CD Review: Martin Kershaw - The Howness

Martin Kershaw - The Howness
(EJF Records EJF112. CD Review by Chris Parker)

‘Inspired by a life-long love of reading, and especially of those authors who put human behaviour under the microscope and examine the “howness” of it, in search of wider truths about existence’ is how saxophonist/composer Martin Kershaw describes the artistic route that led him to produce this, his third album as a leader. Unlike his previous outings, this is a quartet album (with powerful guitarist Graeme Stephen on the opening couple of tracks), the band completed by pianist Paul Harrison, bassist Euan Burton and drummer Doug Hough, and it showcases not only Kershaw’s supremely adaptable and cogent alto playing, but also his considerable compositional gifts.

Highlights include the wonderfully gritty title track, a suitably eccentric but unfussily affecting tribute to the late great David Foster Wallace (‘But So’), and an appropriately sinister, insinuating tune inspired by one of the most chillingly convincing monsters in 20th-century fiction, Steerpike, from Mervyn Peake’s splendid gothic fantasy Gormenghast trilogy.

Concluding with an impressive rearrangement of Charlie Parker’s ‘Steeplechase’, this is a compelling but absorbingly varied album, on which Kershaw moves easily between an almost Getzian sweet warbling sound and more abrasive playing as required, and is shadowed every step of the way by a smart, inventive and at times fierily interactive band.


Olympic gigs at Oliver's in Greenwich - including Amsterdam after Dark Aug 6th

UPDATE 6th August - Simon Purcell writes: The Oliver's "Not the Olympic Season" gigs are OFF this week except for Saturday 11th (which will have a great line-up à la "Jazz at the Philharmonic" - more to follow. The Olympics have made it almost impossible for businesses in Greenwich, so regrettably the room goes quiet for the weekdays. Thank you to everyone who has supported the gigs so far.

Martin Speake has written in about a series of gigs at Oliver's in Nevada Street in Greenwich during the Olympics. I was curious to hear more about the background to one in particular, August 6th, "Amsterdam after Dark" , about which Martin writes:

I remember going to see George Coleman every year at Ronnie's. The 'old' Ronnie Scott's run by Ronnie and Pete. Simon [Purcell] and I went together about 30 years ago and remember loving the band. I have transcribed all the tunes, and we are going to play them on August 6th.

Click "READ MORE" for the full list of no fewer than SIXTEEN dates

July 27th Simon Purcell Quintet featuring Julian Siegel, Chris Batchelor, Gene Calderazzo and Steve Watts

July 28th Simon Purcell Quintet featuring Julian Siegel, Chris Batchelor, Gene Calderazzo and Steve Watts

July 29th Martin Speake Trio featuring Dave Green and Gene Calderazzo

July 30th Malcolm Earle-Smith Quintet – Monday Night is Jazz Party Night

July 31st Anita Wardell with Simon Purcell trio

Aug 1st Tom Farmer presents

Aug 2nd Simon Purcell’s “Nadatar” with Julian Siegel, Tom Farmer and Shane Forbes

Aug 3rd Mark Lockheart with Simon Purcell Trio

Aug 4th Joe Townsend Band

Aug 5th The Music of Lennie Tristano – Pete Hurt, Martin Speake, Callum Gourlay, Jon Scott

Aug 6th Martin Speake and Simon Purcell “Amsterdam After Dark”

Aug 7th “Fine Chaps” – Geoff Simkins, Malcolm Earle-Smith, Simon Purcell et al

Aug 8th Tom Farmer Band

Aug 9th Anita Wardell with Julian Siegel and the Simon Purcell Trio

Aug 10th Martin Speake with Liam Noble, Chris Hyson and Corrie Dick

Aug 11th Special Jazz Party with special guests…


Review: The Impossible Gentlemen

The Impossible Gentlemen. Left to right: Swallow, Nussbaum, Walker, Simcock
The Impossible Gentlemen
(Pizza Express Dean Street, Wednesday, June 27th 2012)

Gwilym Simcock on piano, Mike Walker on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums came together in early 2010 to form The Impossible Gentlemen, and have been described as a jazz super-group. Not necessarily a good thing, as super-groups have been known to dissolve in a morass of competing egos instead of combining to achieve shared musical goals. It is a partnership across the generations - Simcock is 31, Walker 49, Swallow 71 and Nussbaum 56  -and is working well.

Steve Swallow plays a hollow bodied acoustic bass guitar and so good was the sound that I heard every note he played on this gig. That’s not always the case with bass. His career goes back to the mid-sixties and he’s played with all the greats. Similarly Adam Nussbaum, who can name check Abercrombie and Brecker, has worked with Swallow in a trio with John Scofield.

So what attracted such established names to join two relatively lesser known – and British – musicians? Well, Simcock has already been hailed as a genius by no less than Chick Corea, and I humbly second that. But there are probably many, or at least, several jazz pianists who have technique in spades and a tremendous grasp of melody, harmony and counterpoint.

What makes Simcock stand out, head and shoulders for me, is the almost classical tone quality he produces from the instrument. So many jazzers accentuate the percussive qualities of the piano, bringing out, at times, a harshness which cuts through but is not exactly inviting. Simcock has it in his fingers to produce a woody, marimba like quality when playing ostinatos at the start of "Barber Blues", a thick warm tone when playing ballads such as an as yet untitled piece by Swallow – and many beautiful and subtle colours in between.

Mike Walker was a revelation to me – he too has a long track record, but not always in high-profile situations. He has, nevertheless, played with Kenny Wheeler’s big band and with George Russell, and also covered for Scofield in the Mike Gibbs band. He is a wonderfully fluent soloist. I loved the range of tones that he used – clean on the jaw-dropping unison head of Laugh Lines, warm and buzzy on the fast Latin style Ladies in Mercedes and rock tones on You Won’t Be Around To See It.

This was an absorbing night’s music performed before a packed and attentive audience. If you haven’t already got the album all I can say is – where’ve you been? The tour continues in Portsmouth tonight and then in Europe in July but they’re back for a few dates in the UK in December. I don’t think I’ll hear a more memorable gig this year so they are worth travelling a long way for.

Album number two - to be produced by Steve Rodby (interviewed here)- is being recorded in the next few weeks – I’m in a state of aural salivation.


2pm on July 9th “A New Dawn for Schools’ Jazz Education?”

Or. to give it its full snappy title: The National Plan for Music Education Jazz education seminar at the Barbican. This particular dawn, complete with its question mark, will happen at 2pm. On 9th July 2012.

Panellists: Richard Hallam, Dr Dan Somogyi, Jasmin Earnshaw-Brown, Debbie Kent, Bill Martin (recently departed from Yamaha) and Tony Haynes



Dreams of Jelly Roll. Exhibition of work by John Goto - Freud Museum

The Crave. Pigment print on rag paper 2012 by John Goto. All Rights Reserved.
Left to right: Rudolph Valentino, Thelma Todd, Lucky Luciano, Olive Thomas, Jack Pickford, Virginia Rappe, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Al Jolson and Jelly Roll Morton at The Jungle Inn.
This exhibition, which opens today, runs until 16th September at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. I went last night to the private vernissage thingummy, and had a brief look around. The eyes were streaming with hay fever, so my unconscious is still working on it. I'm sure I'll go back to have a proper look and try to take it in. The first sentence of the catalogue sets the context. "Psychoanalysis and jazz were both born at the end of the nineteenth century. Their founding fathers were respectively Sigmund Freud [..] and Jelly Roll Morton."

What artist John Goto does is to "explore the relationship between biography and the unconscious." All of the works in the exhibition are inspired by the "life, work and dreams" of Jelly Roll Morton. Yes, definitely dreams. The picture above has a knife on the piano stool, recalling a particular incident in Morton's real-or-imagined life. There is also an augmented reality installation and iPhone owners can download the LAYAR app to make this work. The exhibition is supported by the University of Derby where John is a Professor.

The Freud Museum in Marefield Gardens NW3 is not just a couch and a house: it's chock full of tiny artefacts - Egyptian, African etc. Amazing.  It's a far bigger collection than I for one ever knew. And there's a museum shop, which allows the Freud personality cult, and indeed the mind and credit card, to wander into ...Freud mugs (aren't we all?), bearded dolls and even Freud chocolate. This exhibition is definitely a Go-to. (groan).


BBC Radio 4's hommage to the A-Train

"You must take the A-Train" is on BBC Radio 4 at 11am today. THIS LINK is to a short extract from the programme with Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington extracts, and a photo-montage. Thanks for the spot to an eagle-eyed, occasionally train-watching reader in North London.


Cd Review: 4 Sided Triangle

4 Sided Triangle
(Pig Records PIG 02. CD Review by Chris Parker)

This eponymous album from Bristol-based saxophonist Kevin Figes’s 4 Sided Triangle is his third as a leader, and features, alongside his baritone and alto, the fender rhodes of Dan Moore, the guitar of Mike Outram and the drumming of Daisy Palmer. He himself cites Miles Davis’s Live Evil and the recordings of Soft Machine as crucial influences, and the album certainly draws on rock and funk as much as on the electric jazz of another cited influence, Chris Potter’s Underground (a band featuring Wayne Krantz).

Closer to home, 4 Sided Triangle explore territory opened up by the likes of Centre-Line, but Figes’s band’s overall approach, courtesy mainly of Palmer’s rock drumming (which states the beat in the rock manner rather than implying or playing round it in the jazz manner), and made overt in his choice of Badfinger’s ‘Name of the Game’ as the album’s only non-original, is more reminiscent of, say, Get the Blessing or Guillemots than it is of the jazz-rock of Russell Van Den Berg and co.

Both Figes and (especially) the spiky Outram fire off some fierce solos over the solid rhythm-section work of Palmer and Moore, and Figes’s baritone sound in particular imbues the tracks on which it is employed with a pleasantly grainy sonorousness; overall, though, this is probably an album which will be more appreciated by rock fans branching out into jazz than by listeners coming in the other direction.


The Musicians Against Playing for Free at the Olympic Facebook Group

Peter Bacon's Jazz Breakfast blog has a very good piece about the issues raised by the  "Musicians Against Playing for Free at the Olympic" Facebook group started by Ashley Slater, which is producing a welter of comment from jazz musicians.

UPDATE: Here's the text of an engagement letter which has appeared elsewhere in te public domain:

Festival during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

We would like to program you from 12.30pm - 3pm in the afternoon as we feel your work suits the post Games celebratory mood.

A message from London 2012:

Your talents will be instrumental in creating a fantastic and memorable experience for our spectators.

Eton Dorney will be welcoming around 30,000 Spectators a day during the Games and we would like to fill the venue with fun and vibrancy through music and performance, as well as world class sport! Our aim is to create a once in a lifetime experience for all our spectators and extend the magic of the Games to the sessions both before and after the sporting competition and give everyone a thoroughly good day out. Huge thanks to you for helping us achieve this goal!

This is an extremely high profile project and there will be media attention on the venue at all times. This is both exciting for you as performers and also brings its own set of rules to bear in mind:

This is an unusually high-profile project and there will be security screening and reference checks which will need to be complied with in order to access the venue (if you are performing in the ‘in venue’ locations)

We take the safety of our spectators and performers very seriously and have procedures in place to keep people safe at all times. However please make sure that you take responsibility for ensuring your own health and safety, as well as that of those around you.

Transportation will not be provided to and from the venue, between performance areas and back of house.

All instruments, costumes, equipment and other items relating to your performance must be carried through the personal screening areas and throughout the venue. Do think about the portability of items such as keyboards etc.

Eton Dorney is a family-friendly, international and inclusive environment, so your performance must be appropriate to all ages and cultures.

You are not permitted to sell or distribute merchandise or promotional material. You are not permitted to accept money at any time.

You are not permitted to wear clothing that features branding (names/logos), including references to the Games.

You are not permitted to use of associate yourself with the London 2012 Logo or the Olympic Games or promote or advertise that you are performing at the Games.

You will be required to complete an accreditation form as soon as possible (latest 22nd June 2012), to enable you to take part in this event. We will also ask you to sign a Performer contract as well to confirm that you agree to our terms and conditions and return these two forms to The Firestation Arts Centre by email and then a separate copy in the post.

We look forward to working with you and sharing your talent with the world!

Message ends

Good eh?

Our current budget allows for £50 per act per hour. (Please let us know if that amount enables you to be able to attend)

What to do now:

Please respond to this email just to let us know you have recived it then let us know your availability between those dates ASAP. The London 2012 Dorney visitors experience team have passed on the accreditation form and checks needed to have your pass created. I'm sure you can appreciate that with the status of the performance area we need to have a certain level of security for the safety of everyone involved. The forms are attached to this email. Please print them off and send them back to us or scan in/email them. Important Info: All artists do have to travel to East London to pick up their accreditation for the venue, (this is across the board for all Olympic events - even Paul McCartney has had to do this!). If you are keen on joining for the Paralympics – London 2012 are very interested in programming performance for these events too. - expression of interest is enough – all forms and availability is for the Olympic dates ONLY (28th July – 11 August)The London 2012 legal department have said that performers will not be able to use the logo or suggest that they are 'endorsed' or involved in the Games themselves.But:All performers will however be allowed to make a factual statement that LOCOG is a client on client list. This is made clear in the clauses of your contract. Your names will also be printed via a programme from the Firestation's Games Walk Performance Festival which is an accredited London 2012 Inspire marked project.

Remember, the Games Walk Performance Festival also stretches across to the Firestation's home venue – with free venue hire and some special music events planned which you are all invited to join (with ticket split 50/50) you may not be able to sell your records on site, but you can inform the spectators that you will be staying in Windsor if they want to come to your gig – which will also be promoted through the Games.


Kit Downes Preview/Interview (Vortex July 3rd)

Kit Downes and Lucy Railton at Chappells (with Calum Gourlay, James Maddren,
James Allsopp)
Photo credit: William Ellis. All rights reserved
Kit Downes talks to Robert Edgar about his new music being performed at the Vortex next Tuesday July 3rd, and about his next album, for release next April:

Robert Edgar: Does your new music for the gig on 3rd July represent a shift from your music up to now?

Kit Downes: Not so much a shift but another train of thought. I have been working with Lucy in my own band for about a year now so this is just an extension of what we do in that band. I have written new music for it as I like to write specifically for the people I'm playing with and situations I'm playing in.

RE: How does that work?

KD: I think of the people involved in the project, I try to imagine a sound for that group and then try to write for that sound that I have in my head. If it then takes a change in direction after that then that's fine, but this is always my starting point. Obviously when you bring the music to the players it changes again - especially with music that is both composed and improvised in equal measure as this is.

RE: And the 'cello?

KD: I love the cello as it is so diverse in its sound world. With the piano there is a big history to it which informs what you expect to hear from it (sonically) - and this can be hard to escape, that's the challenge of the instrument.

RE: And you enjoy working in a duo Lucy Railton?

KD: Yes, with Lucy, she plays the cello in a really interesting way, one that is impossible to pin down to a particular style, genre of time-frame. She doesn't write music, but in the way she interprets things I think she makes them sound unique (both the music and her own sound within it).

RE: Is this the first time you both have collaborated?

KD: No, Lucy plays in my Quintet. We are also involved in a project together led by Thomas Stronen

RE: The Vortex website mentions a mixture of “semi-improvised/semi composed pieces.” Do you follow a pattern from an original idea together?

KD : That is generally how we improvise, however - the music I have written is particular in the way it informs how the improvisation will be. I prescribe sounds, or textures, or lengths etc - but all within a through-composed piece of music. Not so much head-solo-head, though I love this way of improvising too.

RE: What kind of challenges (if any) did this collaboration present and what (if anything) did you have to do differently compared to your previous work.

KD: I have approached it as it's own thing, as I do with everything - so in that sense it is the same process as other things that I play in. Finding a sound for the group and playing and writing into that sound. Things that are difficult would be use of space, as any duo is bare by nature but then the temptation becomes to fill that space rather than embrace it. This is a fun challenge however - and the reason i do it!

RE: Are they all "originals" or are there re-workings of pieces by others?

KD: There is only one re-work, a Bulgarian Traditional tune called 'Rachenitsa'

RE: You have said that you got your first album when you were 13 or 14 and, since then, you have been using each new piece of music you are introduced to as a kind of learning experience. Is this in some way related to that learning experience?

KD: I guess so. Playing with good musicians is always a learning experience, and trying to stretch yourself in terms of line-up, texture and sound - doing things that feel new to you.

RE: Is this gig a one-off?

KD: No, we played in April at Kings Place, and we may record it on a little EP i think later this year, for limited release to 7 inch... I think.

RE: Any other new projects for the near future?

Kit Downes : I have a new Quintet album coming out in April 2013, which we recorded a couple of months ago. It will be called 'Light from Old Stars' and feature James Allsopp on bass clarinet, Lucy Railton on cello, James Maddren on drums and Calum Gourlay on bass. It will be on the Basho Label. You can hear a preview here.

Robert Edgar: Thanks for the interview, I'm looking forward to being at the Vortex next Tuesday


CD Review: Tommaso Starace - Simply Marvellous

Tommaso Starace - Simply Marvellous
(Emarcy/ Universal Italia. CD Review by Alison Hoblyn)

Feeling blue? Settle down and put on Tommaso Starace’s new CD Simply Marvellous.

When I did (not in the best of heart) I just listened to the pictures. Not going to think of anything clever to say, just tell it like I see it. And what floated into mind immediately was sitting in a bar on the top of a Manhattan skyscraper; feeling stylish and uplifted. It was the best kind of sophisticated and melodic jazz for elevating mood.

Starace, a saxophonist with a storytelling approach, works between Italy, Switzerland and the UK and performs here with his Italian Quartet; Michele di Toro, piano - his playing articulate and bright toned, Attilio Zanchi, grounding it all with responsive bass and Tommy Bradascio, doing a fine job on the batteria (drums).

This album is a celebration of the work of Michel Petrucciani, French composer and pianist beloved of the American jazz scene, who died far too early in 1999 at age 36. Petrucciani had osteogenesis – a condition that led to brittle bones, extremely short stature and constant pain. He might have simply endured life - but it wasn’t the route he chose to take. He remarked that ‘sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary’. So he played with Jarrett-like technique and composed instrumentals that he liked to call ‘songs’, which flow along. This style is reflected in Starace’s interpretation; Starace’s voice-imitative saxophone plays the melodic line and there’s a notable absence of heavy shifts from player to player. Petrucciani deemed the practise of this kind of pausing (maybe for the possibility of a nice audience clap after solos) ‘old fashioned’. With Starace’s quartet there’s just a subtle change of focus and always a sense of the musicians’ enjoyment of playing together.

On Guadeloupe, with its cheering Latin rhythm, guest trumpeter Fabrizio Bossi dialogues with Starace’s crisp sax playing. In ‘Even Mice Dance’ there’s a teasing intro of Chopin’s dark Prelude no.20, improvised by di Toro and gradually drawing in the others, lightening the mood in the process. The one non-Petrucciani composition is written by Starace, dedicated to the French pianist with the title Marvellous (the name of one of Petrucciani's albums , in turn dedicated to the life he loved.)

As for the music making one feel less ‘blue’, it’s an apt metaphor; Petrucciani liked to say he could see colours in the music (G major to him was green) and Petrucciani’s brother Louis praises Starace in the sleeve notes for his ‘very beautiful colours which retrace Michel’s steps’. And as an extra dimension on this CD, there’s the enticement of guest musician Roger Beaujolais on vibraphone – an instrument and a musician combining the uplifting with the stylish.

The track that ignited the imagination of the New York bar is appropriately called Looking Up. Watching a documentary on Petrucciani, the last scenes show him playing his piano on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper – and honestly, I didn’t see that first! What comes over strongly in the album is a sense of positivity. The music is a marvellous tonic. Its composer refused to be confined by his physical disabilities; ‘My philosophy is to have a really good time and never let anything stop me from doing what I want to do’, he said. Starace says it’s that enjoyment and freedom they feel when they play - and it’s obvious. This set of musicians has produced a celebration of not only a life but life in general.


Daryl Sherman Preview

Frank Griffith writes:

Cabaret chanteuse/jazz pianist, Daryl Sherman, a frequent American visitor to the UK (above with Digby Fairweather and Dominic Ashworth) will be making her annual foray to these shores beginning 1st July at the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival and concluding with an appearance at Norwich’s The Green Man on 17th July, before going off to the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on July 20 and 21. Lucky Londoners will be able to catch her at the Boisdale in Canary Wharf on 9 July and on the following night she’ll be holding forth at the Pizza Express Dean Street.

No doubt she’ll be performing songs from her recently released CD on the Audiofile label Mississippi Belle, Cole Porter in the Quarter (2011) which includes a cracking quartet of Nawlins” natives. Highlights from which are rare and less rare Cole Porter gems such as Rosalie, Get Out of Town, Tale of the Oyster and the title song. Book now or regret later.


Abram Wilson Funeral, Memorial Service and Foundation announced

The arrangements for the funeral in the US of Abram Wilson, of a Memorial Service in London, and the setting up of a Foundation have been announced.

The funeral was a private family ceremony Utica, Mississippi on Saturday June 23rd.

The statement on Abram's website continues:   There will be a public memorial service to celebrate Abram's life in London on Wednesday 25th July. We will begin the afternoon with a New Orleans style funeral procession starting at 1:30pm near St John's Church, Waterloo Road, SE1 8TY. The exact meeting point for the procession will be confirmed at a later date.

A foundation to continue the work which Abram started has been set up:


In memory of Abram we will be establishing The Abram Wilson Foundation. To kick start the Foundation we plan to finish the project Philippa. There is a live recording of the music which we hope to be able to release and we were also working on a jazz-theatre piece which we aim to complete.

Instead of flowers and cards we are asking people to go to The Abram Wilson Foundation page on and make a donation. This page will be live until 25th August, during which time we need to raise a minimum of $7,000 or we won't receive any of the donations. So please feel free to let your friends and family know about the Foundation.

Before Abram died he told us he still had so much he wanted to do, we hope that his Foundation will enable us to fulfil his dreams and keep his legacy alive.

To make a donation please follow the link.UPDATE JULY 2nd. THE INITIAL $7,000 TARGET HAS BEEN REACHED IN A WEEK


For more detail:

Our previous post has several tributes and links to obituaries.


Valamar Jazz Festival 2012: A to Z Round-Up Review

A is for Afterparty. I want to place the Valamar Jazz Festival afterparty, in the splendidly atmospheric gardens of the Villa Polesini (above), a Valamar-owned property, straight up there among the all-time most atmospheric and enticing jazz hangs in the world. And the fourth night was something very special indeed.

B is for the Bell tower of the Euphrasian Basilica. The bell tower, standing tall above all the other buildings of the town, is its most visible landmark. As you return from the island stage you feel welcomed back by the magic of the harbour lights reflected in the water, and by the reassuring ever-presence of the tower. (see also W)

C is for the particular undefinable charm of Poreč. You have to experience it (See - among others - B and U)

D is for Lars Danielsson. Caecilie Norby's bassist husband, playing on borrowed equipment because an airline had screwed up, shone in his appearance in the official programme slot, accompanying Norby in How High the Moon at about crotchet equals 400, and at the afterparty.

E is for Elvis Penava, a 32-year old guitarist from Rijeka, a regular presence in the house band at the afterparty jam sessions . One of the by-products of the festival is that it gives local musicians exposure. Croatia has a small scene, but Tamara Obrovac is extrmely pro-active in helping to nurture it. Check out Elvis Penava on video:

F is for the little ferryboat which brings the audience to and from the little island of Sveti Nikola where the main stage is. It's an efficient service, running to an exact timetable which in my experience never got missed. (see also S)

G is for Gelateria, serving an absolute essential in the summer heat of Poreč (it was hot, the weather perfect this year). There's masses of choice, including Italian artisan ice cream. This is a competitive market which requires huge energy and long hours from sellers of ice-cream (and noise - check out this video)

H is for the history of a town which has been Greek, Roman, Venetian, Austrian, Italian, Yugoslav, Croatian. Stroll and you'll find Roman remains from the first century AD. The Euphrasian basilica has had a religious building on its site since the third century AD.

I is for Italy. It's close. Venice is just two and a half hours by high speed catamaran ferry. And it's culturally close, too. Luckily for the rest of us, the Italians have a very short holiday season. I like Poreč in June (see U)

J is for the JB Horns of Fred Wesley (above) who played their brand of 70s funk on the final night of the festival. Electric bass player Dwayne Dolphin is a powerful voice in the lower octaves. Depending on your point of view, it's either evergreen or in a time-warp. Fun, though. "Bop to the boogie / Boogie to the bop bop / To the Boogie Bop Bop", we rapped. You get the idea.

K is for Klagenfurt ...or K.u.K, or in other words Austria. Just as Italy is culturally and geographically close, so is Austria. This mix of influences and cultural proximity adds to the charm (see C  and also I)

L is for Lonely Planet. Festival Director Tamara Obrovac (above) gets a mention in the Lonely Planet guide for Croatia. In appointing her and her team to run the Festival, Valamar have found someone unique, with huge energy and good experience and judgement. I've been enjoying her most recent album too.

M is for Hugh Masekela. The charisma, the warmth, the great band, and probably the crowning glory of the festival. (See review)

N is for Sveti Nikola. The island which houses the main festival stage right by the sea. You hear the lapping of the waves as you wait for the band to come on stage.

O is for the corporate objectives of Valamar. It is incredibly enlightened of a corporation like Valamar to host this festival. This could indeed be a case study for good corporate sponsorship. Large corporations are capable of pouring money away,but the more I saw of this association, the more I became persuaded that this is money VERY well spent, and that the positive brand associations of this music festival for Valamar as it develops can be far-reaching. Valamar have got hold of the right people to run it, to build it. The festival gives Valamar's suppliers, corporate guests a good time, but there is untapped potential through annual reinforcing of the message via this festival of the unique appeal of the region.

P is for the programming and production (see also Q)

Q is for the sheer quality of that programming, and the clever use of venues such as the Euphrasian basilica, and the stage by the sea (above). And for the sound quality. Studio sound quality on a beach. Yes. And a sign of what can happen when the team running a festival are given sanction and the budget to deliver quality.

R is for Enrico Rava. The great Italian trumpeter was the inspiration of a young band. These bands led by the veterans, the story-tellers of European jazz, handing on the precious flame, are inspiring and give hope.

S is for swallows. Flocks of them take to the air as the audience is settling for the concert. You can just about set your watch by them. (For after the concert see H)

T is for Tamara Obrovac, and also for the lively and professional team spirit of her small programming and production staff. They work seamlessly to create a good experience. Messages given get passed on, things get taken care of, it's been a privilege to watch them in action.

U is for unhurried. Poreč in June is anything but rushed. It's a delightful town with retro charm. (see also C)

V is for Valamar. Valamar, "the leading Croatian hospitality management company, operating 40 properties situated on the Adriatic coast" have branded this festival cleverly. They are in the hospitality trade, it's a business they understand in depth.

W is for World Heritage. To go to a gig (by Ralph Towner - reviewed here) in a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 1500 years of history in its walls felt like a privilege.

X is for a nice exhibition of photos by Željko Jelenski, concurrent with the festival

Y is for yachts. Quite a few weigh anchor in the harbour. I was amused that everyone has to take off your boat-shoes to go on this one.

Z is for Zagreb, the capital of this country of 4 1/2 million people, which is blessed with some of the finest coastline in Europe. Their history is far from simple - while I've been here there have been two national holidays which commemorate events in Croatian history - but what I'm taking home from this festival is its potential to become more visible and show of the charm of the region. A large corporation has taken a bold step and combined with the energy of an inspiring, small programming/ production team. This commercially instigated but artistically-led festival, in its third year, deserves the opportunity to gather momentum in the years ahead. (see P and Q)

Sebastian Scotney was the guest of Valamar Jazz Festival


Review: Spire - Spitalfields Festival

Interior of St Botolph-Without-Aldgate.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved
(St Botolph-Without-Aldgate, part of Spitalfields Summer Festival, 21st June 2012; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Cheek-by-jowl with the monstrous office blocks at Aldgate station, St Botolph-Without-Aldgate is something of a jewel, a neatly defined church interior housing the oldest complete organ in the country, dating from 1704 and restored early this century, making it the natural setting for the thirteenth instalment of Spire, Touch's organ-based project, initiated in 2004. As Mike Harding, founder of Touch, explained in the illuminating pre-concert conversation with Scott McMillan (The Liminal), Spire was born out of his frustration with the limitations of the laptop being used virtually exclusively without reference to the analogue and was his way of pushing the two worlds closer, of letting them "knead together".

Spire combines the best of the organ's traditional repertoire with the experimental and electronic in some of the world's most inspiring cathedrals and church settings, and has seen concerts in Linz, Brussels, Geneva, Riga, Lincoln and York, and now London. The venues contribute potential for catharsis and reflection. "The sound in holy places reflects the power of God," said Harding, and the audience is encouraged to move around the buildings to fully appreciate the music in its living context.

Spire recontextualises local connections, which, in the case of St Botolph reveals a history as a landmark going back to pagan and even pre-societal times. The church was visited a year ago to imagine how this Spire event might be be choreographed and sound in its various spaces.

In searching "for music that connects", Harding discovered that many electronic musicians responded most strongly to the oldest organ works, going back to the fourteenth century - not what he'd expected, and referred to the strong improvisational element that has been present in the music of many composers since that time, which has echoes in the Spire project where "we don't know really know how it's going to sound ourselves." Charles Matthews added that some organ pieces can sound out of tune because they were often written without a "particular tuning system in mind." Marcus Davidson later described to me the exhilarating experience of the Spire participant in dramatic fashion - "It's like jumping off a cliff. You never know what's going to happen next!"

This was a concert to let all the variations of texture just sink in. Matthews set the tone at the piano on the ground level with a short, intricate slow movement from Camilleri's 'Sonatina Semplice', moving up to the mezzanine to take his place at the church's organ to deliver the full authority of Bach's 'Komm, Heiliger Geist'. Ligeti's 'Harmonies' had the same power in its clarity of intent, with Matthews navigating its unearthly wheeling articulations, insidiously flooding the hall with sound washes, eerily welling and subsiding.

Mixing in voice with the keyboards and electronics, John Beaumont adapted fluently to the programme's diversity, with the bright vocal discipline of Byrd, Finzi's pastoral songs, and an improvised piece with B J Nilsen, referencing the spirit of plainsong from the upper gallery as Nilsen, below, insinuated electronics which gradually increased in intensity to match the sound level of the vocals, before diminishing to silence.

Davidson, in his composition, 'The Passing' introduced layers of shifting abstract form and, with Matthews signalling from the organ seat, in Diana Burrell's 'Lauds', construed complex intrusions, distortions and interactions that cast new light on the organ's possibilities. Harding joined the two keyboard players in an inevitably doomed search, not without a touch of mischief, for the elusive 'Eternal Chord' on Renatus Harris's eighteenth century organ, anticipating the group improvisation which took place after Philip Jeck's masterly set, which combined a panoply of vinyl scratches, samples, and keyed notes in an intriguingly formatted sequential collage, given additional status by its inherently analogue format.

The combinations of composition and improvisation, imagination and technical mastery brought out the qualities of both the sounds and the setting in unexpected ways. With the imperative to experience the music in all corners of George Dance's building, the sense of being in a workshop of sorts made the evening very special.

Charles Matthews: organ and piano
John Beaumont: tenor (voice)
Marcus Davidson; organ, piano and electronics
BJ Nilsen: electronics
Philip Jeck: turntables and samplers


Preview: Abyssinian Mass, European Premiere, part of Jazz at Lincoln Center Barbican residency

The theme of collaboration runs through the Jazz at Lincoln Center  International Associate residency at the Barbican Centre - July 10 to 26; other events include an Afro-Cuban fiesta, a joint performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and a collaboration between Guildhall jazz students and the visiting American players at the Spice of Life.

ALISON BECK previews the European Premiere of Abyssinian Mass on Friday July 13th.

Gospel and jazz music will be knit together at the European premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Abyssinian Mass for 100 voices and jazz orchestra, at the Barbican Centre on 13th July.

John Cumming, the Director of Serious, explains: “We’ve been working for years with Jazz at Lincoln Center, touring around the UK as well. When Wynton was in London last summer, this residency was still being discussed and he was particularly keen to have the Abyssinian Mass performed here.”

The piece has only ever been performed once before – in New York in 2008 , to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

‘Epic’ would be a very apt word to describe the Mass, which consists of two hours of continuous music performed by the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, six vocal soloists, and a mass choir formed especially for the occasion.

Wynton Marsalis composed the music and wrote the text too, weaving together rich textures of jazz harmony and improvisation with the powerful melodies and call-and-response tradition of gospel music and spirituals.

Before the first Abyssinian Mass performance in New York, Marsalis explained what had inspired him to compose the piece. “Our music is so rich, songs like ‘Go Down Moses,’ ‘There is a Balm in Gilead’… What was in these songs was the depths of our ancestors’ tears. We’re going to spend much time studying and researching the material and it will be performed with heft and intellectual weight and integrity that befits a celebration of 200 years of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The music will be performed by some of our greatest musicians, many of whom have deep roots in the church. It will be about our lives, and about our great and great, great grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ lives.”

There is a great tradition – in both the US and the UK – of ‘crossover’ between jazz and gospel music, often with the very same musicians playing across the two different genres. And both gospel music and jazz music have their foundations in improvisation, something which features at the heart of virtually every live performance in either genre.

The choirmaster for the Barbican performance is Damien Sneed, a legendary US gospel producer, director, conductor and composer who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, Donnie McClurkin, and the Clark Sisters among many others, and has a long-standing artistic relationship with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Centre.

So how have choir rehearsals been going? Jo Wallfisch, one of the 100 British singers volunteering to take part in the Barbican performance, describes Damien Sneed as “incredibly engaging, and scarily good.” At the first rehearsal “it was like he’d turned all the lights on. He’d literally just stepped off the plane from New York. He has the most unbelievable vocal range; he demonstrated every part, from soprano to bass. He’s the kind of choir director who can make anyone amazing. He’s got that magic touch of bringing it out of you.”

John Cumming has spent time behind the scenes at rehearsals too: “The bits of the choir rehearsal that I heard were pretty amazing. The richness of the singing, and the depth, is very exciting… you get this extraordinary power of the human voice. When you hear the power of a choir without amplification or anything else that can be astonishing.”

UK gospel choral director Ken Burton and his London Adventist Chorale are heavily involved in the Barbican performance. John Cumming comments: “I think it’s interesting that there is a big choral tradition right across this country, with Crouch End Festival Chorus and so many others. But there’s also a gospel choral tradition that has grown up alongside that, out of the Caribbean and African community. And there are so many contacts between the gospel community here and in the States... So really, what better place than London to host the European premiere of the Abyssinian Mass?”

Event details/ tickets from Barbican Centre website


Valamar Jazz Festival. Day 4 Report

Hugh Masekela and his regular five-piece band give a great show. They take an audience through shifting moods; Masekela gets us singing our hearts out, yelping in call-and response, he then brings us collectively to our feet, either to dance, or just to celebrate and enjoy ourselves.

He doesn't spare himself. His flugelhorn chops had had quite a work-out earlier, at the sound check - , but he upped the playing energy level in performance. His voice produces the kind of exteme - deliberate, controlled - sounds which a throat doctor would certainly advise against. And then there's the presence, the acting: Masekela is in constant motion. Even in a quiet moment when the band is keeping low to let him quietly stroke a guiro, his facial expressions go from triumph, to laughter to mock-fear: it's completely mesmerizing. And then the band in perfect synchronization take the mood onwards. They put their foot on the gas and let the volume rise to fortissimo, then subside again so that Masekela can sing. You go with the flow.

Tonight I found my ear caught several times by the uniquely joyous South African harmonized backing vocals, but perhaps above all by the whipcrack power and unremitting drive and energy of drummer Lee Roy Sauls. This show is professional, it's engaging. I've heard it before, and the sense of pure enjoyment doesn't pale on repeated listening. Next stop, nah then. A Leeds Jazz promotion in Grassington, Yorkshire on Tuesday.

A particular hat-tip is in order for the Valamar sound crew and production team, who create studio quality. On a beach.

Earlier in the evening, there had been an upbeat set from Caecilie Norby, who situates herself fairly and squarely in the broader North American singing tradition. She mentioned Abbey Lincoln, sang some Joni Mitchell, but I found myself being reminded of Teresa Brewer. The high points of the set were energetic and compelling duos with her husband, bassist Lars Danielsson, who was - I gather - playing on borrowed equipment, but with huge musicianship and verve. (Diversion: LondonJazz - and I think most of the UK press - uh? was it not released in the UK? - managed to miss his album Liberetto with Tigran and John Pattitucci completely; from Ian Mann's review it sounds fab!)

And then the afterparty in the gardens of the Villa Polesini. It's an unforgettable setting, and last night's combinations were irresistible. A house band of Croatian musicians delivered high quality throughout. Portuguese singer Amalia Baraona gave us bossa nova with authenticity, style, ownership, humanity, warmth, musicianship, class. But the high point came with the combination of Norby's bassist husband Lars Danelsson, with the Masekela-band trio of guitarist Cameron Ward, Randall Skippers on keyboards and Lee Roy Sauls (in the different setting Sauls was showing subtlety and inventiveness, a total contrast to the raw power I had picked up earlier) on drums. Lars Danielsson is a bass player of class, but the unanimity, the collective drive, the UBUNTU he was getting from the other players took him to another level, absolving him of the bassist's habitual sense of responsibility, allowing him complete fulfilment. You could see it on his face. This is the kind of perfect circle, a moment of completeness which jazz can bring. I know I shall never forget it.


Valamar Jazz Festival Day 4. Sunbathers at the soundcheck

A postcard from Poreč. Hugh Masekela, sound-checking this afternoon for tonight's Valamar Jazz Festival show.

Wish you were here....?


Review: Tingvall Trio

Tingvall Trio, Pizza Express, June 2012. Photo credit: Roger  Thomas

Tingvall Trio
(Pizza Express Dean St., Wed 20th June 2012.Review by Alison Bentley)

Trolls, monsters, cats, sharks- and a moustache! All to be heard in the Hamburg-based Tingvall Trio's first UK gig, in the suitably cavernous depths of the Pizza Express Jazz Club. The trio's playful side contrasted with their dreamy evocation of ethereal landscapes, in Swedish pianist Martin Tingvall's compositions. He lives partly in Wallander country, and the misty cover of their new CD Vagen could be a film still.

The CD was No 1 in the German jazz charts, and they've won, unusually, two prestigious ECHO awards- best ensemble and best live band. They're a powerful force live. Their rapport is intuitive and mesmeric. Tingvall and drummer Jürgen Spiegel worked together as a duo before meeting Cuban bassist Omar Rodríguez Calvo in 1993. They obviously really enjoy each other's playing, and their strength is the way their different influences fuse into one- classical, heavy rock, drum 'n' bass, Latin and African rhythms. The dynamics are breathtaking- from a whisper to a scream in a second.

Martin Tingvall loves strong melodies, and writes tunes that keep you awake in the middle of the night. Title track Vagen (Road) (their 'single', he joked) has an innocence and openness, the bass playing harmony lines with the piano. There are overtones of mentor Bobo Stenson. Movie is a slow spacey tune, the spaces filled with Spiegel's semiquavers- almost drum 'n' bass, while Den Ensamme Mannen , with its Chopin-like melody, is almost a slow tango. Hjalten has echoes of Keith Jarrett's Country, or of John Taylor's lyricism.

The band are also AC/DC fans and there are acoustic echoes of heavy rock in the cadences, as in Tveklost. (More IV V I than II V I!) He's very influenced by classical composers, and this has shades of Sibelius' Finlandia or a Beethoven theme. Unlike precursors e.s.t., they prefer the natural sounds of the instruments, but Tingvall's creative use of the pedal to create dissonant, shimmering overtones in the ballads adds eerieness and beauty.

The band play a lot in Spain, and Tingvall admires Chick Corea-, and Sevilla, Hajskraj(Afraid of Sharks), and Shejk Schroder hint at flamenco. The latter combines it with a rock swagger, recalling the Bad Plus. Calvo's beautiful arco bass solo added a gypsy quality. Mustasch is a fast 5/4 tango, with rippling descending piano triads, glissandi and some McCoy Tyner physicality. Spiegel's hero is Tony Williams, and he's equal to a high energy rock crescendo, when not subtly enhancing every nuance of the tune. Trolldans and Monster were funky, groovy, with crashing chromatic piano chords, and Mjau (Miaow) was the 'cat party in the basement', a tumbling samba with a whisker of calypso.

The audience were on the edge of their seats- cheering the mix of pastoral mysticism, spirited Latin rhythms, sweet melodies and dark rock. Don't miss this band next time!


Valamar Jazz Festival in Poreč. Day 3 (Enrico Rava plus Joey Calderazzo)

The action today here in Poreč moved to the main stage. It's right by the sea. As you wait for the first band, you can hear the waves lapping, you see flocks of swallows in the sky. It all happens on the small island in Poreč Harbour, Sveti Nicolau. The mood may be relaxed, the town is certainly not heaving by any standards, but this is a festival which is artistically led, sets itself high standards both for programming and technically, and just has a lot going for it. For an outdoor stage, the sound quality tonight was exceptional. And a warm evening brings out an audience in shirtsleeves, t-shirts. This is summer.

First band up tonight were Enrico Rava's Tribe. Rava has been working with trombonist Gianluca Petrella for more than a decade now, and their dialogue is civilized, articulate, has real freedom. A video from the end of last year in Bari gives a good flavour of it. Petrella reaches high, Ravi digs low, it works. Their final scheduled number, (which is also what they have just begun as the video clip from Bari runs off) was a close cousin of Mingus' Boogie Stop Shuffle, and had wonderful defiant energy.

The second band were a trio led by Joey Calderazzo, who had flown over from the US just for this one concert, with two Swedes, bassist Martin Sjostedt and drummer Daniel Frederiksson.

Considering these circumstances, the ease and fluency of their work together were exceptional, particularly when segue-ing directly from My Foolish Heart to I have Never Been in Love Before : Sjöstedt guided this transition. He has held the bass chair in the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra for several years, and is a player of real class, I was bowled over.

And yes, a nice thing happened earlier in the day. Festival Director Tamara Obrovac, it turned out, didn't actually know that she had a special mention in the Lonely Planet guide to Croatia. She does now.......


LP Review: Charles Sharp 6 — Exits

Charles Sharp 6 — Exits
(Empty Cellar Records EMP011. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Do you know what an audiophile vinyl lover listens for? Silence. When you switch on the turntable and you first lower the needle onto the record, that’s what you want to hear. That’s what you’re praying for. Because a noisy run-in groove suggests, if it’s an old record, that it’s been badly looked after (read ‘knackered’). And if it’s a brand new record, it tells you that it’s a poor pressing and it’s been badly manufactured.

Well, when lowering the needle onto the new album by the Charles Sharp 6 what you first hear is beautiful, cavernous, velvety silence. It’s instantly clear that this is a wonderful pressing made by someone who cares about vinyl. And then the music starts. It’s terrific, tough and fascinating — hypnotic.

At the words ‘free’ or ‘modern’ many a fan of Dixieland, Swing or even Bebop is likely to reach for their revolver, or at the very least the off-switch on their amplifier. It’s true that the avant-garde can often be difficult terrain, but anyone with open ears knows what treasures are on offer. And who would be without Sun Ra?

Charles Sharp would readily acknowledge the influence of Ra but he’s clearly very much his own man. A multi instrumentalist who plays alto, tenor and baritone sax as well as diverse clarinets, Sharp has recorded with jazz greats including Kenny Burrell and Tito Puente.

His first album is entitled Exits and features an intriguing line up including two upright bass players, 'cello, drums and French horn. Its minimalist cover art, cryptically text-free record labels and phenomenological song titles might seem to suggest we’re in for a dauntingly austere high-art experience. In fact, it’s anything but.

The music is accessible and visceral with a recurrent warm buoyancy which is both enjoyable and engaging. But there is also a probing, mysterious quality to it which gives real emotional (and intellectual) depth.

It’s free jazz but not so as to scare the horses.

It grooves, with its roots in a tradition which run from Sidney Bechet to Steve Lacey. At the beginning of the album the raucous, raw swagger of the band suggests we might be in for a garage barrage or a rhythm and blues blast. But soon we’re exploring mysterious, moody and exotic terrain. At other times its joyous and carousing. The music is insinuating, sinewy and intelligent. When you see there’s a vuvuzela on an album you don’t necessarily suspect you’re in for a treat, but that’s definitely the case here.

If you enjoy the more modern edges of jazz you should definitely check out Charles Sharp. Anybody who can appreciate Ornette Coleman is likely to find something to enjoy here. And if you’re a devotee of free jazz who also loves high quality vinyl, then you should seek this out immediately. It is a notable recording. Recording engineers are often the unsung heroes of jazz and anyone whose pulse quickens at the thought of finding an album made by Rudy Van Gelder at Hackensack or Roy DuNann in Melrose Place should take note of Terry Carter and his Coyote Pass Studios in Monterey Park, California. Credit is also due to Paul Oldham who did the mastering.

The people at Empty Cellar records are to be congratulated for taking such excellent music and making it available on a splendid piece of vinyl.

It’s also available on CD or digital download; if you must.

Charles Sharp – Alto, Tenor, and Baritone Sax, Bb Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet, Vuvuzuela
Michael Intriere – Cello
Jeff Schwartz – Bass (right side)
Anthony Shadduck – Bass (left side)
Rich West – percussion, French horn, accordion
Andrew Lessman – drums


Valamar Jazz, Day 2. Ralph Towner in the Euphrasian Basilica

Today it's all been about the basilica, a.k.a. "The Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica in the Historic Centre of Poreč", or for all you listophiles out there, Unesco World Heritage Site No. 809. Its bell tower, by some margin the tallest structure in the old town, is visible from everywhere here. And if you climb the 121 steps to the top, here's view you get as your reward:

There has been a religious building on this site since the second half of the fourth century. The five star attraction here are the mosaics in the basilica commissioned by Bishop Euphrasius in 553 AD. The mosaic-maker was indeed so grateful to the Bishop for his commission, he rewarded his boss in perpetuity (as part of the mosaic) with this portrait, and a nifty carry-home version of the building:

It's hard to believe that guitarist Ralph Towner - or indeed many musicians - get the opportunity to play in a building with quite so much history breathing from its walls. As Festival Director Tamara Obrovac said in her introduction, the mission of Valamar Jazz Festival is to bring "great jazz in great ambiance". And how. The courtyard of the basilica, open to the skies, on the longest day of the year, starting in daylight and descending into darkness certainly had ambiance. At the beginning the sounds of seagulls and camera shutters risked drawing the attention away, but we were gradually drawn into Ralph Towner's world. It was from the fourth number onwards that I got hooked by the performance: Solitary Woman from the 2001 ECM album Anthem. It was one of only two numbers played on twelve string guitar. Towner uses the deep resonance of that instrument to reach out in a more public way, to gain a detachment from the phrase he has just played, to give the sound its own life and to stand back from it and observe it.

Ralph Towner at the sound-check. Euphrasian Basilica, Porec. 21st June 2012

And that feeling of music declaimed on the twelve string brought to mind quite how intimate, sensual, close-up Towner's work on nylon-stringed classical guitar is. He often experiments on the boundaries of silence, but tonight he had the audience's attention completely held.

The most moving and inspiring came at the end. In the first encore - Anthem - Towner seemed to bring back ghostly, indistinct, evanescent memories of earlier ages. Courtly or religious? Dowland or Byrd? Who knows, they were gone as rapidly as they had arrived. But he seemed to be giving back to the building, evoking the spirit of lamentation and contemplation whih has been practised in these buildings for a millenium and a half.

And from there, a brief visit to the festival after-party. The beautifully lit gardens of the Villa Poresini were hosting a fine young local group, including players who have been off honing their chops in Berklee and Paris, I was told.

Some party. The Croatian for "Good night" is "Laku noć". But with a hang as agreeable as these gardens, and people as friendly as these ..... the temptation will definitely be to stay - "Laku noć" is going to get increasingly harder to say each night as this festival progresses.


JJA Jazz Award-Winners announced

The full list of Jazz Journalists Association Awards, given out in New York yesterday is HERE.

Sonny Rollins won three, for record of the year, musician of the year and tenor saxophonist. There was a Lifetime Award for Horace Silver.  Just two from Europe; Label of the Year was ECM. Toots Thielemans won Player of Instruments Rare in Jazz of the Year. Book of the Year was Tad Hershorn's biography of Norman Granz, reviewed here.

Sebastian Scotney is a Professional Voting Member of the Jazz Journalists Association


Book Review: Derek Ansell - Sugar Free Saxophone: The Life and Music of Jackie McLean

Derek Ansell - Sugar Free Saxophone: The Life and Music of Jackie McLean
(Northway Publications. 218pp., £18; Book Review by Chris Parker)

‘Acerbic’, ‘acidic’, ‘tart’, ‘searing’, ‘piercing’, ‘sharp’: the adjectives used by Derek Ansell to describe the tone of his subject’s alto saxophone in this, the first full-length biography devoted to him, could apply to only one figure: Jackie McLean.

Ansell is an expert on post-bop American jazz, having already produced a book on Hank Mobley for Northway and having another, on the music of John Coltrane, in the pipeline, and this study of McLean is – like Workout, the Mobley book – packed with a keen and enthusiastic listener’s insights into the recorded work; unlike the Mobley book, however (which, as its subtitle ‘The music of Hank Mobley’ implied, focused chiefly on the tenor player’s recordings), it also provides a wealth of detail on McLean’s life and beliefs.

As Ansell points out early on, McLean’s career reversed the ‘usual jazz icon story: learn to play, play brilliantly, become famous, become addicted and die ridiculously young’. McLean ‘got into the addiction very early in his life, began to play brilliantly, then became famous and multi-talented and turned into a respected educator’. A junkie in his teens, McLean recorded with Miles Davis at 20, played and recorded with both Charles Mingus and Art Blakey shortly thereafter and was a signed Blue Note artist by the age of 28, producing a series of classic albums for the company, including Jackie’s Bag, Bluesnik and the seminal Let Freedom Ring. The music on all these albums is carefully and sensitively examined by Ansell, and the crucial influences on McLean’s sound and approach skilfully delineated: Mingus, for instance, ‘separated him from Parker and showed him that he had his own sound’; Blakey provided him with a ‘churning, fresh sound of modern jazz that rang out the changes … to announce that a new, direct, emotion-charged style had been born’; Let Freedom Ring featured an ‘even harder, gritty tone … adventurous improvising, the use of modes and frequent changes of tempo’, resulting in a ‘new, probing and exploratory Jackie McLean … pushing at the boundaries and seeking for new directions for modern jazz to travel’.

Alongside this valuable musical analysis, Ansell also sketches out McLean’s life, from his successful struggle to kick his heroin habit, through his work with the youth project HARYOU-ACT (Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited-Associated Community Teams), to his highly influential work as an educator, producing in the process a fully rounded portrait of a remarkable man, thoughtful, passionate, committed, dedicated.

As Ansell himself concludes: ‘McLean posed many questions about how jazz is perceived, presented and treated. His own response in terms of his playing and teaching was priceless but the answers to most of his searching questions are yet to be provided.’ McLean never completed his autobiography, but this respectful, perceptive study goes some way towards compensating his many admirers for this loss.


CD Review: Christine Tobin - Sailing to Byzantium

Christine Tobin - Sailing to Byzantium
(Trail Belle Records TRB02. CD Review by Chris Parker)

This album of song settings of W. B. Yeats’s poetry is the result of a commission (the National Library of Ireland asked Christine Tobin to give a performance -– of four songs – as part of their Yeats ‘Summer’s Wreath’ celebrations in 2010), but such is the haunting beauty of the whole that it clearly fast became a labour of love.

Tobin herself recalls the effect ‘When You are Old’ had on her when, as a teenager, her first boyfriend read it to her – ‘the power and beauty of the words became infused with the passion of our own romance’ – and this intensely personal emotion infuses the whole project.

With her affectingly languorous, pure-toned voice and crystal-clear diction, Tobin might have been specially created to sing Yeats lines such as ‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you’, or ‘Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful, one a gazelle’, and with her regular band (pianist Liam Noble, cellist Kate Shortt, guitarist Phil Robson and bassist Dave Whitford) augmented by flautist Gareth Lockrane and actor Gabriel Byrne, who reads three poems impeccably, she has produced an utterly convincing work of art, imbued with taste, refinement and grace, but also -– where required – considerable power.

Musical settings of pre-existing poems frequently sound somewhat contrived; Tobin’s great achievement is to make hers sound so natural and apt that one quickly forgets that the words and melodies were written separately, so absorbing are the resultant songs.

See also our interview with Christine Tobin, catching the project at an early stage.


Preview: Strong line-up for Barbara Snow Benefit, 606 - Tues 26th June

Barbara Snow - vocals
Barbara Snow - trumpet
Drummer Michele DREES, who has organized a spectacular benefit for Barbara Snow next Tuesday 26th, looks forward to one of those very special nights at the 606 Club, and writes:

TUESDAY JUNE 26th 606 CLUB. The stunning array of musicians who have volunteered to perform shows just how well-loved and respected Barbara Snow is, and includes:

Vocalists - Tina May, Mandy Bell, Verona Chard, Jacqui Hicks, Ana Maria Velez and Tom Hannah.

Horn players:Alan Barnes, Ray Gelato, Noel Langley, Karen Sharp, Richard Sidwell, Yazz Ahmed, Marc Hadley, Steve Rubie, Paul Taylor, Claire Hirst.

Pianists Hilary Cameron, Andrea Vicari, John Crawford Guitarist - Mark Woods, Percussionist - Roberto Pla. Bass players - Bernard O' Neil, Andy Hamill, Davide Mantovani, Dorian Lockett. Drummers - Roy Dodds,Davide Giovanini, Michele Drees.

Barbara Snow is a widely respected and popular vocalist, trumpeter, pianist, composer and arranger, who has also established a significant reputation as an educator of some note. Unfortunately Barbara has recently been taken ill and is unlikely to be able to teach or perform for around the next 6 months so the jazz community coming together to help raise funds to support her while she is unable to work.

Come down for a spectacular night, hear some amazing music and help a good cause.


CD Review: Hannes Riepler - The Brave

Hannes Riepler - The Brave
(Jellymould Jazz JM-JJ007. CD Review by Chris Parker)

‘Playing and listening to Hannes’ music is great – it is interesting and challenging, but also melody-driven and accessible’ is pianist Kit Downes’s comment on his experience as part of Austrian guitarist Hannes Riepler’s quintet on this, his debut album for the fledgling Jellymould Jazz label.

Riepler’s band is completed by Tom Challenger (tenor), bassist Ryan Trebilcock and drummer Jon Scott, and on the eight tunes he has composed for this recording they mesh perfectly, negotiating his bright, airy theme statements with precision and power, and swinging through their solo passages with verve and palpable enthusiasm.

Riepler himself is a neat, fleet but hard-driving soloist and his compositions are just complex enough to engage the brain as well as the ear, but straightforward enough to be immediately and enjoyably accessible, as Downes suggests.

Challenger proves to be a sensitive foil throughout, vigorous and gutsy where appropriate, but always tasteful and contained, building his solos as patiently as his leader does; Downes is resourceful and stylish, whether he’s bustling through the up-tempo material or slyly embellishing Riepler’s slower pieces; the rhythm section burns and propels as required – in short, this is attractive, intelligent jazz performed by an accomplished, fiercely interactive but sensitive and thoughtful band.


Valamar Jazz in Poreč/ Croatia - Day 1

Poreč is such a pretty town, whether it is viewed (as above) from the little island of Sveti Nicolau, where the Valamar Jazz Festival's main stage -  for later in the week -  was today in the process of being assembled, or from within the narrow cobbled and marbled streets of the tiny peninsula on which the main town with its Roman grid of roads sits.

I'm told that the time Poreč gets completely rammed with tourists -Italians especially - is in August, and that it's particularly mad around Feragosto in the middle of the month. At the moment, it feels relaxing. The cars around the smart hotels are from small German towns, the main language used to keep kids safe in the pool this afternoon was Viennese dialect. And as for what the locals are thinking, I'm told we're headed for a double bank holiday weekend, with Anti-Fascist Struggle Day (Dan antifašističke borbe) on June 22 and Statehood Day (Dan državnosti) on June 25, and that these two bank holidays will definitely change the mood for the better.... in the aftermath of the Croatian national football team being knocked out of the European Championships.

There have been a couple of Festival warming-up events today. I went to the official opening of an exhibition of jazz photography in the main square by sensitive, passionate music photographer Željko Jelenski (see shots of Enrico Rava), which also served as the official opening of the festival. Portuguese singer Amalia Baraona and guitarist/ singer Dinko Stipanicev sang sweetly, gently through some bossa novas. It caught the mood of picking up gently, as this weekend is bound to do.

The first proper gig was in the courtyard of the town's museum, an 18th century Palazzo originally called Palači Sinčić. It's a beautiful outdoor space. The air prior to the concert was completely alive with the sound of swallows.

The featured singer was Marko Tolja. Born in 1984, he already has three albums to his name, and has collected several national awards. (website only in Croatian). Unlike his older band colleagues, he doesn't care for sheet music, he just puts his iPad down on the music stand, and off we go. He was singing standards and ratpack songs very convincingly, particularly on frequent excursions into falsetto. Musical, plenty of legato, and keeping the local audience highly amused with his jokes. (My Croatian doesn't reach beyond "thank you" and "where's the station?", I wasn't getting any of it). The core of his band calls itself the Fingersnap Trio (caught here on video) . I certainly expect to be checking out further the piano playing of Zvjezdan Ružić, always alive in the moment, shifting textures and great lines.

And here is energetic Festival Director Tamara Obrovac introducing Marko Tolja tonight. It's not often one gets to meet people so central to their national culture that they get listed in their country's Lonely Planet guide (Ref: page 315/ Arts in Croatia/ March 2011 Edition.) I'd call that a privilege.
Tamara Obrovac - Valamar Jazz Director


The Night of the Unexpected at Spitalfields Festival

Trinity Laban Choir at Bishopsgate Hall.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

The Night of the Unexpected
(Bishopsgate Institute, part of the Spitalfields Summer Festival, on 16 June 2012; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

The concept of The Night of the Unexpected  is rooted in the adventurous, the exceptional and the unpredictable. Programmes like this have been featured annually since 2003 at Amsterdam's Paradiso, and take the form of an uninterrupted flow of musical performances, each of between 10 and 20 minutes.

For its debut at London's Spitalfields Summer Festival, curators Ed McKeon and Roland Spekle had packed in the enjoyment and gleeful thrills of the fairground - a merry-go-round and roller-coaster combined. The sequence gave fresh form to modernist classics by Cage, Andriessen and Gorecki, saw scintillating improvisations by jazz masters Han Bennink and Evan Parker, and wavered into electronic and acoustic interventions by Scanner, Philip Jeck and violinist Monica Germino.

The recurring presence of Trinity Laban, in three very different incarnations, gave structure to the event. They opened the evening with mirror-image five-piece groups on either side of the main stage, recreating Andriessen's pulsating Hoketus, with twin pan pipes overlaid on a seam of rhythmic repetition.

In a contrast of scale, Han Bennink's drum kit was placed in the centre of the hall and naturally encircled by the audience for his two dynamically supercharged fusillades, masterclasses in percussive discipline and willful disrespect for convention, as he skipped from military rolls to jazzy jive, throwing in whelps, whistles, taps from and on his boots, with a hello to Dizzy and Charlie Parker, shouting out "Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts!" to round off the first barrage.

Stewart LeeTania Chen and Steve Beresford find something new every time they revisit Cage's Indeterminacy. Lee declaimed from Cage's captivating anecdotes, bright with nuggets of wit, each stretched or compressed into one minute with anxious unevenness. Chen and Beresford, independently busy with improvised implements, electronic gizmos, toy instruments and the grand piano added a web of soft texture and incident.

Left to right: Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Stuart Lee.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All rights Reserved

To mark a half-way point in proceedings, the black-clad Trinity Laban Choir, closely grouped in the centre of the auditorium, created a focus of spellbinding tension with its rendition of Gorecki's a cappella Totus Tuus. Late in the evening, the choir colonised the entire auditorium floor with their music stands for Cage's Songbooks, creating an inescapable communication with the audience who wandered at will around the singers, whose creativity was tested to the limit in true Cageian manner. 

Philip Jeck at Bishopsgate Hall. June 2012.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

Scanner and Philip Jeck, each performed from the side stage to the right of the hall, illuminating different but convergent areas of the electronic spectrum. Scanner delicately deconstructed Sciarrano's spare, eerie trio to built up a trance melody with the filmic flavour of an LTJ Bukem mix, and brought out an unearthly chill in his interpretation of Handel's Rinaldo. Jeck, distorting the raw material of vinyl on twin ancient decks, released tentative crackles that filled out as he painted raw, abrasive brushstrokes of soaring sound, sending bass pulses vibrating throughout the building.

Monica Germino, working with sound artist Frank van der Weij on pieces by Gordon and Dennehey, accentuated and manipulated the wirey, metallic qualities of her violin with dramatic flair in concentrated live interactions with her complex, painstakingly constructed pre-recorded tracks.

Evan Parker's transcendent finale combined his celestial, piercing soprano sax with Joel Ryan's shimmering electronic foil in a seamless, bonded flux of interactions which left the lasting impression of a sublimely spiritual tension, the perfect ending to a inspired event.

Evan Parker.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All rights reserved

Han Bennink; Monica Germino and Frank van der Weij; Evan Parker and Joel Ryan; Philip Jeck; Stewart Lee, Tania Chen and Steve Beresford; Scanner; Trinity Laban Chamber Choir and Contemporary Music Group and video installation from onedotzero

Curated by Roland Spekle and Ed Mckeon for Spitalfields Music.

Supported by an anonymous donor, The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Performing Arts Fund NL. Thanks also to Paradiso and Gaudeamus Music Week.