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.