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)