Tuesday, 30 December 2008

John Coltrane...

Well, here we are. December not yet done and 10,000 visitors clocked-up without resorting to any desperate measures to lure in the visitors. Considering that this blog is two-and-a-half years old that's not a great amount of 'hits', but concerning its self as it does with some pretty obscure subject matter, and offering no free downloads, it isn't too bad really.

Christmas passed without further worsening of our ailments, and a nice time was had by all. I've just started on the latest batch of reviews for the magazine, and in between times I'm keeping busy building flat-pack furniture from Ikea and setting up data bases for the sheer hell of it on Bento 2. Louise is honing her skills as an electrician, and so far remains unfrazzled.

Amongst the latest batch of CDs to review is a monumental 2CD set by Henry Grimes, playing an uninterrupted bass and violin solo performance lasting almost 3 hours. Giantism, a feat of endurance, and some times hard work for this listener. Neverthless, I like it.

Time to get back to posting more reviews, and to finish off the year I'll go for something a little bit different. The following is a book review, or more accurately two book reviews. Only the Ratliff section was actually published, so here I'm presenting the piece in its entirety, 'for the first time', as they say.

John Coltrane, That should guarantee a few more 'hits'...

Coltrane: The Story Of A Sound
By Ben Ratliff
Hardcover 250pp Faber & Faber; ISBN-13: 978-0-374-12606-3

The John Coltrane Reference
Chris DeVito, Yashuhiro Fujioka, Wolf Schmaler and David Wild and edited by Lewis Porter.
Hardcover 848pp Routledge; ISBN-13: 978-0-415-97755-5

Author Ben Ratliff wasn’t even born when Coltrane died in 1967, aged just 40. Despite already carving out an impressive and enviable niche as a music correspondent for the New York Times, he doesn’t even turn 40 himself until next year. Why is this important? Well, unlike writers who were there to witness Coltrane emerge and evolve, Ratliff has a certain critical distance that allows him to approach the subject in something of a post-Coltrane manner. With so much received wisdom - sometimes bordering on mythology or worship - surrounding this musical giant, a fresh perspective is no bad thing.

Ratliff sets out to tackle much of the froth head-on, offering as many new questions as answers. The book’s title gives a sizeable clue as to its purpose. Although structured chronologically, this is not a conventional biography. For that approach we have Lewis Porter, and if you want something lighter for the coffee table, Ashley Khan’s excellent overview of A Love Supreme is heartily recommended. Ratliff takes a middle road, tracing the evolution of Coltrane’s distinctive sound in what is best described as a critical and cultural study. Loosely structured as a book of two overlapping halves, the first offers a critical skip through Coltrane’s recorded legacy, illuminated with wider reference to external influences on his musical development. The second is devoted to the reception of the music within his lifetime - a journey from frequent hostility towards deification and an all-pervading posthumous influence on countless followers.

Ratliff, as a music critic, is in a descriptive business, and although an engaging writer, he wisely knows that nothing he writes will ever surpass Ira Gitler’s ‘sheets of sound’ to describe the late ‘50s chord stacking. What his book offers in spades is a persuasive discourse, underpinned by diligent research, with many insights into how Coltrane reached his various landmarks - practicing arpeggios from an exercise book written for harpists that were never intended to be played by saxophonists, for example. Coltrane was nothing if not a hard worker, as Ratliff’s often amusing anecdotes about the prodigious practice regime illustrate. The importance of his association with Monk gets a welcome analysis and is often over looked. Compared to the association with Miles Davis that followed, there is little recorded evidence available for us to listen to today despite the many hours they spent together gigging. His description of the hothouse learning that was their residency at The Five Spot in the summer of 1957 is just one of many valuable and memorable sections in the book.

Where I feel that Ratliff sometimes falls down is in the more subjective side of his analysis. His view that it has taken thirty years to achieve a mainstream rapprochement between jazz pre and post ‘New Thing’ is debateable. This may well be true of the American experience, but in Europe it took less than a decade for Jarrett, Garbarek and the nascent ECM sound to reach the popular consciousness. That said, subjectivity goes with the terrain in any critical study, and I’d rather read a book that engages and challenges. By and large, much of what Ratliff presents in this book chimed with me.

A sympathetic treatment of Coltrane’s last years more than compensates for a possible over-concentration on the ‘50s. In fairness to Ratliff, the earlier decade when Coltrane’s sound underwent its biggest growth spurt, moving from a jobbing be-bopper to chord scientist in a relatively short space of time. After ‘Giant Steps’ it became more of a logical process of refinement, moving from modal to free playing with a solid bank of technique to draw on at will. Ratliff ventures the bold working hypothesis that Coltrane’s development can essentially be viewed wholly in terms of sound, a linear progression in which he abandoned musical structure in pursuit of ‘pure sound’. The idea is expounded at length, and although attractive in many ways it seems to me to be an over-imposition of hindsight. I doubt whether Coltrane ever really saw his work in such terms, which is not to say that sound wasn’t important to him. His obsession with mouthpieces attests to his attention to detail, though I suspect that it was something done primarily in the service of music. Viewing later works such as Interstellar Space purely in terms of sound seems to under-appreciate just how much Coltrane’s liberation from conventional musical structures was a logical extension of the old language, a more direct and even democratic form of musical expression.

Possibly because it remains such a controversial period so ripe for re-evaluation, Ratliff is at his best when writing about the period during and after the progressive alienation of Tyner and Jones. His unearthing of many contemporaneously published critical receptions of the ‘New Thing’ is fascinating and gives a better summary of the period than any I’ve previously read. Coltrane’s wanton and self-absorbed abandonment of a considerable body of critically acclaimed work is juxtaposed with insights gained, from Rashied Ali amongst others, of a warm and generous spirit who encouraged a new generation to express themselves through music. In the case of Frank Wright, who could barely play at the time of his first encounter with Coltrane, that generosity comes dangerously close to naivety. Ratliff draws on the social and cultural background, a time of strife and upheaval, and offers many thought provoking explanations. The rumours of Coltrane’s heavy use of LSD in the run up to his death are alluded to, but more on the veracity of those claims and their significance in terms of the trajectory of his music would have been welcome, and may even have supported Ratliff’s notion of a man in pursuit of raw sound-blocks.

Not even setting out to be the definitive Coltrane book, Ratliff very nearly succeeds in achieving this feat. Inevitably for such a project he must draw on biographical material and approach the subject in a linear and narrative style. More scholarly and granular musicological analysis is certainly available elsewhere, but Ratliff’s neat descriptive turn and alternately bold and temperate perspectives make this a provocative but highly readable work. If you’re after a book that deals with both the man and his music, placing it all within a thoroughly researched contextual framework, look no further.

In much the same way as with a telephone directory, The John Coltrane Reference is not a book you could sit down and read from cover to cover. Details of every live performance, broadcast and even media interview that Coltrane gave in his lifetime are all contained within. Edited by Lewis Porter, author of the most highly regarded Coltrane biography to date (John Coltrane: His Life And Music), it makes a great supplement to that work. Sometimes this weighty slab seems to be a series of lists for the sake of lists, bald factual chronology without analysis or comment. Flicking it open even randomly should however reveal fascinating nuggets of information. Did you know that Jack DeJohnette gigged with ‘trane at The Plugged Nickel in 1996, for example? Or that Clark Terry and Coleman Hawkins played opposite Coltrane’s explosive group with Pharoah Sanders when Live at the Village Vanguard Again! was cut? Reprints of contemporaneous reviews remind us of the controversy Coltrane generated at the time and sometimes prove a welcome antidote to the book’s dryness. Rather like Raltliff’s volume, this work offers something unique and not available elsewhere. You could argue that what is essentially a hard copy database may have been better published online, but as with your telephone directory there will almost certainly be times when you’re glad you had it to hand. Not a cheap book by any means, but for your money you’ll get a reassuringly solid volume that is exquisitely produced, lavishly illustrated and thoroughly researched. Unlike Ratliff’s work, this is perhaps a book only for hardcore fans, but a commendable venture nonetheless.

Fred Grand

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Anna Brooks...

Still short of 10,000 hits, I'm not going to resort to desperate tactics just yet. In fact, in true Afric Pepperbird style, I'm going to be wilfully obscure and post a review of a CD that hardly anybody will be interested in (save for the band members, their friends and their extended families).

That's not to be gratuitously critical of the music here - it's just a sad fact that there are too many records in the world, they're all too easy to download (legally and otherwise), and that to really make an impact you need to hit on something pretty damned exceptional. This record just doesn't cut through, but it'd be churlish to knock them for trying.

With work on the house temporarily suspended and Louise struck down with flu (or something very similar), I'm fortunate enough to be finished with my dose of illness and can sit back to enjoy the new Pendulum box set (with Randy Brecker matching Dave Liebman blow for blow!!) and lots of groovy Strata East rarities. You just can't beat music from the '70s, particularly jazz!!

There'll be no "Merry Christmas" greetings, but I do sincerely wish all of my readers health, good fortune and good luck for 2009...

My Time

Karmarama; Already There; Beans’ Dreams; By Twelve; Dink No Dink; Bad Hair Day; For My Sins; My Time.

Anna Brooks (as, ss); Alcyona Mick (p); Tim Crampton (g); Dave Foster (b); Carl Hemingsley (d).

Starting to make waves outside of Birmingham, appearances by Anna Brooks’ young quintet at the Cheltenham, Brecon and even Montreux festivals have drawn praise from seasoned and astute listeners. ‘My Time’, the quintet’s debut recording, is ultimately a good account of where British jazz education is taking us. Slick without being terribly heartfelt or gritty, the music makes all the right noises but seems to lack that certain ‘x’ factor which can’t be taught.

Coming in at the soft end of contemporary jazz, simple melodic hooks, lyricism and steady rhythmic pulses are the basis building blocks. As an alto saxophonist, Brooks has a direct style with a tone (though not vocabulary) strongly influenced by contemporary players such as Antonio Hart and Kenny Garrett. Her work on soprano is rather less interesting, showing a tendency to flirt with the lyrical mush of Jazz FM, fortunately staying just the right side of the line for the most part. The eight pieces are all Brooks originals and range from thoughtfully engaging to bland. ‘Karmarama’ is a bright opener that must work well when played live, whilst ‘Already There’ and ‘For My Sins’ are the compositional high spots for me, suggesting that the quintet can get inside of a piece of music and explore its full potential.

Elsewhere, ‘Beans Dreams’ and the title track merely tread water. Alcyona Mick’s tasteful contributions on acoustic piano may be less exciting than her plugged-in work with Chris Bowden, though nevertheless leave a good impression. With conservatory-honed techniques all round you wouldn’t expect much to be lacking in terms of polish, though the licks-based superficiality of some of the playing is a concern. Ultimately, enough still remains to suggest that there’s better to come as this group gain experience and understanding. This will certainly satisfy the group’s growing fan-base for now, and does their reputation no harm.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2004)

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Roy Hargrove RH Factor

In a shameless attempt to boost the number of hits to this page and reach the magical 10,000 figure by the close of 2008, here's a reprint of a review of a commerically slanted offering by trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The review was the only one I've ever written where I've ever had an "(...Ed)" inserted. As I recall it, the late Richard Cook added a cynical remark about shifting units to my musings about whether or not there'd be a follow-up record made in the same style.

As it turns out Hargrove seems to be back playing more straight-ahead stuff now. Was he simply pitching to the jazz-lite/crossover market in a cynical and exploitative manner, or was it an example of an enlightened record label allowing him artistic freedom?

As long as this post gets me to 10,000 by December 31st I don't really mind, and if it doesn't then the next post may need to resort to placing a reference to 'XXX Porn' in its title to pique the public interest...

Hard Groove
VERVE RECORDS (065192 2)

Hard Groove; Common Free Style; I’ll Stay; Interlude; Pastor ‘T’; Poetry; The Joint; Forget Regret; Out Of Town; Liquid Streets; Kwah/Home; How I Know; Juicy; The Stroke.

Roy Hargrove (t); Steve Coleman (as); Keith Anderson (ts); Jacques Schwarz-Bart (ts); Karl Denson (f); Marc Cary (ky); James Poyser (ky); Bobby Sparks (ky); Bernard Wright (ky); Chalmers Alford (g); Cornell Deupree (g); Pino Palladino (b); Reggie Washington (b); M’shell Ndegocello (b); Willie Jones III (d); Jason Thomas (d); Gene Lake (d); Erikah Badu (voc); Q Tip (voc); D’Angelo (voc); Anthony Hamilton (voc); Rene Neufville (voc); Stephanie McKay (voc); Shelby Johnson (voc). Recorded Jan-Feb 2002.

When trumpeter Roy Hargrove burt on to the scene with Diamond In The Rough (BMG) in the late 1980s I felt sure that a new star had been born. A passionate soloist with a bright tone handed down from Clifford Brown through Lee Morgan, Hargrove had the vital spark missing in many of his more fastidiously retro contemporaries. A switch to Verve produced a somewhat disappointing string of concept-driven recordings that somehow stalled that early promise.

The latest attempt to place Hargrove back on the map involves both a musical change of tack and a radical image makeover. Now sporting dreads and calling on the services of string of stars from the worlds of rap and R&B, we are presented with the RH Factor. Regardless of how the industry comes to terms with the declining interest in jazz, the music of Hard Groove will be what most interests JR readers. Those hoping for a return to his post-hard bop roots will find little succour. Others more at ease with the latter phases of Miles’ career, or Steve Coleman’s mature M-Base sound, will almost certainly enjoy this vibrant new release. ‘Hard Groove’ is a kaleidoscope of contemporary black musical styles reaching far beyond any narrow views of jazz. We get hip hop, soul balladry and driving locked-groove funk - but always enough jazz to satisfy on the more cerebral level. “I’ll Stay” is a slice of organ-drenched soul from the Funkadelic songbook, and it’s nice to see that Ken Vandermark isn’t the only person to realise the jazz potential of Clinton and Hazel’s music.

Amongst many other highlights are ‘Pastor T’, which places Hargrove’s searing trumpet right up front, and ‘Out of Town’ which has a dazzling Steve Coleman cameo. Whether or not this disc hits the intended targets of the brash marketing strategy behind it, Hargrove’s statement succeeds artistically, and places him within the same populist musical continuum that Mile embraced after his Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone epiphanies. The decision whether or not to continue in this vein may ultimately belong more with Verve than Hargrove. For now though, Hard Groove deserves to provide pleasure to those masses for whom it is unashamedly intended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, August 2003)

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Vacances Parisienne....

Rather than expound about all of the wonderful things that we found and did in Paris, here's a link to the web album which gives a small flavour of things...

Friday, 21 November 2008

Stephan Oliva...

As we're off to Paris for a few days I thought I'd keep things ticking over with another review posting. The titles of the compositions are appropriately Gallic, though the music its self is more culturally ambiguous. My onion analogy wasn't a subconscious bit of stereotyping, but instead of looking for non-existent connections in an increasingly dull pre-amble, I'll stop and get on with packing those suitcases.

Au revoir...

Itineraire Imaginaire
SKETCH (333042)

Preface; Marche Antique; Resonance D’un Silence; Spirales; Cercle Ouvert; Partance Imobile; Cecile Seute; Mouvement Interpromtu; Paradox; Tango Indigo; Passage En Marge; Ellipse; Postface.

Matthieu Donarier (ss); Jean-Marc Foltz (cl, bcl); Stephan Oliva (p); Bruno Chevillon (b); Nicholas Larmignat (d).
Recorded January 2004.

Pianist/composer Stephan Oliva seems inexplicably to have made fewer waves outside of his native France than such contemporaries as Bojan Z, Sophia Domancich or Francois Raulin. This, his fourth release as a leader, follows an earlier Sketch disc with a cast that included Marc Ducret and Paul Rogers playing personal variations on the music of Lennie Tristano. For Itineraire Imaginaire, it is the Garbarek-Stenson quartet, or Jarrett’s ‘Scandinavian’ quartet of the mid-70s that are the most obvious musical touchstones. Oliva, however, belongs to the same ‘new wave’ of French jazz as Louis Sclavis, and his melding of classical structures with jazz and folk music gives a readily identifiable French feel to the disc. Unlike Sclavis, whose music tends to be tight and chamber-ish, Oliva is not afraid to branch out into far more turbulent waters.

This disc is structured in a way that showcases his control of extreme dynamics - long improvisation based ensemble workouts interleaved by through-composed miniatures featuring different combinations of the members of his quintet. It is in these short pieces that Oliva’s classical leanings come very much to the fore, with the Viennese School and even the spatial characteristics of composer Morton Feldman coming to mind. To convincingly combine these diverse elements would be a dangerous high-wire act for a lesser musician, yet Oliva has little difficulty reconciling such disparate elements without sounding archly eclectic. ‘Spirales’ is a fine case in point - collective improvisation taken to the cusp of meltdown with only the faintest centrifugal pull before the group converge, control the velocity and spiral out with a tricky unison theme. The same approach surfaces on ‘Ellipse’, percussive piano and pulse-drumming giving way to to intricate ensemble work within more tranquil pools. Bruno Chevillon, anchor of many of Louis Sclavis’ best groups, comes through loud and clear, and the detail of Larmignat’s drumming is so well captured that you can vividly differentiate each individual skin stroke. Folt’s clarinets tend towards the strangulated goose vocabulary of mainstream European improvised music, his rather brutal approach providing a foil for Donarier’s liquid soprano.

Knotty and demanding music which rather like an onion reveals more layers the deeper you probe. Euro-jazz aficionados shouldn’t hesitate to seek out this fine release.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2004)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Herbie Hancock @ The Sage...

This time my blogging is a little closer to the event than last, in fact you could almost say it's on time. Just like Herbie, starting dead on 7:30 and playing one set lasting almost 3 hours. That would make the £30.00 ticket price seem reasonable if quantity was your only touchstone, but more importantly to me the quality of the music matched the epic duration. As Louise reminded me, the cost wasn't even that great when compared to some of the prices she's paid for 70's rock legends plying their trade in arenas and stadia. If anybody in jazz can legitimately charge a mint it would have to be Hancock, fresh off the back of his sublime Grammy winning Joni Mitchell project, and he certainly knows how to put on a show!

The music was all familiar stuff and spanned his career - from Cantaloupe Island to Rock It. With a new retrospective collection out in the shops it made sense to backtrack, and with so many great compositions to re-visit he could have written three or four tasty set lists. The make-up of his new sextet made the night's exercises all the more intriguing. Individually they're all known quantities, and most of them I'd seen before in other contexts. Terence Blanchard was a slick as ever and is surely one of the best trumpeters of today's contemporary mainstream. It was good to hear him play electric trumpet during the Headhunters pieces, and although it all goes back to Miles (via Eddie Henderson), the effects he used reminded me a lot of Palle Mikkelborg. Bassist James Genus (mainly playing fatback electric funk) and drummer Kendrick Scott (amazing on the 17 bar Seven Teens) were a tight knit team plucked from Blanchard's band, but the real wild cards were Swiss harmonica genius Gregoire Maret and African guitarist Lionel Loueke, whose idiosyncratic techniques brought many unexpected twists.

Impressive as Loueke was, Maret was the real star of the show. When Hancock genially introduced the band before the show Louise was skeptical about what a harmonica player could possibly bring to the table. I'd heard him before and I knew - he's one of the most creative and exciting soloists on any instrument currently playing jazz! His speed and fluency belies the difficulties of handling a pocket sized instrument, but put him on any instrument - saxophone for the sake of argument - and he'd still be a world class improviser. The way he blended with Hancock's electric keyboards on a the haunting rendition of Speak Like A Child truly made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and as we walked back to the car enduring an icy blast from the Tyne, it was Maret we were both talking about.

Last but not least we should mention Herbie. Turning 70 in less than two years, he looks as young as ever and is still a formidable showman. Forget his crowd pleasing guitar synth stunts on Rock It though, because fun as they were they were hardly typical of a night in which he dug deep at the piano stool. His solo Dolphin Dance was exquisite, and he was probably the one who ripped more shreds out of Loueke's fiendish Seven Teens than anybody. His intelligent use of keyboards were a reminder of what a pioneer he was in that field, and it being a retrospective kind of show it was good to feel the width of his output too.

This was living music, certainly not as great or as organic as Wayne Shorter's current quartet. If I was magically given the facility for time travel I'd have preferred to hear any one of theses pieces played as they were new and fresh. As that's not an option open to me or anybody else it's important to be realistic. What I heard last night was far from a let down. Last time I saw Herbie before last night's show was just after Miles' death, in a specially convened quintet with Shorter, Carter, Williams and Roney. The same comments would have applied to that gig - oozing class and satisfyingly free of stale odours, but not fresh enough for real greatness...

Fred Grand

Monday, 10 November 2008

Patricia Barber...

Just this week I've started to make good on a promise I made in a review written over four years ago - to catch up on Patricia Barber's back catalogue.

My relationship to song-based music has been distant for a few years, but recently I've been listening to more and more singers and singer/songwriters - from Nina Simone to Neil Young, Cassandra Wilson to Nick Drake. That's probably due in no small part to the influence of Louise's tastes. Musical cross-pollination of the healthiest kind, you could say. I liked Barber's music as soon as I heard it, and my recent binge on her output confirms those first impressions...

Live: A Fortnight In France
Blue Note Records (78214 2)

Gotcha; Dansons Le Giguel; Crash; Laura; Pieces; Blue Prelude; Witchcraft; Norwegian Wood; Whiteworld; Call Me.

Patricia Barber (voc/p); Neal Alger (g); Michael Arnopol (b); Eric Montzka (d).
Recorded 2004.

Although I’ve been aware of Barber’s growing reputation, and received repeated recommendations from friends over the last ten years or so, my reluctance to embrace vocalists has until now denied me the pleasure. More fool me, for Barber has the kind of dark and liquid-smooth alto voice, free of irritating tics and mannerisms, that I can listen to all day long. Throughout the course of this superb collection of songs, recorded live in three French cities, Barber not only impresses as a sophisticated and engaging singer-songwriter, but also as a pianist more than capable of holding her own should she make the unlikely decision never to sing again.

Her laconic wit and razor-sharp insights into all manner of familiar phenomena place her in the company of Mose Allison, and her approach to performance is both contemporary yet unmistakably an extension of the tradition. The material comprises a mix of originals and covers. Two instrumentals, the grooving ‘Crash’ and conventionally swinging ‘Witchcraft’ sit comfortably alongside a haunting and free-floating rendition of the Johnny Mercer classic ‘Laura’, an expansive deconstruction of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and a fistful of originals that simply ooze class. ‘Danson La Giguel’ from her 2002 album Verse boasts lyrics, sung in French, by poet Paul Verlaine, whilst ‘Whiteworld’, based on the character oedipus from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ pits biting satire on contemporary trends in imperialism against an irresistibly funky backdrop. How many jazz vocalists could you name with such a wide scope?

The closing ‘Call Me’, despite being an almost throwaway encore, knocks spots off Eliane Elias’ overproduced version, reviewed earlier this year. Throughout these ten performances the musicianship is irreproachable and would carry even the lamest of voices, the band negotiating many stylistic challenges to meet Barber’s tirelessly adventurous approach. Guitarist Alger gets most of the solo space and has a contemporary palette that spikes up the music, whilst bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka are almost telepathically conjoined, having played this gig so many times before. Established fans will welcome this document of a confident performer in her natural environment, whilst initiates like myself should take the cue to catch up with a back catalogue already stretching to eight recordings. Better late than never for me, and a prospect to relish!

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2004)

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Billy Cobham's Asère @ The Gala, Durham

It seems to defeat the idea of blogging to post a review of a gig that took place almost 2 weeks ago. Isn't this culture supposed to be all about the moment, a commentary on daily life shortly after it has happened and while the experiences are fresh in the mind?

Afric Pepperbird has never been like that though, and much of its focus is on presenting reviews from the distant past that I've had published in various magazines. My ethics stop me from posting recently published pieces - the magazines pay me for my words and deserve the right to sell the publication to subscribers and on the news stands. Few people, if any, will buy the magazine solely to read my pieces, but a lengthy period of grace before anything appears here is only right, allowing time for the publication to be read, filed away, despatched to a bin or buried in a landfill site. For those reasons then, most of what you read here tends to be 'old' news.

What that has to do with my thoughts on a gig that I went to see in my home town almost two weeks ago should be about to become apparent. Unlike the Brad Mehldau gig, I didn't feel compelled to write anything much about Billy Cobham after the event. He's never been a drummer I've liked very much, and in many ways I find his musical aesthetics highly vulgar. It would have been churlish to sit at home and miss the event, complaining so often as I do about the lack of 'culture' hereabouts. With its Latin Jazz leanings I also thought that his latest band Asère would be a good show to take Louise to see. Not too deep in her family tree are South American roots, and I was right to make the effort to book tickets. For the most part it turned out to be a night of surprisingly traditional Cuban music that we both enjoyed, with perhaps less jazz than I'd have expected but lots of appeal for other reasons. After some reflection and a few weeks spent listening to some other Cuban music, the time has come to preserve my thoughts for posterity.

Of course Cobham looked slightly preposterous, a small figure sitting Tom Thumb-like behind an unfeasibly large drum kit. With so much percussion already in his band he still had to have more things at his disposal to hit than the the rest of the group put together. The line-up was unusual to say the least - only one brass or woodwind instrument, two acoustic guitars, no keyboards, electric bass, a gnome-like singer and three percussionists. Trumpeter Michel Padron was confident in the upper register, had a nice relaxed and bluesy approach to phrasing and a modern harmonic palette. He carried most of the serious solo work, although it was fair to say that this group was less about jazz in the head-solos-head sense than it was about playing traditional and rhythmically complex Cuban music. The twin guitarists were nice contrasts, Andres Valdes' flamenco stylings being more impressive on the night than Alejandro Albar's sometimes laboured steel strung offerings.

The band played two sets and the material was varied enough to avoid feeling same-y. Some of the more contemporary feeling pieces grabbed me more than the Buena Vista-like material, but the best moments actually turned out to be the most musically pared down. A percussion trio, with Cobham leaving his drum throne and sitting out front to play small hand persussion, could have been a snapshot from an imagined Havana street corner. Cobham of course had his moments of glory behind the kit, but by and large it was ego-less music and he kept a low profile. He started the second set with a showy but well controlled drum solo. Whereas most drummers could have been said to have used the entire kit at such a moment, with a kit of Cobham-like proportions he'd be lucky if he covered half of it. As his moment in the spotlight faded, he was then joined by bass and finally conga to build an impressive improvised duo-cum-trio.

As the set wore on a more pronounced party mood descended, the vocalist determined to get the theatre crowd out of their seats and onto their feet. Spurred on by his lewd hip-thrusts the crowd responded, and although I normally take a dim view of such frivolity at what should be a solemn creative rite, it was actually pretty good fun. Our next gig will be Herbie Hancock's new sextet in a week or so, and all things being equal a pretty prompt blog should follow. We're still busy as busy can be rushing round doing assorted chores, but along with taking some time out to do my latest batch of reviews for the magazine I'm determined not to let the blog fall too far behind.

Come on Herbie, don't let us down...

Fred Grand

Monday, 20 October 2008

Brad Mehldau @ The Sage...

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the Mehldau phenomenon. For a good few years I was put off even the most cursory of investigations of his talents by the effusive, gushing hyperbole John Fordham wrote about the pianist in The Guardian every Friday. Even when Mehldau wasn't being reviewed, the artist under Fordham's scrutiny always ended up being compared to him (in terms of that general all-round genius quotient). Was Fordham on commission?

My interest should have been pricked, but I'm a stubborn and curmudgeonly type, happier celebrating an artist in obscurity than going with the easy option. It took two closely linked writing assignments, reviewing Metheny/Mehldau and Chris Cheek's Blues Cruise, to get me on board. It later transpired that my usually reliable attention to detail had failed to log that Mehldau was the highlight of Joshua Redman's highly listenable Moodswing, a personal favourite of recent times. The clues were being assembled in my mind you might say, but I'm too slow off the mark to be a real master sleuth. More like Columbo coming back for 'just one more thing' with a knowing glint in his eye, perhaps.

With hindsight Fordham had a point. Let's just say it now. He was right! Mehldau plays with unerring taste and deceptive complexity. His playing around the beat, harmonic tensions and amazingly strong left hand mark him out from the pack. I'm now fully on board and have just about caught up with my investigation of his expanding but still manageable discography. Impressive as it is, I always like to hear people live for confirmation of their talents, and all I needed was a chance to go and see for myself. With a top class international venue like The Sage on the doorstep it was inevitable that I wouldn't have to wait for very long.

That chance came on Saturday, so enough of this already tedious pre-amble. The first pleasant surprise was that the organisers had chosen to put the gig on in the smaller and more intimate Hall Two. A really nice medium-sized room, our seats overlooked the stage from right to left and were elevated enough to give an impression of being on stage with the trio.

The next remarkable thing was the trio's new line-up. Gone is Jorge Rossy and in comes Chick Corea's erstwhile drummer Jeff Ballard. I know my Canadian drummer friend Gregg Brennan was a bit sniffy about the change and is very much a Rossy man. By instinct I'm skeptical about Corea when it comes to matters of taste and judgement, but it has to be said that Ballard fitted perfectly with the trio's high levels of connectedness. Our seats overlooked his kit and it was great to see all of his many percussive details performed in such forensic detail. Using high measures of restraint Ballard coped admirably with the trio's re-constructionist aesthetic, suspending ego to just follow the music. Louise, in her continuing jazz-awareness building, was impressed with his use of 'woolly pom-pom sticks'. Ballard was a winner!!

The material was a mix of Mehldau originals, old standards and what he almost certainly hopes will be the standards of tomorrow. Opening with two untitled originals, a state of Jarrett-like trance was quickly induced. Samba e Amor was a finely wrought Latin excursion, then the trio opened up on Sonny Rollins' Airegin, trading fours in time honoured fashion. A slow examination of I Cover The Waterfront gave space for a long unaccompanied Mehldau arabesque, and again Jarrett came to mind. Unlike Jarrett, Mehldau doesn't gurn or grunt. His improvisations are no less wide ranging or rigorous, but accessibility comes easily. He has the rare gift of being an uncompromising but easy to digest musician.

Another remarkable Mehldau talent is his ability to pluck contemporary material and adapt it for improvisation. On Saturday there was no Radiohead, Nick Drake or Oasis on offer, but his choice of Sufjan Stevens' Holland was inspired. Stevens is an American folksinger/songwriter who draws on electronica and the post-rock scene, Unknown to me, I quickly sought out his Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State so that I could hear the original. Its repetitive but beguiling harmonic cycle was emphasised and underpinned by bassist Larry Grenadier's richly woody bass-slides. The piece instantly drew me in was the highlight of an uncommonly brilliant performance, probably for both of us.

Encores tend to be obligatory and sometimes annoying, but on Saturday the only complaint I could have was that Mehldau only offered us one of them. A performance of concentrated improvisation of this quality, pushing the two hour mark, can't be bad really. Next up for us is Billy Cobham's Cuban band Asere on Thursday night. Let's hope my decision to buy tickets wasn't a Corea-esque lapse in judgement. Oh, and just one more thing...

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Larry Coryell...

In between cooling down after a bike ride and getting ready to do a shift of painting at the house, I thought there'd be time for another posting. I'm choosing this one for two reasons. Firstly there's another eBay connection - the only time I've ever had negative feedback was when I sold this disc. Apparently the buyer didn't like the fact that it was a 'promo', despite it being marked as such in my listing. 'Learn to read', I say.

The other reason is that I've been listening to a bit more rock guitar after seeing David Gilmour's Live In Gdansk on BBC4 the other week. How simply my mind works when you understand the connections. Next I'll be using the same reasoning to justify buying a Fender Stratocaster, if I don't curb my enthusiasms...

LARRY CORYELL with Victor Bailey and Lenny White

Wolfbane; BB Blues; So What; Sex Machine; Black Dog; Footprints; Born Under A Bad Sign; Low Blow; Rhapsody & Blues.

Larry Coryell (g); Victor Bailey (elb); Lenny White (d). (No date available).

Described by Chesky as a collection of jazz, blues and rock ‘anthems’, Electric may seem on paper to be a recipe for lunk-headed fusion excess. This, however, is Larry Coryell, the man who emerged in the mid ‘60s playing forward looking music with Herbie Mann, Chico Hamilton and Gary Burton. His career may have taken a few questionable latin-tinged turns since then, but recent groups with John Hicks have revealed a clever and powerful player within familiar post-bop territory, reminding the jazz world that he’s still here.

The presence of White (ex Return To Forever) and Bailey (ex Weather Report) naturally makes Electric far more plugged-in by comparison. Yet despite obvious rock sensibilities, Coryell still reaches out to the core jazz audience with an ease comparable to John Scofield. The funky lope of Miles’ “So What”, for example, is a radical transformation, but one which shouldn’t offend too many purists. Coryell’s long melodic lines and burnished tone stand favourable comparison with Sco’s formidable benchmark, but that shouldn’t be any great surprise given his pedigree.

Some unexpected choices of material - Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and Sly Stone’s “Sex Machine” to name but two - keep things sounding fresh. It’s certainly fair to say that exploration of nuances isn’t really within this trio’s brief, but the light and shade of “Black Dog” and neat segue into Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” show that the trio are taking their business seriously. The shards of noise opening “Born Under A Bad Sign” aren’t the only passages to recall the grunge of Nels Cline’s Singers , though much of the material on Electric would probably a tad passé for listeners with a post-punk perspective. Think of the ‘80’s Gramavision discs of Scofield or John McLaughlin’s Free Spirits and you’ll understand where Electric is pitched.

This is the type of fusion that retains the grit of rock without adopting any of the gloss of overproduced fusion, or sacrificing the swing and spontaneity of jazz. Special mention must be made of Chesky’s use of cutting edge studio technology, giving a deep sound stage comparable to the best SACD releases. Against expectations, Electric is highly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2006)

Monday, 29 September 2008

Gordon Beck...

Other than to take a swipe at the parsimonious folks at the pretentiously titled 'Art of Life' records, I don't know why I'm giving this disc the oxygen of publicity for the second time. As you'll see I gave it a fair review, but when I tried to reduce my mountain of unwanted CDs by selling it on eBay, the record label reported me to the organisation and pulled the plug on the listing.

It's about time they learned the twin arts of appreciation and gratitude in times when the market for CDs is shrinking every day. Anybody want a free copy of this 'recommended' CD?

Seven Steps To Heaven
Art Of Life Records (AL1018-2)

Backwards Bop; Gone With The Wind; JuJu; Isotope; Quiet Now; Solar; Seven Steps To Heaven

Pierrick Pedron (as); Gordon Beck (p); Bruno Rousselet (b); Philippe Soirat (d)
Recorded February 2005.

From Tubby Hayes to Phil Woods, Allan Holdsworth to Lena Horne, Gordon Beck’s 40-plus years in top-flight music are connected by a consistently propulsive style and unwavering faith in the core values of jazz. Whilst Stan Tracey may be better known and Howard Riley push more boundaries, Beck is surely Britain’s greatest pianist in the modern mainstream. A career spent largely as a freelance is testament to that, his CV showing a player coveted by many high profile employers.

Seven Steps To Heaven, recorded live in Paris in February 2005, sees Beck as leader, and his employees all are comfortably above par. The pianist has worked on many occasions with the bass/drums team of Rousselet and Soirat, even recording with them previously, but it is the four tracks with guest saxophonist Pierrick Pedron that really grab the attention here. Pedron fits perfectly into Beck’s post-bop agenda, playing with a wispy tone that sometimes recalls Art Pepper (‘Gone With The Wind’), though more often Bird via the swagger of Jackie McLean.

The material, including Wayne Shorter’s ‘JuJu’ and Joe Henderson’s ‘Isotope’ neatly matches the quartet’s ambitions, and is read with great reverence and a large amount of literalism. The quartet’s raison d’etre is to precisely to operate within this idiom, and they stick to the brief with considerable aplomb. Listening to the opener, Billy Childs’ ‘Backward Bop’, it is true to say that it could have been recorded at any time from 1960 to date. Pedron sits out on both this piece and Isotope’, whilst Denny Zeitlin’s ‘Quiet Now’, a Beck solo not recorded at these sessions, serves as a fitting interlude in a largely high octane gig. With the four quartet pieces pushing or exceeding the 10-minute mark, there’s both room to stretch out and insufficient time to waste. Beck and Pedron are always the principle soloists, but Rousselet and Soirat get their space, and ‘trading fours’ is another tradition that the quartet observes.

Just as Beck’s richly deserved reputation has been garnered by working with established figures, it is hoped Pedron’s bright talent gets a similar shin-up from this engagement. The way in which the pair burn through ‘Solar’ suggests that as long as the public has an appetite for this music, belying time and place, the saxophonist’s place is assured. Recommended.

Fred Grand

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Branford Marsalis...

Time to go back to posting some CD reviews on a more regular basis. Things are still busy here, but after taking some time out because of a bad back/sciatica I'm getting back into the swing of things. I've even done my first bike ride in almost three weeks this morning, and it was incredibly hard work. Almost as hard as painting a house from top to bottom, which is what Louise is doing as I write this. Have I no shame?

Anyway, let's start this mini re-launch with a big one - a Branford Marsalis compilation. The Marsalis family tend to divide opinion, but most can agree that Branford is different to his pious and over-zealous siblings. Developing over the last two decades into a fine and forthright player with an open-minded outlook, he's now pushing the boundaries into late 'trane territory, and he's a damn sight more interesting than many of vaunted today's tenors.

Those collaborations with Sting are long in the past, and if you think Branford is tainted by them (from a purist's perspective) listen to some of his more recent quartet discs - Braggtown would be as good as any.

Easy to take for granted simply because he's so famous, I nevertheless like him...

The Steep Anthology
Columbia Legacy (512913-2)

Doctone; Maria; Royal Garden Blues; Evidence; Cain & Abel; Spartacus; No Backstage Pass; Sidney In Da Haus; The Dark Keys; Three Little Words.

Branford Marsalis (ss, ts) with various groups including Kenny Kirkland, Wynton Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Larry Willis and Milt Hinton.
Recorded 1983 to 1996.

It’s easy to take Branford Marsalis for granted, easier still to overlook just how unique and commanding a voice he has on any of his chosen horns. Before I was even sent this new Columbia anthology I’d started to revisit his back catalogue and reappraise his work. His long flowing lines, deft rhythmic gymnastics, speed of thought, keen awareness of history, warm rounded tone and unerring ability to swing have put him at the top of his profession.

The ten selections on ‘The Steep Anthology’ (Steepy is a frequently self-referenced nickname) cheekily include a previously unissued live track, ‘Evidence’, presumably to entice completists to buy it. A ploy that would surely work for a Coltrane anthology, in Marsalis’ case it reeks of commercial opportunism, Columbia cashing in on a former star who has since flown the nest. Yet with a career spanning 15 years at the label, it’s hard to argue against the need for this type of release. It’s also hard to argue with the choices of music, though just as easy to pick alternative tracks from his consistently fine albums.

Limitations on playing time presumably de-selected his most free-flowing work with the piano-less trio that cut ‘Bloomington’ and ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’, and the sublime but lengthy reading of ‘The Peacocks’ from ‘Renaissance’ doesn’t make it either. With an emphasis on acoustic jazz we’re also denied ‘The Blackwidow Blues’ from ‘Buckshot LeFonque’, but for a fully rounded view we may have had to suffer some of his work with Sting, so let’s not complain.

Time may yet prove that Branford has taken the music in a more sustainable direction than his younger trumpet playing brother, and I certainly wish he were as influential on saxophonists as the all pervasive Michael Brecker. It’s time we all reappraised Branford, and this anthology is the ideal excuse. If you already have the albums on your shelves, simply dust off those scratched ‘80s jewel boxes, sit down with open ears, and appreciate his awesome talent.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2004)

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Arild Andersen @ The Hub, Edinburgh

Thanks to Apple I can now easily edit and blog from my palm, wherever I happen to be. My temporary tardiness is the only inhibitor, with blogging slipping lower and lower down the list of priorities for now. All of that's of necessity though, with so much to do at the moment. Once the house stuff is sorted, Afric Pepperbird will be back to normal very quickly.

To make up for the dearth of recent postings, here's a very late review of a gig I was lucky enough to catch at the beginning of the month. It was part of a very nice weekend away with Louise in Edinburgh, taking in the shops, culture and food. We both very much enjoyed simply 'being' there in a great old city, with so much of real value and quality. Compared to the parochial backwaters we normally inhabit, where you expect to run into a brontosaurus every time you go to the supermarket, it was like being in another world, and it's fair to say that the music enhanced rather than detracted from the weekend (the measure of a gig involving jazz and a relatively recent convert).

It was good to catch up with longstanding friend Andrew at the gig too. He lives, works, and raises a family in the city, and although he's a highly discerning jazz fiend, he's always been a bit of a Euro-sceptic in terms of his likes and dislikes. Would an Arild Andersen gig with Tommy Smith be a good idea, given his preference hot, spicy and American music? Bland Eurojazz, as glacial as the fjord laden vistas which inspire it could be as welcome as a shark in a swimming pool. With the main attraction being a rare UK gig by one of Norway's Big Four, and yours truly being the keeper of a blog that takes its name from one of their high watermarks, attendance was pretty much mandatory for all concerned.

Any anxieties were strictly unnecessary as it happened. Although this was very much Arild Andersen's trio, the music was mid-lantic and fiery enough to keep Andrew happy. The folkish themes appealed to Louise. The group's turn-on-a-dime shapeshifting agility was breathtaking, and needless to say it's one of the best gigs I've been at for some time. All of this sounds too much like a conclusion before I've even described the gig, so I suppose it's time to scratch my head and think back to events more than three weeks previous...

The group, a new-ish working unit emerging out of Andersen's association with Tommy Smith, has re-energised the music of both men, moving it in an unexpected though not illogical direction. A session has already been recorded and is slated for a November release by ECM, so you'll soon be able to judge for yourselves. Edinburgh's favourite '80s fashion victim (and by now undoubtedly a national treasure) Tommy Smith brought his regular drummer Alyn Cosker as the third side of the triangle. I gather that Andersen used a different drummer in earlier incarnations of the unit, and much was made during the gig of the fact that this was the debut outing of a brand new formation. Despite the lack of even a rehearsal, there were no signs of any unintentional raggedness, and it'll be interesting to see whether or not Cosker keeps the gig.

Covering ground from Tryptykon to sTar, echoes of Garbarek were never far away. Folkish melodies floated over brooding ethereal pulses, sometimes giving way to fusion-esque and Eastern grooves. There were many overtly jazzy passages, from lyrical balladry to post 'Trane jazz burnouts. Smith excelled in this context, melding his very Scottish musical sensibilities with all that Stateside Berklee training in an entirely convincing way. Yet the entire trio seamlessly blended a number of styles and influences into the performance. Avant-garde ECM stylings of the '70s, ancient folk melodies, post-'trane skronk and rhythms with a contemporary edge could all be heard hat various times during their 90 minute performance.

The music was the perfect synthesis of Andersen old and new. He's one of the few bassists in the world commanding enough to lead a trio such as this from the centre of the stage, and there was no doubting that this was his group, despite its very democratic nature. His huge sound was almost always enhanced when he reached for the effects rack, creating multi-track basslines to play over in much the same way as Eberhard Weber. Fragments of Ayler's 'Ghosts' were unmistakable during one of his absorbing arco introductions, and with Smith so ready to push his usual envelope, this trio really could take you anywhere. Cosker enjoys a good rumpus, but his sensitive colourations brought something ego-less and very, very right to the group sound.

Now it's probably time to reach some kind of conclusion. A very special evening in a beautiful old venue perched beneath the Castle Esplanade, followed by some mild South Indian cuisine. Perhaps too mild? Let's not be harsh, and it hardly matters as these things are all relative.

All in all the gig was just one part of a weekend that was a pleasure in it's entirety. The only frustrations came in having to keep the iPhone 3G I'd acquired earlier in the day in its box until we got home. Hard to do, but also very necessary. Oh, and then there were the hideous reminders of the new football season on the train on the way back the next day from the pack of barely human (and inevitably drunken) 'fans', who ruined the journey for many families and holiday makers who simply didn't need them at all. Such is life.

My internet connection is likely to be disrupted this week, but with my new Apple device fully up and running I can still blog. Whether or not I do depends on progress elsewhere, and with my living room gutted in readiness for a new floor which is being laid later this week it may be next weekend before I add anything else. I'm also doing the 'Fast Taste' round-up column for the magazine this issue, though only one CD has appeared as yet. That leaves me with a tough decision whether or not to write 2000 words about Zoe Rahman, but I hope to slip in a review of Michael Adkins brilliant new CD on hatOLOGY records, sent to me after reading this very page. Thanks for that Michael, and I will get something sorted soon...

Monday, 21 July 2008

Kevin Norton & the Ted Heath Orchestra...

Well, it's been some time since I last posted anything here. The blog hasn't run out of steam (there's plenty of material sitting there ready for posting), but time has been at a premium lately.

Call it 'domestic stuff' if you like - house renovation, Tour de France viewing, meeting magazine deadlines, shopping, cooking, feuding with work colleagues over my non-participation in strike action (long live free-will!!), and simply not being at home more than a couple of days a week. We've been busy.

Life is essentially fine though, and all is well at Afric Pepperbird. Just to keep the embers aflame, here is one of my 'Fast Taste' columns to take a look at. It may be the only time I've ever sat down and listened to Ted Heath, and that in its self was almost enough to make me ask whether or not I wanted to continue with this line of work. Of course I recovered and simply put it down to experience, and it's still the case that the Kevin Nortons and Sonny Fortunes of the world still make it all so worthwhile.

More blogging soon, I hope...

ERNIE ANREWS - Jump For Joy (HIGH NOTE 7103)
Starting his career at about the same time as Dinah Washington (see below), Ernie Andrews is still putting his golden-toned tenor voice to good use. The programme here is nearly all drawn from the classic jazz repertoire, and a top-notch band, directed by and featuring Houston Person, gives the perfectly realised after-hours feel the singer thrives on. Person and Andrews prove to be extremely compatible, both sharing a churchy-blues streak. The inclusion amongst the standards of Percy Mayfield’s ‘Danger Zone’, a Cold War protest song, is a nicely topical touch.

COUNT BASIE - At The Aquarium 1946 (UNLIMITED 201 2086)
Although the war was officially over by the time of this recording, it was issued under the auspices of the Armed Forces Radio Service as part of a series welcoming home the returning troops. Complete with radio style announcements, it’s basically pure pre-war Basie, swinging through a nicely varied programme. Trademark bluesy heads rub shoulders with vocal features for Ann Moore and Jimmy Rushing. The trombone section includes a young J.J. Johnson, though the band’s sound is largely unaffected by the be-bop revolution that would see them fall on hard times in a very short space of time.

KETIL BJORNSTAD - The Nest (EMARCY 067153-2)
Similar to his ECM project ‘The Sea’, this release uses different personnel to take Bjornstad’s romantic melodic sense into even purer realms. Without Rypdal’s propensity for the unpredictable, ‘The Nest’ is a more stable but less exciting place. Guitarist Eivind Aarset, who normally lets rip with Nil Petter Molvaer’s ‘Khmer’, is very much on the leash as an ambient sound-generator, whilst vocalist Anneli Drecker sandwiches the instrumentals with interpretations of Hart Crane’s poems, delivered in a peculiarly Anglo-Scandinavian dialect. With the usual Jan-Erik Kongshaug sonic wash, this won’t disappoint scholars of Nordic jazz.

CREME FRAICHE - Plays Compositions by Lars Togeby (STORYVILLE 1014254)
Don’t be put off by the uninviting title, this Danish big band play the type of funky Don Ellis style movie-score jazz that accompanied many a fine car chase sequence in the decade of flares and afros. Recorded in 1978, t boasts a youthful Tim Hagans, then living in Sweden, as one of the soloists. Worth reissuing even had he not gone on to be famous, the charts are crisp, the Rhodes piano textures suitably spacey, and the remaining soloists nicely up to scratch. Most of all, it’s infectiously groovy and about as tasteful as this flamboyant sub-genre could ever be.

WILD BILL DAVIS & EDDIE ‘LOCKJAW’ DAVIS - Live In Chateauneuf-du-Pape (BLACK & BLUE BB 968.2)
Two unrelated men sharing a common surname and a passion for bluesy post-Basie swing. Recorded at a French festival in 1976, nearly all of the material will be familiar, as will be the way they attack it - even ‘the Girl From Ipanema’ gets the blowtorch treatment! Billy Butler and Oliver Jackson complete the quartet, and their music is as greasy and steaming as anything from the relatively more sophisticated and less R&B rooted Jimmy Smith school of organ combo. The roots-of-the -roots of Acid Jazz? Cleanly re-mastered and nicely packaged, this is a thoroughly worthwhile re-issue.

DUKE ELLINGTON - Echoes of Harlem 1936-38 (NAXOS JAZZ LEGENDS 8.120682)
This is the fourth volume of Ellington material issued as part of the trawl through jazz history by budget label Naxos. Concentrating on a narrow two-year period and covering many of his best known compositions, there is much here to enjoy. In fact, with music as well-known as this, it is probably more worthwhile to consider the Naxos presentational style than the merits of the performances. Sound mastering is excellent, liner notes functional, and with a price that’s pretty much unbeatable, this makes a good way to build a classic jazz library. I wonder if we’ll get a budget Blanton-Webster boxed set for Volume 5?

SONNY FORTUNE - Great Friends (EVIDENCE 22225)
Great Friends, and what friends they are! Billy Harper, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Workman and Billy Hart join Fortune for a reissue of what could almost be a Strata East re-union band assembled in 1986. For Charles Tolliver to have been on hand would have made it just perfect, though in truth the band manage superbly without him, digging into each such minor classics as Cowell’s ‘Equipoise’. Very post-Trane in mood, men like Fortune and Harper show that there’s nothing wrong with the continuing omni-presence of JC, and more importantly that his many lessons can continue to be refracted in new and interesting ways.

BENNY GOODMAN ALLSTARS - An Airmail Special From Berlin 1959 (JASMINE JASCD 402 2CD)
The allstars are essentially Red Norvo’s band of the day with Goodman tacked on as leader for the purposes of fulfilling a short European tour. Bill Harris, Flip Phillips and Russ Freeman are among those putting their personalities largely on the backburner to conform to BG’s unique but highly prescriptive style. Anita O’Day brings further start qualities with a clutch of walk-on appearances, but such an eclectic cast may have been more interesting had they been a little less drilled and unified.

Anybody who can produce enough material for a second four-disc boxed set with a title like this either has talents extending well beyond a prolific recording schedule, or is the victim of disingenuous marketing. Fans will prefer the former explanation, and will welcome this collection of sides recorded between 1960-63 for Decca, and sent to American radio networks for publicity purposes. Less devoted listeners could be curious to hear a young Stan Tracey tinkling the ivories, but may baulk at the prospect of wading through nearly four hours of material to do so. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

THE KINGS OF JAZZ with KENNY DAVERN - Live In Concert 1974 (ARBORS JAZZ 19267)
The origin of these recordings lies in a Tommy Dorsey spin-off band nominally led by Pee Wee Erwin and created especially for a one-off European tour in 1974. The band never made it to the studio but these performances from the Swedish leg of the tour were preserved for posterity and are here issued for the first time. Of principal interest to many will be the sound of Kenny Davern playing soprano sax, but the band also includes Dick Hyman and Johnny Mince, and the programme includes old war-horses like ‘Royal Garden Blues’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. Spirited playing.

Hailing from Canterbury, this trio operate at the sophisticated end of jazz-lite. Hugh Hopper, who provides the liner notes, serves as a reminder that this quiet Kent town in more usually noted for woolly fusion than quality contemporary jazz. Pianist Frances Knight has a nice touch and a penchant for the exotic, overdubbing bandoneon countermelodies on two pieces. Consisting largely of attractive self-penned originals, the inclusion of a Kenny Wheeler and a Beatles piece tells you much about the trio’s musical horizons. A very post-ECM palette, and derivative at times perhaps, but this is not easy terrain to occupy, and all three have the requisite musicianship and sensitivity demanded to pull it off.

Take a little-known Italian jazz violinist to the island of Madagascar and put him in front of an enthusiastic festival crowd to play with three prominent home grown talents. Next, bring them all to London to record their collaboration, and what happens? International Headhunters/Weather Report-style fusion of course! At times Manes’ treated violin sounds a little too polite, but the Madagascans always lay down a rock-steady groove. Nothing to shake the world, but a curiously satisfying fusion of musical cultures, and clearly a good time was had by all.

STEPHANIE NAKASIAN - Lullaby In Rhythm: A Tribute to June Christy (VSOP 110 CD)
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Nakasian pays tribute to her favorite vocalist. Christy, identifiable with a ‘cool’ style, is noted for her work with Stan Kenton, and although this band is a mere quintet, the West Coast is certainly the disc’s defining sound. The band includes Nakasian’s husband Hod O’Brien on piano, as well as saxophonist Harry Allen, who provides suitably laid-back Four Brothers-style tenor. All 16 tracks are songs associated with Christy, and this is a lovingly made if somewhat too literal tribute to its dedicatee.

Kevin Norton is one of those clattering percussionists, like Gregg Bendian, who seem to have the simultaneous presence of two or three drummers. Best known for his work in the more convoluted recent ensembles of Anthony Braxton, his Metaphor Quartet is a more tunes-based project, boasting an unusual line-up of trombone, vibes, bass and percussion. Whilst none of the compositions are particularly memorable, The spirited solos certainly make up for that. Trombonist Masahiko Kano subtly augments his sound with slight electronic delay, meshing well with Hitomi Tono’oka’s vibes during the more textural passages. The presence of the late Wilber morris on bass is one more reason to investigate this exciting outfit.

Now entering his third decade as a professional musician, Plaxico has paid a lot of dues and covered a lot of stylistic terrain. From Art Blakey to Cassandra Wilson, Lonnie’s been there and done it. ‘Rhythm & Soul’ sums it all up, covering everything from Messengers-style hard bop to M Base funk, as well as providing an unexpected slot for Gospel vocalist Aneilia Lomax. Jeremy Pelt and Marcus Strickland are part of the talented front-line, propelled by Plaxico and the rubber-limbed Billy Kilson for a fun programme of tunes played with panache and maturity.

AL SEARS - The Big Raw Tone (OCIUM 0030)
Not one of the best remembered ex-Ellingtonians, but Sears could cut it with the best of them, projecting concise ideas with a huge tone, drawing on the model of Coleman Hawkins. Sears followed Ben Webster into the Ellington band, and this comprehensive collection, spanning the years 1945-53, is peppered with appearances by the likes of Emmett Berry, Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges. His orchestra had a decidedly commercial slant, but even with a sprinkling of dated pop crossover vocal cuts there are enough sub-three minute instrumental gems and slyly adopted be-bop stylings to satisfy fans of the period.

VARIOUS ARTISTS - Latin From The North (SLAM 317)
George Haslam’s enthusiasm for South American music has surfaced before, with several trips to Argentina documented for posterity by his label SLAM. Whilst those sessions are equal parts free-jazz, this Anglo-Scandinavian project (hence the title) is purely concerned with the rhythms and melodies of the South Americas. There is disappointingly little in the way of European cross-fertilisation, but with soloists including trumpeter Steve Waterman, there’s nothing too disagreeable to be found either. Why you’d go for this as opposed to, say, an authentic Cal Tjader reissue, though, I’m not exactly sure.

Speaking of Sears’ crossover vocal cuts, here we have an album full of them. Joined by strings, big band and even girlie vocal chorus, the eminent chanteuse tackles a programme of largely forgotten hits of the day. The only real jazz content lies in that great voice and phrasing, proving the old adage that it isn't the song so much as the singer which counts. Four more albums in this vein followed before she died a year later, and although by no means her finest achievement, her voice is still a convincing asset, and devoted fans will want to hear it whatever the context.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2003)

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

'On The Outside' Festival: John Tchicai, Aki Takase, Joe McPhee...

For one weekend the North East of England became the centre of the world for fans of improvised music and free-jazz. Legends John Tchicai and Joe McPhee were joined by estimable figures such as Cooper-Moore, Sabir Mateen, Aki Takase, Wilbert de Joode and a handpicked selection of UK musicians (including Steve Noble, John Edwards, Alex Ward, Tony Levin and Maggie Nichols).

Adopting a ‘Company Week’ type approach, the idea was to put together musicians who in some cases hadn’t even heard of each other, let alone met, and then see what happened. My main gripe with improv is that it carries with it a high risk of artistic failure, but the process its self continues to fascinate many listeners regardless of the outcomes. Normally I wouldn’t be too excited by such an event, for exactly those reasons, but there were enough musicians I respect on the roster to guarantee at least some satisfaction.

I left the world of concert promotion around 5 years ago, tired of poor audience figures, under-funding and political resistance from musically conservative corners. Jazz North East – the organisation promoting the ‘On The Outside’ festival – used to be able to claim me as its ‘chairman’, but when I stood down I suddenly felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Voluntary work such as this can be very rewarding, but by and large it’s a thankless task, and I was ready to hand over the baton.

Leaving was made easier knowing that Paul Bream, now the main man in the region for cutting edge jazz, was just about to retire from full-time work and keen to take up the mantle. Since I left giant steps have been made, and Paul’s energy and commitment to this challenging music far outweighs anything I ever did. I’m proud to have promoted gigs by the likes of Sunny Murray, Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Jemeel Moondoc and Andrew Cyrille. The last gig I put together was, symmetrically enough, a duo of Joe McPhee and Paul Hession, but a festival on this scale would have given me the jitters. Paul hasn't just done 'On the Outside' once, he's now done it four times!

When Paul asked me to have some involvement in this year’s festival, I was more than happy to oblige. I’d had my break and actually looked forward to having some involvement once again. Initially I just helped to programme the various combinations of musicians with Paul over a few beers, and many of the ideas we threw out left me excited, but glad that Paul was handling the risk (and most of the hard work).

With just over a week before the start of the festival, the first major problem arose. The venue that was due to host the event went into liquidation and ceased trading. Paul worked a few contacts and Gateshead Borough Council offered up the Old Town Hall, a historic building full of character and with a ready made performance area and natural acoustics. A lucky break perhaps in hindsight, given that the new venue was almost perfect?

My involvement during the event was loosely defined as ‘artist liaison’, covering everything from making sure the artists were fed to running them to and from the airport and hotel. When I got a call on my mobile from John Tchicai last Friday afternoon asking me what time he needed to be at the venue, I realised how badly prepared I was to offer much in the way of helpful liaison (not knowing the answer!). Things got worse - the curtain going up on the festival's opening set some 30 minutes late because of delays in getting food to all of the performers on time. We all know who to blame for that, don't we?

As the weekend progressed it got easier. Louise came along on all three days and kept me organised, chasing up errant take-away orders and looking after the delightful Aki like a personal chaperone. The weather was also perfect, and we spent a lot of the time between meals sitting outside chatting to Wilbert (about stroopwafel, amongst other things), John Edwards and Steve Noble, and watching Sabir sleep. The saxophonist seemed to wake only when he had to be on stage or when he felt hungry and needed to eat, attacking both activities with equal energy before slipping back under the veil.

We caught a fair bit of music, but inevitably with so much to do behind the scenes it was sporadic and selective. Aki’s amazing solo set drew the best audience response, but we missed the other much talked about festival highlight of Joe McPhee & Tony Levin, which clashed with the very late arrival of Aki’s flight. Both performances were so well received perhaps because of the relatively high levels level of musical structure they offered - not really a proud boast for a festival of improvised music!!

Steve Noble was as sensational as ever, and we caught him both with his NEW trio (with Edwards & Ward, playing everything from metal through surf, to jazz), and powering a hard blowing trio with McPhee and Edwards. Everything I said about him when I reviewed the Tim Berne gig last October stands, and I rate him as one of the best and most versatile drummers on the international scene. The last event we caught during the final session and was one of the most intense - Takase, Mateen, Edwards, Noble taking the music to the brink and beyond. A fitting way to end the weekend, and although I’m sure the next three sets offered up some jewels, sometimes it’s best to quit when you’re ahead.

The problem with festivals like this, which concentrate so much detailed and challenging music into such a short space of time, is that it’s easy to quickly become sated. Being selective actually worked in our favour, and although we only caught about a quarter of the music over the weekend, it was possible to enjoy it to its best advantage. Taking in the atmosphere and enjoying the company of so many special characters ‘behind the scenes’ left an impression that we’ll both find hard to erase. Like a good freshly ground espresso, the impact of this music is greater the smaller the dose. Other than hatching the idea that we'd do all of the catering ourselves next year, that was the main lesson of the weekend.

Fred Grand

Friday, 30 May 2008

McCoy Tyner with Joe Lovano @ The Sage...

The last time I saw Tyner was over a decade ago, fronting a big band which included Billy Harper and John Stubblefield. He was somewhat back in the mix that night, but the band breathed life into his vibrant original compositions, and his sometimes cloyingly sentimental interpretation of standards was as florid as ever. He was spritely and full of energy, looking every inch the jazz superstar that of course he is.

Last night's performance at The Sage in Gateshead was something of a reversal. No longer so spritely, Tyner has slowed down markedly both in his pianism and his movements on stage. Of course he's still instantly recognisable within seconds of striking the keys, but his soloing seemed a bit diffuse, overly percussive and even incoherent. He was noticeably carried by the bass/drums team of Gerald Cannon and Eric Kamau Gravatt for much of the time, but there were still many flashes of past glories. The main excitement, however, came from Lovano, whose fluency and mastery of the tenor saxophone was absolutely outstanding. The last time I saw him was with John Scofield and he impressed me then. His records rarely seem to do him justice, but live and unfettered he's a different proposition from his many overblown and over produced concept albums, made with both eyes firmly on the retail market. He's a jazz musician in the traditional sense - pure and simple.

I'd never have had Tyner and Lovano down as a great partnership, but it worked. Of course they released an album together last year (Quartet Live), and this short UK tour comes on the back of that release. Much of the material from the album was covered, including some of his best works from the late '60s and early '70s, my favourite Tyner decade and his creative peak. Samaya Luca, Search For Peace, Blues On the Corner, Fly With the Wind, Passion Dance and Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit stood out as particularly Tyner-esque, and Lovano took an unusual and angular meander through each. The style was modern mainstream, but Lovano pushed the envelope and at times played with the gravelly palette of Pharoah Sanders.

Cannon and Gravatt replaced Christian McBride and Jeff 'Tain' Watts from the album, and to be honest I felt that there were some compatability issues, particularly with the stiff drumming of Gravatt. Both were there as a cushion for the pianist, only really expanding musically when they were given their solo features. The solo features came along with predictable regularity, as did the rounds of applause each time from a particularly polite jazz-at-the-concert-hall audience.

Few would deny Tyner his standing ovation based on past achievements, but last night's concert, although enjoyable, was hardly standing ovation material. The encore of 'In A Mellow Tone' was the first sign of over-sentimentality, but I can't say I minded as I was enjoying what could possibly be my last chance to see and hear Tyner in the flesh. I'm not suggesting any imminent health collapse, but at 70 years old and with a hectic life in music behind him, anything could happen - just look at his contemporaries and count 'em now.

Sometimes just being there is enough, and that's true for both audiences and musicians with big reputations alike. Musically successful for the most part, I'm certainly glad I made the effort to be there at the love-in.

Fred Grand

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Walt Dickerson R.I.P. and Jamie Stewardson...

The recent passing of creative vibraphonist Walt Dickerson came as sad news. It was only after the event that I realised how episodic his career had been, consisting essentially of two short periods of activity. Lengthy spells 'off the scene' were the norm for this under-sung jazz great, who played with many great modernists including Andrew Hill, Richard Davis, Andrew Cyrille and Sun Ra.

It's just has hard these days to make it as a professional playing jazz. Time to post another review, and this recent forward looking session led by guitarist Jamie Stewardson is just the kind of session a young Walt Dickerson may have appeared on at the start of his career. It even includes a vibraphonist, and the estimable Tony Malaby adds weight on tenor saxophone.

I enjoyed Stewardson's CD because I enjoy anything that tries to find its own way of adding to and interpreting the tradition. A snippet from my review appears on Stewardson's website, and it's nice to know that people sometimes take notice. In another neat little turn, the review also namechecks Joe Lovano, who I go to see on Thursday night fronting McCoy Tyner's trio.

I can't say I'll miss a player like Dickerson who I only know from a handful of recordings made at least 30 years ago, but I know that music as profound and beautiful as his is rare. I won't ever get to hear any new Dickerson recordings, but even without his death that was probably true of a talent largely lost to the music. I won't stop listening to the records we've got though, and sadly this small recorded legacy is all that we'll now ever get to know about this enigmatic man.

Fresh Sounds New Talent (FSNT 233)

T Can Shuffle; Bubbles; Jhaptal; Combinatoriality; Rest Area; Olive Oil; Cruel Traps; Dig Muse; For Dale And Roberta.

Tony Malaby (ts); Jamie Stewardson (g); Alexei Tsiganov (vib); John Hebert (b); George Schuller (d).
Recorded June 2003.

Guitarist Jamie Stewardson is one of an increasing number of new artists that seem to arrive on the scene fully formed. With a background covering everything from cruise ships to a day job as a music faculty academian, Stewardson may be little known but can already call such established talents as Tony Malaby, John Hebert and George Schuller into his quintet. A dynamic post-McLauglin soloist, there’s no mistaking the hours he must have spent listening to Mahavishnu. Stewardson can also clearly write. Echoes of serialism and Indian Classical music occasionally surface, but are never allowed to choke what is first and foremost an improviser’s free-bop outfit.

I’m always pleased to hear the vibraphone in a pianoless setting such as this, and Russian émigré Tsiganov’s free-floating feel is a neat foil to the steely improvising of both Malaby and Stewardson. Hebert and Schuller are equal partners, free to roam at will within the guitarist’s democratic structures, stretching and containing the music as structures fade in and out. The title track, “Jhaptal”, is the most overtly Indian based piece, melody coming from the bassline as much as from the lead instruments, and the rhythmic cycle seems to be strangely elongated and at first unsettling. “Rest Area” is strikingly modern, a nod to M-Base with its churning rhythms, fiendishly tight front-line interplay and generally loose groove.

The Lovano-Scofield quartet of the late ‘80s at their most ‘out’ spring to mind on the catchy “Olive Oil”, which is no bad thing. “Dig Muse” typifies the guitarist’s thoroughly contemporary style, relying on complex crosscutting and deeply layered melodic lines played over another impressively elastic groove. The closing “For Dale and Roberta” is a beautiful but short free ballad, tenderly read by Malaby, and a touching but unexpected end to a richly rewarding hour of new jazz. Certainly there are echoes of other East Coast groups operating at the sharp end of contemporary jazz, but Stewardson’s unique frame of reference and well chosen instrumentation give this group a refreshing identity. Fresh Sounds’ New Talent imprint seems to score far more hits than misses, and can certainly be proud of this one. Recommended without reservation.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2006)