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