INTERVIEW / PREVIEW Lauren Bush (New CD Release All my treasures; Launch: Pizza Express Dean St 30th May)

All my treasures album cover

London-resident Canadian singer LAUREN BUSH has achieved her goal: to record her first CD, "All my treasures", before her 30th birthday. She talked to Alison Bentley about learning to use her voice as an instrument; how she chose the songs, and Ian Shaw’s role in producing the album.

London Jazz News: Your early musical influences were in Canada?

Lauren Bush: My dad is a jazz trumpet player and my mum was an instrumental band teacher in High School, so both my parents went to University to study music. When I was small that was a massive influence. My dad freelanced for most of my childhood. The older I got, the more I realised he was living this really cool lifestyle. It wasn’t until I went to University that I realised I had an aptitude for it, because I’d been raised in it. I’d always really enjoyed music in school-I had piano lessons. It wasn’t until University that I thought, I really want to do this for real, for a living! I started my own jazz quartet, and sang with the University jazz band, and started to take it really seriously. I went to a liberal arts university in Texas- it was a really interesting experience. My family moved for my dad’s career and we lived in Texas in the deep south, and I developed a bit of a twang! I studied music and interior design- I was worried that if I studied just music I might not be able to support myself. I wanted to have a fall back plan, but I realised I didn’t want to be an interior designer. When I finished that degree I got my teaching certificate to teach music in schools, so I’d still be pursuing music.

LJN: Tell me about some of your performing highlights?

LB: At school in Texas we were given quite a few opportunities- my first really awesome experience was opening for Maynard Ferguson. I don’t think at the time I really understood what that meant, but now I’ve done a lot of listening I realise that playing alongside him was an exciting opportunity. When I moved back to Canada, I tried to get into some of the jazz festivals- my Quartet got to perform in the International Jazz Festival in Victoria. I met Bobby McFerrin and got to go up on stage and scat with him.

LJN:  What brought you to the UK?

LB: My partner is an actor and he got into grad school here. I’d been to the UK to visit and absolutely loved it. Culture and arts life in Europe is so much richer than it is in North America. I think Europeans still appreciate live entertainment. We’ve been here about four years and haven’t looked back.

LJN: You sing with a band in Italy too?

LB: About a year after moving to London I put some songs on YouTube that have had quite a few hits, and a guitar player, Luca Di Luzio, who lives in Italy stumbled across these tracks and really liked them. He contacted me and said he’d really like to bring me to the Ravenna area. He said, ‘We’ve got an agency and manager and you can play with our Italian trio.’ I’ve been twice now and have two more gigs coming up.

LJN: Your "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" on YouTube got you some UK gigs too? 

LB: It’s been a really solid demo for me. Also, when I entered a competition in Riga- there were 20 of us- and when I got there the other singers knew who I was from YouTube. It is an awesome arrangement but I can’t take credit for it. Patrick Courtin, the piano player I worked with in Canada created it.

LJN: Which singers have influenced you?

LB: My absolute favourite is Chet Baker. I love that he is an instrumentalist and a singer. He especially influenced my scat singing- he’s got an instrumentalist’s perspective on it. When he scats he sounds like he’s playing the trumpet. To me, that’s what scatting should sound like. It shouldn’t be someone trying to pretend to sound like a horn player. It’s a way of expressing the sound but you have to remember that your voice is your instrument. I’m also really influenced by Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter. I’m totally taken with Cyrille Aimée- she’s really big on the New York scene right now- she’s got a different approach to singing and I admire her ability to scat. Nnenna Freelon- she’s so cool. She does what I like to do, and take a song that may be well known, and try to change it and do something new and modern and different, so that people recognise it but you’re not just doing the same old same old.

LJN: How did the idea of using your voice as an instrument come about, and how did you work on that?

LB: When I studied music in Texas, they didn’t really have a jazz studies programme, so I tried to create my own pathway in a classical programme. What I just couldn’t get my head around was singing classical music without changing it in some way. Vocal coaches were always on my case about it- ‘You can’t change this music, it’s written that way!’ I was just desperate to add my own twist to it, so I realised scat was a good way for me to express myself. In jazz, all the instrumental players get to improvise and so why shouldn’t I? My dad talked to me a lot about being able to hear how the chord changes go, and making sure that you’re singing along with them, so I have to use my ears a lot. There’s no end to what you can do. Sometimes I gig and I think, ‘My solos are getting a bit stale, like I’m not going anywhere.’ All you have to do is sit down and practise and change your path a little bit. When people started saying to me, ‘You’re really good at scatting,’ I thought, ‘That’s something that sets me apart.’

LJN: In your CD liner notes you mention that you transcribed Ray Brown’s solo in "I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." Is transcription something you do a lot?

LB: Not a whole lot. One of my university teachers talked to me about listening to the bass because it’s the driving force, especially when you’re using your ears to hear how the changes go and how a song moves. I’ve always tried to listen to what the bass is doing. I’m much better at doing things by ear than I am at writing so I’ve learned a lot of solos that way.

LJN: Which solos have influenced you? 

 LB:  I started out listening to a lot of Ella’s solos. It was a bit of a party trick- I learned her Lady Be Good from start to finish. I found her solos were quite easy to follow. I think Chet Baker’s are my favourite- the one on It Could Happen to You. And I really like Sarah Vaughan- she does one on All of Me- that’s a classic. She’s like Ella, but I think she’s better!

LJN: There are some moments on your CD where you’re singing soli in unison with other instruments.

LB: [Pianist} Liam Dunachie wrote those. I think it was three days before the recording! Originally it was meant to be me and the saxophone player [Brandon Allen.] When we got into the rehearsal, he said, ‘Why don’t we try and slide it around, so the instrumentalists take turns and you’re singing with all of them?’ It adds another level.

LJN: You’ve worked with Liam for a while?

LB: He was the very first guy that I met when I moved here. I looked in the Jazz in London brochure, trying to find places I could sit in, and I ended up at the Spice of Life. I got up to sing with Liam and a drummer I work with a lot, John Blackburn. About six months later, Liam had a gig at the Charterhouse Bar in Farringdon- he needed a singer, and we’ve been doing a weekly gig there since then every Tuesday. I knew Liam was the guy who would be able to blend my North American sound with a European sound and would be able to take these songs that I love and turn them into something new and unique. And he has done such an amazing job with them.

LJN: The album title "All my treasures" comes from Bob Dorough’s lyric to "I’ve Got Just About Everything I Need." That was arranged by Don Thompson, your teacher in Canada?

LB: Don plays piano, bass and vibes amazingly well. He’s got a couple of albums out with Kenny Wheeler. I did a summer camp on Vancouver Island and I asked him for a lesson. He suggested that I check out Bob Dorough and that song, and said: ‘I’ve made an arrangement of it- I’ll send it to you.’ That was about five years ago. I’ve been compiling this list of songs I wanted on my album since I started doing this.

LJN: The key changes in "I’m Old Fashioned" are really interesting.

LB: It took some getting used to at first, but it makes it sound much more modern. Again, it’s all Liam. There are a few where I can take credit for an idea-I wanted Secret Love to be quite fast, and A,You’re Adorable to have that completely contrasting funkiness that takes away from that childish sound.

LJN:  How did you meet the sax player?

LB: That was [producer] Ian Shaw’s idea. He said I should have somebody’s name on my album that’s gonna make people turn their heads. He thought- and I agree- that Brandon Allen’s sound blends really well with my American side. So he’s a really good fit- a consummate professional and a really nice guy.

LJN: "Detour Ahead" - that’s one of your favourites?

LB: I think that song is a really good old fashioned ballad but it has an interesting message as well. A lot of the songs that speak to me have to be able to tell a story, and I need to tell a story with them. Some people say it’s a weird song all about road signs but I think it’s an interesting metaphor for falling in and out of love. I listened to Cécile McLorin Salvant’s lovely drawly version of that song. And Dindi is my dad’s favourite- the verse at the beginning is so beautiful.

LJN: Charade -you thought that seemed mysterious?

LB: I still don’t really understand what it’s all about, but there’s something about the melody that’s haunting. There’s a version by Kat Edmonson- she does it as a tango. I listened to her take on it and took it a step further and tried to make it even more eerie. It reminds me of a haunted house!

LJN: Why does "Sweet Georgia Brown" remind you of the Harlem Globetrotters?

LB: It’s their theme song! At their games somebody whistled the theme of Sweet Georgia Brown and they’d be spinning the basketballs on their fingers. It made me think of a circus theme when I was a kid, and reminds me so much of my childhood.

LJN: And "Doodlin’ " - you met [lyricist] Jon Hendricks?

LB: When he came to London- he must have been 92. I saw him at Ronnie Scott’s and cried like a baby watching him. I thought, I’m watching history here. At the end of the show his daughter said, ‘Do you want to come and talk to him?’ I chatted to him and sat on his lap!

LJN: Don Thompson features again- he introduced you to Shirley Horn’s singing and "You’re Nearer" ?

LB: He said Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life was his desert island CD. I went out and grabbed it as fast as I could and listened to it about fifteen times. You’re Nearer is an absolutely beautiful ballad.

LJN: You have a more soulful song at the end of your album, "Feelin’ Alright."

LB: When I told Liam and Ian Shaw I wanted to do it, Ian laughed and laughed and said, ‘Why?’ I’d been listening to the Joe Cocker version. I think it’s a fun closer- it was the last thing we recorded, with Ian singing the backing vocals. I think it makes everyone instantly want to tap their toes and sing along. It’s got a positive vibe to it.

LJN: It shows a different side to your voice- do you do a lot of soul singing?

LB:  Not a lot but I like listening to Roberta Flack, Dusty Springfield. I find my ears are drawn to that bluesy R&B sound and I think my voice lends itself well to it- it’s an opportunity for me to express that different side.

LJN: What else did Ian Shaw bring to the production?

LB: He was really good at keeping me together. It was good because I’d record something and want to do it again, and he’d say, ‘No, no- that was fine. You don’t need to do it again.’ I trust him- he’s such a professional that if he says it’s okay, then it’s okay. And also he knows everybody- he was really good at taking me under his wing. It’s great having him as a mentor.

Alison Bentley is a singer and teaches singing. Her music is on Soundcloud

Lauren Bush - All my treasures: Liam Dunachie, piano; Brandon Allen, sax; Miguel Gorodi, trumpet; Kieran McLeod, trombone; Andrew Robb, double bass; David Ingamells, drums;

CD Launch 30th May, Pizza Express Dean St., with Liam Dunachie, Andrew Robb, David Ingamells. (BOOKINGS)

LINKS: Lauren Bush's website
All my treasures is available from iTunes


CD REVIEW: Shez Raja - Gurutopia

Shez Raja - Gurutopia
(Dot Time Records DT9050. CD review by Adrian Pallant)

Quoting ‘bass’, ‘groove’ and ‘fusion’ in the same conversation is likely to summon thoughts of Stateside heavyweights Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke or Marcus Miller – so it feels something of a privilege to flag up and recommend the progressive, impassioned contribution to UK jazz/funk being made by five-string electric bassist Shez Raja.

Originally hailing from North West England (twixt rivers Dee and Mersey), Raja’s profile was significantly raised by the Shez Raja Collective’s Soho Live (2014) – an attention-grabbing, high-energy performance captured at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club featuring distinguished guests Gilad Atzmon, Soweto Kinch, Shabaka Hutchings and Jay Phelps.

New studio album Gurutopia continues the journey; and along with a core line-up of Steve Pringle / Alex Stanford (keys), Pascal Roggen (violin), Chris Nickolls (drums), Vasilis Xenopoulos (sax) and Monika Lidke (vocals), the charismatic, frequently white-clad bassist also invites renowned personalities Mike Stern (guitar) and Randy Brecker (trumpet) to feature amongst this feel-good blast of eight self-penned compositions. Retro glints abound in this sizzling music, not least the gritty violin signature of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Fender Rhodes echoes of Soft Machine or Isotope – but Raja’s penchant for original heady riffs, grooves and improvisation clearly marks out his own sound world for the here and now.

Mike Stern instantly lifts the lid on the leader’s box of tricksy rhythms in opener Rabbits, a perfect whirl of bass and electric guitar fluency (Raja himself employing a wide palette of tones to enable him to match any guitar improv) sustained by fizzing drums and electric piano. Inspired by visits with his father to ancestral haunts in the Punjab, Maharaja possesses the bassist’s characteristic raga-like impetus, Alex Stanford’s feverish portamento synth and Pascal Roggen’s violin flamboyance holding the key to its enchantment; and My Imaginary Friend‘s solid funk drive, coloured by skyward Mahvishnuesque violin/sax motifs and wah-wah bass extemporisations, becomes irresistible.

Carefree, lilting Song for John – dedicated to Raja’s young son – breezes along to Monika Lidke’s liquescent wordless vocal, halting the album’s general hypnotic gusto with childlike simplicity; and Sketches of Space (perhaps, with Randy Brecker’s trumpet feature, the oblique Miles Davis reference is intentional) swirls mysteriously, its sparkly synth atmospheres redolent of live Santana.

Taking a lead from the 2008 Guy Ritchie movie of the same name, RocknRolla serves up perhaps the most trancelike six minutes of the album as Stern’s rapid, wailing lead fretwork sparks off syncopated, chromatic bass figures. Bubbling, ska-tinged Primetime (inspired by Raja’s interest in mathematical theorems) trips to mesmerising prime-number time signatures 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11; and rolling back the years to ’70s mysticism/psychedelia, final track Shiva Mantra‘s phased bass riffs, adorned so effectively by Monika Lidke’s alluringly hypnotic chants, cry out for an old-school-vinyl perpetual exit groove!

Shez Raja and colleagues never fail to brew up a storm at their London gigs – but crank up Gurutopia (loud), and you can be there, too.

Adrian Pallant is a proofreader, musician and jazz writer who also reviews at his own site

Central London album launch, featuring Soweto Kinch and John Etheridge, is on Tuesday 10th May at Pizza Express Jazz Club.

INTERVIEW: Shez Raja (Album Launch at 606 21 April, Jazzahead Showcase, Bremen, 23rd April)
NEWS: Jazz-rock fusion giants Mike Stern and Randy Brecker guest on latest Shez Raja album


CD REVIEW: Miles Ahead - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Miles Ahead  - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
(Columbia/Legacy) 2016. CD Review by John L Walters

At first glance, the track listing of the Miles Ahead soundtrack album looks like a greatest hits package, with So What, Seven Steps to Heaven, Nefertiti, Black Satin, and so on (information below from  Many tracks are interspersed with snippets of dialogue from Don Cheadle’s movie, which was released in the UK last April.

As LondonJazz News readers may know already (e.g. from Dan Bergsagel's review of the film), this is not so much biopic as fantasy action comedy drama, freely improvised over Miles Davis’s actual life and musical career. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Miles Ahead was an ok Saturday night movie – with a dynamite soundtrack. Both movie and soundtrack album demonstrate how utterly cinematic Davis’s music was. Mike Figgis argued (in Digital Film-Making, published 2007) that Davis’s experience of improvising the score to Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud late in 1957 made a deep impression on Miles’s subsequent musical practice, particularly in the use of modes.

However you can hear that widescreen vision – the sensation of waking up to Technicolor daylight or plunging deep into celluloid noir – in his first Columbia recording with Gil Evans, also called Miles Ahead, made earlier in 1957.

Whatever your response to the new movie, which entangles real-life incidents with a Blaxploitation- style chase involving a stolen master tape (shades of Diva, whose McGuffin was a stolen tape of an opera singer), few people would deny that Miles’s music is more dramatic, emotional and mood- enhancing than the majority of soundtracks created for contemporary movies. (This is not a great era for movie music, when even the best composers are required to repeat themselves or churn out competent pastiches.)

In Miles Ahead, whether it’s Frelon Brun to underscore Davis’s personal demons or Back Seat Betty (actually an 1981 comeback track) to freshen up the hoariest of movie clichés – mis-matched male frenemies on a mission – the music works incredibly well. The fictional elements serve as metaphors for the real story. In Miles Davis, A Critical Biography, Ian Carr tells the more depressing (though dramatic) facts of his dark days in the wilderness, when Davis was sequestered in his increasingly squalid 77 th St town house, never opening the curtains. Lydia DeJohnette is quoted in Carr’s biography as saying: ‘When we went to visit him during that period, I compared it to seeing a bad B movie of a has-been movie star. That sort of lost star living in their dreams and memories.’

Even if Miles Ahead is neither mere B movie nor Sunset Boulevard, with a nerdy Tarantino-esque fantasy at its core, it contains elements that ring true. Davis did often call on young musicians, and take them under his wing in a way that changed their lives. When I shared a house with a fellow musician in the 70s and the phone rang late at night we would whisper jokingly, dramatically: ‘It must be Miles!’

And there is a spine-chilling moment when the wall of the Columbia building’s lift [elevator] gives way like the back of a wardrobe so that Cheadle (who directs as well as playing Miles) leads us into jazz Narnia – a 1958 recording session for Porgy & Bess, with Gil Evans and Davis working on some late revisions to the score. Magical.

On close listening, the soundtrack is not quite the greatest hits bundle it seemed: several tracks are edited or, in the case of Solea (from Sketches of Spain) faded out. Cheadle’s spoken interjections are reminiscent of Davis’s own – such as ‘see how that sounds, Teo’ at the end of Circle on Miles Smiles – and add to the mood.

Five tracks in the soundtrack album are not by Miles. Taylor Made by Taylor Eigsti and Franscessence by Robert Glasper are effective mood pieces. Fine trumpeter Keyon Harrold takes on several tough jobs: coasting Miles-ishly over the obligatory rap track for the credit sequence; playing Davis’s rival Junior for the fidgety fusion of Junior’s Jam; and impersonating post-rehab Davis for What’s Wrong With That.

This tune, by Cheadle, Glasper and Marcus Strickland, imagines the trumpeter’s triumphant comeback with a deliberately anachronistic all-star band that includes Glasper, Harrold, Cheadle, bassist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Antonio Sanchez, guitarist Gary Clark Jr, with Davis alumni Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. It’s an odd but effective ending to an oddly endearing film.

Ian Carr wrote that Davis ‘played with fire all his life and courted the flame.’ As a movie, Miles Ahead burns with more of the same. New listeners will always want to discover the music of Miles Davis. This soundtrack might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


1. Miles Ahead
2. Dialogue: “It takes a long time…” (*)
3. So What
4. Taylor Made – Taylor Eigisti
5. Dialogue: “Listen, you talk too goddam much…” (*)
6. Solea (excerpt)
7. Seven Steps To Heaven (edit)
8. Dialogue: “If you gonna tell a story…”(*)
9. Nefertiti (edit)
10. Frelon Brun
11. Dialogue: “Sometimes you have these thoughts…”(*)
12. Duran (take 6) (edit)
13. Dialogue: “You own my music…”(*)
14. Go Ahead John (part two C)
15. Black Satin (edit)
16. Dialogue: “Be musical about this shit…”(*)
17. Prelude #II
18. Dialogue: “Y’all listening to them…?”(*)
19. Junior’s Jam – Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland
20. Francessence – Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, Elena Pinderhughes
21. Back Seat Betty (excerpt)
22. Dialogue: “I don’t like the word jazz…” (*)
23. What’s Wrong With That? – Don Cheadle, Robert Glasper, Gary Clark, Jr., Herbie Hancock, Keyon Harrold, Antonio Sanchez, Esperanza Spaulding, Wayne Shorter
24. Gone 2015 – Robert Glasper, Keyon Harrold, Pharoahe Monch

(*) from the soundtrack of the film, Don Cheadle as Miles Davis
All other tracks performed by Miles Davis, except where noted

LINK: John L Walters wrote a feature about Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr, for the Independent in 1998


PREVIEW: 2016 Inntoene Festival (Diersbach, Upper Austria, May 13-15)

The main stage in the barn at Inntoene
Photo credit : Michael Fuehrmann

Sebastian writes:

One of the most characterful jazz festivals in Europe is Inntoene. It takes place over Whitsun weekend on a working pig-farm in open country near Diersbach in the Innviertel, a part of Upper Austria close to the German border. It is a relaxed affair where congeniality and the sense of a shared experience take over from wristbands, walkie-talkies, security and VIP areas. It has a main stage in a large 850-seater barn, and a "St.Pig's" a small club setting.

For such a small festival, Inntoene clearly punches above its weight - it was where Gregory Porter gave his first festival appearance in Continental Europe, for example. Two broadcasters, Austrian Radio and WDR3, record the whole programme. This year's line-up looks a fascinating mix of the legendary, the better-known and the new and unfamiliar.

I wrote about this festival for Allaboutjazz last time I went in 2011, and am looking forward to a second visit.:

Just that sight of all the times in the programme below being given as "ca." or "approximate" helps to get one into the mood of a relaxed, unstressed, close encounter with some great music.


Friday 13th May

ca. 19:00: Kenny Werner Trio
ca. 20:30: Rosenberg Trio (gypsy jazz / two guitars and bass)
ca. 22:15: Rom / Schaerer / Eberle
ca. 23:45: Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentleman

Saturday 14th May

ca. 14:00: SO III (Finnish trio)
ca. 15:45: Gadi Lehavi Trio (Israeli-born pianist)
ca. 17:30: Márcio Faraco Solo (Brazilian-born guitarist)
ca. 19:15: Harry Pepl (tape) & Salesny / Bayer / Frosch / Heginger
ca. 21:00: Al Foster Quartet
ca. 23:00: Ruthie Foster

Sunday 15th May

ca. 11:00: Funky Lemons Big Band / Upper Austria Youth Jazz Orchestra
ca. 14:00: AMC Unit (Slovakian piano trio)
ca. 15:45: Azar Lawrence "Tribute to McCoy Tyner"
ca. 17:30: Dom La Nena
ca. 19:15: Dudek/Haurand/Humair
ca. 21:00: Peter Bernstein Quartet
ca. 23:00: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

LINK: Inntoene Festival website


PREVIEW: Middlesex Presents Series (First Night - Let Spin and Vels Trio - Vortex, Sat. May 14th)

Middlesex jazz alumnus Stian Westerhus.
Photo credit: Hreinn Gudlaugsson/ Creative Commons

Sebastian writes: Chris Batchelor from the Middlesex Uni was in touch to mention a Middlesex University alumni bands night at the Vortex. The title of the new series is "Middlesex Presents" and the first night is on Saturday May 14th. 

The blurb for the series states: "In this new series the Vortex will host established bands featuring former Middlesex jazz students, and will also provide a platform for upcoming bands formed by current students."

This department, perhaps the place where the spirit of Loose Tubes has been carried forward most effectively for more than two decades, has produced an astonishing range of great musicians.

The first gig is at the Vortex on Saturday. It will present a double bill of:






Following Chris's idea, I did a quick bit of research on the Department's website, and also launched a request on Twitter - which led to this pool/list (*) from whom the Middlesex Presents series could in theory draw, in the future: : 

Froy Aagre (saxophone)
Maria Chaira Argir ò (piano)
Ben Bastin (bass/ producer)
Alex Bonney (trumpet /producer)
Sarah Gail Brand (trombone)
Andrew Button (guitar)
Laura Cole (composer)
Kelly Dickson (vocals)
Amanda Drummond (viola)
Tom Greenhalgh
Chris Gulino (keyboards)
Ed Gaughan - (actor and comedian)
Binker Golding (saxophone)
Ruth Goller (bass)
Justin Goodall (guitar)
Roz Harding (sax)
Bev Lee Harling (singer/songwriter)
Alex Jackson (sax)
Adam King (bass)
Hans Koller (piano)
Michael Olatuja (bass)
David Oliver (keyboards)
Vitor Pereira (guitar)
Mitch Perrins (drums)
Jack Pollitt (drums)
Ben Reynolds (drums)
Holly Slater (saxophone)
Tommaso Starace (saxophone)
Jon Shone (keyboards)
Femi Temowo (guitar)
Stian Westerhus (guitar)
Dave Whitford (bass)
Jason Yarde (saxophone)


all of Led Bib:
Mark Holub (drums)
Liran Donin (bass)
Toby McLaren (keyboards)
Chris Williams (alto sax)
Pete Grogan (alto sax)

(*) it may contain errors and certainly contains omissions.



REVIEW: David Sanborn’s Electric Band at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

David Sanborn at Cheltenham 2016.
Photo credit John Watson /(c) 
David Sanborn’s Electric Band
(Big Top, Cheltenham. May 1st 2016. Review by Peter Jones)

Green and purple lighting filtered through the dry ice billowing from the side of the stage, which was set for the appearance of alto saxophone legend David Sanborn and his merry men. As the band played the intro to Stevie Wonder’s Another Star, out came the leader, a somewhat frail-looking 70-year-old (he suffered from polio in his youth). He perched on the edge of a precarious-looking stool in front of a flimsy perspex screen, presumably designed to shield his ears from the noise coming from behind.

A fusion pioneer, Sanborn is garlanded with Grammys, and over the course of half a century, he’s notched up big album sales from the days when people bought albums in large quantities. He would probably find it quicker to mention the stars of pop and jazz he hasn’t played with, rather than those he has. His touring schedule is punishing enough to put younger men to shame, and he still honks and shrills with tremendous gusto.

The material consisted largely of what we now consider to be smooth jazz, in the sense that everything is set up with a solid groove and relatively few chord changes. The best moment was a bitter rant about the present state of American political life (which he described as a ‘clown car’) which served to introduce a slow, soulful tune entitled Ordinary People, about the poor working stiffs who are just trying to feed their families in the teeth of a wretchedly dispiriting election campaign.

As one would expect, the band (Ricky Peterson – keys, Nicky Moroch - guitar, Andre Berry – bass, Billy Kilson – drums, Karl Vanden Bossche – percussion) revealed chops of breathtaking skill, but the gig was not without moments of doubt. Oddly, Peterson’s keyboard was out of tune for the first couple of numbers, and Sanborn himself didn’t always quite get to the high notes he was reaching for. I got the feeling something wasn't quite right. At the end there were calls for an encore, but no dice - the band seemed in quite a hurry to leave the stage, and failed to re-appear. A shame. I'd had high expectations but this gig didn't quite live up to them.


PREVIEW: Serious Space Shoreditch (May 16th-21st)

Oy - Photo from Swiss Vibes site

Serious Space Shoreditch, a festival launched by promoters Serious last year, returns to Rich Mix for its second outing, taking in the six nights from Monday May 16th to Saturday May 21st. In this preview, Liam Izod looks forward to three of the events, a double bill of Nik Bärtsch in a duo with Sha, and OY on the Friday; Moon Hooch on the opening Monday; and Kneedelus on the Saturday. All gigs have a start time of 8pm and are at Rich Mix. Liam writes:

Nik Bärtsch & Sha / OY + DJ - Friday 20th May

Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch hypnotized audiences during his King’s Place residency at last year’s London Jazz Festival, and he returns to the capital to occupy the Friday night slot at Serious Space, duetting with bass clarinettist Sha.

Bärtsch’s precision-engineered ostinatos demand discipline from both listener and musician, but the rewards of engagement are rich. The Swiss musician's soundscapes are both mesmeric and menacing, and the light shows that typically sync with Bärtsch’s syncopation ensure a multi-sensory experience. In November Bärtsch appeared in various guises, both with his acoustic project Mobile, as well as the funkier Ronin. In both ensembles Sha’s revelatory bass clarinet playing stood out. His use of the instrument is as percussive as much as it is melodic - this duet will have no less oomph than Bärtsch’s larger ensembles.

Berlin based duo OY feature on the evening’s undercard but could just as easily lead the line-up. Swiss-Ghanaian vocalist and keyboardist Joy Frempong provides spooky techno grooves and spiky political commentary, which is paired with the tribal drum beats of Lleluja-Ha. Lleluja-Ha’s habit of performing in elaborate masks matches Bärtsch custom of taking to the stage attired like a Japanese kendo master. With such theatricality - both visual and musical - your reaction to this Swiss double- bill will be anything but neutral. (SOUNDS)

Moon Hooch - Monday 16th May

The label ‘acoustic’ usually implies a more relaxed atmosphere, but Moon Hooch from Brooklyn are typically iconoclastic in defying this designation. Saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen and drummer James Muschler re-imagine the beat drops of EDM by augmenting their horns with re- purposed objects like traffic cones and piping. They call their organic electro ‘cave music’, asserting it provides a post-apocalyptic refuge from the digital excesses of ‘house’ and other electronic music. Moon Hooch are anarchic, but they are also sure to be unmissable live on the Monday that opens the festival. (SOUNDS)

Kneebody + Daedelus: Kneedelus - Saturday 21st May

Whilst Nik Bärtsch’s brand of nu-funk has grooves cleaner than a Zurich pavement, American collaboration ‘Kneedelus’ draw upon the genre’s grittier roots, fusing muscular rhythms with an electronic ambience. L.A. quintet Kneebody arguably deserve near-equal acclaim to East Coast counterparts Snarky Puppy as innovators on the frontiers of funk. They bring their collaboration with prolific producer Daedelus to the Rich Mix stage for the finale of Serious Space. If the show is anything like the album it will offset thickly forested fusion with arresting electro experimentation - an intriguing mix. (SOUNDS)



PREVIEW FEATURE: LUME Festival (26th June; 7 days to go for Kickstarter)

LUME is a London-based platform for original and improvised music run by musicians Cath Roberts and Dee Byrne. Their gigs feature artists from across the UK creative music scene and beyond, acting as a space for new work and experimental music-making.

With just seven days to go on their Kickstarter, they write about their plans for a major event in LUME's development, the LUME Festival 2016, on June 26th at IKLECTIK ARTLAB:

Our idea was to do something a bit different to round off our 2015/16 season of gigs, so we decided to put on our first ever LUME Festival.

If the Kickstarter is successful we’ll be taking over IKLECTIK ARTLAB near Waterloo on Sunday 26th June for a one-day celebration of all things LUME: original and improvised music from the UK and beyond, friendly vibes and good times.

We thought it would be great to make a day of it and put on a selection of amazing new music from around the UK and beyond.

We put the call out for artist submissions in January, and had an overwhelming response. 135 artists took the time to fill out the form and send us their music! We had a tough time narrowing it down, but after three days of intensive listening and discussion, we've compiled a day of fresh, cutting-edge new music.


Ant Traditions (Manchester)
Top notch Manchester improv from Adam Fairhall (toy pianos) and Dave Birchall (electric guitar)

Kjær/Musson/Marshall (London)
Fantastic trio of Julie Kjær (alto sax), Rachel Musson (tenor sax) and Hannah Marshall (cello)

Little Church (Birmingham)
Quintet led by David Austin Grey (nord/synth/FX) playing compositions inspired by Miles Davis electric period featuring Rachael Cohen (alto sax), Chris Mapp (bass/electronics) and Tymek Joswiak (drums).

Hot Beef Three (Leeds)
Trio with some of Leeds’ finest improvisers: Oliver Dover (saxes), Andrew Lisle (drums), Craig Scott (guitar)

Blueblut (Austria)
Coming over from Austria! With Led Bib’s Mark Holub (drums), Pamelia Stickney (theremin) and Chris Janka (guitar)

Article XI (Manchester)
Freewheeling large ensemble led by guitarist Anton Hunter, with: Oliver Dover (alto sax), Sam Andreae (tenor sax), Cath Roberts (baritone sax), Johnny Hunter (drums), Seth Bennett (bass), Graham South, Nick Walters (trumpet), Tullis Rennie, Richard Foote (trombone)

- We've also invited Gina Southgate to come and capture the day on canvas, and Alex Fiennes to record the performances!

- All the money raised in the Kickstarter will go straight towards artist fees and travel expenses. Our aim is always to pay all artists who play at LUME a decent fee.

- With your help, we can put on everyone in the list above and pack the day full of music.

- This is just the beginning: hopefully next year the festival can grow, creating more space for original and improvised music to be played and heard.

- If you find the prospect of this exciting or even mildly interesting, please visit our Kickstarter page to read more and if you’re able to pledge, your support would be massively appreciated!



REVIEW-ESSAY (3rd of 3): Anthony Braxton – Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables (Composition No. 380) by Alexander Hawkins

Scene from the premiere performance of Trillium J at Roulette in Brooklyn in 2014
Photo Credit: Dylan McLaughlin

Anthony Braxton – Trillium J: The Non-Unconfessionables (Composition No. 380
(New Braxton House NBH906. 4-CD-plus-Blu-Ray set. Review-Essay by Alexander Hawkins)

The Trillium cycle is an interconnected series of operas by Anthony Braxton (more background HERE.) In this, the third of his three review-essays about recent work by Braxton, pianist-composer Alexander Hawkins considers where this ambitious work fits into Braxton's opus, and into the broader cultural context. He writes:

"Believe me; one day we’ll look back to this time period as a golden era for restructural breakthroughs…"

I don’t know how it’s perceived in other countries, but opera is at least arguably seen as the most establishment of establishment art forms in the UK. It’s often the one wheeled out by way of contrast, for example, whenever the lack of funding available for jazz is discussed. The arguments seem usually to be couched in relative terms: it doesn’t tend to be discussed whether opera is funded the correct amount, and other musics just not enough in comparison; or whether it simply receives too much in absolute terms. And what is a shame is the fact that the concept of opera itself seems increasingly tainted by claims of elitism, simply by virtue of the amount of funding received by the institutions which stage it.

I was going to comment on how beautiful it is, in this context, that we can find a work like Trillium J – The Non-Unconfessionables, created by such an outsider as Anthony Braxton. But the idea of ‘outsider’ doesn’t seem quite right; to me, that slightly suggests too much association with conventional channels (even if by opposition). Listening to this music, and his oeuvre as a whole, it’s clear that Braxton operates beyond convention: he is truly sui generis as an artist, and on reflection, I think there are probably precious few people of whom this can be said.

Braxton’s creativity seemingly bypasses traditional modes of production. His vision is completely and disarmingly unimpaired by ideas of ‘the way things are done’, or more simply, by ideas of what is realistic. This has a very practical element. Braxton was of course fortunate to have major label backing early in his career – he produced a string of classic albums for the Arista label in the 1970s. (An interesting piece of work might consider the extent to which other artists have truly capitalised on similar opportunities: Braxton used part of the Arista budget to record his massive Composition No. 82, scored for four orchestras; one contention might be that some artists, by contrast, have allowed the majors instead to shape (sc. ‘blunt’) their creative trajectories.) On the termination of this deal, however, and after stints with imprints such as Leo Records and HatHut, rather than slow his production, he stepped it up, and created his own outlets (in an echo of the self-determination ethic shown, for example, by the early generations of the AACM, or further back, by musicians such as Max Roach and Charles Mingus through their Debut Records enterprise; Prince’s career, of course, is also relevant in this respect). Braxton House came first; its newer incarnation is New Braxton House.

Braxton’s temperament is such that he is able to forge ahead with his work untroubled by practical considerations. It is not such a pressing question whether or not a performance of a composition for 100 tubas (Composition No. 19) is a viable idea, if that piece hasn’t yet been written. His vision, enthusiasm, and faith in creativity – whatever ‘America’ might throw at the creative musician – is such that for him, the thought that musicians might be stationed on different planets for a performance is not inherently any crazier than the thought that ‘how about we do this gig with piano, bass and drums.’ Hence his remarks in the Trillium J liner notes – light-hearted, for sure, but with an unmistakable sincerity of purpose – that the opera can be performed […] with any instrumentation that strikes one’s fancy – from an orchestra consisting of ten billion musicians (or more) all the way to a reductionist performance that consists of only twelve “bricks and a bucket” (smile). Certainly, we read elsewhere in the notes that future realisations of his operas may involve drones as part of a multimedia element, and it is very clear that this particular gambit is absolutely as on the cards as (say) that an oboe might appear in the pit for that same opera. In short: the question of ‘how’ necessarily comes second for Braxton to the concept itself. And it is worth noting in turn quite how often he finds a way to realise these concepts.

"There’s a special kind of opportunity developing in this time quadrant that hints of a fresh era of change and cultural excitement."

Trillium J – The Non-Unconfessionables is the most recently-released instalment of Braxton’s massive Trillium opera complex. Each opera is, in a sense, modular: it comprises a number of autonomous acts (this is a structural device shared with the operas from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s cycle Licht), which can ultimately be reconfigured, in a macro-level manifestation of Braxton’s ‘erector set’ concept for structural development. Trillium J itself comprises four acts (as indeed does its immediate predecessor, Trillium E: Wallingford’s Polarity Gambit). Though bracketed by the Trillium theme, these acts are, in other respects, not necessarily related to each other (in the case of each of Trillium J, Trillium E and indeed its predecessor, Trillium R: Shala Fears For the Poor, the theme is stated first on a solo wind instrument, followed by a full orchestral statement, with this order reversed at the end of the opera). In fact, an evening at the theatre in Ancient Greece, where the audience would see not one play, but four (usually three tragedies, followed by a Satyr play), could be seen as one loose analogue for this arrangement.

But just as Stockhausen was beginning to deal with concepts and structural conceits only loosely connected to the ‘grand’ opera tradition (take for one example the notorious Helikopter-Streichquartett which comprises Scene 3 of the cycle’s opera Mittwoch), so too are Braxton’s influences and ideals broader than the classical canon, narrowly construed. The Trillium series involves, for example, an entire mystery system, not unlike Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (which, although core repertoire in a sense, is hardly typical within the tradition); Alexander Scriabin’s bizarre last unfinished work similarly comes to mind. Braxton also acknowledges a debt to Walt Disney, dealing as they both do with fantasy worlds, dream states, multimedia, and plain fun.

At the core of the Trillium cycle lies Braxton’s comprehensive philosophy, as articulated in his Tri-Axium Writings. This three-volume collection, published in the mid-1980s, contains thinking which continues to inform all aspects of Braxton’s work: both in its relation to the world ‘at large’, and in its more internal dynamics (such as language, structure, the composition of the group, and so on). These writings also contain the keys to beginning to understand some of the conceptual ideas encountered in the operas which at first may seem somewhat esoteric to the new listener (or ‘friendly experiencer’, in Braxton’s usage, reflecting his awareness of the multimedia possibilities for creativity, as well as the different levels on which people may choose to engage with his work at any given time).

There are various important numbers within the Braxton thought system, and a striking element of the Trillium cycle is the ever-present cast of 12 characters (recall also the 12tet, and the 12 Language Music types), each of whom take on ‘sub-identities’ in each act of each opera: thus Kyoko Kitamura’s Ntzockie, for example, appears in Act I as a ‘town councilperson’; in Act II as Princess Whorlzea (the panda); and in Act III as Doctor Fletcher (a friend of Zornheim). How is this substantively different from having three separate characters? Another fascinating device:

In every case I want each singer to be “as they really are” inside of the fantasy character. As such, there is no need to attempt figuring out the personality of the character – as far as I’m concerned the “character has to figure out the person singing its part.”

This is certainly an ingenious way of diffusing the sense of artifice we sometimes get listening to certain traditional operatic roles: the singers aren’t dealing with ‘types’, so much as themselves. [It is worth noting too that these 12 characters are relevant in other contexts in the Braxton universe, such as the Sonic Genome.]

Trillium J finds Braxton, as ever, exploring form. There is a certain intrigue for the seasoned Braxton listener in dealing with the Trillium series. We’re used to Braxton’s daring with non-linear structures, for example, as manifested in the possibilities contained within the Ghost Trance Music and Echo Echo Mirror House Music (to take only two examples) for moving from the ‘master’ composition into other materials from throughout Braxton’s oeuvre. But on first blush, the operas appear to be outliers in this respect (and on one view, this would be enough in and of itself to make them structurally novel within the late Braxton soundworld): they seem to stay ‘on the page’ for their duration. Part of the answer to this has already been touched on: there is a macro-level structural game at play, where the individual acts comprising the operas can be reconfigured. But there are also fascinating ‘micro-level’ clues as to how the works may be treated in the future. And so in Act IV of Trillium J, we suddenly find ourselves temporarily transported away from the orchestral soundworld, and into an astonishing passage of Syntactical Ghost Trance Music (see also, for example, this release). And indeed, during this excursion, an episode of Double Dutch is interpolated on stage (note too Braxton’s mischievous reference in the liner notes to the possibility of involving the Dallas Cowgirl Cheerleaders at some juncture within the Trillium series).

It is important to highlight at this point too that this set contains not one, but two realisations of the opera; one – a studio recording – on CD, and the other, a live Blu-Ray, recorded in performance at Roulette, allowing the viewer to see the jump rope sequence, as well as the many projections and other purely visual elements of the performance. Of course many, many operas are, or can be, highly visual, but issuing a performance on Blu-Ray is nevertheless another example of Braxton pushing at formal boundaries. Significantly, in the liner notes to this release, Braxton writes of his hope to harness the possibilities offered by the internet to enhance future experiences of his work. And as fans, we might also wonder: how could these possibilities be applied to works from Braxton’s past, such as Composition No. 173 (for four actors, fourteen instrumentalists, constructed environment and video projections)?

"…the dynamic reality of cosmic transposition extends well past idiocentric parameters and/or isolated poetics."

The Trillium operas are not ‘number operas’ as such, although there are wonderful set pieces to be found: one of my personal favourites in Trillium J is spectacularly delivered by Elizabeth Saunders (as ‘Kim’/‘Countess Lila de Borge’) at the end of Act III, as she reads the Zornheim will. Instead of comprising individual numbers, the musical architecture feels determined more by the flow of the libretto (written by Braxton himself) – both rhythmically, and narratively. Braxton’s libretti have been the target of some criticism from certain quarters in the past (a singularly humourless Los Angeles Times piece followed a mid-80s performance of Trillium A, for example), but in many respects, this is puzzling. As music fans, we prize the singular and idiosyncratic, but it seems that some aren’t prepared to extend this attitude to the written, spoken or sung. [Or perhaps they are prepared to do so in certain contexts, since it’s hardly as though the canonical classical operas aren’t without their fair share of stylized writing.]

For me, the joy of Braxton’s libretti lies in their complete individuality, and refusal to recognize any norms of ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture (again, Braxton seems to be offering an alternative framing; just as it didn’t feel quite right to call him an ‘outsider’, so it doesn’t quite feel right to situate him in a ‘high’/‘low’ narrative). They flit completely unselfconsciously between references to his own philosophical precepts and the vernacular. Hence Kim (now as ‘Vampire No. 1’) in Act III begins:

Just between you and me Affinity Insight in this context can establish a psychology for vibrational radiance and cosmic balance,

before continuing

You seem like a sensitive person – with an awareness of originality

and then

Listen to me buster. Originality doesn’t begin to describe my situation.

Although some may complain that Braxton’s language is arcane (he’s not alone amongst the great originals in having found the need to devise new means of expression to convey new modes of thought: Buckminster Fuller, a thinker with whom I think Braxton has much in common, would be another outstanding example), one of the things, for me, is this: I simply don’t think it matters if it’s difficult to understand it all. I can still enjoy the sounds of the words; can still have fun thinking about what it is that he might be getting at; and yes, can even have a chuckle at the critics getting hung up with this. And a lot of it, in fact, is not only very easy to follow, but – and this I’m sure also makes it problematic for the more earnest naysayers – very funny. Acts III (involving the reading of a will) and IV (Scene 2 of which involves a courtroom scene) are shot through with priceless humour – to the extent that I think they would make an excellent introduction to the contemporary Braxton soundworld. From the former:

To my good friend Eva Von Pillsbury, I leave the bowling ball you always coveted (the bowling ball, but not the bowling ball case container – you’ll have to buy your own case). Anyway, I know this is something you’ll love. TWO BILLION, SIXTEEN MILLION, FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND AND NINETY FOUR DOLLARS TO THE TWO STRANGERS I SAW ON TELEVISION, BACK IN THE EIGHTIES. [Emphasis in original]

This is certainly part of the magic of the piece: it’s absolutely the type of work where each listener will take away ‘favourite passages’. (As indeed was the case with Trillium E: I personally will go on about one particular passage of vocal writing at the beginning of Act II of that piece until I’m blue in the face.) Another part of the magic, paralleling the easy movement between the philosophical and the colloquial, is the way that, in the midst of a piece primarily cast in some kind of a dream world, or at least in one of a number of ‘set piece’ worlds (such as the courtroom drama passage, or the ‘gangsters in an alley’ passage), suddenly a phrase will leap out with an extraordinarily direct contemporary resonance: check out the context of the exclamation ‘What is this, a United Nations operation or something!’ in Act III. Numerous passages have striking resonance too in the light of contemporary financial crises. Others have a more bittersweet edge: ‘Finally we can turn our attention to the welfare of our neighbourhoods and start the process of healing’ (Act I). Other passages still give us clues as to how we might treat creativity more generally: ‘This might not be my kind of place but it’s clear these people have their own thing. And I can relate to that.

"What about the stash of bazookas?"

If this is to focus on the lyrical content of the piece, it shouldn’t detract from the orchestral writing, which contains some wonderful and completely original colourations (the same is true of Trillium E, moments of which do ‘ethereal’ like you’ve never heard before). There are also some very subtle gambits which mean that the writing really doesn’t sound like anything else other than itself: some special moments occur when you momentarily perceive one of the improvising soloists peep out above the predominant scored texture, or where Braxton conducts a fully scored passage, whilst the ‘synchronous conductor’ (Taylor Ho Bynum) momentarily seconds a cohort of musicians to play a series of directed contours/gestures.

I’ve already mentioned the appearance of the Syntactical Ghost Trance Music passage. Another musical interpolation to the prevailing orchestral soundworld comes towards the end of Act I, when a jug band strikes up (do not adjust your sets). It’s at once one of the most bizarre moments in the opera, and one of the most Braxtonian, in its way. And this leads to another observation about the work: that at the same time as it is so all-consuming and original, as with so much of Braxton’s work, it is also extraordinarily ‘generous’: it inspires the friendly experiencer to think about all creativity, and not just the composer’s own. In the same way that a trip to the record stacks on listening to some Echo Echo Mirror House Music may in fact lead the ‘friendly experiencer’ to pull out a King Tubby record rather than some Braxton source material, so on some listenings to this opera, I found myself with all sorts of other pieces of music coming to mind. That jug band: when it started up, I thought once over about the itinerant Italian singer wandering into the court of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier, and the way the late Romantic German Richard Strauss soundworld immediately turns Puccini in that moment (Di rigori armato il seno). And as the jug band’s music dissolves, I couldn’t help but think of the way the Schubert soundworld turns into the Berio soundworld in the latter’s Rendering. And after listening to Act III on one occasion, I found myself going back to Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. (It was probably just the creepy old house bit which did it.) But spending time with music like this will simply enthuse you to make these connections. Here’s another: two thirds of the way through Act IV, Kristin Fung’s Alva sings, accompanied by Ingrid Laubrock’s soprano saxophone; and I found myself thinking of Steve Williamson shadowing Black Thought on the classic Pf Fat Time. Believe me when I say they sound nothing alike.

The media in recent weeks has of course been full of Shakespeare talk. But of those who left Spaceship Earth in 1616, it has always been Cervantes’ work which has really got to me on a personal level: I can’t think of a single more human character I’ve ever read that Don Quixote, or one with whom it seemed so easy to identify. Don’t get me wrong: the ‘quixotic’ idea doesn’t work 100% here; in particular, if you buy into Don Quixote as a fool, or his windmill-tilting as delusional, then 1) I think you’re wrong, and 2) don’t read on. But ‘quixotic’ I think touches on something central to Trillium J and its composer, insofar as we’re talking about idealism (a faith in the possibility of new forms of expression, and new media for their promulgation); insofar as we’re talking about ‘the journey’ (whether than be a literal narrative journey, or a new way of looking at journeying through form – whether musical, or the form of a career which has moved from the 1960s Chicago, via a major label and smaller, independent labels, into a period of more pronounced artistic self-determination); and insofar as we're talking about the dreamers and fantasists who are ultimately as real as it’s possible to find.

LINKS: Tricentric Foundation for details of all Anthony Braxton's works

Review-Essay (1 of 3): 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011  
Review-Essay (2 of 3): Quintet (Tristano) 2014


REVIEW: Becca Stevens Band at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Becca Stevens Band

Becca Stevens Band
(Jazz Arena, Cheltenham, 1st May 2016. Review by Peter Jones)

She’s worked with José James, the New West Guitar Group and Snarky Puppy. At the same time, after fifteen years with her own band, this singer, songwriter, guitarist, player of ukulele, charango and doubtless many other instruments is finally attracting attention in her own right.

For listeners unfamiliar with Becca Stevens, the closest comparison is perhaps with Joni Mitchell. Her voice inhabits that same high, pure register, with an attractive, vulnerable, folksy tremor. Likewise her songwriting is essentially folk, pop and rock but with a certain jazz sensibility: the tunes are relatively complex, nearly all of them involving vocal harmonies with bassist Chris Tordini. The only instrumental solo of the whole gig came at the end, courtesy of pianist (and singer) Oli Rockberger; otherwise Stevens sang every song straight through. So you could say it’s the kind of folk-rock that jazz fans would like.

Stevens has an endearingly informal manner. She halts one song after admitting that she’s out of tune, and it’s being played too fast.

Beginning with a song called Tillery, for which she plays a Fender Strat with a capo, she switches next to ukulele, then back to the Strat for No Miracles, and thence to I Asked, a particularly fine emotional love song she performed recently with the Swedish group Väsen and Snarky Puppy on their Family Dinner Volume Two album (see video link below). In this case her instrument of choice is the charango, an Andean mandolin. Another tune, The Muse, was composed with lyrics by the venerable David Crosby, and featured some unexpected John Bonham-style drumming from Jordan Perlson.

Becca Stevens’s material is never less than sweet and melodic, always with enough quirk to keep it interesting, and her lyrics are thoughtful and intelligent.

Becca Stevens will be at Rich Mix as part of the Serious Space Festival on May 17th, and at the Globe Theatre on July 18th

Link: I Asked - with Snarky Puppy on video
Becca Stevens: 2014 interview by Nicky Schrire
Review from 2013
Review of Becca Stevens at Revoice!, from 2012
Becca Stevens: 2012 Interview by Rosalie Genay


REVIEW: Julian Argüelles and Frankfurt Radio Big Band, Christian Scott and Rom Schaerer Eberle at the 2016 #cheltjazzfest

Julian Argüelles and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band
Photo credit: John Watson /(c)

Julian Argüelles and Frankfurt Radio Big Band (Town Hall)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (Jazz Arena)
Rom Schaerer Eberle (Parabola Arts)

(Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 1st May 2016. Reviews by Jon Turney)

From the opening notes of Dudu Pukwana’s romping Mra Khali, it was clear that the Frankfurt Radio Big Band breathing new life into South African jazz anthems was going to bring a lot of joy into the room. The combination of a big band with two drummers and Cheltenham Town Hall – an elegant space but with the acoustic quality of a barn – muddied the sound a little, but the feeling came through.

Arranger Julian Argüelles currently has the Midas touch: his septet set was a highlight at Cheltenham in 2015, and the Frankfurt crew worked superbly with Phronesis under his direction in London in the Autumn. This project, captured on a 2015 CD that made most best-of-year lists, re-awakens the tunes by the generation of South African musicians who made such a deep impression on British players from the 1960s on – allowing Julian, brother Steve on drums and percussion and Django Bates to revisit music they love.

The eagerly awaited live premiere could hardly have gone better. We heard the entire CD programme, with a bonus tune, Chris McGregor’s Sea Breeze, not on the recording. The Frankfurt soloists did the music proud, the peak effort coming from Axel Schlosser with a trumpet solo that would have pleased Hugh Masekela. Django Bates’ acoustic piano was mostly inaudible at first, but his storming synth solos made up for it. Steve Argüelles, along with regular drummer Jean Paul Höchstädter, furnished the whiplash beat that lifts township melodies. Live, these always infectious but bitter-sweet tunes and the full big band sound make a glorious combination. It didn’t quite reach the heights of Loose Tubes’ reincarnation at Cheltenham two years ago, or the Dedication Orchestra’s outing at the London Jazz Festival the same year, but a landmark gig nonetheless.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Photo credit: John Watson /(c)

A couple of hours later, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah presented a debut gig for a band featuring man of the moment Logan Richardson as his front-line partner – thus, Scott remarked casually, combining the two leading players of their generation on their instruments: trumpet and alto sax. Maybe so: they certainly made a formidable combination, and the quintet – also featuring a remarkable piano player in Tony Tixier – is a red hot outfit.

Billed as Stretch Music, signifying an ambition to present a multiplicity of global sounds, the Cheltenham set seemed not to offer room for genre-hopping, but didn’t suffer from focussing on straight ahead jazz. Herbie Hancock’s Eye of the Hurricane suited Scott’s essentially conventional modern trumpet style – featuring Milesian poise allied with Freddie Hubbard level technique – very well. Coltrane’s Equinox evoked the best solos of the afternoon from pianist and both horn players. Scott is technically fleet, thoughtfully inventive, though occasionally falls into mannerism as he manipulates the sound by moving around the microphone. Richardson impressed with a calm authority that held the attention at all tempos. A blistering set that delighted a sold out Jazz Arena.


Then more delight for a smaller crowd immediately afterwards in the Parabola Theatre. The trio of Austrians Martin Eberle on trumpet, Peter Rom on guitar and the extraordinary Swiss voice artist Andreas Schaerer delivered a set as amazing as it was musically delicious. Amazing because we heard things never heard before. Schaerer’s explorations of new dimensions of vocal technique opened up by clever use of the microphone are breathtaking. A small sample included a duo with Eberle in which any blindfolded listener would have sworn there were two trumpets intertwining on stage, a song in which he effortlessly popped complex rhythm – no trio including Schaerer will ever lack for a rhythm section – while somehow also singing the words, and any number of improvised flights in which he combined beatbox sounds, operatic swoops,vocalised horn lines and simply sung notes, all in fruitful interaction with the two droll, quick-witted instrumentalists.

The result is involving, exuberant, and often humourous music – typified by a piece of Rom’s, The End is Near, that combined a slew of standard jazz endings into one composition, or Schaerer’s anagrammatic Monk dedication The Unloose Hit. As a bonus, Soweto Kinch slipped back onto the Parabola’s stage twice, for some arresting alto and, bravely, a little rapping alongside Shaerer’s own light-stepping, dancing vocalising. It seemed a natural connection between free spirits but the gig would have been unusually memorable without it. This is a fine trio, and the man with the microphone a formidable creative force. A good jazz gig puts a spring in the audience’s step on the way out. This one had the additional happy grins and heads shaken gently in near disbelief that confirm we will be recalling fondly in years to come the evening when we first heard Andreas Schaerer live.


REVIEW: Lizz Wright and Frankfurt Radio Big Band at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Lizz Wright. Photo credit: John Watson / (c)

Lizz Wright and Frankfurt Radio Big Band
(Town Hall, Cheltenham. 30 April 2016. Review by Peter Jones.)

Although many of the Cheltenham audience had turned out to see Lizz Wright, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, conducted by Jim McNeely, was officially the headline act. Wright was merely fulfilling the function of singer for its programme of specially commissioned Gershwin arrangements. Always a shy performer, she may have secretly appreciated this format, since McNeely made all the announcements, and all she had to do was sing.

One is constantly amazed at the sheer number of famous tunes written by George and Ira Gershwin (a more recent equivalent would be Bacharach/David). Tonight there was a mixture of renowned standards and lesser-known numbers – They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Summertime, ‘S’wonderful, How Long Has This Been Going On, but also Walkin’ The Dog (AKA Promenade), Who Cares?, Slap That Bass – all tailor-made for the older Radio 2 audience packed into the magnificent Cheltenham Town Hall.

Wright’s clear diction revealed the archness and wit of Ira’s lyrics, e.g. rhyming ‘little velvet panties’ with ‘an inferno worse than Dante’s’. Her resonant, swoony contralto was as striking as ever, but of course there were limits to what could she do within the restrictions of the big band set-up, within which a singer rarely gets the chance to improvise, only to interpret a fixed musical part.

With a pedigree that includes the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Copenhagen’s DR Big Band and the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, McNeely carries a great deal of authority, but the new arrangements were surprisingly bland; on the way out, several audience members commented on this, particularly the arrangement of Summertime. The original, as we all know, is langorous, but its power lies in its spooky, otherworldly quality; this version was merely soporific - the ghosts had fled.

An added issue is the nature of Lizz Wright’s voice: it’s a low, velvety, caressing voice, perfectly suited to the slow, swampy music of her native Georgia. However, one of the joys of live big band concerts is the sheer power and excitement that a large ensemble can generate, particularly when fronted by a dynamic singer. On this occasion, one became increasingly desperate for a bit of ass-kicking, a bit of risk-taking. But only Fascinatin’ Rhythm briefly caught fire, thanks to some fine drum and tenor sax soloing. Then it was back to the Ovaltine and slippers with Embraceable You.

LINK: Preview/Interview about the Frankfurt Radio Big Band's visit to Cheltenham


REPORTS: Swiss Night and German Expo at jazzhead! in Bremen

Hildegard lernt fliegen at the Gala Concert
Photo credit: Ingo Wagner

A significant feature of jazzahead! 2016 was a total of forty showcase gigs, grouped into four sessions: the Swiss Night on Thursday, the German Jazz Expo and the Overseas Night on Friday and the European Jazz Meeting on Saturday. The concerts attracted 15,000 visitors in total, of whom 6,500 attended the Club Night shows at various venues in the city on Saturday night. In this round-up, Henning Bolte reports on the programme from Switzerland, the official partner country for 2016 jazzahead!, and on the German Jazz Expo. He also reflects on the selection processes. He writes:

The Swiss Presence at Jazzahead - Background

The four days of the jazzahead! fair are precedeed by a 14-day multi-arts and culture festival, organized in a cooperation between the city of Bremen and the partner country. Therefore the opening ceremony of jazzahead! is a double celebration, both of the end of that festival and the start of the jazz. It featured performances by a trio of vocalist Erika Stucky, drummer Lucas Niggli and tubaist Marc Unternährer.

The confederation of the Swiss cantons functions as a crossroads in the middle of Europe and the country has been affected by migration from -and in - all directions. With one third of its population having a migration background, Switzerland has one of the highest ratios for non-indigenous inhabitants in Europe. Eight Swiss groups were showcasing in the Swiss Night of the opening day. Also there was a gala concert on Saturday night at Bremen’s famous old concert hall Die Glocke with the renowned Zen Funk group Ronin of pianist Nik Bärtsch and Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, a group of acclaimed vocalist Andreas Schaerer.

Who is showcased? 

Almost half of the groups of the Swiss Night and the concerts had already been selected during the preceding 10 years of jazzahead! for previous showcases of the European Jazz Meeting before, or had played the Club Night.

The piano trio of Colin Vallon, the quartet of vocalist Elina Duni and the foursome of Weird Beard belong to this circuit of usual Jazzahead! suspects.

- Colin Vallon lets the music grow from subtle manoeuvres and close connectedness of his fellow musicians.

- Elina Duni is a strong and mature vocalist with Albanian heritage – she has lived in Switzerland since the age of ten. The group of instrumentalists, which operates with extreme subtlety, is a great context for her to soul to burn free. A stand-out feature is the beautiful percussion work of drummer Robert Pfammater. Within the time limit of a 30 minutes showcase she took the audience on a captivating pilgrimage along touching songs of life amongst others from her recent album Dallëndyshe (ECM).

- Weird Beard is a real band (with a rock bottom and a frontline of alto saxophone (of the David Sanborn type) of Florian Egli and the electric guitar of Dave Gisler. Its edgy but melodic music was full of contrasts that sparked its strong dynamics, led into captivating transitions and opened up wider horizons or surprising exits according to the apt title of its latest album Everything Moves (Intakt). The only thing the band’s highly agile music might need extra is a more extrovert stage presentation.

Julius Sartorius

The marvellous stand-alone performance of drummer Julius Sartorius was the highlight in a series of other outstanding groups performing at the Swiss Night. Sartorius performed earlier that night with the trio of pianist Colin Vallon and presently shares the drum chair with Kenny Wollesen in the trio of Swiss-American pianist Sylvie Courvoisier.

Sartorius operated off the beaten track realizing an amazingly high musical level in his a wonderful and fascinating performance. He accomplished it by consistently musicalizing everyday tools plus the skin, metal and wood of his drum set. His performance was not a drum solo in the conventional sense. Rather a dedicated and passionate musician made the drum (and a lot of assorted utensil) sing instead. Of crucial importance was his way of manipulating the material. It was easily observable, very tangible and it had its celestial traits too – even under the circumstances of a showcase. It would still be more intensified when the audience would be seated close(r)by. In astonishing ways Sartorius developed the flow, wove textures and evoked poetical lines and rondeaus. The total performance was exhilarating reinvention on the heel of great momentum. There was no attempt to impress but only pure dedication to make all beautiful strange sounds climb up, merge and resonate widely into place and space. The process and the sounding result, both of it enhanced each other. That is what made it utterly fascinating and satisfying to watch and to listen to it closely. With his format transcending performance Sartorius succeeded in establishing a close complicity with the audience. He created a new thing by a beguiling recombination of old as well as new means. It is highly autonomous work as is also documented on his album Zatter (Intakt, 2015).

Christoph Irniger's Pilgrim

Saxophonist Christoph Irniger has made a name over the last ten years and has participated in the Take Five Program. His Pilgrim quintet with electric guitar (Dave Gisler) and piano (Stefan Aebi) is one of the younger generation groups you cannot pinpoint from the established prevailing styles. Pilgrim is operating strongly from melody and motivic development in different temperatures, temperaments and tempos. It can be hectic and rough but also hovering in (Peter Green’s) Albatross-mode. In Bremen the group played a beautiful chant-like peace in that vein. Pianist Aebi also applied extended live electronics in one piece. It fitted well into Irniger’s way of gradually developing and extending pieces. The group’s versatility, its clever approach of dealing with contrasts and its full sound make it a group to take into account internationally. As a successor of its 2014-album Italian Circus Story the group will release a live-album, Big Wheel, later this year on its Zürich home label Intakt.


Expectations were high after bassist Luca Sisera’s recent album Prospect (Leo Records - REVIEWED) of his group Roofer. Prospect has impressive dynamics of squirrel quick turns, is full of witty playfulness and has a knack. Sisera is a busy man and involved in more than 20 groups so the essence of his playing should be fully contained in Roofer. The group did not perform on the same level of quick turns, fast runs, simulated break downs, rampage and quick resurrection as manifested on the album. Frequent performing will hopefully catapult the group’s music into that direction.


Up- and-coming piano trio Plaistow from Geneva has adapted elements from minimal music and techno for its music making. The minimalism of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass etc. has been influential the last decennia in different genres, mainly in contemporary composed music and in pop- and dance music, especially techno. Jazz is a late bloomer mainly. The Necks developed its very own approach and version independently from the 1980s and the new century saw the creation of the Zen Funk concept of Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch who took up the baton.

Currently there is a new movement of young musicians and bands who embrace minimalistic elements in order to transfer and adapt them to the piano-trio format. Evidently minimalism in combination with extended techniques and electronics offer a lot of strong and surprising effects. It remains to be seen if these new adaptations get strong and deep enough to really develop into something original – like in the work of pianist Craig Taborn – and catch on or will remain marginal.

The Gala Concert

The gala-concert at Bremen’s tradition-saturated concert hall Die Glocke presented the renowned Zen Funk group Ronin of pianist Nik Bärtsch and Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, the well-known group of acclaimed vocalist Andreas Schaerer (he won a German grammy in 2015) was a good example of contrast and diversity of the kind of music labelled ‘jazz’ and a good example for the richness of the jazz scene(s) in Switzerland. Both, Bärtsch and Schaerer, performed in Bremen earlier. Bärtsch performed there in 2008, two years after Ronin’s debut on German label Edition Contemporary Music when his career took flight. Schaerer was still more go getting. He showcased at Jazzahead! in Bremen three times. In 2012 he performed with Hildegard Lernt Fliegen and in 2014 he performed in duo with Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli and in trio with trumpeter Peter Rom and guitarist Martin Eberle. So in a way the choice for these two musicians/units seemed almost inevitable.

The best part of Ronin’s concert was the encore when the group finally matched the expectations fuelled by the group’s reputation, its quality and power from the past. In the main part the group did not really take off, the turns did not work out as usual, volume took over too much and as a consequence the groove remained quite static. The sound quality was dubious, less than mediocre. This raises the question of whether the hall's acoustics are suitable for this kind of compact electric music. A concert with Bärtsch’s acoustic group Mobile might have been more in place especially since it has just released an album with a string quintet entitled Continuum (ECM). Mobile has no bass guitarist but two percussionists instead. Knowing that Baertsch is also currently touring with Mobile, the priority to be given to the electric group Ronin did baffle me on this occasion.

The music of Schaerer’s six-piece-ensemble Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard learns to fly) formed a stark contrast with stringent Ronin. HLF is a cheerful entertaining slapstick troupe. As such it operates quite successfully on an international scale. Besides that Schaerer has a couple of other groups that play artistically more advanced and sophisticated music. The troupe immediately got started dynamically, pulled out all stops and went to fly wildly zigzagging. At high tempo a plethora of virtuosic stunts and interventions came along, pushed it up and intensified everything. It works in a way that is refreshing and hilarious...but which can became a bit routine in the long run. The songs with their high Fiddler On The Roof content become too predictable. That said, in the context of the gala, it was perhaps the right choice.

Swiss bands - Summary

The clearest and strongest voices of its own (coming from a deeper ground) were Elena Duni and Julius Sartorius. Then there were two quite different piano trios, the trio of pianist Colin Vallon and Plaistow. One of it, Plaistow, still has to consolidate and develop through. Weird Beard, Irniger’s Pilgrim and Roofer are groups tapping from heterogeneous sources and navigating through (sometimes heavy) contrasts with different approaches and focuses. There are also – like in other scenes – the multiple musicians like the two drummers Julius Sartorius (Colin Vallon Trio, Solo) and Michi Stulz (Pilgrim, Roofer), pianist Colin Vallon (Elena Duni, Colin Vallon Trio) and guitarist Dave Gisler (Weird Beard, Pilgrim).

It became evident again that the jazz-scene(s) in Switzerland have a good jazzahead! record and that they had to offer a lot on a high level this year. The choices made are based however on applications of fair participants and a selection from it made by an international jury of programmers. That is a strong (double) commercial filter functional for the fair to pursue its own targets. Strong groups and musicians might fall by the wayside in case they did not apply or fail to be selected. If lists of applicants or long-lists were made available, that might provide some insight.

The filter of the jazzahead!-procedure is no artistic filter. It can be expected that programmers select musicians and groups they think might be appreciated by their/the audience. The choice presented will indicate SOME of the things going on in particular scene. It must however not be mistaken as a representative reflection of things going on the jazz scene(s) in Switzerland. The special edition of the Swiss Jazz Magazine JAZZ’N’MORE edited by Christian Rentsch and spread during Jazzahead! offers a solution to those who want (or are in need of) a more thorough view on things going on. It is an essential and necessary part of journalistic work to be taken care of.

o - o - o - o - o

Nicole Johänntgen's band at the German Jazz Expo
Phot: (c) Jan Rathke / Messe Bremen

German Jazz Expo

The German Jazz Exposition gathered and presented eight groups, two with a female bandleaders (Rebecca Trescher, Nicole Johänntgen), five from the (wider) Cologne region, two from the south of Germany and one from Berlin. Two of the groups had musicians with a strong international and connection. Pianist Pablo Held toured and recorded with North American guitarist John Scofield and is a member of the Chris Potter Quartet, sharing the piano chair with David Virelles. Trumpeter Frederik Köster is frequently collaborating with percussionist Trilok Gurtu and Dutch saxophonist Tineke Postma and bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel, both from Cologne, are two of the most in demand German musicians nationally and also internationally. All groups operated at a high standard, and yet only a few of them were able to single themselves out in a distinctive way.

Rebecca Trescher

Most notable and innovative of all was the outstanding 11tet of clarinettist Rebecca Trescher from southern Germany. It had the wealth and elegance of Maria Schneider’s work but with a very own knack and an extraordinary melange of layered sound colours due to the uncommon instrumentation with amongst others harp, vibraphone, flute, bass clarinet, violoncello, voice. There is a clear German solidity in Trescher’s work with moods nourished by German traces and tradition recognizable from titles as “Düsteres Dunkel” or “Malachit” contrasted with the exotic Hawaiian “Ohia Lehna” from the ensembles last album Fields (Label 11). Her skilful arrangements yielded an undulating performance of excellent dynamics – music of non-agitated excitement and tranquillity.

Pablo Held Trio

The performance of Pablo Held in his long-standing collaboration with Landfermann and Burgwinkel, the strongest German bass and drum unit, was a neat and edgy ride that even in the impersonal surrounding vibrated. With great unfolding and listening to each other, high degree of momentum the threesome nailed it. The music, pointed and striking, came from a deeper place and had a much higher intensity than on their last trio album Recondita Armonia (Pirouet).

Die Verwandlung

The quartet Die Verwandlung (metamorphosis) of award-winning Cologne trumpeter Frederik Köster went into wider electronic sound fields/Klangfelde without getting lost. The group played with a higher degree of urgency and produced a lot of heat at the next step of its cosmic excursion. It was music along the edge of conventional virtues nudged into new territory. Köster set sails in that direction on the newest album of Die Verwandlung, Tension/Release (Traumton).

Thoughts on the selection process

The method adopted for the selection of the German Jazz Exposition is quite unusual and not at all what one would expect. It is not made by the German organization set up to support groups from Germany. As is the case for the other showcase programs, an international jury of programmers made the selection, in this case programmers from the United States, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany and a delegate of the Goethe-Institute. That might be one reason why there were no discernible patterns or directions in the way musical acts and musicians from Germany or the German jazz scene(s) were chosen. It rather seems it has been substituted by an external Darwinian approach. In that sense the German musicians and groups come across as somewhat rootless. The selection presented is not a realistic reflection of (the) scene(s) in Germany. The approach is not very suitable to render a clear profile such that outsiders can gain some good insight into directions, trends and approaches. Whereas the French Collision collective of collectives was present at Jazzahead! for the second year and the Norwegians of the Norwegian label Jazzland presented their New Conception Of Jazz 20 Year Anniversary Edition, there is nothing compared to that related to and from the German scene.

- Finland will be the partner country of Jazzahead! in 2017 which will take place from 27 - 30 April 2017.

- The Swiss Partner Coutry Programme in 2016 was supported in the Pro Helvetia, Foundation SUISA and Schweizer Musik Syndikat (Syndicat Musical Suisse/Sindacato Musica Svizzera).

- German Jazz Expo received support from the Initiative Musik, as part of the German Federal Government's commitment to Culture/ Media.