Thursday, 27 September 2007

World Championships Preview...

Cycling’s FA Cup Final takes place on Sunday – the Men’s World Championship Road Race, held this year in Stuttgart. The race can make a rider’s career, earning them the right to wear the distinctive rainbow jersey for the following 12 months. Taking place on a different course in a different city each year, the race always has a distinctive atmosphere and is always highly competitive. With teams organised along national rather than trade team lines, it also provides a glimpse of a type of racing many have suggested should be adopted at the Tour de France.

Yet before this year’s race has even started it has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Defending champion Paolo Bettini, who refuses to sign the UCI’s anti-doping declaration, and Giro d’Italia winner Danilo Di Luca, who is subject to two separate doping investigations, have both been prevented from taking part by a court injunction. This follows the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) deciding on Wednesday to reinstate Spain’s Alejandro Valverde to the race after the UCI and the Spanish Federation had earlier tried to block the rider because of his links to Operacion Puerto. A podium finisher on several previous occasions, the UCI seem to be reacting to criticism levelled after allowing Michael Rasmussen to ride the Tour de France in July. Time is running out for Bettini and Di Luca to be granted a similar reprieve.

A cynic might suggest that the UCI don’t want, and can’t afford, to see a TV blackout. You may remember the Germans’ strong stance against doping during this year's Tour , pulling the plug on live TV coverage as soon as T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz’s positive test had been announced. They certainly mean business, and there has even been talk in some quarters that the national federation would cancel the Worlds at short notice.

Ahead of Sunday’s race the German Authorities have set up the most stringent and ambitious testing controls ever seen. Minds in the sport's corridors of power are undoubtedly being focused by threats from TV broadcaster ZDF to pull out at slightest whiff of another further scandal. Put simply, if Germany doesn't get the pictures, neither will anybody else. Are the UCI merely reacting to the German lead, or are they already in a similar place?

Whatever the real reasons behind the UCI’s remarkably unequivocal stance, it is clear that neither they nor bodies like ASO can ignore the pressure from sponsors, the media and the public to bring about change. With Floyd Landis finally stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after losing his appeal last week, who can't be longing for a time when races can be fought out on the roads rather than in the courts? The sport’s governing body, already reeling from the haemorrhaging of teams from its Pro Tour, is at last facing up to the inevitable, which gives us hope.

Dennis Menchov’s victory in this year’s Vuelta a Espana was certainly more satisfying than his victory two years ago. That victory in many ways mirrored the Landis affair, coming after ‘winner’ on the road Roberto Heras was stripped of his title after a positive test for EPO. This year’s race rather incredibly was missing all three podium finishers from 2006 - Alexandre Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde and Andrej Kasheckin all either sacked or under suspicion. Much of the racing had a real air of credibility, and once again Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre made courageous efforts to secure their first elusive Grand Tour victories. This was exactly the kind of racing most fans would surely want to see, although apathy in Spain once again saw plummeting live and TV audiences for the event.

However bad things may appear at the moment, I sense that the process of rebuilding has now begun. Perhaps things will get even worse before they start to get better, but the balance of power is shifting. No big name is too big to take a fall, and mindful of the dangers, the UCI are now steering a careful course that balances both commercial and rider interests. I just hope that nothing else will happen before Sunday to turn off the TV cameras at one of the biggest days in this beleaguered sport’s calendar, but in cycling you just never can tell. Who would bet against Valverde to take the honours on a hilly course like Stuttgart? That would be ironic indeed.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Enrico Rava...

Although I'm probably responsible for at least 2000 hits, I've just noticed that my visitor counter has passed 2500. A good excuse to post something special - or at least a review of a CD that is special.

As with other ECM discs I've reviewed, a snippet of my text has been included in the press reaction section of their web-site. This really is beautiful music that needs no hyperbole. If you don't know it yet, just listen...

The Words And The Days
ECM (1709773)

The Words And The Days; Secrets; The Wind; Echoes Of Duke; Tutu; Sogni Proibiti; Todamor; Serpent; Art Deco; Traps; Bob The Cat; Dr. Ra And Mr. Va

Enrico Rava (t); Gianluca Petrella (tb); Andrea Pozzi (p); Rosario Bonaccorso (b); Roberto Gatto (d), Recorded December 2005.

This is Enrico Rava’s second career with ECM. His first began over three decades ago and included the classic album The Pilgrim And The Stars (1975), one of my all time favourite works of ‘Euro-jazz’. Post-Miles-ian trumpet stylings seamlessly melded with Italian rusticism in a music as evocative of that nation’s vibrant culture as any Fellini classic.

Rava’s long and distinguished career has followed a similar trajectory to that of label-mate Tomasz Stanko, whose recent all-Polish quartet Rava’s new group so closely mirrors. Each leader brings an authoritative voice, vast experience and a similar range of influences, all of which are distilled and magnificently realised by a highly in-tune set of musicians. Save for pianist Andrea Pozzi, replacing Stefano Bollani, the quintet is the same as that found on 2004’s Easy Living (ECM). A little known fact is that Rava actually started out playing trombone, and whilst the frontline of trumpet and trombone may seem unusual, the brassy reed-less sound gives Rava’s plaintive cry an even deeper burnish. Petrella blends so closely with Rava that it’s often hard to know who is playing which part.

I’d say that the selection of material on The Words And The Days offers a broader stylistic sweep than the previous disc. As well as the homage to Don Cherry on ‘Art Deco’, where Petrella plays convincing New Orleans ‘gutbucket’, Gatto’s swinging ‘Traps’ and Rava’s playfully cartoon-ish ‘Bob The Cat’ combine to form a curious triptych of Americana. A re-working of ‘Dr Ra And Mr Va’ from The Plot (ECM, 1976) reveals much of the progress of both Rava and the ECM aesthetic in general. As with ’Blancasnow’ (The Pilgrim And The Stars) from the last album, an amount of raw immediacy has given way to a more relaxed and luxurious air, many common elements of style remaining but now refined to near perfection.

The title-track is an archetypally spacious European free-ballad, carefully steering between simple melody, classical restraint and pure expressionism, whilst ‘Secrets’ is a ten-minute journey of fascinating ebb and flow. Russ Freeman’s 'The Wind’, immortalised by Chet Baker, is a Rava tour de force, whilst the stunning ‘Echoes Of Duke’, a lovingly constructed and evocative piece, has Petrella impressing again an earthy soloist. Pozza’s solo is succinct and daring, and Rava moves from low growls to piercing notes of almost Cat Anderson-esque altitude to really rip it up.

A release of great warmth and uplifting beauty, this is every bit as essential as any of Stanko’s recent highs, and Manfred Eicher can be very proud of both.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2007)

Monday, 17 September 2007

Charles Gayle with William Parker and Mark Sanders...

The last time I saw Charles Gayle perform live was at least ten years ago, the gig taking place in a cellar in Edinburgh, with the great drummer Sunny Murray cajoling him to incredible heights. That night he played tenor sax and piano, and there was no doubt that listening to their music was to tap into a direct line back to Albert Ayler and the late works of John Coltrane. There was something highly charged and extra-musical about it. Call it spiritual, for want of a better word, the music was as passionate and driven as anything I've ever heard.

Last night I had another opportunity to see Gayle, and even though these days I get to about as many gigs in 12 months as I used to see in a week, this was one that I couldn't miss. Playing at a relatively new venue in Newcastle, The Star & Shadow Cinema, the small space with good natural acoustics made a perfect setting for a gig of this type. That the venue is also run by a colourful anarchist collective also helps to make it that bit more interesting than the average room above a bar. In short, it's a venue with plenty of character and a warm, intimate vibe.

Although I hadn't seen drummer Mark Sanders for at least 4 years, it was nice to greet him again as if it we'd only last met the day before. When I was promoting this kind of music he made regular trips to the region, and as well as frequent trips with Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall and Elton Dean, I'll never forget the time he appeared with Peter Brötzmann. I was a bit nervous, to say the least, about approaching the formiddable and imposing German sax-terrorist, but Mark put me at ease by saying something along the lines of, 'Don't worry, he's a pussycat really!!".

Completing last night's trio was the man/bear/bassist William Parker, who I'd once booked with Jemeel Moondoc and Hamid Drake, and on the day of that gig I found myself having to make numerous desperate 'phonecalls to secure a bass speaker two hours before the show was due to start when I found learned that he'd travelled without one! Always a pleasure to see him on stage, and he never lets you down when it comes to the performance. As if all of those good memories weren't enough, three members of my old band were in the audience too, and as I don't get to see them so often the night had a bit of a re-union feel about it.

From the off the music was an intense and serious affair. Gayle, dressed in black, tall and thin, cut an iconic appearance. His presence was made all the more interesting by his adoption of a white plastic alto saxophone as his new instrument of choice. For most of the evening, however, it was more Ayler and 'trane than Ornette that informed his direction. Some of the short-lived and boppier passages had flashbacks to the great Texan about them, but the vast majority of the show was a thrilling full-on assault on the senses.

I rarely listen to energy music of this kind anymore, but was tuned into the trio's sound within the first thirty seconds. Even though it may be a while before I next listen to to any more, for two glorious hours didn't have a care in the world. The music was loosely shape-shifting and for the most part ferocious and with few recognisable handles. At one point I thought I detected the melody from 'Nature Boy', and there was also a brief rendition of Ayler's 'Ghosts' played at a cheeky swing tempo before disintegrating and disappearing into the stratosphere, projected by Mark's always musical, but always terrifying, onslaught.

Quite a night, and up there with some of the best music of it's kind that I've been fortunate enough to witness. Hell, it was almost inspiring, but I think my sax will be staying put in its case for the time being. Probably the best place for it, and with Sonny Simmons and David Murray making returns to the region in the next few months, my saxophonic pleasures will most definitely be taken vicariously...

(Fred Grand)

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Wycliffe Gordon & The Garden City Gospel Choir...

As I haven't posted for a few days, and it's a Sunday, here are two reviews with a liturgical theme. 'Contrived' seems to be the watchword with Gordon's well-meaning but very stiff music. I'm off to play 'A Love Supreme'...

In The Cross
Criss Cross Jazz (1253 CD)

All Day Long; Sang My Song; Going Home I; I’m Glad; I Want Jesus To Walk With Me; Just A Closer Walk With Thee; Holy, Holy, Holy; Wade In The Water; Near The Cross; Help Me Somebody; Glory Hallelujah; All Day Long Sang My Song; Going Home I; When The Saints Go Marching In; I Came To Jesus.

Marcus Printup (t); Wycliffe Gordon tb); Victor Goines (ts, ss, cl); Eric Reed (p); Damien Sneed (org); Reginald Veal (b); Alvin Atkinson Jr (d); The Garden City Gospel Choir (voc).
Recorded December 2003 to January 2004.

A graduate of both Wynton Marsalis’ Septet and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, 37-year old Wycliffe Gordon has packed a lot of high profile gigs into a short career to date. Sometimes too much, it would seem, his projects having a tendency to touch every stylistic base ever reached by the trombone - from New Orleans to be-bop, gospel, and more recently funk-inflected soul-jazz.

In The Cross, his fifth disc for Criss Cross, is something of an extension of his 2000 release ‘The Gospel Truth’, sharing many of the same personnel. The concept, however, is taken a significant step further with the addition of a full gospel choir, allowing Gordon to write three part harmony arrangements on many of the favourite his of his youth. So prominently is the choir featured that you could be forgiven for thinking that this was their date, Gordon simply jobbing as musical director.

Those remembering Wynton’s In This House On This Morning (Columbia, 1992), another Gospel based session featuring Gordon, will be aware of the shortcomings of such projects. Whilst timeless classics such as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme succeed almost universally as heartfelt statements transcending all boundaries of faith, fastidious attempts to re-enact church ritual, such as In The Cross, seem contrived and lacking in any meaningful resonance for any listener not already of the congregation.

I don’t doubt for a second Gordon’s sincerity, nor the profound influence of gospel music on jazz, but music as genre-bound and unreconstructed as this belongs only to a very small niche of purists. Solo space for the musicians is at a premium, but Printup, Reed and Goines are as surefooted as you’d expect when their moments to step out of the wings arrive.

‘Wade In The Water’ inevitably shines as a highlight, it’s irresistible chorus framing Gordon’s most spirited solo. Arrangements are traditional with a capital ‘T’, with no attempt made to give any of the material a contemporary twist. Versions of such warhorses as ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ offer nothing you won’t have heard numerous times before, and the considerable musical personalities of the top-notch band are stifled by the requirements for authenticity. In The Cross, despite lavish production from a normally unerring record label, is ultimately a product for an audience somewhere close to, but finally just beyond, jazz.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review , November 2004)

Mary Lou Williams...

What can you say about a song titled 'Jesus Is The Best'...?

Mary Lou’s Mass

Willis; O.W.; Praise The Lord; Old Time Spiritual; The Lord Says; Act of Contrition; Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy); Gloria; Medi I & Medi II; In His Day/Peace I Leave With You/Alleluia; Lazarus; Credo; Credo (instrumental); Holy, Holy, Holy; Amen; Our Father; Lamb of God; it Is Always Spring; People In Trouble; One; Praise The Lord (Come Holy Spirit); Jesus Is The Best; Tell Him Not To Talk To Long; I Have A Dream.

Mary Lou Williams (p/org); Roger Glenn (f); Julius Watkins (frh); David Amram (frh); Sonny Henry (g); Leon Atkinson (g); Carline Ray (b); Chris White (b); Milton Suggs (b); Al Harewood (d); David Parker (d);David Parker (d); Abdul Rahman (perc); Ralph MacDonald (perc); Leon Thomas (v); James Bailey (v); Milton Grayson (v); Carl Hall (v); Honi Gordon (v); Eileen Gilbert (v); Randy Peyton (v); Christine Spencer (v). (1969-72).

Although religion has been closely related to jazz since its earliest days, it would be hard to name any other statement as overtly religious or on such a grand scale as Mary Lou’s Mass. Unlike Ellington’s Sacred Music, this was conceived as liturgical music, designed to be performed within a conventional mass. Most of it has previously been issued as Music For Peace, though this lavish package adds bonus material, a hefty booklet, and state of the art re-mastering.

When premiered in 1971, Music For Peace was even enhanced by the visual theatre of Alvin Ailey’s dance troupe. Regarded by Williams as a major statement of magnum opus proportions, she summed it up as her ‘Music for the Soul’. Spanning spirituals, soul jazz and gospel, with a liberal helping of funk, the work goes beyond simply offering praise and passes some pretty pointed social commentary on the era. In fact it is the social concerns expressed over themes including Vietnam and racism that make this release so potentially rewarding for agnostic or atheistic listeners less inclined to offer ‘hosannahs’.

Williams draws heavily on Biblical scripture to illustrate her contemporary concerns, making the message all the more powerful for those in the know. A scattering of instrumental tracks, sounding not unlike like The Three Sounds from the same period, remind us that Williams was as formidable a pianist as she was a talented arranger. This is however a predominantly voice-based music, and as well as songs with featured vocalists there are full scale choral arrangements, all generally framed by breezy flute choruses and funky back beats.

“Tell Him Not To Talk Too Long” is one of the few recorded instances of Williams playing organ, and along with “I Have A Dream” it was recorded in 1969 in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. “Jesus Is The Best” is pure Gospel music, the lyrics somewhere between a football chant and Jesus Christ, Superstar, and is one of the few moments where solemnity is left to one side. Even the bonus material sounds like it comes from the same mass, so consistent is Williams in her approach. It may be a bit of a one-off in your collection, but this powerful music deserves revisiting.

Fred Grand
Jazz Review, July 2005)

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

9/11 - Daniel Carter & Reuben Radding

With today being the sixth anniversary of 9/11, now seems like an appropriate time to post this review. The music was made in the aftermath of the events that still scar the heart of New York City, with consequences for international politics that nobody needs reminding of.

It's said that nobody will ever forget where they were the day it happened - I was co-organising a gig with no-fi in Newcastle by Kid 606, the 'bad boy' of American electronica. The whole evening had a strange cast, and this CD would have made a more fitting soundtrack...


You And I Are Disappearing; Ancestral Voyage; Refracted Light And Grace; Blessing The Ride; Vignettes; Qualcosa Verso Azzuro; Occurrences, Places, Entities And The Sea.

Daniel Carter (as); Reuben Radding (b). Recorded 10/01.

Rather surprisingly, Luminescence represents ubiquitous multi-reedsman Daniel Carter’s debut recording under his own name. The bulk of the disc was recorded live in Seattle, just a few weeks after the seismic events now referred to as ‘9/11’. This was Carter’s first trip to the West Coast, and was facilitated by a grant raised by former sparring partner on the New York avant-garde scene, bassist Reuben Radding.

Carter’s decision to travel with just one horn, forced by an overzealous airline carrier, was in the end a fortuitous circumstance. Had Carter been able to travel with his full arsenal of reeds and brass I doubt that the ensuing performance could have been so tightly focused. Rather than venting his frustration or rage, Carter overcomes adversity by falling back on his considerable musical resources. The saxophonist digs deep within to craft lyrical, melodic improvisations in a warm, luxuriant tone that seems to be bathed in soft light. He is completely at one with the nimble big-toned Radding, who shadows his every move.

With a sound closer to Anthony Ortega, Lee Konitz or Art Pepper, who could believe that this is one of free-jazz’s heaviest hitters? Although there is a darkly brooding and somewhat pensive aspect to the duo’s collective expression, each piece playfully twists in and out of joyous swing like a writhing eel, usually resolving optimistically.

It would be pointless to single out one particular piece - none are dispensable despite all being constructed along similar lines. The three studio cuts closing the album don’t quite attain the same transcendent level, as if that was just out of reach once the initial tensions had been released at the concert two days beforehand. Great art born out of adversity, and highly recommended listening for music lovers of all persuasions.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2003)

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Bike Porn II...

It's that time of year already - the slide into Autumn, the shorter daylight hours, the urge to get off-road, the cyclo-cross season.

I rarely raced cyclo-cross, and when I did I always seemed to end up flat on my back in a drainage ditch. I love cyclo-cross bikes for getting around quickly off road though.

I don't own a mountain bike, and I make sure that all of my off-road routes can be handled by the trusty 'cross bike. I got this one last year, a Kona Major Jake (some would say Major Joke when they see my bike-handling!). It's easily the best of its kind that I've ever ridden, although I'm very tempted by a nice Colnago 'cross bike, available locally at a good price at the moment.

I've just got in from a nice two and a half hour loop, and while I was cooling down I decided to take some pictures of the bike using my 'phone. The photos aren't the best of quality, but here she is anyway...

Friday, 7 September 2007

Joe McPhee with Dominic Duval & John Heward...

The last concert I ever promoted was one of the best, and something of an ambition realised. A rare UK appearance by Joe McPhee, legendary multi-instrumentalist and 'ideas man'.

He comfortably straddles avant-garde jazz and free improvisation, and for a time took an interesting direction in semi-composed ensemble music, which he called Po Music (follow the link to McPhee's fascinating explanation...).

The gig was a duo with UK drummer Paul Hession, and the music was classic free-jazz in the style of Coltrane's 'Interstellar Space' duos with Rashied Ali. McPhee was as open and approachable as any musician I ever met, and all in all it was a good way to sign off as a promoter. Just a shame so few were there to witness it, but it was ever thus...

Undersound II

Undersound 11; Undersound 12; Undersound 13; Undersound 14.

Joe McPhee (ts, ss); Dominic Duval (b); John Heward (d); Malcolm Goldstein (vn) on 3.
Recorded December 2000

Joe McPhee has expanded and refined his approach to music considerable since his debut recording in 1967. That he not better known is partly due to the continued under-appreciation of the contributions of the free-jazz pioneers to the wider jazz continuum. It is also, I suspect, partially a result of McPhee’s own embrace of forms of musical expression from outside of the genre that have sometimes confused his message. Whilst Undersound I was a fairly arid chamber-improv set, no such charges could be levelled at the follow-up. He explodes out of the traps with an Ayler-esque tour de force spanning 26 intense minutes, wave upon wave of energy being unleashed by the trio.

Dominc Duval will be well known to followers of both improv and free-jazz via his work with practically every significant artist in the two genres. Heward has a less prominent profile, and his perhaps better known in the field of visual arts, though he recorded some fine work with the late Glenn Spearman. Malcolm Goldstein, an improvising violinist of steadily growing repute, makes a cameo appearance on ‘Undersound 13’ for what is a mercifully brief return to the micro-sounds explored in greater depth on the earlier recording. The piece does however provide a neat segue into the rousing version of Dvorak’s ‘Going Home’ which assumes a hymnal quality and brings out McPhee’s deep roots in Coltrane and Ayler.

Although his brass work is not represented, a passage played on tenor saxophone 15 minutes into ‘Undersound 11’ perfectly illustrates that whichever instrument McPhee picks up, the sounds and timbral range are always remarkably consistent. Trio X may offer more to those interested in McPhee’s free-jazz strain, but as an introduction to the breadth of his artistic scope, Undersound II makes a good portal for the uninitiated.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2003).

Jim Baker...

I love people like Jim Baker, even though I rarely listen to this recording. He's an eccentric, a one-off, a man with ideas that sometimes are excruciating in their execution but at other times breathtaking.

A man from the same Chicago scene as Hal Russell, there's more than a little of the same kookiness about Baker. Vandermark may have galvanised the 'new' Chicago jazz scene, but people like Baker remind us that there's a lot more going on in the City than Ken's projects...

More Questions Than Answers

Watching The Interstate; Tolled Deadpan; Tocsin Du Jour; Happenedstance; Post-Industrial Societies And Their Pre-Cursors; Infinity Trip Blues; Is It Still Mime If They’re Deaf?; Mourning Doves; Grey Comedy; Hobbesian’s Choice; More Questions Than Answers; Airstrip Vespers; Through The Woods, Over The River.

Jim Baker (ky)
Recorded March 2003 to August 2004.

I first encountered the somewhat eccentric improvising style of Chicagoan Jim Baker in the early Ken Vandermark ensemble, Caffeine. In truth, the best thing about their rather lugubrious music was the drumming of Steve Hunt, though Baker opened my ears with tightly focussed and endlessly renewable streams of ideas. A later Vandermark project, Standards For Improvisers, revealed Baker’s fondness for analogue synthesisers, whilst a subsequent outing with Fred Anderson confirmed his versatility by presenting a more straight-ahead player.

For this project, his leadership debut, Baker could have picked any combination of bankable talent from the Chicago scene. Instead he chose to present a set of thirteen solo, real-time improvisations. Baker’s excellent sleevenotes describe in detail the paradoxical process of the improviser trying to escape memory and be ‘in the moment’, whilst still presenting an ordered programme of music for the listener. He manfully accepts that memory informs and shapes his work and freely admits that some of the pieces were recorded at later sessions specifically to fit the disc’s programmatic requirements. A free improviser cheating? I don’t really think so, and he’d be hard pressed to replicate any of these pieces with any kind of precision if asked to do so.

As to the disc’s title, it isn’t an altogether bad description of the music. I suspect however that Baker would be unhappy if he ever found more answers than questions. His identity as an essentially lyrical abstractionist is to be found at every turn. ‘Tolled Deadpan’ is a beautifully melancholic excursion with evocative crepuscular hues. It is immediately followed by an unexpected flurry of white noise from Baker’s ARP synthesiser. Occasionally percussive, though never for long, Baker repeatedly returns to his melodic motifs as if by instinct.

The gigantic ‘Post Industrial Societies’ runs the gamut of emotions to reach a coruscating climax, whilst ‘Mourning Doves’ proves that the brilliance of ‘Deadpan’ was no fluke. At times the music has the expansive range of Keith Jarrett’s mid ‘70s solo work, but seen through a grainy patina that repels sentimentality.

Given the readiness with which his solos coalesce into harmonious forms, Baker’s quip that next time round he’ll probably ‘just stick to standards’ is perhaps not so ridiculous. In using his entire experience as a performing musician, experience that includes interpretation of standards, such a disc would inevitably present the same unpredictable and exciting talent, simply a little more transparently. Not always a joyful noise, More Questions Than Answers is nevertheless well worth investigating.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2005)