Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Chris Yates (R.I.P), with references to Henry Grimes...

I haven't posted a review of the Henry Grimes-Paul Dunmall-Andrew Cyrille gig last Thursday as yet, partly because I haven't felt inclined too, but mainly because of the sad news that Jazz North East secretary Chris Yates suffered a suspected heart attack on the way to the gig, and died within 48 hours.

Like many people in North East England, a lot of my exposure to top quality jazz was a result of Chris's sterling work. Long before we had The Sage, and in times when jazz was so unfashionable it spelled commercial suicide, Chris was flying the flag for the music he passionately believed in. His enthusiasm was infectious, and nobody will ever forget his slightly bumbling persona, stooping to speak into a ridiculously low microphone to announce forthcoming events.

I remember how thrilled I was when he asked me to replace Noel Proudfoot on the committee in the late 90s, and although we had many disagreements about the music, his generosity was unbounded. He was always the first to back new initiatives aimed at audiences beyond the comfortable mainstream core, and that marked the beginning of the shift that Paul Bream has emphatically consolidated.

When I put on Hession/Wilkinson/Fell at the Live Theatre and we got an audience of 15, that would have been enough for many to pull in the reins. Not Chris though, and shortly after we broke the 100 barrier in the same venue with Derek Bailey. Ultimately the strain of constantly balancing promotion with full time work (and many other interests) proved too much for me and I was the one who called time. I can only marvel at how Chris effortlessly balanced his work at the university with his family life and his role as both a reviewer and a promoter. That is a mark of both his organisational acumen and his dedication.

I'll carry many great memories of Chris, most of them private and personal ones. My involvement in jazz at the level of more than a mere fan started with the helping hand that Chris gave me, and I won't forget that. For a man who proudly boasted that he hadn't missed a Jazz North East gig for several decades, we were all shocked to note the impact of his declining health over the last year or so, and coincidentally Louise and I were sitting with Dave and Pam from the committee discussing this very topic before this very gig.

Even in his absence you always felt that Chirs had an in loco parentis presence, and I suspect it will be that way for some time to come, given how closely he was identified with the organisation. That in no way minimises the massive part that Paul and Dave both currently play, and it is some consolation that the organisation looks to be in a strong position to build on his legacy.

Ironically, I think he'd have enjoyed the Grimes gig more than I did. Apart from the sheer surprise of seeing and hearing Grimes after so many years where he was off the map, the main interest came from Andrew Cyrille, who at least tried to bend and shape an otherwise predictable flow of what now seems to be known as 'fire music'. After Dunmall had done a stint on each of his instruments I felt that there was nothing left to add and it became a mercifully short gig. It had a directness and underlying blues feeling that I know Chris valued highly, (and if only...).

Instead of a proper review of the gig I'll simply post a review of a recent Grimes CD, an oddity I wasn't totally won over by, despite my obvious reverence for the bassist. After last Thursday I'm more inclined to go back to his work with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Mulligan, like Chris, was a key figure in my early appreciation of jazz.

Enough of life's circular flow, for all of those who knew Chris it's time for some serious contemplation...

Solo Bass & Violin
ILK MUSIC 2CD set (ILK 151)

Solo Improvisation

Henry Grimes (b, vn) 3/08.

Recorded in New York in March 2008, this un-edited solo performance could turn out to be the masterpiece of Grimes’ second career flush. This is the same Henry Grimes who anchored the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in the late ‘50s, also playing countless mainstream gigs with everybody from Benny Goodman to Coleman Hawkins before moving to New York and hooking up with Sonny Rollins and, significantly, Cecil Taylor. Just as the ‘New Thing’ was gathering momentum, Grimes quietly ‘disappeared’ into a world of menial day jobs for 35 years, presumed lost, before dramatically re-emerging in 2002 amid much excitement.

Interestingly, his return was nurtured by his modern day equivalent, William Parker. Both bassists share phenomenal facility and have a huge sonorous presence. Abstract, bittersweet and tumultuous, every sinew-jarring plucked and bowed note is preserved faithfully on this richly detailed recording. To sustain a solo performance of this duration and keep it interesting is no easy task, even for a player of Grimes’ stature. Occasionally he’ll switch to violin for brief interludes, and the same logic and clarity of expression is brought to each instrument. Undoubtedly demanding on the listener and with inevitable longeurs, this some times tortured journey goes directly into the mind of a great musician without any filtering. Highly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review)

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Tomasz Stanko's 'Dark Eyes' Quintet @ The Sage...

After a long pause, plus a few days to let this event sink in, it's time to put something out on the blog again. Amazingly, to me at least, Sunday evening was the first time I'd ever seen and heard Stanko live. I've been a fan for many years, and as you'd probably imagine from the title of this blog, Balladyna is one of my favourite albums. I love his gravelly burr, smokey half valve slurs, wild interval leaps and uniquely bleak and portentous way of phrasing. I follow his music wherever it goes, and with him being such a rare visitor to these shores you can imagine how delighted I was when I noticed the listing for this gig a few months ago.

Helping me through the long wait was the release of the new disc, 'Dark Eyes', which went to the top of my pretty small play list when it arrived last month. With the Wasilewski trio I thought he'd found his best and most stable group since the '70s, and in truth that's probably the case. This new project, a darkly elegiac film soundtrack, saw the formation of a young and relatively unknown quintet from every corner of Scandinavia. A slightly harder edge and a more pronounced jazz sensibility, the group mark a welcome new strand to his career.

Jakob Bro, electric guitarist (a Telecaster, no less), is the most noticeable departure from Stanko's recent projects. Running the fairly small gamut from Abercrombie to Frisell, he added colours and textures which expand the music's palette. Take him out of the group and the sound would have been closer to the group from the '80-'90s with Tony Oxley and Bobo Stenson which first drew me to the trumpeter's work. Bro's control was impressive and his imagination vivid, and although not everything he did worked, I appreciated his refusal to play licks or cliches.

The group played in The Sage's intimate Hall 2, probably my favourite venue for live music bar none. We has seats that put us close to the action, and it was also good to see a large Polish contingent in the audience (the gig formed part of a Polska! festival). They played one set of almost 1h 45m, and it was essentially a reprisal of the album, slightly re-ordered to allow a better flow. The extra minutes were made to count, though it was Stanko, Bro and pianist Alexi Tuomarila (very much a '70s Jarrett-man) who were the main soloists. Bass guitarist Anders Christensen didn't really solo as such, but he didn't put a foot wrong, and despite looking like Flea he played with impressive sensitivity. Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori was similarly impressive, his armoury taking in everything from pastoralism and impressionistic strokes to complete abstraction and kick-ass aggression. In short, this is a versatile and highly mobile group.

Stanko let his horn do the talking, his gaunt features and tall but slender frame projecting an enormous presence and awesome power. As with the Gustavsen gig (reviewed in the last post) the sound engineering belied the fact that this was a live performance, and these pristine standards seem to be becoming a feature of many touring ECM artists. That's not to say that the performance was airbrushed, far from it. The soundstage may have been optimal, but a pristine recreation of the album wasn't the outcome it may have been with lesser artists who don't share Stanko's questing spirit. Listening to his fast post-bop lines the link to late '60s Miles was more obvious to me than it had ever been.

We left completely satisfied, and in a year of great gigs this stood out there on its own. Lots more live music to come, including Henry Grimes next week, Andy Sheppard with Michel Benita/Rita Marcotulli, Jan Garbarek, Nik Bärtsch and Nils Petter Molvaer. We've even booked to see Jerry Douglas next year as part of a tasty looking 'Transatlantic Sessions' package, so inspiring was Sunday's performance. The best live performances should always be inspiring and uplifting, stoking the flames and whetting the appetite for more. The worst simply leave me cold and have me irritatedly glancing at my watch. Tomasz Stanko delivered one of the best.

Fred Grand

Monday, 19 October 2009

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble @ Queens Hall, Edinburgh...

It may have taken a few days to get this posted, but then it has also taken a few days for the effects of the gig to sink in and fully hit home. Just as Tord seems to consider and deliberately execute every stroke of the piano keys, a pause for reflection probably wasn't a bad idea really, although in truth there's little I could have done to write up the gig any earlier having only just arrived home after a few days of much needed holiday in Edinburgh. What I suppose I'm trying to say is this: Friday night was deeply impressive, and I don't often leave a concert hall feeling so completely satisfied. In order to set in in context and get some perspective takes a decent amount of time, so rather than stringing together a list of superlatives and pressing 'publish', I've taken some time to reflect.

Although I've enjoyed his trio of trio discs for ECM and enthusiastically greeted Restored, Returned when I first heard it last week, it should be noted that I didn't go along as a committed fan ready to enthusiastically lap up anything he offered. Despite having had other opportunities to hear him play, this was the first time I'd actually committed to going out to hear him live. I went into the gig looking for some confirmation of his talents, needing to be fully won over. The '70s is really my favourite decade for Manfred Eicher's iconic ECM label, and the Esbjörn Svensson effect - a superficial reinvention of the piano trio to a point where they're proliferating at a rate which makes them too hard to properly evaluate - has also made me harder to impress when it comes to this old established format.

It turned out that in much the same way as with Marcin Wasilewski earlier this year, first hand experience was enough to make the breakthrough. There's really nothing like seeing a good live performance to help understand what makes a musician tick. Last Friday I feel as though I may have got close to understanding where lies the bottom of Gustavsen's estimable depths, and as a result I now feel more comfortable to embrace him as an outstanding talent.

The opening night of a 10 date UK tour and the first time that this particular quartet had played together in concert, Gustavsen seemed to sense that something special was in the air. Everything about the leader was hushed and respectful, and his quiet introductions of the musicians - Tore Brunborg, Mats Eilertsen and Jarle Vespestad - spoke volumes about how pleased he was to be there with them. Integral to the performance was the sound engineer, brought on the tour as the Ensemble's 'fifth member', and rather like seeing true high definition television for the first time, you wish that standards could always be as high and are surely in for a disappointment next time you go back to a standard presentation. In some branches of jazz such clinical precision may not be necessary, but for Gustavsen's subtle gestural music it is imperative.

Unlike the latest CD, where the fifth ensemble member is vocalist Kristin Asbjørnsen, last Friday's music was purely instrumental. Gustavsen has worked with vocalists - notably Silje Nergaard - in the past, but for this tour the band were cut back to a four piece. From several short lullabies to feature pieces such as 'The Child Within' and 'The Swirl', the new album was the group's main focus, and the same low key and thoughtful modes of expression predominated. 'The Gaze' stood out among the newer pieces, though everything that the quartet did was in truth perfectly executed. Only on the Spanish-tinged modal piece 'Where We Went' did the group seem to let go, a strictly relative relative observation in as much as the ensemble's letting simply consisted of digging in to a deep modal groove. Normally I'd be looking for dirty blemishes, grit and grease as a sign of authenticity, but Gustavsen establishes a convincing exception. He has no need for any of that in his music, and you only need to see him writhe at the piano stool to know that he's lost in the process, as deeply involved in the act of making music where everything counts as any expressionistic avant-gardist.

If there was anything about the music that was disappointing then it was Brunborg, only because he relied so heavily on Garbarek for his voice and direction. Rather like hearing a Coltrane disciple with no twists of individuality, the effect is slightly uncomfortable when you strongly believe (as I do) that jazz should be about individual expression. For a Norwegian to lean so heavily on an influence is of course no worse than the hundreds of Coltrane disciples around the world who bring nothing new to the table, and as far as this particular project is concerned it must be said that Brunborg's approach was perfectly fitting and appropriate.

The long-haired almost bear-like bassist Mats Eilertsen oozed cool concentration, his rich woody tone and guitar-like virtuosity recalling the heyday of Palle Danielsson. Vespestad seemed to be in a constant state of slow motion or suspended animation. A heavily miked drum kit meant that the smallest gesture resonated around the walls of this beautiful old hall, and given the group's almost holy asceticism - they even closed the set with an 'evening prayer' - the former church made a fitting arena for such a deeply moving and in some ways ritualistic performance.

This trip had started out as another hardly required excuse to have a weekend away in Edinburgh. What we witnessed at The Queens Hall on Friday was something very special, and after the sonic-slugging that characterised much of 'On The Outside' last week it was impressive proof that intensity and passion can be just as powerfully realised in quieter ways. Anybody can play loudly and with a lack of discipline, but to distil so much emotion into such a potent brew is something that you don't encounter every day. To say that 'less is more' misses the point because the same quiet approach that Gustavsen shares with Cor Fuhler and latter day Crispell is not actually 'less'. Welcome to my quiet revolution...

Fred Grand

Monday, 12 October 2009

On The Outside Festival: Day Three...Marilyn Crispell, Rob Brown, Günter 'Baby' Sommer et al...

The final day of the festival proved to be the busiest, but the most rewarding of the three. The quality of the music remained high, the atmosphere among the musicians light and friendly, the audiences attentive and enthusiastic, and I'd even go as far as to say that I started to warm to Alan Tomlinson's idiosyncratic trombonery by the close of play. His duet with 'Baby' Sommer in the last set was in all honesty one of the festival's highlights - a theatrical display full of absurdist humour and ironies. Rasping trombone and marching band beats, it could almost have been an offshoot of the Zentrall Quartett.

Starting for us at 11AM, the pace of the day didn't really let up until midnight. We'd arranged to take Marilyn to see the coast - just like me she's a great fan of the sea, and Tynemouth was the destination. Louise postponed her shopping mission to come along and enjoy the morning, and to me this was really what 'artist liaison' should be about. OK, with such a large scale festival staffed by overworked and under appreciated volunteers it may be an unrealistic ambition, but showing visiting musicians something other than hotel rooms and concert halls is an enriching and rewarding thing. We walked for a couple of hours, including a trip along the pier in high winds, and Marilyn enjoyed it so much that on her recommendation Rudi Mahall and his partner took off on the Metro later that afternoon to see it for themselves.

It was back to the festival for 2PM, and highlights of the afternoon set included Marilyn's group with Chevillon and Taylor, and the established duo of Rob Brown and Daniel Levin. As the musicians worked their way through the matinee, a fiendish plot was being unhatched by Raymond MacDonald to divide the evening session up into twelve short groupings selected by the musicians. I say 'fiendish' because I was the person charged with having to round up the groupings and get them on stage one after the other. In the end it was a breeze, the musicians by and large needing no prompts to get up and play.

Following a breathtaking solo by Marilyn and an equally engaging duet with MacDonald, the artists' selections commenced. Turnover was rapid, and the audience had a chance to hear everybody at least once. Rob Brown did a nice duet with Günter and Marilyn, Bruno & Chad drew the biggest applause with a highly rhythmic workout, and I've already mentioned the pleasant surprise of Alan and Günther.

Crowds were consistently good throughout the festival, but with such an outstanding line-up it's disappointing that more didn't travel from Scotland or the South. Perhaps marketing needs to sharpen up and the web presence increase if there's a next time, because although crowds for this kind of music will never reach blockbuster levels there's still room to grow.

The biggest threat to the continuance of this festival is the need to secure ongoing funding. As the crowds dispersed just before 11PM, many will have been wondering if they'll get the chance to do it all again next year. Paul chooses to remain optimistic, and I don't blame him. If nothing can be done then he should be proud of the festivals that he did pull off against so many odds, but you can bet he'll be doing his damnedest to see that we're all back next year.

Our last act of the 2009 festival was to drop Günter back at the hotel and wish him a safe journey home. I never imagined I'd ever see him up close in the UK, and to get the opportunity to see and hear him play in so many contexts was unforgettable. A niche music this might be, but it has a place. Let's hope that one of those places is still Tyneside in 2010. As Herr Sommer remarked when we shook hands in front of the hotel, 'It's up to you!'. Words to live by, and if there's anything I can do to help, I will.

Fred Grand

Sunday, 11 October 2009

On The Outside Festival: Day Two...

Just a short write up of yesterday, before today gets underway. The festival really seemed to take off on Saturday, with some consistently high quality sets. The artists are settling in and getting to know each other, and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Günter got his bag back and lit up the stage three times yesterday with his uniquely theatrical performing style, and the arrival of Bruno Chevillon (late due to a missed flight) added yet another dimension.

After the smooth running of the opening night it started to feel a bit chaotic behind the scenes, but amazingly things appeared normal at the front of the house, everything running just about on time and to the schedule. Perhaps traumatised after shock exposure to the affectionately re-named 'trombone loon' (aka Alan Tomlinson) on Friday night, Louise opted to go shopping in the afternoon. My first challenge came when Rob Brown couldn't be found before his 4PM slot, and after searching the building high and low several times I had to think on my feet, asking young Scottish tenor/baritone saxophonist Graeme Wilson if he'd mind filling in. Keen as mustard he took to the stage, only for Brown (delayed by a late-running Metro) to appear as they finished their first piece. The result? A dramatic entrance and a real bonus in the form of a quartet with a two horn front-line that for me turned out to be the day's highlight.

Günter was the next person to go Missing In Action, although it later turned out that he'd been behind the curtains on the stage all the time. He's already a big favourite with the crowds, and I'm pleased to finally get my chance to see him live after many years of admiration. Marilyn only played once, but found more space in today's ensemble, the Ducret/Chevillon combo was as tight as I'd imagined, and Fuhhler continued to impress with his work inside the piano. The young Dutchman closed the evening in a group consisting of his piano, two cellos and two bases. Another of the day's best groupings, their chamber-ish 'new music' recalled the New York avant-garde of the 50s and was just the kind of contrasting change of pace and direction that the evening needed.

Our work ended in dropping Bruno off at his hotel. No wrong turns down any one-way systems this time, just the cattle-market of Central Newcastle on Saturday night to negotiate. Bruno was the second ECM recording artist to hop into my car in as many days, making this a very acceptable way to close out another tiring but successful day. For Sunday morning we've arranged to take Marilyn sight-seeing, and then the music begins again at 2PM. I'm looking forward to her solo set in the evening, and also to artist programmed segment of the festival. Hopefully I'll find the time to blog all of that tomorrow...if not Monday.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

On The Outside Festival: Opening Night...

Louise and I are pressed willingly into action all weekend at what may be the last 'On The Outside' festival, unless future funding can be secured. With another fine international roster of avant jazz and improvised music people, if this has to be the last of the line then the high quality roster of artists assembled promises a fitting closure to the series. Of course I hope that financial backing can be found (even RBS would be welcome, if they're still frittering money away on events sponsorships), as there's nothing quite like it in the UK, and i'd be hard pressed to name another festival anywhere that adopts the same fecund approach to group improvisation.

We've got the same behind-the-scenes role as last time - loosely termed 'artist liaison' - only this time the job has been made a lot easier by the introduction of outside caterers. Last year's Indian/Chinese/Italian takeaway menu co-ordination was quite a challenge, and if I remember rightly it even delayed the start of the festival on the first night! Other than picking up Marilyn Crispell from her hotel (and spiking the ire of several drivers and pedestrians as I made a hash of going the wrong way into a one way system - it was dark and confusing), there hasn't been too much to do so far. Things have gone like clockwork, though Günter Sommer, whose luggage is still in Amsterdam, may disagree.

Musicians have pretty much rounded themselves up on time and been ready to play without needing any encouragement. This has even left some time to listen to the music, a mixed blessing in many ways as I'm not as receptive to free improvisation as I once was. The opening night was a good chance to scope out some of the musicians, and the combinations of personalities by and large worked well. Opening with Scots saxophonist Raymond MacDonald alongside percussionist Chad Taylor and cellist Daniel Levin, a promising start was made. Levin's dark timbres and Taylor's light touch gave MacDonald lots of space to blow, and his Lacy-esque soprano in one particular calm passage was great to hear.

This ostensibly structureless music generally finds its own recurring structure, however. Calm-swell-crescendo-repeat just about sums it up, but that's not to minimise the surprise element, as musicians unlearn their instruments and use 'extended techniques'. The next group, with the twin guitar attack of Marc Ducret and Chris Sharkey, had plenty of that to offer. Rarely sounding guitar-like, Cor Fuhler's shimmering piano which underpinned the axe men's antics was for me the most interesting feature. Ducret is a nice guy with a winning smile though, and it was good to have a chat with him about his new base in Copenhagen, and the many new projects he is involved with there. His old brother in arms Bruno Chevillon arrives on Saturday, and I'm looking forward to hearing the two together at some point.

Next up was a solo intro by trombonist Alan Tomlinson, later joined by Rudi Mahall and local bassist Andy Champion. We missed most of their offerings because of the excursion to the hotel to collect Marilyn, although Tomlinson's eccentric 'bubble and squeak' may have been hard going had we stayed. Crispell was much as I imagined her, and although I've heard her play several times and know a good few of her recordings, she's the undoubted 'star' of the event. It was good to get a bit of time to chat and make her feel welcome. With minimal fuss and turnaround she was soon on stage with Rob Brown, Marcio Mattos and Chad Taylor (standing in for the equipment-less Sommer). I find Brown a bit shrill, although I'm a big admirer of the string of discs he's made with William Parker's formidable quartet. Marilyn's more minimal aesthetic didn't really have the space to find voice, although she did add interesting colour and direction to the music on several occasions. Hearing her in a quieter setting later during the weekend should bring out the best in her, and I can't wait.

The last time I saw Chad Taylor was almost a decade ago when he performed at a no-fi gig by the Chicago Underground Duo that I co-promoted. That night the musicians slept on the floor in my flat, and it shows how far things have come (and what a great fund-rasing job Paul Bream has done) that now they are provided with good quality accommodation in central Newcastle. With afternoon and evening sessions on Saturday and Sunday to come, I'll hopefully get a chance to blog a few more impressions, although I've got a feeling that today is where it starts to get a lot busier...

Fred Grand

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Al Haig...

No time for shirking, time to get some more old reviews posted. There seems to be a bit of an Al Haig thing going on at another blog I've recently enjoyed visiting, and if you're curious I can offer a link to this very CD. Of course, such downloads should only be for research purposes. If you like what you hear you should always support the artists directly.

The services such blogs perform for avid and curious listeners can't be underestimated though. I for one have discovered lots of new music that I've later gone on to buy as a result of sampling other folk's libraries. I hope that this educational and close knit community ethos amongst jazz aficionados isn't stamped out by the record industry. We aren't interested in mainstream releases, and our holy grail consists of long out of print (almost unobtainable) music as rare as any antiquity.

Removing the opportunity for felicitous encounters which inspire listeners to go out and expand their collection seems counter-productive. Where a release is out of print and never likely to be re-issued ever again, the enthusiast's quest to hear the material seems to me to be entirely different to the consumer that is simply looking for a free copy of the latest Peter Andre CD to stick on their iPod. Thanks to blogs like the one I mention above, I now know about Tony Dagradi, and I'm off to Amazon right now to see what I can find...

Un Poco Loco

Confirmation; Naima; All Blues; Laura; Voices Deep Within Me; Never Let Me Go; How Deep Is The Ocean; Un Poco Loco; The Theme

Al Haig (p); Jamil Nasser (b); Tony Mann (d), (Recorded September 1978).

Although not a Be-bop pioneer, Al Haig kept a high profile during the music’s very earliest days, quickly assimilating and embracing the example of Bud Powell. His legacy includes historic recordings with Parker, Gillespie and Navarro, as well as tenures with Chet Baker and Stan Getz and immortality via Miles’ Birth of the Cool nonet sessions. Long periods of inactivity, including jobbing as a cocktail pianist, effectively divide his career into two phases separated by a twenty year gap.

British record label Spotlite was instrumental in helping Haig to attain recognition as a giant of bop, returning him to the studios late in 1973. An Indian Summer followed, before Haig passed away in 1982. Un Poco Loco, recorded in 1978, is further fruit from the Spotlite partnership, and a fine example of Haig at his peak. Accompanied by regular bass partner Jamil Nasser and British drummer Tony Mann, it’s good to see how much Haig had moved with the times and built on his roots. Although renditions of “Confirmation”, Un Poco Loco” and “The Theme” survive from the Be-bop book, there is a far more expansive side to Haig’s work in evidence. Happy to embrace Jamal, Cedar Walton and Chick Corea as influences, Haig’s style nevertheless remains personal. Readings of “Naima” and “All Blues” further indicate a musician open to change.

Although the trio never abandon progressions or probe as deeply into harmony as more interactive trios from the Bill Evans school, Haig works within the structures to turn in some thoughtfully impressive work. Nasser’s bass is a muscular backbone well at home in this environment. Aside from his long tenure with Ahmad Jamal, Nasser also worked with Phineas Newborn and Harold Mabern, and yes, this is the same man who also worked with Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. Standouts include an elegant “How Deep Is The Ocean”, a breakneck run through of Walton’s “Voices” (complete with “Salt Peanuts” quote) and a rhythmically hypnotic take of the Bud Powell composed title track. Although it won’t shake the earth or move mountains, Un Poco Loco is a rewarding way to spend an hour, and a reminder of a talent so nearly lost to the vagaries of jazz fashion.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2006)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

John Etheridge...

How can it be so long since I last blogged? The Horace Tapscott CD has arrived and been devoured, I've recently discovered a nice hidden Tommy Smith gem (Nomade by Loic Dequidt's Quartet, Kopasetic), and I've also got a new job!! Snow Leopard is installed on the Mac (and apart from a few glitches here and there it is a vast improvement), and I've been sneaking in some miles on my roadbike in the early hours of the morning, before leaving for work.

The new job is probably less interesting than the reviews, so let's just say I'm pleased to be making a change that gives me a bit of a promotion but keeps me in a more-or-less related field of work. Last Friday afternoon, to mark the occasion, we sat decadently in the garden drinking champagne at 4PM. Not the kind of thing we do every day, but nice anyway.

As for the musical offering, I'll go for a John Etheridge CD (only because guitar maestro Martin Taylor has started following me on Twitter, clear evidence that Afric Pepperbird has some intrinsic merit, if not also a sign that there's little jazz to be found on Twitter).

Hell, this review even gives Taylor a flattering reference. Not sure I've ever reviewed a Taylor disc, so if you're reading this Martin, it's high time I gave it a go...

I Didn’t Know
DYAD (DY 024)

Guitar Makossa; God Bless The Child; I’ll Take Les; Now’s The Time; Motherless Child; Mercy, Mercy, Mercy; Lullaby of Birdland; I Didn’t Know; My Romance; Outline; Come Sunday; Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man; Strange Comforts; With The Wind; Goodbye Porkpie Hat; Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

John Etheridge (g)
Recorded 2003-4

There’s something about the guitar that seems to produce irrational worship amongst its devotees. I know many amateur guitarists who wouldn’t dream of buying recordings or going to hear live music described as “jazz” unless their instrument of choice happened to be centre stage. John Etheridge has benefited from generous coverage over the years in specialist guitar magazines, and like Metheny or Scofield he’s a ‘jazzer’ who’s managed to penetrate the consciousness of bedroom pickers far and wide. In many ways, this recording is for them, consisting as it does of short solo pieces on a variety of guitars, all makes and models described in assiduous detail in the accompanying booklet.

The use of overdubbing may worry some, placing Etheridge a notch or two below Joe Pass or Martin Taylor in the blow-your-socks-off stakes, but you’d still struggle to be unimpressed by his speed and dexterity. The material allows for a variety of approaches, from the straght-ahead ‘Now’s The Time’ to a funky version of Scofield’s ‘I’ll Take Les’, and the fusion influences of his own 'Outline’. Stadium-rock pyrotechnics are strictly off limits, and the general restraint with which he plays could surprise those who haven’t heard him for some time.

Where ‘I Didn’t Know’ seems to fall down, however, is in the way that it so often resembles a pile of pages torn randomly from an artist’s sketchbook. Many selections are faded early or simply too short for any improvisational depth to be developed. Standouts tend to be the more fully realised pieces, and include a doom-laden ‘Motherless Child’ that recalls the barren beauty of prime Bill Frisell, the languid funk of Joe Zawinul’s ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, and the lovingly deconstructed ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’ (with shades of Delta Blues). A long way from his roots with Soft Machine, and for that matter from recent acclaimed tribute projects to the music of Grappelli and Zappa, and although it may not be a release for the wider jazz community, it should certainly satisfy fans of the guitar as totemic icon.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, October 2004)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Christian Scott: Anthem...

Yikes, the last time I posted anything here was the 9th of August! Whilst I'm certain that there won't be anybody, anywhere in the world, currently experiencing withdrawal symptoms as they're starved of new material, it's still a little bit more of a gap than I'd like. So what's my excuse?

Really there isn't one. Things have certainly been busy, and a new batch of releases for the next edition of Jazz Journal (seven in total) has accounted for most of my time at the computer. The good weather has seen me getting out a bit more on my road bike, and my relative lack of fitness and advancing age has lengthened the recovery time between rides. Spending far less time at the computer in a typical evening to make the most of our evenings at home is another factor, so I suppose it's fair to say that there's no single excuse, but lots of reasons why postings aren't more regular.

To get things back on course again, here's a write up of a disc by Christian Scott which complements the Wallace Roney piece quite well. It went into Jazz Review some time last year, and with the demise of that magazine it'd be nice to post the remaining reviews in my archives over the coming months. After that it'll be back to Rubberneck and Avant.

Next major jazz event has to be the re-issue of Horace Tapscott's Dark Tree, though I'm almost tempted to venture north again to see Tommy Smith and Gary Burton doing a Wayne Shorter programme. If only it wasn't for that damn big band...


Litany Against Fear; Void; Anthem; Re:; Cease Fire; Dialect; Remains Distant; Uprising; Katrina’s Eyes; The 9; Like That; Anthem (Post-diluvial Adaptation).

Walter Smith III (ts); Louis Fouché (as); Christian Scott (t, cn, flh, p); Aaron Parks (ky), Matt Stevens (g); Luques Curtis and Esperanza Spalding (b); Marcus Gilmore (d); Brother J of X-Clan (voc on 12).

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Miles Davis is seen today in the number of trumpeters still seeking to popularise a blend of jazz, rock, funk and hip-hop. From Ron Miles through to Wallace Roney, Erik Truffaz and Nils Petter Molvaer, many have ‘plugged-in’ and tried their luck. Almost to a man they’ve improved on Miles’ latter day efforts – let’s face it, his final decade was pretty lightweight – and so it is with Grammy nominated Christian Scott.

Rewind That (Concord, 2006) deserved its place in my end of year ‘best of’ list, and the same post-rock rhythms, inter-woven rock guitar lines and doom-laden pedal chords are all found here. Written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - Scott is himself a Crescent City native - this is a disc pregnant with emotion. From the opening chords of ‘Litany Against Fear’, a pensively brooding melancholia is laced with the optimism of Scott’s declamatory trumpet. ‘Anthem’ starts with the kind of urgent piano vamp that Matthew Shipp would recognise, before settling into a beautifully reflective groove that could play for hours. The impetus behind the sombre ‘Katrina’s Eyes’ should be obvious, whilst ‘The 9’ stands out with a more upbeat and overtly ‘jazz’ feel. ‘Like That’ adds moody reverb-laden Rhodes to the mix, though Aaron Parks’ sentimental solo is a little cloying. A reprise of ‘Anthem’, this time offering the thoughtful polemic of rapper Brother J of X-Clan, closes out this impressively mature and coherent statement and programmatically it makes perfect sense.

With his fat, furry tone, Scott could no doubt hold his own in any neo-con blowing session. That would somehow waste his talents. He already has a very personal music, both of its time and ‘in the tradition’. Too early to speak of his place in the pantheon of great, he’s nevertheless doing just fine for now, thank you.

Fred Grand

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Wallace Roney...

Continuing the Edinburgh connection, here's a review from 2006 of a disc by a band I'd seen just beforehand at The Hub In Edinburgh. A memorable gig, but the disc fell a little short...


Atlantis; Mystikal; Stargaze; Just My Imagination; Hey Young World; Poetic; Baby’s Breath; Nice Town; I’ll Keep Loving You.

Wallace Roney (t); Antoine Roney (ts/ss/bcl); Geri Allen (p/elp); Adam Holzman (ky); Matt Garrison (b/elb); Eric Allen (d); Bobby Thomas Jr. (perc); Val Jeanty (turntables), (May 2005).

I’m sure that nobody will be surprised to learn that the new release by trumpeter Wallace Roney has something of the influence of Miles about it. If you missed his 2004 release Prototype (High Note), you may not yet be aware that electric Miles is currently exercising the mind of the official heir. We’re not talking about the out and out funk of On The Corner or the epic jams of Agartha, but Silent Way and even Bitches Brew have suddenly appeared on Roney’s radar. I saw the gig in Edinburgh that was given Mike Pyper’s approval in JR 72, and I too marvelled at Roney’s awesome command of his music. I was surprised to at just how far ‘out’ he ventured in a live setting, suggesting there’s plenty being left in the locker when he visits the studios.

Mystikal then is far more reigned in than the gig, but despite a few wobbles it generally builds on the largely fulfilled promise of Prototype. The addition of DJ Val to the cast is a major advance. Her contributions are more seamlessly integrated into the music than any turntablist I’ve yet heard, exactly the kind of innovation that Roney needs to embrace to sidestep accusations of an overly retro approach. Rest assured he’s not merely pitching for NuJazz cred, Mystikal at least matching any of his discs in the tradition of the Shorter-Hancock quintet for uncompromising improvisation. Jeanty’s contributions veer between narrative comment and sonic texture, always unobtrusive and in service of the music. It’s a Shorter composition, “Atlantis”, that opens. Allen’s piano meshes with Holzman’s Rhodes to locate things somewhere around late 1968. The title track follows and is a purely acoustic affair, that is until Jeanty inserts a telling voice sample which leads into the motoric funk of “Stargaze”. So far the transitions seem natural, the direction clear.

Less successful are the slightly too saccharine version of The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and the insipid reggae plod that is “Hey Young World”. A traditionalist reading of Kenny Dorham’s “Poetic” precedes another late 60’s quintet workout, a further slice of charged funk, and the tender balladry of the closing “I’ll Keep Loving You”, performed as a duet with his wife Geri Allen. Although I’d recommend Mystikal without too many qualms, its predecessor seemed more even and assured. Time for the less Janus-like outlook of his mentor to be asserted? I for one will be watching Roney’s next moves with interest.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, January 2006)

Monday, 3 August 2009

Roy Hargrove, Enrico Pieranunzi and Tommy Smith/Makato Ozone Quartet @ Edinburgh Jazz Festival...

Time to rediscover the art of macro-blogging (or is is it just blogging?) after tweeting some some short comments about the weekend's activities on Twitter. Principally a mini RSS reader for me, it was nevertheless good to be able to post short real-time comments about each of the three gigs as soon as they'd happened, and using Blogger's Twitter widget here on Afric Pepperbird to have them instantaneously appear on this page. I just love putting technology at my service where it can be of a real use, and I think this was a pretty good example. And for anybody who followed the tweets, yes, we did go to the Botanical Garden (Louise deserved some non-musical activities, after all), and it wasn't too bad, even for a decidedly disinterested non-botanist like me.

First up was the now not so young lion Roy Hargrove. Well, before that honourable mention must go to our favourite Indian/Gujarati restaurant Ann Purna, where we ate before ambling along the road to the Queens Hall. Superb hospitality, subtly spiced and delicious food, and I'm just sorry we can't get there at least once a fortnight. Now onto the Hargrove, who I last saw at the same venue some 15 to 20 years ago, at the height of his newness. That night he had spark, and an energetic quintet with Marc Cary and Antonio Hart, to belt out the tunes with unmistakably sincere passion and fire. This time he delivered a solid festival set with enough variety to please an eager-to-be-pleased crowd, but it was clear that he now has a set of laurels on which he can rest. Justin Robinson, who I have at times enjoyed a great deal on record, was langorous and strangely behind the beat for most of the night. Hargrove played high notes with a fair amount of precision, but nothing that the late Freddie Hubbard wouldn't have done in his sleep, and young drummer Montez Coleman played with an all consuming passion and volume that at times threatened to sink the music. He could do well to listen to Billy Higgins' masterclass on Hargrove's Public Eye, but I doubt he will. Apart from a pianist in a kilt and an engaging enough warm-up from Brian Kellock before Hargrove arrived on stage, there's not a lot more to be said. And so to bed...

Saturday brought a fresh day, and with it some fresher musical winds. A trip to the aforementioned horticultural mecca was washed down with a nice lunch at Hendersons (incidental detail, but bear with me...), before we headed off to The Hub, possibly the best venue I've ever seen used for live jazz. Everytime I go there I'm impressed not only by the building (a converted church) and it's intelligent use of space and smart interior design, but also the brilliant acoustics. I've seen a few gigs there now, including Arild Andersen and Tommy Smith on the same weekend last year, but it doesn't really seem to get much use for jazz between festivals. Shame, as it is infinitely better than the dull acoustics and hardwood pews of the Queens Hall.

First up was Enrico Pieranunzi's trio with bassist Darryl Hall and facially hirsute drummer Enzo Zirilli. Anybody who has ever heard the great Italian maestro will not be surprised to learn that this was melodic improvisation at its subtle and creative best. Playing a mixture of standards and self-penned pieces, the time just flew and his 75 minutes was over all too quickly. Much is quite rightly made of Keith Jarrett's artistry in this same field, but I bet that the American holds the lesser known Italian in extremely high regard. Perhaps only the late Michel Petrucciani (who, in another gratuitous aside, I once saw perform solo at the Queens Hall) has in recent times operated in this area of jazz so well, and the wellspring of Bill Evans continues to gush serenely.

After a quick glass of wine in a nice little place at the top of the Royal Mile (a place with a ludicrously high count of tacky tourist traps), it was on to the last gig of our festival. Tommy Smith is an Edinburgh legend, and anybody who introduce a tune he wrote 23 years ago (and subsequently recorded for Blue Note) and still be performing on a stage as big as this has made themselves a career to be proud of. I'm a big fan, and my admiration goes back almost 23 years, remembering as I do his early days on the UK circuit after he'd returned from Berklee. Forward Motion, the Azure Quartet, the Standards Quartet, the Paris Sextet, and more recently Arild Andersen and the Forbidden Fruit Quartet - all have entertained and delighted over the years. I like the fact that for all his admiration of Coltrane and Brecker he is still rooted in his homeland, playing with a Celtic and Northern outlook that smacks of authenticity and sidesteps charges of imitation.

For this gig, we were treated to a first-time quartet. They met and rehearsed at 5PM, and performed at 8:30. Of course Smith and pianist Makato Ozone (ex-Miles and Gary Burton) have played and even recorded together before, and Smith is also no stranger to Chris Minh Doky, but to play sophisticated contemporary jazz as advanced as this and sound like a regular working group is quite a feat. Danish power drummer Jonas Johansen (who Smith introduced as Johannes Johansen, before quickly correcting himself and giving a witty aside about the newness of the band) was an excellent example of the need for taste when hitting hard. He found his place in the music with a natural ease, but despite his awesome technique and big presence he knew the importance of allowing space for the music to breathe. Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette had it, and so does the young and exuberant Dane. I'm keen to hear his trio with Steve Swallow and Hans Ulrik, but that will have to wait for another time. All of the musicians introduced their own pieces, and you could write an essay on each. Smith's 'Ever Neverland' was nice to hear again (23 years after it was written), and his Nordic, Garbarek inflected ballad 'Celtic Warrior' brought out the best in the bassist, whose long drone like improvised intro brought the great Palle Danielsson to mind. The bassist let slip that he was thrilled to be in Edinburgh because of the James Bond connection ('the real James Bond') while introducing his slippery piece 'Sniper', and I also enjoyed his Brecker-ish burner 'Certified'. Ozone played highly charged acoustic piano in the Tyner/Corea tradition, and although I've never really listened closely to him in the past I was suitably impressed. His post 9/11 statement 'Where Do We Go From Here?' was the most intense moment of the evening, an emotionally charged hymn of great intelligence and hope. I'm glad they stuck around to play two sets and an encore, and although logistically difficult given their geographical spread and busy diaries, I hope that they can find a way to record.

A touch of shopping on the Sunday morning and then off to Waverley station (with a heavy heart to be leaving this city mid-festival). We should really have stayed longer and found ways to catch The Thing and Atomic, but so much is packed into the Festival these days that if you're not living in the city you have to be selective. I'll get a run down on Stanton Moore and Elephant9 from my good friend and Edinburgh resident Andrew (he may even Twitter it), but for now that's it for us. The festival has come along way since its mainstream biased origins, although I did catch a significant deviation the year I saw Sun Ra at Meadowbank Sports Hall (1991?), and I can't wait to get back there for more next year. I wonder who Tommy will be be with at The Hub on the first Saturday of August, 2010?

Fred Grand

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Anthony Braxton...

After 7-10 days working on the latest batch of reviews there's been little time for blogging. Some good stuff though - the 'new' Freddie Hubbard live set from 1969 (Blue Note), and Louis Sclavis' killer 'Lost On The Way' (ECM). Getting back into the habit of writing copy every 4 weeks or so is taking time - Jazz Review with its bi-monthly publication was a lot more sedate. So far it's been no problem, and we even managed a weekend away in Glasgow last week to see, erm, The Eagles at Hampden Park. Neil Young would have been far more enticing, but I don't mind at least half a dozen of their 70s hits and they played them all with panache. The tireless guitar heroics of Joe Walsh made it interesting enough musically for even a stuffy jazz critic like me.

I struggle with the idea of live music in stadia, but for certain types of act it works well. A better compromise may be larger indoor arenas (such as the o2) with their better acoustics. Thanks to the iPhone I managed to successfully bid on and win a Jim Pepper CD during the support act, but there will be no attempt at a full review as the music was a bit out of my normal frame of reference and I'm already struggling to write anything meaningful.

All in all it was a nice trip away, and all the more notable for a priceless moment of high surrealism during a visit to Kelvingrove to see Dali's famous 'Crucifiction' painitng. A large procession of bowler hatted, sash and apron wearing Orangemen marching to the accompaniment of helicopter surveillance to drown out their whistles, and mounted Police to pacify the drunken hordes, takes some beating. Dali would surely appreciate the irony of the situation.

Later in the month we'll be back to Edinburgh to catch a few gigs at the annual Festival. Reviews of those shows should appear shortly afterwards, but for now I'll go back to posting old stuff from Jazz Review. This time we'll have some Braxton, as I'm sure most readers of this blog gravitate towards the avant-garde...

Quartet (Moscow) 2008

Composition 367b; Encore.

Anthony Braxton (sopranino/ss/as/cbcl); Taylor Ho Bynum (cor/flhn/t/vtb); Mary Halvorson (elg); Katherine Young (bsn) 29/6/08.

Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet could be exactly the succour that Braxton-ians who failed to get to grips with his Ghost Trance Music have been waiting for. In contrast to the drone-like stasis of his GTM, this music is more expansive in scope. Spanning over 70 minutes, ‘Composition 367b’ is by turns torrential and rarefied. The chamber-like piece has a compositional architecture that nevertheless allows significant space for collective improvisation. Braxton largely sticks to alto-saxophone, his occasionally wayward chops in excellent fettle. Fans of his contrabass clarinet won’t be disappointed either, the lugubrious beast making a cameo appearance at around fifty minutes into the piece. Bynum huffs and puffs in the upper register on assorted brass, but his superficially random flow always finds a logical route back to the musical ‘home’.

Aside from the leader it is perhaps Halvorson’s spiky guitar webs, threading their way through the piece and anchoring the horns, that is the group’s dominant voice. Her distortion drenched chords spring from Derek Bailey’s palette, and I always thought that the late guitarist was one of Braxton’s best foils. This new quartet brings together so many different facets of the leader’s music. Even Braxton’s off-kilter nods to jazz tradition, missing of late, are here if you listen closely. The closing ten minutes dramatically crystallise much of the preceding chaos into a solid form and are a breathtaking sleight of hand. This group may not reach listeners in the same way as the great quartet with Crispell, Dresser and Hemingway, but it opens up some fertile new ground and confirms that Braxton is still a major force to be reckoned with. Sound quality is as good as I’ve heard on any of the saxophonist’s releases, and if you’ve skipped a few dozen of his last discs, now seems like a good time to get back in touch!

Fred Grand

Thursday, 18 June 2009

James Finn, Dominic Duval, Warren Smith...

Here's a review of an interesting disc by a relatively new voice. Old time free-jazz, but played with plenty of conviction, and a good excuse to try out an extended bullfighting metaphor...

Plaza De Toros

Toreo de Capa; Plaza de Toros; The Phantom Bull of Seville; El Tercio de Varas; Eyes of Angelina; El Tercio de Vanderillas; El Tercio de Muleta; La Estocada; Toro Bravo

James Finn (ts); Dominic Duval (b); Warren Smith (d), (12/03).

The parallels between bull fighting and free jazz are not inconsiderable. Both involve the playing out of a passionate drama, both demand high levels of concentration by the protagonists to avoid unecessary risks, both divide the public, and both can be painful spectator sports. Tenor saxophonist James Finn is a relative newcomer and has escaped my radar until now. A release apiece on both CIMP and Cadence is about all you’ll find of him on disc find at the moment, but Finn seems to be anything but a green gilled newcomer.

Plaza de Toros is his conceptual portrait of the various stages and rituals of Spanish bullfighting. Joined by regular associates Domininc Duval and Warren Smith, the trio are well equipped to negotiate the troughs and peaks of this imaginary spectacle. Finn has a huge tone that has the gruff burred edges of Rollins. His style is far more direct and emotionally immediate however, somewhere between late Coltrane and early Frank Wright. The music is certainly loose, but never out of control. Finn, like an experienced Matador, knows just when to make his move to deliver the coup de grace. At times the trio appear to be shadowing the beast, waiting for the crucial moment to attack with one collective adrenaline surge. The opening ‘Toreo de Capa’ represents the first encounter by the Matador with the bull, the trio setting the scene as if sizing up the task ahead. Duval plays a guitar-like chord formation that recalls Jimmy Garrison, whilst Smith provides sudden flutters of movement. We then go through all of the various stages of the ritual, climaxing in the collective elation of “el Tercio de Vanderillas” - the ultimate confrontation.

By the time we get to “Toro Bravo”, the moment where the courage of both man and beast are applauded by the crowd, we’re left slightly bruised, pondering the drama of a sport without a true winner. Even without the overarching concept this would stand up as quality neo free-jazz, a victory for all three of the strong personalities involved. I often suspect that a lot of fakers are currently playing in this increasingly popular idiom. Happily, Finn doesn’t seem to be one of them. Recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2005)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Tagged for your convenience...

After a marathon session of site maintenance, all of my posts now boast new tags making it easier for visitors to navigate their way around the blog.

Satisfying an autistic craving and possibly inspired by the recent flourish of creative activity at Apple Inc., I hope that the new system will encourage readers to go back to earlier posts.

As always, comments are welcomed!!

Monday, 8 June 2009

Till Brönner...

Been busy for the last 10 days with new reviews - rather a lot of them - for Jazz Journal. No longer Jazz Journal International, strap line "The World's Greatest Jazz Magazine - 62nd year of Publication", the June issue of the magazine nevertheless looks good and shows real promise. Some of the changes to layout made by the editor (and a lot more subtle little tweaks to come) make me confident that within 6 months or so it'll have been dragged into this century without losing any of its integrity and all the stronger for it.

Time to continue mining the Jazz Review archives now, this time with a review of a disc by Till Brönner. I'm no great fan, but he's far from repugnant. As one of the editor's wild card picks in the last batch was his latest disc "Rio", it seems like a good time to post this. There was a lot of other good stuff in the envelope - Bobo Stenson & Plunge, Jon Hassell, Marc Sinan/Julia Hülsmann, Air, Roberto Fonseca, Phillip Johnsotn and Seb Pipe if you must know - and all will be published here in due course and after a respectful interval.

More regular updates to follow, along with improved indexing/tagging of the blog too, I hope...

Verve Records (06025 1708231)

Bumpin’; This Guy’s In Love With You; Love Theme From Chinatown; In My Secret Life; The Peacocks; I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; Subrosa; Pra Ditzer Adeus; It Never Entered My Mind; River Man; Danny Boy; A Distant Episode; I’ll Never Fall In Love Again; Tarde.

Till Brönner (t/voc); Larry Goldings (p/ky); Gary Foster (as); Dean Parks (g); David Piltch (b); Jay Bellerose (d), Carla Bruni (voc on 4); Madeleine Peyroux (voc on 6); Luciana Souza (voc on 8).
No recording date.

German singer/trumpeter Till Brönner has been occupying the same jazz-pop hinterland as Madeleine Peyroux, Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall for over a decade now. Starting his musical life in thrall to be-bop, Brönner went on to play with Horst Jankowski’s Big Band before cutting a hard bop date that featured the great Ray Brown on bass. It was perhaps his discovery of Chet Baker in the late ‘90s that set him on the course that has led him to Oceana. Brönner now takes his music back to a more traditional jazz-based sound than previous ‘urban’ projects, tempos all falling at well below medium and decidedly ‘after dark’. A string of ‘star’ cameos from Peyroux, model Carla Bruni and Luciana Souza don’t interrupt the mood or flow of what is a masterfully produced ‘mood’ piece from Larry Klein.

Brönner’s trumpet, often harmon-muted, is warm and breathy, his lines displaying a great economy that betray some very well thought out phrasing. The melodic building blocks of each piece are simplicity its self. Take the hypnotic blues vamp that the opening instrumental ‘Bumpin’ is built on, for example. Brönner’s singing voice is rich and engaging, even if his enunciation of English is less than perfect, and the nearest he comes to dropping a clanger is the rather too saccharine and kitsch version of Bacharach’s ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’, which gatecrashes the after hours feel by moving up-tempo.

A delicious reading of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ more than makes up for this lapse, and elsewhere Brönner carves some very satisfying instrumentals, the best being ‘Love Theme From Chinatown’ (with a liquid solo from Foster that Art Pepper would have been proud of), Jimmy Rowles’ ‘The Peacocks’, and the slightly country hued ‘A Distant Episode’. Larry Goldings is understated but ‘just so’ throughout, delivering a master class in musical method acting. I’m always prepared to be skeptical about pop masquerading as jazz, but Brönner thankfully has it the other way round, coming to the music on Oceana from very strong jazz roots. Perhaps not one for the absolute purist, but anybody who likes a rich production, and finds enough jazz in Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Notes to satisfy, should warmly receive this impressive disc.

Fred Grand

Monday, 1 June 2009

Robert Mitchell @ The Cluny…

After his starring role during the visit to Tyneside of US saxophonist Matana Roberts in April, it was with huge anticipation that I looked forward to the visit of Mitchell’s latest band ‘3io’ (sic). His impact had been massive that night – I was aware of his growing reputation but sort of typecast him after hearing his ‘Panacea’ project. I’d even failed to register him on Steve Coleman’s ‘Sonic Language of Myth’, but there was no disguising a major talent when I finally did manage to see him in person. In the challenging context of AACM alumni Roberts’ quartet he projected as a truly gifted improviser with a musical signature that extends all that I consider to be good in jazz. Echoes of Hancock and Tyner bordered swirling vortices of post Taylor abstraction. Throughout it all ran an architectural awareness of form that confirmed he was more than just a mirror of influences.

Whenever I go to The Cluny I remember the early days of no-fi, and think of the occasions I played free-jazz to bewildered alternative rock audiences with Mr Warthog. It has happy memories, and although under new management has managed to keep a lot of its original character. The evening started well. Sitting at a table with Louise, we were catching up with Paul Bream when Mitchell entered the room, walking to the table with his hand outstretched to say ‘Hi, I’m Robert…’. He then proceeded to tell us about his recent trip to Algeria and riff a bit about the gig with Matana, before retreating to the privacy of his dressing room to meditate. If awards were won for being a genuinely nice guy, Mitchell would garner bouquets every day of the week.

The ‘3io’ presented on this tour is actually an unplugged version of Panacea, sharing the same line-up of Mitchell, Mason and Spaven. Their musical reference points still included something decidedly ‘urban’, but even when tacking pieces associated with Massive Attack and Busta Rhymes there was a solid jazz undertow. Opening with a tribute to the late Bheki Mseleku (‘Cycles’), Mitchell patiently built a solo that encapsulated all of the promise I’d been feeling. If I was surprised by anything that followed it was more the restraint than the artistry.

Most of the pieces were taken from last year’s Gilles Peterson Worldwide award winning album ‘The Greater Good’, and now that I’ve had about a week to listen to the recording it’s fair to say that these were extended workouts. Mitchell’s trio would under normal circumstances be an equilateral triangle, but given the great talent of the pianist they inevitably fall into his giant shadow. Mason played stick bass, which sounded less than woody but still held his corner, whilst Spaven’s accents and brushwork were tasteful and apposite. Bill Evans via Hancock and early ‘70s Jarrett was my abiding impression, and if you have the talent and are prepared to bare your soul musically there are few more rewarding territories for a pianist in contemporary jazz. Mitchell has it, and the pieces floated past like cotton wool clouds.

Recounting his experiences in Algeria, playing with local musicians whilst under armed guard, it was clear that music is Mitchell’s passion. Each solo he played saw him dig deep to wring out as much as he could, rather like an athlete always trying to their Personal Best. It is that wholehearted commitment, allied to a fertile imagination, formidable technical facility and deep understanding of form that make him special.

Gilles Peterson’s gongs may not have the clout with traditionalists that, say, a Downbeat Critic's Poll might carry, but surely it’s only a matter of time before his reputation extends further. Sadly the turnout on the night wasn’t great, but that’s a sign of the times. Mitchell has all the ingredients and is at the very least every bit the musical equal of Robert Glasper, who offers a similar take on the present. Somehow Mitchell just needs to inveigle a wider public profile. In a country that celebrates mediocrity as talent, I wish him luck.

Fred Grand.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Jazz Review is morphing...

In case you haven't yet picked up the new edition of Jazz Journal International, you may not know that the long running magazine has recently merged with Jazz Review. In a crowded market place this makes sense, and given its outstanding longevity and worldwide reputation it also makes sense that JJI should be the dominant partner in the merger.

I hope that something of Jazz Review's probing outlook is retained, and am confident that editor Mark Gilbert is the man to ensure that it does. JJI has a reputation as a mainstream bastion with very few concessions to post bop music, but Mark has consistently championed the contemporary scene and he should be able to provide the right balance.

I cancelled my subscription to JJI in the late '80s with a letter of exasperation pointing to the lack of contemporary coverage, but I can't underestimate the influence the magazine had on me as I found my way around this sometimes daunting and formidable body of historical and living music. I still respect its role in opening my ears to a lot of great artists and recordings, and its scholarly and reverential approach to this great music has never been in doubt.

So, irony of ironies, I now find myself with reviews published in the May edition of a magazine that I once indignantly cancelled a subscription to. Just as well I've mellowed in the last 20 years and now have a more inclusive outlook. Here's hoping I can be part of an exciting new future for a great old institution...

Fred Grand

Monday, 11 May 2009

ICP Orchestra in Edinburgh...

For those who haven't encountered the ICP Orchestra, how would I best describe their music? Their acronym derives from the description Instant Composers Pool, and to my mind this only goes so far and was probably more pertinent when they started out in Amsterdam in the late '60s. The wholly improvised elements of each concert are fairly few and brief, and what they offer now is a more eclectic amalgam of incongruous juxtapositions. A mischievous undercurrent runs through everything they do, not to mention a potent whiff of absurdity. They'll play off beat jazz from Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols in the style of a '20s Swing band before departing into total abstraction and then returning with some traditional Dutch marching band music. A segue into a short section of Viennese 12 tone music, rudely disturbed by Han Bennink jumping up from his drum set to let out a loud Indian war whoop, could well be their next departure. They're not to everybody's taste - subversive, anarchic, funny, and cerebral, or just puerile and predictable? These are the questions I always wrestle with whenever I hear them, but last week's gig finally seemed to offer answers to me!

They came to Edinburgh with their strongest and most stable line-up for years. Wolter Wierbos and Thomas Heberer provided the brass, Ab Baars, Michael Moore and Tobias Delius the reeds, Mary Oliver, Tristan Honsinger and Ernst Glerum the strings, Han Bennink the percussion and Misha Mengelberg (of course) held it all loosely together on piano. The gig started with just Wierbos and the reeds, playing a post serialist improvisation with clarinets before Mengelberg entered and ran through a series of duets. Oliver and Honsinger entered to take the music further into improv/serialism territory, and 15 minutes had passed without a bar of anything recognisable as jazz. Were they playing with the audience, deliberately giving them a hard time for their own amusement?

With the solemnities out of the way and their long hair musicianly credentials firmly demonstrated, the fun began. A string of Mengelberg originals and several warhorses from Monk and Nichols (including '12 Bars' and 'Round Midnight') followed. Bennink left and entered the stage at will, wandering freely around the room and indulging in some of his Dada-ist stunts. Baars and Delius got generous solo space, and Thomas Heberer shone as a truly outstanding talent on the trumpet with no imitators or discernible influences. He has the same oblique approach to building a solo as Micheal Moore, and both men took their moments well and played some incredibly inventive solos.

'Loons' was Louise's verdict, and it'd be hard to disagree with that assessment. The concert hall equivalent of Lars von Trier's 'The Idiots', to play this kind of madcap poker-faced needs a certain amount of detachment. The humour may be hard to get beyond at first, but it should also be evident that these comic devices are not intended to mask any musical shortcomings. Knowing in general terms what the ICP Orchestra are all about gave me useful prior knowledge, but by paying close attention to the detail of the soloists and dynamics of the group work I found something of substance that was extremely rewarding in its self. Mengelberg disappointingly didn't take too much of the spotlight, and it'd have been good to hear him stretch out over a few pieces with Glerum and Bennink. On another occasion he probably would, but the tonal and timbral variety which the strings, brass and reeds offer the pianist from a programmatic perspective allow for an almost bewildering series of possibilities in each show, and the high turnover of ideas is evidence of just how little coasting there is.

This band is packed with large musical personalities and their unique and instantly recognisable voices were both playing to to the crowd's expectations and often exceeding them. Yes, some of the humour is knockabout, and listen to them too often and you could even find it goes stale. I won't go over the top and make parallels with Ellington, who also boasted a stable band of talented individuals who played very singular music, but it would be enough to say that the ICP Orchestra offer something genuinely unique. No matter how far the music breaks down, the group's great strength of a distinctively retro modernism always re-asserts its self, the ICP brand sound fully intact.

Predictable unpredictability or unpredictable predictability? Each can choose depending on whether they're a glass half empty/full type. As with all good things, moderation is essential. I rarely play their recordings and only catch members of the band playing live periodically, but this helps to keep it all fresh. If I see them again in 5 years time that will be enough for me. I know that it'll almost certainly be wonderful evening, and one so unique that only they are capable of providing it. Yes, I lost my skepticism...

Fred Grand

Friday, 8 May 2009

John Abercrombie & Julian Argüelles...

I'll leave the review of the ICP Orchestra until later because in many ways it will be a lot harder to write up than this pretty straight forward gig last Tuesday at Edinburgh's Queen's Hall. The short break in Edinburgh was just what we needed, and although the weather was poor we had no problem filling the days and the nights. This gig was the second we'd seen in as many evenings, and both made the perfect excuse for a visit to a beautiful city. There may have been no music on the third night, but we were lucky enough to catch a rare cinema screening of Connery as 007 in You Only Live Twice (1967) at The Filmhouse. How apt to catch this ludicrously enjoyable film in Connery's backyard, and I could write an entire post about the antics of a slightly disturbing German cinema-goer who sat in the row in front of ours and began shouting at the top of his voice for the projectionist to turn the sound down as soon as the opening sequences began to roll. Clearly furious at what was in all truth a pretty normal cinema experience, this was an Ernst Blofeld-esque moment to treasure!!

I first saw Argüelles over 20 years ago. Just as I was getting into jazz his career was gathering momentum and he seemed to pop up everywhere - from the big bands of Kenny Wheeler to CMN tours backing up countless visiting Americans. I was in the Midlands as a student in the mid to late 80s and the Wolverhampton bred Argüelles seemed to be so ubiquitous that I barely gave him any thought. Thinking back, I supose I saw in him a quiet guy who could clearly play, serious about his music but not particularly interesting or notable when compared to the many more exciting players I was discovering at the same time.

His brother Steve, a forward looking drummer who went to Paris to seek creative outlets, was always a better proposition to my ears. Neither seem to be particularly active at the moment, and several years have passed since my last encounter with the saxophonist. In the interim he's 'upgraded' and moved to Scotland, as well as spending some time in the US rubbing shoulders with some pretty heavyweight company. The trio of John Abercrombie, Mike Formanek and Tom Rainey he's currently touring with is top notch by any standard, the kind of group capable of going into any contemporary musical terrain - from free floating structures to straight ahead jazz via rock. I was intrigued beforehand at the prospect of seeing jut how the quiet Englishman would mesh with such a forceful bass/drums team, though the guitarist's pastoral streak seemed to offer a more obvious compliment to Argüelles' wispiness.

So how did it all stack up on the night? As unassuming as ever, Argüelles seemed pleased, if a little overawed, to be fronting such a group. He stuck exclusively to tenor, and for the most part played his own compositions, some written especially for the tour. Abercrombie played yet another of his handmade guitars, and Formanek had one of those small half size touring basses that seem to be increasingly popular as airlines get more and more greedy when it comes to carrying heavy and bulky luggage. It cramped his style a little, but I think that the lack of projection was more down to his amp settings and Abercrombie's continual changes of volume than the instrument its self. Rainey was as unpredictably inventive as ever, clear evidence that less is more when you make it count. Put them all together and, for all the bright moments, I'd have to say that we got something significantly less than inspiring.

On record I love Abercrombie and can listen to him for hours. His harmonic abstraction is about as far out as tonal music can be taken and his sound for ECM is always crystalline. Live, I'm yet to have a fully satisfactory experience from the guitarist. Constant knob-twiddling and over use of the effects rack (often within the same solo) make for a disjointed feel. Surely he's spent enough hours playing the guitar at this stage of his career to know what kind of sound he needs for each piece? Whilst Arguelles was silky smooth, Abercrombie often appeared ragged, only really cohering on his own piece 'Line Up' and Cole Porter's "Everything I Love'. He's never a man to take the obvious route from A to B, but a combination of spongy reverb-laden amp settings and Argüelles' harmonically bland music didn't really do him any favours.

Often compared to Elgar because of the very English type of lyricism in Argüelles compositions, I've come to the conclusion that for all his qualities he simply represents a type of jazz that I don't really enjoy. He plays with the speed and precision of a post-Brecker lick machine but his sound has the same ethereal presence as Jan Garbarek, who I love so much. To truly work the folksy ascetic path needs fewer notes to create vast musical spaces. The diametrically opposed fast and flash approach of Brecker school demands muscularity and a certain brash edge. With Argüelles, one competing influence cancels out the other and he ends up with neither. Despite being in the company of an ECM stalwart, a muscular bassist and one of the most inventive drummers you'll find, the results were curiously underwhelming. I'd love to have heard Tommy Smith fronting the same band, and his great musical grounding and situational flexibility would surely have succeeded.

Argüelles is clearly at ease and has offered a consistency within his chosen form of musical expression that cannot be disputed. His tunes are well conceived if slightly unmemorable, and his solos are extremely accurate in their execution. It would be unfair to suggest that he's a musical bore, and there were enough moments in this gig to make it worthwhile. Ultimately I suppose the problem is this - in over 20 years Argüelles' music has simply failed to force a way into my consciousness. It plays around the periphery without ever making the breakthrough. A lot of people in the disappointingly small audience seemed to agree, and there was no clamour for an encore. If the meek are ever to inherit the earth, Argüelles shows that the winning of hearts will perhaps be something he finds far harder than the winning of minds.

Fred Grand

Saturday, 2 May 2009

A trip to the coast...

Some photographs from a recent trip to the coast around Sunderland can be seen here. Excellent light and a stormy sky, and my favourite moss encrusted rocks!!

I'll need to put in a few hours practicing with the controls on the new Leica, and one or two shots needed some adjustments in Lightroom, but overall I'm happy with the compositions, and nothing has been cropped.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Charles McPherson...

Lots happening this week, so much in fact that I almost forgot the Charles McPherson post. Of course he isn't Scottish, but somewhere in the distant past there's clearly a murky and probably shameful connection. We're off to Scotland for a few days to take in a couple of gigs (reviews to appear later) and some civilised surroundings.

McPherson used to be a regular visitor to the UK and I saw him two or three times with below par pick up bands. Put him in the right company though - as he is here - and he's a different beast.

More on the ICP Orchestra and John Abercrombie next week. Abercrombie - could that be Scottish too...?

Live At The Cellar

Spring Is Here; Illusions In Blue; Blue And Boogie; How Deep Is The Ocean; Manhattan Nocturne; Star Eyes.

Charles McPherson (as); Ross Taggart (p); Jodi Proznick (b); Blaine Wikjord (d).
Recorded July 2002.

It’s impossible to speak of Charles McPherson without at some point making reference to his guiding light, Charlie Parker. A significant association with Charles Mingus would normally be sufficient talking point, but with McPherson everything always seems somehow to get back to Bird. This superb live date recorded at Vancouver’s Cellar Restaurant & Jazz Club on a hot summer night in 2002 strongly suggest that the saxophonist has more to offer than a handful of respectfully memorised and technically daunting licks.

Although aged 63 at the time of the gig, the energy and tangible emotional drive of McPherson’s soloing make an instant impression – the torrents of sweat he reportedly shed on the bandstand will have to be taken on the booklet writer’s word. I’ve seen McPherson play on a number of occasions and know that the make-up of pick-up group can make or break the gig. On an uninspiring night, Parker is the most readily available fallback. A more capable group brings with it the confidence to stretch out and express something more personal, exactly what we find happening here.

Pianist Ross Taggart, who also plays saxophone, seems particularly sensitive to McPherson’s needs, and the collective sound of the trio is more Tyner-Garrison-Jones than anything from Parker’s lifetime. Take McPherson’s composition ‘Illusions In Blue’, for example, a modal waltz where time and harmony are pushed well beyond the customary parameters of bebop. ‘Star Eyes’ may begin with the familiar vamp, but once the theme is dispensed with there is a stridency and angularity to McPherson’ playing that speaks of something far more contemporary than Parker’s controlled approach.

‘Spring Is Here’ and ‘Blue & Boogie’ are both taken at a blistering pace, surely the moments where those rivulets of sweat reached their peak. ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’ reveals a sensitive balladeer, and ‘Manhattan Nocturne’, another McPherson original, is a pleasing contemporary ballad with a noticeable bossa lilt.

I won’t pretend for a moment that he has shed Parker’s influence, but the quality of this band pushes McPherson to reveal a far more individual side than most listeners will have heard hitherto. As convincing a statement of the living spirit of jazz as you’ll hear all year, and conclusive proof that he is also the worthy keeper of a mighty flame.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, April 2005)