Sunday, 31 October 2010

Kenny Wheeler at 80...

How can it be that one of the defining voices in European contemporary jazz is now an octogenarian? As he hobbled onto the stage of a sparsely packed Hall One at The Sage last Wednesday night, supported by a natty black walking stick and the helping arms of John Taylor, you'd no longer put money on Kenny Wheeler if he ever needed to catch a bus in a hurry. I'm certainly not naive enough to assume that the musicians I love and admire are blessed with Peter Pan's DNA, but the spectacle came to me as something of a shock. The last time I saw Wheeler lead a big band, around twenty years ago on the CMN Music For Large & Small Ensembles tour, most of these guys looked like they were in their prime. Not exactly ravaged by time, the effects of a couple of decades of ageing give certain sobering perspective on your own place in the world. 

Even if Wheeler hadn't fluffed most of his notes on the opening theme, I'd have been feeling more than a little melancholy. As the night wore on it became easier to accept the flugelist's limitations as a player. He warmed up, and he sensibly stuck to the lower end of the horn for much of the time. Despite the shorter solos and distinct lack of the trademark stratospheric interval leaps, his sound remains unmistakeable and his writing never less than glorious. 

Inevitably, with some of the lustre removed from his soloing, it was his compositions that were the real stars of the show. Old pieces such as 'Mark Time', 'Double, Double You' and 'Old Ballad' rubbed shoulders with instant classics written specially for the tour. Despite ample outwards evidence of Wheeler's waning physical capabilities, there's no doubting his mental acuity. Even if he hung up his horn tomorrow, I'm sure he'd have many telling contributions to make as a writer in the years ahead. 

Wheeler's band was packed with familiar faces - Evan Parker, Henry Lowther, Ray Warleigh, Duncan Lamont, Julian Argüelles, Chris Laurence, Stan Sulzmann et al - but it was  John Taylor who was the standout soloist of the night. Sounding more highly charged than he has at any time I've heard him since the '70s, the pianist more than made up for vocalist Diana Torto's over-exposure. Superficially similar in style to Norma Winstone, she clearly doesn't live and succeed by the same exquisite judgement and 'less is more' credo. This may come to Torto later, and despite my comments she certainly has an extraordinary range. 

Whatever sadness I may have felt about the diminution of Wheeler's powers and the tangible passing of decades, I instantly feel better when I compare his highly personal and original music to that found on the CD reviewed below...


On The Up And Up

The Hit; I Loves You Porgy; Hand Grenade; A Pocketful of Grease; The Road To Philly; Now That I Am So In Love; The Knife; Swanee River.

Steve Fishwick (t/flh); Osian Roberts (ts); Olivier Slama (p); Dave Chamberlain (b); Matt Fishwick (d); Matt Home (d on 2,4,6,7).

There is something a little discomforting about this record. Recorded in Pontypridd in 2006, it sounds for all the world like the first edition of The Jazz Messengers at the time of their now legendary 1955 engagement a the Café Bohemia. Just as there’ll always be Civil War re-enactment groups, it shouldn’t really be too surprising to find jazz’s rich traditions receiving similar attention. Hearing relatively young men tackling pre-modal fare seems a little unusual in today’s world, and the degree of replication found here is quite phenomenal.

Opening the disc we have ‘The Hit’, and with very few leaps of the imagination we could be listening to the soundtrack to an action sequence in a mid ‘50s film noir. I’m always partial to a bit of that, and as an opening statement it leaves no doubt that Fishwick and Roberts have this era nailed. ‘A Pocketful of Grease’ is tight funky ¾ blues, Fishwick giving a sizeable nod in his solo to Donald Byrd. His flugelhorn feature on Gershwin’s ‘Porgy’ shows great maturity and poise, whilst co-leader Roberts’ ‘The Road To Philly’ makes a sturdy vehicle for some elegant Mobley-esque tenor. Pianist Slama shows his appreciation of period chord voicings on a trio take of Harold Ouseley’s rarely played ‘Now That I Am So In Love’, whilst ‘The Knife’ is a dedication to Pepper Adams, another genre-based ‘original’ which openly references its source.

I’m not sure how many would guess the decade in which this disc was recorded in a blindfold test, so fastidious is the group’s approach. The graphic design on the ‘artwork’ may be a mite too faux, but sound engineer Daniel Edwards can take lots of credit for his authentic sound recording techniques. Avoiding the dramatic studio separation of instruments, a vintage character is particularly noticeable in the ensemble passages. In summary then, whilst the much loved originals in my collection from Messrs. Dorham, Mobley and Silver & Co. are in no way improved here, it would be quite a different proposition to catch Fishwick and Roberts belting this stuff out live. The Valleys are alive, with the sound of hard bop anthems!

Fred Grand (originally published in Jazz Review)

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Scott Colley...

Long time since I blogged, but very little to report recently. Just finished a stack of reviews, including William Parker's new Curtis Mayfield compilation on AUM Fidelity, the new Mike Formanek (ECM), Bill Frisell's Savoy Jazz debut, Christian Muthspiel's surprisingly successful Yodel project, and best of all the new disc by Scott Colley (which has prompted this post). 

Along with the new one by Phronesis (which I was also fortunate enough to review), the disc is definitely a contender for jazz CD of the year. Heavily featuring Bill Frisell, who heads straight back to his ECM years for inspiration and is in magnificent form, none of the slight reservations I had about Architect of the Silent Moment apply. In liberating himself from the interesting-but-done-to-death late '60s Miles sound, Colley has come into his own as a force.

Not much live jazz to get excited about round here, although I did miss the Mujician/Aki Takase double bill in Gateshead last week. Missing Eugene Chadbourne caused less anxiety, but I'll probably check out Kenny Wheeler's 80th Birthday tour next week as I have fond memories of seeing the Music For Large & Small Ensemble's CMN tour in the late '80s. 

We really enjoyed the 'Way To Blue' Nick Drake tribute at The Sage last Sunday, and I suppose Danny Thompson and Zoe Rahman added some jazz cred (if that's important). With a well balanced cast of singers ranging from too quiet (Vashti Bunyan) to too loud (Krystle Warren), the middle ground was safely held by Green Gartside, Robyn Hitchcock, Scott Matthews and Teddy Thompson, who consistently struck the right notes. With some of the most beautiful songs ever written at their disposal, this show was a real treat. Having a full string section playing the original arrangements certainly helped, and we have a clear contender for gig of the year. 

With the new David Sylvian disc as my listening of choice at the moment, I think you can safely say I'm sympathetically disposed to this sort of thing right now. Here's a thought to close with - is David Sylvian now the only acceptable face of UK improv?


Architect Of The Silent Moment
CAMJAZZ 7793-2

Usual Illusion; Strip Mall Ballet; El Otro; Architect Of The Silent Moment; Masoosong; Feign Tonal; From Within; Smoke Stack; Window Of Time.

Ralph Alessi (t); Craig Taborn (ky); Scott Colley (b); Antonio Sanchez (d).
Guest appearances by Dave Binney (ss); Jason Moran (p); Gregoire Maret (hca); Adam Rogers (g).
Recorded December 2005.

Scott Colley is a busy man. Notable associations include Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and the late great Andrew Hill. Rather less frequently than providing the backbone to a host of top-flight groups, he steps out as a leader. As you’d expect, it is at the helm of his own vessel that his musical bent can best be gauged, and quite an expansive bent it is too. Complex and contemporary, structured but loose, appreciative of the past but always open to influences from other genres. 

The core group is the quartet featuring Alessi and Taborn, though guests appear at choice moments to expand the music’s palette. Colley’s choice to open out into an electro-acoustic world is certainly voguish, though it has to be said that Taborn’s superb Thirsty Ear projects take the aesthetic a lot further. Save for the free passage in ‘Feign Tonal’ and the percussive rubato of ‘El Otro’, this is recognisably music from the tradition. Colley is nevertheless an astute musical Janus, his group sound spanning late ‘60s Miles (on the cusp of going electric), and looking as far ahead as M-Base for its off-centre rhythmic schemata. The opening ‘Usual Illusion’ introduces the quartet and foreshadows a lot of the tumultuous music that follows. Alessi’s fiery trumpet shimmers above Taborn’s fractured electronic textures, Colley’s forceful lines bringing direction while Sanchez’s busy percussion often skirts tastelessness but keeps things edgy. Next we get a walk on from extraordinary harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret. The delightfully titled ‘Strip Mall Ballet’ sees his oblique and fleet phrasing making a mockery of an instrument not normally noted for its improvisational agility. Maret’s contribution to the spacious ‘Masoosong’ provides a welcome break to Sanchez’ pummelling attack on the title-piece and is certainly the disc’s melodic high spot. Binney plays some slick modal soprano on ‘From Within’, while Jason Moran steps forward to accompany Taborn for a fascinating intro to Andrew Hill’s ‘Smokestack’. 

The clash of acoustic and electronic keyboards casts the music in a new light, one that Moran’s recently departed mentor would probably have appreciated. All of the remaining compositions are Colley’s, and though not as accomplished a writer as exceptional bassist/bandleader Dave Holland, his music goes well beyond the utilitarian. The closing ‘Window Of Time’ deserves a special mention - its open-ended form, rhythmic displacement, and echoes of Americana providing an intriguing closure, as well as hinting that Colley has a lot more music inside him for the future.

Fred Grand

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

33 Recent Photographs...

Just a few recent photos, both high and low res, to show that my blog and (therefore) I are still in business.

Seems to be something of a coastal theme going on, and we were very lucky to be in Whitley Bay at the same time as a beautifully leaden sky. Thanks for that must go to Louise's Dad, who we were keeping amused for the day. Why else would we be in Whitley Bay?

Must make the effort to take more photographs, and perhaps when I get my iPhone 4 (I'm warming to the idea, but only because of its impressive camera) I'll be posting more regular photo-journals...

Friday, 6 August 2010

Tommy Smith Interview...

As the title of this post suggests, my recent Tommy Smith interview is the subject that has prompted me to write again. Of course you're not going to find it reproduced here, but it's now the cover feature of the latest edition of Jazz Journal, and quite a proud moment for me too.

To read the thing in its entirety you'll need to buy the magazine, and that won't necessarily be easy given that it's about as easy to find in the shops as a first edition Shakespeare folio. Worth a try though, and if you get stuck there's always a chance it'll get reproduced on Tommy's website. If not, I'm sure it'll appear here one day, after a respectful interval.

Not much else to mention by way of news, but worth mentioning our recent trip to Manchester to be part of the audience for the live broadcast of Jazz On 3 (or is it 'Jez On 3'?). The Beeb obliged with free tickets after I entered our names in the pre-concert ballot. Thoroughly surprised to have been selected, we were left to hastily arrange transport and accommodation. It may be many years before I enter, let alone win, another competition, so it would have been foolish to look this gift horse in the mouth.

Excellent music from a packed Band On The Wall, starting with the great Arun Ghosh quintet (with Idris Rahman and Corey Mwamba), moving on to a solo guitar and electroncis piece from the Cinematic Orchestra's Stuart McCallum (another Mac user!), and finally in the early hours of the morning a riveting set by a trans-Atlantic quartet featuring Gwilym Simcock, Mike Walker, Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum.

It really was live, no delays, and everything sent straight to air just as it happened. The late start allowed time for dinner on Rusholme's legendary 'Curry Mile', and the following day we had lots of time for browsing around this surprising city. Louise picked up a neat little illuminated toadstool at a fascinating emporium of kitsch called Oklahoma, and I managed to avoid the temptation of an iPhone 4 at the Apple Store. Still haven't made the leap, and at the moment see no reason.

Shame we had to miss the tribute concert to Chris Yates happening in Newcastle at the same time, but I'm sure that Chris would have felt the same way as I do about memorials and tributes. Glad to read that it went well and raised cash for some well-chosen charities, but if there had to be a memorial then I'd say that Sonny Rollins dedicating his upcoming show at The Barbican would be a more fitting epitaph than Alan Barnes at The Corner House, but I suppose you've 'gotta keep it real" (and The Corner House, Chris and Alan Barnes have a long intertwined history).

Back full-circle, Tommy Smith dedicated his show at this year's Gateshead International Jazz Festival to Chris, and that very afternoon we exchanged some warm recollections of the man. That's the way it should be...

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Kenny Garrett...

Time for another review, this one picked from the last days of Jazz Review, the magazine established by the late Richard Cook (of Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD fame). In many ways a difficult piece to write because I wanted to be unequivocally positive about one of the most distinctive saxophonists of his generation. The disc was frankly a bit of a let down though, and honesty is always the best policy. If something doesn't work (even on its own pretty limited terms) then potential buyers need to know. One of the great things about digital music consumption via outlets such as iTunes is that you're no longer obliged to buy albums in their entirety, if some of the tracks are weak enough to receive a critical health warning.

Not a lot of live jazz to get excited about locally at the moment, despite two festivals within a 10 mile radius over the next week or so. Good to catch Jerry Douglas last Wednesday (playing with Elvis Costello), and Douglas could hold his own in any musical company, as he's proven more than once in collaborations with Bill Frisell. A more satisfying gig however was the one by Suzanne Vega, whose stripped down band (also with a guitarist named J/Gerry - Gerry Leonard) were simply perfect. Vega had a Blue Note contract for a short time at the turn of the noughties, and there's a depth to her writing and sincerity in her delivery that speaks of gritty authenticity. Not somebody I'd ever previously given much time or thought to, I approached the gig with an open mind and was rewarded. Bonus marks to Louise for suggesting this gig!

The Tommy Smith interview is wrapped up now and should be published soon, and with no CDs in the house to review at the moment I can simply listen for pleasure. Unless, of course, I get distracted by the Tour de France...


Sketches of MD: Live At The Iridium

The Ring; Intro to Africa; Sketches of MD; Wayne’s Thang; Happy People

Kenny Garrett (as/bcl/keys); Pharaoh Sanders (ts/voc); Benito Gonzalez (p/keys); Nat Reeves (b); Jamire Williams (d). No recording date.

Garrett’s collaboration with Pharoah Sanders, which began so promisingly on last year’s Beyond The Wall (Nonesuch), continues on this live set from New York’s Iridium club. Although clearly pitched as a homage to Miles, both ‘The Ring’ and ‘Intro to Africa’ offer the unmistakeably brooding and modal feel of the classic Coltrane Quartet of the mid ‘60s. Both saxophonists play with a searing intensity, Garrett actually out screaming Sanders on the opener. Harmonic parameters always remain clear though, Gonzalez’ forceful chordal vamps gnawingly insistent as the horns sail majestically overhead. For almost 25 minutes Garrett seems to be on top of his game, but it all starts to fragment spectacularly after the title-track. Spacey Fender Rhodes and Maupin-esque bass clarinet colourings first herald an unexpected but not entirely unpleasant change of course. 

What follows is less endearing, and the musical dichotomy couldn’t be starker. Over 20 minutes of puerile locked-groove funk, wispy synth-washes, tastelessly deployed wah-wah saxophone and nauseating happy-clappy audience participation reveals an artist in the throes of creative schizophrenia. Garrett was of course present throughout most of Miles’ latter years as a recording artist, and the pursuit of pop aesthetics was never far down their gold laméd agendas. I’m generally sympathetic to the saxophonist, but the effects of this musical mix and match are not unlike jumping into cold water after a roasting steam bath. Although I’d have no hesitation in recommending at least half of this disc, it falls some way short as a package. One to hunt out online and download in part, if you’ve already made the leap to virtual media consumption.

Fred Grand  

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Beuys will be Beuys...

Fresh from a trip to London, here's a few low-res images taken on the iPhone which partly encapsulate the break. It was great to see one of my favourite pieces of art at Tate Modern (Joseph Beuys's 'The Flock After The Pack'), one which I wondered if I'd ever see...  

We also caught some cracking contemporary jazz at Ronnie Scott's from Kyle Eastwood's tight 'Metropolitain' band, had a memorable curry at Aladin's on Brick Lane, made good use of the iPad, did a modest amount of shopping at budget outlets including Skandium and Fortnum & Mason, and walked ourselves into the ground. 

While Louise was at the conference which provided the pretext for the whole trip I was pleased to catch up with my buddy Gregg Brennan, the now ex-Toronto based drummer/bandleader who has set down roots in London to get closer to the European music that inspires us both. The hours flew past, and hopefully it won't be long before he's got a band together to play his own stuff.

At the moment I'm putting the finishing touches to the interview I did with Tommy Smith last March, but as soon as I get that out of the way I'll make a concerted effort to do some more blogging and to get some old reviews posted. Not much live jazz coming up (I'm NOT going to hear Wynton Marsalis), but I'll be a happy spectator at a couple of gigs Louise has singled out - Suzanne Vega, then Elvis Costello's latest Americana inspired group (which should include the great Jerry Douglas)...

Fred Grand

Monday, 7 June 2010

Jan Kopinski's 'Mirrors' @ The Sage...

Anybody remember Pinski Zoo, that British harmolodic funk unit which enjoyed moderate to fair success in the '80s and '90s? Although the '80s revival is pretty much everywhere at present, the re-entry of tenor saxophonist Jan Kopinski into my world was prompted by something altogether different. Performing a suite-like piece called 'Mirrors' at The Sage's Hall 2 last Saturday, the event formed part of a wider series of Polish jazz, and indeed performing art, marketed as POLSKA YEAR! 

Of course Pinski Zoo are still around and occasionally reform, but opportunities to hear this slightly maverick original are all too scarce. The last time I saw him in fact was with what was then a new post-Zoo band known as 'Ghost Music', and that was so long ago that I can't even hazard a guess as to when it was. This particular series of three gigs opened with that well-known Pole Nigel Kennedy, and concludes on Wednesday with a return visit by Marcin Wasilewski's brilliant trio. I missed Kennedy and his acclaimed Polish group and will also sadly miss Wasilewski due to another comittment, but I was more than happy to renew acquaintances with this talented post-Coltrane man. A multi-media event, the gig also revealed several impressive and undersung dimensions to his art. Relying heavily on structured composition and tonal arrangement, this was certainly no free-funk burnout.

Performing beneath a large rear-projection screen, the images and music were complimentary without being over-powering. Kopinski's Reflektor project also sets music to moving images, but this project was something far more personal. Film footage sourced from several of the saxophonist's trips to Poland (dating back to the '70s) was carefully spliced and looped by Jim Boxall. Making an evocative backdrop for the loosely suite-like piece which Kopinski had titled as 'Mirrors', the work succeeded in its intended aim of portraying an intended evocative almost dream-like inner journey. It was hard not to feel the oppression of the communist era, and very noticeable how covert the footage of those years looked. Religious iconography seemed to be placed in opposition and suggested some brighter form of hope, but the over-riding impressions I took away from Kopinski's voyage were those of displacement and loss.

Joined by long-time collaborator (and Pinski Zoo member) Steve Iliffe on piano, his allotted role was pretty much that of accompanist. Setting the tone and building tension with repetitive vamps and slightly jarring Tyner-ish ostinatos, from the very outset the group's music more akin to control and discipline of the ECM school than the riotous Prime Time inspired antics of Pinski Zoo. Texture and timbre were all important here, and Kopinski's deployment of voice (Aniko Toth) and viola (Janina Kopinska) gave a suitably chamber-ish aspect to large sections of the work. Son Stefan played electric bass, and the hyper-kinetic Patrick Illingworth's drumming brought us closest to the dense laminal of Pinski Zoo. Sombre meditations on painful tragedies, a joyous (and Ornette-like) excursion into its folk music, menacing evocations of its political and religious turmoils (set to a backdrop of powerful iconography) and several apparently random but somehow symbolic vignettes all made for an engaging programme.

The music of 'Mirrors' placed Kopinski closer to the mainstream of contemporary European jazz than I've heard him at any time before. Highly impressionistic and with strong narrative and pastoral streaks, the biggest measure of tis success was the ease with which it imparted at times complex emotional content. Closing with a long claustrophobic piece which he called 'Corn Field', the disappointingly small crowd didn't clamour for an encore. The package deserves far wider exposure than I fear it will receive, and top marks to The Sage for picking it up...

(Fred Grand)

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Gateshead International Jazz Festival...

I can't really write too much about last weekend's Jazz Festival at The Sage because I'm going to be reviewing it for Jazz Journal, but that shouldn't stop me from at least giving you a little flavour of the event.

Jerry Dammers' Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane homage was no more and no less than great fun, evoking the spirit of their music without in any way taking a curate's view. The theatricality (where else would you see Roger Beaujolais dressed up as a Sphinx?), the trance-like grooves, the loose-ness of the ensemble playing, the humour and the quality of the soloists in the band (when they got a chance to let rip) was mightily impressive. It also turned out that Louise went to the same college in Durham University and at exactly the same time as flautist Finn Peters, though I doubt she'd have recognised him beneath that mask if she hadn't spotted his idiosyncratic posture first!

I gave Hession-Wilkinson-Fell a miss, still haunted by the time I promoted a gig of theirs at the Live Theatre and pulled an audience of under 15 people (as well as being more than a wee bit disinclined for a bruising head pummelling). As a bit of a bonus though I'll reprint a related review below.

I wasn't too disappointed that Dammers clashed with what was probably another predictable show by the great Stan Tracey either, but after a performance so complete in itself who needs more?

Dan Berglund was a little confused on the Saturday afternoon, thanking the audience more than once for 'coming out to see us tonight'. Purists would say he was confused about the identity of his music too, but just as I loved his new CD (my review in this month's JJ, buy it if you can find it) for its openness to a whole host of genres beyond jazz when I heard it, I was impressed by the gig. Abdullah Ibrahim's reformed Ekaya did his beautiful music full justice, with the delicate horn arrangements 'just so'. The pianist took a back seat for much of the show, choosing his notes as if his life depended on it. Straight afterwards the energy levels rose somewhat, with the most spirited performance of the weekend coming from Arun Ghosh's band (with Idris Rahman on tenor sax). Their burning modal improvisations were full of Eastern tinges, a marriage made in heaven.

Sunday started with me going backstage for an hour long interview with Tommy Smith (lots of great material to transcribe and write up), and then it was into the Jazz Lounge where we stretched out in comfort to listen to some stimulating music by three bands from London's Loop Collective - Gemini, The Golden Age of Steam and Phronesis. Great to hear talented young players doing all original material without boundaries. Phronesis were the pick of the bunch, but in a different mood it could have been any of the three groups.

After a trip over to the Quayside for some Italian food (served and eaten in record time) it was back to hear the evening performance from Tommy Smith and the SNJO. 'Rhapsody in Blue' and a tribute to Buddy Rich comprised the evening's repertoire, and they're a well drilled unit playing to a very high standard. Tommy was in fine form on a couple of lengthy tenor solos, and Paul Towndrow and Ryan Quigley made up the best of the rest. Tommy dedicated the set to Chris Yates, and I've no doubt Chris would have approved of the swinging straight-ahead fare.

I've probably already written more than the 500 words I've been allocated for the article by the editor, and I'll have to make sure that the finished piece bears no resemblance to this preamble.

Now for that special bonus, if that's not over stating things too much. Here's a review of a Brötzmann disc, originally published in Jazz Review. It is probably the only time I've ever been in the audience at a gig that was later released as a commercial recording, and quite a night too...

(Photography Credit: Copyright Mark Savage)

Peter Brötzmann/Alan Wilkinson Quartet
One Night In Burmantofts
Bo’Weavil Recordings (Weavil 27CD)

a: Greetings Herr B and Herr K; b: Cormorant Number 2; Bird Flew; All Back To Paul’s

Peter Brötzmann (ts/cl/tarrogato); Alan Wilkinson (as/bs); Simon H Fell (b); Wlili Kellers (d).
Recorded Leeds Irish Club, November 1996.

Burmantofts is the name of a district in Leeds, once the home of a famous manufacturer of ceramic pipes and construction materials who adopted its name. Known also at various times as The Leeds Fireclay Company, the business no longer trades. Both Wilkinson and Fell have strong historical ties to Leeds, and Hession/Wilkinson/Fell are probably the UK’s foremost high energy free-jazz group. Over the years I’ve seen them working in the city with many distinguished guests, and it’s quite serendipitous that I now get to review this CD, over a decade after I was there in the audience.

Not surprisingly, musical sparks fly in all directions from the non-ceramic pipes of both Brötzmann and Wilkinson, reaffirming my long-held view that this was one of hell of a night. Opening with Brötzmann’s trademark hog call on tenor, the band quickly dive in as both reedsmen lock horns and head for the sun. Fell is heard at his most direct, needling the music forwards, whilst my abiding memory of the gig, Kellers’ all-enveloping drumming, is beautifully captured in a pleasingly grainy mix. The drummer lays down a shimmering cymbal haze similar to Sunny Murray, but with the flick of a wrist unleashes a devastating onslaught that gives him the presence of two drummers – think of Rashid Sinan on Frank Lowe’s Black Beings.

Wilkinson’s baritone generally packs a harder punch than his shrill alto. Standing alongside a giant like Brötzmann is no place for the feint of heart, and he’s certainly man enough for the job. That said, this is far from wanton noise. Each of the four extended improvisations offers quieter nuances and lyrical beauty, sometimes close to silence. Even when the band is fully-charged they’re always playing in the same ‘zone’. The availability of five different reed instruments opens out the sound field, and Wilkinson’s baritone in its self adds a thrilling extra dimension.

Whenever I hear Brötzmann’s strangulated goose cry on tarrogato I find it hard not to tremble. With his celebrity reaching a whole new generation of listeners there’s been no shortage of new recordings of late. This one stands out from the crowd, candidly capturing him at his prime. Everything you could possibly want is here, and Kellers is the final clincher should you be wavering. Bold and bracing, the communion lasts unflaggingly through a ride that ends at ‘Paul’s Place’. The ‘Paul’ in question is presumably drummer Paul Hession, who stood aside for Kellers. Knowing Paul, he’d have been only too happy witness such glorious take-no-prisoners free jazz, even from the audience. I know that I certainly was.

Fred Grand (Jazz Review, 2008)

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Nik Bärtsch and Ronin @ The Sage...

We took advantage of an unexpectedly mild and still evening to walk across the water for some pre-concert food (using a foot bridge, not some small miracle). The brightly coloured reflections of solid blocks of light on the Tyne actually reminded me of Bärtsch's light show, and I was eager then to get inside and hear some music.

There was a slight sense of deja vu about this gig. It was barely 12 months since this exciting Swiss group last appeared on Tyneside and they're still pretty much playing the same set, which draws largely from their recent ECM release Holon. Last time they played in Hall Two on a double bill with Marcin Wasilewski, but this time they were in the more intimate Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Although not sharing the stage with Wasilewski's last night, Ros Rigby's pre-concert announcement included the well received news that those supremely talented Poles will in fact be returning to The Sage on June 9th. I like a good bit of symmetry, don't you?

I didn't expect a radical change of direction from Bärtsch, and I wasn't disappointed. There's a lot to admire in the somewhat predictable nature of Bärtsch's music, even without the proverbial 'sound of surprise'. Yes, the gig which followed was very similar to another performance still fresh in recent memory, but given the nature of Bärtsch's music I'd actually be concerned if that wasn't so. Repetition and slow evolutions that are subtle and often difficult to detect are the defining elements of this music. Many would struggle with the notion that complexity and precision should be placed on a higher pedestal than spontaneity and self expression, the eternal verities of jazz, the truly democratic music. What would the jazz police think of Bartsch? Few, if any, were in the highly appreciative audience so the question fortunately never arose.

Slowly evolving (but logically interconnected) cells are threaded through Pupato and Rast's machine-like percussion, and the bewildering complexity of the group's polyrhythms would surely need some pretty advanced music analysis software to crack the exact time signatures. The group were certainly tighter and more 'road tested' than last time, and although still very much a collaborative affair with only modest scope for individualism, I sensed a slight loosening of the reins. Björn Meyer very nearly emerged as principal soloist, his bass singing in a way that only Jaco Pastorius and a handful of disciples have ever been able to accomplish. Meyer's grin broke rank with the group's more cerebral front, the bassist pretty much assuming the role of heart of the machine.

It was gratifying to se such a good turn-out, and the Sage's smallest performance space is actually one of their best if it's an intimate club-like experience that you're after. Jazz North East are presenting Liam Noble's trio performing the music of Dave Brubeck as I sit here tonight typing these words. In many ways there's a cute symmetry there too. Brubeck built his reputation on unorthodox time signatures, and Bärtsch has pushed the limits of what is possible with a regular jazz rhythm-section to almost ludicrous extremes. Building on both the lessons of elegant minimalism and the fusion of jazz with the visceral pleasures of 'plugged in' post-rock, Bärtsch is combining choice elements of style from a diverse range of sources with the same level of craftsmanship as John Zorn.

Although there's a way to go before Bärtsch exploits his music's full potential - a few melodic hooks to soften the severity of the experience wouldn't hurt - he's nevertheless carving out a thoroughly individual niche. I'm sure that Noble is doing his best to deconstruct the past this evening, but after a night spent listening to music that boldly faces the future, I couldn't be tempted to join them. I worry that large swathes of the jazz public often appear to be several decades behind the times. Many still consider 'free jazz' (a 50 year old art form) to be something new, challenging or dangerous. The truth is that jazz's cutting edge is a far quieter place and it lies elsewhere. Ronin are situated at almost the diametric oposite of free jazz and improvised music, yet there is as much passion and soul put into their comparatively small gestures - watching this material in live performance only affirms that. Fans of both Brubeck and 'Fire Music' would probably have hated Bärtsch. We left happy.

Fred Grand

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Nils Petter Molvaer @ The Sage...

A blog with a time lag, nevertheless quite excusable in the circumstances. Although the gig in question took place last Sunday, almost a week ago, the week has been dominated by the sudden and sad demise of Smokey ('Felix'), our venerable cat. This is not the time or place for details, but I mention the event simply because it has cast such a dark shadow over the week.

The last time I saw Molvaer was on the 'Khmer' tour, playing with a large and extremely loud band at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival. That would probably make it 1997 or 1998. My good friend Andrew was with me that time, and we were both blown away the group's rock-style presence and power. Good as those memories are, the trumpeter's career has subsequently gone off the boil, a series of albums in the same vein as Khmer rarely reaching the same heights and showing little evolution or development. Last year's Hamada was definitely a return to form, it's controlled soundscapes gracefully unfolding around strong melodic threads from the East. Perhaps a sign that Molvaer has reached some sort of cross-roads, I went to this gig hopeful for another Glasgow, but in truth didn't really know what to expect.

From the outset it was clear that Sunday's gig was going to be a more stripped down affair, though no less intense (or at times claustrophobic) than that great Glasgow show. Playing in my favourite Hall 2 at the Sage, the group consisted of just three men and several Apple Macs. Anybody who knows me will be aware of my devotion to the cult of the Mac, and it's fair to say that both the venue and the hardware made me predisposed to like this show. Starting with processed trumpet and looping vocals (sung into the trumpet bell by Molvaer and passed through his trusty Mac), guitarist Stian Westerhus then crouched and produced deep glitchy bass notes by touching together the contact ends of a pair of wired leads. The effect was slightly unsettling, and somewhat add odds with Molvaer's own spiritually reaching lyricism. Drummer Audun Kleive stood patiently in the wings, the stage bathed in darkness and eyes drawn to the (again Mac generated) visual backdrop. When the drummer did eventually join the party the music immediately shifted from ethereal Hassell-ian 'Fourth World' to the dense, raw and extremely dark side of post-Agartha Miles.

Not a bad place to be, and with Westerhus refusing to play anything resembling a 'lick' it also showed in Molvaer far more avant-garde vitality than previous formulaic efforts. This concert consisted of a single piece, unfolding over 95 incident packed minutes. The visuals often responded to the pace of the music, Persian tapestries and moving grids of molten lava providing a complementary experience. For sure there were longeurs as the musicians pulled back to re-group their collective energies, and some passages undoubtedly went on in the same vein for far too long without revealing anything of any great interest.

There's a great 50-60 minute album in this material, and as it would happen, Hamada is its title. What you wouldn't get from listening to this music at home though would be the insight into the processes that lie behind it's making, Presented in person, loud and close-up with visuals and all, Molvaer's provocative and highly charged music gains an important context. Several agitated audience members seemed to leave early, perhaps disappointed not to be hearing the Nordic folk of compatriot Jan Garbarek. Another apparently fell victim to the strobe-like effects projected onto the backdrop during a particularly grungey passage.

Even for somebody like myself who has heard Hamada several times, there were many surprises here and the show was far from predictable. Westerhus's bowed guitar sounded truly cello-like (an entirely different technique to Raoul Bjorkenheim's brutalism), Kleive's machine-like rhythms hit you like a truck, and Molvaer's command of his effects rack is as much a part of his musical persona as it is with Jon Hassell. The group's forays into abstract territories are improvised music of the very best kind. Completely in the service of his lovingly nurtured sound-scapes and utterly free of self-indulgence, there was a logic running through the performance which was unmistakeable.

At one point the angle at which we sat saw Kleive apparently grow a halo from the visual backdrop, something which Louise thought was far from coincidental (given his Jesus-like features). When I told her after the gig that Kleive once played with A-ha, we were truly talking of a revelation.

This gig's depth charge-like impact makes it seem better and better as I reflect back after what has been a testing week. Top marks to Molvaer, who goes back on to my imaginary 'A' list, and with little else of this quality going on in the region at the moment it looks like a strong contender for the performance of 2010. I've been asked by the magazine to cover the Festival in March, but only Dan Berglund's Tonbruket really stands out at this stage. With an open mind and wide-open ears, I'll prepare to be surprised...

Fred Grand.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Ex & Brass Unbound @ The Sage...

I wasn't going to bother going to this gig. I knew a couple of albums by The Ex (the two with Tom Cora), and I hardly thought it would be the kind of gig where either Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson would get much of a chance to show what they can do. Factor in my now distant relationship to the punk era, and considerations of Louise's need not to hear this kind of thing, and it looked eminently missable.

That was until a former workmate called and asked if I wanted to go (I was tempted to say former anarchist punk, a bit of an 'in' joke, particularly as he now drives a rather beautiful Audi estate car...) He's one of the few people I know who would even have heard of The Ex, and the chance for a catch-up over some music was in the end a more than sufficient lure. So. it became a quiet night-in for Louise and a noisy night out for me.

Using The Sage's Hall 2, I was surprised by the respectable turn-out for this event. Support was provided by Zun Zun Egui, whose collision of Krautrock, Afro-beat and hardcore was interesting if not compelling. After 30 minutes they'd been through their repertoire, and for the last 15 of their set they'd really outstayed their welcome. It was The Ex & Brass Unbound that most people wanted to hear.

Getting Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark onto the same stage at the same time isn't that difficult, and their cutting-edge retro free-jazz (the contradiction is deliberate) is about the best that there is. Ken has been keen to distance himself from past rowdy DIY-punk associations for some time now though, and you won't hear him pushing his discs with The Flying Luttenbachers as high watermarks of his career. I remember talking to him about those days several years ago and he seemed more than a little embarrassed. The Ex seem to have a unique pull though, his pal Gustafsson is clearly less reticent, and this being a special event to mark the group's 30th anniversary Ken clearly decided 'what the heck'. Filling out the brass section (and right at the opposite end of the stage) were Wolter Wierbos and Roy Paci, more of whom later.

When the gig finally got underway it was divine mayhem. The Ex did exactly what they do best, rough and ready and extremely loose, their energy actually out-did the horns for much of the time. Vandermark and Gustafsson huffed and puffed, and despite being two of the most lethal saxophonists on the planet they struggled to penetrate the wall of sound created by these like-able Dutch dilettantes. It wasn't all down to excessive amplification either. The triple fuzz guitar attack was really too close to the frequency of the baritone and tenor saxes, and when Ken got out his clarinet he was a metaphorical needle in a haystack. Much of the time he looked disinterested (even bored), but as the evening progressed he found his feet, and a way into the mayhem.

Wierbos and Paci fared better at their end of the stage, their rasping brass attack really enhancing the group's sound. Arrangements were basic to say the least, real back-of-a-beer-mat stuff, but that's part of the group's charm. Could you really imagine them with a slick horn section punching out the riffs? I even recognised two of the pieces ('State of Shock' and 'Hidegen Fujnak A Szelek' from Scrabbling At The Lock), and this led to a vague feeling of smugness that I won't try to condone. As the gig wore on there were small chinks for Ken and Mats to cut through the din, and hats off to The Ex for sticking to their guns.

It was almost a shame to have to get into that Audi and drive away...

Fred Grand

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Jan Garbarek @ The Sage...

I'm tempted to just cut and paste the review of Jan Garbarek's previous appearance at The Sage, but that would be more than a little unfair. Last night's performance was subtly different, with some of those differences being for the better, and others for the worse.

First the bad. The programme was extremely similar, and almost 18 months on you'd perhaps expect at least some evolution. For what is essentially a very structured and form-conscious music, Garbarek's group weren't even as slick as they'd been in November 2007. He played a little too much soprano (there seemed to be a problem with the mechanics on his tenor), and Yuri Daniel's identity is still a little blurred. He made a great short notice stand-in for Eberhard Weber, but as a replacement he lacks the grace, melodicism and taste of the great German. Some of his sound processing bordered on Metheny-esque vulgarity, but I do approve of his grasp of funk and the added edge that he brings to the group. Oh, and finally, Brünninghaus still looks like a Smurf.

Now we move on to the good stuff. As billed, Trilok Gurtu replaced Manu Katché, and in so doing he not only brought a much wider range of textures and sounds, but he gave the music a looser feel (perhaps turning the comment about the group's relative lack of slickness in the previous paragraph into a positive). He also made clear the well established influence of Indian music on Garbarek's work. He's a virtuoso, a heavyweight, and easily the best percussionist to work with the group since Nana Vasconcelos. Let's hope he can be a permanent fixture - heck, he's a busy man, but it's not as though this group tours prolifically.

Just being Jan Garbarek is almost enough. He occupies a special place for me, and his singular sound evokes so many good memories and feelings. The deceptive simplicity of his music is great too, and I love trying to figure out how he moves through his harmonic progressions. His ability to make a note hang above an ever changing backdrop of colour is often breathtaking. Unpicking the links to Ayler, Ornette, Jim Pepper and Coltrane is a good sport too, although as time goes by it becomes easier and easier.

So, it certainly wasn't a wasted evening. This time we were just three rows from the front so it was as much a visual as an aural experience. It's perhaps a little disappointing to think that if he returns in the next couple of years the performance probably won't be that much different, but from the earliest days with George Russell, Keith Jarrett and then his own projects he's remained consistent. Change with Garbarek is glacial, and he's no less a musician for that. He's confident of his voice, and people also happen to like it in large numbers.

With a reprisal of Mission: To Be Where I Am as an encore, it was in so many ways the very essence of Garbarek...

Fred Grand

PS: A happy New Year (very belatedly) to any readers. More posts soon, I hope. Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson with The Ex lined up for Sunday, and millions of old CD reviews still to post...