INTERVIEW: US Alto Saxophonist Dick Oatts (Pizza Express Dean Street / Jazz Legends Series, 7 April)

Dick Oatts
Photo credit: Sara Pezzato Carpentieri

Iowa-born alto saxophonist DICK OATTS, a major presence on the New York scene, is a relatively infrequent visitor to the UK. He was here in 2016, and flautist Gareth Lockrane wrote a profile for us (link below), in which he described Oatts as one of his very favourite musicians, and ended with the words: "I urge everyone to get out and see this gig!" 

Oatts is over here again, doing two sets with quartet at Pizza Express Dean Street on Saturday 7 April in the club's Jazz Legends series. This interview by young saxophonist Josh Heaton has some remarkable, bookmark-able thoughts on being a student... forever. 

This interview starts at a life-changing moment for Oatts in the late 1970s, when he received the invitation to join the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band...

Josh Heaton: What was the story with Thad Jones hiring you to play in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band? Where had he heard you play?

Dick Oatts: I was living in Minneapolis/St.Paul, Minnesota from 1972-77. My flat mate was playing lead alto in the Univ. of Minn. big band and Thad Jones was their guest clinician/soloist in May of 1977. Thad had asked my roommate if he would like to come and sit in in NYC at the Village Vanguard some Monday night. My friend, Randy, was not confident enough of his abilities at that time so he recommended me. He came home with Thad's phone number and told me to call him. I thought it might have been a joke but I called anyway. I asked him if this was really Thad Jones and he laughed and then asked who I was. I said it was Dick Oatts and he said " Oh Yes, Randy told me all about you. When can you come to NYC?"

I then said, "How about in two weeks?" He said fine so when I got to NYC, I called him from the airport and he told me that since it was a Monday night, I'd be playing tonight. That was June 7, 1977. I was subbing for Larry Schnieder who was out for the summer with Horace Silver. I played that night and it went well. Thad asked me the following week to join the band for some gigs in NYC (Carnegie Hall, Newport Festival, Jazz Mobile, Vanguard), and other various Jazz festivals and then to tour for eight weeks in Europe with the band. This was all on the tenor saxophone.

After the tour, Mel came up to me and said that Larry was coming back from Horace's band to play with the band and that I could sub from time to time. I was very grateful being how on my first day in NYC I got a tour with one of the greatest bands and experience of a life time. Mel then said: "It's too bad that you didn't play alto." I asked him what he meant by that. He said, "Pepper Adams is leaving the band and Ed Xiques (2nd alto player) is moving to the baritone chair to get a chance to play some more solos." I told him I was really an alto player and so later that night at Pepper's going-away party, Thad asked me to stay on and play underneath the great Jerry Dodgion. A year later, Jerry left and I took over the lead chair. It was quite the "Cinderella story".

JH: Were there important musical friendships that started in that band?

DO: I made incredible friendships especially in the band itself and in NYC, nationally, and internationally – many have become lifetime bonds of respect and admiration. I had no other ties in NYC before I moved there. That band was definitely my family. Every member past, present, and future will always have that bond.

JH: And you still play in the Village Vanguard's big band...

DO: June 7, 2018 will mark my 41st year playing in the band. When Thad left, it became the Mel Lewis Jazz Orch. When Mel passed, we incorporated and changed our name to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Mel never wanted us to continue on as a Ghost Band. He wanted us to keep the ideals of the band but not be shackled by playing all the old direction.

JH: Are lead alto players in big bands born or made?

DO: I think lead alto players are the ones who persevere and crave insight with blend, listening more acutely, experience in a lot of ensemble playing, articulation, different styles, and that understand the functions needed for different composers and styles. It's not just about loud commanding leadership but rather getting the cats to want to listen to you instead of just following blindly. Everyone has such an integral part and a lead alto player is only as good as the section they are suppose to influence and lead. It's a responsibility that I didn't want but after Dodgion left, Thad told me I had no other choice. It was either the door out or to step up to the plate. You can't be lazy and indifferent.

JH: Do the European Big Bands you have played with eg DR, UMO , Norbotten, have different strengths?

DO: There are so many unique styles and big bands all over the European continent. I feel it's individual and based on the music and tradition emphasis of each country. I have been so fortunate to have performed with so many incredible European bands. I particularly like the risks compositionally and the depth and skills of each band. It's refreshing to know the large ensemble playing will continue on.

JH: Your work with Harold Danko is significant. How did all that get started?

DO: I first played with Harold when I joined Thad & Mel's band and for years in other situations in NYC and East Coast. Harold is one of my favorite orchestrators in comping. He makes all my ideas better and challenges me to develop them. He is a truly selfless and always in the moment of the music. Thad just loved Harold's playing. After Roland Hanna left, Thad's other favorite was Danko.

JH: What do you enjoy about playing in a duo setting and what challenges does it present?

DO: I have to play differently and can't rely on so many to prop me up. The intimacy is wonderful. I feel like I'm playing with a miniature orchestra. It's a huge responsibility for the pianist and I have really come to admire how much talent it takes to be so complete. I too have to play, comp, and understand the music on a deeper rhythmic commitment. Intonation and tonal blend, dynamics are also crucial

JH: Is there a favourite album from that collaboration ?

DO: I like a CD I played with Harold Danko on Steeplechase called  Sweet Nowhere (LINK)
I also like From the Clouds Above with Soren Moller (LINK)

JH: Do you make time to get together and play with people casually and why?

DO: It gets harder to do that but I feel it is still so important. I need to express in different formats, sizes, dynamics, styles, difficulty, and expression in order to keep evolving forward. Now at 65, I want to remain a student like was in my teens and through my mid 60s. It's always been my way and if I give up that challenge I stop growing.

JH: The Steeplechase label has been significant. How did that relationship get started and what have been the consequences?

DO: I started with Steeplechase when I was working with Red Rodney in the Mid-'80s. I recorded with Red's quintet and Nils Winther at Tivoli Garden (Copenhagen). I floated around a bit but in the mid-'90s I asked Nils if it would be possible to do some more recording on his label. He was great and always let me record anything without getting in the way. Complete artistic freedom and it was scary at first but very good for me in the long run. I am very fortunate to have had Nils and Mihoko in my corner. Five hours to record 60 minutes worth of music – that made me get my shit together.

JH: Do you still practise much? When you don't have much time to practise, what do you like to work on?

DO: Conventional practice is tougher. Finding the time is difficult and then organizing it is a challenge.

The usual routine of practice that I had when I was younger always evolves to fit age, growth, and evolution. So, I don't practise the same way. Practice comes from working out the music that I am scheduled to perform or working at the piano to understand it. Also working on my own compositions gives me incentive. I usually try to compose a lot to open me up to new intervallic and rhythmic directions.

Practice now comes more in overall percentages, like 33% listening, 33% playing with others, 33% with a piano, practice room, working on music I have to perform and especially composing music that kicks my ass sometimes. The 1% I have free is when I eat or nap.

JH: In your teaching work what do you try to bring out in students' standards playing?

DO: Do you mean playing on standards? If so, finding freedom within the melody and a variety of ways before you start blowing over chord changes. If you mean what standards of ability or excellence they should try to achieve? They need to have the ability to perform, compose, and educate. It's not a four to six-year package deal, It's a life time commitment. College is just an introduction to the rest of your quest in creative music. If you do it right, you will always be a student – and then you die.

JH: Do you still enjoy touring?

DO: I enjoy playing with great musicians and teaching all the talent. I am tired of all the security changes, red tape, scheduling conflicts, airports...

JH: Do you have any nice memories (or indeed unfulfilled ambitions?!) regarding London?

DO: I always have nice memories of London and its great tradition of creative music. So much of what America is (good or bad) comes from all of Europe and, in particular, England. The saxophone tradition over here is incredible. I love London and will always try to patiently endure how expensive it is for a jazz musician to exist here. Fantastic food and art and a lot more history than in the USA.

I got thrown out of the country at Gatwick Airport for insufficient documentation once but I'm over that.

The Pizza Express sets are on the fourth night of a tour: 4 April Barcelona (Jamboree), 5 April Monzon, 6 April Lleida. The same quartet will be at the San Sebastian Jazz festival in July with other dates TBC

Pizza Express Bookings for 7 April
Dick Oatts website
Preview feature about Dick Oatts by Gareth Lockrane from 2016


BOOK REVIEW: Duncan Heining - Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier

Duncan Heining - Mosaics: The Life and Works of Graham Collier
(Equinox, 326pp., £39.95. Book Review by Chris Parker)

In a career lasting five decades, Graham Collier was a bassist, composer, bandleader, jazz educator and writer. He was also something of a trail-blazer: he was the first British jazz musician to attend Boston’s Berklee School of Music (1961); the first to receive an Arts Council grant (in 1967 for the composition of Workpoints and a two-date tour with a 12-piece band); the prime mover of the first full-time jazz degree course in the UK (at the Royal Academy of Music, 1987).

Collier was also a lifelong advocate for the music, particularly in its European manifestation, tirelessly championing his view that jazz is a verb rather than a noun, that music finds its essence primarily in performance ("the musicians in front of you […] are important, not the rules, or even the notes that you have written," as he writes in his Dedication to his major work, The Jazz Composer, published by Northway in 2009). As both a subtle and profound theoretician and as a practitioner, he was constantly negotiating the often obscure paths between composition and improvisation, between respect for and knowledge of the music’s tradition and spontaneity, and progression between acknowledged influences (chief among them Miles Davis and Duke Ellington) and individuality. Moreover, Collier was something of an outsider: a man from a close-knit working family who operated outside traditional class boundaries; a gay man in what was often seen, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, as a somewhat macho environment; an individualist with a profound belief in freedom of expression who struggled all his life to bring jazz to the attention of the arts world, to establish the music alongside classical music, opera and ballet as an unquestioned equal rather than a raffish, poor relation.

Faced with making sense of the life of such a complex individual, Duncan Heining has sensibly opted for a comprehensive rather than a partisan approach, painstakingly sifting through Collier’s own writings and compositions for clues to his sensibility and setting the resulting evidence dispassionately before the reader. Collier’s bandmembers (Chris Biscoe, Stan Sulzmann, John Marshall, etc.) are all extensively quoted; contemporary reviews of Collier’s major works are mined for their insight; letters to publishers and employers are quoted to illustrate Collier’s (often stubborn) belief in his own rights and deserts.

Mosaics presents a fascinating picture of a rich, multi-faceted life. It readily acknowledges that Collier was often single-minded in his dedication to strongly held views and sometimes perhaps unwisely persistent in his pursuit of same, but more importantly (like its stablemates on Tubby Hayes and Stan Tracey), it provides a valuable celebration of the work and legacy of one of the UK’s most important and influential musical figures.

LINK: Interview with Duncan Heining


REVIEW: Bruno Heinen - Mr. Vertigo album launch at Kings Place

Receiving well-deserved applause at Kings Place: Bruno Heinen

Bruno Heinen - Mr. Vertigo album launch 
Kings Place Hall Two. 29 March 2018. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Perhaps the first thing to express in this review is a sense of huge relief. There has been a tendency in solo piano shows, particularly when the musicians involved are finding their way into bigger halls, to want/need to project on a large scale, to conceive of the piano as a mighty orchestra, to build fiendish complexity into inner parts, to go above all for big resonance, almost to want do deny the fact that  once a piano string has been struck, the note is already starting to die. (I’m remembering this one and this one, and to a lesser extent this mostly amplified one.)

Bruno Heinen’s vivid and varied imagination provides the antidote to all that.  Heinen has all kinds of other projects on the go from an Italian trio to a ska band (I'm told...), an ensemble doing respectful things to Vivaldi (rather than this)... So the solo piano is there to be enjoyed on its own, quieter, more thoughtful terms. As he showed last night at the well-attended album launch for his solo project Mr. Vertigo, he has plenty of well thought-out directions to go, indeed an almost infinite variety of them, without ever needing to go XXXL.

OK, that's not 100% true. He did go there once: there was a short episode in the tune In Kochi where he brought on the sonic overload effect, but it was the exception, and he had explained the purpose of it and what he was trying to illustrate. And it worked, as an effect.

As he explained in an email interview we did before this concert, Bruno Heinen’s solo album and project is the fruit of work towards a nearly completed PhD on the use of counterpoint, using the work of Fred Hersch as its starting-point. Hersch has built the solo recital into such an intimate art form, and that benign influence is clearly there. The explicit sense of that authentic and direct legacy is most obviously present in Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. Heinen was proud to stand in that legacy: Rowles taught the tune to Hersch, Hersch explained it to Heinen during two weeks of regular meetings in New York. Heinen's account of it last night was delicate, poised, balanced, and unfolded the story beautifully.

Other moments closest to the jazz piano heritage were a tender, thoughtful and shaped performance of John Taylor’s Ambleside, and a delightful encore, Bill Evans’ Time Remembered. That final performance seemed to sum up the best about his playing: there was complexity in the lines but always balance. Heinen was exploring all kinds of scales and modes, but the voicings were always very clear. His playing can take on a feel of extreme busy-ness, but he never allows the textures to become crowded or cluttered.

Heinen also showed those other avenues. The contrast between real and imagined or “other” sounds in Mirage (with writer Nicki Heinen reading her poem about a hot climate), karnatic scales, a homage to his ethnomusicologist grandfather in In Kochi, the Ravel/Satie persuasion in Daydreamer, the contrast between a Stockhausen music box and the piano in Virgo. All the technology and the dramaturgy worked perfectly – except for one touching, all-too-human moment when Heinen forgot to remove sheets of paper from above the piano strings.

For its variety, poetry, and clarity this was a fine recital.


Virgo – Stockhausen arr. Heinen
Forgotten Images – inspired by Debussy)
Hommage à Kurtag
International Blues – inspired by Yves Klein
The Peacocks – Jimmy Rowles arr. Heinen

Mirage – with poem by Nicki Heinen
Ambleside – John Taylor
Daydreamer – inspired by Wayne Shorter
Mr Vertigo – inspired by Paul Auster
In Kochi
Encore: Time Remembered – Bill Evans


NEWS: Programme for North Sea Jazz Festival 2018 takes shape with more new names (13-15 July)

David Sanborn
Publicity picture
More names have been added to the programme for the North Sea Jazz Festival (13-15 July 2018). Peter Bacon browses.

The customary rich variety of what is on offer in Rotterdam during the weekend of the North Sea Jazz Festival continues to expand with the latest tranche of names just released to the media.

Among the new additions are David Sanborn’s Acoustic Band, Jasper Høiby’s Fellow Creatures, Tord Gustavsen’s band featuring Simin Tander, Nate Smith’s KINFOLK, the Ramón Valle Trio, Keyon Harrold, The Roots, the Mike Stern/Randy Brecker Band, Jazzmeia Horn, Moses Boyd’s Exodus and Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals.

Added names from the UK are Sons of Kemet, GoGo Penguin and Nubya Garcia. Other additions are BADBADNOTGOOD from Canada and Rohey from Norway.

The full line-up now looks, somewhat overwhelmingly, like this:

Friday 13 July
Artist in Residence: Michael League & Snarky Puppy with Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley
The Roots + Friends
The O'Jays
Emeli Sandé
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels
Gary Clark Jr.
Marcus Miller
R + R = NOW with Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Christian Scott, Taylor McFerrin, Derick Hodge and Justin Tyson
Carla Bley Trio
Vijay Iyer Sextet
Stanley Clarke Band
Kurt Elling Quintet with special guest Marquis Hill
Willie Colon
Maria Schneider & Ensemble Denada
Ruthie Foster with Espoo Big Band
Tord Gustavsen featuring Simin Tander
Cameron Graves Trio
Jasper Høiby's Fellow Creatures
Jérôme Hol
Hannah Williams & The Affirmations
Durand Jones & The Indications

Saturday 14 July
Artist in Residence: Michael League, (Michael) League (Antonio) Sanchez (Pedrito) Martinez
Nile Rodgers & CHIC
Earth Wind & Fire
Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals
Leon Bridges
Gregory Porter “Nat King Cole & Me and Other Songs” with Metropole Orkest
Jett Rebel
JP Cooper
GoGo Penguin
Sons of Kemet
Nubya Garcia
Pharoah Sanders Quartet
Moses Boyd Exodus
Pat Metheny w/ Antonio Sanchez, Linda Oh & Gwilym Simcock
Philip Catherine
Mingus Big Band
Fred Hersch Trio
Chico Freeman Plus+tet
The Quartet.NL - Herman / Beets / Bennink / Glerum
David Sanborn Acoustic Band
Con Brio
Nate Smith KINFOLK
Jazzmeia Horn
Robert Finley
Dulfer Plays Blues
Togo All Stars

Sunday 15 July
Artist in Residence: Michael League & Bokanté with special guests
Moses Sumney
Aloe Blacc
CeeLo Green
Selah Sue
Joshua Redman special guest with Billy Hart Quartet
Hudson - DeJohnette/Scofield/Medeski/Colley
‘Queen of Sheba’ Symphonic Creation by Angelique Kidjo and Ibrahim Maalouf
Cecile McLorin Salvant
Mathias Eick Quintet
Ruben Blades & Roberto Delgado Orquestra
Caminando. Adios Y Gracias
Oumou Sangaré
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Eric Vloeimans’ Levanter
Avishai Cohen '1970'
Mulatu Astatke
Daymé Arocena
Ruben Hein, Coely and Laurence Jones
Stern/Randy Brecker Band featuring Dennis Chambers & Tom Kennedy
Harold Lopez Nussa Trio with Pedrito Martinez and Gregoire Maret
Mulatu Astatke
Keyon Harrold
Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
Ramón Valle Trio

North Sea Jazz Festival 2018 runs from 13 to 15 July and takes place at the Ahoy Centre in Rotterdam which can be reached in less than an hour by plane or, for the first time this year, the twice-daily train direct from London St Pancras International to Rotterdam Centraal, taking just 3hrs from city centre to city centre.

Headline sponsor NN is an insurance and asset management company headquartered in Den Haag, with the main brand Nationale-Nederlanden

Day tickets for NN North Sea Jazz Festival are on sale now and all-in tickets are available from the end of April at

LINK: NN North Sea Jazz Festival website


CD REVIEW: Verneri Pohjola & Mika Kallio – Animal Image

Verneri Pohjola & Mika Kallio – Animal Image
(Edition. EDN1107. CD Review by Patrick Hadfield)

After two excellent albums for Edition, Verneri Pohjola returns with this very different release: a film soundtrack. In collaboration with percussionist Mika Kallio, who played drums on Pohjola's last CD, Pekka, the trumpeter presents a series of improvised duets. Animal Image consists of six tracks which flow from one to another creating a single piece. It is moody and poetic.

Pohjola and Kallio worked closely with filmmaker Perttu Saksa, who first contacted Pohjola and subsequently cut his experimental wildlife documentary around the musicians' improvised score. The music stands on its own terms, though.

There is a playful interaction between Pohjola and Kallio as they pick up each other's rhythms and phrasing. Kallio is credited with "drums and gongs", but from these he provides a wealth of percussive sounds. The deep timbre of the gongs creates a mystical feel, rich and sonorous. Bells ring, the drums softly roll and, occasionally, roar, though for the most part the music is quiet and contemplative.

Verneri's trumpet goes from high bird-like trills to low growls. He uses electronics to add background textures – single chords over which the trumpet and percussion play. The final, title track uses electronics more substantially, lifting and looping quiet trumpet phrases which the duo play, building more complex patterns.

The music is impressionistic and ethereal. Saksa's film explores the relationship between man, animals and the environment of the northern wilderness, and the CD's titles reflect this. Ranging from Where Do You Feel At Home through Outside to Foxplay, Goshawk's Dream and Man, the music echoes the emptiness of the landscape.

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


INTERVIEW/ PREVIEW: Rachel Jackson (Yusufla. Canteen Bristol 29 March, Elgar Room Royal Albert Hall 26 April)

Yusufla with Rachel Jackson (second from right)
Publicity photo
YUSUFLA is one of those bands starting to pop up all over the place. In their two years of existence they have performed at Open Senses Festival, at Woodburner at Styx, Boomtown, NozStock, Virgo Festival, Battersea Arts Centre supporting Mammal Hands, Passing Clouds, Kings Place, The Spice of Life, Hootenanny's, The Finsbury, Tropical Pressure Festival, The Bird's Nest...and even done a "live site-specific show with the sensory artistic agency Vetyver and visual artist Kino Pablo as part of the London-wide We Are Now Festival at Rich Mix". There is a recording imminent. High time, then, to find out more about them. Interview with bandleader RACHEL JACKSON by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: Why have you called the band Yusufla?

Rachel Jackson: We named the band after Yusef Lateef who we were inspired by when we started the band, though our sound definitely isn’t a complete replica (and we spell it slightly differently!) His track ‘Plum Blossom’ represents what we like about his work and try to instil in our compositions. It’s a subtle take on jazz rather than gymnastic, with gentle repeated figures that sort of creep into your ears and fill out a groove. Other inspirations include Kadri Gopalnath, the Indian sax maverick who’s playing really stretches the bounds of what the instrument sounds like and can melodically achieve.

LJN: What is the instrumentation?

RJ: Three saxes of differing range – soprano, alto and tenor plus electric bass and drums.

Celyn Thomas (L) and Rachel Jackson at Juju's Bar
Photo credit: Gemma Bell/ Here and Now

Who is in it?

RJ: Myself, Rachel Jackson on alto. Imogen Walker on soprano, Celyn Thomas on tenor, David Ruiz on electric bass, James Storer on drums and our Live Sound Technician James Runciman.

LJN:  Exam time. Fill in the blank and explain your reasoning: "If you like  Band X you will like Yusufla" 

RJ: "If you like Mammal Hands or Get The Blessing you will like Yusufla" We’ve supported both these bands and our sounds complement each other well, whilst remaining distinct. Like them, we write instrumental music that swells and falls with looping, repetitive motifs and the odd improvised solo.

LJN:  How long have you all known each other for / where did you meet ?

RJ: The three horn players met studying music at Manchester University but only formed this particular ensemble just over two years ago. I had met David playing in another band on the London circuit and we met James through the power of the internet! He hails from Australia and arrived here with just some sticks and no kit, we swiftly sorted that out and snapped him up after our first jam together.

LJN:  And are there interests and affinities that "glue" the band together / Why do you think you get on with each other?

RJ: We all love composing collaboratively and taking risks. Our rehearsals are a very open and relaxed space with everyone bringing new ideas to work on, which can be quite rare in a band set-up. Socially we click, which helps with sharing ideas, seeing the funny side and being honest to the point of frankness on what we like and don’t like.

LJN:  And how long has the band been going?

RJ: It’s just over two years since our first jam, and we’ve been gigging since about six months after that. We are just about to record our first EP in May as we feel the set has now really reached maturity and we’ve got four or five tunes that really represent well what we are trying to represent. As with everything in music, things take time to cook!

LJN:  Has the method of getting new tunes into your repertoire changed?

RJ: Yes, initially I started the band by scoring music and writing heads at home. Now we very much compose as a group, and can start with a bass line, a groove or a sax sound that we want to illuminate. It’s much more organic, and undoubtedly better or more original this way.

LJN:  And you are planning on releasing a recording?

RJ: Yes, we are recording this early Summer. We want to spend a good amount of time getting that just right and will host an official launch in Autumn or Winter at one of our favourite London venues.

LJN:  And the Elgar room is part of their Women in Jazz series? What were the criteria to be included?

RJ: The Elgar Room approached us to be part of this programme which celebrates female-led jazz bands, it’s part of their larger Women And The Hall programme which coincides with the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave women the vote for the first time. It’s a real honour to be asked to join the roll call of female jazzers in this season. My band is mixed gender, but jazz though changing, is still undoubtedly a male dominated space and initiatives like this are deeply important to us all.

LJN:  And you also have a thing going on with cinema in Deptford?

RJ: We have a residency at Deptford Cinema called PlayedBack. This venue is really a gem on the London scene and we consider it our spiritual home as a band. We rehearse there regularly and host a night with a mini-set of our music and live improvised music to short films. The last event we explored the films of Jan Svankmajer, the seminal Czech animator of surreal vignettes. Deptford Cinema is co-operatively run and led by volunteers – as a band we are passionate about supporting independent venues like this to keep London live! Come down and raise a jar with us there.


29 March - The Canteen, Bristol
26 April - The Elgar Rooms, London
19 May - The Great Escape, Brighton

LINKS:  Bandcamp (music)


CD REVIEW: Bruce Barth Quartet ft. Jerry Bergonzi – Sunday

Bruce Barth Quartet ft. Jerry Bergonzi – Sunday
(Blau Records 021 – CD review by Mark McKergow)

American pianist and composer Bruce Barth pulls together a fine quartet and an attractive repertoire for this superbly recorded 2017 performance. Combining latin and swing styles, the music is rich with atmosphere and brims with joyous sounds and solos.

Spanish label Blau Records specialise in recording live shows in as much fidelity as possible. This latest project was recorded at the Espai de la Música Mestre Villa in Bencàssim on 13 May 2017, and brings together a quartet led by Barth and tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi.  Five of the six tracks are originals by one or other, and both are clearly comfortable in their writing roles. Bergonzi’s opening Blue Cube jumps off in a relaxed latin style with a rich-toned sax melody and solo, culminating in a round of audience applause which comes as a shock to those (such as me) who haven’t read the sleeve notes and assume this must be a studio date, so well-balanced and rich is the overall sound.

Barth’s Sunday continues the latin feel with its 6/8 lilt, Bergonzi’s solo again building nicely before Barth’s own turn on the piano. Barth has a beautiful style in his soloing, well paced, varied and creating tension-and-release sections which put me in mind of Bill Evans; block chords suddenly giving way to swinging runs, which turn into swirling ostinatos. It’s extremely listenable and rewarding stuff. Drummer Stephen Keogh gets a solo here, plenty of cymbals to the fore as he keeps the groove moving along.

The originals keep coming with Bergonzi’s Double Billed, a swinging affair which gives Barth room to stretch out. Double bassist Mark Hodgson’s solo comes across particularly well, again well caught by the mics, sonorous and full. Afternoon In Lleida, another Barth number, is a slower affair, redolent of the Spanish afternoon, starting gently and building into a series of climaxes before subsiding into gentle harmonies. (Perhaps it was that sort of afternoon…?) Refuge is a clean and simple ballad, which serves as a good counterpoint to the drama that has gone before.

The album closes with Bergonzi’s arrangement of David Raksin’s immortal standard Laura. Bergonzi takes the original film score tune and takes it nicely into the band’s sound, with dramatic chords behind the tune before Barth at last get to take the first solo.  All in all this is a very enjoyable collection, beautifully recorded and full of atmosphere.


REVIEW: Shifa (Rachel Musson, Mark Sanders, Pat Thomas) at the Hexagon, Birmingham

L-R: Mark Sanders, Pat Thomas, Rachel Musson, and
(half in shot) Tony Dudley-Evans

REVIEW: Shifa (Rachel Musson, Mark Sanders, Pat Thomas)
Hexagon Theatre, mac, Birmingham. 27 March 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

‘Shifa’ comes from a translation of the Arabic word for healing, and the healing appeal of new trio Shifa comes from the translations occurring between percussion, electronics and brass. Each player brings what they hear from the other two people into their own medium, each extending the range of their instrument and as a group forging a fascinating polyglot between the dialects of three very different voices.

The trio’s debut performance at the Hexagon, Birmingham, curated by TDE Productions, was a 40-minute improvisation involving three experienced and well-loved players, Rachel Musson (tenor/soprano sax), Pat Thomas (keys/electronics) and Mark Sanders (drums/percussion). Pat’s setup was a laptop and mini tablet used as a keyboard, opening the set with pitch-bent circuit-breaker type phrases of sinusoidal sound. To control and play these with his sense of musicality and phrasing is extremely unusual. The dialogue between his sounds and the tenor sax allows you to better appreciate the musical phrasing within the lovingly jarring electronic tone.

Musson’s switch to a curved soprano sax over a more drone-like glitchy backdrop led on to a more abstract saturated electronic sound. Returning to the tenor for a half-way point solo moment she used extended techniques including  toneless voiced blowing, almost literally speaking with the horn. A tight group stop was followed by Musson reverse-muting the tenor sax with a can of Bonduelle Spinach, which, like Popeye, is strong to the finish and made the horn rattle and blast like a boat siren.

Earlier episodes were inverted in passages of quiet noise and tense multiphonic playing and Mark’s tonal use of chiming sound bowls that underlined the group’s translational nature, whereby often the electronics provide more of the rhythmic sense to allow the acoustic drum kit a precedent of freedom to colour the sound. The set’s conclusion was like a deconstruction of the Jimmy Smith style classic organ trio with Pat Thomas’ Hammond-like sound and off-kilter vamping playing off the free-stylings of saxophone and drums.

Their 5-minute encore found Pat Thomas in a supportive role creating a steady electronic rhythm steadily unsteadied throughout. The more abstract backdrop of rattling noise gave space for Mark Sanders to further explore tonal-rhythmic colourations on the sound bowls, and for the saxophonist to bring an almost classic-sounding jazz melodic sense with pulsing lows, spiralling arpeggios, power tones & bat notes.

Support came from young rising stars of the Midlands scene, Xhosa Cole (tenor sax), Harry Weir (tenor sax) and Rob Harper-Charles (drums). Their 30-minute free improvisation was driven by exciting live-sculpted blasts of sound from the two tenors, and delicately conceived maquettes of quieter introspection showcasing Rob Harper-Charles’s dynamic subtlety on the kit and the trio’s careful listening and creativity in maintaining energy in both loud and quiet moments.

The evening was organised by Fizzle Birmingham in association with TDE Productions, part of a series benefitting from Arts Council funding, whose renewal is currently being sought but isn’t certain. After the gig, a discussion was led by Tony Dudley-Evans in which he sought feedback from the audience. The thoughtful discussion was carried out in a healthy, open and constructive spirit, focusing on how much convergence there is in the music between jazz/ electronica/ noise / sound art / contemporary classical. and how a perceived ‘cliquiness’ among the different audiences might be overcome. For example, a contributor said turning up at one particular gig “can feel like gate-crashing someone’s wedding!” The willingness to cross-pollinate between the diverse related scenes was clear. The passion for the music was very strong, and the thoughtful discussion gave an exciting insight into the present and future of music in the Midlands.

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

SHIFA 27/03/18: analysis/breakdown

Sax and squeals
Curved soprano sax & a more sustained noise
More abstract saturated sound
STOP! Sax with spinach can
Jumpy fierce Cagey toy-like sounds
Sax solo with vocal utterance technique
Quiet noise and tense multiphonics
Percussion elements chiming
Solo hum noise
Classic organ trio deconstruction

LINK: Future events from Fizzle Birmingham


CD REVIEW: Bill Frisell – Music IS

Bill Frisell – Music IS
(Okeh Records19075815002. Review by Peter Bacon)

It’s 18 years since the guitarist’s last solo album, Ghost Town (Nonesuch). That album had Frisell playing electric and acoustic guitars, 6-string banjo, loops and bass; for the new one subtract the banjo, and add ukulele and music boxes.

The overall way of working is the same. Bill lays down a little guitar melody and then subtly augments it over the course of its two to six minutes with overlaid guitar, bass, or other plucked strings. But differences have developed over a near two decades. Listen to Ghost Town straight after Music IS and the music seems a little slower in development, a little emptier, taking its time to create atmospheres. The new album is more concise (the track lengths are generally shorter) and while they still have space (uncannily even more space) there are a lot more ideas and a wider array of musical colours packed in.

The 2000 album was mainly Frisell compositions with a Hank Williams, a John McLaughlin and a couple of standards thrown in; Music IS is unadulterated Frisell. Although, of course, Frisell’s music is in another way, thoroughly adulterated, steeped as it is in melodic and harmonic tropes from country music, from Americana folk, from surf guitar rock, through old-time gospel to jazz, until it emerges sounding like it could come from nobody else.

Frisell has said that playing solo is always a challenge. “For me, music has all along been so much about playing with other people. Having a conversation. Call and response. Playing all by myself is a trip. I really have to change the way I think.”

He explained how he prepared for Music IS: “I played for a week at The Stone in New York. Each night I attempted new music that I'd never played before. I was purposely trying to keep myself a little off balance. Uncomfortable. Unsure. I didn't want to fall back on things that I knew were safe. My hope was to continue this process right on into the studio. I didn't want to have things be all planned out beforehand.”

That’s one explanation for the natural and apparently spontaneous way in which these short pieces develop, some of them new, some of them going right back to his mid-‘80s albums on ECM, with names that say a lot about how they sound: Winslow Homer, The Pioneers, Rambler, Kentucky Derby, Pretty Stars, Go Happy Lucky.

The range of styles is wide. Winslow Homer, for example, sounds, slightly disconcertingly, like he could be the long-lost Nashville child of Thelonious Monk, while Change In The Air opens up an interstellar vastness, and Ron Carter (like Miles, Frisell seems to be developing a penchant for naming songs after other musicians) has the form and gravitas of a traditional tune passed down from campfire to campfire.

The sounds are more electric and resonant than on Ghost Town which often bases itself around acoustic guitar, but they are closer in tone, giving even more cohesion to the sound and confusing the listener into thinking they might be listening to a four-armed soloist rather than an overdubbed track.

As with every other Bill Frisell recordings, the man’s modesty and ongoing search is strongly evident. He says: “I've been plugging away playing music for more than 50 years now. I'll never figure it out. One of the amazing things about getting older is being able to revisit things that I heard or played long long ago. There's always something new to discover, something to uncover. New pathways open up. If I'm really lucky I  might even realise that I've learned something along the way. It's far out looking at my own music though this long lens.”

It’s far out for the listener too.

LINK: Interview with Emma Franz, Director of the documentary Bill Frisell: A Portrait


NEWS: 606 Club 30 Years At Lots Road Festival Programme Announced (16 - 27 May)

The 606 Club is announcing publicly this morning the programme for its 30 Years at Lots Road Festival, which will run from 16 May to 27 May. Some acts are yet to be confirmed and are marked TBC here. The festival's headliner will be announced next week. This post will be updated : 


Wed 16 8:30 - Peter Rubie/ Tim and Hattie Whitehead / TBC

Thu 17 8:30 - Hamish Stuart's 10 piece band

Fri 18 9:30 - Natalie Williams / Tony O’Malley/ TBC

Sat 19  9:30 - Giacomo Smith/ TBC/ TBC

Sun 20 1:30 - 606 Gospel Group w Special Guests

8:30 - Ian Shaw/ Polly Gibbons/ Liane Carroll

Mon 21 8:30 - The CrateDiggers/ Paul Stacey/ TBC

Tue 22 8:30 - 606 Club Special: HEADLINER TO BE ANNOUNCED

Wed 23  8:30 - Basho Music Special: The Printmakers / Gwilym Simcock

Thu 24  8:30 - Anoushka Lucas/ TBC / Gwyneth Herbert

Fri 25  9:30 - Joy Rose/ Vanessa Haynes/ Imaani

Sat 26  9:30 - Clark Tracey/ Jaqui Dankworth/ Mornington Lockett

Sun 27 1:30 - Rachel Sutton w Special Guests

8:30 - Claire Martin & Jim Mullen/ Rachael Calladine/ Samara

LINK: Bookings at the 606 Club website


FEATURE: Keith Nichols' Mayfair Orchestra (Midnight in Mayfair, Cadogan Hall, 28 April)

Cadogan Hall is set to party like it’s 1929 on Saturday 28 April when Keith Nichols’ Mayfair Orchestra presents Midnight in Mayfair, writes Rob Adams.

(Including veterans of the vintage and classic jazz scene in the UK, Enrico Tomasso trumpet and Martin Wheatley guitar and banjo. Distinguished all-rounders at home in all eras Robert Fowler and Mark Crooks (sax and clarinet), Dave Chamberlain (bass). Long-time Nichols’ sideman Graham Read on sousaphone and one of the finest young trumpeters in the country Jim Davison – equally adept at conjuring up the sound of Clark Terry as well as Louis. Two distinguished players from overseas – the brilliant Mike McQuaid from Australia and visiting especially for this concert the German saxophone and clarinet virtuoso Matthias Seuffert.) 

Featuring the music of great British bandleaders including Ray Noble, Lew Stone, Jack Hylton, Jack Payne and more, Midnight in Mayfair celebrates a time in the 1920s and 1930s when orchestras played for dancing and were often strengthened by the presence of American musicians who had come over to Europe on tour and stuck around.

The Midnight in Mayfair Orchestra
As Keith Nichols points out, the first authentic jazz band to be heard on these shores, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, ended up playing in Hammersmith Palais and their influence, as well as the many other American bands who followed, was felt on the dance bands of the time.

Nichols, now 73, has spent his entire adult life championing classic jazz from the music’s beginnings up to around 1950. A boyhood pianist and accordionist, he was improvising before he realised jazz existed. He formed his first band at school in the 1950s, by which time the stride and ragtime styles of piano playing had become a fascination. So began an adventure that has seen him perform at Carnegie Hall, New York – on one of his other instruments, the trombone – and achieve quite the coals-to-Newcastle act by becoming the pianist on a Mississippi riverboat.

“That was quite an experience, not least because the Americans seemed taken aback that an English musician knew all the tunes they wanted,” he says.

One of the pianist’s roles on these boats involved playing a calliope – a steam-driven pipe organ – on call. When the boat steamed into a port, whether Nichols was onstage, asleep or eating dinner, he had to immediately report at the calliope and play a tune associated with the town involved: St Louis Blues, Chatanooga Choo Choo and so on.

Nichols refers to what he does as jazz archaeology.

“When I got interested in jazz the older style of playing didn’t really exist any more,” he says. “Everything had changed when bebop came in in the 1940s and very few people were playing stride and ragtime in the Fats Waller style. You have to listen hard and practise seriously and it’s a lifetime’s work to get anywhere near the standard the original players set.”

His love of and facility with Scott Joplin’s music saw him handily placed when Joplin’s ragtime classics were popularised by the soundtrack to the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film The Sting in the 1970s and it was around the same time that Nichols played on one of Bing Crosby’s last albums. As a trombonist he came to the attention of Dick Sudhalter, an American musician resident in the UK at the time, who enlisted Nichols in his recreation of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra for concerts in Philadelphia and Carnegie Hall.

Nichols’ Midnite Follies, a popular band of the 1980s which specialised in Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway’s 1920s music, paved the way for the Midnight in Mayfair concert with more jazz archaeology back in their heyday. Deciding to celebrate the great British bands of the same era, Nichols discovered that the music was unavailable except in simplified form. To bring it up to the standards of the bands at the time involved much listening to old recordings and transcribing of parts.

Fred Elizalde
“One of the great characters in those days was Fred Elizalde, who departed from the strict tempo rule and featured quite futuristic harmonies,” says Nichols. “He was eventually told by the Savoy Hotel to knuckle down and play for dancing or he’d be out – and he was out. We’re going to feature some of his music but I think we’re safe from being banned at this remove.”

Indeed, Nichols’ 16-piece Mayfair Orchestra, which includes violins and singers Thomas “Spats” Langham and Janice Day, is likely to find favour among dancers across the generations.

“There’s an element of déjà vu for people of a certain age with this music but there are young musicians coming up who are interested in playing the older styles,” says Nichols, who for the past 28 years has taught jazz history at the Royal Academy of Music and has first-hand experience of this wave of interest through leading annual concerts with the Academy Big Band. “And just as the young musicians are getting into it, so the enthusiasm among their peers for jive and swing dancing has grown. So the energy in the room might well be similar to the way it was back when the music we’re playing was all the rage.” (pp)



REVIEW: 19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival (2018) – Day Two

The "formidable and charismatic" Buhlebendalo Mda of The Soil
Publicity photo

19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival, 23-24 March, 2018 – Day Two
(Cape Town International Convention Centre. Report by Peter Jones)

Africa’s Grandest Gathering – that’s the moniker bestowed on the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and rightly so. No other musical event on the continent matches it for sheer scale.

There had been steady business on Friday evening, but Saturday brought out vast hordes – not just of the paying public, but myriads of T-shirted helpers, young and old. As we reported in our preview, the wider purpose of the festival is to develop South Africa’s entertainment industry. The weekend (and indeed the previous month) included numerous workshops for young people, taking place not only at Cape Town’s monumental Conference Centre but across the Western Cape. Approaches to performance, rehearsal, music business, stage production, entrepreneurship and showbiz marketing were all on the agenda.

Every jazz festival these days includes its fair share of music that can be described as jazz-influenced, at the most. One of these was a young Soweto a capella trio known as The Soil. They operate in a genre known in these parts as Kasi Soul – a mixture of township harmony, hip-hop and a distinctively African take on pop and soul. Led by the formidable and charismatic Buhlebendalo Mda, The Soil are driven by the beatboxing and bass singing of Luphindo Ngxanga. The third member of the group, Luphindo’s brother Ntsika Ngxanga, is also an entrepreneur who runs a record label called Nomadic Tribe, and was dubbed by Mda – with no obvious irony - as a future President of South Africa. Their punchy set included a tune by the late Hugh Masekela – as did most of the performances over the weekend.

In keeping with 2018’s global theme of empowerment, the much-hyped vocalist Simphiwe Dana appeared with an all-female band including three backing singers. This was big, slow-paced, emotional music. Dana, resplendent in feathered headdress and tribal outfit, delivers her vocals in a passionate, declamatory style, but the gig was somewhat derailed by a mushy sound mix, in which the voices completely overwhelmed the rhythm section.

Singing, particularly harmony singing, is a far more important element to jazz in this part of the world than it is in Europe or America, and it often involves spontaneous audience participation: there’s no need for the musicians to urge them on. Leeds’s very own Corinne Bailey Rae proved the point with a warm, polished and well-judged set that had the enormous crowd joining in almost from the start. In fact there were long periods during which neither she nor her excellent male backing vocalists had to sing at all, so strong was the audience contribution. All the hits were there, including Breathless, Trouble Sleeping, and Bob Marley’s Is This Love done as a slow waltz.

Billy Monama’s Graz Roots is a project whose aim is to revive and maintain the sound of "traditional" South African jazz. It was sweet, gentle, good-time guitar-based music, with some outstanding players, notably guitarist Monama himself, alongside Lwanda Gogwana on flugelhorn and Mduduzi Mtshali on piano. The final numbers were enhanced by the gorgeous voice of guest singer Siphokazi Maraqana. The Graz Roots set was a particular treat amongst some much louder and less subtle music elsewhere.

Selema Masekela
Publicity photo

The high point of the Festival came towards the end of Saturday. The Boys Doin’ It was the name given to this celebration of the late Hugh Masekela’s music, an acknowledgement of the trumpeter/composer/activist’s extraordinary contribution to South Africa’s cultural and political life. With both President Cyril Ramaphosa and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa among the packed, tumultuously excited audience, the band for this gig consisted largely of Bra Hugh’s touring ensemble. They featured all the hits: Grazing in the Grass, Bring Him back Home and Puffin’ on Down the Track, the great man’s nephew Selema Masekela delivering a powerful spoken word piece about the plight of exploited migrant workers. This climactic gig had the desired effect on Cape Town’s long drought: as your correspondent left the building, the rain had started to fall.

LINK: Peter Jones' report of Day One of the festival.


CD REVIEW: Whiskey Moon Face – Formless Forms

Whiskey Moon Face – Formless Forms
(Whiskey Moon Face CD and digital download from Bandcamp. CD Review by Jane Mann)

Formless Forms is the third CD from trio Whiskey Moon Face. Northumberland born Louisa Jones is the leader and she writes most of the songs. She studied ethnomusicology at SOAS (like fellow unclassifiable musician Nick Mulvey) and plays accordion, piano, double bass, cornet and clarinet.

She was inspired to learn the accordion after staying with Celtic musicians in Ireland and she learned Drupad (a northern Indian classical vocal tradition) in Bhopal, India. American bass player “Dakota” Jim Ydstie (from North Dakota) originally came to London on tour with New Orleans clarinettist Dr Michael White. He then moved here to play with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra. Clarinettist Ewan Bleach, who arranges most of the songs, studied at the Guildhall, and plays and guests in a variety of bands, including New Orleans-based Tuba Skinny.

The trio all play in each other’s bands too. Bleach leads the Cable Street Rag Band which features Jones on double bass, Ydstie on piano and trumpeter “Magic” Mike Henry from the Chris Barber Band (who plays on track 11 of this CD). Jones and Bleach play in the Dakota Jim Band, led by Ydstie (playing accordion), with Jones on double bass. Jones and Bleach are members of Man Overboard, until recently with classical violinist Thomas Gould. There are others too, no doubt.

The music of Whiskey Moon Face is charming and difficult to categorise, with influences from all over, not surprising given the trio’s diverse musical backgrounds. I am reminded of many different musics. There are elements of contemporary Western folk music, Eastern European and Klezmer, traditional New Orleans jazz and Hot Club de Paris, especially when guitarist John Kelly joins in. Almost half the tunes are accordion driven waltzes (I love a waltz) from light as a feather Parisian bal-musette to full-blown brass-drenched Nino Rota melancholy. Whiskey Moon Face conjure up a world where velvet curtained European cabarets, New Orleans marching bands, travelling circus players and Russian tea-houses co-exist in a fantastical bohemian London. Jones writes likeable tunes, and her voice is delicate and yearning, with a lovely light vibrato perfectly suited to both the old-time jazz tunes and the cabaret songs. I can hear hints of Tom Waits’ harmonium in her accordion playing and her tunes. She has an arresting voice – at times it recalls Madeleine Peyroux, Billie Holiday and Björk.

Ydstie contributes a wistful tune Renia’s Waltz on which he plays the accordion and sings, Jones takes the double bass and Bleach gives us an elegant clarinet solo. Bleach’s two instrumental compositions are also lovely. There’s a stately but optimistic waltz Karolina, the dignified melody carried by Maxim Tartakovskiy’s trombone, with Bleach’s beautiful clarinet circling round, and Jones and Ydstie underpinning the whole thing. Into The Heather begins like a dance tune from the 1920s, then slips into Klezmer rhythms, before concluding in a sort of contemporary Hot Jazz style but with something very British in there too, maybe a suggestion of Jim Parker’s Banana Blush?

Jones’ songs are a wonderful jumble of styles. The Brecht/Weillian ballad Starlight Night describes a night stroll around Limehouse Basin, with musings on its maritime history, as well as providing Bleach with the opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosic bubbling and swooping clarinet. The title track Formless Forms, with Bleach on piano, and Will Scott on clarinet, sounds like New Orleans music from the 1920s and Jones’ voice is perfect for this too. The lyrics however are not of the “moon and June” variety – Jones manages to fit in “rubik cube” and “Hadron Collider” along with the moonlight.

Distant Song is another sad waltz (yet with a suggestion of the lambada about it), with lovely ensemble playing. Dirty Fingernails is a rollicking Russian dance with lively solos from everyone, Cold Wave Crest has a beautiful melody, and Jones singing touchingly “Oh love hide me down/Under the ocean bed/And in dreams I’ll be with you”. In Russian Waltz, Jones sings in Russian – a translation is provided in the accompanying booklet. Some of the songs are catchy dance tunes. It took me a while to notice that there is no percussion – the tracks are beautifully rhythmic without any need for drums.

The Formless Forms CD is a delight. I have had the good fortune to hear these musicians live, and I can recommend going to see them too, if you get the chance. Their shows are life-affirming, with make-you-grin dance music mixed in with the poignant ballads. Fortunately the band perform often in London.

Louisa Jones – vocals, accordion, double bass, piano
Ewan Bleach – clarinet, piano, saxophone
“Dakota” Jim Ydstie – double bass, accordion, vocals
Will Scott – clarinet, saxophone
Maxim Tartakovskiy – trombone
John Kelly – guitar
“Magic “ Mike Henry -– trumpet

LINK: Whiskey Moon Face website


REPORT/PHOTOS: 2018 Dankworth and Harvey Awards Concert / RAM Jazz Composers' Big Band

Billy Marrows (right) receiving his 2018 Dankworth Award from
Emily Dankworth with Leslie East (centre) of the Musicians' Company and
Chloe Harvey – daughter of Eddie Harvey looking on.
Photo credit Melody McLaren/Musicians'Company

Sebastian writes:

(Readers inclined to skip this report and go straight to the complete, magnificent set of  Melody McLaren's photos of the event, look away now and go HERE)

It's an interesting programming conundrum. The annual concert at which the Dankworth Awards for composition (two each year) and the Eddie Harvey Award for jazz arrangement gives the hosting institution, a conservatoire with a big band, about 20 minutes of music. So the question is what else to put with it. Last night the Royal Academy of Music found a deft solution: they combined it with their annual Jazz Composers' Big Band concert. This is the event at which the cohort of fourth-year jazz undergraduates all have their final exam compositions performed. So the whole evening became a major celebration of the learning of the craft of composition.

These performances mark the culmination of the students' composing activities in their four years at the Academy where they have the good fortune to find themselves under the guidance of a unique force in British music, Pete Churchill.

Luke Bainbridge receiving the small band composition award
Dankworth Prizes 2018
Photo credit: Melody McLaren / Musicians'Company
So the concert presented a total of no fewer than 12 premieres, the three from the awards plus nine from the fourth-years. For the listener, that was a lot of previously unheard music to take in. The pieces written for the JCBB are written to be assessed and marked as part of the course, so it is understandable that in some pieces intricacy and complexity were to the fore. And in the Dukes Hall's  acoustic  that will mean that some of that subtlety disappears straight off into the organ loft or behind the pictures on the walls, completely eluding us in the audience....

What stood out from this fast-moving conveyor belt of very different work? The opening of the concert, a piece by Oliver Mason, presented the kind of filmic drama and contrast that Colin Towns would have been proud of. Johnny Mansfield was exploring a folk-ish terrain, while Alastair Martin showed a liking for things busy and anarchic. Bassist Thomas Dring's piece JayDee, a ballad feature for Damon Oliver, rose to a full-blazing, vivid big band sound which reminded me of Darcy James Argue's writing. Quinn Oulton already has his next step marked out as a participant in the Red Bull Music Academy and his piece, Fender Bender, stood out as the rockiest, getting properly stuck in to its central melodic idee fixe. Drummer Edward Dunlop's jaunty piece, Rip Riley, complete with a major role for sousaphone, presented a happily tight-yet-loose homage to New Orleans second line parades. It was an effective first half closer.

L-R: Chloe Harvey, Eddie Harvey Award Winner James Brady,
Peggy Hannnigton-Harvey
Photo Credit: Melody McLaren
The speeches of  the awards ceremony featured lovely memories of the wisdom and wit of Eddie Harvey. Then the performances of the three winning pieces got under way. The prize-winning small band piece by Luke Bainbridge had a tricky bass ostinato characterfully played by Daisy George. It is one of those pieces that definitely doesn't reveal all its secrets on one performance. Billy Marrows' piece was a major composition on an ambitious scale, featuring a strong solo by Alexander Bone on soprano sax, and struck me above all with the characterful Englishness of its harmonies. James Brady's arrangement of Lush Life again was a piece on a large scale, and the tune-stating on baritone sax (Harry Greene) intertwined with a countermelody on bass trombone was particularly effective.

Pete Churchill directing the band
Photo credit: Melody McLaren / Musicians'Company
The closing sequence of three brought some of the pieces that were easiest to follow and hearing them in sequence brought a rising tide of joy and affirmation. Thomas Gardner's Changing Perspectives had a predilection for that rare effect, chords that each have crescendos in them. Daisy George's End of the Line held on to its optimistic tone very convincingly, and Tom Smith's gospelly The Light that Shines was pure joy – a remarkable chart.

The last two pieces brought to the fore the remarkable Antwerpenaar trombonist Nabou Claerhout. There was real star quality in her soloing: strong tone, strong line, real presence. She was trained in Rotterdam and has been a member of the Dutch NJJO. Randomly I note that Rotterdam was also responsible for training one of the classical trombone greats Jörgen van Rijen – whom by complete fluke the RAM has honoured this morning. Claerhout was a new name  to me and is definitely one to watch out for.

It was good to witness the craft of composing so well celebrated and valued. The RAM and the Musicians' Company deserve thanks and praise. 

Nabou Claerhout with Pete Churchill
Photo credit: Melody McLaren/Musicians's Company


Oliver Mason: Boy Wonder
Jonathan Mansfeld: Tim Smoth’s (sic) Big Day Out
Alistair Martin :Summer Years
Thomas Dring: Jaydee
Quinn Oulton : Fender Bender
Edward Dunlop : Rip Riley


Billy Marrows : Scenes From the Underground
Luke Bainbridge : Crossing Styx
Billy Strayhorn arr James Brady : Lush Life

Thomas Gardner: Changing Perspectives
Daisy George : End of the Line
Thomas Smith: The Light That Shines


Academy Big Band
Conductor Pete Churchill

Saxophones: Alexander Bone, Jonathan Ford, Thomas Smith, Quinn Oulton. Harry Greene
Trumpets: Thomas Gardner, Alistair Martin, Alexandra Ridout, Laurence Wilkins
Trombone: Jamie Tweed, Harrison Maund, Seynabou Claerhout, Rory Ingham
Guitar: Oliver Mason
Piano: Edward Lee, Wilbur Whitta
Vibes: Jonathan Mansfeld
Drums: Edward Dunlop, Ildefons Alonso Valls
Bass: Daisy George, Thomas Dring
Vocals: Ella Hohnen Ford
and guests.
Small Band 

Saxophones: Jonathan Ford, Thomas Smith, Damon Oliver, Harry Greene
Trumpet: Luke Vice-Coles
Trombone: Joel Knee
Bass: William Sach
Drums: Ildefons Alonso Valls
Piano/Director: Albert Palau


REVIEW: 19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival (2018) – Day One

Liberation Project Acoustic Band's Tebogo Sedumedi and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse
Photo: Peter Jones
19th Cape Town International Jazz Festival, 23-24 March, 2018 – Day One.
(Cape Town International Convention Centre. Report by Peter Jones)

Three stories have dominated South African headlines over recent weeks: the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as President, the death of Hugh Masekela, and the drought. The latter has actually been going on for three years, and is now at the point where the personal daily water allowance is down to 50 litres and Day Zero approaches – the day when the taps are turned off and people will have to collect water from standpipes.

So those attending the Jazz Festival needed no prompting to stick to beer and wine as they enjoyed music from 41 acts on five different stages. Taking its cue from Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival, CTIJF takes place in one colossal building – the city’s convention centre, whose largest arena would comfortably accommodate three jumbo jets. There’s a strong sense of national renewal in the air following Ramaphosa’s election victory. At every gig the messages were patriotic and optimistic for the future. The crowd built up gradually over the weekend.

Singer Nicky Schrire (photo below) pulled the short straw of playing early on the Friday in a conference venue seating at least a thousand. As she and her band hit the stage there were perhaps 20 people in the audience. Undaunted, she put in a thoroughly professional performance in a set that mixed original compositions with jazzed-up pop material such as Massive Attack’s Teardrop and Cosmic Love by Florence and the Machine. By the end the audience had grown to a couple of hundred and she had them singing along in spontaneous harmony to one of her own tunes, aided by strong, passionate contributions from saxophonist Chris Engel.

Nicky Schrire
Photo: Peter Jones

An African version of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, the Liberation Project Acoustic Band is an octet featuring musicians from various ethnic groups within South Africa and beyond, including reedsman Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Congolese guitarist Bienvenue N’Seka and Hindu multi-instrumentalist Keeran Eshwarlall. As their name suggests, the band’s theme was the worldwide struggle for freedom that continues everywhere: one of the band’s tunes was about fighting Islamic State – reminding us that oppression takes many forms. This gig was a taster for a hugely ambitious international project – the release of a triple CD with contributions from 69 players from 13 countries, some of whom will appear live later this year in an amped-up version of this band. Despite a sometimes slightly ragged festival set, there was much to enjoy, particularly the singing and electric bass playing of Tebogo Sedumedi – a star in the making, who brought the crowd to their feet every time she sang.

The largest arena played host on Friday to trumpeter, keyboardist and singer Nicholas Payton, who has been touring the world with his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape band over the last year. Payton himself is the only consistent member of the set-up: since playing the Cork Jazz Festival last October, bassist Eric Wheeler has been replaced by Vicente Archer, Joe Dyson has surrendered the drum stool to Marcus Gilmore, and this time the group was augmented by percussionist Daniel Sadownick and DJ Lady Fingaz. It’s a project that goes from strength to strength. The sound is huge and stately, the cool, inscrutable Payton switching with no apparent effort between Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ and trumpet. The additional personnel gave the music extra space to breathe: Sadownick was outstanding, and as well as adding those all-important Donald Duck sounds from her turntables, Fingaz riffed electronically on the voice samples that are an important element of the Mixtape sound. For me, this was the best gig of the Festival.


CD REVIEW: Walter Smith III - Twio

Walter Smith III - Twio
(Whirlwind Records WR4718. CD review by Mike Collins)

Unvarnished, stripped down, not quite unplugged but it could have been, for this recording Walter Smith has gone back to the source with just bass and drums for company and the standards for repertoire.

He’s been playing in some of the most adventurous and challenging acoustic jazz line-ups in recent years, for this recording however the approach is direct. There are no tricky arrangements, just the band bringing all their attention and experience to bear in the moment. And it’s a formidable band. Behind the kit is Smith’s long-time collaborator Eric Harland. The bass duties are split between regular bass player Harish Raghaven and guest Christian McBride. If you’re going to call a fellow tenorist to sit in on a couple of tunes, then Joshua Redman is pretty hot company to keep.

The result is a collection of eight tunes, one Smith original based on Like Someone in Love, called Contrefact in case we didn’t quite get the origins, and seven, some-more-standard-than-others pieces. They burst with energy. The clarity, economy and fluency of Smith’s ideas and the interplay in the band is compelling.

They kick off with Monk’s Ask Me Now. Harland skitters and slides under the melody launching them into a fractured tumbling swing. He’s an immense presence throughout, never overwhelming but always generating a tingling momentum. Nobody Else But Me seems to hurtle along. On On The Trail, the combination of Redmond and Smith dancing around each other and McBride digging in at steady tempo is explosive. Peacocks get’s a more impressionistic reading and Contrefact is a tour de force, the boppish head delivered at pace with Redman and Smith locked together setting the scene for a rousing finale.

It’s a studio recording that has the fizz and crackle of a live performance and a sense of things happening in the moment. I’ll be Seeing You showcases Smith’s ability to shift and bend the impression of the melody without ever quite stating it, and then McBride suddenly finds a spooky vamp to take them out. They constantly remind us that "less is more". There’s a muted, restrained edge to Adam’s Apple which seems to distill the intensity.

This is a recording that’s going to be lodged firmly on this listener’s playlist for a while.

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter @jazzyblogman


REVIEW: Dianne Reeves at Wigmore Hall

Dianne Reeves
Publicity Photo

Dianne Reeves
(Wigmore Hall. 23 March 2018. Review by Alison Bentley)

What makes a Dianne Reeves gig such a powerful experience?

There was always a sense of freedom and playfulness onstage. Reeves introduced her song Nine, about her happy childhood: ‘I keep that nine-year-old in my heart- she keeps me going at 61.’ The song skipped along in latin 7/8, melody and chords as upbeat as the memories of childhood games. ‘We don’t really call this a stage- this is our playground,’ she said.

There was musical exploration and risk-taking throughout the gig. Reeves sang Pat Metheny’s Minuano wordlessly in unison with Romero Lubambo’s elegant guitar. (She’s performed this with Metheny himself at the White House.) Her deep improvised notes sparked off Terreon Gully’s hand-drumming on snare. She often used African vocal tones in her fearless improvising (her name for these sounds is ‘ancestral’,) with huge leaps and complex phrases- always heartfelt. She seemed to sing with her whole body, moving her hands as if urging the notes on.

Her own Tango, again wordless, was ‘dedicated to all of the great singers… in my music collection who sing in other languages that I don’t understand- but it doesn’t really matter cause they’re talking to my soul.’ She evoked the heyday of Celia Cruz, scatting with skill, humour and vocal power. Peter Martin’s piano solo, speedy and smooth as water, roused a huge cheer from the audience.

Reeves is a sensitive interpreter of the standards repertoire, as she revealed in her performance in the film Good Night and Good Luck. Tonight, she sat sideways onstage to sing The Man I Love like a slow soliloquy, with Reginald Veal delineating the chords brilliantly on double bass. Like a great actor, she brought new meaning to the lyrics: ‘he’ll be big and strong’ was sung quietly and vulnerably, while ‘maybe’ was sung loudly, leading to spine-tingling chromatic leaps. She seemed to follow her musical imagination as much as the words. The Johnny Mathis hit The Twelfth of Never, with its folk-edged melody, was given new life by the gently funky groove and intriguing chords- but the music was never just about the chords.

The gentle, reined-in side of Reeves’ voice was as deep as Sarah Vaughan’s, perfectly accurate and full of emotion. Our Love is Here to Stay began colla voce with Lubambo’s acoustic guitar, Baden Powell-like, with extraordinary virtuosity that Reeves appreciated as much as the audience. He rolled bass, percussion, chords and solo all into one. The latin beat picked up as she improvised around the melody, coming right off the mic at times, and the Wigmore Hall’s acoustic did justice to the sound of her natural voice. Her chat to the audience was mostly sung as part of each song, in a kind of recitative. She sang about meeting Lumbambo in Brazil, ‘my brother from another mother.’ Her rapport with the band members was a vital ingredient.

Like Gregory Porter, Reeves has a preacher’s skill in stirring up the audience; her song Cold, co-written with Martin and Gully, used rock, funk and gospel to get the audience to its feet, clapping and singing her riffs back to her- you wanted that beautiful voice to just keep on singing. McCoy Tyner’s ballad You Taught My Heart to Sing (‘It’s really how we feel when we step on the stage’) was the encore duet, and her musical bond with Martin’s piano was palpable. The song had a way of dropping into the bridge, then winding upwards to ‘my heart’s a carousel, filled with song,’ in a cathartic moment.

This year Dianne Reeves will be given the highest honour the US gives to jazz musicians- she’ll be a NEA Jazz Master. Reeves was creating something special with her band, and it felt good to experience it.

LINKS: 2015 Dianne Reeves Interview