Sunday, 19 April 2009

Paul Towndrow...

After an afternoon in the garden spreading bark chippings, it's time I did something a little more relaxing. The blog has again been neglected, but I'm determined to keep posting at least a couple of things a month and get more of my old reviews out there.

Continuing the Scottish Jazz theme, here's a review of a disk by a player who cut his teeth in Scotland before doing a Tommy Smith and crossing the Atlantic to polish up his act. A pretty impressive CD, but not really the breakthrough it may have been as Towndrow is hardly yet a widely acclaimed force. Described in The Guardian as 'a turbo charged amalgam of all your saxophone heroes', you'd be wise self-censor the hyperbole and ask how many other young players could be described in the same way. The dedication to Trevor Taylor (publisher of Avant Magazine, where I started) is noteworthy though, and as a barometer of the state of contemporary jazz today it'll do nicely enough (even if it doesn't have you in raptures).

There'll be more soon as the countdown to our next trip to Edinburgh continues, but I may be struggling to find any more reviews of Scottish artists. Would Charles McPherson be stretching things too far...?

Out Of Town

Rubix Cube; Signs Of Life; Tricky Trev; Say As I Do; Cryogenics; High Point; Trivia; East Wall Base.

Paul Towndrow (as/ss); Steve Hamilton (p); Michael Janisch (b); Alyn Cosker (d), (3/05).

With so many promising young talents cutting debut CDs then disappearing as quickly as they emerged, Paul Towndrow has already travelled further than many. A Tommy Smith protégée, Towndrow received his grounding at the Scottish Jazz Institute and the University of Strathclyde, before going to the Boston’s renowned Berklee finishing school for a year. Working with George Garzone and Joe Lovano amongst others, he has also toured with The Bad Plus (playing the music of Ornette Coleman), garnering praise and a smattering of awards along the way.

Out Of Town is his third disc as leader, and although it’s fair to say that he’s yet to make the same headway with the public as Soweto Kinch, this is the kind of accomplished outing that will do his reputation no harm at all. Starting with the edgy ‘Rubix Cube’, Towndrow’s astringent alto rides above Cosker’s free percussive splashes before the piece resolves into a fast post-bop workout. Towndrow generally pushes the envelope further on alto, reserving the soprano for balladry. Doubling on soprano and alto isn’t too common given their different pitching, but Towndrow is equally adept on either. “Signs of Life” sees him pick up the smaller horn to survive the ballad test with ease. The staccato and exaggeratedly Monkish theme of ‘Tricky Trev’, possibly a sly nod to FMR’s Trevor Taylor (who released his second album, Colours) shows a player not given to shirk a technical challenge, whilst “Say As I Do” ventures into stormier waters and recalls Gary Bartz in his prime.

Towndrow’s approach is more trans-atlantic than many UK based players, hardly a trace of pastoralism to be found in his decidedly urban lexicon. Traces of Arthur Blythe and Eric Dolphy surface occasionally, but if you’re looking for a ready comparison, Myron Walden is the closest contemporary I could name. Pianist Steve Hamilton should already be known to most readers via much high profile work on the UK scene. Here his piano has the directness of early Tyner, probing urgently throughout Towndrow’s eight distinctive compositions. Drummer Cosker has the kind of loose limbed unruliness of Jim Black, not a bad thing, whilst bassist Janisch anchors the quartet with his busy bass lines. Regardless of any speculation about where Out Of Town may take Towndrow’s career in the future, this is already interesting music now and you should buy it with confidence.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2005)

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Matana Roberts Quartet...

With roots in Chicago's AACM, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts now bases herself in New York. Although she has an impressive string of recordings behind her already, she was an unknown quantity to me before yesterday's gig at the impressively re-vamped Live Theatre in Newcastle. Drawn by the hype which claimed her as a dead cert to be the next big thing in contemporary jazz, I naturally wanted to hear more. Let's face it , in marketing terms alone a young black female saxophonist with roots in one of the most significant avant-garde firmaments in the music's history is pretty significant. In extra musical terms alone the lure was pretty irresistible, and I arrived with an open mind, ready to be persuaded.

With a band comprising of some of the best talents from the British contemporary scene (Robert Mitchell, Tom Mason and Chris Vatalaro), and a ready made excuse to have a bite to eat at an Italian place on the Quayside before the gig, it all seemed too good for us to miss. As the evening wore on I started to form some conclusions, but more of that later. Initially I was completely disorientated by the new layout at the venue, so it was comforting to hear the customary superlative laden introduction to the band by Jazz North East supremo Chris Yates. Full credit to the organisation for taking a risk on this event, and for securing the use of such a superb facility for the night.

As the music unfolded in the almost ideal surroundings (I say 'almost' because although the electric keyboard laid on for the brilliant pianist Robert Mitchell was superb, you still can't beat the real thing), what I discovered was a confident and engaging young player steeped in Coltrane and with a massive musical debt to Arthur Blythe. Blindfolded, there were many moments durning the two sets when I could have sworn I was listening to big Arthur. Her direct bluesy phrasing, ambiguous intonation and avant garde expressionism are Blythe's unique trademarks, but what individual traits or of musical progressions of her own was she bringing to the table?

Mesmerised by her engaging stage presence and obvious submersion into the music, the respectably sized audience were certainly won over. Perhaps it's a combination of style and content that is responsible for most of the buzz. In terms of sheer virtuosity Mitchell eclipsed anything that Roberts could offer. Perhaps wisely she realised this and gave him a less up front role than you'd expect in a conventional quartet. Nevertheless he's an irrepressible spirit and he managed to probe every gap with often tumultuous results. No, what marked out Roberts most clearly in my mind was not really her playing but her approach to form. As a musical thinker and synthesist she's clearly looking both forwards and back. Her cell-like compositions are rich in detail and deep in their structures. Her homages to inspiring figures from the past are also sincere and personal. A great individual voice she may yet lack, but I'm in no doubt that there's nothing fake about her music.

At one time Roberts may have been seen as an enfant terrible, but almost 40 years after Ornette Coleman proclaimed the amorphous shape of jazz to come, the avant garde is becoming so assimilated into the mainstream that many of the flourishes that once drew public opprobrium are now part of the standard jazz lexicon. Free-time, atonal interplay, extended techniques - all are taught in the conservatory system that Roberts herself came through only relatively recently. What differentiates her from many of her peers is the extent to which she's been shaped by good old fashioned experience on the bandstand. Learning from older generations of musician at unofficial conservatories such as Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge has done her a power of good, and if some of the hype is undoubtedly over stated, she's still deserving of our consideration.

The reverence she brought to Ellington & Strayhorn's 'Isfahan' was sincere and humble, her deconstruction of a little heard Monk-piece both worthwhile and true to her aesthetic. Whether playing original material or picking gems from other composers to cast in her mould, Roberts brought a mature assurance and authority to the stage and clearly has a good ear and no lack of taste.

Jazz's next big thing? I'd like to think she'll be on the crest of the same wave that William Parker and Matthew Shipp are both riding, and the potential is certainly there. With a winning personality, a hip and highly marketable public profile and enough musical sincerity to win over the sternest of critics, it looks like she'll be making waves around the world that she calls her home for a long time to come.

Fred Grand

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Trio AAB...

As promised after the recent trip to Scotland, here's a review that went into the magazine a few years ago of a CD that features two of the artists we saw in The Voodoo Rooms. My reservations about the blandness of of much of the stuff on the contemporary scene perhaps doesn't come through strongly, perhaps because I was genuinely impressed by the trio's efforts to integrate native folk elements into their music. I was convinced, and given my general skepticism that tells you much...

Stranger Things Happen At C
CABER (027)

Ant’s Milk; Station; Oddity; Yet; Sundance; Stuff Swing; The Clock; Fin; Curiouser & Curiouser; Two.

Phil Bancroft (ts, ss); Kevin McKenzie (g); Tom Bancroft (d), perc); Brian Finnegan (whistle).

Fresh from a recent Arts Council Contemporary Music Network tour of England, Trio AAB try something different on this, their third album. Known for post-modernist eclecticism and a puckish sense of humour, their earlier efforts sounded something like Trio Clusone colliding with Frisell/Lovano/Motian, whilst paying homage to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. Their approach is rather more subdued on this release, largely due to the presence on five tracks of Celtic whistler Brian Finnegan. He foregrounds a strand in their music that was always present, albeit a little submerged.

The disc’s lively opener ‘Ant’s Milk’, played by just the trio, perfectly illustrates that point, taking a folksy Scottish melodic motif, delivered forcefully on tenor, and placing it above a skittering drum’n’bass inspired rhythmic pattern, further adorned by McKenzie’s intricate harmolodic guitar webs. This is what the trio have built their burgeoning reputation on. ‘Fin’ perhaps gets closest to a true jazz/Celtic folk fusion, with McKenzie switching to acoustic guitar and Tom Bancroft playing bodhran. Brother Phil’s plaintive tenor makes no concessions to the genre, but the result is not dissimilar to some of the best of the music made by Tim Garland’s Lammas. Unlike that group however, the focus is not exclusively Celtic. ‘The Clock’ is more an African sketch (via Don Cherry) than a product of the Glens, though the similarity in timbre between the Irish Whistle and traditional wood flutes is striking. The essential point is that Finnegan sounds at home in the tight-knit unit of Trio AAB, and the music never sounds like a contrived attempt to ‘do’ some heritage.

‘Stranger Things Happen At C’ cleverly avoids a wholesale re-run of the trio’s hitherto successful formula. More a sideways step, it won’t disappoint existing fans precisely because it is such a logical extension of the trio’s long-standing interest in their roots. With a record label that has a goal of documenting jazz particular to its time and place, the Bancroft brothers succeed again with this recommended release.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, April 2003)