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)