FEATURE: ECM has five issues featuring British artists in early 2018 (co-publication with Jazzthetik)

L-R: Glauco Venier, Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing
Descasado will be release on ECM on 16 February 2018
Photo credit and © Paolo Soriani
Sebastian's regular, short London Column in the Jan/Feb issue of the German magazine Jazzthetik draws attention to a concentration of releases on ECM featuring UK artists. This is a co-publication with Jazzthetik - their Jan.Feb. 2018 issue is published today:

For this first London Column of 2018 I have followed the lead of Roald Dahl. In the last two sentences of his very last book, The Minpins, he wrote: “The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." So, dear readers, this London Column is about UK artists, but in our search for magic we are headed for Gräfelfing near Munich.

And why there? Because the ECM label is based there and because releases on the label by British artists is about to become a recurring theme. In the wake of Django Bates' first album as leader on ECM, The Study of Touch, released in November, a tone has been set: the first quarter of 2018 will see no fewer than five more albums (*) with UK artists either leading the bands or in a prominent role: John Surman and Kit Downes in January, Norma Winstone and Tommy Smith (in Arild Andersen’s trio) in February, and Andy Sheppard in March.

From one perspective there is actually no surprise. Because, in reality, ECM's interest in the UK scene has been a constant for the past four decades. As Steve Lake of the label says: “We've been recording music from Britain almost since the beginning of the company's history. You go right back to the earliest releases Evan Parker and Derek Bailey - they were there even before Jan Garbarek was. There's just a lot of talent... the British scene has always been a lively scene.” So ECM always had a connection to music from the UK.

Yes, there is a real long term and sustainable approach here, as is shown by the example of Norma Winstone, whose album Descansado – Songs for Films in her trio with Glauco Venier and Klaus Gesing is about to be released, but who made her first recording for the label - Azymuth - as long ago as 1977. She describes working with the label: “It is amazing the interest they take in all of their artists. They get behind them as much as they can. They are very supportive.” 

The original German text is published online (link later).. Jazzthetik is widely available in the German-speaking world.


Kit Downes - Obsidian 19/1/18

John Surman - Invisible Threads 19/1/18

Andy Sheppard - Romaria 16/2/18

Norma Winstone - Descansado 16/2/18

Arild Andersen with Tommy Smith - Live in Bad Ischl. Date to be confirmed

(*) correct at the time of submitting the original article, current  dates are as in this updated list.


NEWS: Showcase Participants Announced for jazzahead! 2018 (Bremen 19-21 April)

Joanna Duda
Publicity photo

The artists for the four showcases at jazzahead!2018 in Bremen have just been announced. The first showcase is from jazzahead! partner country Poland:

Polish Night, 19 April 2018

Atom String Quartet
High Definition Quartet
Joanna Duda Trio
Kamil Piotrowicz Sextet
Kuba Więcek Trio
Marcin Wasilewski Trio
Monika Borzym
Piotr Damasiewicz/Power Of The Horns

Beats & Pieces Big Band
Photo credit: Emile Holba

European Jazz Meeting, 20 April 2018

Adam Bałdych & Helge Lien Trio (NO)
Aly Keïta - Jan Galega Brönnimann - Lucas Niggli (CH)
Beats & Pieces Big Band (GB)
Einar Scheving Quartet (IS)
Emilia Mårtensson (GB)
Hermine Deurloo Quartet (NL)
Horse Orchestra (DK)
Joonas Haarvisto Trio (FI)
Kirke Karja Quartet (EE)
Pauli Lyytinen Magnetia Orkesteri (FI)
Philip Clemo ‘Dream Maps’ (GB)
Sokratis Sinopoulos Quartet (GR)
The KutiMangoes (DK)

Markus Stockhausen at Inntoene
Photo credit: Alison Bentley

German Jazz Expo, 21 April 2018

Anna-Lena Schnabel Quartett
Daniel Erdmann's Velvet Revolution
Fearless Trio
Markus Stockhausen's QUADRIVIUM
Max Andrzejewski´s HÜTTE
Paul Heller / Jasper van’t Hof Group
Shinya Fukumori Trio
Quiet Fire

Gregory Privat Trio
iPhone snap by Sebastian Scotney

Overseas Night, 21 April 2018

Aca Seca Trio (AR)
Freedoms Trio (BR)
Gabriel Grossi Quintet (BR)
Gregory Privat Trio (MQ)
Jazzmeia Horn (US)
Justin Kauflin (US)
Mn’ JAM experiment (AU)
Petros Klampanis Group (US)


INTERVIEW: Elliot Mason (new album Before, Now & After)

Sofija Knezevic and Elliot Mason
Photo credit: Colville Heskey

Norwich-born trombonist ELLIOT MASON is based in New York and has been a trombonist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for over a decade. He is about to release the album Before, Now & After, featuring Serbian vocalist Sofija Knezevic, with guests Joe Lovano, Tim Hagans, (brother) Brad Mason and Cyro Baptista. He will be in the UK when the JLCO are here in February. He explained the background to the album, talked about improvising and teaching, and looked forward to the JLCO tour. Interview by Sebastian:  

LondonJazz News: Before, Now & After is the first album in your own name. Er...what took you so long?

Elliot Mason: Strangely enough, I don't feel like this album arrived late; it wouldn't have developed in to what it is today if it arrived any earlier. Up until this album, any musical idea, melody or self expression has been solely directed towards the Mason Brothers Quintet. When you've played with your brother since you were five, and have a musical connection that could never be duplicated, it often feels like there's no reason to write for any other ensemble. Plus, when you spend so much time with somebody, you naturally hear them in your compositions. With Before, Now & After, it's more of a reflection of my own musical and life path.

LJN: There is a buzz about the originality of your improvising - I keep meeting young players who transcribe your solos, because your lines, the directions you take are so unusual and personal. The press release talks about "crazy lines..." Is that a conscious quest or do you just think about it as just the way you play?

EM: Firstly, I'm extremely flattered and very grateful that people are interested in my language and musical expression.

Playing "crazy language" for the sake of trying to be unique is definitely not my priority. Intriguing language has always had an emotional impact on me, but how you tell the story defines your unique voice. The delivery is as important as the content, this is clearly reflected in the work of jazz masters.

When I first began developing my musical vocabulary I immersed myself in the work of jazz greats, trying to absorb my influences instead of imitating them. I am always eager to take a concept, whether it is harmonic or rhythmic, and improvise within that concept to help connect it with my own voice, and how I hear music. This hopefully helps me make sense of the music within. My lifetime goal and conscious quest that I'm continually striving for, is to speak to you through music, whether it's with composition, performance or both, and perform with a deeper intent that takes you on an emotional journey that leaves you inspired and uplifted.

LJN: You are a teacher at Juilliard. What advice do you give students about making their improvisations cohere and flow?

EM: This is an interesting question that has become a topic that I regularly discuss with my students. I feel there's a few things that can break the natural flow of a solo. For me, one of the main culprits is when someone is just piecing together their precomposed language. It can even be executed fluently but still ends up sounding like someone's telling you all of their favourite punchlines, but without the stories, anticipation or timing that first gave them their original impact.

When you stop the flow of a musical idea to play a phrase that you've practised, it can end up breaking your stream of consciousness, and can have no relevance or connection to your previous ideas/thoughts. We often discuss routinely examining our motives and priorities, understanding that execution alone doesn't mean that you had something valuable to say. To help your improvisation connect more cohesively, try letting your precomposed language take a back seat, and putting more weight on your true improv, where you are improvising in the moment using motifs, rhythmic ideas and pure melodies. Let this be the theme or topic that you're talking about, take your time so more conservation occurs, eventually letting the precomposed melodies naturally fall in to your themes with more of a purpose.

LJN: The singer on the album is Sofija Knezevic - what's the story there?

EM: Sofija's from Serbia, graduated from Graz University, studying with both classical and jazz voice teachers. She's won numerous accolades and competitions but words can't explain her voice.

Before I had even met Sofija, I heard a buzz that there's a new extremely talented jazz vocalist in town with a very distinctive unique voice, that could also solo like a horn player.

After hearing her for the first time, I couldn't agree more with what Tim Hagans said in the liner notes: "Hearing Sofija sing, I cannot remember when I was so touched by a human voice."

Shortly after we met for the first time, we fell deeply in love. We have been married for a year and a half and our first baby is literally due any day now. Our hospital bags are packed!

Our connection and love story has been a huge inspiration for the writing and performance of this album. Sofija was 6 months pregnant when we recorded the album, and the tune & Then There Were <3 was written for the baby, his heartbeat is included in the beginning and end of the track.

LJN: And you have co-composed some songs for the album. Is there a linking theme for these songs/for the album as a whole? 

EM: This album is musically like nothing that I've previously written or arranged. Before I even had a concept, I started with a goal of "emotionally move the listener".

The next question to myself was, what recordings/songs emotionally move me, and why? After reflecting, most of my musical influences that first came to mind were my longtime heroes, such as John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Antonio Carlos Jobim, where their recordings had the ability to instantly change the way I am feeling and leave me with so much positivity. As the concept for this album developed, I wanted to embody the emotions from my favorite recordings. I didn't want to recreate them, but I also didn't want to go to the other extreme and run so far away from them that you lose the gift that they gave us. When rearranging the four standards that I chose, I wanted to embrace them, hear them in a new light and add a fresh vision and 21st century insight to them.

When composing the other four tunes on the album, I wanted to write songs that would capture these same feelings that the standards did for me when first hearing them. As an artist, nothing influences your individual voice more than feeding from your life's journey, so these tunes have been motivated and shaped by Sofija's and my connection, as well as my love for music, jazz and all artists that inspire.

LJN: Joe Lovano is the best known "guest". What led you to invite him?

EM: His sound.

One of the many plus sides of playing with the JLCO is that we get to play with some of today's jazz greats, including Chick Corea, Bobby Hutcherson, Ahmad Jamal, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett and of course Joe Lovano. The main underlined theme that they all have in common is how rich their sounds are. I'm always an advocate for getting out and hearing someone's sound live, there's just so much that gets lost in todays highly compressed audio versions that we hear online.

When rearranging, changing time signatures and adding harmony to a complete classic like Resolution, the foundation needed someone with that strong intense sound to hold together the feeling of the new with the original. Joe was definitely my first choice to fill this role.

LJN: Coltrane's Resolution flows so naturally like a conversation with you and Lovano. Was that one take/as live??

EM:  Yes and yes! There were a few tunes that we recorded first and only take! Resolution, Caravan, Vulnerable and Let Me Ask You Something were all first and only takes with no overdubs or edits. We recorded two to three takes of the remaining four tunes on the album. I ended up making the call when to move on, based on time, chops and whether it felt good after we'd finished recording that tune. Before we recorded Resolution, we did listen to Coltrane's live version, not to imitate but to remind ourselves of the purpose and embrace the spirit. We recorded in one large room, and there was some bleed, so the album is what we played in the moment. For me, having the band hearing and feeling the intensity live heavily outweighed putting us in separate rooms and only hearing everyone through headphones. Not having the option to overdub anything can create a little bit more stress in the studio, but in this case I feel it really paid off. I couldn't be happier with how the album came out musically and sonically.

LJN: And the rhythm section are your compadres from JALC - what led to the choice of them?

EM: In a nutshell, performing and rehearsing with them for over 250 days a year for the last ten years! Not only do they have an unbelievable connection, but they know my playing better than anyone. In the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra we often cover a lot of musical ground within one set. Capturing nuances but still staying true to yourself when playing something written in the 1920s through to the new music of today. All of these attributes made Dan Nimmer, Ali Jackson and Carlos Henriquez the perfect rhythm section for this album.

LJN: Will you be in the UK with JLCO in Feb?

EM: Yes, it's always a special occasion for me to get to perform in the UK. Hopefully my parents and close friends can attend, and if all are healthy, our newborn might even get to see his UK heritage for the first time. In late February, while staying in London for a few days, I'll be giving a few masterclasses and performing with the JLCO at the Barbican.

LJN: Where do people get the album from?

EM: I've just launched a brand new website that has extended listening clips, physical copies of the CD, Instant downloadable Hi-Res & CD quality WAV's + all the sheet music that we used to record the album. Available at: elliotmason.org thank you!


CD REVIEW: Dave O'Higgins - It's Always 9.30 In Zog

Dave O'Higgins - It's Always 9.30 In Zog
(JVG Productions. JVG018CD. CD Review by Patrick Hadfield)

Dave O'Higgins has produced an album of energetic hard bop: even the back of the CD case pays homage, looking just like a Blue Note album from the label's classic period. His quartet of Geoff Gascoygne on bass, Graham Harvey (piano and Fender Rhodes) and Sebastiaan de Krom on drums romps through a collection of originals with a couple of covers, full of dynamism and, where needed, subtlety.

O'Higgins' tenor saxophone playing is fluid and muscular; on soprano, he positively skips along. The CD gets off to a flying start with the title track, the tenor packing a punch as the quartet swing along. Some pieces have a more Latin feel. On Alien With Extraordinary Ability - referring to the type of visa that allowed O'Higgins to play in the USA - Harvey's Fender Rhodes introduces a lighter touch over a samba, whilst de Krom's propulsive brush-work drives the tune along. Harvey uses Fender Rhodes again on Morpheus, giving a suitably dream-like backdrop to O'Higgins' tenor.

One For Big G, dedicated to George Coleman, features the soprano. The tune trips along at a pace, giving O'Hiigons ample space to solo. Bheki Mseleku's Timelessness comes over as a slice of Atlantic-era Coltrane; one of the faster numbers, O'Higgins lays down a complex tenor solo before Harvey's solo goes all over the piano at great speed. It's an apt title to include on the record, because it does feel timeless.

The CD closes with one of the slower numbers, the standard Easy Living. A gently paced, rather lovely, bluesy ballad, O'Higgins shows his more soulful side, opening the tune with just his tenor and Gascoyne's bass, with just a hint of de Krom's brushes. O'Higgin's solo has both warmth and sadness - a fitting end to a fine CD.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.


TRIBUTE: Critch (John Critchinson 1934-2017) by Simon Spillett

John Critchinson
NJA Fundraiser / Loughton Feb 2017
Photo credit: Brian O'Connor/ Images of Jazz


“Ronnie would say ‘We get in the car and drive 200 miles, turn up, play the gig, they look at us like we’re effin’ mad, we get in the car and drive 200 miles home. That’s what we do.'” - John Critchinson

Over the past decade I've written many obituary pieces for British jazz musicians who began their careers back in what we now regard as the “golden age” for the music.

Some of them were figures I'd admired from afar (Don Rendell, Gordon Beck); others those who I knew a little better (Ian Hamer, Michael Garrick); a few were musicians I considered not only as heroes but also as friends and colleagues (Vic Ash, Bobby Wellins). It's also no secret that, writing retrospectively about some of these performers, certain aspects of their individual lives sometimes blend into one – all of the above names lived through the era when Britain's jazzmen emerged from dance band apprenticeships into careers as soloists their own right – and that, in a journalistic sense at least, each conforms to a certain template, that of the largely self-taught, self-determined idealist who felt the pull of jazz during a time when the music still had a firm grip on youth culture.

You might think therefore that writing about John Critchinson, who was of the same generation as those named above, and who likewise made the inevitable transition from semi-pro palais bands to out-and-out jazz, would be easy – a cut-and-paste job pulling together his many and varied musical achievements, a few choice quotes and a quick run down of his stylistic traits. Only it's not that simple, because in John's case I can't write anything that isn't in some way informed by the huge, binding affection that I felt – feel – for him, a bond formed through a 13-year playing association that has, it is no exaggeration to say, shaped my life in ways that, had it not happened, would have been unimaginable. John Critchinson was very far from “just another musician” to me. Accordingly this cannot be “just another” obituary.

Art Themen and John Critchinson
Photo credit : Jerry Storer

But, let's be clear here, this is not going to be of those tribute pieces that end up saying more about the writer than the subject. I feel strongly that there are others – Dave Green, Jim Mullen, Art Themen, Mornington Lockett, Dick Pearce – who all knew John longer, and perhaps deeper than I, and who could better pen a memorial to him. That said, I count it both a signal honour and a mark of the depth of our understanding that my musical association with John lasted almost as long as that he'd enjoyed with Ronnie Scott, without doubt the biggest shaping force in his life, as he'd tell anyone who cared to listen.

I make no claims that the time Critch and I spent together in any way affected him as deeply as his time with Ronnie, but I do know that, in terms of my overall development as a musician (and in certain respects as a man) it was of equal profundity to me. Indeed, as I remarked to several musicians I spoke to on the day of his death, it's as if a familiar and well-loved part of our musical landscape is no longer there. Negotiating the path ahead, for those of us who were used to Critch being there, will be a tough call. For my own part, he'd been there almost from day one.

Although I'd already seen him play with both Ronnie's band and with his own groups, my first meeting with John occurred in early December 2004, when I was booked to play as the guest soloist at Merlin's Cave, a Sunday lunchtime pub gig in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire that was a mainstay of the home counties jazz scene for well over two decades. It was a bitterly cold day (every musician who played Merlins can attest to the fact that the venue – an unconverted barn - had its own just-above-freezing micro-climate, whatever the time of year) and my introduction to him was in the bar, where still clad in coat and gloves, he was ordering a coffee. He took his glove off to shake my hand, greeting me with the words “Dear chap, lovely to meet you.” It was typical of his upper-crust and yet warm and affable, manner, which I'd soon learn was the combined result of several key influences - a father in the Admiralty, top-class schooling, early ambitions to be an actor, as well as the intrinsic sensibilities of the quintessential English gentleman.

The ensuing gig was a hoot and at the end, after I'd rather cautiously asked if he'd consider repeating the exercise some time, he gave me his card. As he handed it to me, I saw that it read “Frank Stanley Management”. “Oh, ignore all that bollocks,” he said, clocking my confused look. “It's a part of trying to build an image. Frank Stanley was my father and I thought it might make a good ruse to appear to have a personal manager.”
“Has it?” I asked.
“Well, I'm working places like this, aren't I?” he shot back, quick as a flash.

John Critchinson with Simon Spillett's Quartet in a tribute to Tubby Hayes in Lichfield, Staffordshire.
Photo credit: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

Critch had not long arrived back in the London area from Devon, following the death of his brother, who'd he'd helped nurse through the terrible agonies of cancer. A few years earlier, hearing of his relocation to Seaton, I had foolishly thought he'd retired. So had other people. I was surprised to learn that, on his return, he wasn't exactly inundated with work – solo gigs at Kettners and the Pizza Express were keeping him afloat, but only just – and so, not long into the New Year, I called to ask if he'd consider a few gigs with my recently-formed quartet. To my delight he said yes. And that's when it really started – the on-the-stand jazz education that I consider my finishing school as a musician.

It's difficult for me to order my thoughts and feelings about this initial time together with any kind of formality at the best of times, but now he's gone, they've become even more interconnected - there are so many memories, so many moments of enlightenment, so much laughter, that I can't seem to separate them out into something truly explicable. For starters, having Critch in the quartet was close to unbelievable for me – many were the nights when I'd look over and mentally pinch myself, realising he was there on the same stand, a thought compounded by the fact that this band had effectively reunited what was the rhythm section of Ronnie Scott's last quartet with Andrew Cleyndert on bass and Martin Drew on drums.

They were like jazz royalty, players who I had barely a few months before regarded with a mix of awe and dumbstruck deference. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, both professionally and personally, so I sat back and tried to learn the old-fashioned way, by watching closely and keeping my mouth shut. Never once did John ever make me feel in any way inferior, despite my lack of experience, or as if he were doing me a favour taking gigs with me, or give me any “big time” vibes whatsoever. Instead, he delighted me with a hands-on apprenticeship in what it means to be a jazz musician. Sometimes though it was all a bit esoteric, with the dialogue between Martin and him, in particular, as impenetrable as it was entertaining. “Hello, 47”, Martin would greet Critch. “Good Evening, 93”, he'd reply, a cryptic cypher that it took me years to work out dated back to some long-forgotten sit-com that had once regaled the Scott band.

But when they came to swapping Ronnie Scott stories proper, I was entranced. Indeed, it was this aspect of my relationship with Critch that made me realise that playing is merely one part of an up-and-coming musician's learning; imbibing the wisdom, wit and experience of older players is as much a social exercise as it is a practical, performing one.

Alec Dankworth and John Critchinson
Photo at 2012 recording session with Simon Spillet Quartet
Photo credit: Jerry Storer 
And I had plenty of time to imbibe. Over the next 13 years, Critch and I travelled literally thousands of miles across the United Kingdom, playing all manner for gigs from outdoor festivals to duos in restaurants, from jazz clubs to arts centres to – on one memorable occasion - playing a gig in a marquee in Swindon opposite an Elvis impersonator! Never once, did I hear him give less than 100%. And never once did he fail to swing.

The long car journey's to and from these appearances provided a golden opportunity to get to know him a little better. Beginning either at his flat or, latterly, at our designated meeting place just off the A40, we criss-cross the nation, and straight-away I learned a lot about his way of doing things. The first trip together was to Cardiff and we left for a gig scheduled to start at 8pm at two in the afternoon. “Isn't that a bit early?” I asked. “Not at all,” he replied. “If it is, I'll teach you how to lig about in Woolworths,”. And so he did. Over ensuing the years we ligged about in all sorts of places – service stations, coffee shops, diners, fine Italian restaurants – killing time but making a friendship come alive. I soon gathered that this was a vital part of what John referred to as “an education in all things Schatt”, referring of course to Ronnie Scott, whose birth name was Schatt, and a figure who continued to loom large in Critch's life, even after his death in 1996, some eight years before we began to play together. Indeed, right from the off, it felt as if Ronnie was with us wherever we went, something about which I was intensely curious.

I'd remembered hearing a Jazz FM radio tribute to Ronnie broadcast just after his death in which Critch observed that the saxophonist's passing had affected him more deeply than those of his own parents. At the time I had thought this a little dramatic, but as I got to know John I learned how his relationship with Ronnie – complex, loyal yet sometimes stretched breaking point due to exasperation over Scott's whims – had marked him forever. “If it weren't for Ronnie Scott,” he'd tell me with unconcealed gratitude, “I'd still be tuning car engines” - this just one of the many day jobs (he once estimated they numbered over 50 from agricultural labourer to delivering Hammond Organs) he'd done up until turning fully professional, aged 44.

“I saw the world with Ronnie,” he'd say, “which I wouldn't have done otherwise.” And so he did, although in between the glamour of international travel he visited plenty of places that were positive jazz deserts (he often talked of an early gig at an upstairs room in Blackpool, where after being obliged to carry a Fender Rhodes piano up several flights of stairs in order to replace an unplayable acoustic upright, he was amused to witness the promoter proceeding to pay the band in small change accrued from his slot-machine empire).

The beginnings of Critch's association with Ronnie also revealed something that deeply affected me - his genuine modesty. Indeed, this had even gone so far as to think that the initial phone-call about his availability for the job (made in 1978 by Brian Theobald) was a wind-up. Even on the stand, the horrors at first gripped him – there were loads of new themes to learn, he had to get used to Scott's askance looks if a chord wasn't just so, and it all seemed too much.

Despite never being one to show much comprehension of the chronology of British jazz, John also knew full well whose shoes he was stepping into. Those who'd occupied the piano chair in Ronnie's band before him made a hugely intimidating litany, among them Stan Tracey, Gordon Beck, Mick Pyne and John Taylor, and, quite simply, he wasn't sure he was in the same class. During his first week at the club, he agonised about the situation, getting up the next day, striding to the phone, calling Scott, ready to admit he wasn't up to the job and willing to offer his resignation, but somehow unable to do so. As was his way, Ronnie himself showed no real alarm over the situation, and, as John remembered, his support tended to come in more oblique ways. Heading out on the road soon after he'd joined the band, he and Ronnie had gone to the cinema to see Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Walking to the the gig afterwards, and still a little dazed by the visual spectacle he'd just witnessed, Critch heard Scott declare “no music on the stand tonight - no more parts”. That was it: he'd proven himself in every way.

John Critchinson
Photo credit: Jerry Storer
Two other incidents John would recount from these early days are worth reprise, simply because they show that, world-class pianist though he already was when he joined Scott, he never took his role for granted. The Scott quartet were sharing the bill with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at The Crucible in Sheffield and Critch struck up a dressing-room conversation with James Williams, his opposite number with Blakey, who likewise had only recently joined the band of an imposing jazz legend. Critch confessed to Williams that he was feeling the titanic musical weight of his predecessors on his shoulders. The American laughed. “How do you think I feel? I've got Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Cedar Walton behind me!” Soon after, in one of those lighting quick but utterly profound epiphanies in which jazz often seems to trade, Critch was playing a solo on-stage at Scott's when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Swingin' like a motherfucker,” shouted a voice in his ear. It was Buddy Rich. “I thought, if he thinks it's good,” he once told me, “well I must be doing all-right.”

Rich wasn't alone in his enthusiasms. In fact, almost as soon as Critch joined Ronnie Scott's band, he was afforded the opportunity to play at the club (and tour) with many visiting American artists including James Moody, Michael Brecker, Johnny Griffin, Chet Baker, Joe Henderson, Pepper Adams and George Coleman. Although in the hottest of hot seats, there were rarely any complaints. Indeed, he built up close relationships (both on and off the stand) with Moody and Coleman, who both considered him their pianist of choice when in the UK.

And, as was his way, Critch's natural good humour found him making light of any “big time” attitude he'd fitfully encounter from these American guests. Joe Henderson famously said nothing to him all week, only opening his mouth on the final night of the run to say “you're getting the introduction to Recorda Me wrong”, while a grumpy Kenny Davern openly chastised him one night on a provincial gig for playing “all them Rannie Scatt coyds”. Critch paid them no heed, instead delighting in the mutual admiration he'd become party to with players as formidable as Cedar Walton, Cyrus Chestnut, Dave Kikoski and Kenny Barron, all of whom loved him. Perhaps his fondest memory of these Scott-facilitated meetings was the night Sarah Vaughan embraced him and told him “I heard ya' honey”, a glowing endorsement from the vocalist he'd for so long been half in love with.

That fellow pianists saw Critch as the real-deal was no surprise. Yet, in his own uniquely autodidactic way, he had almost totally (one could even say innocently - in the nicest way, of course) avoided the usual routes that pianists of his generation took. Although he rarely gave jazz critics any truck (he was fond of quoting Ronnie on this subject too - “these people – what do they know?”) he would have found little issue in how The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings described his playing in 2010, Brian Morton observing that it was “hard to pin down his keyboard style, which now has more of him than any obvious 'influence.'”

John Critchinson at a recording session with Simon Spillett in 2012
Photo credit Jerry Storer
Listening to Critch – and even more so when playing alongside him – one was struck by how little there was directly pilfered from the big hitters within his playing – there was an almost complete absence of the “classic” licks of Bud Powell, Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, to pick just three vital piano touchstones. Even the pianists about whom he did openly enthuse - Victor Feldman (whom he described to me as “the key to it all”), Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock - seemed to have left rather more general outlines in his playing than any direct imprint, which, I think, is a mark of how naturally and instinctive a jazz musician John was.

This, of course, is not the time nor the place to do a top-to-bottom analysis of what comprised Critch's style (drummer Spike Wells, one of his steadfast colleagues, once called it “New York-style piano”, a term loaded with implication of the most flattering kind) but, if simply to convey what this writer heard within his music, I'll quote a few lines from a profile I wrote on him for Jazz Journal in 2012, wherein I described his playing as “unique. Harmonically solid as a rock, rhythmically daring and ceaselessly swinging, his comping is the most joyous sort of prompt a soloist could wish for, whilst his right hand lines have a logic that is his alone. Sometimes spare and deliberate, at other times hard and percussive, it’s impossible to pin them to a particular school.” Despite having his own way of doing things, he remained open to the work of new, younger players, especially those within the UK, in particular Robin Aspland, Kate Williams and Gwylim Simcock, about all of whom he talked of enthusiastically to me over the years.

The overall pattern of Critch's career was equally hard to codify. Although he was to wait until his 44th year to turn fully professional, there had been several other, earlier, attempts at being a full-time musician. In the late 1950s, he abandoned his native Bath for a dance-hall residency in London, which lasted barely a few months before being ended by a moonlight flit. The Smoke, it seems, wasn't quite ready for John Critchinson yet. Then, in 1961, he joined the Avon Cities Jazz Band, an unlikely appointment for a player regarded as one of the most modern in the South-West, but which, coming at the height of the Trad Boom provided work-aplenty. Then, as was often his way in those early years, one night driving to a gig in London, he suddenly got second thoughts, turned the car around and went home. Some might see this decision as flaky; those who knew John will probably think of it as just another example of his deep-seated artistic conscience. Critch was hip through and through – plunking out Trad tunes simply wasn't his thing, that's all.

He was far better suited to acting as the musical end of a partnership with promoter (and cartoonist) Jack Pennington, with whom he ran a series of modern jazz clubs in and around Bath from the 1950s to the 1970s, often under the heading of Jazz at The Icebox. He was still only in his early 20s, but the list of guests who featured with the then “Johnny” Critchinson's trio is impressive: among them, Don Rendell, Kathy Stobart, Harry Klein, Joe Harriott, Vic Ash, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Ross, Derek Humble, Keith Christie and Ronnie Scott. Some offered a little practical criticism (Harriott didn't like Critch's sharp-five chords; Rendell thought he listened to “too much Brubeck”) but on the whole they were encouraging, with Ross and Hayes insisting he try his luck in London. The results, he later confessed, were a damp-squib. The scene was tied-up, too closed and seemingly impenetrable. He was also bedevilled with a nagging desire to stay within the security of a nine-to-five job. Even then, though, the music was ineluctable. He'd delight in the story of blowing his weeks' expenses – provided for a heating engineering company junket to Liverpool – on Miles Davis' LP Seven Steps To Heaven, from which he assiduously digested the playing of Victor Feldman.

All this, however, isn't included merely to document the itinerant meanderings of a young would-be jazzman back in the day – no, it provides what I feel is a valuable reminder of something that may well be in danger of expiring fully in today's climate of formal jazz education. John Critchinson's maverick, self-driven, self-taught musical persona can still serve as an example to musicians in 2017 and beyond. I know it certainly does for me. Indeed, when I started working with John in 2004, I was 30 years of age, already a decade into a career that was going nowhere fast. Having (rather foolishly) avoided any of the conventional avenues of jazz-apprenticeship typical of my generation - NYJO, The Guildhall and so on – I felt rather like a square peg. Meeting John, a musician whose playing had been assembled patch-work-quilt fashion over years of practical gigging, was like finding a kindred spirit. I am in no way inferring that we were musical equals, only that his example, that of someone who never thought it was “too late” to dig in and try was something that moved me profoundly, and continues to do so.

There are undoubtedly fewer and fewer of those kinds of players around these days, and so I think it's hugely important that we don't simply consign their way of - as Critch would have said - “doing it” to the dustbin of history as they expire. I think someone like John Critchinson can still be seen as an exemplar, even in today's sound-bite-obsessed, faster-than-fashion, jazz world. In fact, I've often said that had he been born an American, John Critchinson might well be regarded with the same sense of elevated veteran status accorded someone like, say, Barry Harris. He was certainly worthy of such. But in Britain, things just don't work like that.

This brings me, of course, to the other side of John Critchinson, that of the man whose very arrival at a UK jazz venue engendered a wave of warmth from both fellow players and audience alike, all before he'd even played a note. First off, there was his appearance, that of a dapper, goatee-bearded artisan who, had he not have played the piano might have been mistaken for a painter or a philosopher or, when wearing one of his peaked caps, even a latterday Lenin! (Like Thelonious Monk, the hats were a big part of the image and they'd vary depending on the time of year). Then there was his inherent charm, the beautifully enunciated greetings that made you think you were being engaged by an upper-class don and not someone about to elaborately demonstrate the down-home art of jazz piano. “My dear fellow”, “My dear chap” or simply – if astounded by what confronted him - “I say” - these were all grist to his conversational mill. At times, he didn't resemble a jazz musician at all. A friend of mine once observed that she thought he was like “a piano playing Richard Attenborough”; another punter at a gig made me smile by saying he had a touch of the “lovey” about him. My own fantasy was that, in another incarnation, he'd have made a cracking Father Christmas – Father Critchmas, maybe? – an appropriate enough role for a man born of December 24th.

And, of course there was the humour, which, I'm pleased to say, was with him until the very end. Over the years, it's become extremely hard to extricate Critch from the legacy of Ronnie Scott – he'd get as many requests to retell Ronnie's joke routine (which he did with spot-on accuracy) as he would reassemble Ronnie's band – but it would be a crying shame if his own delivery of gags were to not be recognised as just that – his and nobody else's. Certainly nobody could tell them better.

There was always a new one floating about – some of which were so off-kilter in their denouement that you could see the wind rustling the hair of the audiences he'd tell them to – but, like Ronnie, Critch had the most elusive quality within comedy – timing – the very thing that could make even the shaggiest of parrot stories emerge as if in fresh-plumage. It wasn't just the gags that made people laugh; he was a master of spontaneous on-stage banter too, as any bandleader announcing while he was at the piano will tell you. There was nothing quite like having a moment of concentrated jazz trivia blown wide-open by one of his well-timed ripostes. Even Ronnie Scott himself had recognised the coup in having another comedian in the band. During the early 1980s, Critch told me he and Scott had started cooking up a little musical hall-based routine with which to entertain audiences between tunes.

It was all going well until Scott fielded the line “I say, I say, I say, my dog's got no nose.”
Flustered, Critch replied “How does he feel?”
“Ah, fuck it,” said Scott, realising it was all a step too far.

John Critchinson
Photo credit: John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk
There's something else about John Critchinson though – something that goes beyond his impeccable jazz pedigree, his beautiful playing and his cheerful mien. He was, through and through, a wonderful human being, the kind of person – who both as a musician and a friend – could make you feel good just with a few words or a few notes. I won't make the classic eulogist's mistake of attempting to elevate him to sainthood though – we had a few cross words over the years and I soon realised that he hated being driven and could be an outspoken commentator on your shortcomings behind the wheel (“Oh, you're only going 50. It seems a lot faster”; “Can you hear that? Definitely a wheel-bearing” and so on). I also quickly learned how cantankerous he could be if asked to rehearse! That said, there was rarely any gloom to him, even in the most trying of circumstances, which is why, alarmed as I was - like we all were - when he started cancelling gigs at short notice, and news of blood transfusions and scans came thick and fast, somehow he made you think it'd all be alright.

He certainly had a knack for this sort of thing; back a few years ago I'd booked him for a busy day's work – a BBC broadcast from Maida Vale, to be taped in the morning, then a provincial jazz club gig that evening. The night before, just about to start another gig, my phone rang.
“Simon, dear chap, it's John Critch.”
“Hi, Critch, how are you?”
“Well, listen, I'm not sure I'll be able to make the broadcast but I should be OK for the evening gig.”
“Why, what's up?”
“Ah...I'm lying on the floor of the living room waiting for an ambulance...” It was a heart attack. As it turned out he made neither the broadcast or the gig but did make the most important thing of all – a remarkable recovery - although from this point on it was clear his health would never truly steady again.

It was almost a year ago that he called to say that the symptoms of the bladder cancer that he'd beaten so valiantly back in the early 1980s had returned. He played a gig with Clark Tracey, Alec Dankworth and me at the National Jazz Archives in Loughton in February, a couple of days after the diagnosis, looking weak but playing as strongly as ever. We played again in March, April and May, a handful of gigs, each of which found him looking frailer and thinner. The news that filtered through from here on in wasn't good: cancelled gigs, periods of rest, more scans. Just occasionally, he'd pull a rabbit out the hat: a trio gig at Ronnie Scott's in August astonished both musicians and punters alike, so robust was the music coming from a man so clearly fading, and barely a few weeks before his death, he sounded in good humour on a BBC Radio 4 interview recorded at the club.

It was, however, a last burst of light. The final time we met, in November, Dave Green and I took him for lunch not far from where he lived. As Dave's car pulled up, I could scarcely conceal my shock at his appearance: wreathed in a layer of coats and – as ever – a natty hat, he looked stick-thin and blanched, his skin parchment-fragile and his hair a wispy, ice-white. “Dear chap,” he half-whispered as I helped him from the car. He took my arm, and we walked inside. Animated by a cup of tea, the conversation was as if nothing was troubling him: we laughed, we talked shop, we looked back, we embraced. But, he revealed, he was awaiting the results of another scan before a course of radiotherapy could begin. When they came, they confirmed the worst: cancer had invaded his other organs with rampant aggression. I was driving back from the a gig in the Midlands when he called, around a week later. It was bad news, he said. Six months, on the outside. He lasted barely a month, passing away at home, with Dave Green at his side, just nine days shy of what would have been his 84th birthday.

In the weeks and months ahead, there will doubtless be many tributes to John, both personal and professional, from those who knew him as a colleague and those who knew him from afar. He was, and will remain, a figure for whom there is a huge affection across the entire spectrum of UK jazz. As such, he leaves a gap that is even more significant and conspicuous than that he would have left had he only been a “musicians' musician” or a rapaciously self-proclaimed, self-promoting “innovator” (“these days, it's all Facebook and public profiles”, he said wearily in 2012). Indeed, as my on-the-stand introduction to him would often note, very few musicians can claim to have both James Moody and George Melly on their CV's. This isn't to imply that Critch was ever a faceless sideman, or a musical presence so bland he'd fit anywhere: quite the opposite. Players of all schools loved what he brought to their bandstands – his playing primarily, but also that outlook, the wit, the sheer, unconcealed delight with which he took to the job at hand.

There was nothing po-faced about John Critchinson. He never took himself too seriously, and almost certainly never regarded what he did as an “art” of any kind. He was, in sum, an “old school” jazzman, the same sort of musical operator as the man who, up until the end, he held in the highest possible regard: Ronnie Scott. There was nothing overtly sentimental to him and he wasn't a man to gush (“Oh dear, how sad, never mind” was his hair-trigger response to any news aimed to impress) but he was singularly warm, humane and kind. Many were the hours that he help me wrestle through my latest personal crisis, often over cups of tea, late into the night at some godforsaken motorway services. I'd always thank him for listening. To my lasting regret, I never really thanked him for all he'd done for me in every other regard; as a player who was – always – my first call, around whom I built virtually every band I've ever fronted and from whom I learned constantly and consistently; as a friend, who I'd trust with the innermost workings of my life; and as a man who, as I'd never really known my grandfathers, became something of a surrogate of that role.

I have deliberated about how best to close this tribute. At first, I thought that this last memory was something I shouldn't share in the public domain but, having tried to write all of the above from the heart and not the head, I suppose that it is inevitable that I conclude with it.

The last time John and I played together was on May 29th at the Red Lion, Isleworth, drummer Trevor Tomkins' regular Monday night gig. At the end of the evening, as I usually did, I helped him load his electric piano and all its accoutrements into the back of his car. There was a method to all this, and, having done so literally hundreds of times, I knew the drill (I could also set it all up, to which he'd quip “All I need to do now is teach you how to play the bloody thing”). As ever, Critch made the final adjustments, and I bid him farewell. He was still rooting around in the boot when I drove past a few minutes later. I tooted my horn. He waved back. And, then, quite suddenly, something hit me: this melancholy tableau of this elderly, be-hatted man in the half-light, deliberately packing away the instrument of his lifetime's work. I'd seen him do this many, many times and it was, by dint of repetition, nothing unusual, but that night as we waved goodbye I instinctively knew that would be the last time we would ever play together.

I told no-one these thoughts until it was clear that John was too unwell to perform again, harbouring terrible feelings that I was writing him off ahead of his time. And yet, today, after a day in which the news of his death has prompted tears, smiles and laughter, the memory that stands foremost is this – that of watching him, alone, closing the boot of his car, heading home, after yet another night's work. In a way, as romantic as this imagery is, it's almost as if it's being played out over and over again somewhere out there in the wider jazz world – in fact, that's how I'd like to think of John Critchinson in the months ahead. Not that he's gone, the frail body stilled and exhausted, but that he's out there some place, doing what he always did, rolling up at a gig in his latest hat, setting up his piano, making music and laughter happen as only he could.

Clark Tracey, Simon Spillett, John Critchinson, Alec Dankworth
Loughton Febriary 2017
Photo credit Brian O'Connor/ Images of Jazz
So farewell Critch. I'll miss you very much. You'll always be in my heart.
Thank you for sharing so much with us all.
Much love always.

John William Frederick Critchinson “Critch”
Born 24 December 1934, London
Died 15 December 2017, Ruislip


BOOK REVIEW: Mervyn Cooke - Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975–1984

Mervyn Cooke - Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975–1984
(Oxford University Press, £12.99, 322pp. Book review by Chris Parker)

The Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series now includes scholarly works on Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Keith Jarrett and Thelonious Monk; this latest offering concentrates on the work of a man described by the late Richard Cook as ‘surely the most popular jazz musician of the modern era’: Pat Metheny. In the same article, however (an entry in his Penguin Jazz Encyclopedia), Cook neatly summarises the controversy often arising in the jazz world at the mention of the Missouri-born guitarist’s name: ‘his embrace of electronics regularly leads him towards clichés which he himself may have created … the Pat Metheny Group … sound[s] like a brainy prog-rock group with particularly nostalgic leanings … And he couldn’t care less.’

Mervyn Cooke, Professor of Music at the University of Nottingham, meets such criticism head on in this study of Metheny’s recordings for ECM (Bright Size Life to Rejoicing), readily acknowledging the many apparent paradoxes that characterise his subject’s musical reputation. Metheny’s music is, his detractors claim, bland and commercial, yet the man himself is as much an unabashed admirer of Ornette Coleman as of his great hero Wes Montgomery; he dislikes having his music labelled ‘fusion’, yet his Grammys place him firmly in that musical category; he made his name with ECM, yet accuses label boss Manfred Eicher of putting ‘a dark blue barrier … between us and the tape’.

Cooke, unlike his near-namesake, is generally positive about the considerable appeal of Metheny’s music, which, he claims, ‘deftly balances, to varying degrees in different contexts, spontaneous improvisation, avant-garde experimentation, straightforward melodic appeal, and firm structural control’ and quotes extensively from interviews with the guitarist in which he expresses his open-minded, thoughtful approach, epitomised by this statement, made to Jazz Forum’s Pawel Brodowski and Janusz Szprot in 1985: ‘I’ve always felt very lucky that somehow, early on, no one ever told me “Well, this is jazz and this is that.” It was never an issue for me. And yet everything I’ve been involved with as a musician has had to do with improvising which, from my point of view, has made everything that I play jazz, with no fear of style.’ Cooke then goes on to explore Metheny’s attitudes to many current controversies. On the term fusion: ‘I really didn’t want to hear backbeats and rock beats and distorted guitar sounds. I really wanted to deal with harmony. I didn’t want to play on one chord or two chords.’ On the celebrated ‘ECM sound’ (in this instance on Rejoicing): ‘It’s just so bad, muffled and reverby.’ On the balancing of rock elements and improvisation: ‘Our music has elements of [rock’s] power and rhythmic stuff, but at the same time we try to keep the tradition of improvising in mind too …’

The meat of the book, however, is found in Cooke’s scrupulously detailed musical analysis. Illustrating his descriptions with copious musical examples, he surveys Metheny’s decade at ECM album by album, concentrating on the leader himself, but also acknowledging the contributions of Danny Gottlieb, Nana Vasconcelos, Mark Egan, Lyle Mays et al., and concludes with this ringing endorsement: ‘… this balancing act [between the spiritual and the mathematical, loud notes and soft notes, lots of chords and simple chords, free and structured] constantly aspired to promote the overriding ideal of the new paradigm which lay behind all Metheny’s music: the passionate commitment to find ways in which a jazz-based idiom might communicate meaningfully to a contemporary audience versed in contemporary musical styles’.


PHOTOS: Gould Standard  at Kings Place (Thomas Gould with Tim Garland Ant Law,  John Turville and Yuri Goloubev)

Thomas Gould at the performance
Photo credit and ©2017 David Forman

Sebastian writes: 

Photographer David Forman was on hand at Kings Place on Friday 15 December 2017 to catch the sound check and the concert by Gould Standard, a quintet in which the violinist plays alongside Tim Garland on soprano and tenor saxes and bass clarinet, Ant Law on guitars, John Turville on piano and Yuri Goloubev on bass.

The deft and lively arrangements are mostly from Tim Garland. The band started with quicksilver Vivaldi, they ended with Bernard Herrmann's theme from Marnie re-imagined as a tango, but what was buzzing around in my mind for at least a day afterwards was a wonderful drumless yet menacing version of Kenny Wheeler's tango Sly Eyes. 

Thomas Gould with Yuri Goloubev at the sound check
Photo credit and ©2017 David Forman

Tim Garland
Photo credit and ©2017 David Forman

Yuri Goloubev
Photo credit and ©2017 David Forman

 Ant Law (foreground) and  Gould Standard
Photo credit and ©2017 David Forman

John Turville (L) with Thomas Gould
Photo credit and ©2017 David Forman


REVIEW: Elaine Mitchener, Moor Mother, Philip Corner at the 2017 LCMF

Moor Mother at LCMF 2017
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved

New Intimacy III: Elaine Mitchener, Moor Mother, Philip Corner
(Ambika P3. LCMF 2017. 9 December 2017. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Blink and you've missed it. That was the essence of Child Art Piece, scripted by New York-based performance and Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles. Premiered in Düsseldorf 1962, then extraordinarily proscribed by the the Society for the Prevention for Cruelty to Children when it was programmed for performance at the Carnegie Hall two years later. For maybe a minute a small child danced by the wall in the arc of a spotlight, casting shadows, and then ran off-stage to rejoin family. That was it. It was fresh and had the element of ambush, but if you were not nearby you might not have known it had taken place!

Philip Corner was a founding member of Fluxus in 1961 and the set from Corner and partner, Phoebe Neville, based around the grand piano in the centre of the vast Ambika P3 gave insight in to the mindset of an era, as the piano became a mobile sculptural object and a focus for choreorgaphic manoeuvres as well as the object of chance interactions, as in Buddha's Flower Sutra where crimson petals plucked from an amaryllis were dropped on to its keys designating them as notes to be played. If that felt close to a museum piece, they rose to a fresh challenge with Corner's new piece BowwoW - on piano strings - Until You Can't Take it Anymore where the action was focused on extracting a wide expressive range directly from the piano wires.

Central to the evening were the demands of six Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde from the '60s and '70s, in a programme devised by vocalist Elaine Mitchener in the company of luminaries from the British jazz scene, Byron Wallen (trumpet and flute), Robert Mitchell (piano), Neil Charles (bass), Mark Sanders (drums) and London-based American poet, Dante Micheaux, with saxophonist Jason Yarde taking on the role of Musical Director. They rose to the challenge with an impressive, tactile take on key compositions which blended activism with the avante-garde, highlighting bonds between jazz and poetry.

Jeanne Lee linked jazz vocalising with Fluxus art and Happenings in the early 60s. Yarde's claps and Wallen's conch shell echoes fixed the co-ordinates for Lee's The Capacity of this Room giving way for Mitchener to follow through with its lightly humorous lyrics and bursts of serrated calls, and Mitchell and Sanders powering through its final stages with percussive gusto. Willem Breuker was on the original recording with the Gunter Hampel Group (Hampel and Lee were married) so the bar was set high.

Archie Shepp's On this Night (If that Great Day Would Come) cuts deep in his tribute to Marxist campaigner W. E. B. DuBois, anticipating his angry Scag several years later, with Mitchener sensitively reinterpreting the original vocal recording by opera singer, Christine Stevens. With stark imagery slicing through - 'Behold the blood from my brother's veins …' - Yarde soloed tight with Wallen's flute and within the space crafted by Charles's bass as the group took on Shepp's rich ebb and flow with Sanders, throughout the set, a lightly stated fulcrum in the backgrounding to Mitchener's vocal invention.

Lee's In These Last Days, written in '73 and recorded in '79, also took on a darker, more operatic tone. Sanders' brush work and Wallen's mini explosions set the scene '… of Total / Dis-in-te-gra-tion where every day / Is a struggle against becoming / An object in someone else's nightmare …' Discomfort was bedding in. The deeper, broader picture was being sketched out further.

The focus on the word became more acute as Micheaux took on the diction of Joseph Jarman's delivery in the key, early AACM work of '67, the poem, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, pacing the flow with precision, weighting and balancing each word and phrase. The reference to European Dada, 'new word out of the twenties of chaos', crossed with the ambiguity of 'exit the tenderness for power / black or white / no difference now', and to drive home the reality, 'The church pronouncing the hell of where we are', in a sensitive rendition which didn't allow any of the text an easy escape route.

Jim Crow, initially ascribed to Eric Dolphy, is a Bob James composition, originally entitled A Personal Statement with the composer's ex-classmate, counter-tenor David Schwartz, providing the strained, operatic vocals in the quintet which included Dolphy, whom James admired and was able to enlist, in the powerful recording which appears on the Dolphy album, Other Aspects. Yarde added his own voice with buffeting sax while Mitchener brought her own punchy clarity to the quasi-classical feel of the piece.

Les McCann, best known as a hefty keyboard player, wrote Compared To What as a sharp, satirical look at hypocrisy, injustice and the Vietnam War in a steaming, funky setting. 'Trying to make it real - compared to what?' Charles kicked off with infectious bass lines with Mitchener putting her stamp on the project's set with a high-energy, ecstatic vocal finale.

Elaine Mitchener performing 'On This Night (If That Great Day Would Come)' at LCMF 2017
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved

Visceral, chilling, words that sliced through like a knife. Camae Aweya, a.k.a. Moor Mother delivered her solo set with an edge that bit hard, yet underneath all of this is a significant, nuanced, artistic sensibility. Based in Philadelphia, she is an accomplished sound artist and poet, commentator and Afro-Futurist activist and her explosive set combined slabs of intuitively collaged, power electronics with fevered renditions of selections of her poetry. Dancing frantically, flailing dreadlocks - maybe the grown-up child from Knowles's piece - she articulated the drama of despair, cultural dislocation and amorality. In Chicago to Texas, which opens her sharp, new LP, Irreversible Entanglements, she picked up from where Shepp and Jarman left off. 'Not only do we disappear, we hang ourselves and find other ways to find ourselves murdered … right under the watchful eye of those who rape us in jail cells … Just four pills and a paper cup called America'. Her cry 'We want our future back' is disarmingly honest. Hers is a radical positivism. She says things others fear to say, opposing the glorification and crass commercialisation of violence and mysogyny, and takes the tools of commercial music to reshape, restyle and restate with intelligence. A great follow-on from Mitchener's project and a heavyweight finish to an intriguing evening.

Moor Mother made a strong impression last April (reviewed here) and will be doing a special date at Cafe Oto next April with her impressive jazz-poetry ensemble, Irreversible Entanglements.


RIP John Critchinson (1934-2017)

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

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



NEWS: UK Showcase at Winter Jazzfest in NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINKS: Winter Jazzfest
PRS Foundation
BBC Music Introducing 


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

Huw Warren
Photo credit: Tim Dickeson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINK: Nocturnes and Visons on Bandcamp


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

Samuel Eagles (centre) with the Scott Willcox Big Band

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

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

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

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

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

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

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