INTERVIEW: Anders Helmerson (trio album The Quantum House Project and Vortex date, 4 Sept)

Anders Helmerson
Photo credit: Takako Yagi

Anders Helmerson is a Swedish musician with eclectic taste and a track record of exciting material. With influences from progressive rock, jazz and everything in between, Helmerson’s new album is the latest in a series of original projects. The Anders Helmerson Trio consists of Helmerson’s compositional genius and piano as well as masterly playing by drummer Christian Grassart and bassist Thierry Conand. The trio’s distinctive sound is sure to bring them success as they tour the clubs and festivals of France and the UK this summer.
 Anders spoke to Brianna McClean:

LondonJazz News: How would you describe the Anders Helmerson Trio?

Anders Helmerson: It could be described as a crossover genre of traditional piano jazz, rock, and neoclassical music. The term trio might have sounded a bit old-fashioned 10 years ago but today piano trio music has become more accepted. It’s contemporary and a bit trendy.

LJN: What is the history of the trio? How did it come to be?

AH: On my previous album, Triple Ripple, I worked with drummer Marco Minnemann and bassist Bryan Beller. It was truly a great experience to work with them but they are living in America and I was looking for musicians closer by. I was looking around the UK first but did not find anyone suitable. I think I tried over 20 different bass players. Then I made contact with MIDEM in France and I was advised to collaborate with the drummer Christian Grassart and the bassist Thierry Conand. We’ve been working together ever since – it has resulted in an album called The Quantum House Project which is about to be released.

LJN: Can you take a moment to introduce us to the other members of the trio?

AH: Christian Grassart is a professional drummer who does jazz, rock and metal. He has been drumming since he was 13 years old and he accompanies renowned French artists such as Patrick Bruel, Norbert Krief of Trust and Patrick Rondat. Thierry Conand is a professional bass player, guitarist, arranger, composer and music teacher. He has been working with a number of artists including Lea Van Sky and Luc Ramirez. He is originally from Nice, France.

LJN: How do dynamics work within the trio? How do you work together?
AH: I write the music and do the arrangements. My music doesn’t have much improvisation, most of it is written on a score. Mostly, when I present the music to the musicians, they will put their own interpretation into the music. The result is often different from my original ideas, which is great. I think I have a strong vision of what I want to produce in terms of timbre and expression. The musicians tell me I’m crazy and maybe that is true. You need to be a bit crazy to spend all your time writing music.

LJN: What has been a highlight of the trio so far? Do you have a favourite composition or performance?

AH: I think the highlights are still to come. We are in the process of starting to playing live and I am looking forward to that, I’m very exited. I don’t have a favourite tune. Sometimes I think my music is like Vivaldi, he was known to have written one symphony in 500 variations just because they were so similar.

LJN: What are your creative inspirations?

AH: I grew up with fusion artists like Zappa and John McLaughlin, and jazz musicians like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. I have learned to love other pianists I did not know before such Aaron Goldberg and Marcin Wasilewski. I am interested in Herbie Hancock, in particular his compositions and his fingering. But I think my music is closest to Hiromi. She is the one who opened the door for this genre, crossover piano music.

LJN: We hear you will be playing in various clubs in Paris and London as well as some festivals this year. Do you have a gig you are particularly looking forward to?
AH: Yes I am looking forward in particular to playing at The Cap Ferrat in November. I have lots of fans in southern France. That is going to be great!

LJN: What are your hopes for the trio?

AH: My hope is that I will have more time to write good music. I am now working with some fabulous musicians and that is a true blessing. I hope this project will go far!

LJN: Why do you think the trio deserves a space on the scene?

AH: Our music has the possibility to give an audience something that is more than just entertainment. In my view it has a spiritual facet. The music is lyrical and compelling – poetic and intense. Mostly, I hope that the joy we feel will have an impact on the listener. (pp)

The Anders Helmerson Trio plays the Vortex Jazz Club, London, on 4 September. 

LINK: Anders Helmerson's website

The Quantum House Project on SoundCloud


PHOTO REPORT: 2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) – 28 July

The free stage at Manchester Jazz Festival, with Big Bad Wolf performing

2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) – Saturday 28 July
(Report and photographs by Adrian Pallant)

The Saturday finale of 2018’s nine-day Manchester Jazz Festival celebrated live music with verve and variety as enthusiastic summer crowds thronged its sunny Festival Square. Click on images to view…

Fabled – clockwise from top right: Sam Rapley, Conor Chaplin, Matt Robinson and Alex Munk

Tenor saxophonist and clarinettist Sam Rapley’s Fabled illuminated his through-composed works with improvisatory flair in a line-up with Alex Munk (electric guitar), Matt Robinson (piano), Conor Chaplin (double bass) and Will Glaser (drums). Releasing an album around the end of September – and a relief to see Rapley on good form following his recovery from two broken arms – they deftly blended subtle textures and hit rocky grooves through numbers such as Dovestone, 25 Years of Rain and The Picturehouse.

Maria Chiara Argirò Group – top: Sam Rapley, Maria Chiara Argirò; bottom: Andrea Di Biase, Gaspar Sena, Maria Chiara Argirò, Sam Rapley, Tal Janes
Maria Chiara Argirò Group

Maria Chiara Argirò’s The Fall Dance album is both classy and exhilarating – and the pianist/keyboardist, with her ensemble of Sam Rapley (for the second time that day), Tal Janes (electric guitar), Andrea Di Biase (double bass) and Gaspar Sena (drums) took the opportunity to preview numbers from their upcoming sea-themed release, which will again feature the creative vocalisations of Leila Martial. Ocean and Nautilus were restless and airy, portrayed through undulating ostinato piano and arco bass melodies, whilst Tal Janes added sparkling, shimmering guitar waves to pieces such as Watery Universe and Sea Song.

Michael De Souza, Owen Dawson and Rob Luft of Big Bad Wolf
Big Bad Wolf

The breezy summertime grooves and vocals of Big Bad Wolf were enjoyed by those crowding into the free stage tent, as guitarist Rob Luft, trombonist Owen Dawson, bassist Michael De Souza and drummer Jay Davis spread contemporary sounds – taken from their debut album Pond Life – around the bustling street scene. Luft is an extraordinary guitar talent, and this instrumental combination has great cross-genre appeal.

Project Karnak – top: Dominic Canning, Alex Blake; bottom: with Martin J Stephens

Project Karnak

A change to the original programme brought Catford-based Project Karnak to mjf – keyboardist Dominic Canning, guitarist Alex Blake, bassist Martin J Stephens and drummer Sam Ouissellat. Having explained they journey from humble musical beginnings as sixth formers, it was clear that their resonant, soulful urban grooves – at times, akin to Snarky Puppy – were a hit. Their delight and rapport with the empathetic late afternoon audience as they played the earthy basslines, electronic effects and soaring guitar numbers of their Equinox EP made them a great surprise package at the festival.

Namvula / Hackney Colliery Band

Artistic Director Steve Mead traditionally throws an ‘end-of-term’ party, and this was surely up there with the best as he welcomed back two previous festival favourites – the magnetic personality of singer/guitarist Namvula, followed by the outrageous fervour of Hackney Colliery Band.

Namvula – top: Namvula Rennie with Phil Dawson; bottom: with Liran Donin and Yuvan Wetzler

Namvula’s Zambian heritage and infectious jazz/world music grooves lit up the evening, conjuring energetic feel-good with saxophonist Chris Williams, guitarist Phil Dawson, bassist Liran Donin and drummer Yuvan Wetzler, even jumping down to dance with the partying crowds.

Hackney Colliery Band – top: Steve Pretty, aided by Miguel Gorodi; centre: Emanuela Monni, John McKillup; bottom: the mighty line-up

Hackney Colliery Band are one of the most blistering, epic big/brass bands on the jazz circuit, and their brash, punkish, full-throttle performance – from double trumpets, trombones and saxes, a thunderous percussion duo, plus sousaphone – delivered a raft of originals from their last album and a great cover of Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box. Announcing an upcoming project collaboration with names from jazz and rock, charismatic trumpeter Steve Pretty led the band as they parted the crowd down the middle to leave an indelible impression all around.

The date of the 24th Manchester Jazz Festival has been announced for earlier in 2019 – 23–27 May – at a change of city-centre location to be confirmed (due to extensive refurbishment of the town hall and square). There is no doubt that this year’s festival has communicated live jazz in its many forms to a wide audience – and that must be applauded.


CD REVIEW: Todd Marcus – On These Streets

Todd Marcus – On These Streets (A Baltimore Story)
(Stricker Street Records – SSR-1001. CD Review by Jane Mann)

On These Streets is an unusual new release from bass clarinettist, composer and band leader Todd Marcus. It is a musical portrait of the run down Sandtown-Winchester and Upton neighbourhoods in Baltimore, previously the African-American entertainment hub of the city. Pennsylvania Avenue was once lined with theatres, clubs and concert halls where many of the jazz greats played.

Marcus has lived and worked in this neighbourhood for the last 20-odd years. Anyone familiar with the TV series The Wire will be aware of the massive problems West Baltimore faces because of poverty: violence, underemployment, drug addiction and poor education.

Marcus is both a working jazz musician and a community activist. He moved to Baltimore from his native New Jersey to study political science but gave it up for jazz. He was inspired by the socially conscious activism of composers like Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach to do something positive for his adopted city. Marcus works with a nonprofit organisation called Intersection of Change and they have achieved extraordinary things – Marcus says that they have:

"…eliminated a major open air drug market, fully renovated six abandoned and dilapidated buildings, transformed 18 vacant lots into meditative community green spaces, created over two dozen neighbourhood murals and converted 96,000 sq./ft. of vacant lots into an urban farm.

"The core of our work has been our programs including Martha’s Place which serves women overcoming substance abuse with housing and supportive services, Jubilee Arts which offers art and dance classes… and Strength to Love II which runs a farm… that provides employment to community members returning from incarceration."

Marcus is also involved in organising Baltimore’s jazz community, what he calls his “jazz community service”, putting on weekly jam sessions with invited seasoned guest soloists together with younger and less established players.

The CD comprises nine of his compositions, each describing a different aspect of the city, plus an arrangement of the hymn I Surrender All, a nod to the importance of the role of the church within the Sandtown community. These pieces are interspersed with audio glimpses of the neighbourhood – ambient street sounds, residents talking about their daily lives, a bit of a church service, and some street corner recordings.

The band, who all have Baltimore in common, are extremely accomplished. Marcus’ music on this CD is straight-ahead jazz, swinging along with an urgency appropriate for portraits of the urban scene.  The track Ground Zero, which is prefaced by a commentary recorded during an actual riot, is filled with intense, fast solos from the virtuosic team – pianist George Colligan, guitarist Paul Bollenback and Marcus himself on bass clarinet, backed by frantic drumming from Eric Kennedy and a non-stop rather disquieting bass line from Kris Funn.

Marcus is of Egyptian-American heritage and there are occasional Middle Eastern tinges to his playing, for example in the first and longest track on the album, the lyrical and upbeat On The Corner. This track also showcases the prodigious piano playing of Colligan. On vibes is the splendidly named Warren Wolf, who is also a drummer and keyboard player. He is Baltimore born and Berklee trained. His lightness of touch and melodic invention are elegantly demonstrated  in the tune, An Intersection Of Change – a tribute to the work of the non-profit organisation. The ensemble playing on this track of Todd, Wolf and Corrigan set against the nimble drums and sinuous bass is lovely.

Some of the tunes pelt along, with furious runs, stop-start melodic lines and a driving beat –  a musical depiction of desperation and anxiety. There is one ballad, the elegiac It Still Gets Still. It is introduced by the haunting sound of a far-off train, and depicts the peace of the city at night. Wolf plays a gorgeous solo here. Bass player Funn doesn’t get his solo until the final track NJ’88, but his fine playing is apparent throughout, particularly in the very agreeable Covered In Snow, where the musicians meander up and down in counterpoint to each other, with a crystalline vibraphone melody overhead, and deft drumming below.

After a few listens I found myself skipping the non-musical tracks, except for the atmospheric train whistle, but these pieces provide useful context. It is unusual to have a band led by bass clarinet – the whole instrumentation is quite uncommon, but for me it works. The various combinations of bass clarinet and guitar, vibraphone  or piano are very pleasing.

Despite the tension and turbulence described, Marcus Todd’s ode to his Baltimore is ultimately optimistic. On the cheerier tracks, his melodies ascend expectantly, and resolve with a bright flourish.  An interesting and informative album.

Todd Marcus – bass clarinet
Paul Bollenback – guitar
Warren Wolf – vibraphone, drums
George Colligan – piano
Kris Funn – bass
Eric Kennedy – drums, vocals

1. On The Corner 08:28
2. An Intersection of Change (Intro) 02:04
3. An Intersection of Change 07:21
4. Ground Zero (at Penn. & North) (Intro) 01:32
5. Ground Zero (at Penn. & North) 08:48
6. I Surrender All (Intro) 00:40
7. I Surrender All 05:14
8. Fear of the Known 06:14
9. PTSD In the Hood (intro) 00:22
10. PTSD In The Hood 05:50
11. Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle (Intro) 01:42
12. Pennsylvania Avenue Hustle 04:55
13. It Still Gets Still (Intro) 00:33
14. It Still Gets Still 06:51
15. Covered In Snow 06:11
16. NJ '88 (Ode to the 80s) 06:20


PREVIEW: Carmen La Cubana (UK premiere run, Sadlers Wells 1- 18 August)

A scene from Carmen la Cubana
Photo: © Johan Persson

At Sadlers Wells there is about to be the UK premiere run of performances of Carmen la Cubana. The show is an adaptation of the Carmen story, but with the action taking place in Cuba rather than Seville. Yannick Le Maintec of Le Monde reviewed the show in Paris in April 2016  at the Théâtre du Châtelet. We are publishing his review (*) here in English, as a curtain-raiser to the London shows:

Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet. In place of the curtain, there’s a huge Cuban flag. The stage décor is no less vast, we see the ruins of a colonial building. The action takes place in 1958 in Santiago de Cuba at the time of the revolution. We follow the love story of Carmencita, daughter of a prostitute, and of an American soldier. José, a soldier in Batista's army, is under instructions to keep her under lock and key, but he falls under the cigar-maker's spell and sets her free. A fight with his boss ensues, and José leaves him for dead. The couple flee to Havana, at the other end of the country.

Carmen's love affairs, however, tend not to last longer than six months. She becomes easily bored, and her heart will soon be in thrall to El Niño, king of the boxing ring. Is this story is starting to ring any bells? Too right. It’s Carmen, Bizet's opera after the novella by Prosper Mérimée. Carmen La Cubana is the Cuban adaptation of Carmen Jones, the Oscar Hammerstein II musical. This Châtelet premiere has kept some elements of the Broadway show, the bright lights and a certain gaudy loudness, even though the music does draw its direct inspiration from Bizet. Transplanted to Cuba, there is more of the daemonic in the main character. From the Royal Factory of Seville to the cigar factories of Cuba, our crossing of the Atlantic has struck land where Columbus did, in the West Indies. The designs for the first act seem to allude to the smoke rings on the classic blue Gitanes packets which hooked generations of the French on smoking. The gypsy girl becomes a mulatto, a “fille de joie” as in Mérimée, and the show also revives the myth that premium Cuban cigars used to be rolled out on the thighs of the (female) cigar-makers.

The Carmen myth has been put through this evolution, maybe even this revolution, by director Christophe Renshaw, and it all makes eminent sense. The fact is that Bizet himself never witnessed Carmen as we now know it. The spoken dialogue of the comic opera was replaced after his death by sung recitatives written by Guiraud and Halévy for triumphant performances at the Vienna Opera in 1875. By abandoning them and returning to spoken dialogue, Carmen La Cubana brings the show back into the musical comedy fold. At last a Carmen where the language is Spanish, albeit Cuban Spanish – which certainly brings an earthiness to the dialogue.

The musical numbers had already benefited from Hammerstein's adaptation; all that was needed was to shepherd them across the Malecón highway and bring them to Cuba. The "air du toréador" (he’s a torero, rather more glorious than Mérimée’s “picador”) becomes a salsa for a boxer, weathering the punches it gets from Joaquin Garcia Merjas, former singer of Pupy and Manolito y Su Trabuco. The “Chanson Bohème" brings Cuban drums to the fore ("Oyé Mi Ritmo De Tambor") thanks to Albita who is both a perfect Señora and a Yoruba priestess. The (Don) José is Joel Prieto, a fine Hispano-Puerto Rican tenor, more ardent than perfect; his fiancée Marilù, the Micaela of opera is played by the enchanting Portuguese soprano Camarinha – these two take us back into a more recognizably operatic context. There is good reason to enthuse about the mambos and ballets of the cabaret El Gato Negro, somewhere between Broadway and Tropicana. The managers Tato and Rico have somehow escaped from a Disney cartoon, whereas the inseparable Paquita and Cuqui and the grotesque Kid Cowboy are all happy characters from operetta, and their lightness and joy provide a nice contrast with the trudge of fate.

Perhaps it is best not to ponder too much on why it is that the Habanera has been weighed down and misconstrued. Surely, returning the Habanera to its native land should have been an opportunity for a revelation. Laurent Bury has said that the habanera, as a combination of learned and popular art, "is an astonishing and hypnotic kind of mechanical repetition". So if you leave out the hypnotic and the mechanical, not much remains. Despite the repressed Habanera, Carmencita as a character needs no time at all to make her mark. The popular singer Luna Manzanares puts all her Cubanism to the service of the character. This Cuban Carmen is everything that Hammerstein had imagined, and more: the idea to place the gypsy into an Afro-American context actually makes a success of it that goes beyond what he can have dreamst of. Bizet’s Carmen was a forerunner of the independent and strong woman of today. So the act of removing her from the palaces and the world of grand opera, gives this “Carmen la mulata” insolence, freedom, humour and love. And an undeniable sense of her destiny.

Carmen La Cubana runs at Sadlers Wells Theatre from 1-18 August (DETAILS)
* Yannick Le Maintec's original French article


REVIEW: Steve Coleman and Five Elements at 229 The Venue

The music stands were empty

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
(229 The Venue, 26 July 2018. Review and photos by A.J. Dehany)

In London at the mid-point of a brisk European tour, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman’s group Five Elements were drilled and self-possessed but also free and equitable. The group took to the high concert stage of 229 The Venue for a set sequenced into three loose suites of half an hour each. They had music stands for charts that recent footage shows them using, but tonight the music stands were empty.

Rather than improvisation, Coleman calls it "spontaneous composition". In 2014 he was awarded the MacArthur fellowship (as well as a stack of other gongs too). Other recipients of the "genius grant", Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey, also came through the ranks of the M-Base organisation that is strongly associated with him. Coleman's ongoing work since the 1980s has resulted in 20 albums under Five Elements, and many more besides.

Intense and rhythmically spiky, confusing and dense and intense, this is music some jazz fans find ugly. Coleman’s saxophone tone itself has a quality of salty sweetness. He’s a jazz player and theoretician into exploring the intricacies and diversions jazz has taken. He has studied and integrated the insights of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman into a free-forming approach of structured improvisation within loose modules with a restless richness.

At times one of the Five Elements has been a guitar or piano, but in some ways not having a traditional chordal instrument demonstrates better the M-Base approach to chords and chord progressions. I recall Seb Rochford, whose group Polar Bear was strongly influenced by Coleman, say for example that in his tunes “we do have chords, but we don’t always play them”.

Sean Rickman on drums is at full tilt most of the time; to sustain this level of listening is impressive. In M-Base music, rhythm is established then another completely different one comes crashing in over that. It’s physically disorienting but locks together precisely. It keeps you excited. The combinations are often audacious, taking a slow circling bassline often based in 5/4 or 13/8 alongside a fast almost jungle-like gallop that drops accents and bar-lines responsively rather than in accordance with a sustained time signature. Counting along is pointless, but there’s always that bassline going round under the firm hands of Anthony Tidd on the five-string headless electric bass – but even that varies responsively, as if to throw you off. And then there’s the horns issuing unison syncopated blasts or improvising with as much rhythmic as melodic detail. The group occupies several places on the rhythm scale all at once and it’s thrillingly visceral – like in the old days when you’d combine the languor of a cigarette with the kick of a sweet black coffee.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements at 229 The Venue

Spoken word artist Kokayi’s exciting rapped contributions are deployed for brief bursts. If anyone ever needed convincing about the inherent musicality of rapping, listen to the superior work of Kokayi. He’s fast and witty but tonally pitched and his rhythms are complex and just as locked in with the rest of the group, supported by Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s psychically connected unison blasts. It can still be hard to follow the words, as the sonic intensity is maintained, if anything intensified. In later spontaneous compositions there was more sustained input from Kokayi as the group sang chants and scat horn parts a cappella. I was getting down to a serious hook from Kokayi: “That’s the square/ that’s the cube/ that’s the root of it” – a neat illustration of the group’s yoking of the brutally funky and the nerdy mathematical.

Coleman says it’s not all about time signatures, but for those who like both their rhythms and harmonies crunchy it’s about the most exciting music there is. It is definingly modern, and it offers few concessions to your dinner party. There’s a running joke that Steve Coleman is the kind of anti-pope to Wynton Marsalis’s pontiff. They’re both giants and monster players but equally scholars and intellectuals – to me Marsalis feels like a historian in charge of a museum, polishing beautiful but lapidary monuments – and Coleman more like a scientist in a laboratory that’s actually a converted Winnebago, veering off road and back headlong, combining and recombining chemical elements that sometimes fizzle and sometimes explode.


REVIEW: Rob Luft & Elina Duni Duo with special guest Kit Downes at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Elina Duni and Rob Luft
Publicity picture

Rob Luft & Elina Duni Duo with special guest Kit Downes
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, Sunday 29 July. Review by Sebastian Maniura) 

At a lunchtime set on a lazy Sunday afternoon when the heat wave over London had finally broken, one might have forgiven any musician, especially one on a fairly heavy touring scheduled, for taking it easy. However, it quickly became apparent that Elina Duni, the Albanian jazz singer and composer, had no intention of coasting on her undeniable talents. The afternoon began with a set featuring her and British guitarist Rob Luft. Starting with a rendition of Vaj Si Kenka, a traditional Albanian song, the performers immediately captivated their audience. Luft's warm chordal harmonies and fast paced lines created a comfortable bed for Duni's strong, rustic vocals to explore the song fully.

The collaborative project between Duni and Luft, Songs of Love and Exile, began in 2017 and Elina announced this as the first London outing of the duo. In the second set they were joined by Kit Downes on piano. The performance consisted of a mixture of jazz and traditional folk songs, sung in several languages, as well as material from Elina's new solo album Partir. This stripped back, intimate show was a real musical journey.

Elina Duni's vocals were impeccable. In songs such as N'at Zaman her lines exuded fragile solemnity and poise, clearly telling the song's story. Storytelling was an overarching theme of the afternoon, even though a lot of the songs where not in English, one could feel their meaning through Elina's vocalism. The audience were very moved by some of the songs, at times during the second set even beginning to sing along with her. On Couleur Café, in contrast, Duni's vocals were effervescent, the joyous revelry in this number exhibited her technical and emotional range.

In the first set Rob Luft did splendid work accompanying the songs so as to leave enough space for Duni, but also to give each song its own solid grounding and feel. He did this with the help of a loop pedal which he used to build up rhythms and harmonies, and even to accompany his solos. He built little worlds of sound, adjusting the volume ever so slightly to balance each piece. His solos were energetic, with fast, arpeggiated passages that drew noticeable intakes of breath from the audience. In the more contemplative numbers, such as Meu Amour, Luft left plenty of space for Duni to explore the silence surrounding her vocal lines.

Joining a duo in the second half of such an intimate setting is quite a challenge, but Kit Downes' subtle brilliance shone through. His work on Time On My Hands was a consummate illustration of balancing two chordal instruments without the harmony sounding muddy or crowded. Sticking to a lot of higher register work on piano, his tone was crystal clear, glistening over the top of Rob's warm comping and adding to Duni's vocal line playfully. When Downes played the lower registers of the piano, it was in a way that mirrored Luft's tone. On The Water Is Wide Kit's solo lines interweaved with Rob's guitar backing, at times making it difficult to tell the two instruments apart.

The restrained line-up of voice, guitar and piano made for a surprisingly diverse timbral palate. On numbers such as La Javanaise, Downes and Luft swapped roles during different parts of the song: sometimes Kit would play the bass line and focus more on the rhythmic aspect of the music allowing Rob to explore the upper harmonies and lines, and vice versa. Duni often added vocalised drum beats and backing vocals to solos. On The Wayfaring Stranger Elina took this to new heights, performing a percussive vocalise solo whilst miming the whole thing as if she had a drum in her hands.

In the more reflective numbers the small scale line-up allowed the musicians to really fill out the harmonies and explore the possibilities of the music without worrying about the chance of it being too busy. Even though a lot of the tunes were gentle and, at times, melancholic this didn't affect the atmosphere in the room. Elina's presence on stage created a calm, respectful, even meditative air which didn’t preclude the upbeat numbers from having a real impact. It was a pleasure to spend Sunday afternoon in the company of three accomplished and sensitive artists.

Elina Duni and Rob Luft return to the UK on 9 November at the Fleece in Colchester, on 16 November at Cadogan Hall and 18 Novembe at the Omnibus Theatre for the EFG London Jazz Festival.

LINKS: Elina Duni's new album Partir

Rob Luft's most recent album Riser


FEATURE: Pixie and The Gypsies (debut album Honey Trap, Pizza Express Jazz Club 9 August)

Pixie & The Gypsies
Steve Leigh Funky Feet Photography

With music as warm as the campfire it was made to be played around, Pixie and The Gypsies are an ethereally beautiful new face on the scene. Gypsy jazz is credited to 1930's Romani guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt. But, if Pixie and The Gypsies are anything to go by, this genre is far from outdated. Honeyed vocals, hypnotic tempos and narrative driven lyrics, these bohemian style tunes are both vintage and contemporary. Brianna McClean reports:

Lead singer and band founder, Taylor Notcutt, is the self-titled "pixie". With her seductively smooth vocals and enchanting stage presence, this name seems deserved. Connie Chatwin is masterly on the violin, her fast pace and bright tonality giving the band its distinctive folk sound. Finally, Twm Dylan on double bass and Matthew Wilson on guitar round out the group. Pixie and The Gypsies were created during Taylor’s years at Trinity Laban. The joviality and connection between the members speak to this long-time friendship. The special ingredient in Pixie and The Gypsies is a good dose of fun. Add this to the immense talent of each member and you have a winning combination.

‘We have an approachable, easy to listen to style. But, there is a lot of depth and once you scratch the surface, you see there is a lot more going on’, said bassist, Twm Dylan. This is perhaps the best summary of what makes Pixie and The Gypsies so successful. Their soon-to-be-released debut album, Honey Trap, is both extremely listenable and musically ambitious. The tunes are structured simply, with catchy hooks and choruses. However, thoughtful lyrics, multilayered instrumentation and interesting rhythms place this album far above its pop competitors.

The title track, Honey Trap, is a playful song – both in musical texture and lyrics. Head Over Heart, a tune about the complexities of love, is reflective, thoughtful and lulling. Similarly, Before Anyone Else, is sweet and soulful, like the best of gypsy jazz, yet upbeat enough to please more pop-minded audiences. This selection showcases the musical energy and depth of feeling present in Pixie and The Gypsies’ work.

Taylor Notcutt’s voice is enviable. Impeccably controlled and highly expressive, the stories told throughout Honey Trap are made so much more by the voice that tells them. Elements of Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones and Ellie Goulding can be heard in Notcutt’s voice. Trudy Kerr had this to say: "Taylor is one of the UK's exciting young jazz singers. She is a great story teller and sings from the heart while she mesmerises you with her sultry tone.”

Pixie and The Gypsies bring a real sense of romanticism to the stage. Something about their polished and passionate presentation is not just talented, but joyful. Perhaps it is the unique combination of experience and liveliness. Or, perhaps it is a deep understanding of both tradition and a desire for freshness. Whatever it is, it’s palpable.

Honey Trap is being released on 10 August, with the band playing various gigs this summer in celebration. The album launch at Spice of Life Soho on 13 June was a sell-out, unsurprisingly given the quality of this record. Pixie and The Gypsies are holding another launch at Pizza Express on 9 August, with the official release the following day. With performances at Rye Jazz and Blues Festival and Cork Jazz Festival coming up, this group is going places.

Pixie and The Gypsies is exactly what audiences need this summer. They are seriously talented, and yet don’t take themselves too seriously. Willing to enjoy the beauty of gypsy jazz, it is truly enjoyable to witness this band in action. Honey Trap is a well-crafted record, ready to be put on repeat. Music which is truly easy to listen to, Pixie and The Gypsies are worth keeping an eye on as they rise to sure success. (pp)

Pixie and The Gypsies will be at Pizza Express Jazz Club (Soho) on 9 August.

LINK: Pixie and The Gypsies


REVIEW: Norma Winstone at the 2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf)

Norma Winstone

Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing, Glauco Venier plus special guest Abel Selaocoe
(Royal Northern College of Music, 27 July 2018. Review and photographs by Adrian Pallant)

A programme of familiar and perhaps less-recognised music from the movies was brought to Manchester by the esteemed Norma Winstone MBE and her ECM recording colleagues Klaus Gesing (bass clarinet, soprano saxophone) and Glauco Venier (piano). Presenting material mainly from their latest release, Descansado – Songs for Films, they were augmented by the considerable talent of cellist and Royal Northern College of Music alumnus Abel Selaocoe.

The focus of this current chamber jazz project is the reinterpretation of cinematic instrumental masterpieces as vocal songs, many with lyrics crafted and then brought to life with typical finesse by Winstone. After five albums together, it was enthralling to witness the trio’s natural rapport, and astonishing to discover that Selaocoe had only joined them that day to rehearse and contribute so eloquently to this performance.

A broad filmography was explored, from the melancholy piano rivulets and impassioned soprano improvisations of Michel Legrand’s His Eyes, Her Eyes (The Thomas Crown Affair), shaped by Winstone’s characteristic, now more mature voice, to the plaintive emotion of Nino Rota’s What is a Youth? (Romeo and Juliet) where deep bass clarinet resonances mingled with lyrical cello, buoyed by piano-string rhythms. The quartet fashioned other textures, too: Descansado (from leri, Oggi, Domani) was embellished by Selaocoe’s percussive knocks against the sides of his cello as it effectively blended with Gesing’s pizzicato bass clarinet; and in Madredeus’ energetic Lisbon Story, Winstone’s scat – almost wailing, at times – joined soprano sax to create an African-style chant (Gesing pitch-bending by closing his leg against the bell of the horn).

Glauco Venier, Norma Winstone, Abel Selaocoe, Klaus Gesing
A carnival-like exuberance put a new twist on Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talking At Me (Midnight Cowboy) as Venier’s rolling piano phrases prompted theatrical, even comedic soprano. The bluesy emotion of Bernard Herrmann’s Theme from The Taxi Driver (Winstone quipping,“Glauco wanted to do it, so I agreed… in the end!”) shone as wind blew through Gesing’s bass clarinet; and Carter Burwell’s bucolic, dancing The Gaelic Reels (Rob Roy) was portrayed through highlands-evoking soprinano whistle, piano-fifths propulsion and lively scat.

Reimagining Walton’s Touch Her Soft Lips and Part with sublime tranquillity, Winstone recalled a similarly exquisite reading on Pete Erskine’s As It Is album with John Taylor and Palle Danielsson, whilst joyful folk dance Meryton Townhall (Pride and Prejudice) segued into Venier’s lively Lipe Rosize (from the trio’s Stories Yet to Tell album), Selaocoe’s cello and deep African vocal chant creating a drone-like ground with bass clarinet for Winstone to improvise across. An enthusiastic call for encore prompted the wistful, subdued charm of Gesing’s The Titles, Norma Winstone’s words dedicated to moviegoers who stay to watch the credits until the end – “He sits in the darkness, still watching the lights… there’s nothing to do but go home”. A fitting "curtain down" on a sublime evening of music.


NEWS: R.I.P. Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko

Tomasz Stanko
Publicity picture

Peter Bacon reports:

The death has been announced of the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. He was 76 and had been suffering from lung cancer. He died earlier today in a hospital in Warsaw.

Stanko made his debut in the late 1950s in Krakow, according to a Reuters news story, and became a major player on the Polish jazz scene. He played with pianist Adam Makowicz and violinist Zbigniew Seifert among many others, and also collaborated with classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

He developed a global reputation relatively late in his career with the release of his 1997 album Litania, a tribute to Polish film composer Krzystof Komeda, of whose 1960s Quintet he had been a vital member.

This, like many of his subsequent albums, was released on the ECM label. Like one of his stylistic influences, Miles Davis, he was a mentor to young musicians, and the trio of pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewiscz went on to a career of their own after recording and touring with Stanko in the early 2000s.

Violinist Michal Urbaniak, another of Stanko’s musical collaborators,  told Reuters: “I am in shock... (Stanko) was an absolute prophet, a great musician, and a consistent one.”

Here he is introducing his 2017 New York Quartet album, December Avenue:


PREVIEW: Ambleside Days Contemporary Jazz Festival (30 Aug – 2 Sep)

Ambleside Days logo
from the festival website

The second Ambleside Days runs from Thursday 30 August to Sunday 2 September at Zeffirellis in Ambleside. Mike Collins looks forward to what promises to be a gorgeous boutique contemporary jazz festival.

The Ambleside Days festival, held at Zeffirellis in Ambleside in August 2017, was such a success that Derek Hook, director of the festival, resolved to run a second edition this year.

The inaugural festival was dedicated to the memory of the late John Taylor who had a long association with jazz at Zeffirellis, helped choose the piano, and recorded an album there with John Surman that gave the festival its name. This year’s festival brings together an exciting mix of musicians who have had similarly enduring associations with jazz at Zeffirellis over its 30-plus-year history.
Claire Martin will be joining the Nikki Iles Quartet
Publicity picture 

Ask Derek Hook and Stuart Johnson, who works with him on the programme, what makes the festival special, and they talk about the location and the communal nature of the event. Johnson says: “Players stay together with rehearsal facilities available 24/7… a defining characteristic of the event is collaboration, sometimes in combinations not previously tried. For musicians to be able to live and work together for a couple of days… can and does produce remarkable results.”

Paul McCandless
Publicity picture

It means as well as the familiar named bands, there’s a flow and exchange of personnel between the ensembles. Eye catchingly, Paul McCandless brings his Charged Particles to the festival. Oregon, co-founded by McCandless, played at Zeffs on what is still their only UK tour outside London nearly 30 years ago. Other named bands include the Tim Garland Ensemble, the Joe Locke Band, Claire Martin with the Nikki Iles Quartet and Johannes Beraurer’s Hourglass.

That’s only half the story though. Each evening sees a pair of gigs, one of which is a constantly mutating Ambleside Days ensemble, anchored by one or both of Gwilym Simcock and Mike Walker with a dizzying procession of some of the top names on the UK scene. As if the programme of gigs in the larger auditorium wasn’t enough, there’s also a series of gigs in the jazz bar ahead of the evening gigs, with a few surprises promised.

Gig listing

Thursday 30 August
7.30pm - 10.30pm
Ambleside Days Trio & The Tim Garland Ensemble (7.30pm Ambleside Days Trio with Mike Walker, Asaf Sirkis and Gwilym Simcock. 9.00pm The Tim Garland Ensemble)

Friday 31 August
7.30pm - 10.30pm
Paul McCandless & Charged Particles & Joe Locke Band with special guest Claire Martin (7.30pm Paul McCandless & Charged Particles 9.00pm Joe Locke Band with special guest Claire Martin, starring Joe Locke, Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker)

Saturday 1 September
2.00pm - 4.00pm
Paul McCandless with Charged Particles

7.30pm - 10.30pm
Claire Martin with the Nikki Iles Quartet & Johannes Berauer’s Hourglass (7.30pm Claire Martin, Nikki Iles, Mark Lockheart, Darryl Hall, Alyn Cosker, special guest Mike Walker. 9.00pm Johannes Berauer’s Hourglass with Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker, Thomas Gould, Martin Berauer, Bernhard Schimpelsberger)

Sunday 2 September
7.30pm - 10.30pm
Gwilym Simcock Trio & Ambleside Days Septet (7.30pm Gwilym Simcock Trio with Yuri Goloubev and Asaf Sirkis. 9.00pm Ambleside Days Ensemble: Mike Walker, Gwilym Simcock, Thomas Gould, Joe Locke, Asaf Sirkis, Bernhard Schimpelsberger)

LINK: Full details and tickets from

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


FESTIVAL REPORT: 2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) – 26 July

Clouds Harp Quartet – Esther Swift’s festival commission, Light Gatherer

2018 Manchester Jazz Festival (mjf) 
(Thursday 26 July 2018. Report and photographs by Adrian Pallant)

Manchester Jazz Festival’s imaginative programming has continued apace through this sunny summer’s week, including Jazz North’s sold-out northern line showcase on Monday, Tuesday’s Jazz Migration touring scheme for French artists; and Wednesday’s focus was on young and emerging talent from England’s north west. Many of these performances were either free or on a "pay what you can" basis – a great opportunity to experience new and often original sounds.

On the hottest day of the year so far, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were especially represented in Thursday’s home nations-themed day, alongside musicians from England and “Mancunia” (as described by the festival’s tireless, ever-enthusiastic artistic director and compère Steve Mead).

KIM Trio: Calum Gourlay, Helena Kay, David Ingamells
KIM Trio

A lunchtime slot for this year’s Peter Whittingham Jazz Award winner, Helena Kay, saw the Scottish tenorist’s original music illuminated in a trio with double bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer David Ingamells. What shone out so well, alongside Kay’s obvious improvisational prowess and balmy tone/vibrato, was the strength of her compositions. With Charlie Parker named as her hero, and a clear leaning towards Sonny Rollins, there was a restrained feel-good about these performances – yet the picturesque writing held the attention, its richness and interest never waning.

Strawberry Terrace had a bouncy, almost Caribbean flavour, whilst lazy swingin’ Double Seven (a darts reference) possessed a nonchalant, Monkish Well, You Needn’t charm. The rapid descending motif of KIM, a sax and drums miniature, was actually a clever transcription of a Charlie Parker solo; and the falling phrases of a romantic, as yet unnamed piece fused folksong with a redolence of ‘60s Paul Desmond. Kay’s closing boisterous swinger, L&D (after two cockapoos she would take for walks in Muswell Hill), was filled with fluent tenor improvisations. With lots of positive feedback heard after the gig, Helena Kay is surely a name to watch.

Huw Warren
Huw Warren

The calm oasis of St Ann’s Church, amidst the commercial bustle of the city centre, has again keenly hosted a number of the festival’s more intimate, chamber concerts; and North Wales’ celebrated pianist Huw Warren was welcomed for a solo piano performance featuring numbers from recent album release Nocturnes and Visions. Commenting on the venue’s pleasing natural light, Warren opened with Hermeto Pascoal’s O Farol Que Nois Guia, whose dark, Debussyian resonances and washes contrasted with crystalline water-drop twinklings and lush harmonies which echoed around the church’s high ceilings and pillars. Animated Against the Odds, still with a Brazilian cacuriá flavour, combined boisterous chattering with an ostinato groove in fifths; and EE, from Warren’s Perfect Houseplants days, cleverly portrayed both the salon/solo piano works and symphonic grandeur of Sir Edward Elgar through chromatic "falling leaf" phrases and door-slamming Enigma Variations ebullience!

Alongside Huw Warren’s expressive subtlety and dense, thunderous rhythms, it’s his ability to break the divide between left and right which is particularly captivating, often crossing hands to the outer reaches of the keyboard (as well as inside, to the strings) so that the entire range of the instrument – and the music – becomes one. The emotive melodies of Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell’s Samba em Preludio (which the pianist intends recording) was followed by the carnival atmospheres of Pixinguinha’s Um a Zero – a breathtaking, jovial, even comedic dance celebrating a famous Brazilian World Cup win over Uruguay (“I often wonder what kind of piece he’d have written if they’d lost”, added Warren). Guinga’s Noturna closed the set in twilight rubato; and the beautiful encore of Ambleside by, appropriately, Manchester’s late, great John Taylor, concluded an exquisite hour-plus enjoyed by a rapt audience.

Sue Rynhart Trio: Francesco Turrisi, Sue Rynhart, Dan Bodwell

Sue Rynhart Trio

Dublin-based singer/songwriter Sue Rynhart is rising to prominence through her distinctive, theatrical and sometimes quirky, personal music which straddles jazz and folk, as delivered in 2014 album Crossings and 2017’s stand-out, Signals. With her trio of double bassist Dan Bodwell and pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, the Salon Perdu Spiegeltent’s ornamented surroundings of coloured glass and mirrors reflected a performance of light, hope, tenderness and humour.

Rynhart’s passion and invention connected instantly, from buoyant bass-swirling Be Content to the dark mystery of Foxed. The Coldest Journey sent a chill through an otherwise sweltering room with frozen vocal effects and a pleasing harmonic bass solo; and there were always surprises, such as fervent, improvisatory "Irish konnakol" vocalisations. The Gaelic and almost Simon & Garfunkel-like lilt of Silliest Game (“I’ll say goodbye to my old friend”) was sweetly embellished by Turrisi’s pianistic delicacy; and a ballad which broached the singer’s personal witness of dementia, and the importance of maintaining happiness, was expressed through fluctuations of equilibrium and troubled, bass-thrummed momentum. Delicate lullaby folksong Penny for Your Thoughts focused on the youngest of Rynhart’s three children (including sampled giggles), contrasted sharply by the dark, pliant, double bass ground of Black as the Crow Flies (with combed zither effects); and to close, the impetuous lyric of newer song, Viper, teased with a wry, mocking take on the competitive spirit which we might not admit to!

Sue Rynhart’s poetic creativity seemingly knows no bounds, blending her cultural roots with an oblique, contemporary vision. An absolute joy to be present.



Scottish quartet Sugarwork – led by keyboardist Paul Harrison, with tenor saxophonist Phil Bancroft, electric guitarist Graeme Stephen and drummer Stu Brown – shape powerful jazz soundscapes and urban resonances from their particularly close-knit interaction. For their first performance south of the border, arrival in Manchester was almost halted by motorway congestion woes – but their determination brought the sound of their eponymous debut album, along with some new and improvised episodes, to the festival with aplomb.

When introduced their signature waves of guitar and shifting keys with rhythm and tenor sax, leading to After the Forest, the Sky’s crunchy, looped guitar, hard-hitting dance-groove drumming and deeply-plumbed Nord bass notes – haunting and “a bit schizoid”. The band’s strength is in creating and building layers (imagine creating complex iPad imagery with differing textures and colours), and an improvised piece christened Prestige Towel Promotion, after their delay around the Garstang area, produced atmospheric knocks, bleeps, fizzes and crackles which somehow keyed into the intense heat of the arena. Spiral Confection’s reverberant bass and snappy electronic drum patterns were the basis of a heavy, relentless and even funky groove; Forlorn suggested Weather Report, as Bancroft’s full tenor glided over its landscape; and the maelstrom of Astralgia closed the set with programmed, chasing, throbbing bass – a wall of sound reminiscent of Nik Bärtsch.

Sugarwork’s performance style is focused, not showy; and the artistic vistas they fashion might suggest an opening for greater compositional diversity. Yet they have an acute sense of musicality and drive which is sure to spur them on to still higher levels.

Chris Engel, Barry Donohue and Chris Guilfoyle of Umbra

Once again, the free stage played host to emerging bands, with Dublin’s Umbra a great draw for crowds taking advantage of the glorious if humid weather. Saxophonists Chris Engel and Sam Cornerford, electric guitarist Chris Guilfoyle, five-string bassist Barry Donohue and drummer Matthew Jacobson sizzled the early-evening air with their crisp, often intricate funk/punk/soul grooves.

Esther Swift

Esther Swift: Light Gatherer (festival commission)

The usual throng of expectation for an mjf commission was sensed as an eager audience filled the circular Salon Perdu venue, met by a full stage featuring four statuesque, closely-grouped harps. Composer, harpist and vocalist Esther Swift’s Light Gatherer suite is based around the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy. Clouds Harp Quartet – Swift, with Elfair Dyer, Rebecca Mills and Angelina Warburton – was joined by violinist Jonathan Martindale, violist Lucy Nolan, cellist Peggy Nolan, trombonist Rich McVeigh, tenor saxophonist Geff Guntren, pianist Richard Jones and drummer/percussionist/accordionist Jim Molyneux. The seven-part suite was announced to be continuous, with no applause until the end. Yet it soon became apparent that the composer/leader had created something singularly compelling, as well as accessible, and that such requested restraint would be difficult to honour.

Child’s Sleep (the dream of the little girl – Carol Ann Duffy’s daughter) was heralded by simulations of deep-sleep breathing through sax, trombone and accordion, its “light gatherer” vocal then introduced by Swift’s pellucid vocal. A gentle, sustained ebb and flow, followed by fuller episodes, blossomed into the most elegant, unison, Gaelic folk melody across four harps – and the spell had been cast. Text – a vibrant observation on the inanity of texting, rather than direct conversation – flew into busy, telecommunicative propulsion, the repeated harp choreography of muting, sliding and releasing the strings creating visual interest (and joy) as the full ensemble increasingly saturated this memorable number. Mrs Icarus – abrasively dedicated to one Melania Trump – was subversive, with hard-plucked and syncopated harp motifs, angular piano, manic strings, jabbing horns (delight expressed in the harpists’ expressions); and the mesmeric ostinati of Education for Leisure (mindset of a murderer) were preceded by a group reading of Carol Ann Duffy’s disturbing spoken verse – “Today I am going to kill something …”.

The Love Poem, exploring the humour of floral Shakespearean language, again used the percussive qualities of the harp quartet as upward glissandi and slams introduced a drum-grooving dance beat with improvisatory jazz tenor and trombone. A particularly moving movement of the suite arrived with Art (celebrating the end of a relationship), as Esther Swift’s soft, pure vocal and beautiful Scottish inflection/portamento magically integrated with strings to produce a choral effect. Concluding movement Light Gatherer’s gentle breaths and subtle instrumentation, like an Aeolian harp transforming the breeze of an open window into music, interpreted Duffy’s gentle words about her daughter with a coruscating glow – “And as you grew, light gathered in you, two clear raindrops in your eyes …”.

The audience response was immediate, garnering a standing ovation of warmth and gratitude – along with an encore of Text – for an imaginative work which touched hearts on so many levels, and one which I would dearly love to hear again.

2018’s Manchester Jazz Festival culminates in its final day, tomorrow, Saturday 28 July. Full programme at


CD REVIEW: Beats & Pieces Big Band – ten

Beats & Pieces Big Band – ten
(Efpi Records FP029 – CD/DVD review by Mark McKergow)

Led by composer/conductor Ben Cottrell, the Manchester-based Beats & Pieces Big Band celebrate their tenth anniversary with this specially-recorded live performance featuring a riot of grooves, beats, textures, shake-the-house brass riffing and quality soloing.

This is Beats & Pieces' fifth release, showing remarkable longevity for a group started by Cottrell at the Royal Northern College of Music to play music he’d written for big band. The history of the band, their musicians and gigs are all lovingly curated on the band’s website (link below) and it’s clear that this is a very personal project for Cottrell and his collaborators. This collection was recorded in front of an invited audience in the same RNCM space where it all started in 2008, superbly recorded and also filmed for DVD (available in the package which comes at a very reasonable price).

There are ten tracks on ten – surely no coincidence – and Cottrell himself leads off the opening track, nois, with a sharp guitar riff which is quickly picked up by other band members including drummer Finlay Panter. Panter shows all the qualities which the best modern drummers bring – a tight fluidity in bringing complex beat patterns to life with real subtlety, fine dynamics and listening attention.  Nick Walters takes the first of several featured solos on trumpet, and my ear is drawn not only to the fine soloing but the quality of the backing riffs, textures and sheer grunt produced by the other horns.  The line-up is three each of saxes, trumpets and trombones, with the ‘bone section of Richard Foote, Simon Lodge and Rich McVeigh playing a large part in underpinning the gorgeous beefy sound – their trio improvisation on toan is a joy.

Jazzwalk starts with Stewart Wilson’s bass rippling away (backed by Panter’s excellent light-touch drumming) with fine dynamics as Oliver Dover picks up another riff on alto sax before moving into his solo. The movement between lightness of space and full-on flair comes very naturally and smoothly here as thoughout the album. Watching the DVD, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the group are playing without parts or music stands (as would be normal for big band type shows) – all this is from memory, which surely accounts for the marvellous natural flow of the performance.

Jazzwalk turns out to be the longest of the track titles; Cottrell is clearly given to brevity in naming his tunes things like time, rain, pop, toan and so on – very different to the Django Bates generation of long and involved titles. This is in many ways a "next generation" project, taking from jazz tradition but also fearlessly drawing on 21st century influences from the dance floor and the film studio, taken in, internalised and brought forth as a very satisfying whole. As three reaches a climax we can see (thanks to the DVD) Anton Hunter attacking his electric guitar with a steel ruler as the band backs Walters’ trumpet with John Zorn-like fury before the whole ensemble coalesces into a rallentando to come down to a close.

If you enjoy large group jazz but are not yet familiar with Beats & Pieces, this is an excellent way to experience the band’s style both in sound and vision. I know from experience how much effort it takes to sustain a big ensemble, and Ben Cottrell is to be cheered to the rafters for not only getting this show onto the road ten years ago, but even more for keeping it there with growing confidence and output. Here’s to the next ten years!

Beats & Pieces Big Band:

Director – Ben Cottrell
Saxophones – Anthony Brown, Oliver Dover, Tom Ward
Trombones – Richard Foote, Simon Lodge, Rich McVeigh
Trumpets – Owen Bryce, Graham South, Nick Walters
Guitar – Anton Hunter
Piano/Rhodes – Richard Jones
Bass – Stewart Wilson
Drums – Finlay Panter

LINK: Bits & Pieces Big Band website

Recent LJN interview with Ben Cottrell


INTERVIEW: Simon Lasky (Simon Lasky Group – About The Moment now out)

Simon Lasky
Photo: © Joe Lasky

Simon Lasky has his second Group album, About The Moment, available via all the usual channels. Helen Mayhew on Jazz FM has called it "wonderful", and  Euan Dixon (JazzViews) says it is "hugely impressive". Simon talks to Peter Bacon about what being a musican means to him, about the new recording, about composing and influences – and shares some exciting news: 

LondonJazz News: Like most modern jazz musicians, you have many roles: pianist, composer, arranger, educator. Do you have a favourite?

Simon Lasky: What’s that famous Leonard Bernstein quote? "I don’t want to spend my life like Toscanini did, conducting the same 30 symphonies over and over… I want to teach, to write, to perform, to be, in every sense of that wonderful word, a musician." Those multi discipline guys have always been great heroes of mine: Bernstein, Andre Previn, Richard Rodney Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones; for me, one discipline informs the other. It’s all part of being a musician. I never stop and say "right, now, at this moment in time I'm going to arrange last week's composition". It doesn't work like that. The motivation is always to be involved in all aspects of music at the highest level I possibly can: to be surrounded by and involved in sophisticated music-making is the driving force. I will say this though; for me, teaching is a crucial part of that. Communicating whatever skills, knowledge and enthusiasms I have to young people is the best job in the world and is so rewarding.

LJN: Your second album, About The Moment, has been getting some great reviews, and I am enjoying it hugely. It has a really strong and cohesive atmosphere about it. How do you get that warm, generous “vibe” in the studio? And then how do you manage to convey it via the digital imprint of a CD?

SL: I think About The Moment ('33Jazz' Records) is much more individual and personal than my first album (Story Inside released in 2015 and also on ‘33Jazz' Records). I had a strong sense of the palette and sound world that I wanted to create. Then, it was just a question of finding the right players to manifest the ideas that I had in my head. I’m glad you think it sounds cohesive – I’m trying to develop my own sound and I searched high and low to get the right players. I was very lucky to end up with a great line-up of Luca Boscasgin (guitars), Pete Billington (electric & fretless bass), Sophie Alloway (drums), Kuljit Bhamra (tabla) and Philip Achille (harmonica) as well as a wonderful recording engineer, Nick Pugh. To a man (and woman!) they "got" what we were trying to do, i.e. they weren’t trying to impose their chops on the tunes, but played what was right for the compositions. I still like collecting CDs because I like to know who’s playing 2nd alto on track 6, and who the euphonium player on track 9 was in love with when the album was being recorded! As well as the credits and detailed track info, my CD has lots of the extra musical stimuli and inspirations listed in the liner notes – you only get that on the hard copy!


LJN: How do you compose? Do you need to be at the piano? Where do ideas come from?

SL: At some point during the compositional process I will definitely need to be at the piano. But, often, not straight away, and not for a while. Ideas probably comes in three main forms: 1) A concrete musical idea; a fragment of a melody, an idea for a bass line, a groove, a harmony with a specific quality, and that will often come to me when I’m away from the piano, walking down the street, making a cup of tea, etc. 2) Sometime inspiration will come out of a response to other music; I’ll hear a melody by another artist but might think “I like it, but I’d take that line in a different direction”. 3) Conceptual ideas; if I have melody or set of chord changes that I like, I think I'm reasonably good at seeing the potential of that idea and how I'm going to develop it over the course of a composition. Structure and narrative are very important to me so, by the time I sit down at the piano, I’ll have a good sense of what I want that material to achieve and how I see it unfolding over time. I studied classical composition at university, and have improvised at the piano since I was seven years old, so, when you’re at that later compositional stage it's just a question of drawing on those skills to make sure that the piece does what I want it to. You have to steer it in the right direction while periodically checking in with that original source of inspiration.

LJN: Your music always sounds to me a lot more transatlantic than a lot of UK jazz. Would that be a fair interpretation? What are your main musical influences?

SL: Yes, you're 100% spot on and a lot of reviewers have pointed that out. I've always been obsessed with America and its music. Not its current political leadership (or, possibly, its current music!) but so much of the music that I love comes from – and could only have come from – the melting pot of culture that is America. I’m crazy about Weather Report, Miles, Pat Metheny Group, Return To Forever, Paul Simon, The Crusaders, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and so much of Herbie's output. I haven’t intentionally composed "American sounding" music, but I’ve always believed that you compose the music you want to hear, so inevitably those influences are going to seep in. I admire the ridiculous ambition and invention of the musicians I’ve just listed but I also like that they have no problem if emotions are to the fore; they’re not shy to show how they feel and that makes the music resonate for me. Of course, it’s backed up with immense skill, sophistication and, often harmonic and rhythmic complexity, but I want the music that I listen to make me feel something. And a lot of the musicians who tick those boxes are American.

LJN: You have some exciting news that involves a sojourn on the other side of the pond, I believe. Tell us about that.

SL: It’s always been a dream of mine to study jazz in America – the country of its birth. I have been offered a Fellowship to teach and study at The University of South Florida, starting next month. I'm pretty excited! I am going to be teaching on the undergraduate jazz programme as Assistant to Chuck Owen (who is a wonderful, Grammy nominated, jazz composer) and I'll be simultaneously studying for a Masters in Jazz Studies. I love Chuck's music, but it's not very well known over here. Check out his latest album Whispers On The Wind by Chuck Owen and The Jazz Surge. It was Grammy nominated last year in the same category as Vince Mendoza and Christian McBride’s Big Band. Vince Mendoza also offered me a scholarship to study with him at The University of Southern California. But it didn’t come with a teaching position so I took the USF job. So, starting next month, I'll be living in Florida until May 2019.

LJN: But you’re coming back? This is not the last we’ll be hearing of the Simon Lasky Group, I hope?

SL: We’re a fledgling band. Two albums in, for sure, but I formed the band only three years ago. One of the ideas with the U.S. sojourn was to get my music known Stateside but, certainly, not to the detriment of the progress we’ve made here in the UK. I’ll be back in London next summer, from May onwards, to gig with my band. Then, if all goes to plan, I’d like to do an Arts Council UK tour in 2020. I’ll start planning for that towards the end of this year. I just want to become a better composer, a better piano player and a better teacher… so, hopefully, by next summer I’ll be putting what I have learned in The States to good use. Exciting times! (pp) 

About the Moment by The Simon Lasky Group – new album out now on iTunes, Amazon & Spotify

LINKS: Simon Lasky Group website


NEWS: Sons Of Kemet nominated for 2018 Mercury Prize

Sons Of Kemet
Photo: © Pierrick Guidou
Peter Bacon reports:

Sons Of Kemet, the quartet led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, with Theon Cross on tuba, and drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, is the "jazz" choice for nomination in this year's Hyundai Mercury Prize. The shout-out is for their album Your Queen Is A Reptile, released in March on the Impulse! label.

Hutchings said this of Sons Of Kemet’s nomination:

 “It’s great to know that our music and our ideas will have the chance to resonate with as wide an audience as the Mercury nominations permits. Our aim is to merge the music and ways of perception associated with histories of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora to the developments happening within the London music scene and propel the results outwards to the world as a force for good.”

This is Hutchings' second Mercury Prize nomination in three years – his band The Comet Is Coming's Channel The Spirits was short-listed in 2016.

The winner of the 2018 Hyundai Mercury Prize will be announced at an awards ceremony at Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith on Thursday 20 September. Full list of nominees for 2018 available HERE.

Sons Of Kemet are spending the summer touring around the world and will be headlining at show at KOKO in Camden, London, on 23 October.

LINK: Dan Bergsagel's review of Your Queen Is A Reptile for LJN


PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Andrew Woodhead & Sarah Farmer (Ideas of Noise Festival, 3-5 August 2018)

Ann Antidote/Notorische Ruhestörung - in the Ideas Of Noise programme
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There’s a new festival happening in Birmingham, 3 to 5 August. It's called Ideas of Noise and the producers are musicians Sarah Farmer and Andrew Woodhead. Peter Bacon found out more:

LondonJazz News: Ideas of Noise is a new festival for Birmingham. How did it come about?

Andrew Woodhead: Sarah and I have been circling each other on the Birmingham music scene for quite some time now, and have often talked about working together in some form or other. The idea of a festival has been brewing separately in our minds over the course of the last few years, so it seemed like a good place to start.

Sarah Farmer: I’d produced a pilot day-long IoN festival as part of my Masters, which I'd hoped I could grow in the future, and Andy had been thinking about how Fizzle (the improvised music series that he runs) could expand its output with something festival-like. It made sense to combine the two and work together.

We'd started playing together occasionally (Andy electronics, me violin) and I'd been going to Fizzle – it became clear we were interested in similar things, albeit we come from quite different artistic backgrounds (Andy from jazz and improv, myself from classical and fine art). I think it's the combination of these differences that really sums up Ideas of Noise.

AW: I think the fact that it's artist-led is what really sets it apart from other festivals; we're trying to create the kind of Festival that we'd want to go to (and play at!). It's also about celebrating all the amazing creative people who live and work locally – we have a huge variety of world-class artists and musicians right here in the West Midlands, and we wanted to try and showcase some of that and bring these artists together under one banner.

LJN: It feels like a clear effort to link overlapping genres and audiences?

Sarah Farmer - violinist and Ideas of Noise producer
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SF: Yes completely – that was the main aim right from the pilot. As I've developed my practice as a violinist and sound artist I've been noticing the crossovers in sounds, concepts and methods between genres. Getting more familiar with 20th and 21st century violin repertoire and techniques you notice a movement towards noise on the instrument (Schnittke, Lachenmann, Cage, Elliot Sharp for example) and you start to notice the influence of other genres in contemporary classical. I also love metal, electronica, the sounds of loud motors and other things very outside classical repertoire, but they started to connect.

Andrew Woodhead, pianist and Ideas of Noise producer
AW: A lot of it came out of bumping into each other at various events around town and (over a post-gig pint) wondering why we weren't seeing the chap who comes to all the Improv gigs at any of the Contemporary Classical nights, or the lady we see at all the Metal gigs going to check out some Electronica?

SF: So we really wanted to try an experiment – would audiences of harsh guitar noise also be interested in harsh violin noise, would a fan of free improv also be interested in aleatoric music, do these work together in a programme? Different contexts but similar qualities.

AW: As artists we see all of these forms of music (and more) as a source of inspiration for our own work, and we're trying to push our audience to think along the same lines.

SF: More and more artists are working across genres or hinting at "outside" influences in their own work.  It seemed like an interesting project to bring varying genres together, and through that highlight some similarities and differences between forms. IoN is a platform for artists and audiences to share this process and hopefully find new connections in the work and discover something new.

LJN: It brings players in from elsewhere as well, but it has a strong Birmingham identity?

AW: Almost all the artists are from the West Midlands, and ones who aren't either have strong connections to here or we just really wanted them to play in Brum! We wanted to make a festival that showed off some of the fantastic musicians that are around here, but we also wanted to make an interesting program that looks outside of Birmingham too.

SF: We decided to open it up to the West Midlands because we wanted to learn more about our surrounding areas, connect with new interesting artists in our locality. Through our open calls we've been able to find artists we hadn't heard of and seen some really exciting work and as IoN grows we hope to keep finding more – this is an ongoing project!

AW: We think it's important to give local artists a platform to showcase their work, it helps keep the local creative economy thriving by broadening and sharing audiences. Five to 10 extra audience members at your show can make all the difference at a grassroots level so we're hoping that by cross-pollinating these artforms we can make a positive impact on the careers of these artists in the longer term.

LJN: Tell us about some of the performers…

SF: We launch on Digbeth First Friday with a host of free events at VIVID Projects, including sound and visual art exhibitions from Billy Lucas and Richard Scott, and performances from Simon Paton and Ann Antidote/Notorische Ruhestörung. Over at The Edge, we have an Experimental Writing Workshop in the morning with Frances Morgan (The Wire) and Riffs Magazine, supported by BCU. On the Friday night we have a concert curated by Fizzle and TDE Promotions featuring Angharad Davies solo and Mark Sanders/Rhodri Davies duo.

Rhodri Davies will be appearing with Mark Sanders
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AW: One gig I’m really looking forward to being a part of is a brand new collaboration with Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham. ELDA is an electronic duo of myself and trumpeter Aaron Diaz, and we often expand the lineup with special guest performers; This time we’re working with Didier Kisala (guitar/vocals) and Millicent Chapanda (mbira/percussion), fusing elements of traditional African music with our own blend of Electronics and Improv. The rehearsals have been really interesting and we’re all excited about presenting the finished result at IoN.

SF: The rest of Saturday’s programme also has a strain of electronics running through it, with Dan Nicholls’ Strobes, Chris Mapp’s Gonimoblast Duo with Annie Mahtani and a special one-off solo performance from Anna Palmer (of Dorcha fame) forming a triple bill evening gig that’s a must for any fans of Electronica, Doom and Post-Rock.

AW: On Sunday, the focus shifts a bit more towards Contemporary Classical music with programmes curated by Georgia Denham and contemporary composers’ collective Post Paradise, responding to the themes of the festival. We also have the wonderful Soesen Edan and Inga Liljeström kicking the day off on with an intimate performance rooted in Soesen’s practice as a music therapist, blending sound baths and vocal improvisations.

SF: Sunday’s events draw to a close with premiere of Xhosa Cole’s new String Quartet work The Greek Suite, commissioned especially for the festival. I’m particularly excited to be performing in this one; Xhosa is an amazing composer and is another artist who sits really comfortably in a number of contexts and genres, reflecting the “in-between-ness” that we’re looking to celebrate with IoN.

LJN: And you have been inviting contributors with the Open Call strand?

AW: We’ve already selected from a huge range of submissions for our Open Call “Shorts” programme – we’ve discovered some great new artists as part of this process and are really looking forward to showcasing them! Billy Lucas was selected for our Sound Artist Residency through our Open Call process and is presenting his first solo show at IoN as a result.

SF: This section of the programme was really an opportunity for us to throw the net as wide as we could and expand the reach of IoN beyond our immediate networks. We really want to hear work from people we’ve not come across yet and introduce them to our audiences, as well as giving them opportunities to connect with like-minded performers and artists throughout the weekend.

AW: Our Experimental Sound Directory Open Call is still open for submissions, so please do keep sending work in for that!

LJN: Is this the start of something ongoing?

SF: That's the intention! This is our first time producing a festival so it's been a steep learning curve, we've definitely been learning on the job, so we're thinking an IoN 2020 gives us time to reflect, prepare, and improve. We'd like to keep things ticking over in a smaller way in the mean time however.

AW: We’ll be releasing a new video series of footage from our Shed Stage at Supersonic Festival this year, as well as live content from Ideas Of Noise itself to keep your ears happy while we get on with planning the next one! Our Sound Directory is going to become a growing online archive of Experimental Music from the Midlands and around the UK, allowing online audiences to discover some of these sounds and creators for themselves. And there’s always the next season of Fizzle kicking off in September should you want to get your live gig fix in the meantime!

LINKS: Ideas of Noise website, including how to apply to Open Call
Fizzle website
Sarah Farmer's website
Andrew Woodhead's website