Andrew and Consortium 5. Juice, Kerry's vocal ensemble with Anna Snow and Sarah Dacey, performed at Emulsion III at the Village Underground in 2014.

Cevanne’s project exploring the Renaissance tradition of ‘Eye Music’ also included Chris and Calum Gourlay.

LJN: What is the origin of this composition and can you explain the theme of forced migration?

TC: I could hear something in Cevanne’s work that I felt could really complement my way of working. Cevanne and I had been talking about some form of collaborative project for a while when a discussion about the migration and refugee crisis prompted Cevanne to think about events and ideas she had long wanted to explore in music. We decided we would write ‘sister’ compositions that both explored the theme of forced migration. This had particular resonance for Cevanne because 100 years ago, her family were forced from their ancestral homes in eastern Turkey during the genocide which murdered 1.5 million Armenians. Initially, all Cevanne could think about in response to events of such magnitude was silence – the generations silenced either by political pressure or by horror and trauma.

Eventually, Cevanne decided to respond using a reductive exercise. She experimented with one line written by the sixteenth century Armenian poet Nahapat Kuchak, gradually removing words and reducing the text. Whilst much of the meaning was lost, Cevanne found that the feeling remained, and that setting this text to music allowed the silence to be filled with new meaning. With Cevanne’s piece emerging as a darker sounding approach to the subject, we decided my response piece would be more celebratory, looking at the birth of the drum set and celebrating the innovators who established what we now know as jazz.

LJN: Once you had commissioned Cevanne, what happened? Where was ‘Muted Lines’ first performed?

TC: Fortunately, PRSF generously supported the commission and we recorded Muted Lines for the My Iris album, which came out in early 2017 on Basho Records. The piece was first performed by the band at the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival, and a larger scale version was performed by the Emulsion Sinfonietta at the Emulsion V event at mac Birmingham as part of the My Iris album launch tour. Muted Lines has been part of a broader and ongoing process of commissioning and developing new music through Emulsion. Since 2012, we have now commissioned 14 pieces of new music

LJN: How did it feel performing the piece for the first time?

TC: It was really interesting to play someone else’s music! Touring and discussing the sister compositions has been a new experience for me, as it has been the first time I have addressed major political and social themes in my work. I have since explored the refugee crisis more directly in my new work for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Performing Muted Lines was also the first time I have used singing in my performances and I have continued to write more compositions that incorporate the voice. Working with another composer for the first time has been an enjoyable process in many different ways – our influences overlap but it brings a different and fresh perspective to creating music.

At the Ceremony:
Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian (L) and Trish Clowes (R)


CD REVIEW: Dial and Oatts/RichDeRosa/ The WDR Big Band - Rediscovered Ellington

Dial and Oatts/RichDerosa/ The WDR Big Band - Rediscovered Ellington - New Takes on Duke's rare and unheard Music
(Zoho ZM 201707. CD Review by Frank Griffith)

Rediscovered Ellington is a collection of mostly unheard music of Duke Ellington giving a glimmering yet pensive sound and production. The musical triumvirate of pianist Gary Dial, saxophonist/flautist Dick Oatts and arranger, Rich Derosa unearthed these compositions from obscurity, shaping them with colourful, immaculate and refreshing arrangements rendering Ellington anew. They commented: " continue his legacy, we resurrected his pieces with our perspective through personalised arrangements." Most of these renditions showcase how great music can transform into something modern and forward-looking while maintaining the original essence of its composer.

Dial and Oatts contribute potent and original solos throughout all the nine pieces. Oatts' alto saxophone brims with soulfulness on Let The Zoomers Roll as does his lyrical and richly-toned flute outing on Just A Gentle Word From You Will Do. Pianist, Dial shines with his elegant but blues-drenched opening choruses before the melody of Kiki enters. Similarly, John Marshall's trumpet solo on the same tune scores with his full bodied, burnished sound bringing a majestic ardour to the piece that it richly deserves. Not to be outdone, bassist John Goldsby demonstrates his Paul Chambers-like melodicism on his solo sandwiched by by a swinging ensemble shout ensemble and a saxophone soli.

The Cologne-based WDR Big Band is precise, dynamically expansive and capable of negotiating through the most complex charts with ease. The CD opens with Hey Baby which was also recorded in 1956 with Rosemary Clooney on the Blue Rose album. Oatts is "first outta the blocks" with a riveting solo, followed by tenorist Paul Heller then the alto of John Horlen both of whom give the veteran Oatts a run for his money.

The WDR band's largest contribution is largely down to DeRosa's arrangements and direction. These result in a compelling interaction between the three forces present here. This interaction is a crucial component in music which is symphonic to some extent in shape and stucture, fully responsive to the subtleties of the soloists' phrasing throughout these timeless pieces.

DeRosa, who also arranged and conducted bassist Ron Carter's 2015 CD, My Personal Songbook for the WDR Big Band (REVIEWED HERE), is no stranger to this role. He also arranged two previous recordings for Dial and Oatts in 1990 and 1993 as well as had two charts recorded by the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in 1985 (Dearly Beloved and Alone Together). This clearly demonstrates his versatility, vision and craft in large ensemble writing. He believes that Rediscoverd Ellington "should be shared with all college students in a workshop and concert settings. This project shows what can be done with seemingly 'old' music. It will have a professional life but it can also continue to inspire our newest upcoming professional musicians."

Plaudits and kudos should go to Dial, Oatts, DeRosa and The WDR big band for their passion, rigour and originality devoted to this remarkable project.

Frank Griffith will be director/soloist with the Rebel Yell Jazz Orchestra, Spice of Life, 17 January.