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