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 √©migr√© 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)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Necks @ The Sage...

The Necks occupy a unique niche in contemporary music. Blending the instrumentation of a jazz piano trio with the rigorous attention to detail of minimalism, they forge a style that is both instantly recognisable and innovative. Each of their improvisations spring from small cells - rhythmic and melodic - expanding and interweaving without ever breaking out into settled music. The effect is to expose the listener to a very organic process of improvisation. A more abstract and soulful version of Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, this Australian trio are not only innovators but increasingly influential too.

Performances can resemble a journey, musical cells subtly shifting, new textures continually being added and waves of momentum released through collective crescendos. The effect can also be unsettling - apparently simple patterns will be subtly inverted, and drummer Tony Buck’s often machine-like time keeping can suddenly freeze, suspended. Undoubtedly tapping into something meta-musical, each performance has something magical and ritualistic about it.

Despite knowing the bulk of their recordings well, Monday night’s gig at The Sage, Gateshead was the first time I’ve caught them live. In the intimate setting of Hall Two, the group played two contrasting sets, both fully acoustic. The first sprang from a shimmering repetitive piano gliss, sustained and augmented over its lengthy duration by pianist Chris Abrahams. Full of overtones, it reminded me of Charlemagne Palestine’s exotica. Buck gradually worked from hand percussion to a full drum kit assault as the piece built hypnotically to the point of virtual meltdown, whilst Lloyd Swanton’s bass unsettlingly shifted the axis of this elusive improvisation. Winding the piece down with Swiss precision, their control and musical empathy was highly impressive.

The second set was something different again. Abrahams sprinkled bluesy arabesques to recall Horace Parlan or Mal Waldron over Swanton’s harmonically ambiguous drone. From there the trio once again took off on another absorbing flight, time passing by in a blur. It would have been unfair to ask a group whose performances rarely last less than an hour for an encore, though an encore would have been nice. This is the kind of music I could listen to all day, and if a way could be find to pipe it into public spaces as an alternative to ‘white noise’, the world may be a better place.

Straddling many genres – jazz, improvisation, minimalism, electronica, avant-garde –The Necks’ beguiling sounds stand out as a pinnacle of improvised music. Tying the process of improvisation to a solid aesthetic ensures there is no wasteful or dead time. The Necks are rare in this often self-indulgent form of music in that they never forget the listener – they seek to engage, not alienate. A lesson others could do well to heed.

Fred Grand

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Bryan Spring...

Spring has sprung, or at least it feels that way with the recent upturn in the weather, and with my mood in general. Just back from a hot and sweaty 3 hour single speed mtb ride, and although at one time I'd have used a day like today to get out on my road bike and do a few of the big hills, I'm not missing the tarmac.

Spring is also the surname of the drummer who led this recent British jazz release. Not widely known outside of the UK, Spring is an exciting presence whenever he plays. Hyperactive and not always tasteful, he's nevertheless well worth catching both live and on CD. I always like to annoy people by not giving total reverence to the slightly annoying Art Blakey, and the opening paragraph subtly veils those views - here Spring is playing in the service of the music, not his ego.

My next live music will be a gig by The Necks on Monday. Hopefully a review will follow here shortly afterwards...

The Spirit Of Spring
Trio Records (TR568)

Waltz For Zweetie; Equinox; M Squad; Detour Ahead; Round Midnight; Hymn; Aconite; The Opener; Wise One.

Mark Edwards (p); Andrew Cleyndert (b); Bryan Spring (d), (No recording date).

Rather like the irrepresible Art Blakey, British drummer Bryan Spring is a presence impossible to ignore in any ensemble in which he appears. Fellow musicians haven’t always appreciated his forthright contributions, but on this release he’s very much the musically generous bandleader. Cleyndert and Edwards make the most of their exposure in what is the kind of democratic trio that allows equal voice to its members.

Seasoned followers of Spring, no pun intended, won’t be surprised by his animation on the opener, a tricky Joe Henderson composition played in the manner of the Everybody Digs Bill Evans trio which boasted one of his heroes ‘Philly’ Joe Jones behind the traps. Pianist Edwards clearly enjoys the long flowing melodic lines of Evans too, and for much of the session this is the trio’s chosen terrain. Coltrane’s “Equinox” shows comfort within a relaxed but swinging mid-tempo groove, but the real surprise for me came in the extreme sensitivity and control of slower pieces such as Edwards’ delicate “Hymn”. Basie’s “M Squad” is playfully revamped, whilst “Round Midnight” survives the over familiarity test via a linear Powell-esque interpretation - radical, though stopping well short of the drag-strip treatment Charles Tolliver gave the piece on his 1973 Music Inc. classic Live In Tokyo.

Sound quality is pristine, capturing every detail, and if there’s any quibble at all then it’s with the sequencing of the material. To my ears there’s something of a flatspot at mid-point. Both “Hymn” and “Aconite” have an almost zenlike calm, and the transition to Evans’ uptempo “The Opener” brutally disrupts the mood. The piece is followed by a tender reading of “Wise One” which closes. Out of sheer perversity alone “The Opener” would have been a great way to sign off, and to my ears the music would have then been in better balance. Ultimately such reservations seem churlish. It’s not just good to hear Spring in the studio again, but this trio have delivered something of real quality to withstand repeated listening. Warmly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2005)

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Kenny Werner...

Just finished reviewing the new Bobby Previte CD, a review extended to twice the normal word limit to become one of the new 'feature' reviews introduced in the last issue. Not a challenge at all, because I could write a book about Previte and how much I've taken from his music in the last two decades.

An interesting challenge, however, came from my good friend Louise who gave me a list of half a dozen strategically chosen words that I had to try to include in the review. Luckily 'artichoke' and 'theodolite' didn't appear on the list, and all of the words found their way in. When you eventually get to read the piece it should hopefully make perfect sense.

For the time being, here's a review of a CD with one of the best track titles I've ever seen - 'Voncify the Emulyans'. Perhaps Werner was playing word games too? If anybody can explain what he was alluding to, feel free to leave a comment...

Beat Degeneration Live Volume 2

Little Blue Man; Trio Imitation; Yump; Guru (Dedicated to Claude Corriere); Voncify The Emulyans; Melodies of 2002; Beat Degeneration

Kenny Werner (p); Johannes Weidenmuller (b); Ari Hoenig (d)
Recorded Novenber 2000.

Without being a unique or instantly recognisable voice on his instrument, Kenny Werner has been a force to reckon with as both leader and sideman for some time now. He is a player that any devotee of post-bop piano needs to be aware of, but he's the kind of musician it's all too easy to take for granted. The trio formation is one he often returns to, and after a long-standing band with Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey, he has recently flirted with one-off ‘all-star’ super trios.

Beat Degeneration is the second volume of live recordings made in Paris by his latest less stellar line-up. With Weidenmuller and Hoenig, he has to my ears found the unit that best focuses his often diffuse approach. All compositions are by Werner, and although I enjoy hearing him deconstruct a standard, the themes are worthy of his considerable pianism. ‘Trio Imitation’, the longest track, is the highlight of this consistently engaging disc. An unaccompanied Debussian intro segues into a rhapsodic Evans-like poem, only to then slip into Miles’ ‘It’s About That Time’, here underpinned by tight rhythmic patterns borrowed from the world of hip-hop.

On paper it may sound like a contrived mix’n’match, yet in execution it is wholly convincing. ‘Yump’ is a fast swinger with the rhythmic sense of Tyner and Corea, breaking down into a bass/drum duo which stretches time in a manner that would shock even Dali. ‘Guru’, a further homage to Bill Evans, develops into a Jarrett-like trance groove, though Werner’s vocalisations take things a little too close to jazz’s pre-eminent body gurner for comfort, and are my only gripe over any aspect of the disc.

The playing of the trio is so self-assured that no precision somersault is too audacious – challenging music that succeeds as entertainment too. Beat Degeneration amply demonstrates why Werner deserves to be known as far more than just a talented sideman. Buy with confidence.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, March 2003).