REVIEW: Sam Braysher and Michael Kanan at Anteros Arts, Norwich

Michael Kanan and Sam Braysher
Publicity picture
Sam Braysher and Michael Kanan
(Anteros Arts, Fye Bridge Street, Norwich. Wednesday 16th January 2019.  Review by Jane Mann)

This was a home gig for young London-based but Norfolk-born alto saxophonist Sam Braysher, currently on a European tour with celebrated New York pianist Michael Kanan. Kanan is well known in New York for performing and recording with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Jorge Rossy, among others, and as accompanist and arranger for Jane Monheit. He has his own trio too. Braysher also leads his own trio, and has performed with various musicians including Jorge Rossy, John Warren, Barry Green and the London Jazz Orchestra. In New York, the pair recorded a very well-received duo album in 2017, Golden Earrings, which is a fresh take on some of the farther reaches of the Great American Songbook, and they continue this exploration on the current tour.

They performed in the recital room at the Anteros Arts Foundation in Norwich. It’s a great setting for chamber music – an upstairs room in a Tudor mansion. It is filled with wood, from the beautiful roof beams to its disconcertingly undulating floorboards, and the space resonates like a music box. There is a fine 1927 Steinway and room for about 50 seats – the perfect spot for an intimate concert.

Braysher and Kanan appear to have a very relaxed working relationship. They have no fixed play list, they prefer to see where the evening will take them. They deliberated which tunes to play and in which key as they went along. At one point Kanan said “Yeah, I’m going to play some Gershwin”, and Braysher went and sat down in the great inglenook, until moved to join in. The way they improvise together feels like listening in on a conversation. Sometimes they appear surprised by the music which they have just conjured up, and after a particularly pleasing duet or solo they smile at each other. It makes the audience feel happy too, to witness this authentic jazz alchemy.

They played mainly popular tunes from the likes of Jerome Kern and the Gershwins, each one helpfully introduced by one or the other. They are meticulous in crediting composers for each tune –  often adding some interesting background information. Their approach to these old melodies is a breath of fresh air. Given that so many years have passed since they were the popular songs of their day, musicians now have to study to learn the standards, and Kanan is an expert. Both have turned to the original sheet music for inspiration, rather than the myriad reinterpretations by jazz musicians over the years. As a result, their melodic take on the old treasure trove is entirely their own. Their version of Unbelievable was cool and jaunty, almost Façade-like in its pared down ragtime. Other tunes sent me to those scenes, in almost every Broadway musical, of dancers in rehearsal rooms with an upright piano. They played one English entry in the Great Songbook, The Very Thought of You, in which they wandered off into a jazz reverie before one of the neat conclusions in which every tune resolved. Some songs suggested Strayhorn’s demi-monde of “jazz and cocktails”, others the elegance and complexity of some baroque invention for two voices, it really was terrific stuff.

Braysher and Kanan also played a couple of pure jazz compositions, including Thelonious Monk’s Introspection with brilliantly sure syncopation on the piano and fluid soloing from the saxophone.
On Stella By Starlight, the duo were joined by tenor saxophonist Martin Eaton, one of Braysher’s former music teachers, a charming moment.

Braysher’s mother, who was sitting in the front row, requested Way Down Yonder In New Orleans, the only song they played from the CD. Unsurprisingly, they played a totally different version to the recorded one. There was an thrilling section where Kanan played a single line on the piano in counterpoint with Braysher’s, followed by a transcribed Lester Young solo, played in unison – delightful.

They finished with an encore – All The Things You Are, filled with intricacy and elegance – and the audience loved it. Like the last time I saw them, I had the feeling that we had barely scratched the surface of what these two inventive musicians could pull out for us from their vast repertoire, and reinvent before our eyes. Braysher and Kanan play with precision, with sensitivity and with heart, and long may their partnership continue!

Sam Braysher and Michael Kanan are on tour.  

What they played:
Make Someone Happy (Jule Styne)
Unbelievable (Alec Wilder)
Memory Medley: Thanks For The Memory (Rainger and Robin) / I Remember You (Schertzinger and Mercer)
Lady Luck (Thad Jones)
Who Cares? (George and Ira Gershwin)
But Not For Me (George and Ira Gershwin)
Our Love Is Here To Stay (George and Ira Gershwin)
Introspection (Thelonious Monk)
Pick Yourself Up (Jerome Kern)
The Very Thought Of You (Ray Noble)
Too Marvellous For Words (Richard A. Whiting)
Stella By Starlight (Victor Young)
A Blues For David (Michael Kanan with Sam Braysher)
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans (John Turner Layton)
All The Things You Are (Jerome Kern)


CD REVIEW: Andy Hague – Coming Of Age

Andy Hague – Coming Of Age
(Ooh-Err Records. CD review by Mark McKergow)

Trumpeter Andy Hague seems to release about two CDs per decade. His sixth studio album is a quintet outing offering a generous helping of original tunes performed with great class and style, excellently recorded and showing him and his band to be masters of their craft.

Hague is a mainstay of the Bristol jazz scene where he is a vital spark both as a performer (he is a fine drummer as well as a trumpet/flugelhorn ace), composer and educator, and as organiser of the Be-Bop club, the city’s venue for local and touring modern jazz. He has spent close on 30 years exploring jazz and his tunes are always well-constructed, often with a story behind them, offering great chances for the soloists to shine. The music on this disc is broadly in the Blue Note tradition with some forays into straighter ballad numbers (referred to tongue-in-cheek as ‘rock anthems’ in the sleeve notes, though not exactly stadium fodder), and the variety of styles on show makes for an engaging listening experience.

Sharing the horn duties is Hague’s long-time associate Ben Waghorn on tenor saxophone. Waghorn’s up-and-at’em style first appeared with Tommy Chase’s hard-driving bands of the late 1980s/early 1990s; his career since has been in sessions and concerts with the likes of Keith Tippett, the BBC Big Band and the London Concert orchestra. It may well be that Waghorn’s comfort as a sideman may be why he’s not more familiar – his playing is right up there, notes flying with positively Tubby Hayes-esque fluidity. On Stepping Down, written by Hague in the Coltrane-ish style of Giant Steps, Waghorn rips into his solo with huge gusto, and then plays a big part on the grand ballad Coming Of Age with a big solo and rolling obligatos as the stately theme is revisited.

Jim Blomfield, another long-time Hague fellow traveller, takes the piano stool and plays a major role in underpinning the horns. He also solos very well indeed, rippling runs shot through with blues sensibility, with perhaps a touch of Horace Silver showing through. His turn on the opening track The Displaced shows this style well – Blomfield is never afraid to head into double time or lay back with juicy blues harmonies, creating his own tension and release. Completing the rhythm section are the fine-sounding Chris Jones on double bass, taking a nice solo on Abraham, and Mark Whitlam on drums, always precise and stepping forward on Great Minds to give a well-judged in-tempo solo.

One particularly attractive feature of many of the ten tracks is the way that Hague finds ways to blow alongside Waghorn, so that there is a collective improvisation feeling that is exciting and adds extra variety to the tune structures. The recording quality is top-rate with sparkling sound quality. Hague says that he likes to include a standard or two on gigs, but was defeated by the process of getting clearance to record one so has penned a new theme, ICU, over an existing standard which is introduced by the bass.

The more I look at it, the more I think there’s a clue in the title.

The Andy Hague Quintet will be taking their show around the country in 2019.  The album can be streamed on the usual places as well as from Bandcamp.

LINK: Coming Of Age on Bandcamp


REPORT: Winter Jazzfest Marathon Weekend in New York

Meshell Ndegeocello at Winter Jazz
Photo credit: Jonathan Chimene
Winter Jazzfest Marathon Weekend
(Various venues, New York, 11-12 January 2019. Report by Dan Bergsagel)

A glut of performers, a dangerous density of music, an embarrassment of riches. This is the impression Winter Jazzfest 2019 gives: a nine-day club-based jazz festival strung across twelve venues in Greenwich Village and Noho.

The Marathon Weekend – the closing Friday and Saturday of the festival – is the musical climax. Under this one festival umbrella sat a diverse cohort of venues, each with its own distinct culture, atmosphere, and musical language, but united under a common jazzfest rulebook where the wave of a wristband let you cross all borders. Some venues showcased subgenres (like Hot Jazz), others hosted out-of-towner take-overs (from Chicago, or Paris), and some simply held birthday parties celebrating institutional milestones (for WBGO radio, ECM records, or even for 15 years of the Winter Jazzfest itself).

Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio
with Tim Berne and Mary Halvorson
Photo credit: John Rogers
We start at (Le) Poisson Rouge, home-base for Winter Jazzfest’s Founder/Producer Brice Rosenbloom. Having kindly handed over the reins to the visiting Brits earlier in the week (see PRSF/BBC night review) the venue was celebrating 50 years of ECM records during the Marathon. A historic basement spot with an unusual dangling caged aquarium (Damien Hirst lite) welcoming guests on entry, it’s a comfortably spacious venue, but with a large corner stage also feels at once intimate.

Michael Formanek’s Very Practical Trio, with Tim Berne and Mary Halvorson were practically huddled at the very front of the stage, too – three players in unison. Rumbling along, the similarity in register used between the strings of Formanek’s double bass and Halvorson’s guitar is interesting, even when it switches to a bowed bass and sharply plucked guitar. Berne’s alto sax soars almost like a violin at moments, with a flexible slip between notes. Not a deep sound, but a lament, before he readies himself for an endless solo stretch.

They’re very closely aligned, switching from alto shredding madness with frenzied bass in hot pursuit, to unhurried, laconically sections of picked at notes. Between phases they just roll over, happily.

Vijay Iyer & Craig Taborn took a more head-to-head approach. More literally in fact, with two pianos nestling on stage and the pianists facing each other. A more theatrical piece, they play to the crowd, silently rising and swapping instruments in a composed dance. Both virtuosos, they take turns with one as lead, one as rhythm, although occasional frissons of interest when both fight for the front, or both chop a rhythm. Their most successful moments do come when one sits back and develops a repetitive move, and the other lifts from it, playing as supporting individuals instead of jostling for shared space. A packed house is hushed, entranced.

Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn at Le Poisson Rouge
Photo credit: John Rogers
SOB was a less cerebral vibe, and instead embraced its Brazilian roots in hosting a dance party for 40 years of WBGO, New York’s jazz public radio. It’s all fenced-off dance areas and raised viewing terraces, giving different vantage points of the double height space pierced by occasional meaty columns and exposed column heads holding up the modest 11 stories above.

WBGO DJ Felix Hernandez spun pre-gig salsa as a warm-up for Alina Engibaryan. Recently signed to Snarky Puppy's GroundUP Music label, she leads a more mainstream group than Snarky themselves, playing smooth, smooth tunes with a velvet voice, slick Korg and neat tenor saxophone moments with yellow hi-vis beanie and matching mouthpiece (the start of NY’s protest movement, Les Embouchures Jaunes?)

Nubya Garcia also graced the stage, with a band full of double bass bounce from Dan Casimir (who plays it like it’s an electric, almost) and Garcia’s deep tenor tone. It sounds like she’s found an adoring crowd in NY, excited by the prospect of When we are, and Source. There’s a lot of high energy stuff mixed in, and a groove is never far away, with Garcia, like everyone else, finding it irresistible not to build a sound from a Joe Armon-Jones solo. The venue is less kind to them than the bearpit of LPR, with harsher acoustics and a confusing array of low-resolution screens live streaming the event from a soulless above-centre shot, giving it the feeling of being '80s archive footage from a cavernous empty venue.

Nubya Garcia at SOB
Photo credit: Jati Lindsay
The Bitter End drops the ceiling down to normal in a brick-lined space packed with folk in a serpentine route between the bar and stage. The walls are lined with LPs from live recordings, and a charmingly laughable mural of famous folk (I think, not straightforward to recognise) behind the bar. There are people everywhere, to the point that you wonder what a capacity limit ticket on the wall is really for.

They’re all here for a French Quarter evening on the Friday night, a takeover by Paris Jazz Club as part of their week in New York and Montréal. Baptiste Trotignon and Yosvany Terry’s ‘Ancestral Memories’ have headed their tour with some time in Boston before they then head off to Cuba for the Havana jazz festival. Formed around a keys and saxophones axis. It swings between great funky rocking bass and lazy keys ballads, the closeness of the space highlighted by the tangible feeling of air being sucked out of the room by every beat of the bass drum.

The French residency switched to Zinc Bar for Saturday, but on Friday it was still American season, with Borderlands Trio, a piano format featuring Eric McPherson’s delicate drumming. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the overcrowding of The Bitter End, Zinc adopted an approach which didn’t embrace the walk-in fluid nature of the chaotic marathon crowd – good seats were kept down front for the spenders, with a gaggle of gawkers penned off at the back up the steps by the bar, either in line for a table or loitering. It was more like being at the end of a periscope: you see some things, but sound doesn’t travel so well. Almost surreal seeing mallets and fingers pull strings but hearing very little noise come out between the cocktail shake or the dropped build it. Too esoteric for the barman, there were moments of clarity when Kris Davis’ piano clicked into gear, if you could hear them. By Saturday the riff-raff were made to queue out in the cold, instead.

* * *

The main artery of the festival is Bleecker St, a pulse emanating out from LPR in the centre. But with what felt like some flexible use of scale, the festival main map stretched out to the Bowery Ballroom in, well, Bowery (there were further venue outliers in the East Village also, where the edge of the world and the sea monsters should be). A little off the beaten festival track, this big nouveau theatre-style space with flanking balconies and opulent downstairs bar was staging some big events.

Like the battle for equal professional tennis prize payments, it was announced that a real effort had gone into ensuring a gender balance of performers where possible. The two headline names on act The Music of Brooklyn were balanced, with Meshel Ndegeocello and Jeff Parker on bass and vocals, joined by a range of guests flitting on and off stage throughout. In trying to represent a borough as diverse as Brooklyn, they were dragged all over, from rapping over beats and cool muted trumpet, to slow rock with a heavy atmosphere, finally arriving at Jeff Parker earnestly providing a Barbra Streisand rendition.

Subculture was the press hub, handing out wristbands and programmes in a large featureless hall while a crowd was ushered down into the bowels of the basement, seemingly an extension of the subway station next door but decked out like a rather suave cocktail bar. Here Amirtha Kidambi leads Elder Ones, a quartet built around her straining vocals and an unsettling drone. Pulling no punches, Kidambi uses the group to transmit her thoughts direct to the crowd. The squeeze of her harmonium adds a grating intensity over a quivering, liquid percussion style from Max Jaffe. There is no subterfuge as she rails against colonial behaviour, class and caste structures, and the inequality of society (a crowd supping expensive cocktails and wearing high-investment jazz festival wristbands is implored to Eat the Rich) – the musical challenge perhaps reflecting a disconnect between content and crowd.

* * *

The atmosphere in the Sheen Center was at once more celebratory. The strains of the Sisterhood of Swing leak through the door as the line stretches through the lobby out into the cold. The popularity was such all weekend. At least at the Sheen you can hear something while queuing, instead of waiting out in bitter cold. Once through the threshold you’re in an auditorium proper, a sit-down theatre with grand cultural plans (officially the Archbishop Fulton J Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, surprisingly not named after everyone’s favourite Welsh go-to Tony Blair actor Michael Sheen).

Pocket Science
Photo credit: John Rogers

John Gilbreath, DJ and executive producer of the Pacific Northwest’s Earshot Jazz promotion foundation is warmly welcomed by a crowd, and warmly welcomes Pocket Science, an all-star band billed to unite progress and tradition.

They start off very much in the tradition camp, Gary Bartz leading a line of clean and leisurely solos, with everyone waiting their turn nicely. It feels this might be a way off from Bartz’s Thursday night exertions with Pharoah Sanders et al, re-living their 1968 avant effort Another Earth. But Pocket Science aren’t here to stick to genres – percussionist Kahil El Zabar begins to plumb different traditions with unmiked primal wails and thumbing out a melancholy slow jam. Robert Irving III reaches into the belly of his piano with one hand, the other on the keys, for a more different call and response.

We’re taken through funkier Dreamscapes by Jamaladeen Tacuma, before El Zabar picks up a wooden flute, and recites an ode to Joseph Jarman (poet, spiritual leader, musician). In fact Pocket Science are at their most enthralling when El Zabar leaves the drum kit behind, and the group refocus on a new format.

A late addition to the festival venue selection, the Greenwich House Music School is a truly honest space – a world apart from subterranean cocktails or modern concert halls. Once you walk past the institutional school cork boards and notices, on the open top floor of an old row house is a school stage in front of a set of fold-out chairs. A tired wood floor sits beneath more chandeliers than seem customary in such close proximity. Pacing around the venue wearing a turtleneck, shades and a corduroy blazer, delighted and occasionally shouting ‘whoopah’, is Michael Katsobashvili, organiser of the NY Hot Jazz Festival, which celebrates its fifth anniversary. And this is a space, an idiosyncratic musical subgenre community, where everyone knows everyone, and there’s a real joy in playing, listening and being together. The place oozes with old-time appreciation as Julien Labro plays a blisteringly fast accordion, a baffling blur on a button board which looks almost alien compared to the rest of the festival's instrumental zoo, but so neatly controlled. Frankly it is the least glamorous-looking instrument, but the band are so tight and accomplished any image is irrelevant.

Joined by Olli Soikkeli at the front of the stage this is really evocative gypsy jazz, rooted firmly in an interwar Paris scene, of small clubs and dusty hill towns. There are some more unexpected moments, too – a home-sy version of On the Road Again, a Zorn-dedicated piece with a pulsing accordion buzz when it’s rhythmically thumped by Labro, but overall just a real joy of accomplishment, riding the changes, doing everything right.

* * *

In amongst the choice, the variation, the place I was most drawn to was the SoHo Playhouse. Adam Schatz was curating the Search and Restore stage, and it was constant refreshingly new angles in an unpretentious den. Almost spiritual in its layout, a dingy narrow theatre with a glowing backdrop at the end, and nothing much else going on. When the lights are down people seep in at the back, like moths to the light mesmerised by the music and slotting into a tiny theatre chair where they can.

Irreversible Entanglements channelled an intense chaos, Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother) constantly questioning and chastising with stretches of spoken word. Stephanie Richards played scent artist collaborations in coordinated formal horn structures, cycling through an array of mutes/pie dishes, next to Oscar Noriega and his alternating alto and rich bass clarinet.

The most overwhelming, immersive 40 mins was spent with the genuinely astounding Subtle Degrees. Words, in fact any pauses, are unnecessary as Travis Laplante and Gerald Cleaver smashed barriers. Laplante’s lasting impression is not his tireless near-constant circular breathing, but in how he employs it to weave such thick, textured soundscapes. Snippets of melodies are sandwiched between running scales, a busy sound for three people not one; we have harmonic doubles, mutating drones, a permanently ringing bell, with no other tone and all chord changes and forms emanating from one tenor saxophone.

But he’s charged up by Cleaver, who ebbs and flows, and grows and moves through the pieces – crashing, snapping, dropping to a bass beat, a life support, finely composed and tied to the developments in Laporte’s stage of the piece through nods signals and the occasional expansive instrumental wave. This is how a saxophone can be played, this is how drums can be played, this is a wall of sound. It’s not necessarily always subtle, but it’s unbelievably exciting.

Staged in the beating heart of New York’s jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, I naively thought the Winter Jazzfest would simply be a convenient window into the NY scene; it was more like opening the floodgates. It’ll take months to follow up on what I saw, but more importantly, it’ll take years to follow up on the vast majority that I did not.


FEATURE/ADVICE: Sound Reasoning Part 4 – microphones for jazz recording, contd.

Positioning overheads can be tricky
Photo credit: Ru Cook

Mark Wingfield is a mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio. He has three DownBeat Masterpiece albums under his belt, a Jazzwise Best Release Of The Year, two All About Jazz Best Albums of the Year, and over 300 rave reviews from around the world for albums he has worked on. In this series of articles Mark gives advice on how to avoid common mistakes made in the recording studio which will hold back your album from sounding great. This is the fourth part of his special advice series for LondonJazz News. 

Here are: Sound Reasoning Part 1 – the set-up and Part 2 – monitoring levels and listening

This is the second part of a two-section article on microphones (for the first part click here).

Instruments, mic choice and positioning

The right type of microphone, positioned correctly is vital for a great sounding jazz recording. Here I outline one way of achieving a good sound which doesn’t require any difficult miking technique or setup. Unless your recording engineer has a good track record with jazz albums, it’s best not to leave everything up them. They might not have a huge amount of experience with jazz. Don’t be afraid to step in and make changes to how they are miking things up if the results you hear in the control room are less than amazing (see the previous article on listening levels which are also important).

If more than one instrument is being recorded in the same room, you will get some "leakage" between instruments. In a shared space, the piano sound, say, will get recorded by the bass microphones and vice versa. If you have a large, beautiful sounding studio room, leakage might actually be a good thing. The sound of the room will mix with the instruments in a pleasing way. Mic leakage can, if captured correctly, preserve this effect. However for most jazz musicians, such a studio busts the budget.

Large rooms can be good, but take care
Even if you can afford it, recording in a large room can be a bad idea. Clap your hands and you will hear a room's ambient properties. Large rooms tend to be more reflective. Some refer to this as sounding "echoey" or "reverberant". If you hear much of an ambient sound when you clap your hands, this should be a warning sign. Rooms like this are not necessarily a good place to record jazz.   Reverberant rooms differ greatly from each other. One room can sound great for recording rock and another can sound great for classical music, but it doesn’t mean either one will sound great for jazz.  Don’t risk using a reverberant room unless you have listened to jazz albums recorded there and you like the sound. Even if you have heard something recorded well in an ambient space, if the engineer hasn't achieved the results you like before in that space, it's a risk. Recording jazz in a reverberant space takes very specific miking techniques and experience. Too much or the wrong kind of ambience can ruin your recording. Even if it's not actually spoiled beyond repair, it may not sound as good as it would have done recorded in a properly treated (not reverberant) studio room.

Reducing leakage
Studios within the budget of most jazz groups have small rooms. Here, there is no advantage to leakage. All it will do is make your album harder to mix well. Here’s why. Imagine that listening through the bass mic you can hear the piano loud and clear. Now you want to apply some EQ to bring out the sound of the strings on the fingerboard of the bass or a different EQ to bring out the woodiness of the tone. This EQ, or any EQ on the bass, is going to affect the sound of the piano as well, because part of the piano sound is coming through the bass mic. So by the time you have a great bass sound, you’ve ruined the piano sound (which maybe didn’t need any EQ or if it did, it would be very different from the bass). This can happen with any two instruments in the same room. In a large beautiful sounding room, with great sounding instruments, miked skilfully, not much processing is needed during the mix. However music recorded in small rooms almost always needs adjustments to the sound. This calls for as little leakage as possible.

Here’s how to check for leakage. If the piano and acoustic bass are in the same room, record 30 seconds of them playing together. Then listen back to the recording and turn off the piano mics in the mix to see how much piano is picked up by the bass mics. If you can hear the piano fairly clearly that’s going to be a problem. Check this with any instruments recorded in the same room. You’ll never completely eliminate leakage. Your aim is to minimise it by how you position the instruments and the microphones. Ideally put every instrument into its own room with windows so that everyone can see each other, but most small studios won’t allow that.

Which mics to use for specific instruments?

The most common choice of snare mic for recording rock and pop music is the Shure SM57. This dynamic mic is ubiquitous in studios large and small. However it is often not the best choice for recording the fine detail or quiet intricate snare work in jazz.

Many engineers put an SM57 on the snare regardless of the style of music, so you should watch out for this. The SM57 does not represent higher frequencies at all well, especially at low volumes.  That's far from ideal for jazz drums. A jazz drummer will typically have a lot of information in those higher frequencies in the form of intricate ghost notes, quiet rolls or brush work.

A better choice is a high quality condenser mic. Any decent studio will be able to offer you a variety of these (make sure it's one that can handle the volume of the snare). I suggest a high quality, small diaphragm condenser mic on both the top and bottom of the snare.  

Make sure the snare mic is positioned so that it doesn't pick up too much of the hi-hat, with the back of the mic pointed at the hi-hat as much as possible. Similarly, make sure the hi-hat mic doesn't pick up too much of the snare. Angle it down towards the top hat but away from the snare.  Check for leakage between the snare and hi-hat mics during the setup. It's impossible to remove all leakage from mics this close to each other, but try reduce it as much as possible. Ask the engineer to turn off the hi-hat mic and see how loud the hi-hat sounds listening through the snare mic. If you can still hear the hi-hat clearly, it's too loud and you need to reposition the snare mic. Then check the overhead mics. In this case you'll hear the hi-hat clearly, but look out for how loud it is compared to the snare and cymbals. You should try to position the overhead mics so that the hi-hat is as quiet as possible.  Remember if the hi-hat sounds loud enough without the hi-hat mic turned on, the overheads are picking up too much of it.

Like snare drums, hi-hats also do well with high quality small diaphragm condensers.

Kick drum
The kick drum is hard to get right, so spend some time on it. I suggest using a Shure beta 52 mic, one you'll find in most studios. It’s good at capturing the tone but also has a tight low end. There are other options, but the beta 52 is always a safe bet. You need to experiment with positioning. Seven times out of ten, halfway into the hole in the kick drum head is a good place to start. Using the wrong mic or the wrong position can give you a flabby toneless kick drum. Or it can give the kick too much ring and resonance which will crowd out the acoustic or electric bass. Generally speaking, the further inside the drum the mic is, and the closer to the beater, the more click and attack the sound will have.  The further out of the drum the mic is the more very low sub frequencies you'll get. But there's no strict rule for mic positioning, it varies from drum to drum.

Don't kill the ring of the kick drum with too much damping. For most styles of jazz you want some ring and tone on the kick. However, if you listen back and the kick is noticeably sustaining a note, you probably need to damp it more. If you have too much sustain, you'll end up with a muddy low end on the faster tunes because the drum will be ringing constantly. This can make it very hard to hear the bass and piano clearly. Too much damping and the kick can sound dead and more like a rock kick drum. Your choice depends on the sound you are after. Listen to the kick drum sounds on your favourite records as a reference. If you have time it might be worth changing the damping on the kick drum to suit the tune. A slow ballad might call for a longer sustain on the kick, with less damping.  For faster tunes you'll want less sustain so use more damping.

If the kick drum is tuned so that it has a definite note to the sustain, that may not fit every tune, in which case you might want to damp it more. Some lightly damped kick drums sustain a constant note that rings from one hit to the next. Even if the note fits, is that what you want? I have been given sets to mix where the kick drum is effectively sustaining a drone note on every tune on an album, because nobody thought about it during the recording. That may well suit some types of music, but I'm guessing it's not often what people were after .

Overhead mics are another tricky problem. Cymbal work in jazz is more about tone and intricacy than about smashing them on the down beat. Rock and pop need the mics a good distance above the cymbals because the drummer is probably going to be bashing them hard. In jazz that means you can't hear the detail on the ride cymbal. The higher the overhead mics, the more they pick up the snare, kick drum and toms. So by the time you turn up the mics enough to hear the detail in the ride cymbal, you'll be hearing the snare louder than you want.

To avoid this, make sure the engineer keeps the overhead mics down close to the cymbals. How close is a matter of taste. Again your set-up time can help. I suggest overhead mics 30-40cm from the cymbals if you want to clearly hear detailed ride work, perhaps a little higher if you prefer a softer ride sound.

Use high quality small diaphragm condenser mics for overheads. Large diaphragm condensers can work too, but if you are close miking the cymbals you really don't need the low end of a large diaphragm condenser. Small diaphragm condensers offer a lot of detail in the high end. Finally, even if you have the mics down close to the cymbals, it's very important to make sure the mics are equidistant from the centre of the snare. Use a mic lead, or tape measure to check.
That's the drums sorted
Photo credit: Borislav Kresojević

Reeds and horns
Large diaphragm condenser mics are a good choice for sax, they offer plenty of detail but also a rich low end. Ribbons can sound good but I caution against them for reasons explained in the previous article. For trumpet and other brass you might want to try a ribbon but a large diaphragm condenser is always a good option.

Acoustic bass
There is more than one way to get a good acoustic bass sound, and some of these include using more than one mic. But to keep things simple, here's one that I find always gives a decent acoustic bass sound and with care can give a great sound. Put one high quality large diaphragm condenser mic in front of the bass pointing slightly above the level of the bridge 20-30cm away from the strings. Try varying the exact position and distance to get the sound you are after. Hardest to capture on acoustic bass is the mid range and upper midrange. This is where the articulation and singing tone of the bass resides. If you don't capture that, you'll be left with just the low end. Then all you'll hear in the mix is "fumm, fumm, mumm, mumm, fumm, fumm…", it will be very hard to hear the detail. So experiment with mic position and brand of mic until you can hear detail in the bass when the drums and piano are playing. A good acoustic bass sound is essential if you have one in the session. But be wary of using more than one mic on the bass unless your engineer understands how to avoid phase issues.

There are numerous ways of miking piano and each gives a different sound. In a busy uptempo jazz tune you generally need close miking for the piano to be heard clearly. Distant miking can sound nice on a solo piano piece, but is unlikely to cut through in an up tempo or even medium tempo tune. In most small recording studios, using mics outside the piano may pick up too much of the room sound.  Also, in a small studio you'll probably need to put at least one other instrument in the same room as the piano, quite close by. This rules out anything but close miking. There are dedicated piano mics, but most small studios won't have these. High quality large diaphragm condenser mics are the obvious choice, placed a few inches above the strings. Try one towards the back of the piano pointed at the bass stings at about a 30 degree angle relative to the strings and 20-30cm above the strings, and another near the front pointed at the treble strings at a similar angle and distance. There are variations which all sound good in different ways. Miking nearer to the hammers will give you a brighter more percussive sound if that's what you're after.

Electric bass
Always, always, always record a dry direct signal from an electric bass along with the microphone in front of the speaker. The bass amplifier you love on stage rarely sounds good in a mix. More than any other instrument, electric bass has a tendency for some notes to ring out louder than others and amps accentuate this. For example you can play a low A and it sits very nicely with the other instruments but when you hit the C the note rings out much louder (or vice versa depending on the amp or bass).  This difference often isn't apparent over headphones when you're recording and in performance these differences are often masked by the acoustics of the venue. Amps also have a strong tendency to create resonances which muddy the low end of the whole track. In a studio recording these problems can ruin the bass. It's a problem with rock bass too, but in rock significant amounts of compression and EQ are used to even out the notes and remove resonances. For a jazz bassist that can ruin the dynamics and tone of a performance. This is why you must record a direct signal from the bass along side the amped signal. Then you have the option to use software amp simulation on the direct signal.  These days amp simulation software sounds amazingly good, and this DI backup can save a recording. When you do mic up the bass amp, use a large diaphragm condenser and in particular check for boominess when listening back in the control room.

Electric guitar
In my experience guitar amplifiers are much better at translating through when recorded with a microphone than bass amps. So recording a DI track of the guitar is not as important, but might still be worth doing just in case. Electric guitar can be recorded with a variety of microphone types, dynamic, large condenser or ribbon. Each type of mic will give you a different result, so it may be worth experimenting or use two or three mics, all recorded on separate tracks. If you line up the diaphragms of each mic so they are exactly the same distance from the speaker, you can combine them in the mix for a kind of "natural EQ". This won't work if the diaphragms aren't lined up exactly however as you'll get phase cancellation.

In the next article we look at microphone preamps.

Mark Wingfield
Mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio


INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Flavio Li Vigni (Jazz at Morley College – new Friday series starts 25 January)

Flavio Li Vigni, Head of Jazz at Morley College London, has instigated a new monthly Friday late afternoon and evening jazz series starting on 25 January 2019. The full list for this first season's events is below. He explained more about the new series, the deep jazz history and associations of  Morley College, the thriving current activity at the College – and also his own musical journey – to Sebastian: 

LondonJazz News: What and where is Morley College London?

Flavio Li Vigni: Established in 1889, and with its roots stretching back some years before that, Morley College London is one of the country's oldest and largest specialist providers of adult education with a very significant music legacy. The College is on Westminster Bridge Road, very close to Waterloo station and a two-minute walk from Lambeth North tube station.

LJN: And it also has some quite eminent jazz history, even pedigree?

FLV: Absolutely! Heads of Music at Morley included the likes of Gustav Holst and Michael Tippet and in jazz, people like Bill Russo and Kenny Wheeler and many others were once running ensembles here. Our big bands were, and still are, a place where professionals, amateurs and semiprofessional musicians come together to share their passion for music. That makes Morley a really unique place.

I often meet well-established players in the London jazz community who perfected their craft in one of our bands and have fond memories of their time here. We still have a number of amazing (and some unpublished) tunes and arrangements from these great musicians that we still perform to this day. One more reason to check the Morley Big Band and the Morley Jazz Orchestra when they play in town.

Bill Russo's London educational work:
the lead story in Melody Maker in June 1955
LJN: And there is a lot of jazz that goes on regularly at the college?

FLV: With more than 400 enrolments per term, the Jazz department is thriving. We have four big bands from beginners to advanced, a variety of ensembles covering a number of styles in the genre, jazz improvisation classes and a strong Afro-Cuban offer. In addition to that, we provide jazz specific instrumental classes from beginners to advanced, including jazz piano, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, drums and bass. Our Listeners Guide to Jazz Series is a great and successful addition to the programme for people who want to understand this music better. Wherever you are in your musical journey, Morley has something for you.

LJN: And some of the people involved in the new series teach at Morley College London?

FLV:  We have a fantastic team of teachers at Morley College and I am sure they will be featured more in the coming series. So far, Adam Dyer, who currently runs our Swing Band and Jazz Repertoire Ensemble, is helping me prepare something special for our Big Band night, but I can’t say much more at this stage! Asaf Sirkis runs an annual two-day masterclass on Konnakol and Michael Chillingworth ran our Swing Band for a year. Both are featured in the series. I am really grateful to Asaf and Michael for helping and supporting me with this series of concerts.

LJN: And Bill Laurance has a role there too?

FLV: Juggling his busy solo career and his commitments with Snarky Puppy, Bill still finds the time to be our Artist-in-Residence. He is a great friend of Morley and he is constantly in touch with what happens here, often giving workshops and masterclasses at the College. We have something very exciting coming up with him soon. So stay tuned!

LJN: What will be the format for these Friday events?

FLV: Concerts will start at 8pm with two 45 minutes sets and a 20-minute break in the middle. Before each concert, from 6.30pm to 7.15pm the artists and I will discuss a jazz album that played a significant role in their musical life. These talks are free, open to the public, and will be part of a series of podcasts for our new Morley Radio Station.

LJN: And tell us about the venue you are using?

FLV: We will use our largest performance space at Morley, the Emma Cons Hall, a wonderful room equipped with a lovely grand piano.

The Emma Cons Hall at Morley College
Picture courtesy of Morley College
LJN: Tell us some more about your own jazz story. It what lit the spark for jazz in Palermo, or did it happen later?

FLV: My dad was a musician so I was surrounded by music and musicians from a very young age. Palermo is a very interesting place; because of its ties with the USA we had a constant flow of musicians coming and going from the States, bringing all the right information back after playing with the greats. My dad used to bring me to all of the big jazz gigs in town and I fell in love with the music and started taking piano and drum lessons.

Flavio Li Vigni
Photo credit: Trevor Lee
LJN:  And then Amsterdam, New York and now London?

FLV: Music was a key part of my life, I was playing jazz gigs and taking lessons but until I was 21 I was studying history and classics at university and preparing for a different career until I moved to New York for a few months. In the Big Apple I met some of my heroes including Elvin Jones, Joe Lovano and many others and I was encouraged to take music more seriously. Studying in the States wasn’t a possibility for me back then, I couldn’t ask my parents to support me through a second degree…. in music! Therefore, I found a great jazz programme in Holland at the Prince Claus Conservatory in Groningen, taught by American jazz royalties such as Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig, Don Braden, Deena DeRose, David Berkman, and my mentor, Ralph Peterson. The opportunity of studying and then playing with them was transformative. After my BA in Holland I won a Lerverhulme Trust scholarship to do a one year Masters at the Guildhall School of Music. Things really started happening from there and I was very lucky to play with great artists that I admired throughout my career.

LJN: What will be the best outcome you imagine from this series of concerts?

FLV: Our idea is to create a space where artists, students, educators and the community can come together to meet, play and discuss projects and possibly record (yes we also have an amazing recording studio!). I really believe that jazz is community music and has to be in contact with the various people it represents and then branch out to spread its message of life and inclusivity. Every year I will put together a different panel of musicians to select the artists for the next series. Our focus will be on quality and diversity in all its forms! We will take it from there…


Friday 25 January – Tori Freestone/Alcyona Mick
The distinctive saxophone/flute & piano duo perform following their acclaimed 2018 album Criss Cross.

Friday 22 February – Jason Rebello
The veteran British jazz pianist and Grammy winning album musician performs a special solo set following his celebrated album Held.

Friday 22 March – Asaf Sirkis
One of the world’s premier drummers performs tracks from his forthcoming album, Our New Earth.

Friday 26 April – Calum Gourlay Big Band
The ensemble led by bassist/composer Calum Gourlay performs contemporary and classic big band material.

Friday 24 May – Josephine Davies Trio
The tenor saxophonist performs with Dave Whitford on bass and Will Glaser on drums in her signature melodic style.

Friday 7 June – Morley Big Band led by Flavio Li Vigni, plus special guest
Keep an eye out in March 2019 for the announcement of our guest performer.

Friday 21 June – Mishka Adams & Pete Churchill
A live jazz folk special performing songs from their acclaimed album Stories to Tell.

Friday 28 June – Mike Chillingworth Quartet
The alto saxophonist leads Kit Downes on piano, Conor Chaplin on bass and James Maddren on drums.

Tickets for the individual concerts are £12, the talks are free, and a ticket for all 8 events in the inaugural season costs £60 or just £7.50 per concert.
LINK: Bookings for individual events and discounted series bookings


PREVIEW: Royal Bopsters return to London and Play Ronnie Scott's, 13 February

The Royal Bopsters
Photo Credit: Janis Wilkins

When the ROYAL BOPSTERS return to London to play Ronnie Scott’s on 13 February 2019, they will bring with them a whole shed-load of jazz history. Peter Jones previews the gig:

The American close-harmony quartet, the Royal Bopsters, are the latest group to carry the flame ignited by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the Fifties, continued by the Swingle Singers in the Sixties, and revived by the Manhattan Transfer in the Seventies. But the Royal Bopsters have gone a step further by featuring contributions from the jazz royalty referred to in their name: Jon Hendricks, Bob Dorough, Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy all appear as guests on their debut album released in 2015.

The group consists of Amy London (soprano), Holli Ross (alto), Pete McGuiness (tenor) and Dylan Pramuk (bass) – all of them prominent vocal jazz educators as well as performers and recording artists.

As well as harmony singing, they specialize in the tricky disciplines of scat and vocalese – scat being non-verbal vocal improvisation, and vocalese being the performance of lyrics set to existing recorded instrumental solos. These techniques first came to prominence when bebop was at its height - specifically in 1952, when King Pleasure recorded his famous version of Moody’s Mood for Love, with lyrics penned by Eddie Jefferson. They were based on tenor saxophonist James Moody’s solo on I’m in the Mood for Love, recorded three years earlier.

As any jazz singer knows, scatting is hard to do well, because you have to be as good an improviser as the musicians you are playing with. Vocalese is even harder, requiring a prodigious feat of memory as well as skill, since bop tunes are often sung at a terrifying tempo. The Royal Bopsters each have a lifetime of experience, but it’s always a high-wire act.

Holli Ross and Amy London with Mark Murphy
Photo credit: Janis Wilkins
With a new album – Party of Four – planned for release some time in Spring 2019, we will soon have a chance to hear some of their new material, as well as to reflect on the passing of time since their first release because, sadly, only Ross and Jordan are still with us. Mark Murphy died in 2015, Jon Hendricks in 2017, and Bob Dorough only last April. But the good news is that sprightly 90-year-old Sheila Jordan will be appearing with the Bopsters at their Ronnie Scott’s show.
Holli Ross recalls working with Dorough on the new album. “Bob was 92 or 93 when he sang with us, and he was an angel to work with. He drove himself all the way to New Jersey from Delaware Water Gap, walked in, and did it in two or three takes. He stayed long enough to tweak anything he didn’t like on the recording, and that was that. He was amazing.”

In 2012-13, when the group recorded their first album, Mark Murphy cut no fewer than six tracks, four of which appeared on the album, with two more held in reserve. “It was only because they were both ballads,” explains Ross, “and we already had ballads from Annie and Sheila.” The forthcoming release includes a new tune written by pianist Steve Schmidt, Why Did You Do Me Like You Did, with lyrics by Mark Murphy. Another famous name on the new album is bassist Christian McBride, a big fan of the group, who has also been helping behind the scenes to get them some high-profile live dates in 2019.

Meanwhile Holli Ross is thrilled to be performing with Sheila Jordan in London. “I feel like I’m getting a lesson whenever I’m with her. The wisdom of her years and her generosity with musicians are things we can all learn from.” Sheila Jordan and Jon Hendricks both sang with Charlie Parker in the early '50s, gold-plating the Royal Bopsters project with a sense of continuity and authenticity.

They will be joined at Ronnie Scottt’s by Nikki Iles on piano, Dave Whitford (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums) (pp)

LINK: Bookings for Royal Bopsters & Sheila Jordan at Ronnie Scott's


REVIEW: Sarah Jane Morris at Ronnie Scott's

Sarah Jane Morris
Publicity picture
Sarah Jane Morris
(Ronnie Scott’s, London. Wednesday 9 January 2019. Review by Jane Mann)

English soul jazz diva Sarah Jane Morris played the last of three consecutive sold out shows at Ronnie Scott’s and she was dazzling. It is more than 30 years since I first heard Morris sing in front of big band The Happy End, and her magnificent voice goes from strength to strength. She was supported by her long term collaborators – guitar virtuosi Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield, and renowned educator Henry Thomas on bass guitar, who between them have played in the studio and live with an amazing array of stars from the Bee Gees to Barbara Thompson. On drums and percussion is Martyn Barker, who has co-written many albums with Morris. They were joined by special guest guitarist Dominic Miller, perhaps best known for his extensive work with Sting, and three backing singers, Lily Bud, Morris’s son Otis Jack Coulter and Jasper Hill. Morris and the band opened with the joyous, African influenced Feel The Love from her 2014 CD Bloody Rain, and we knew we were in for a great night.

Morris, looking the picture of elegance in one of her trademark full-skirted Italian gowns, is that surprisingly rare creature – a singer who sings as if she really means it – and her performances can be an emotional rollercoaster for the sensitive listener. The abundance of guitars creates a full rich backdrop for that powerful contralto voice.

Next she sang a lovely version of Sting’s Fragile, on her 1995 album Blue Valentine, all shimmering acoustic guitars and gentle percussion. More covers of rock standards followed, fresh and invigorating re-interpretations which make you listen anew to familiar tunes. There was a stunning version of John Lennon’s Imagine, the piece totally re-imagined and given an extra verse, through which Morris channelled her genuine dismay and despair about Brexit. She then raised our spirits back up with a stand out version of Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart, for which Morris’s emotional and vocal range, and her mane of unruly hair, are perfect. There was terrific singing from the backing vocalists too, names to watch out for in the future.

The main part of the show highlighted Morris and Remy’s new project: an homage to the music of Scottish singer/songwriter John Martyn. There is synchronicity here – Martyn died 10 years ago aged 60, Morris will be 60 this year, and Ronnie Scott’s is also celebrating its 60 years.

The John Martyn section covered many of my old favourites: Head And Heart, Over The Hill, One World, and the iconic May You Never. Morris’s extraordinary vocal range is a match for John Martyn’s, and the arrangements for voice, guitars and percussion are inspired. Each musician has their own distinctive style, yet they play so gorgeously together, swapping roles, creating wonderful grooves, with intricate solos woven into the whole, and no ostentation. Morris swoops and soars overhead, relishing those delicious Martyn melodies, and the effect is mesmeric. Solid Air was a particular delight. It’s a lovely song, and this arrangement was an exemplar for Morris’s impressive vocal technique and the sensitive ensemble playing of the band.

The band clearly all get on, and Morris gave each of them a warm introduction in the closing song, Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. She has an easy way with the audience too, with amusing interjections between numbers. She encouraged everyone to sing and clap along with the Dylan, and the show finished to joyful applause.

The first encore was Don’t Leave Me This Way, the wildly popular no. 1 hit Morris had with the Communards in 1986. By now, almost everyone was on their feet dancing and joining in, including the waiting-on staff. After that delirium, the band gave us another reworked Martyn classic which Morris has performed for years: I Don’t Wanna Know 'Bout Evil. We all stayed on our feet, and were invited to join the refrain of this one too – it turns out to be a great sing-along. After many iterations of the chorus, the audience cheered and whooped, and the mood was buoyant. What a splendid night!

A five-track studio-recorded EP Sweet Little Mystery is already available from The new Martyn CD will be launched with a concert at the Purcell Room on Tuesday 14 May 2019. Until then Sarah Jane Morris is on tour in England and Italy.

Sarah Jane Morris - vocals
Tony Remy - guitar
Tim Cansfield - guitar
Dominic Miller - guitar
Henry Thomas - bass guitar
Martyn Barker - drums and percussion
Lily Bud, Otis Jack Coulter, Jasper Hill - backing vocals


PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Oene van Geel (LoLanders at Celtic Connections, Glasgow, 22 January)

Oene van Geel
Photo credit: © Govert Driessen from Oene van Geel's website
Dutch violist Oene van Geel and Scottish multi-instrumentalist Fraser Fifield lead LoLanders, a new sextet that makes its debut at Celtic Connections in Glasgow on Tuesday 22 January 2019. Rob Adams introduces the band:

The latest instalment of the Going Dutch project, which is continuing to promote jazz musicians from the Netherlands across the UK and Ireland during 2019, LoLanders also features Scottish guitarist Graeme Stephen and Glasgow-based tablas master Hardeep Deerhe alongside Dutch bass guitar-percussion team Mark Haanstra and Udo Demandt and has concerts lined up – so far – in Amsterdam, Sheffield, Newcastle and Bath later in the year.

LoLanders follows on from van Geel and Fifield’s meeting during the first international edition of Serious’ Take Five initiative in 2012, after which the violist invited Fifield, a piper and saxophonist who has developed advanced techniques and a deeply expressive style on the low whistle, to work with his group the Nordanians in the Netherlands.

“We got on really well during Take Five,” says van Geel. “It was clear that we had a good musical understanding from the start and when Fraser came over to Amsterdam he fitted in very naturally to what we do in the Nordanians. His low whistle playing especially gave us a different but highly compatible dimension and we always planned to work together again at some point.”

It was actually guitarist Graeme Stephen who maintained the connection between Edinburgh and Amsterdam. While working on a new piece for guitar and string quartet, which became the album Distances, Stephen mentioned to Fifield (the pair have a long-running duo) that he would need to find string players who had a fairly elastic approach. Fifield immediately thought of van Geel who, as well as the Nordanians, also works with the adventurous string quartet Zapp4.

“Fraser told me about Graeme and I thought, if Graeme has the same sense of enquiry and the same expression in his playing as Fraser does, then this could be really interesting,” says van Geel.

One Skype call later, Stephen had the string quartet he needed for Distances. He and Zapp4 subsequently worked together on Stephen’s soundtrack for the 1927 classic film Metropolis, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 and went on to great success at the Xintiandi Festival in Shanghai.

Fraser Fifield
Photo credit: © Patrick Hadfield
When they decided to put LoLanders together van Geel and Fifield took the unconventional step of choosing musicians ahead of instrumentation. Stephen was an automatic choice, as was bassist Mark Haanstra, with whom van Geel – mirroring Fifield and Stephen’s partnership – has a very successful duo, and the two percussionists are also players the two nominal co-leaders have enjoyed working with before.

“We could have ended up with quite an odd combination but as it happens we have an instrumental line-up that has the three main elements – melody, harmony and rhythm – quite strongly covered,” says van Geel. “None of us has any idea of what it might sound like but I’ve every faith in the musicians involved to produce something interesting.”

The six musicians will convene in the Scottish Borders for three days’ rehearsals ahead of the Celtic Connections concert, which also features young Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie’s trio, and the composers among them have all been primed to take along new pieces.

“I’m really excited about the band,” says van Geel. “It’s particularly interesting because we’re not just going to get together, create one concert and then lose touch, as can often happen in situations where you put a new group together for a festival. Having these other concerts lined up will allow us to develop and blend these six personalities together into one collective identity.

Rob Adams is a freelance journalist based in Edinburgh and helps publicise Going Dutch.

LINK: Oene van Geel's website

Celtic Connections event page


PREVIEW: Roth / Zimpel / Zemler (Jazz Café POSK, 26 January)

Alex Roth, Wacław Zimpel and Hubert Zemler
Photo credits L-R: Ken Drew, Joanna Kurkowska, Maciej Włodarczyk
Guitarist and composer ALEX ROTH left London for Kraków last summer in search of his Polish roots and artistic inspiration. We can hear the results in a new collaboration and a pair of concerts, in Kraków on 19 January and at Jazz Cafe POSK on 26 January. Alex explains his relocation and its results:

Last summer, I left London’s sprawling medley for the enchanting, historic city of Kraków, Poland. Among my reasons for relocating was a desire to (re)connect with my ancestral heritage – a calling that had intensified in the wake of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis and various debates on immigration surrounding a certain referendum in June 2016. In such an environment, I felt hitherto dormant questions of belonging and identity bubble up to the surface. A couple of years down the line, I’m writing this from a place my ancestors called home for centuries...

My great-great-grandfather Herschel Roth came to the UK around 1890 from Kalisz, an ancient town now in central Poland but then under Russian rule (and formerly part of of Prussia). Fleeing the pogroms against Jews that were sweeping across the region, Herschel found his way to London's East End, adopting the Anglicised name Harris. Over a century later, I’m retracing in reverse a migratory path that he and many other Jewish families took. The difference (other than the direction of travel) is that they made the journey out of desperation and fear, whereas I came to Poland filled with curiosity and hope.

Thanks to support from Arts Council England, I’ve been in residence at the Galicia Jewish Museum, exploring historical and contemporary Polish-Jewish life and attempting to position my own experience in relation to it after a four-generation separation.

I’m not sure I believe in the concept of national identity (at least as defined geopolitically), but in as much as Polishness can be said to exist, one of its most striking characteristics is surely a pervasive sense of everyday life being imbued with history. The longer a conversation here goes on, the more likely one is to end up discussing the country’s past. And not without good reason: indeed, it’s difficult to think of a European nation that has shape-shifted quite as radically as Poland in the modern era.

In 1795, the last of three partitions by the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires wiped the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (as it was then) from the map altogether. My family records don’t go that far back, but if my ancestors were already settled in Kalisz by this time, they would have been part of a Jewish community that made up 40 percent of the town’s population. Over the next century, growing Russian-backed antisemitism fueled great waves of emigration to western Europe and the US. Herschel/Harris, along with his parents and nine siblings, settled in Mile End.

We all know what fate befell the vast majority of Jews who remained. Today, Poland’s Jewish population – once the largest in Europe – is estimated at well under 10,000. But in the post-communist era, a generation of my peers has been seizing the opportunity presented by a more open society (the current right-wing government’s efforts notwithstanding) to re-evaluate Polish-Jewish culture. For the first time, artists and cultural commentators across the former Soviet bloc are free to engage critically with the complex events of the last hundred years or so. Meanwhile, institutions celebrating Jewish culture have opened all over Poland: Jewish Community Centres in Kraków and Warsaw; the capital’s Museum of the Living History of Polish Jews POLIN; the Galicia Jewish Museum. Kraków’s Jewish Culture Festival – taking place over ten days in the city’s Jewish quarter – is the largest of its kind in Europe.

The music I’m making during my time here isn’t intended to evoke that which might have been heard in 19th century shtetls. Instead, it’s a personal response to the the experience of returning to my ancestral homeland and seeking to connect with the culture I’ve found here. The project’s culmination is a pair of concerts, in Kraków (19 January) and London (26 January), with two musicians at the forefront of Poland's experimental scene: clarinettist Wacław Zimpel and percussionist Hubert Zemler.

When I first started checking out Polish contemporary music – with the help of excellent features by bandcamp (see here and here) and the Quietus – Wacław and Hubert seemed to be associated with most of the records I really resonated with. Their solo releases (Lines and Pupation of Dissonance respectively) and records with groups like LAM and To Tu Orchestra were signs that something special was happening here. It’s an honour to be sharing the stage with them.

Since I conceived of this project, several of the themes it explores – not least migration and Jewish identity – have become widely discussed issues across British media. My generation of UK citizens looks set to become the last to have grown up with the right to move freely across European borders. Meanwhile, citations of antisemitism abound, both in Britain and Poland. In this context, my explorations seem (to me, at least) to have taken on an extra layer of symbolism, perhaps even defiance.

LINKS: Roth / Zimpel / Zemler perform at Jazz Café POSK, Hammersmith, on Saturday 26 January. More info and tickets are available here.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of selected tracks from the discographies of Alex Roth, Wacław Zimpel and Hubert Zemler.


REVIEW: Tomorrow’s Warriors presents I Am Warrior at the Jazz Cafe

Binker Golden conductiing Roella Oloro (piano) and Donovan Haffner (alto)
Photo credit: © MSpictures.Mochles 
Tomorrow’s Warriors presents I Am Warrior
(Jazz Cafe, 12 January 2019. Review by Leah Williams.) 

It is no exaggeration to say that Tomorrow’s Warriors has almost single-handedly changed the face of contemporary jazz across London and beyond. Founders Janine Irons and Gary Crosby set up the music charity in 1991 with a mission to improve diversity and equality in jazz by offering tuition, support and opportunity to musicians of all ethnicities, genders and backgrounds. The pioneering artist development programme has since seen a plethora of extraordinary talent take the jazz world by storm.

The likes of Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Femi Koleoso are all making waves in the music world – and that’s just the beginning of the list. As Soweto Kinch said while introducing the evening: “I could spend all night telling you about the incredible musicians who’ve passed through Tomorrow’s Warriors and the impact they’ve gone on to have.”

Soweto Kinch
Photo credit: © MSpictures.Mochles
Sunday jam sessions at the Jazz Cafe were the foundation of Tomorrow’s Warriors and where many of its biggest names would have first begun cutting their teeth. So for this special celebration of the Warriors movement, and to raise funds to keep the programme running, current young Warriors joined some of these illustrious alumni back on the stage where it all began.

The pieces played were specially written for the concert and #IAmWarrior fundraising campaign by seven of the Warriors' well-known ex-students: singer Zara McFarlane, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, pianist Peter Edwards, saxophonists Soweto Kinch, Binker Golding and Cassie Kinoshi, and trumpeter Mark Crown.

The result was a fantastic breadth of creativity and dynamism showcasing both the different musical voices of these Warriors alumni and the exciting talent emerging from its current cohort. Pieces ranged in complexity, focus and style but the young musicians rose to the challenge of both the music and the setting, showing how effective this development programme is and why it is so important for the future jazz scene.

Joe Bristow
Photo credit: © MSpictures.Mochles
One of the highlights had to be Shirley Tetteh’s Sutures, which brought her distinctive style of contemporary jazz to the fore with vocals and instruments coming together in an intricately woven piece of storytelling. Binker Golding’s rapport with the young musicians, many of whom he teaches at Tomorrow’s Warriors, also shone through in his tune Exquisite Green Revisited that treated us to some of the high-octane energy Binker’s music is known for, with syncopated blasts across a lyrical soundscape keeping the musicians and audience on their toes.

Zara McFarlane
Photo credit: © MSpictures.Mochles
After the main concert the music continued with a jam session, with ever more Warriors' alumni appearing and other young musicians given the chance to shine on stage. An en masse, inter-generational version of Caravan concluded the evening in an appropriately celebratory fashion, leaving the audience full of the positive vibes that epitomise the Warriors' way.

Imagining a London jazz scene without the many incredible talents that have been nurtured by Tomorrow’s Warriors is almost inconceivable and the next generations of young artists are relying on the programme for their development and future careers.

Binker Golding
Photo credit: © MSpictures.Mochles
The current Warriors house band is:

Ife Ogunjobi – trumpet
Joe Bristow – trombone
Donovan Haffner – alto saxophone
Maddy Coombs – tenor saxophone
Cara Crosby-Irons – vocals
Loucin Moskofian - vocals
Roella Oloro – piano
Tommy Remon – guitar
Isobella Burnham – bass guitar
Hamish Moore – double bass
Zoe Pascal – drums

Leah Williams is a freelance journalist and editor working across many different sectors and has been a regular reviewer and feature writer for LJN since 2016.

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REVIEW: Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde at Cafe Oto

Elaine Mitchener, with Neil Charles, Mark Sanders and Jason Yarde at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved

Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde
(Cafe Oto, 7 January 2019; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

When vocalist Elaine Mitchener's hand-picked group first performed Vocal Classics of the Black Avant-Garde in 2017 at the London Contemporary Music Festival (reviewed here)  there was a clearly structured programme with each of the six works self-contained, identified by title, and relatively faithful to the originals in their intense interpretations.

Revisiting this significant oeuvre, the same ensemble – Mitchener with Jason Yarde (saxophones and musical director), Byron Wallen (trumpet), Neil Charles (bass), Mark Sanders (percussion), poet Dante Micheaux, with Alexander Hawkins (piano) taking the place of Robert Mitchell – has digested, invested in and explored the field with such commitment and intensity that some in their new selection of works re-emerged almost unrecognisable, especially as they were segued without breaks or explanatory assistance for the audience.

As with accomplished actors, the musicians lived and breathed the agonising context and content to which the compositions and poems gave access, and in performance these landmark statements were presented in a fresh format with the originals as stepping stones to contemporary interpretations.

Whereas the originals pushed the envelope of their times and, on listening to recordings where available, still unnerve convincingly, the interpretations presented at Cafe Oto pushed today's envelope in equally uncomfortable directions as, by implication, they reflected and acknowledged the issues in which society remains deeply mired.

Leading the group in from the back of the house, Yarde's mouthpiece squawking bird calls set the stage for an explosive start with percussive fireworks from Hawkins on keyboards, raw, farmyard honking from Yarde on alto, searing brass fire from Wallen and vocals right out on the edge from Mitchener, suddenly morphing to near silence with Sanders and Charles taking the pace right down, and Yarde merely tapping the sax's keys to background Mitchener's tense meanderings.

Sanders’ gamelan tones and Charles' bowed bass defined the underlying texture of Bob James's Personal Statement aka Jim Crow, which had Eric Dolphy on the two extraordinary recordings of the composition made in 1964 with its vocals from counter-tenor David Schwartz, giving Yarde, switching to baritone sax, and Mitchener the opportunity to pay energetic homage to Dolphy, who embraced such challenges with intelligence, virtuosity and great gusto.

The ensuing compelling, cacophonous group chaos was overtaken by Wallen's muted trumpet tones, Charles' micro-toned bass and a spell on maracas from Sanders leading in to Micheaux's poised delivery of Joseph Jarman's music-flushed word-scape, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, keeping true to Jarman's diction on his early Delmark recording, articulating "The hell of where we are", "The city… where no one is more alone than any other", concluding with the ominous "…non-cognitive doom".

Archie Shepp's milestone, On this Night (If that Great Day Would Come), followed on without a pause, with Mitchener sensitively articulating the tribute to campaigner W. E. B. Du Bois before the group dived into the piece's romping blues passages with burning passion, kicking all the way!

Fragments and poems were stirred in to the mix of heritages, divides and injustices – "Come celebrate… Lexington 96 Street Stop…"; "Guinea Bissau… Mozambique"; "Angola, maximum security prison, Louisiana… my wife died and you hand me a ticket for drinking red pop"; "Motherland, the give and take of liberty"; with Micheaux returning to prose in celebration of "queen and country" with an extract (as identified by a friend) possibly from Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners with words receding behind Yarde's sampled saxophone layers, poignantly affirming "The place in which I stand is the land in which I must be free".

All this before Hawkins tied up the evening in glorious style with a massive, boisterous, boogie-woogie, samba cocktail.

Next time round, Moor Mother, with her coruscating, visceral poetry, could be an ideal partner on a double bill (as she was in 2017).

Neil Charles at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2019. All Rights Reserved