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