ROUND-UP: Punkt Festival 2014, Norway

Arve Henriksen and Laurie Anderson at Punkt 2014
Photo Credit: Luca Vitali

Punkt Festival
(Kristiansand, Norway 4-6 September 2014 Round-Up by Fiona Talkington)

Musicians thrive on danger, risk and challenge. Of which there are plenty at the annual Punkt Festival in Kristiansand.

This month co-directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré hosted the 10th Punkt in their home city in the south of Norway attracting their usual international, creatively inquisitive audience, and musicians from near and far who were willing to put themselves on the line. Punkt is known for its core ‘live remix’ concept, (Bang and Honoré are renowned masters in their field) and the thrill of the chase comes very often when the audience is exposed to the remix immediately after the concert, with yet another set of musicians as guest improvisers alongside. It’s a risky business, but anyone who has experienced 10 years of this high octane adrenalin will agree that these are moments to cherish for a lifetime. For me – a Punkt regular since the first festival 2005 – the Sidsel Endresen/Bang/Honoré remix of Sweet Billy Pilgrim stands out as a true classic for its ability to drill into the concert and elicit something new, yet different and, yes, full of danger.

Christian Fennesz at Punkt 2014
Photo Credit: Luca Vitali

This year’s final remix by Christian Fennesz (above) was a case in point, a lone figure behind his lap-top on side of stage during the much anticipated Arve Henriksen and Laurie Anderson concert. While this duo’s first meeting gave hints of what the two might go on to produce together – Laurie’s feisty fiddle playing, Arve’s whispering trumpet – Fennesz’s remix showed no mercy and fuelled a high speed take-off in partnership with a key figure at Punkt, lighting designer and live visuals wizard Tord Knudsen. Out of this Fennesz hinted at the lyricism we had heard in the concert with plaintive guitar chords. The audience was breathless. And Punkt was over for another year.

It had been an interesting year: unusually an opening acoustic night featuring John Tilbury with Keith Rowe and visual artist Kjell Bjorgeengen performing Beckett’s ‘Worstward Ho’, a pairing of Norwegian super-duos Streifenjunko and Sheriffs of Nothingness, and music by Håkon Stene’s ensemble who played music by Laurence Crane, Christian Wallumrød and Gavin Bryars. We missed the remixes on that first night, but were instead cocooned in a world of intense concentration and razor-sharp flashes of wit, Tilbury’s taped voice reciting Beckett in our heads for hours afterwards.

Erik Honoré’s ensemble performed the launch concert of his debut solo album (extraordinary for someone who has produced and been part of over 50 other albums) Heliographs. The music is finely crafted (Honoré himself is also a writer) beautifully sculpted, yet also has a thread of darkness, brooding and menace in cloaks of true Nordic noir.

Jan Bang proudly showed off one of his own finds, the Dutch experimental string quartet Zapp 4 with whom he had been working in the Netherlands. They make a beguiling quintet with hints of Janacek, Bartok and Richard Strauss whipping up a frenzied standing ovation from the audience.

Morten Qvenild at Punkkt 2014
Photo Credit: Luca Vitali

Punkt makes huge demands on its audience. The music takes up a long evening from 6pm until midnight, and the daytime this year had a larger than usual programme of seminars (including such gems as Laurie Anderson, Morten Qvenild (above) on his hyperpiano, and the entertaining and brilliant Zapp 4) and listening programmes which included Punkt’s own almost resident poet Nils Christian Moe Repstad, local musician Terje Paulsen, and recordist and sound artist Jana Winderen exploring the ocean depths with Mike Harding of Touch.

Bang and Honoré talk about the ‘Punkt family’ which isnot about some cosy clique but about the loyalty which has grown up with the festival, both in terms of local support, core musicians (Nils Petter Molvaer, Sidsel Endresen, Eivind Aarset and Arve Herniksen have been present most years) and international guests such as David Sylvian, John Paul Jones and Brian Eno. They have travelled to Punkt London, Punkt Tallinn, Punkt Paris and beyond and forged new relationships with local artists.

It was my pleasure as on stage host to present the directors with a signed book to mark Punkt 10. From the comments both sent in and written during the festival it’s clear that quality, inspiration and risk are a hugely important part of the lives of audiences and musicians alike. As David Sylvian described it “one of the most musician/artist friendly festivals in which to participate”.


ROUND-UP: Jazz Finland Festival in Helsinki

Mopo at Lavaklubi.Jazz Finland Festival 2014
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski
Ralf Dombrowski reports from a three-day showcase in Helsinki:

This was a highly complex event over three evenings, with up to nine concerts each night. The opening sequence of bands were under the banner Young Nordic Jazz Comets, a Scandinavian young platform with five bands crossing over borders, from Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. This section offered one of the highlights of the weekend, namely the Norwegian trio Krokofant (below) with their rock attitude,and their huge, stupendously noisy energy. This trio of sax, guitar, drums presented far more than just curiosity or freakishness value.

Axel Skalstad and Tom Hasslan of Krokofant
Jazz Finland Festival 2014
Photo credit:Ralf Dombrowski

The second night was in the Music Center, a building adjoining the Sibelius Academy Concert Hall complex. The five concerts were mainly of chamber jazz and modern jazz. There were a pair of broodingly subtle piano trios, of which the Kari Ikonem Trio got my vote, if only  by a short head: a lot of intensity in the interaction, clear compositions, tremendous energy here in the band communication, this was an impressive band. In Lavaklubi the saxophone trio Mopo brought the evening to a close. This was an entertaining band, a rock-jazz throwback. If their performance was a bit hyper, they just right for the later evening - with an impressive female baritone saxophonist.

Kari Ikonen
Jazz Finland Festival 2014
Photo credit:Ralf Dombrowski

The third evening was at the Korjaamo Culture. No fewer than nine bands, a complete overload of different impressios. On the one hand therewere amped-up, in-your-face bands like Electric GT, Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio or Elifantree, who had gathered under the banner of madness and the avant-garde. On the other there was brilliant if top-heavy UMO Jazz Orchestra (below), the Arve Henriksen-like Sun Trio, civilized modern jazz with Jussi Fredriksson Jazz Wars, and a pair of soul-swingbop party combos Timo Lassy Band  and Dalindeo.

You get the picture, the spectrum was wide, every effort being made to impress the many foreign guests of the festival and the concurrent annual meeting of the European Jazz Network. In that ambition, the weekend was a complete success.

UMO Jazz Orchestra
Jazz Finland Festival 2014. Photo credit:Ralf Dombrowski


Fini Bearman's I Loves You Porgy

A video of I Loves you Porgy just out. Fini's new album Porgy & Bess is released next month on F-Ire Presents.


NEWS: Dave Green, Moses Boyd win Musicians' Company 2014 Jazz Awards

The other WCoM finalists congratulating Moses Boyd (second from right)
Sebastian writes: 

The Worshipful Company of Musicians, a 500 year-old City Livery Company, gave out its two annual jazz awards at a completely sold-out Pizza Express Jazz Club tonight.

The medal for lifetime achievement, decided in advance of the evening, went to Dave Green, the first bassist to be chosen in over two decades of the award's existence. In accepting it at the beginning of the second set, Green merely took the opportunity to praise the young musicians: "while there's playing like that going on, the music can keep going forever."

The Young Musician Award followed its now traditional procedure of letting the audience pick a winner by secret ballot from the six finalists, who perform in a band which is normally assembled for just one night - but see below for an extra gig this year.

Drummer Moses Boyd was a deserved winner, playing alertly, responsively, and according to one of his fellow band-members/contestants "the most unselfish person on stage all evening." He even took some persuading to go onto the stage once he'd won. When he spoke, and thanked everyone there for the award, he also remembered poignantly that his first appearance at the club had been as a member of Abram Wilson's band.

The six finalists were a well contrasted group, and all dealt with the particular challenges of the gig well. That was perhaps the least surprising for one member/contestant, the fluent and powerful tenor saxophonist Nadim Teimoori, who had also been a finalist in 2013. The programme was mainly of standards, although Misha Mullov-Abbado brought his lively tune Lock Stock and Shuffle, in a new arrangement specially for the evening, with a prominent role for Moses Boyd,which he took with panache. Trombonist Tom Green brought along a new arrangement of But Beautiful, a lovely trombone feature - why not? - with a beautifully voiced arrangement of the closing statement of the tune. In pianist  Sam James' playing, there are always pleasant surprises to be gleaned - he was, after all, taught in his student time by those two masters of joyous subterfuge, Liam Noble and John Taylor.

The loss of Kenny Wheeler, so deeply felt at the moment, did not go by unnoticed. Saxophonist Phil Meadows remembered a time he had been obsessively "living in the world of Kenny Wheeler's beautiful music." He had brought along a subtle and unusual arrangement of Dave Brubeck's In Your Own Sweet Way which did not give up all of its secrets at a first hearing.

The WCoM Young Musician Award is a gig like no other, combining an activity demanding the ultimate in teamwork and mutual respect, with preening for attention, and an element of the gladiatorial contest. It also requires the players to breathe their own new life into the standards repertoire. But, somehow, it always works, and has produced another deserving winner this year.

This year the sextet of finalists will have an additional gig in the London Jazz festival - augmented by two previous winners Andy Panayi (winner in 1994) and Tom Cawley (in 2000)  at 229 the Venue on 20th November 


An Evening With Quincy Jones (RCM /Britten Theatre 28 Sep)

Before Quincy Jones' appearance with Michael Caine at a Gala charity event at the Royal Albert Hall on 1st October (see our previous post) he is hosting "An Evening with Quincy Jones" at the Britten Theatre (seated capacity 400) at the Royal College of Music next Sunday evening. The promoter, (who, incidentally also hosts shows for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger), put the tickets on sale yesterday for £275 or £192.50 plus fees. The ten artists listed as performing are an intriguing list:

Beverley Knight
Mica Paris
Jocelyn Brown
Jacob Collier
Hamish Stuart
Sarah Jane Morris
Sulene Fleming
Susan Black
Kenny Thomas



INTERVIEW / PREVIEW: Robert Mitchell / Invocation (Bournemouth Sep 26 / London Nov 23)

Robert Mitchell. Photo Credit: Steinway/Alvise Guadagnino

We interviewed Robert Mitchell about his new work "Invocation", which will have its world premiere in Bournemouth on 26th September, and will also be performed on the last day of the EFG London Jazz Festival, November 23rd:

LondonJazz News: What are the origins of the project?

Robert Mitchell: I wanted to create the best Thank You that I could for some very inspirational teachers of mine, who are no longer around. It began with an extended piece for my band Panacea (vocalist Deborah Jordan, bassist Tom Mason, and drummer Laurie Lowe). I love the challenge of performing music with a longer arc of narrative than usual for this 14 year-old band!

This had expanded over time to become six parts, with each honouring a different aspect of what an inspirational teacher can bring, who they could be, and a wish for the future of education to become more like these magical teachers in general. Thus it is also a thank you to all teachers - as we are still not as appreciative of them as a society as we should be.

LJN: Why did you choose to write for a choir?

RM: It chose me! I had done a project last year with Panacea at Southampton University. After initial conversations - I had been alerted to the fact that they had a big influx of singing students. I thought this would be a good area to explore, challenge myself, create new music, and expand and build upon the foundations of Invocation. Those 16 students did a fantastic job after just a few rehearsals. Deborah Jordan (our vocalist) - had rejoined the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus (after being a member in her teens). She had passed our last CD (The Cusp) on to them and got a great response from their brilliant Chorus Master - Gavin Carr. She also managed to get their amazing secretary - Carolyn Date MBE - to come to our culminating gig of the project in Southampton at Turner Sims Hall. She really enjoyed it - and saw the potential of working with Panacea and this music. An agreement to plan for the BSC performing this music together with Panacea came into being a while later. I am still pinching myself now!

LJN: And you've enjoyed doing it?

RM: I have enjoyed composing this project immensely. It was easy to be inspired given the original impetus, let alone the fantastic combined potential of all the personnel once it had reached the scale of involving a chorus of 100+ voices. I always enjoy songwriting, and the majority had been sung only by Deborah. So this (ongoing) rehearsal process has been superb to be a part of. I would like to create more on this scale, and the BSC are a brilliant Grammy award-winning ensemble, who also have a hunger for a wide ranging repertoire. They have been in existence for over a century, and I am forever grateful to be able to do this with them.

LJN: This is a complete contrast from your last project/release The Glimpse which consists of piano music for left hand only....

I love contrasts - but Invocation was not originally dreamt of on this scale. Yes, it is an extreme contrast to my last solo album (!), but i love that fact. The difference in composing approach was through firstly looking to think in a choral way. To hear as much as I could, and become minutely concerned with forces larger than anything I had written for beforehand. Although I have had dreams of doing something on this scale - to suddenly be presented with the possibility took a while to adjust to! The music then took many weeks before I was pleased and then excited. It has been revised ever since.

LJN: Has the work any religious elements as the premiere is in a church? Will the same people be involved in the premiere in London?

RM: The music has spiritual components, as we are dealing with the guided transformation of people who come into contact with powerfully positive information, encouragement and support. But it is not religious in any one particular way, and we did not specifically chase the possibility of premiering in a church. This was one of several beautiful possible options in Bournemouth, and it is a fantastic honour to be able to present Invocation at St Peter's ('s_Church,_Bournemouth) . The same people will be involved in London - with additions! So in total we have - the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, my band Panacea, some brilliant students from Avonbourne and Harewood Colleges, and in London we add the unique Goldsmith's (Big) String ensemble, and a legendary lynchpin of South African/UK culture percussionist/narrator Eugene Skeef.

LJN: Please talk about the music itself. Is it jazz, classical? Will there be improvisation?

RM: There are elements of all the above. I wanted to present something with a more orchestral ambition even before it got to the choral stages. The first movement is a multi faceted five section piece - moving from slowly presented choral theme to meditative introduction of lyrics (a feature for some wonderful students from Avonbourne and Harewood Colleges). Then seamlessly to free improvisation, a more driving melody and basis for an improvisation for piano, an energetic choral summation based on the harmonies of the earlier lyrical part (in reverse), a drum solo/cadenza and a restatement of the original theme. You will have to come to the shows to hear the rest ! So yes we have a good amount of notated, and improvised material.

LJN: What’s next after the premieres? More choral work? Touring?

RM: We hope (and are keen) to do more with the fantastic Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. A very exciting tour is being planned for Invocation and Panacea. This will involve working with different choral groups who will each work towards a performance of this music in each location. I would love to hear from any choral groups who would like to be involved. It is a challenge - but from the moment the BSC sight read the second part of Invocation - our minds have stayed blown!

I really look forward to performing Invocation at the great young Arts By The Sea Festival in Bournemouth, and at the London Jazz Festival. We hope you can be there!

Invocation dates: 

26th September - St Peter's Church 7.30pm, Arts By the Sea Festival, Bournemouth 
23rd November - Queen Elizabeth Hall 2pm, EFG London Jazz Festival


REVIEW: Gill Cook at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Gill Cook

Gill Cook
(Pizza Express Jazz Club. 14th September 2014. Review by Brian Blain)

The launch of vocalist Gill Cook’s latest CD, Morning With You on the Mainstem label, one of the last of the indies that cares about quality mainstream jazz, on Sunday last at Dean Street’s Pizza Express, attracted a good crowd, despite the appeal of the continuing Summer weather and the Tour of Britain finale, over in nearby Whitehall.

It's a while since I heard anyone with a repertoire so eclectic, neither in the classic Porter/Gershwin American Songbook bag, nor edging toward the ‘significant’ new. Songs like Carole King’s Stand Behind Me, Jimmy Webb’s always beguiling Up Up And Away, and Michel Legrand’s I Will Wait For You showed a sure grasp of of post rock classics, even if they did not give the band a lot to et their teeth into - always a problem with this wish not to seem a fossilised part of a pre-war era. But on If I Were a Bell, always a favourite with singers with jazz in their soul, the splendid Nick Tomalin (piano), Dominic Howles (bass) and Matt Fishwick (drums) rhythm section were able to kick in, and Ms Cook was really flying. Which leads to the magnificent trumpeter Steve Waterman’s towering presence throughout, a wonderful player. On every song , soft rock or jazz he produced a series of textbook, lyrical, flowing improvisations that spelled out the presence of a true jazz master.

Oddly, it was on Golden Earrings, not an obvious choice as a jazz vehicle, that singer and band really did the business, with the hardest up-tempo swing of the afternoon, totally obliterating my own Family Favourites memories of a song laden with schmaltz, and in complete contrast to Gill’s own song, Morning With You, which flirted on the edge of a Celtic traditional atmosphere. Still, just to remind us of her deep jazz roots the afternoon closed with a rousing Man I Love - horrible words, great tune - with the whole team really cooking, as we used to say, and Ms. Cook, who had fronted the whole multi-faceted package with humour and style, thoroughly deserving the warm vociferous reception that the show received.



CD REVIEW: Hiromi - Alive - the trio project featuring Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips

Hiromi - Alive - the trio project featuring Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips
(Telarc TEL-35307-02. CD Review by Eric Ford)

There's no doubt that pianist Hiromi Uehara occupies a special place in the world as one of the few musicians who could hypothetically have an audience which didn't think it liked jazz on its feet and begging for more at the end of a gig. She's an excellent performer, the music's enjoyable, groovy, "accessible" and brilliantly-played, and the fact that she's cute and radiates positivity is the icing on the cake. Add to that electric bass guru Anthony Jackson and rock / fusion drum god Simon Phillips and you have a heavyweight trio, who, in her ninth album as leader, have produced a continually-engaging 75 minutes of music.

Without wishing to spoil the surprises within each song, maybe the easiest way to give you an idea of the overall tone is to think of the Michel Camilo trio but with a "prog rock" instead of a "Latin" influence. (Anthony Jackson was of course a member of said trio.) So, blistering displays of chops, tight arrangements and ensemble sections, some (actually lots of ) odd meters, STRONG grooves, plenty of solo space for everyone, lots of good vibes, and a couple of emotive ballads.

The set is very varied and clearly well-rehearsed. In addition to what Hiromi wrote for them, Jackson and Phillips have come up with great and interesting parts that bass guitarists and drummers will want to check out. As you'd expect from players of this stature who've made 3 albums and gigged intensively together, they make a formidable unit.

It's clear that Hiromi's absorbed the breadth of the jazz piano tradition and can summon up the ghosts of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson in between pretty much everything else you can imagine being played on a piano. This stylistic eclecticism and the (often very unusual) feisty rhythmic shenanigans give her trio a unique identity. This is a great context in which to hear Jackson and Phillips (who - note ye LondonJazz News readers - is from London).

If you were unaware (as I was) that this trio's previous cd was called "Move" and that there's a new DVD of the band playing that material live in Tokyo, I can wholeheartedly recommend both of those too.


Hiromi Interview 2014

Review: Live at Cadogan Hall 2014 

Review: Live at the Barbican (solo) 2009


PREVIEW / INTERVIEW: Diana Torto (REVOICE! Festival, with John Taylor and Julian Siegel, 12th Oct)

John Taylor, Diana Torto. Photo credit:Roberto Cifarelli

Italian singer Diana Torto will at the Pizza Express Jazz Club with pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Julian Siegel on Sunday 12th Oct. in the Revoice! Festival. In this interview with Alison Bentley conducted by email - a few days before the news of Kenny Wheeler's passing - she writes about working and recording with Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Paolo Fresu, Enrico Rava and Mike Stern, and her approach to improvising: 

Alison Bentley: Have you always sung?

Diana Torto: As far back as I can remember, yes, and even earlier than that, I have been told! I started to sing professionally at the age of 12.

AB: What first got you interested in jazz?

DT: Well, I think, the feeling of freedom, and closely related to this: the chance to improvise.

AB: You’ve said that Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Lady Be Good’ was one of your first inspirations. Which other singers have inspired you since then?

DT: When I first approached the jazz repertoire and tradition, besides Ella Fitzgerald, I was also inspired by Carmen McRae, Jon Hendricks, Anita O'Day, Helen Merrill; later I knew and got inspired by some European vocalists like Urszula Dudziak, Lauren Newton, Norma Winstone. Lena Willemark, etc. Last but not least I would like to mention a great inspiration for me: Bobby McFerrin.

And I would like to add another singer. She is not a jazz singer but she is simply wonderful: Elis Regina.

AB: You mentioned Charlie Parker too. Any other instrumentalists?

DT: Oh yes! Many others! If I have to suggest some names from a long list, I would say Clifford Brown, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans or from a younger generation Michael Brecker, Mike Stern, John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, Pat Metheny but I should mention a lot of other musicians, since I listen more to instrumentalists than vocalists to get inspiration. Let’s stop here....

AB: You’ve worked with so many of Italy’s great jazz musicians- (bassists) Paolo Damiani and Roberto Bonati, (trumpeters) Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu… What has that been like?

DT: Enrico Rava and Paolo Fresu- I worked occasionally with both of them in projects organised by Paolo Damiani. With Paolo and Roberto Bonati the collaboration came about because they are composers who like to include a voice in their projects and bands. In particular, they like my attitude to singing- the voice is like an instrument along with the other instruments, as well as being used more traditionally. Both Paolo and Roberto really emphasize the instrumental role of the voice in their compositions.

AB: You sing chamber jazz with John Taylor (your 2009 Triangoli album) as well as the WDR big band. Your voice can be gentle and breathy, or very powerful. You can move quickly from one to the other with amazing control. Did you train classically?

DT: Yes, I studied classical technique when I was young, and repertoire until I was 24 years old. Then I definitely decided to turn my attention to jazz. Sometimes I still collaborate with classical contemporary composers. The last time was in January, when I sang the world premiere of the new version of an opera by a talented Sicilian composer, Emanuele Casale: Conversazioni con Noam Chomsky. The composer called his work a ‘talk-opera’. It is a kind of opera with musicians, videos, and electronics, based on and inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky, and on this special occasion with Noam Chomsky himself on stage!! That was really a thrilling experience!

AB: Did you study jazz singing? What kinds of things do you teach your students?

DT: I studied jazz singing too, but really just for one year with a regular teacher, then I immediately understood this: in Italy, at that time, what interested me could only have been learned from instrumentalists. And so I started to steal from friends and colleagues: pianists, guitarists, but mainly wind players. So I was asking them about their techniques and the best way to learn how to improvise. I started to practise improvisation, first with the piano and then translating this into my vocal teaching. First for myself and then, later, for my students. But here I have to mention the singer who encouraged me to steal from instrumentalists: Bob Stoloff, with whom I did three masterclasses around twenty years ago. I try to teach my students how to listen and to develop a sort of multi-level listening, i.e., to listen and follow a bass line like a bassist has to do; to get a rhythmic pulse as if you were a drummer; to get harmonic knowledge as if you were a pianist but with the feeling of using this harmonic palette in a melodic line like a saxophone player, and so on.

I also try to teach to my students how to listen to themselves, especially with the aim of avoiding clichés... learning about breathing, the pauses, the rhythms of the words, always remembering where you come from and not trying to do a "cut and paste" of something completely far away from your culture.

I studied and I am still studying improvisation and how to improve it. But with an image: using my ears the way a pianist uses his hands.

AB: You sing jazz standards on the 2009 album With Kenny Wheeler / Colours Jazz Orchestra: Nineteen Plus One. Are standards usually a part of your repertoire?

DT: No, I sang standards when I started singing jazz, but gradually I moved away from them and now I prefer to sing a repertoire based on contemporary jazz composers or something else: modern songs, folk songs, etc. Of course, in my teaching, instead, I still use the standards repertoire a lot.

AB: You’ve written some pieces for the Triangoli album. Do you write a lot?

DT: Not so much, I would like to but I am lazy... when it comes to writing music I need to be obliged to do it!

AB: Has Italian folk music influenced your singing style? Do you think there’s a special tradition of Italian jazz singers?

DT: Yes, of course- it’s like I was saying before, when I was speaking about the importance of cultural roots when I am teaching. I think it is the same with my singing. Those are my real cultural roots and it would be a mistake deny them or, even worse, hide them.

Maybe it would be better to say that an Italian jazz vocal tradition is now growing up between my generation and the next one. As for the difference between Italian and British/American jazz singing, I would say that, once again, there are some aspects peculiar to a culture, to any culture. And they have to be different, of course: like the sounds and the rhythms of your own language. In my opinion, these elements also have an influence on melodic improvisation: phonetic sounds, flexibility, etc.

AB: How did you start working with John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler?

DT: I first started with Kenny when he came as a guest with an Italian big band in March 2004: the Colours Big Band. The collaboration continued over the years, first in Italy and then also abroad (with other bands and big bands) more and more frequently. In the meantime I was also starting to collaborate with John Taylor. I think they liked the use of my voice as an instrument as well as the Mediterranean colour of my voice. John was immediately happy and thrilled the first time I sang in my own dialect- some lyrics I wrote for one of his beautiful songs: Ballada. And even before he knew the meaning of what I was singing! He simply liked and likes the sound of Italian language and dialects.

AB: You’ve worked with Americans as well as Europeans. What was it like working with Mike Stern and Steve Coleman?

DT: Well, with Steve Coleman it was hard, but it was such a long time ago that I don't have so many recollections of this. His musical approach was absolutely a discovery for me. With Mike Stern it was fantastic experience all the time, as far as both the musical side and the human side are concerned. He lives music with an incredible energy and freshness and he is always ready to share this with the other musicians on the stage. He is incredibly generous in this way.

AB: This London gig features some of John Taylor’s arrangements of Paul McCartney songs. I read about the Beatles gigs you did in the past with Nguyên Lê and Uri Caine. Are you particularly drawn to the Beatles’ songs?

DT: I first got deeply into the Beatles’ songs when I did the project with Nguyên Lê and Uri Caine. I knew many of them, of course, but I never listened with much attention. I liked them immediately, and when John suggested to me that I should be part of this new project, I was more than happy to sing these beautiful songs once again.

Alison Bentley: When and how did (saxophonist/ clarinettist) Julian Siegel join you?

Diana Torto: The first time I collaborated with Julian was during the recording session for Kenny Wheeler's The Long Waiting. Sometimes he replaced (bassist) Anders Jormin in Triangoli and then more recently this project with John happened, based around Paul McCartney songs. That was the moment we started to collaborate on a regular basis. In November we will be in Italy at the Bologna Jazz Festival, and at the beginning of 2015 we will be back for a couple more concerts in the UK.



INTERVIEW: Kenny Wheeler in 1990

In January 1990, Kenny Wheeler was about to set out on a tour to play the material from Music for Large and Small Ensembles, certainly among his masterpieces, and arguably one of the essential and most influential jazz albums of the past half-century. Chris Parker's interview, from one of the creative high points of Kenny Wheeler's career, captures well his kindness about colleagues and his clarity of judgement, and appears here in its entirety for the first time. 

Chris Parker: You started in the UK with Vic Lewis and Roy Fox?

Kenny Wheeler: Yes, but Tommy Whittle also had a very nice eight-piece band – five horns and a rhythm section – with Keith Christie and Eddie Taylor. A really good band.

CP: Was it difficult to combine personal jazz satisfaction with commerciality?

KW: Some bands were a lot more commercial than others. The Heath band and the Dankworth band were a little more jazzy than others – though the Heath band was also fairly commercial – but even with Roy Fox he had tunes where people could play jazz solos on standards and somehow get away with it.

CP: Was there any pressure to play the same solos every night?

KW: Maybe I did without knowing it, but I was never asked to do it.

CP: Did you come across much of the internecine warfare that raged then, between the boppers and the traditionalists?

KW: No, but I never mixed with the other scenes. I was always in what they called the modern jazz scene. I think it was something the press liked to stir up to keep things going.

CP: Dankworth: a lot of the criticism of him is based around the fact that he got work by allying jazz, rather arbitrarily, with other art forms to make it respectable ...

KW: It does help to have some sort of literary thing put on, rather than just calling the songs Joe or John or Jane, or whatever. It makes the public take a little more notice.

CP: Were you inspired, for Windmill Tilter, by Cervantes?

KW: The world’s greatest losers are some of my favourite people and I wanted to do something about that, but I had a talk with Dankworth and he put me off a bit. He mentioned some names, and Don Quixote caught my attention. I went to the local library and met a lady there who was very helpful, and the more I read, the more I liked him, but I wasn’t sure if it was a great idea because I think Richard Strauss has done something ... Dave Holland and John McLaughlin were both on it, very early in their careers, before they left for the States.

CP: Then there was Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes etc.?

KW: Ronnie had a great band, but it was probably too much – his nine-piece aggravation, he called it. It had two drummers, Tony Oxley and Tony Crombie, plus John Surman, Chris Pyne, Ray Warleigh. I thought it was fabulous – just bursting to get the music going – but Ronnie wanted it more straightahead (fair enough: it was his band), so it just petered out, though I enjoyed that band a lot. Joe Henderson was writing for it, and I wrote a couple of things.

CP: Was writing always a part of your life?

KW: I started early. I wrote a couple of things for Dankworth before the album.

CP: Then the free improvisation with John Stevens etc.: has that branch of the music always interested you?

KW: The Little Theatre Club was going. I wasn’t a great bebopper, although that was my roots; I never could really play it and there were great people around who could: Tubby Hayes, Jimmy Deuchar. But I was determined, I wanted to play with somebody, and I heard about the Little Theatre Club, so I went up there one night and listened and hated it very much! After a few nights, I was asked to sit in and I did. It was like therapy for me; I just went berserk and from then on I was kind of a little bit hooked on it.

CP: Do you think it’s fair comment that freely improvised music looks a lot more fun to play than to listen to?

KW: That’s because of people like Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg, but it was always pretty serious to me, with the English and German lot. It depends on who you play it with – I never enjoyed trying to play with everybody, but there’s always a few who last: Evan Parker etc.

CP: Mike Gibbs?

KW: I like his music very much. I did a Birmingham gig with him recently.

CP: Anthony Braxton, Globe Unity?

KW: 1974-–76 with Braxton – a great quartet with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. I’d like to play with Anthony again, but I don’t know if I could play his music: it was hard enough then; it’s probably harder now!

CP: Do you feel that the UK scene neglects your generation? Do you ever wish you were starting now with the scene as it is today?

KW: Probably not. I was confused and diffused when I started. I never thought seriously that I could become an actual jazz player until I was in my thirties – a late starter – though I’ve made my living on the trumpet from age 22 or 23. I was almost like a fan until I was 30. I’d always had trouble with the mechanics, the physical thing of the trumpet, I was never a naturally good trumpet player, but I had good conception. I wouldn’t say I am now a good trumpeter – it’s just one of those things that if you love it, you’re stuck with it for life and you’re lucky if you get better, but you never say: ‘Well, now I can play the trumpet.’ When I got into my thirties and started improving a little as a player I got a little more confident. If I’d been starting young, I would probably have gone straight to New York and got some lessons.

CP: Why did you come here rather than the US?

KW: It was the end of the Korean War and I would have probably been eligible to be drafted. I didn’t mind being drafted, but I thought, ‘Maybe they won’t put me in a band, maybe they’ll put me in the front line’, so I thought I’d go somewhere safe. I applied a year ago for dual nationality. I travel so much, and when I come back to the UK there’s always a huge line and I can’t go to the UK queue even though I’ve lived here for 35 years.

CP: What do you consider your favourite recording?

KW: Deer Wan. That’s the most complete – with Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. My favourite band.

CP: Azimuth carries on?

KW: In the last three or four years it’s loosened up a bit. At one time it used to be all Norma [Winstone] and I leaning heavily on John [Taylor] to do everything, almost – composing, being the complete rhythm section – but lately we’ve taken charge a bit between us and it can get quite violent and hot sometimes. We never work – I think because a lot of people think, ‘Wishy-washy ECM’, so we get one or two gigs a year. That’s a shame: this country’s missing something there, because it’s a terrific group.

CP: Do you think Europe’s more appreciative of jazz than the UK?

KW: Yes, I do think so. It may be because the Germans were forbidden to play jazz in the war – a lot of US players do most of their work there. I hardly work here – this tour [Music for Large and Small Ensembles, 1990] is a very special thing: I probably do only about 10 per cent of my work here in the UK, if that. I used to go to the US two or three times a year, but since that’s not happening ... I teach once a year in western Canada, Alberta. The [Dave] Holland group had to stop for me because I could never get together with them and rehearse – US players play much more than we do, though the younger UK guys, I hear, do get together just to play. Before, it was: ‘We’ll get a gig and then we’ll have a rehearsal.’

CP: Have you had the chance to hear many of the young players here?

KW: I don’t get out much, but I have heard Iain Ballamy, Steve Argüelles, Steve Williamson ...

CP: What do you think about the media attention being focused so much on young players?

KW: It’s nice, but they should maybe focus some attention on the old ones too. It all started with Wynton Marsalis’s cult of youth. They don’t ask me to play with them. I’m very impressed with Steve Williamson, but even younger people than me – Stan Sulzmann for instance – get no attention, play to ten people. Perhaps Courtney [Pine] and Andy [Sheppard] brought in a whole generation of people who were never into jazz before. It’s nice in a way, but I’d like to see Bobby Wellins etc. get more recognition.

CP: Do you feel jazz-rock was a fertile area?

KW: The way Mike Gibbs does it, yes. I love his music. As a horn player, you’ve got all that stuff going on in the rhythm section behind you and it takes away your exposure – with a trio, playing standards, you’re exposed. But it’s not generally for me. The United Jazz and Rock Ensemble plays to big audiences – it’s a good, commercial band.

CP: What do you think of the state of the music now? Has anything really happened since Ornette?

KW: I suppose that’s what it needs: some new Messiah to come along. Maybe Steve Coleman. He has a big following among the young black players – it’s not something that hits you immediately as ‘new’, but maybe it takes a while to get in to. Some of the tunes I write, with their harmonies, would sound sweet and nice with synthesisers, but I still like to go back to the old acoustic thing.

CP: Who’s in the [upcoming tour] band?

KW: John Abercrombie, Pete Erskine, Dave Holland, John Taylor. It’s not based around the quintet, doesn’t heavily feature it. Eight brass, five saxes and Norma, with Hugh Fraser on trombone. We’ve got two days to rehearse, all my compositions. I got an Arts Council grant.

CP: What are your plans afterwards?

KW: Definitely not to be a bandleader for a long time! If you could just write the music and play it, it’d be OK, but there’s so much else involved. I’ll usually get letters, calls – I’m not the hustling type, but I keep working.

CP: What would you do with unlimited resources?

KW: I’d like to write and maybe take a quartet out in England, but there’s a problem: unless you have a ‘big name’, people don’t come out to see you. I like quartets – John Taylor’s my favourite pianist, and Chris Laurence and John Marshall would suit me, possibly augmented by Julian Argüelles, who’s in the new band.


RIP Kenny Wheeler (1930 - 2014)

Kenny Wheeler, June 2012, recording album Mirrors for the Edition label
Photo Credit: Tim Dickeson
Nick Smart of the Royal Academy of Music has confirmed the sad news that the inestimably great Kenny Wheeler passed away earlier today. As Nick writes: "Famously self deprecating, Kenny was always modest and humble about his own musical achievements. But the truth is, he was a genius walking amongst us, and it was the most tremendous privilege to have been able to consider him a dear colleague and friend." His full tribute is HERE.


BOOK REVIEW: Evan Guilford-Blake - American Blues

Evan Guilford-Blake - American Blues
(Holland House, 220pp., £14.99. Review by Chris Parker)

This collection of five short stories from US playwright/poet/non-fiction writer Evan Guilford-Blake focuses on people in extremis: a dying saxophonist (‘Sonny’s Blues’), a mentally handicapped young adult and his psychopathic brother (‘Tio’s Blues’), a victim of a racially aggravated assault (‘Nighthawks’), an unemployed man unable to prevent his life disintegrating (‘Animation’) and the self-deluding inhabitants of an apartment complex whose lives fatally intertwine (‘The Easy Lovin’ Blues’). Jazz provides not only the soundtrack for these lives, but also – more importantly – the emotional and psychic energy infusing them. Of most immediate interest to jazz aficionados will be the collection’s opening story, ‘Sonny’s Blues’, which fictionalises the final days of Sonny Criss, his last couple of gigs, his relationships with a topless dancer and a thinly disguised Hampton Hawes, his [spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with Criss’s tragic end] eventual suicide while ‘Now’s the Time’ plays in the background. Although those who are allergic to what might, for (over-)simplicity’s sake, be referred to as the Geoff Dyer view of jazz musicians (doomed geniuses and social misfits – see But Beautiful, passim) may be initially suspicious, Guilford-Blake handles his material with enough sensitivity and verve (his ear for dialogue – unsurprisingly, given his track record as a playwright – fine-tuned) to allay such apprehension.

The content of these stories may be uncompromisingly specific (sexual abuse, incest, sadomasochism, racist assault and murder are all unflinchingly confronted), but the humanity and tenderness with which they are imbued (jazz playing a crucial role here – ‘a great skein of notes woven into a crazy quilt of such otherwise-inexpressible beauty that it can only exist because he weaves it’) render them universally relevant and American Blues is, as a consequence, a compellingly readable evocation of a hard, unforgiving world fitfully illuminated not only by art, but also by small acts of solidarity and kindness.


REVIEW: Jamie Cullum at Ronnie Scott's

Jamie Cullum
(Ronnie Scott's. 17th September 2014. First house, first night of two. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

History lesson. In January 2010, BBC Radio 2 Controller Lewis Carnie accepted an invitation to speak at a very tetchy public debate on the Jazz and the BBC. At that meeting, he made an announcement which we reported HERE:

"Jamie Cullum will take over the 7pm slot on Tuesdays on Radio 2 from April 7th."

In theory, Cullum's weekly radio show might have lasted just a few weeks, but it has continued. It has built its audience, and is now extensively syndicated overseas. Doing the show every week has dictated the music Cullum listens to - a lot more jazz - and the people he meets and talks about music with, for the show. Two direct consequences have been a new album, Interlude, and a tour this autumn of of jazz clubs in London, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam...

I interviewed him yesterday,  we'll have more about the thinking behind it, and the people involved - notably Ben Lamdin -  but the results as seen in Ronnie Scott's last night were fabulous. I don't believe a single person can have walked away from that show without being completely won over, heart-warmed, and energized.

One could try to analyze what and how it is that Jamie Cullum connects with audiences - down-to-earth, endearing reticence? sincerity? not trying to be someone he isn't? - but the plain fact is that he works at it, he delivers and he does, whether it's a crowd of 55,000 in San Sebastian, or just over 200 of us last night.

The performance trademarks and the singing/songwriting side are not forgotten. Towards the end of the set came the the obligatory leap from the Yamaha piano in When I get Famous, the fast hand-clapping and pogo-ing in Mixtape. Nevertheless, there is a deliberate attempt to connect an audience to great songs, to classic performances. "We ripped it" was an unashamed reference to the Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans version of Make Someone Happy, performed as a duo with Jason Rebello. Cullum also had a fabulous band on display, led by Tom Richards - hat-tip for some fine arrangements - with top-notch people in every section. The lower end of the sound spectrum was particularly impressive, with James Allsopp fluent and strong on both bass clarinet and baritone sax, and the authoritative huge boss sound of Mark Frost on bass trombone definitely stays in my ear this morning.

The show is not slavish album recreation. On the album Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood is a delightful duet with Gregory Porter in which two gentle nice-guys vie for the attention of the same girl by being kinder-than-you. As a solo song, it was sassier and far more urgent.

A clear by-product of the power and reach of Jamie Cullum's Radio 2 Programme is that it can raise the profile for UK artists. Natalie Williams, who gave the early set, acknowledged the support Jamie had given her. She mostly sang songs from last year's Kickstarter-funded album Where You Are. She also performed one characterful and completely new song Little Did I Know which showed off a powerful and gravelly basso register which certainly took me by surprise. More please. Jobim's Waters of March had her trio of Phil Peskett Rob Mullarkey and James Maddren enjoying the cross-rhythms. It was then on to more familiar Soul Family territory for Jealous Guy with a lively funky bass solo.


Sack O' Woe
Seers Tower
Lovesick Blues
Don't Stop the Music
Don't let me be misunderstood
Good Morning Heartache
Don't You Know
Losing You (Randy Newman)
You and Me are Gone
When I Get Famous
Make Someone Happy


Jamie Cullum - piano/vocals
Tom Richards - Sax/keys/vocals
Rory Simmons - Trumpet/guitar
Brad Webb - drums/vocals
Loz Garratt - bass/vocals


Tom Walsh, Tom Rees-Roberts, Fulvio Sigurta (trumpets)
Barnaby Dickinson, Neil Sidwell, TomWhite , Mark Frost (trombones)
Simon Allen, Claire McInerney, Tom Challenger, James Allsop (reeds/saxes)
Jason Rebello (piano/guest)

INTERLUDE (Island Records) is released in the UK on October 6th


REPORT/PHOTOS: Steve Waterman Septet at the Birley Centre,Eastbourne

Steve Waterman Septet at Birley Centre, Eastbourne
Photo Credit: Brian O'Connor/ Images of Jazz

Brian O'Connor reports from the second jazz gig at a new venue:

The Birley Centre opened in Eastbourne a couple of years ago. Part of Eastbourne College, it is a small theatre complex devoted to the arts. When it comes to music, classical is dominant. However, thanks to Musical Director Nick Parrans-Smith, ably assisted by Annette Keen, who has been promoting jazz in the area for many years, jazz itself is beginning to be seen and heard. Three months ago Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe successfully opened what is hoped to become a regular series of gigs. Yesterday, Tuesday, a second gig was performed by the Steve Waterman Septet.

Dave O'Higgins, Dave Barry, Birley Centre, Eastbourne
Photo Credit: Brian O'Connor/ Images of Jazz

The line-up consisted of, Steve Waterman, trumpet; Mark Nightingale, trombone; Dave O’Higgins, tenor sax, Alan Barnes, baritone sax, Gareth Williams, piano; Alec Dankworth, bass; and Dave Barry, drums. Unbeatable.

They played tunes mainly from the Tadd Dameron, Benny Golson, and Herbie Hancock era, with one superb 20 minute tribute to Buddy Bolden, Red Vest Man, written by Steve Waterman himself.

An incredible evening, and with the right support this could become a regular and very welcome venue on the jazz circuit.
Alec Dankworth, Dave Barry, Alan Barnes, Mark Nightingale,
Steve Waterman,Dave O'Higgins. Birley Centre, Eastbourne
Photo Credit: Brian O'Connor/ Images of Jazz


PREVIEW/ INTERVIEW: Concert Celebrating Ten Years of the Royal Academy of Music Junior Jazz Department (Kings Place Oct 4th)

Nick Smart (foreground) and members of the RAM JJD in 2004
Photo courtesy of Tommy Andrews

In anticipation of a concert celebrating the first ten years of the Royal Academy Junior Jazz Department, at Kings Place on October 4th, Sebastian interviewed the RAM's Head of Jazz, Nick Smart.

LondonJazz News: Nick, you were involved with the RAM JJD right from the start, but where did the idea come from?

Nick Smart: I have to give full credit here to Gerard Presencer, head of jazz at the Academy at the time. It was the end of 2002, following the Academy auditions, when Gerard approached me to say it was becoming more and more apparent that the quality of education young players were receiving before the age of 18 was extremely mixed across the country. Outside of the well-established to conservatoire, Chethams/Purcell School etc, it was simply a case of luck as to whether a young musician happened to grow up in an area where there was a good jazz teacher. I was running a Saturday morning jazz course in Bedford in those days and Gerard, who knew me well anyway, felt that the students I had been teaching were suitably prepared and capable. So in 2003 Gerard invited me to establish the Junior Academy Jazz programme to provide a dedicated learning environment to help young players learn more about jazz and if they wanted to, get them up to the level where they could apply to continue studying at music college.

LJN: And you probably remember the first students through the door? 

NS: Indeed I do, it was not a very forgettable year for a start and weirdly, almost the whole band came from Norwich! This was the line-up of the first intake in September 2003:

Kit Downes - piano
Josh Blackmore - drums
Sam White - bass
Toby Seed and Luke Hellebronth - guitar
Freddie Gavita - trumpet
Tom Stone, Tommy Andrews and Nick Carter - saxophones

We were very fortunate that this first band had so many incredible players in it, I am sure it helped establish the reputation of the course so quickly as being THE place for young players wanting to go on to college. Since then the course has a virtually 100% record of getting students into one of the main jazz courses if that's what they want to do. We had a lot of fun in that initial band, they were a great bunch and at the end of their first year in May 2004 we played our first proper gig at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (inevitably!) with Tim Garland as a special guest. I still have recordings, I'll sell them one day! (see embarrassing pic of the band at that time, courtesy Tommy Andrews- above).

LJN: Some highlights /milestones along the way?

NS: Well since we set up it became obvious very quickly that we were going to need to set up a second band, and then a third band which Simon Colam taught (and still does), so by the end of that first year we were up to three bands which is where it has remained ever since. One of the most memorable things we did was to invite Kenny Wheeler to be the patron of the course, we played a concert with him at Pizza Express where the position was officially announced. He came in at least once a year and played and talked to students, very special memories.

L-R: Nick Smart, Gareth Lockrane, Mike Walker, Simon Colam

We played concerts at Ronnie Scott's every summer with different special guests, we had one with Gerard, one with John Parricelli, with Soweto Kinch, one with Kenny Wheeler again plus Norma Winstone on that occasion. Since then (under Gareth Lockrane's directorship) there have been concerts with Stan Sulzmann, Tim Garland and Mike Walker (photo above).

We would also hold these special kind of "band residency" days where we'd all be together for the whole Saturday with an ensemble, The first was with the Perfect Houseplants, then we had Stan's NEON group, Bobby Wellins' quartet, and Gareth has run them with Iain Ballamy's ANORAK, Jason Rebello/Jean Toussaint Quartet and Pete King. It's amazing when you list it all out like that, they've had some incredible experiences throughout the last 10 years. That's not even including days with Joe Lovano and the "Daves" Liebman, Holland and Douglas!

LJN: Regrets? Too few to mention? 

NS: Well personally it was a great sadness for me to finally have to move on and leave the position, it was such a rewarding job and something I remain incredibly proud of. In 2010 when I was appointed head of jazz at the main Academy it was just too  much (not to mention probably inappropriate) to keep on both positions, so at Christmas that year we were delighted to appoint Gareth Lockrane the new director of Junior Jazz. He has been amazing in that role and continually inspires the young players with his passion for the music, and obviously his astonishing abilities on the instrument! It was always a shame we were not able to expand more but in the end the available space in the building would just not allow it, and on the plus side it has meant we have been able to keep the standard high and maintain a close-knit community.

LJN: As you said, Gareth Lockrane now runs it but do you still have an involvement ?

NS: Gareth and I talk frequently about the students and who is coming and going, what projects are planned and so on. I try to pop in as often as possible and make the concerts, the atmosphere is still every bit as exciting as I remember it. I also see a lot of the players through the National Youth Jazz Collective which I am very involved in, many of the guys do Junior Academy and the NYJC projects.

LJN: What are the plans for October 4th?

NS: Well the opportunity arose to do this concert and Gareth and I thought it would be great to celebrate 10 full years of the Junior Jazz course, since the first group "graduated" in summer 2004.

We wanted this to be a collaboration of various ex students from throughout the years, book-ended by a reunion of the original class of 2003, and the most recent graduates of June 2014. So Kit Downes et al from the original group are coming back together, a couple of them couldn't make it but we have more than a sufficient pool of Jnr jazz deps on hand, bassist of the moment Tim Thornton will be stepping in and so will drummer Dave Hamblett.

We have a whole host of mixed ensembles taken from across the years featuring rhythm section players including James Opstad, Flo Moore, Ben Brown, Lizy Exell, Ralph Wyld and the musical phenomenon that is Jacob Collier! Alongside horn players including trumpet star Tom Walsh, Tom Barford, Jim Gold, Nubya Garcia and Rosie Turton.

LJN: What will you/they be playing?

Nick Smart: We'll be playing a mixture of repertoire from across the years including some old Junior Jazz favourites from Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland, original pieces by Jacob Collier and Kit Downes, and some of the jazz classics we all hold dear.

It is going to be a truly memorable evening and no finer demonstration of what an exciting and vibrant time this is for the music and the generation of players currently taking on the mantle.



Preview: FIRE! Orchestra / INTERVIEW: Mats Gustafsson (The Laundry, Hackney, 26th Sept)

Mats Gustafsson. Drawing by Geoff Winston.
© 2014. All Rights Reserved

Preview: FIRE! Orchestra
(The Laundry, 26 September 2014; preview/interview with Mats Gustafsson and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Mats Gustafsson, in this interview with Geoff Winston, gives the inside track on the Fire! Orchestra adventure which will be rolling in to The Laundry venue in Hackney on 26 September, as part of the Transcender festival, jointly promoted by Cafe Oto and the Barbican.

Audiences in London have appreciated Mats Gustafsson’s visits here in both small groups and as solo performer.  Recent highlights have included collaborations with Thurston Moore and other great improvisers, and in trios including The Thing and the Fire! Trio (with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin), as well as his participation in the Brötzmann Chicago Tentet.

This being something on an altogether grander scale, Geoff first asked him about the different challenges of a large venture such as FIRE! : 

Geoff Winston: How did you make the jump from a trio to a 28 piece orchestra (plus 2 engineers)?

Mats Gustafsson: Well, it was a typical 3am decision… just chilling in a bar after a long European tour. After the last gig, having some drinks together and dreaming about the future. The idea came to all 3 of us at the same time: ‘Why not gather all our friends in Stockholm and just play FIRE! music. Just starting the year with a FIRE! party!’

And so we did. It was a huge success from the first note. Audience going berserk. People crying, dancing and misbehaving. It is an amazing beast, the Fire! Orchestra. And so inspiring to work with so many strong individuals, from so many different backgrounds. The idea of getting all our friends together was a good one, we found out, since they all represent our various interests and dedications in creative music, be it contemporary music, noise, free jazz, alt rock and all other related activities.

CD cover for Enter (Courtesy Rune Grammofon)
GW: At this concert will you concentrate solely on the new composition, Enter, the work on the new Fire! Orchestra CD, which follows the first CD, Exit (both on Rune Grammofon)?

MG: Yes, we will make a new version of Enter. Things do change from concert to concert. I do quite a lot of conduction and a lot of freer sections, so there are always new things going on.

GW: The intense moods and references on Enter cut across all kinds of music with strong bases in jazz and rock, but embrace much else from free passages to crisp, restrained brass work, and take on board vocals, both conventional (in English) and impressionistic. Does this range reflect your personal interests - obsessions, even?

MG: Yes, exactly. All the individual members of the orchestra are really coming from all different directions of music. Whatever kicks our minds and butts. Whatever music that challenges us in the trio. Whichever musicians make us burn.

The network of musicians and groups that are built around the trio Fire! is pretty intense and we plan to expand that universe as we go. These are all favourite musicians of ours. The personnel changes slightly from tour to tour, because of the Fire! Orchestra baby boom and other commitments, but the core of the ensemble is still the same. Approx 30 musicians, two engineers and a tour manager to keep under control!

GW: How is the structure decided? Is it down to you alone to compose the riffs and create the format within which the other 27 musicians operate over its hour-long duration - or is it a collaborative composition shared with Johan and Andreas and others?

MG: Enter is co-composed by the trio Fire! and singer Mariam Wallentin. We all came up with riffs, rhythms, melodies, arrangements, chorals and ideas on how to structure the music. Mariam wrote the lyrics, and we just brainstormed it all together.

I made a graphic score that represents what we discussed together. During the piece I can change the path of the music with my conductions and signals. It is all actually a very democratic (whatever that word means nowadays!) process and this is the way we work in Fire!. From the start of the group until the bitter end, whenever that shows up. The other members of the Orchestra are, of course, actively discussing further possibilities of the music during rehearsals, soundchecks, barhangs, breakfasts and other related activities. It is all open.

But to be able to control the music a bit, and to do Fire! music – we felt that we needed a clear structure to start from and to deal with. The next piece we’ll do, will be a different story, of course….

GW:Are there specific scores - graphic and otherwise - which the musicians work from?

MG: Yes, one graphic score with instructions. And quite a lot of conduction to be able to open shit up.

GW:Are there many opportunities to rehearse?

MG: With 28 musicians and people living in Stockholm, Oslo, Berlin, Nickelsdorf, Lund, Göteborg, Copenhagen? No, this is hard! We wish we could do that. But economically it is just impossible. We are willing to discuss this with anybody who wants to put money into the band, so that we can rehearse and tour frequently!

It is, anyway, still quite unreal that we are doing this project at all. We thought it would just be a one-off concert in Stockholm with our friends, playing for our friends - and see now, what is going on! Hilarious! But, this is an important part of the Orchestra, to do the impossible, in these times of confusion and stupidities, globally and locally, it IS important to do things. TO DO things. We try. And we enjoy trying.

GW:I am interested to know why you have focused on the mechanism of fairly heavy riffs to bind the whole concept. Can you explain how these work as compositional devices in this context?

MG: This is the main element in the Fire! trio. The riff-based structures, the repetition and how to move the energy within the structure. How to lock a groove and open it up without losing direction, focus or energy. So, we took that concept straight into the universe of the Orchestra.

FIRE! Orchestra. Photo credit: Micke Keysendal. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Of course, there are endless possibilities with a beast of 28 musicians. You can really do anything with musicians on this level. And that is also a really important factor in the music of the Orchestra, not to overdo it. To restrain and let the music come first. To find the balance on how to use the individual voices….

The solo capabilities in this ensemble are amazing. But we can’t have all 28 soloing in every version of the piece; it would become something else, and much more predictable. So, the order is decided in an instant by the conductor, depending on what has happened previously in the piece.

GW: There are great brass arrangements - so light and tight - in contrast to some of the dense, loose passages. Can you tell us about these?

MG: The brass arrangements are made by our great trombone hero, Mats Äleklint. We only need one trombone in the Orchestra, and Mats is the strongest trombone player I have ever worked with, musically and volume-wise. He is also a fantastic arranger. I wrote and arranged the choral section, but all the other horn arrangements are made by the other Mats.

GW: And the vocals - who has written the words, and is there a verbal theme/concept?

MG: Mariam wrote the lyrics which were loosely inspired by a text made by the great Joe McPhee. But, basically, it’s from Mariam’s mind and soul. She writes great texts, and is very inspiring to work with when she guests in the trio from time to time. The singers worked together to find the best possible arrangements for the vocals, and they each have a specific text to work with, which they can use in any way they feel like.

GW: You have previously mentioned key inspirations, including Centipede, Sun Ra, Carla Bley and G L Unit. What is it about these (and other) radical big bands that particularly appeals to you? And do other big bands (Ellington, Basie) figure in your thinking?

MG: Oh, yes. The history is the history. The element that we always have to deal with. Whether you like it or not - and I love it. The great orchestras of Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Mingus, John Kirby, Harry Arnold, they all affect what we do. How can we avoid it? They are all great sources of inspiration.

It is just a very thrilling challenge to work with a large orchestra. To work only freely is very, very hard, and that is obvious if you look at the history of free improvisation in large units. There are some exceptions with larger bands that managed to play free improvisation in a large context, like the larger groups of Günter Christmann and Derek Bailey, but, in general, it is a hard thing. And that IS the challenge. And if we – and I, personally – don’t feel challenged by it… we’d rather stay at home, dealing with our vinyl collections.

The real challenge is to balance the pre-structured/composed material with the freer passages. To make the friction between them work. The friction itself creates new platforms to work with, and against.

GW: Is there a reason that many of these bands date back to the late 60s and the 70s?

MG: Not really. It is mostly a musical challenge. The urge of doing it in a larger context. But, yes, it was another time. Different energy, different possibilities. But, I think there has never been as important and valid a time as now to really make it happen, to work in a context that shouldn’t be possible, from logistical and economic points of view.

In the 60s and 70s there was still a lot of exploration to do. The meeting between the prog/psych rock and the freer possibilities of jazz/improvised music, and also the frictions created with the infusion of electronic music as well as written contemporary music. It is all about the friction, the energy. The meeting of traditions and thoughts. But, in the history of jazz-related music, there have always been large groups and will always be. We need that shit to be explored even more.

GW: For a particular section of Enter, Joe McPhee is also singled out as the specific inspiration, and so is a track from the Beatles’ Revolver LP. Could you tell us more about how they impacted on the creative process, and how this influence was absorbed in to the concept?

MG: Joe McPhee wrote an initial text for us, that Mariam took apart and recreated it as something of her own which she later gave back to us to work with. So, that was the main source of inspiration. Joe is the man. One of the most beautiful human beings on this planet. I have no words. His music and his mind is with me and us, all the time.

Beatles? That is a car, isn’t it ? Seriously… we have gotten reviews and comments about using a Beatles quote on this record. Which could be good, or bad, depending on who you are. But there are no references or ideas of using their music at all, in the context of this piece. I hear so many other sources of inspiration in this music, that are much more obvious for us… Bubble Puppy, Mecki Mark Men, Bengt Nordström, Codeine, Gal Costa… or maybe it is just the way that Andreas and Simon dress?

GW:How did you select the excellent musicians and get them on board, and how do they feel about constantly crossing from their comfort zones in to other genres?

MG: You need to ask them individually about that! They are still with us - and they aren’t doing this project because of money, so, perhaps there are still some elements of the music that they all like. Some of them are, of course, very familiar with large group improvisations - and some are not.

We just love that MIX of different backgrounds, interests and perspectives. These are our favourite Swedish musicians, and they surely kick ass, in the context of the Orchestra - and outside as well!

To have people from groups as diverse as Ass, Silverbullit, Tape, Nacka Forum, GUSH, Tonbruket, Dungen, Atomic, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Attack and others is just… fanfuckintastic!

There are so many great musicians within our three individual networks. So, we just invited the first ones that came to our minds. The problem is that there are many, many more in Sweden. We could put together a really huge Orchestra with 100 members at some point. But, so far, I’m the only one into this idea! But I’m working on convincing the others about the greatness of such a stupid thing.

In one way or the other, we’ll try to keep the Orchestra together. For yearly adventures, preferably in early January. Which was the starting point of the Orchestra. To meet after the winter weekends and just PLAY!

GW: You have managed to take the Fire! Orchestra on a highly successful tour in Europe - how does this work? Not only logistically (you have talked of three green buses) but also financially? Are there sponsors who help make it happen?

MG: Without our great engineers - Mikael Werliin: sound genius! - and our amazing tour manager and photographer, Micke Keysendal – it wouldn’t have been possible.

We are a Swedish group, not Norwegian. So, we don’t have unlimited support money. We managed to get some travel costs covered for this year from the Swedish Arts Council (Musikverket) – but in previous years we managed without. Just because we HAD to. For the future… we have no idea. But again, we’ll make it happen! There are shitloads of music and places to explore!

GW:Do small ensembles emerge from the body of the orchestra - something which Barry Guy and Peter Brötzmann have each explored at their Cafe Oto concerts - or will you concentrate purely on the full orchestra at the concert at The Laundry?

MG: Within the context of this concert, there will be just the Orchestra. If there would have been more time and a different budget around… different possibilities emerge. We were initially talking to Cafe Oto about doing small groups as well. But, it just wasn’t possible this time. Logistically, this unit is a handful!

There is always a next time… if you want. We are working on it. During the tours we do always have a first set with small groups or soloists. We will keep this tradition. It is highly inspirational to hear the musicians play before the Orchestra. This, of course, affects the whole thing. That is the way it should be.

GW:How much do individuals shape the piece at each performance, and does each performance take on a life that deviates from the central score?

MG: Oh yes, it all differs from concert to concert. That is the nature of music and human beings. Of life. Different soloists in the piece every night, and also at different sections in the piece. Whatever needs to be done. It is all instant decisions. But, of course, yesterday’s concert affects today’s; it is an ongoing process. I love that.

GW: You will be conducting, and using conduction techniques to guide and exercise control over the ensemble. How much opportunity will you have to play sax - bari or tenor - and when you do, does another musician take the captain’s arm band for these passages?

MG: Yeah, I feel sometimes like a windmill on the loose… a wind turbine eating the wrong mushrooms. There is so much activity going on. It is truly fantastic to stand there in front of all the great people, with the endless possibilities there are within the conduction techniques. Trying hard not to overdo it and just support the music. To put ENERGY into the thing. I’m usually playing tenor sax with the Orchestra, since we already have two amazing bari players in the band. Usually I end up playing with Mariam during her section. That riff she did for that is just KILLING!!! I just can’t resist joining in!

GW:I just wanted to ask about the exclamation mark after 'Fire', which is great - how did that arrive?

MG: This is all the fault of one of the trumpet players! Magnus Broo, the mad jazz bee, has always used the expression ‘FIRE!’ when he is positive about something (we think that is why he says it, at least), and that was clearly with an exclamation mark! We asked him for permission to use it as our band name. He agreed happily with a cheerful ‘Fire!’.

GW:And, finally, how did your well-known interest in obscure and crucial vinyl start - and how do you feed the obsession?

MG: I feed it every day. This is the sole reason why I tour these days. To feed my discaholism. To hunt. Every day. Endless search.‘One piece of vinyl per day keeps the doctor away,’ as my friend, Olof Madsen, puts it. It is a long story. Some day it will be told. We can meet at Rough Trade, Reckless, Honest Jon’s or at Kristina Records and I can tell you part of that story.

Hit the wall. Hit the wall. That always comes first. Hit the wall (and the new arrivals)!

Fire! Orchestra personnel

Mariam Wallentin, Simon Ohlsson, Sofia Jernberg (voice), Niklas Barnö, Magnus Broo, Goran Kajfes, Emil Strandberg (trumpet), Mats Äleklint (trombone), Per Åke Holmlander (tuba), Anna Högberg (alto sax), Mats Gustafsson, Elin Larsson, Malin Wättring (tenor sax), Jonas Kullhammar (bass sax), Martin Küchen (baritone sax), Fredrik Ljungkvist (baritone sax, clarinet), Christer Bothén (bass clarinet, guimbri), Andreas Söderström, Sören Runolf, David Stackenäs (guitar), Sten Sandell (synthesizer and harmonium, piano), Martin Hederos, (organ, keyboards), Joachim Nordwall (electronics), Johan Berthling (el bass), Joel Grip, Dan Berglund (bass), Andreas Werliin, Johan Holmegard, Raymond Strid (drums)

Fire! Orchestra website / 'Enter' CD/LP is on Rune Grammofon

Tickets for the Laundry concert, 26 September