Sunday, 30 December 2007

CDs of the year...2005

As we prepare to enter 2008, it makes sense that I take a look back at my CDs of the year from 2005. Anybody who knows me almost certainly thinks that I'm behind the times, and if the amount of Japanese free-jazz-funk from the '70s that I've been downloading lately is any guide, I could be anything up to 35 years in arrears.

Every year the magazine asks the team of writers to name and justify the best music they've heard during the year. In my case it gets harder as time goes by because I listen to less and less new stuff. My selections are taken from a very small pool of music, and almost always I miss something obvious that should have been included.

It got even harder the year that our late editor Richard Cook decided we'd only be allowed to pick one re-issue, but I fully understand why he did it. My selection of Greg Osby above William Parker even plays into that agenda, to a large extent.

The Osby disc still sounds great, but with hindsight I play both the Andersen and Parker albums far more often. Parker is up at the top practically every year, and I suppose my push on Osby was motivated by a desire to drag readers out of nostalgia mode and take a fresh look at the heroes of today. The Orrin Evans disc is probably there for sentimental reasons, as 2005 was the year I lost my father.

When all's said and done, I think I can still live with my choices...

1: GREG OSBY/Channel Three (Blue Note)
2: WAYNE SHORTER/Beyond The Sound Barrier (Verve)
3: WILLIAM PARKER/Luc’s Lantern (Thirsty Ear)
4: JIM PAYNE/Energie (High Note)
5: CHARLES LLOYD/Jumping The Creek (ECM)
6: WALLACE RONEY/Mystikal (High Note)
7: GRACHAN MONCUR III/Exploration (Capri)
8: TOMMY SMITH/Forbidden Fruit (Spartacus)
10: ORRIN EVANS/Easy Now (Criss Cross)

THE JAZZ CRUSADERS/The Festival Album (Pacific Jazz)

Last year I complained about how hard it was to find ten new releases to put into my list, bemoaning the restriction of just five re-issues by way of contrast. What a difference a year makes. Re-issues may have been cut to just one choice, but the top ten new releases could have been filled two or three times over with any number of high quality offerings.

This is the way it should be, if jazz has any kind of serious future. It’s fitting that Greg Osby, a man who in so many ways represents that future, should reign supreme. Wayne Shorter was only a whisker behind, and William Parker’s beautiful Luc’s Lantern could so easily have been the one in any lesser year. I include the Orrin Evans disc both on merit, and, because on a personal note I lost my father, the man who first introduced me to jazz, earlier this year. This is Evans’ musical coming to terms with that same tragedy in his own life, and there’s no mistaking the feeling.

Whilst the flow of essential re-issues shows no sign of reversing, the winner chose itself by virtue of the number of times it’s been played and enjoyed. Now, time to buy that nice new Jazz Crusaders Mosaic box-set before it sells out...

Fred Grand

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Amnesia is the best policy...

Just to show that I never deviate from my mission, I thought I'd blog even though it's Christmas Day.

The day began well enough. A crisp frosty morning - perfect for a 90 minute ride on my single speed mountain bike. Apart from a small armada of dogs being walked by owners without dog-leads, there was hardly a soul around.

Fully awake, I then visited my mother and ate so much food that I returned to an even greater state of drowsiness. As I sit around now listening to Matthew Shipp, a thought has just occurred to me: What could be better for Christmas Day than a link to a piece I wrote on the role of memory in improvised music?

Probably many things could be better than a link to this piece on the role of memory in improvised music, but I've done it anyway. Never let it be said that this blog is not in the business of courting popularity.

If the BBC can show Finding Nemo and Her Majesty The Queen, I can make populist concessions too.

Merry Christmas!!

Saturday, 22 December 2007

David Torn...

In naming my CD of the year, a few preliminaries need to be considered. Firstly, I don't listen to very many new CDs, so it often takes serendipity for new music to reach me. The next thing to consider is that most of the new music I do listen to are CDs I'm sent to review. As I only get sent about three a month, that leaves some pretty huge gaps.

So, perhaps I should try harder and seek out a wider cross-section of new releases? At one time I did just that, but came to realise that very little of today's output can cut it against the rightly acclaimed landmarks of the past. A conservative position? Hardly, as the majority of what I listen to would be branded either avant-garde or obscure.

If I had to name the best new CD I've heard this year then that honour would go to William Parker's Corn Meal Dance. Not much point in doing that in the context of this blog, however. I haven't reviewed Corn Meal Dance, and nor do I intend to.

So, of the CDs that I have actually reviewed this year, the very worthy winner of the title 'best of 2007' is David Torn's Presenz. This is an album that is actually outstanding enough to push Wm Parker very close. I'd actually bought a copy before I was sent one to review (just my luck!), and it was always going to be one of that small percentage of new releases that I'd make the effort to hear. Truly music for today, and also music that shows just how far the boundaries of jazz can stretch...

ECM (80008650-02)

AK; Rest & Unrest; Structural Functions Of Prezens; Bulbs; Them Buried Standing; Sink; Neck-deep In The Harrow…; Ever More Other; Ring For Endless Travel; Miss Place, The Mist…; Transmit Regardless.

Tim Berne (as); David Torn (g, elec); Craig Taborn (ky); Tom Rainey (d).
Recorded March 2005.

Torn doesn’t just play guitar, he is a master of the recording studio and modern production techniques. As much known these days for his work as a film scorer, it is almost 20 years since the cousin of Rip Torn regularly appeared as an ECM artist. In those days he was closely aligned to the Bill Frisell sound, but has since deviated, some would say, off-course. His most recent forays into jazz have included producing some of Tim Berne’s best work (for the Thirsty Ear label), and it is to this coterie of players that he looks on his triumphant return as a group leader.

Although you’ll find a mind-boggling array of studio techniques, including live sampling, you don’t need to know what is happening to enjoy this vividly atmospheric recording. In placing the technology at the disposal of the music, Torn actively shapes a very specific sound-world of his own. Imagine John Zorn meeting Steve Tibbetts and you should get an inkling of how this record sounds.

A cinematic odyssey, the images that would accompany Prezens would almost certainly involve an unsettling look at the underbelly of rural Americana. Apart from a few bravura flashes, including a high octane solo over a rock vamp on the otherwise swamp-blues inflected opener “AK”, there is little in the way of grandstanding from Torn or his group. A spoken word intro to “Rest & Unrest” heightens the dramatic tension, and the listener is kept alert throughout by sudden and often violent changes of direction.

You won’t really find Berne cutting loose in an orthodox jazz sense because this is very much a group music, one where the sonic ambiences demanded by the producer are paramount. Taborn brings an arsenal of keyboards, and whether it’s earthy Hammond (“AK”) or spacey Sun Ra-esque shards (“Bulbs”), his presence is always felt. Close mic-ing of Rainey allows even the smallest gesture to register and change the patina of the music, and he consummately handles everything from precision rock vamps, locked hip-hop grooves (“Sink”) and light but mesmerising trance passages (“Them Buried Standing” and the Indian tinged “Miss Place, The Mist…”).

Those who lost faith in Torn after too many disappointing forays into experimental rock music are due a rethink – this is challenging and ambitious music, confirming that he is back to his best, right at the cutting edge, and surpassing earlier high-watermarks with ease.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, 2007)

Monday, 17 December 2007

Lars Danielsson, Nils Landgren, Christopher Dell...

I thought I'd finished the Scandinavian theme, but then I found this.

The CD is one of the best I've reviewed for a long time, and a perfect soundtrack for Christmas. Perfect, that is, in as much as it is as far away from the brash, garish and generally unpleasant echoes that can be found everywhere at this time of year.

Other than retailers and undertakers, does anybody over the age of 4 actually need Christmas?

Comments, as always, are welcome...

Salzau Music On The Water
ACT (9445-2)

Salzau Music On The Water Parts I to XI.

Lars Danielsson (b); Christopher Dell (vib); Nils Landgren (tb).
Recorded July 4th 2005, Jazz Baltica Festival.

One of the great things about the early satellite TV revolution was the availability of a number of German regional TV stations, all of which broadcast healthy doses of live jazz. It was through these broadcasts that I came to know the Jazz Baltica festival, programmed by Ganelin Trio drummer, and all-round ‘renaissance man’, Vladimir Tarasov. This recording, from the 2005 edition of the festival, is typical of the ambitious boundary breaking programming of a festival that regularly presents the cream of Europe’s creative jazz artists.

A remarkable almost zen-like meditation, Salzau Music On The Water was recorded at 5AM, and was shaped to an unusual degree by time and place. Lasting just over an hour, the eleven improvised movements of this suite were performed in the middle of a sound installation built on the the jetty protruding into the Salzau palace pond. The installation is ten years old, and was created by Tarasov and Ilya Kabakov, who arranged dangling metal ‘found’ objects around the roof of the jetty, creating a rich and indeterminate set of wind chimes that never sound the same twice. Not always audible during this performance, the chimes are nevertheless a soothing undertow during the quieter passages.

The 5AM start time, coinciding with sunrise, has the serendipitous effect of enlisting the lake’s dawn chorus for added atmosphere. Dell’s vibraphone chording, which provides a hypnotic lead into ‘Part I’, blends eerily with the clinking of the installation’s metal. Part chimes, part gamelan, he gives the music its free-floating and expansive feel. Danielsson’s bass is perhaps a little spongy and under-recorded, though it provides the music with a palpably living pulse. Landgren, the man with the red horn who is best known for plugged-in funk, closely resembles the Bob Brookmeyer of the Guiffre 3. Breathy, fluid, lyrical and earthy, he will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with the gentler side of his work.

Veering between forward momentum and timelessness, the eleven pieces are exemplary studies of concentration. Only ‘Part XI’, with it’s plaintive melody and Landgren’s declamatory blues phrasing, breaks the mould. Unexpectedly dissolving into the ambient noise of Salzau, this short release provides a fitting closure to a work of trio virtuosity of uncommon brilliance.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2007)

Friday, 14 December 2007

Pro Cycling: 2007 in review...

It’s hard not to feel positive about the sport of professional cycling after the season we’ve just endured. Let’s face it, things can’t get any worse, can they? This was the year in which the Tour de France started in London and ended in farce, the two largest sponsors of the last decade withdrew their money, the Pro Tour series imploded well before it was won by Cadel Evans (a rider who failed to register a single victory), the UCI lost control of the biggest races in the calendar, and former champions took it upon themselves by the dozen to confess histories of doping in their time at the top level. And that's before we've even mentioned Operacion Puerto or Team Astana. The Kazakh super team now seem to be basing their defence of disgraced riders Alexander Vinokourov and Andrej Kasheckin on doping tests being an infringement of human rights. Great stuff! How could you not feel positive about cycling?

Let’s start at the beginning. In January we still didn’t know who’d won last July’s Tour De France, the disgraced Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso had just signed for Discovery Channel, and people were so turned off by the Vuelta a Espana that they were calling for it to be cut from three weeks of racing to just two, to spare us the misery.

True, T-Mobile and CSC were embarking on radical anti-doping policies and you could sense the beginning of a sea change in attitudes towards cheating, but nobody could really have had an inkling of what was to come. It was quite ironic that T-Mobile were to be at the centre of so much of the scandal. On the road they enjoyed limited success but lots of credibility. Linus Gerdemann and Mark Cavendish rode with distinction, and the dismissal of Sergei Gonchar and Patrik Sinkewitz for doping offences showed that their zero tolerance stance was more than just talk. Yet the team became embroiled in a very public hanging of past dirty laundry, riders including Bjarne Riis, Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag admitting to the existence of and participation in systematic doping within the team during their careers.

By and large the team avoided damage to its image as it was widely appreciated that past indiscretions were nothing to do with the new model T-Mobile, but it all proved to be too much for their sponsor. Barely a month after their great rivals at Discovery were disbanding, the German telecommunications giant was beating a hasty retreat too. They joined Unibet and Gerolsteiner in leaving the sport, and even if the grand dream of the Pro Tour series hadn’t fallen apart due to the political infighting between race organisers and the UCI, it would have been greatly depleted in 2008 by a shortage of teams with the financial wherewithal even to participate.

Next year will see a very different season, and this is where all of my positive feelings are coming from. The sport had has its wake up call and stared over the edge of the precipice. Riders are speaking openly against cheating, and the new post-Pro Tour structure may actually favour more open racing with more wild cards for local teams, fewer squads stretched to breaking point and turning up at races simply to go through the motions, and perhaps the return of some much needed perspective on the public perception of the sport from the UCI. Although not perfect, everybody used to love the old World Cup, made up of the best one day races in Europe.

By taking the grand (and not so grand) tours out of the equation and losing the preposterous ‘one size fits all’ notion of competition, we should see the return of meaningful season-long racing with prizes returning to the hands of the sport’s true specialists. Danilo Di Luca would certainly have made a swash-buckling champion had he not been withdrawn from the competition on its final weekend for his part in the ‘oil for drugs’ scandal, but much as I admire the battling Cadel Evans, nobody can be happy to see him winning the supposedly prestigious Pro Tour jersey after such a lacklustre and winless season.

To know pleasure you’ve got to know pain, and 2007 has brought enough of the latter to last most sports a decade. What 2007 has done is show that sponsors, the public and the media will not accept the lies of the past. Riders and managers alike know that their livelihoods are on the line and that any repeats of the events of 2007 could be the final trapdoor. New teams like Slipstream are queueing up to join CSC and Team High Road (formerly T-Mobile) in a commitment to clean racing. Avowedly clean French teams may now start to find the sport less ‘two-speed’, losing their biggest excuse for so many barren years, and British riders also look poised to break through into the big time.

Here’s to riders who actually looking like they’re breathing heavily as they negotiate Alpine passes, a French winner of a major race sometime in 2008, a Tour de France with a winner to believe in, and the summary removal of any remaining cheats still earning a living in the peleton. The only human rights in need of protection are those of clean riders trying to make a living on a level playing field. They may just be in luck. It’s hard not to feel positive about cycling, isn’t it...?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Ulf Wakenius...

With a name like Ulf he has to be Scandinavian, and in fact he is. Swedish guitarist Wakenius is another of those international sounding musicians who seem to escape their roots and favour something more generic. The Kasper Villaume review below paraphrased Charlie Parker to make the point, but could equally have lifted from Charles Mingus, who directed some prescient sentiments towards European musicians that he felt simply copied the predominantly black styles coming out of America.

Mingus' exact quote, which I forget, probably referred to "white motherfuckers" at least twice, but underneath the racial tension lay an interesting and valid point. He basically implored Europeans to explore their roots and incorporate their own traditional musics into their improvisational language - be it European folk musics or the Western classical tradition. Coming before the birth of 'Eurojazz' as an identifiable style, his remark could almost be retrospectively interpreted as the rallying call to the many Europeans who went on to forge the classic ECM sound in the '70s.

Relying on considerable cross-fertilisation with many American musicians, some of them black, the new sound nevertheless must surely have been what Mingus envisaged. How does Wakenius fit in to this speculative pre-amble, you may ask? Well, normally he's a transgressor who favours the American approach, but on this record, which features the under-rated Lars Danielsson, he is definitely looking closer to home for inspiration.

We're getting close to Christmas and I don't want to be accused of being too seasonal - Santa Claus is rumoured to hang out in Lapland after all - so I really should bring this mini-Scandinavian theme to an end very soon. Next up will hopefully be something completely different...

Forever You

Forever You; Buenos Aires; Arirang; All The Things You Are; Suffering; You Will Always Be Around; Bibor No Azora; Always And Forever; Skylark.

Ulf Wakenius (g); Carsten Dahl (p); Lars Danielsson (b); Morten Lund (d)

Recorded May to September 2003

Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius seems to have been a presence for some time now without ever becoming much of a talking point. First reaching my consciousness through a 1994 session with the heavyweight American rhythm section of Ira Coleman and Billy Hart, Wakenius has since worked and recorded extensively with the late Ray Brown and had brushes with both Hard-bop and fusion.

He now seems to be gradually settling back into his European roots, playing in the pastoral and introspective post-ECM vein. Although ‘Forever You’ credits Wakenius as exclusively playing acoustic guitar, the studio recording process in fact makes it sound more like a clean electric jazz archtop - more Metheny than Towner. The band that Wakenius has assembled for the occasion is sympathetic to his aims of exploring a composition’s lyrical and melodic possibilities to the full. This requires finely honed technique and studied patience, and that they’ve all played together before is evident from their close-knit interplay.

Sadly, however, much of the chosen material is far less remarkable. In a collection where individual selections seem to these ears to be decidedly unmemorable and indistinct, a beautiful interpretation of Pat Metheny’s “Always And Forever’ stands out as the one exception. Though clocking in at under an hour, there still seems time somehow for at least two more introspective ballads than necessary, and after listening carefully to the two unaccompanied standards, ‘All The Things You Are’ and ‘Skylark’, I was left thinking that for all of Wakenius’ great virtuosity, almost any tune would have produced similar results. It must be said however that my own preference is always for a meatier/bluesier post Benson/Montgomery sound from a 'jazz' guitarist, perhaps best embodied amongst contemporary pickers by Rodney Jones.

Strangely, on what is generally a work of almost flawless good taste, pianist Dahl’s closely recorded Jarrett-esque grunting is a pleasant fly in the ointment. More flaws with similar impact, positive or negative, could have made a far more interesting recording. If you’re more sympathetically predisposed to this kind of jazz than I am, Wakenius is worthy of your attention, attention which may yet move him out of the shadows and into the foreground of Europe’s contemporary mainstream.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2004)

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Kasper Villaume...

Thought I'd return to the Scandinavian theme again, as it seems to me like unfinished business.

There's nothing very Scandinavian about the music on this CD, and apart from its great cover there's not really anything much to recommend it, either. As I state in the review, it's the kind of jazz you can now hear anywhere. Well played, won't disappoint, but distinguished? I didn't think so.

I was of course thinking of Charlie Parker's "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn" remark in my summary. Too much jazz sounds learned as opposed to lived these days, but that's another issue. I'm off to listen to AMM's Newfoundland in protest...

# 2

Bubbles; All The Things You Are; Quartet #2; I Wish I Knew; My Man’s Gone Now; The Speedmaster; Villaumenizer; Song; Blame It On My Youth.

Lars Moller (ts); Kasper Villaume (p); Jesper Bodilsen (b); Morten Lund (d).
Recorded December 2002.

The cover of Danish pianist Kasper Villaume’s new disc shows him astride an old upright piano, placed in front of an external wall with his back to the camera. More a comment on the play-anywhere-to-make-a-living culture that most jazz musicians find themselves caught up in than a foretaste of anything heard on the far from rough and ready recording it wraps. Self-taught as a jazz pianist, Villaume was in fact classically trained before choosing to eke out a living playing the music he prefers.

He recently recorded in New York with Jeff ‘Tain” Watts, but for #2 he returns with his established quartet of beefy tenorist Lars Moller, who gets an equal share of the solo space, and dependable bass/drums team of Bodilsen and Lund. The pianist’s style draws liberally from the Evans/Jarrett/Petrucciani schools, gaining extra fruitiness with a spiking of Garner and Monk. This is the kind of ‘traditional’ post-Coltrane jazz now found in any major city in the world , and they motor through the well-balanced programme of standards and ‘originals’ (that somehow manage to sound like standards) with considerable ease.

The title track is one of those fiendishly complex Chick Corea pieces, and it contains the disc’s most extrovert playing, pushing the group to the edge for the only time. Arne Forchammer’s sympathetic sleevenotes are curiously apologetic for Villaume’s exhumation of warhorses like ‘All The Things You Are’ and ‘I Wish I Knew’, and perhaps unwittingly he uncovers the disc’s most problematic feature. Despite the fresh and ingenious interpretation of ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ (equal parts ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’), too many of the pieces are simply unremarkable. ‘Bubbles’ is bright enough, but it unashamedly harks back to Jarrett’s Scandinavian Quartet, whilst ‘The Speedmaster’ sounds uncomfortably close to one of those generic Kenny Wheeler pieces from the same era.

‘Villaumenizer’ riffs with a now public domain Tyner pedal-vamp to pleasing effect, but the closing solo piano interpretation of ‘Blame It On My Youth’ is a bit of a damp squib. It’s not easy to discern just how much of the quartet’s expression is learned as opposed to lived. For all of the many qualities to be found on #2, I probably damn it with faint praise in saying that it made me want to listen more to the music it references along the way than to Villaume’s own slightly stale version of it.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2005)

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Roberto Fonseca...

A slight departure to start December: this review is in a roundabout way a 'commission' rather than anything I've had published in the magazine. It began a couple of months ago when my friend Lynne, full of enthusiasm, loaned me this CD. I'd never heard of Fonseca, but that didn't surprise me as I wouldn't say my finger is entirely 'on the pulse'.

I promised her a review, but nothing happened until a 'phonecall a few days ago in which I was given an ultimatum: a review by Sunday or forfeit approximately fifteen times your annual salary!

Recognising the danger I quickly got to work, and here's the result. A nice CD which compares well to similar things I've heard lately by the likes of Edward Simon and Andile Yenana, and music I was happy to 'discover'...


Misa Popular; Tierra En Mano; Clandestino; Llego Cachaito; Asi Baila Mi Madre; Congo Arabe; Zamazu; Suspiro; Ishmael; El Niejo; Mil Congoja; Triste Alegria; Zamazamazu; Dime Que No.

Roberto Fonseca (piano); Mercedes Cortes Alfaro (vocals); Mario Goncalves De Araujo, Jr., Laila Andresa Cavalcante, Arlene Silva, Juan Maria Braceras, Paulo Andre Mettig, Mario Soares, Margarita Ciclilova, Margarita Ciclilova, Jr. (violin); Toninho Ferragutti (accordion); Javier Zalba (alto saxophone/reeds); Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal (trumpet); Omar Gonzalez (double bass); Ramses Rodriguez (drums); Emilio Del Monte Mata (bata); Bogham Costa (tambourine); Botas Gordas, Boghan Costa, Ale Siqueira (hand claps); Carlos Manuel Calunga, Emilio Del Monte Valdes, Pepe Maza (background vocals); Additional Guests: Omara Portuondo (vocals); Vincente Amigo (flamenco guitar); Carlinhos Brown (gaita); Orland "Cachaito" Lopez (double bass).

When most people think of Cuban jazz, it is usually the flamboyant excesses of showmen like Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba that spring to mind. The more traditional, and only tangentially jazz-related sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club seem to occupy the other extreme, and I must say that I find neither very satisfactory. Enter 31 year old pianist Roberto Fonseca, who shows on his fourth album as leader that there is a viable middle ground.

Despite his well documented links to the Buena Vista crowd, if I were to come to this record blindfolded I’d almost certainly say that I was listening to a European group. The first thing that strikes me about Fonseca is how far his music escapes from its country of origin. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the broadness of Fonseca’s musical interests and his dual musical heritage. As well as playing traditional Cuban music, he was also classically trained from an early age and he possesses a formidable technique.

As a jazz pianist he belongs firmly in the modern mainstream - that’s to say he begins with the rich harmonic palette and melodicism of Bill Evans, adding a more muscular drive and chordal dissonance borrowed from McCoy Tyner. What distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries, however, is his truly ‘world-jazz’ outlook. Eclecticism is a difficult act to pull off without sounding contrived, but Fonseca’s rich piano is the unifying theme that glues Zamazu together, and it indicates that he has absorbed his formative influences well.

The opening is dramatic, an a cappella vocal sung by Fonseca’s mother. This short introduction seamlessly gives way to Fonseca’s first major statement of the disc; the ballad ‘Tierra En Mano’. Clarinet states a simple melancholy theme, followed by a bridge which deploys wordless vocals, before Fonseca launches into the kind of rhapsodic ballad most people would identify with Keith Jarrett. Anybody who can even contemplate entering this arena, where virtuosity is a prerequisite, needs to be taken seriously. Fonseca achieves a coherent statement, full of unexpected harmonic twists and turns. The percussion here is spare, a minimal pulse or heartbeat, though this is not to say that the South American flair for dense poly-rhythms aren’t explored elsewhere. The very next track, in fact, sees a marked change of pace. ‘Clandestino’ presumably translates pretty literally, though there’s nothing too undercover about the pianist’s forthright solo. The busy percussive clatter reminds me of some of Jon Balke’s ECM discs, another pleasing point of reference to make Fonseca quickly endearing. Obvious links are to Tyner, the dark, urgent chordal probing that I love so much making it a standout track.

‘Llego Cachaito’ is another mid-tempo piece that evokes Jarrett, a soothing change of pace that is typical in a generally well balanced programme of music. A short turbulent interlude suggests mid ‘60s Chick Corea, before leading into the Eastern exotica of ‘Congo Arabe’, which stands comparison with some of the best explorations of North African culture from the contemporary French scene. The astringent reeds solo which follows, on an instrument that may even be a tarragato, took me to the balkans, and this is immediately followed by some nylon stringed guitar hinting at flamenco. Which ever musical dialect he adopts, Fonseca is in command and the music retains an organic feel.

The title-track is very African, and immediately reminded me of many happy times listening to Bheki Mseleku in the ‘90s when he was based in the UK. A simple anthemic melody is underpinned by a vocal chant, and Fonseca’s lush and hypnotic vamping. He then solos and shows the kind of close connection between left and right hands that Brad Mehldau excels at. ‘Ishmael’ is a post-fusion piece, again looking East for inspiration but offering evidence that Fonseca listened to Weather Report in his youth. Wordless vocals are shadowed by keyboards, underpinned by Fonseca’s firm left-hand ostinato pattern, then giving way to a solo backed by timbales to offer the most overtly Cuban music of the disc. ‘Triste Alegria’ stays in the same continent to serve up some Argentinian tango, whilst ‘Zmazamazu’ returns to the Townships for another African excursion. The closing ‘Dime Que No’ has a slow latin groove that winds things down without any fanfare, and if I have any criticism of the disc then it is that the second half seems to be weaker than the first.

Whether or not world jazz is your bag will pretty much determine whether or not you’ll enjoy this record. What I can say is that many projects in this field go wrong by offering too much ‘world’ and not enough ‘jazz’. Fonseca has assimilated the jazz vocabulary and it surfaces at every turn. Certainly eclectic, but with enough coherence, enough passion, enough virtuosity and enough solid material to be taken seriously. Time to replace those preconceptions about Cuban jazz, I think.

Fred Grand

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Bobo Stenson with Anders Jormin & Paul Motian...

As far as I'm aware, nobody has ever asked the question how anybody ever ends up being called 'Bobo'. Perhaps it's a common abbreviation in Sweden, or is there a story to tell about Stenson's youthful idolisation of conga player Willie Bobo?

Stenson almost made it with Garbarek, Rypdal, Andersen and Christensen as one of the major forces in Scandinavian Jazz in the 1970s. His own album 'Underwear' is a neglected classic (surely the title counts against it?) and is ripe for re-issue.

He appeared on a string of Garbarek and Rypdal's important early works, including the great 'Sart'. 'Witchi-tai-to' is one of my all-time favourite records, and Stenson co-led this astonishing quartet with Garbarek. I stand by my remark in this review that they're arguably the equal of Keith Jarrett's Scandinavian Quartet. A force to be reckoned with. Then he disappeared.

He re-emerged in the '90s as something of an ECM 'house' pianist, once again making records as a leader and sideman. Notable highlights included Charles Llloyd's 'Notes From Big Sur, Don Cherry's 'Dona Nostra' and Tomasz Stanko's 'Litania'. His own trio records were far more restrained than 'Underwear', but fascinating nevertheless.

This review keeps the Scandinavian theme going, and it's also another one of the reviews of mine that made it in a heavily abridged form to the ECM website. Follow the self-agrandising link here...

ECM Records (ECM 1904)

Send In The Clowns; Rowan; Alfonsina; There Comes A Time; Song About Earth; Seli; Goodbye; Music For A While; Allegretto Rubato; Jack Of Clubs; Sudan; Queer Street; Triple Play; Race Face.

Bobo Stenson (p); Anders Jormin (b); Paul Motian (d), (April 2004, NYC).

Listening to this recording I was reminded of David Ilic’s perceptive and often quoted description of improvised music ensemble AMM. His comment that their recordings were ‘as alike and unalike as trees’ seems to hold equally good for this trio. Without going into granular detail about what Ilic may have meant, Stenson’s trio recordings all appear superficially similar, subtle variegations only apparent through careful listening, peeling away the music’s many layers. Less radical than AMM for sure, their music is just as organic and finely wrought, always created with the same intense concentration.

Their starting point is the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian amalgam of the early ‘60s, and to my reckoning Goodbye is Stenson’s fourth trio recording for ECM, the label he is most closely associated with. This session brings the aforementioned Motian in to replace usual percussionist Jon Christensen. Though you’re often hard pressed to hear him, his sensitive contribution is a crucial element in the success of this recording.

From the opening standard “Send In The Clowns”, the pace settles into the familiar European free-ballad metre, only picking up for the closing Don Cherry piece “Race Face”, the nearest thing to an oak amongst the conifers. Both Jormin and Stenson performed this piece with Cherry on his 1993 ECM outing Dona Nostra, and it’s just as infectiously upbeat here. Elsewhere the mood is far more opaque and careful listening is required. If you’re prepared to give yourself over to the music then its dynamics quickly become apparent, and despite the apparent low volume there is no lack of emotional range. Take “Seli” for example - starting in much the same way as any of the selections, it soon finds direction, quietly smouldering to a fitting climax without drawing any unnecessary attention to itself.

The title track is the most straightforwardly Evans-like piece, whilst Jormin’s bow lends some darkly satisfying hues to “Triple Play”. A Jormin arrangement of Henry Purcell’s “Music For A While” continues Stenson’s interest in reworking classical themes, and, like everything else on offer, a way back to Evans is found via another sublime lyrical flight.

ECM must be congratulated for reviving the career of this pianist, who co-led a quartet with Jan Garbarek in the early ‘70s that was every bit the equal of Jarrett’s more celebrated ‘Scandinavian Quartet’. As beautiful as it is unimmediate, this is an exemplar of its kind.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, January 2006)

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Tim Berne, Joe Morris...and Steve Noble!!

I could have stayed at home and watched Eng-er-land football manager Steve McLaren's swan song, but nobody likes to see a dying swan. Besides, football I can take or leave these days, and there was a rather interesting looking gig happening up the road in Newcastle that I didn't really want to miss. Two visiting Americans, Tim Berne and Joe Morris, joined forces with three of the mainstays of the UK improvised music scene - Simon H Fell, Gail Brand and Steve Noble. As it was some time since I'd heard Berne, I thought it would be too good an opportunity to pass up, so I skipped the football and jumped in the car.

This band was put together by Fell as a side-project stemming from this year's edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which perhaps explains why they adopted the name of 'The Offshoot' for event. The Americans were here to play in a Fell-led ensemble for the festival, grappling with one of those large scale pieces in which he seeks to carve out a niche as the local Stockhausen. Before tonight's performance Berne hadn't even met more than half of the group, and although I've encountered Morris with Fell in the past, he and Berne played like men in search of the music at times. Nevertheless, the way in which the group strove towards a collective sound and kept their ears centered was very impressive.

During the first thirty minutes, enlivened only by the genius of Steve Noble's drumming, I actually thought I was listening to a dying swan on a few occasions. Once musical bonds were formed and empathies worked out however, things quickly took shape. Berne spent lengthy periods on the sidelines as a spectator, something you could never accuse him of in his own fifty minute-plus compositions. Although tentative for much of the time, it was a very assured kind of tentative-ness. He stuck to alto sax, a pity as I've always preferred his baritone, but his liquid sound and cell-like approach to phrasing was uniquely his.

Morris played with a broken finger on his plectrum hand, and a harsher critic may have surmised that he was playing with two broken hands. That would be to misunderstand his idiosyncratic complexity, though. His lines, although harmonically ambiguous and unorthodox do have a definite logic to them, like hearing be-bop refracted through a sonic prism. Never a favourite guitarist of mine, I still love his linear playing on records like Flip & Spike, and there were traces of that side of his personality on offer tonight.

Fell is a man I often used to cross paths with in my days as a promoter. All of the worst attended gigs I ever put my name to involved him, a quirk of fate which can't have anything to do with the man and his music. I remember a devastatingly brilliant gig by Premier League jazz terrorists Hession/Wilkinson/Fell at the Live Theatre in Newcastle which drew under 15 people. Priceless music, but as it was funded with Arts Council grant money it was probably a waste of taxpayers' money. As taxpayers' money is more often than not wasted, I lost little sleep.

The last gig I promoted involving Fell was with his jazz-compositions project SFQ, which also involved Brand and Noble. That was more in the post-Mingus spirit than tonight's ad hoc grouping, but on both occasions Steve Noble stole the show. His imagination is colossal, technique formidable, and presence unmistakable. Time after time he shifted the music in interesting directions, dictating the turns taken by the musical juggernaut he was apparently left to steer. Brand was for the most part on form too, playing some rasping trombone that Roswell Rudd would have been proud of.

By the second set you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a regular working band who play five nights a week. True, Berne stayed out of it a lot more than you'd expect, but discretion is always part of an improvising musician's arsenal. He played some scything alto on the closing piece, a high-speed free-jazz burnout that was worth the price of admission alone. Not quite Spy vs. Spy, but a reminder of his pedigree and class, and almost certainly less predictable!

As with Tony Levin a few weeks ago, Berne is another of those musicians I haven't seen play for quite a while, and it was noticeable how much he'd aged since the last time. Hardly an old man, he'd nevertheless filled out and showed predominant grey on what was once a dark black mane. The last time I heard him was in fact a double bill featuring two of his bands - Bloodcount and Paraphrase. Somebody I spoke to at that gig memorably said it was the best and the worst music they'd ever seen - the best being Paraphrase and the worst being Bloodcount, with the insufferable posturing of Marc Ducret. Tonight's music was harder to pin down, and the only thing I can say for sure is that Noble's contribution was inspiring.

Rather like a Berne album, it was hard-boiled, intriguing, enjoyable for long stretches but at the same time overpowering to the senses and in need of more directness. Worthwhile for sure, but if a recording were to be released of the performance would I buy it? Probably not. And what a shame for McLaren - he had a smile that could launch a ship...

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Ilmiliekki Quartet...

Finland is a small country sandwiched between Northern Sweden and Russia. I've only been there once and remember little, if anything, about it. True, I was under 5 years old at the time, and although I'd love to visit Helsinki I just haven't got round to it yet.

This small insular nation excels not just in motor sports, but also in the arts - be it the symphonies of Jean Sibelius or the contemporary design of Marimekko.

This is just flannel. Needless pre-amble. Finland will forever be synonymous with the great Edward Vesala, the late jazz maverick who did as much for walrus mustaches as any man since Otto von Bismarck.

There is little of Vesala's midas touch about this release, though you could hear a lot worse. Ultimately, you've just got to love both the gorgeous sleeve (no apologies for posting it large) and that great album title...

March Of The Alpha Males
TUM (CD 006)

ICO; Anchor Song; Old May Become New; Answer Kahlo, Answer; Monastery; March Of The Alpha Males; Melankolinaa; Blue Jyvvaskyla; The Tourist; What Reason Could I Give.

Verneri Pohjola (t, melodica); Tuomo Prattala (p); Antti Lotjonnen (b); Olavi Louhivouri (d); Jaska Lukkarinen (perc)

Ilmiliekki, which translates from the Finnish as ‘open fire’ or ‘full blaze’, could lead listeners to anticipate another young Scandinavian outfit competing in the same free-jazz inferno as The AALY Trio or Raoul Bjorkenheim’s Scorch Trio. Yet despite the name, it’s clear from the opening bars that the disc’s title is also ironic. Describing their music as ‘meditative’ and ‘impressionistic’ improvisation, they occupy that very European place where free-jazz crosses the paths of both classical and folk musics. Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stanko were perfecting the blueprint while these lads were still wearing nappies. Yet Ilmiliekki, all well under the age of 30, have so much individuality that you can’t help but applaud. A determination to play the music closest to their hearts - material by Björk and Radiohead is presented alongside a classic Ornette Coleman dirge and a smattering of their own compositions - also suggests that they’re not about to settle for comfortingly familiar safety-nets.

The opening bars of ‘ICO’ give a misleading first impression, setting the listener up for an hour of Northern European claustrophobia. Piano and melodica state a funereal theme before the gloom is dramatically dispelled. From nowhere a galloping groove emerges to fan the embers and Pohjola’s Miles-ian trumpet truly smokes. The group’s choice of name suddenly seems to be more appropriate. Björk’s ‘Anchor Song’ receives the full Nordic free-ballad treatment but fails to convince as a potential standard for the future. By contrast, Radiohead’s ‘The Tourist’ offers far more possibilities and could well catch on with the post-EST generation of improvisers.

The tongue-in-cheek title track, played in stiff military march time gradually sabotaged by guest percussionist Lukkarinen’s increasingly anarchic clatter is both hilarious and refreshingly unselfconscious in its use of irony. ‘Old May Become New’ and ‘Answer Kahlo, Answer’ are the two pieces that best illustrate this ensemble’s greatest virtue - the ability to combine complex compositional structures with simple accessibility. Not to be outdone by the Radiohead piece, Ornette’s melancholy anthem is chosen to bring this fine debut album to a suitably solemn close. All in all, a genuine breath of fresh air, and there’s plenty to suggest life after Vesala in Finnish contemporary jazz.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2004)

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Jan Garbarek...

Almost twenty years since the first time I saw him play, I went to see Jan Garbarek again tonight. I still have a massive soft spot for his music - this blog is named after one of his early recordings, after all - and I'm almost certain that it's something to do with all that time I spent in Scandinavia as a child. There's something about the folksiness of his music that I instantly respond to, something which resonates pretty deeply within me. Memories of some very happy times spent in one of the cleanest and most beautiful parts of Europe always flood back. What I suppose I'm saying is that there's something 'extra musical' about Garbarek's appeal to me, and I'd even go as far as to say that my natural need for 'space' comes from my Scandinavian experiences. Enough of the personal snippets verging on psychobabble...

Tonight's gig was in many ways a pleasant surprise. The group played for well over two hours without a break, and Garbarek seemed to be reinvigorated by the recent re-shuffling of his group's personnel. Bassist Yuri Daniel replaced the great Eberhard Weber, and much of the time played he Weber's parts and had his sound verbatim. When he departed from the role he added a new drive, often funky, to the band's sound. A greater relaxation was obvious over previous editions of the group - performances which could often resemble a pretty joyless and solemn rite - and Garbarek spent far more time simply blowing.

The other significant change was in the introduction of drummer Manu Katché. He gave the group a much harder sound, and I can't say I always enjoyed his drumming this evening. Previously I've seen the group with Nana Vasconcelos and Marilyn Mazur, both of whom did far more with far less. Katché may have the caché in rock circles, but he sometimes stifled a side of Garbarek's music that I've grown to love. Subtler shadings and a freer-floating pulse would to my ears have made far more impact than some of his bombastic beats tonight. Still, he was undoubtedly a crowd pleaser and his hyper-kinetic solo spot drew a massive ovation.

The only ever-present in the group, other than Garbarek (of course), is keyboard player Rainer Brüninghaus. Much of the time he was hunched smurf-like over his electric piano, using the venue's Steinway sparingly but to great effect. A solo spot made the most of the acoustic instrument's range, Brüninghaus coaxing a haze of deep overtones from its belly. Some of his keyboard settings would have been tacky enough for Chick Corea in 1987, but by and large he was a model of good taste and is a vital member of Garbarek's group.

Apart from a short encore, the group only played four pieces of music. Within those pieces there were however many changes and much shape-shifting. Of course it all sounded very much like a Jan Garbarek gig should sound, but the newfound spark and more upbeat emphasis prevented it from becoming a recital. As is evidenced by recent recordings - from Universal Syncopations to Neighbourhood (where Katché is impeccable) - Garbarek is incorporating far more 'jazz' into his work these days. In saying that I don't mean to sound like Stanley Crouch, but for much of the '80s and '90s you could be forgiven for forgetting that Jan ever dug Coltrane, Ayler and Ornette.

What we now have is a more complete Garbarek, fusing his natural austerity and asceticism with a newly lit fire that has in the past been in danger of smoldering out. Of course I love those same Nordic folk-jazz recordings - the run that started with 'Legend of the Seven Dreams' and 'I Took Up The Runes' - but I'm also pleased that his work seems to be entering a new more rounded phase that draws on the entirety of his career.

One day, out of deference to this blog, I hope he'll be comfortable enough to reform the Afric Pepperbird group - the Big Four. Tonight was great, but that really would be something else...

Fred Grand

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Jonas Knutsson & Johan Norberg...

With the Garbarek gig two days away, it's time my posts went Scandinavian for a while. I've only ever reviewed one Garbarek CD, and that's already been posted, but this is an interesting offering which shares similar roots to Garbarek's folk-jazz.

Not in the same league as landmarks such as 'Dis', it is nevertheless worth checking out if you like the style...

ACT (9014 2)

Bigdsiljum; Naverbiten; Ansia; Krubaston; Bielite; Koiklaten; Kantelito; Ravostinato; Hattnijaur; Esvires; Taget; Abdullah Latikberg.

Jonas Knutsson (ss, as, bs); Johan Norberg (g, kantele).
Recorded 1999 to 2003.

The origins of these recordings can be traced back to 1999, when Knutsson and Norberg got together to jam in the guitarist’s flat. So pleased were they with the results, they decided to take their newly found musical rapport into the studio. Knutsson is a folk-leaning saxophonist with a sound and approach somewhere between Jan Garbarek and John Surman, whilst Norberg is a fixture on the Scandinavian folk and world music scenes.

Earlier Knutsson recordings have all shown an affinity for world music, and particularly for Nordic folk forms, though they’ve also tended to take a more contemporary approach via glossy electronic texturing. The landscape of this stripped-down pairing is far more barren however, with many of the pieces amounting to little more than evocative sketches. Although the duos are improvised, the pieces all have rigid structure, and the understanding between the two musicians is highly developed. Melodies are stretched but never lost for any great length of time.

Norberg has the licence to break rank but does so sparingly, in the main concentrating on filigreed backdrops for Knutsson to superimpose simple melodic chants. On two tracks he plays the kantele, a stringed instrument from Finland that resembles a zither, and his bottleneck guitar on the final track is a disarming surprise, recalling Leo Kottke. The bulk of the material is inspired by old Scandinavian folk music, but there are exceptions - the aforementioned ‘Abdullah Latikberg’ with its Delta-meets-Township feel, and ‘Bielte’, which could almost be one of Jimmy Giuffre’s late 50s folk-jazz excursions.

Sound quality is richly detailed, capturing Knutsson’s gruff baritone saxophone and preserving the purity of his plaintive soprano in a way that is lost on many reverb-drenched and highly compressed recordings I hear. The music nevertheless shares a close kinship with the familiar Nordic folk-jazz style established on scores of recordings on the influential ECM label. As much folk or world music as it is jazz, the stark simplicity and evocative melodies of Norrland make for a pleasing hour of listening.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, August 2004)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Mujician in concert, at last...

Tonight was the night of the gig I've been waiting for!! I made my way to the region's newest 'serious' music venue, The Sage, knowing that there was no possibility of disappointment. I can't even remember the last time I was lucky enough to catch Mujician live, but know that it was more than five years ago. Opportunities like this are now rare, though at one time I probably took the group for granted and could guarantee seeing them at least annually.

Tonight's performance was recorded for broadcast in January by BBC Radio 3, and the inspiring music I heard in the group's two sets would more than justify a commercial release on CD. The room was acoustically perfect, and this was Mujician at their most beguiling, powerful, raucous and transcendent - never have I heard them collectively play with so much focus and such scope. I can't recall them ever digging so deeply into late period Coltrane, either.

Paul Dunmall by and large played it straight, keeping his extended techniques in check out of deference to the needs of the music. There were of course times when he let fly with volleys of multi-phonics, split-tones and upper register shrieks, but for the most part he followed the line. He also left his bagpipes at home, sticking exclusively to what he does best - tenor and soprano saxophones.

This was the first time I've heard Rogers playing his custom made 7-string bass, and I must say that my first reaction was that I preferred his old 5-string model. Rogers remains one of the foremost players of free-jazz on the cusp of improv, but his former instrument seemed to anchor the lower end more firmly, and cut through the group's maelstrom with more precision too. I'm sure that the extra three strings, which can take the instrument into cello range, come into their own in one of his amazing solo performances, but at the risk of sounding slightly churlish it may not be the ideal tool for every Mujician performance.

Tony Levin had visibly aged since the last time I saw him play, but he is still as powerful and subtle as ever. He seems to be able to go from subtle shadings to a full-on assault at the flick of a wrist, and if the audience reactions I overheard during the interval are any guide then he was also the member of the group who made the biggest impact on the night.

Tippett, by contrast, never seems to age. He must have looked like a Victorian squire even when he was a teenager. Some even go as far as to suggest he wore the same jacket back in the '70s when he was a member of King Crimson. He was at his most modal and Tyner-esque tonight, the only previous occasion that I've heard him dig into this vein so deeply being the memorable Appleby festival set (probably a decade ago) where Evan Parker joined the group for the afternoon to trade musical blows with Dunmall. There's always an element of surprise whenever I hear Tippett, even when he does things that I've seen him do before. Somehow it sounds new and fresh each time, and although this may have something to do with only being able to see him play every two or three years, his music is so rich that I think it would take a long, long time to become jaded by it.

In 90 minutes of often sublime music I found myself transported in a way that only the best music can achieve. These moments rarely last for the entirety of a gig, and most of them, when I think back carefully and try to get some perspective, have involved Tippett. AMM have it, William Parker can captivate for long periods, no doubt Jarrett in the '70s would have done it if I'd been old enough to be there, and if you only see Han Bennink once in a blue moon, he can do it too.

Interestingly Jan Garbarek, who I see next Tuesday, also has it, albeit in a very different wrapping. That gig now looks like having an unexpected element of surprise. The word is that Eberhard Weber has suffered a stroke and has been replaced for this tour by Yuri Daniel. Leaving aside the unfortunate nature of the circumstances, this alteration to the well established group dynamics could be fascinating to observe. For now, however, my thoughts are still very much with Mujician, and I'm hoping that nothing can dislodge the memories of tonight's music too quickly. A crazy idea, but perhaps I should lay off listening to any other music for a few days, just to make sure?

And so to bed...

Fred Grand

Monday, 5 November 2007


In the UK, the weeks leading up to November 5th are characterised by the loud explosions of random fireworks being discharged. The reason? Well, it all goes back to a foiled Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but in a multi-faith society such as ours this is merely detail.

Nowadays it serves as a solemn reminder to us all of the need for eternal vigilance to preserve the democracy we're in danger of taking for granted, or some such. No more insane than the impending horror of Christmas really, is it?

There's an organised firework display just around the back of where I live, and using local knowledge I evaded a Police cordon to get away from the crowds and take some photos of the event.

The link should take you to a Picassa album, but if it doesn't, here're a few samples to brighten up an otherwise monochrome page...

Hugh Hopper...

No more cheap shots at Esmond Selwyn's graphic designer, or Rick Wakeman for that matter, but this review nicely continues the recent theme on this page of progressive jazz (Progjazz?) from the UK.

Listening to Mujician's There's No Going Back Now as I type, and with just three days to go before the gig, excitement is ratcheting up by a few more notches. Oh, the joys of an empty life...

Hopper Tunity Box
Cunieform Records (Rune 240)

Hopper Tunity Box; Miniluv; Gnat Prong; The Lonely Sea And The Sky; Crumble; Lonely Woman; Mobile Mobile; Spanish Knee; Oyster Perpetual.

Elton Dean (as, saxello); Gary Windo (bcl, reeds); Marc Charig (c, thn); Frank Roberts (ky); Dave Stewart (ky); Richard Brunton (g); Hugh Hopper (b, g, ss, perc); Mike Travis (d); Nigel Morris (d).
Recorded May to July 1976.

I remember during my time as a concert promoter the extraordinary pull of British reedsman Elton Dean, who could grow an audience two or three-fold over a roughly equivalent band without him. This appeal was due in large measure to his association with ‘70s Jazz Rock pioneers Soft Machine. Californian-based record label Cunieform have many of the musicians associated with this particularly English branch of fusion at the backbone of their catalogue. Their re-issue of ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper’s output continues with this gem from 1977, an album which many commentators at the time believed to be the equal of the seminal group’s Third and Fourth LP’s.

Hopper left Soft Machine in 1973, and the ideas he’d been working on during that time all came together in this session. This, unlike previous versions, is a fully re-mastered re-issue, and it sounds as fresh as Eberhard Weber’s ECM classics Silent Feet and Yellow Fields, from the same era. The scope of Hopper’s music is broader and the sound less pastoral than Weber’s brand of fusion, however, though the comparison is nevertheless an interesting one.

Aside from the hymnal reading of Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’, the remaining pieces are all Hopper originals. Recorded from the bass-up, guest musicians added their parts during the later stages of the production, though the live sound that Hopper achieves in no way betrays this process. Different groupings appear on each track, and aside from the ebullient Dean, who shines on ‘The Lonely Sea And The Sky', Frank Roberts adds tasty electric piano to ‘Crumble’, and Dave Stewart’s organ and processed keyboard are impressively spacey on the funky ‘Gnat Prong’. The closing ‘Oyster Perpetual’ is a delicate multi-tracked Hopper solo, foreshadowing later excursions into the world of multi-tracking and electronics.

The album’s punning title may be exactly the kind of arch cleverness critics find symptomatic of this much maligned genre, but it shouldn’t get in the way of some very fine and forward-looking music. I don’t know what Hughie Green would have made of Hopper Tunity Box, but with more than enough jazz content to grab doubters among our readership, this impressive piece of work can be approached with little trepidation.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2007)

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Ken Hyder & Vladimir Miller...

This page seems to be developing a bit of a British Jazz thread, what with Keith Tippett, Trevor Watts and some vintage Howard Riley all being posted recently. A perfect excuse for yet another link to the hideous cover art from the Esmond Selwyn disc that is such a favourite on these pages!!

As my anticipation of next week's Mujician gig continues to build, I'm currently working on reviews of CDs by Brits Stan Tracey and John Butcher. I'll try to post some more reviews of home-grown talent over the coming weeks.

Those who know their Matching Mole from their Henry Cow from their Hatfield & The North should also know that Ken Hyder's group Talisker made some impressive discs during the same period.

Although this review shows that I'm not prepared to name the disc as an instant classic, there is nevertheless a lot to recommend it. An excerpt from the review appears on Hyder's website amongst comments from an illustrious roll call of reviewers, proving that people DO pay attention to what I write, at least some of the time...

Counting On Angels
SLAM (CD 251)

Hear The Fear In The Dark Forest; Angel’s Son; Siege Of Leningrad; Russian Dolls; Sayan Flying; Russian Rivers; Obshennia.

Vladimir Miller (p); Ken Hyder (d).
Recorded 2003.

Anglo-Russian pianist Vladimir Miller came to prominence almost a decade ago with a string of consistently inventive recordings for Leo Records by his large ensemble The Moscow Composers Orchestra. Combining abstraction with discipline, structure and melody, the MCO seemed natural heirs to the Ganelin Trio’s legacy. Scottish percussionist Ken Hyder has long been interested in combining folk forms with improvisation, and nowadays he splits his time between his native Scotland and the even colder climes of Siberia. As a duo they’ve performed together extensively in Russia during the last dozen or so years, and this recording, dedicated to the late Vladimir Rezitsky, is inspired by those experiences.

To me, Russian improvisation often seems to be characterised by the way in which it manages to combine classical music’s gravitas with folk music’s simplicity and a puckish native wit. The seven improvisations here largely continue that tradition, though the darkness of much of the material makes me pine for slightly more of the wit. Hyder’s unusual pairing of shamanic beats with delicate percussion filigrees meshes so completely with Miller’s tightly-drawn harmonic repetitions that you forget there’s no bass player fleshing out the sound. Using the repetitively hypnotic left-hand vamps of Mal Waldron and the forceful atonal right-hand jabs of Cecil Taylor, Miller is both rooted and free, at once inviting us into his music whilst also throwing down the shutters should we get too cosy.

Less forbidding than a typical piano/drums duet involving Borah Bergman, for example, Miller and Hyder nevertheless share a tendency to run parallel discourses rather than engaging in real musical dialogue. Each piece feels curiously unresolved, as if a fragment of a whole. Whilst I’m sure that deeper structures may be revealed with long-term listening, ‘Counting On Angels’ contains great moments yet for long periods seems merely to tread water.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, January 2004)

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Keith Tippett...

I'm finding myself feeling pretty excited about the upcoming gig by Keith Tippets's Mujician, even though it's almost two weeks away. This surprises me. I've seen them at least half a dozen times before, and Tippett many times solo, but I'd never really regarded myself as a devoted fan. Yet this review, written at a time when I was generally out of sympathy with a lot of the European avant-garde, clearly shows that I find him a bit of a special case.

His performances have something magical and ritualistic about them, and the music is never less than inspiring. I always come away feeling as though I've witnessed something powerful and heartfelt.

It's common to talk about the 'x factor' these days, a pretty meaningless concept as it's so subjective. Beyond the world where people are spoon-fed their culture, it may have some meaning. For me, Tippett, has it in spades...


Song; Dance; Glimpse; Blues I; Woodcut; Blues II.

Keith Tippett (p); Julie Tippetts (voc, g, mand, rec); Ray Babbington (b); Keith Bailey (perc); Frank Perry (perc)
Recorded 1972.

From introspective solo piano improvisations and the behemoth 50-piece Centipede Orchestra to a composition for piano and string quartet, pianist Keith Tippett has never lacked in ambition. His recordings have spanned jazz, prog-rock, free improvisation and avant garde composition with equal alacrity. A singular figure in English contemporary music, his music has always been characterised by an unashamedly melodic focus, no matter how ‘difficult’ it sometimes becomes.

This recording, originally released by major label RCA in 1972, is considered by many to be one of his finest. It may also be one of the most accessible, predicting the directions later taken with Ovary Lodge. Produced by King Crimson collaborator Robert Fripp, Blueprint is an austere collection of improvised but architecturally intact pieces. From the opening bars of ‘Song’ a pervasive sense of calm, rarely giving way to anything overtly threatening, is established. Tippett’s rhapsodic piano and Babbington’s LaFaro-esque bass circle their way through a steadily intensifying field of percussive coloration, building and releasing tension in much the same way as Keith Jarrett’s contemporaneous formations.

‘Dance’ is the first we hear of wife Julie’s peculiar wordless vocals, and her abstract feedback tinged guitar lends the piece an unusual air. The two ‘Blues’ are a long way from any conventional understanding of the form that you may hold, the strict rules of tradition observed more in the breech. ‘Woodcut’ is the disc’s longest and most claustrophobically introspective improvisation. Opening with a dramatically struck piano arpeggio, Julie Tippetts then plays some decidedly atonal recorder before the piece moves into a relatively static four-way exchange, eventually reaching kind of violent climax that fans of Mujician’s torrential lava flow will know and love.

The closing ‘Blues II’ features some remarkably Japanese sounding mandolin, establishing a suitably zen-like tranquility. ‘Blueprint’ has aged well and is both a reminder of a time when improvised music had something fresh and eloquent to say and also an era when a major record label was prepared to back it. Times may have changed on both counts, but documents such as this deserve their reissue.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2004)

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

David Murray's Black Saint Quartet...

Almost 20 years since I first saw Murray play live, I've just been to an inspired gig by his newly named Black Saint Quartet. The first time I saw the great saxophonist play was in Birmingham when I was a student. I hadn't even heard of Murray at the time and was still feeling my way into jazz. I liked the sound of the blurb on the poster, placing him on a par and in the direct lineage of the great saxophone masters, so I took a chance and bought a ticket. Fronting a trio with Ray Drummond and Ralph Peterson Jnr., Murray turned my head upside down and changed the way I listened to jazz forever.

Since then I've formed a fuller appreciation of Murray and seen him play in everything from trio to octet formations on many more occasions. Whilst I find that his recordings will often disappoint, I've never seen a duff live show. Once again he and the band rose to incredible heights, reminding me of the core values of jazz as a spontaneous and highly narrative form of music.

The Black Saint Quartet, consisting of Murray with pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, newly inaugurated Art Ensemble bassist Jaribu Shahid and über-drummer Hamid Drake, were known as the Power Quartet last time they visited. Their music is loose but very much of the tradition, and they're one of Murray's strongest units for many years. Almost certainly one of Drake's straighter gigs, the group shift at will through many decades of jazz evolution, though a good deal of time they're in the realms of late 'trane and early Ayler.

For tonight's performance their material ranged from classic warhorses such as 'Body & Soul' to Monk's relatively obscure 'Let's Cool One', as well as newish Murray originals including 'Transitions' and 'Banished'. The latter was a stirring meditation played on bass clarinet, and was composed by Murray for a documentary on racism in the USA. Coltrane's 'Alabama' came to mind, and the quartet impressively sustained a brooding tension and violent undertow to make it my personal highlight of the night. Interestingly, Murray spoke beforehand of how he'd shattered his bass clarinet mouthpiece at a gig in Mannheim several nights earlier. For this evening's show he was using a borrowed replacement, and with Murray's hyper-kineticism it's not hard to imagine a mouthpiece shattering under the force. During the many long periods that he spent in the 'false' upper register, I really thought that my ear drums would go the same way, something not helped by needless overkill with the PA.

This must be the first time I've seen a Murray gig where he didn't play 'Dewey's Circle' or 'Hope/Scope', something which perhaps reflects just how much this new group pushes him away from the safety of familiar repertoire. That said, his deconstruction of 'Body & Soul', played almost entirely within the changes, reminded us of his connection to Hawk and Gonsalves and left no doubts as to what a virtuoso he is.

Even with familiar material, Murray brings a unique and instantly recognisable style, but I detect that a lot of genuine reverence is being expressed too. His interpretation of Hawk's jazz monument was perhaps even more heartfelt than usual, as Murray obviously took great pleasure from the presence in the room of the legendary Jamaican-born pre-bop saxophonist Andy Hamilton. Now over 90 years old, Hamilton is a long-time friend of Murray, and he'd travelled up from Birmingham just to be at the gig.

Hamilton's presence was for me the final ingredient in an evening of pretty neat full-circles on a personal level too. I often went to hear him with his band The Blue Notes playing their regular Sunday night gigs at The Bear while I was living and studying in the Midlands. He always had an amazing array of special guests dropping by to join him for those sessions, and I recall Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Al Casey and Benny Waters as three of the most memorable. The most sobering thought in all of this to have crossed my mind was that Murray looked no older than he did when I first saw him in 1989. I doubt that he could say the same about me, but it's reassuring to know that his music is as exciting today as it ever was. If only everything in life were so reliable!!

Fred Grand.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Christian McBride New York Time Quartet..

This disappointing record comes from the same series as the John Abercrombie CD reviewed below. I sometimes wonder why anybody bothers to make lukewarm and mediocre records of this type anymore, but clearly there's still a market for jazz nostalgia, and it can sometimes turn in a few surprises.

No surprises here, just another mainstream session that adds little, if anything, to the jazz legacy. The kind of record that is jazz's equivalent to a Hollywood re-make of a classic (or sometimes not even classic!) film, it just leaves me wanting to listen to the wonderful music that Walton and Cobb made 40 years ago.

That can't have been Chesky Records' intention, but they surely couldn't honestly have thought that New York Time would re-write history, could they...?

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE with Javon Jackson, Cedar Walton and Jimmy Cobb

Newest Blues; Sixth Ave; My Shining Hour; Notes In Three; In The Kitchen; Naima; Grove; Whisper Not; Diane; Mode For Joe.

Javon Jackson (ts); Cedar Walton (p); Christian McBride (b); Jimmy Cobb (d)
Recorded January 2006.

Part of the same ‘New York Sessions’ series as John Abercrombie’s recent Structures, the New York Time Quartet unashamedly evoke the days when the famous city was the undisputed jazz centre of the world. Both Jackson and McBride may surprise listeners familiar with their recent excursions into fusion and jam-band turf, but placed alongside two of hard bop’s greatest survivors they find themselves rooted considerably further back in time. Using Chesky’s ‘one-mic’ recording technique and the spacious acoustics of St Peter’s Episcopal Church, NYC, the sound is as warm and as well balanced as the carefully selected programme of material.

Anything presented here, even the pieces penned by McBride and Jackson, would sound at home on one of the great Blue Note or Prestige recordings of the early ‘60s. Over the course of a pleasantly good-natured hour there’s no doubt that the group’s two elder statesmen are calling the shots, and with the last living link to Kind Of Blue at the traps, who could argue?

Walton’s ‘Newest Blues’ is a jaunty, upbeat opener and immediately gets the good times rolling. The Latin-tinged ‘Sixth Ave’ develops from a gospel-tinged intro and again avoids any undertow or tension. The temperature rises slightly for a spirited romp through ‘My Shining Hour’, but it’s not really until Jackson’s tricky ‘Notes In Three’, a fetching 3/4 head, that that the group seem to be stretching. The blues drenched ‘In The Kitchen’ restores the feelgood factor, and although the reading of Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ is very literal, Jackson’s heartfelt playing, which swaps his usual cloak for that of the composer, impresses.

Benny Golson’s ‘Whisper Not’ gets an elegant and dignified treatment, though Jackson’s real identity is even harder to pin down here. His playing on the self-penned ballad ‘Diane’ is very personal, however, and one of the high-spots of the disc. ‘Mode For Joe’ is an invitation to the saxophonist to pay homage to his major influence, Joe Henderson, and that’s exactly what he does. Walton’s fluid solo is crisply underpinned by Cobb’s trademark snare accents, perfectly setting the stage for the saxophonist’s entry. Sounding more like the player that fans of his promising Blue Note outings of more than a decade ago will remember, he doesn’t disappoint.

Undeniably a session more characterised by relaxed swing than the sound of surprise, Cobb and Walton are however in cracking form throughout. McBride and Jackson do nothing to rock a very harmonious boat, but if you’re after something with a more contemporary edge, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2007)

Friday, 19 October 2007

New bike - what have I done...!!!

In an act of insanity that I'm quite proud of, I traded my beloved Cannondale 'Black Lightning' road bike for an almost as beautiful Litespeed titanium Mountain Bike. A rash act, and a very hard decision to make, but in the end I think it will prove to be the right one. Not only does the new bike balance out the collection nicely, it gives me far more options and I now have a bike for all occasions.

The Cannondale was old, never a good thing with thin walled aluminium, and I certainly hammered it while I had it. It was a magnificent luxury, but as I already have a Merlin Works CR 6/4 with full Dura Ace and recently acquired a Ridley Eos as an all out winter trainer with full mudguards (I've named it Battleship Potemkin because of its colour and weight!), I was tripping over my roadbikes.

I got a good part-ex deal on a new Litespeed Obed, and to make it more of a challenge to ride I've stuck a rigid fork on it. For the time being it is geared, but I may well make it single-speed soon.

I can think of quite a few farm tracks that I just can't wait to let her loose on, and with the weekend ahead, no prizes for guessing what I'll be doing. Does it sound like I'm still trying to justify this deal to myself?

Here are a few pics of her before the first ride - if I find some decent mud I may even take some more when I get home...!!!