Sunday, 30 March 2008

John Scofield @ The Sage...

I can't remember the last time I saw Scofield play live, but surely that's symptomatic of what makes him so great. An evergreen, he never seems to have a bad night. A Scofield gig 15 years ago would in all probability be similar (but slightly different) to a Scofield gig last week, and the passage of time is pretty much an irrelevance. That said, I especially remember a great show he did in Edinburgh in the early 90s with the quartet featuring Joe Lovano. That show ranked as one of the most burning nights of live jazz in memory, one of those shows where everything just 'clicked'. As memorable in its own way as Peter Brötzmann in full cry, it had the kind of spark and vitality that is truly special. The same can't be said of tonight's more off-the-peg show, but more of that in time.

This concert, part of the same Gateshead International Jazz Festival that presented Alexander von Schlippenbach two nights ago, opened in an interesting way. Broadcaster Alyn Shipton (BBC) interviewed Scofield on stage for about 25 minutes - nothing profound was said, but in many ways that set the tone for the evening, and it was an interesting format that I think could be worth repeating in the future (though not necessarily with Shipton, who to his credit wasn't as stuffy as I'd imagined...).

Next up was an interesting set by young London band Empirical. They've made lots of waves, garnered ecstatic press, and won many awards in their short single disc career-to-date. I can see why. Although what they do is essentially in the line of mid '60s Wayne Shorter @ Blue Note, their extended compositions, tight but loose feel and thoughtful soloing showed massive maturity. I hope they last the course and develop their ideas further - it's easy to see the germs of an original style emerging.

After a short intermission, it was time for the man who most people had probably made the trip to hear. Matt Penman replaced the tropically-bound Steve Swallow on bass, but otherwise this was a reprisal of the bulk of Sco's This Meets That album. The same incremental shifts apply just as much to his live shows as to his albums, and although I've not yet heard this latest offering, I have heard at least a dozen others so know largely what to expect.

'House of the Rising Sun' and 'Satisfaction' were reworked and rocked-out pot burners, and there were many of his familiarly wry originals with catchy lines and surprising twists. Strangely enough it was the spacious Americana of 'Shoe Dog' and 'Behind Closed Doors' that stood out most. I say 'strangely' because I've normally not got much time for post-Frisell pastoralism, but on this occasion the pieces offered a welcome departure from some of the little too pat and little too easy music that form his staples. Of course he's as fluent an improviser as you'll ever hear, but I find myself so familiar with his style that I now need to hear something a little different. These pieces and an unplanned absence from the stage to replace a snapped string - an excuse for an unscripted flugelhorn solo - made the show somehow feel a little more satisfying.

My immediate thoughts are that there's little left for Sco to do with this format (trio plus mini horn section). He's got a cosy niche for sure, and people will always want to hear him play, but is he working hard enough? Thinking back, all of my best experiences with Scofield have been watching him play off a foil. Put him centre-stage as the main feature and the extra dimension a Joe Lovano or a Larry Goldings brings to the music becomes apparent. Scofield is recognisable within seconds of hearing him and undoubtedly on jazz's 'A list', but whether or not I need to go out of my way to hear him again any time soon is pretty much up to him and depends on his next moves...

Friday, 28 March 2008

Alexander von Schlippenbach @ The Sage...

Just back from my first gig of this year's Gateshead International Jazz Festival. Actually, with such a dull programme there will only be one more gig for me this year, but more of that later. There was certainly nothing dull about the gig tonight - a quartet of Alexander von Schlippenbach, Alan Wilkinson, Joe Williamson and Eddie Prévost.

Now in his 71st year, Schlippenbach remains as vital as ever. He opened the gig with a long solo piece that was measured but edgy. A short excursion through a Monk medley placed him very much in the jazz camp, and there may even have been some of Dolphy's 'Something Sweet, Something Tender' in there. Hard to tell, but if it were easy would it be a Schlippenbach gig? Would it even be worthwhile? Questions perhaps best addressed to the throngs in the main hall who were simultaneously digging the 'Blue Note Night' (which strangely featured only one Blue Note artist - Robert Glasper, who I'd like to have seen were it not for the clash), and of course Sir John Dankworth & Dame Cleo Laine.

The discerning few who opted for the free-jazz event were next treated to a duo between AvS and Prévost. With a turnover of ideas almost as rapid as his changes of sticks, Eddie masterfully shadowed Schlippenbach. Regular readers (are there any?) will know how much I like AMM, but in this context Prévost was a different animal. Yes there were extended techniques, but there was a rhythmic buoyancy to his percussion that was very much 'in the tradition'.

Almost an hour had passed and there was still no sight of Alan Wilkinson. Perhaps a wise programmatic selection, given the saxophonist's propensity to scare an audience then clear the room. Or perhaps he missed the first set because Dame Cleo wanted him up on stage with her group? That would be nice.

When he did appear for the full quartet pieces which occupied the entire second set, Wilkinson displayed a remarkable amount of discipline and restraint for lengthy periods. That, I'm sure you'll understand, is a relative statement. Very little of AvS was heard after the interval, and even when Williamson was taking some pretty interesting bass features, Wilkinson stood right in front of him and hogged centre stage. His quasi-sexual reed sucking was funny however, and his deranged scat left little doubt that he was taking things to the edge and giving his all. In the words of Miles though, he should 'try taking the motherfucking horn out of his mouth' once in a while.

Top marks to my old understudy (tongue-in-cheek) Paul Bream for bringing this one to the North East. When I booked Alan Wilkinson with Hession/Wilkinson/Fell at the Live Theatre (Newcastle) over a decade ago, only 13 people bothered to attend. Tonight saw a healthy turn-out in a magnificent venue with perfect acoustics and four musicians with lots to say. Not exactly mainstream, challenging musics are nevertheless receiving regular exposure in this northern outpost of the UK. That has to be good news, and it's all I ever set out to achieve when I first dabbled in 'promotions'. Long may it continue.

Next (for me) on Sunday night is John Scofield. From the ridiculous to the sublime? Perhaps.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Gebhard Ullmann part II...

Any remaining readers will have noticed that I've just done a bit of a re-design of this page. The backdrop to the header is a crop of a sunset taken last year in Cape Town, and a product of my adventures with Apple's great new Aperture 2 software. Fascinating, eh?

On to the business in hand. Another Ullmann disc, this time a return to jazzier waters. Yet again I'm not unequivocally supportive, and it's not a disc I've played since I wrote the review 18 months ago. It does have a neat cover though...

Cut It Out
Leo Records (CDLR 457)

Cut It Out Part One - Grid Speak; Calling Mr Waits No. 1; U.S.O. Ballad; Lolligager; No Mouthpiece. Cut It Out Part Two - Calling Mr Waits No. 2; Mbira; Walking Under Trains; Bass/Bass; Epilog (Ballad No.2).

Gebhard Ullmann (bcl/bfl); Chris Dahlgren (b/elec); Jay Rosen (d/perc). Recorded March 2000.

Last year’s Bass x3 (Drimala Records) marked a return to form for the somewhat inconsistent German reedsman Gebhard Ullmann. That disc confirmed his affinity for the lower registers, and as with the present recording is more fruit from his New York sabbatical. Cut It Out is in some respects a peace offering to those who fondly recall Ullmann’s jazzier work with Ellery Eskelin (Soul Note) but feared that he’d flown the nest. His new disc runs the gamut from free jazz through to the most ‘lower case’ style of improvisation, where sounds are so micro they sometimes barely register.

Recorded in bassist Chris Dahlgren’s living room, the sound stage is nevertheless fuller than with the CIMP “Spirit Room” series in which you’d normally hear drummer Jay Rosen. The opening piece, “Grid Speak”, has Ullmann on bass clarinet, pecking over Dahlgren and Rosen’s small movements. When a direction emerges Ullmann displays the kind of ghostly trill made famous by Albert Ayler. “U.S.O. Ballad” is a beautiful meditative piece which Ullmann takes on bass flute, whilst the closing movement of ‘Part One’ of this improvised suite, “No Mouthpiece”, is by contrast a structureless exploration of sound textures, gaining curious momentum through carefully controlled scrapes and drones. As the piece draws to a close Rosen builds tension with some timely cymbal punctuation as Ullmann once more soars like Ayler. ‘Part Two’ opens with more bass flute on “Calling Mr Waits No. 2”. Not quite funky in the Herbie Mann sense, it does however have something of a groove to it.

“Walking Under Trains” is the most overtly jazz influenced piece, the trio coming together for a loose free-bop romp that reminded me of Ken Vandermark’s greatly missed Steelwool Trio. Finishing with another quiet ballad, Cut It Out is certainly rich in sonic detail, if not colour. Any recommendation must be addressed solely to the hard-core of this difficult music’s followers, as such music would be a daunting prospect for the uninitiated. With no shortage of high wire improvising, including passages of total abstraction, there is nevertheless always an anchoring structure close at hand. Cut It Out offers something for everybody within improvisation’s avant-garde, and should not disappoint.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2006)

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Gebhard Ullmann...

I hope that with these reviews I wasn't too unfair to Ullmann. His music can be difficult and uninspired, and although I feel that it misses the spot most of the time, he deserves praise for trying things that aren't likely to gain widespread public acceptance.

What am I talking about? Well, if you were to compare his Basement Research with Ellery Eskelin's Forms - the same group minus Ullmann - you'd quickly see what I mean. I make this same point in the first paragraph of the review, and essentially Ullmann didn't rise to the occasion. More than capable of treading water, some day I hope that he proves me wrong and records a classic....

The Big Band Project
SOUL NOTE (121471-2)

Think Tank; Ta Lam; Fourteen Days/Cafe Toronto; D Nee No; Kreuzberg Park East; High Lam Earth; Blaues Lied.

Gebhard Ullmann (ss, ts, bcl); NDR Big Band conducted by Dieter Glawischnig; guests including Tom Rainey (d); Julian Arguelles (bs).
Recorded February 2001.

DRIMALA (DR 04-347-07)

Nummer Sieben; Gross Und Klein; Small Birds/DreiHolz; bassX3; Blue Mint; Red; Yeah Mbira; Slowliness In Green & White.

Gebhard Ullmann (bfl, bcl); Chris Dahlgren (b, toys, elec); Peter Herbert (b).
Recorded June 2001.

German reedsman Ullmann has always struck me as a mildly interesting player, never likely to shirk any challenge, yet without sufficient magnetism to distinguish him as an artist of the first rank. His 1993 Soul Note outing ‘Basement Research’ with Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress and Phil Haynes was a classic example of what I mean. Sparks should have flown, yet Ullmann more often than not seemed to simply get in the way. Some years on and there are signs of a more forceful personality emerging, though I fear that neither of these releases will mark his breakthrough.

‘The Big Band Project’ does exactly what it says on the label and is the most conventional of the two, and the music of the trio is the most challenging and rewarding view of Ullmann’s work. Transatlantic, like many of his ensembles, ‘BassX3’ features essentially an open form improvising trio operating very much at the lower end of the tonal spectrum. Ullmann is joined by not just one but two double bassists, Dahlgren and Herbert, familiar figures to followers of the New York avant-garde. Drone-based material such as ‘Nummer Sieben’ and ‘bassX3’, where the arco techniques are simply jaw-dropping, open up seemingly cavernous chamber spaces. Ullmann plays bass flute on both selections, but the results become patchier when he turns to bass clarinet. The off-kilter funk of ‘Blue Mint’ is superb, yet elsewhere he seems to simply peck at the reed. Dahlgren’s subtle use of electronics is sparing and and enhances the subterranean ambience. At times sounding like a hybrid of chamber-jazz and Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Deep Listening’ music, this is worth your money if your interests stretch to the outer reaches of the music.

For ‘The Big Band Project’, recorded live, the sound world shifts dramatically from lower to upper-case. Augmenting the core of the NDR Big Band are talents such as Reiner Winterschladen, Christof Lauer, Julian Arguelles and the thunderous Tom Rainey. Somewhat surprisingly neither Lauer nor Winterschladen get any solo space, though in the final analysis this is really more of an arranger’s project. What could have been a neat career retrospective of key compositions instead becomes a collection of diffuse arranging styles that fail to gel into a cohesive whole. Without the Mingus-like romp through ‘Blaues Lied’ (arranged by Dahlgren) this would have been a very turgid affair indeed. Too much space is given to Stephan Dietz’s extremely dated overdriven feedback storms, an unwelcome reminder of the days when Volker Kriegel’s United Jazz & Rock Ensemble roamed the earth.

Klaus König has deployed similar sounds and textures to far better effect, and his deft arrangements could certainly have lifted this disc several notches. Too many of the charts simply collapse under their own weight, suffocating the soloists and failing to get off the ground. A piece such as ‘Ta Lam’, superficially impressive in its complexity, trips over itself in a self-conscious rush to touch as many stylistic bases as possible. Edward Vesala could get away with such tricky manoeuvres because he had such a uniquely seductive palette, a strong sense of form and a seemingly unerring ability to make his music flow organically. Although Ullmann sounds altogether clumsier and rough around the edges, interesting episodes can nevertheless be heard along the way. ‘The Big Band Project’ is far from perfect, but it would nevertheless make a good starting point for those keen to know more about Ullmann’s work. Still relatively young and certainly prolific, I suspect we’ll get the definitive statement from him sooner or later.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2005)

Sunday, 16 March 2008

And again....

Yup, Gregor Schlierenzauer left it to the final jump of the day once again. Not surprisingly he did what he had to do, snatching the men's individual Ski Flying competition from fellow Austrian Martin Koch at this morning's early event in Planica.

This was the final event of the World Cup series, and perhaps it was too early in the day for optimal jumping conditions. With low winds and not much sunshine, thermic lift was scarce. Bjoern Einar Ramoeren's 239 metre world record was never going to be under threat in these conditions, perhaps just as well for the Norwegian given Schlieri's late season form.

I suppose I'm just going to have to focus on the cycling now. With Paris-Nice already over, and Milan-San Remo only days away, I should be getting more excited than I actually am. Blame my infatuation with single speed mountain biking.

To mark the end of the ski-jumping season, here's a clip which shows what can happen when things go wrong. Just like cycling, there're no safety nets for these guys. Ramoeren is the unlucky faller - probably the most spectacular mishap of the season...

Worth taking a look at his 239m jump though, just for the hell of it (and the German commentary team!)...

And just to wrap things up, here's an example of a Janne Ahonen interview. You don't need to be fluent in Finnish to see that this is a man of few words. He clearly has no interest in the camera or the interviewer, but I wonder what he's looking at...?

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Schlieri flies again!!!

Is there any stopping this man?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Andy Scherrer remembers Mal Waldron...

Well, no surprises at Holmenkollen, Oslo on Sunday. The precocious Gregor Schlierenzauer continued his winning streak, disappointing the home fans who were all rooting for Tom Hilde. Hilde's second round jump gave them real hope and was a magnificent effort, but with the young Austrian jumping last and only requiring just over 120 metres, it was unlikely that he'd fail. Schlieri's win of course gave him extra points for winning the overall Nordic Tournament series, and although Tommy Morgenstern still takes the overall World Cup Title, the younger Austrian is clearly the man to beat at the moment.

He also happens to be the World Ski flying champion, and with the upcoming finale to the season being the long hill at Planica, many must be wondering if his dominance isn't going to continue. Could we be looking at the 2009 World Champion already? I've no doubt that Morgenstern will be fired up to defend his title next year, but Schlieri will also be another year older and more experienced. I'll be bold enough to suggest at least that the winner may well be Austrian!!

Time to take the Austrian theme into musical waters. Scherrer's disc is a strange one. It should be clear from reading the review that I love Mal Waldron's music. More, in fact, than I love this tribute disc. There's nothing wrong with Scherrer, a fine modernist in his own right, but just as his more recent Remember Joe Henderson wasn't as interesting as any given Joe Henderson record, this effort falls a little short too.

My advice? Get lots of Mal Waldron first, then take a look at this CD. If you want to know which Waldron's to get first, drop me a line...

Remember Mal Waldron
TCB (24202)

Blood And Guts; Searching For Kristiansund; The Seagulls Of Kristiansund; Rochade; Fire Waltz; Duquility; The Pawns Move; Dancing On The Flames; Maru-san; Status Seeking/We Diddit.

Andy Scherrer (ts); William Evans (p); Isla Eckinger (b); Dre Pallemaerts (d).
Recorded December 2003.

In a career that deserves to be more illustrious than it ultimately became, pianist Mal Waldron may end up being better known as Billie Holliday’s last accompanist and as the composer of the beautiful ballad ‘Soul Eyes’ than as an artist with a substantial and intriguing body of work spanning five decades. His contributions to Eric Dolphy’s ‘Five Spot’ recordings, the wonderful ‘Moods’ (with Steve Lacy) from 1978, and the 1986 quintet with Woody Shaw and Ed Blackwell that cut two Soul Note discs at the Village Vanguard are amongst my personal highlights.

Waldron’s career had at least two distinct phases, before and after the tragic personal problems of the mid 60s that led to his relocation in Europe. It is therefore quite appropriate that saxophonist Andy Scherrer should assemble a Euro-American quartet for this tribute. Perhaps best known for his work with arch-ironists the Vienna Art Orchestra, Scherrer is a heart-on-sleeves post-Coltrane stylist. Both Eckinger and Pallemaerts actually played and recorded with Waldron during his time in Europe, the bassist appearing with him on what became the very first ECM release, ‘Free At Last’.

William Evans hails from Detroit, a fact evident in his approach to the piano (think Barry Harris or Tommy Flanagan), and whilst he doesn’t shy away from the dark chordal vamps that characterise many of Waldron’s distinctive compositions, he is uninhibited enough to offer distinctly personal solo statements. Evans’ approach is indicative of the way in which the entire quartet negotiates the delicate balance between homage and personal expression. Whilst Evans’ own prelude to the sublime ‘Seagulls Of Kristiansund’ has none of the composer’s mesmerising economy, his reading of Waldron’s haunting theme most certainly does.

Each member of the quartet gets a short solo space to reflect on Waldron, the group then seamlessly moving into a reading of a carefully selected Waldron original. ‘Blood And Guts’ sounds like it is being tackled by Coltrane’s classic quartet circa June 1964, whilst ‘Duquility’ could just as easily have been lifted from a recent Charles Lloyd date. Ultimately it is the music of Waldron that is the true star, with the collective efforts of Scherrer’s high-class ensemble running in a very close second. Warmly recommended.

Fred Grand

Saturday, 8 March 2008

The Nordic Tournament...

This has been a busy week in the Ski-jumping World Cup, the Nordic Tournament getting under way in Finland. This four round mini-event now has just one event to go, tomorrow's much anticipated event from Holmenkollen in Oslo. With Finns Janne Happonen and Janne Ahonen currently occupying the top spots, it's beginning to look as though there may, fittingly enough, be a Scandinavian victor tomorrow evening.

Last Monday strong winds curtailed the event in in Kuopio, Finland, to just one round. Janne Happonen came out on top, delighting the home fans. Who knows how things would have stood if the second round had gone ahead, and in any case the event had to be moved from Lahti, but the home fans weren't complaining and Happonen bagged 100 World Cup points.

The following day saw the great Janne Ahonen - a favorite at Afric Pepperbird - delighting the home crowd and apparently sowing some confusion in his own mind. Kuopio is said to be Ahonen's least favorite hill, and he was reported by one source to have said that his victory was 'a mistake'. You can't help but admire this guy, who always gives the impression that he sleep-walks his way through events, but rarely finishes anywhere other than on the podium.

"I did not try too much and was maybe more relaxed", Ahonen said at another of his deadpan press conferences. This was his first victory at the hill he dislikes so much, and with Tommy Morgenstern simply going through the motions after wrapping up the World Cup overall, the Finn is one of many who are clearly benefitting from something of a competitive lacuna.

Janne again looked good in Lillehammer, but after the first round it was the home crowd who were left cheering as Tom Hilde headed the standings. As has happened so often this season however, 18 year old Gregor Schlierenzauer put in a huge second round effort to secure yet another victory. Schlierenzauer had set a hill record during the practice sessions, and the World Ski-Flying champion seems to have no limits or fears.

Happonen continues to lead the tournament with Ahonen in third, but you can be sure that it won't just be the Norwegians who are aiming for top spot on the podium tomorrow. Watch out for Schlierenzauer...

Sunday, 2 March 2008

John Swana & Joe Magnarelli...

Caught in the middle of a tough magazine deadline, I've found myself working for most of the weekend to a pretty impossible schedule. Nobody likes to work on a weekend, but with three books and four CDs to get through in 7 days, what else can you do?

By way of a distraction, here's a re-print of another old review. Chosen because it reminds me of much of the revivalist fare I'm dealing with this weekend, I'm starting to worry that I'm becoming too cynical and expect too much from new releases. Every now and again something good comes along - I'm currently enjoying the new Christian Scott - but 'undone by history' is really just a polite way of saying that the disc below is undistinguished and pretty dispensable.

New York - Philly Junction

New York-Philly Junction; Giants; My Old Flame; Lou Ann; From Now On; Eagles; They Say It’s Wonderful; If Ever I Would Leave You.

Joe Magnarelli, John Swana (t); Eric Alexander (ts); Joel Weiskopf (p); Peter Washington (b); Kenny Washington (d).
Recorded November 2003.

Whenever I’m faced with a hard-bop twin-trumpet attack, and that isn’t very often, comparisons to great encounters of the past are inevitably made. Blue Note, the label which Criss Cross so closely resembles, have set most of the benchmarks - think of Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan’s ‘Night Of The Cookers’, or Hubbard with Woody Shaw on their two fiery encounters from the late 80s, and more recently the superb ‘Hubsongs’ by Time Hagans and Marcus Printup.

Magnarelli and Swana both have the chops and clearly know their history, but ‘New York-Philly Junction’ sounds almost desiccated when compared to any of the above, lacking the mandatory ebullience and eschewing all temptation for musical jousting. The session is actually a follow-up to the the same group’s Philly-New York Junction (1998), also on Criss Cross, so the consistently reliable producer Gerry Teekens obviously has faith in the format.

John Swana is the more interesting of the two players, getting into the advanced harmonic terrain of Shaw and Charles Tolliver with alacrity, nowhere to better effect than on the lively opener. The presence of Alexander’s robust tenor is always a pleasure, and booted along by the Washingtons he provides many of the disc’s most exciting moments. Each player is featured on a ballad from the standard repertoire, and up-tempo originals like ‘Eagles’ and ‘Giants’ (two NFL football teams from Philly and NYC respectively, in case you didn’t know) serve as good blowing vehicles without being particularly memorable.

Perhaps my main gripe is with the uninspired nature of the material, much of it harking back to to pre-modal forms and sounding self-consciously mannered and old fashioned as a result. Where the material becomes trickier, namely on ‘Giants’ and ‘Lou Ann’, it does so via scarcely concealed recycling of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ progression. You won’t hear anything disagreeable, and the playing is impeccable throughout, but this is ultimately a recording undone by the weight of history.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, April 2004)