Tuesday, 15 November 2011

London International Jazz Festival...

Tomorrow marks the start of the now annual trip to the London International Jazz Festival. So many tantalising gigs that we've already missed, and many more that we'll miss because I'm yet to discover a reliable way of being in more than one place at a time.

A really good cross-section of modern artists lined up though - Marcin Wasilewski; Stefano Bollani; Martial Solal; Empirical (with Robert Mitchell); Roy Haynes; Peter King; Henry Threadgill; John Escreet; Bill Frisell, and best of all Archie Shepp with my all time favourite pianist Joachim Kühn, who stunned me back in the '90s with one of the most intense solo performances I've ever witnessed. That wild unkempt hair says it all, this man takes no prisoners... 

We may find a few more gigs to see, perhaps Arild Andersen and Tommy Smith's ECM 'tribute', but come what may I'll be armed with the trusty iPad and Pages App and sending my missives to Jazz Journal editor Mark Gilbert for instant publication on the website.

Hopefully they'll appear online the following day, though I doubt I'll have time to do much for Afric Pepperbird. If however you're in any way curious about just which shade of scintillating Joachim conjures, you may well find the answer here...

Fred Grand

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Gateshead Namaste...

Quite a lazy summer for live music - since Glasgow we've only been to see three gigs. It's not that there hasn't been plenty happening on the vibrant Tyneside scene, but more to do with the fact that so little of it is music that I can genuinely get excited about. That said, I read Paul Bream's frank commentaries on the current arts funding crisis with a great deal of concern. I sincerely hope that the resurgence of interest in contemporary styles that I played a small part in kickstarting - remember Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Jemeel Moondoc and the Vandermark 5? - won't be allowed to wither in the face of the lethal combo of savage cuts to the arts and the sometimes blasé apathy of people like myself. Newcastle is now an established international hub, although this present crisis is a reminder of just how reliant on the endeavours of a few activists (and an annual pot of grant subsidy) it still remains.

In the current financial climate the message from the top seems to be one of 'sink or swim' - if you can't self-finance, why should the taxpayer bail you out? That's a whole essay in its self, but needless to say there are very few places in the world where the complicated set of factors peculiar to the promotion of a minority music can be truly left to market forces. Upfront costs to the promoter of instrument and venue hire, cautious ticket pricing, the capacity of local venues themselves - breaking even is virtually impossible in the provinces, underlning the need to subsidise minority arts so that culturally valuable traditions can both survive and grow.

Of course this is all highly subjective, and some would argue that subsidising 'improv', a music for which audiences still barely scrape into double figures despite lots of local exposure, is the duty of any responsible and culturally 'switched on' Government The enduring value of jazz in its broadest sense is surely inarguable by now, making its subsidy as essential as that of ballet or opera, but perhaps it is part of the overall master plan for 'improv' that it will be enthusiastically picked up by an evangelical army of Big Society volunteers? All joking aside, I do fear that talented guys like Mark Sanders, John Edwards and Steve Noble will find it increasingly difficult to perform the music they love in front of audiences outside of London.

It all seems somehow different in our capitol city, but if gigs in the provinces start to dry up then the impact will surely be felt by London based artists too Two of the three gigs we've seen since the Glasgow trip were at the South Bank Centre, prototype for The Sage. The first gig formed part of the summer of Festival of Britain commemorations, one of a series of four gigs celebrating different aspects of British jazz. Soweto Kinch led a brilliant quintet (which included Byron Wallen and Jim Hart) through a programme of Joe Harriott's music, largely drawn from the 'Abstract' LP. Really getting under the skin of the man and his music (and from a contemporary perspective), this was as successful a tribute as you could ever hope to hear, and I have to say that it was also much more stimulating than Vandermark's relatively conservative 'Straight Lines' project of a few years back. Proof also that in the right place (i.e. London), otherwise neglected corners of British jazz can still be celebrated in front of packed houses.

The main event which had first drawn us to London took place the following evening. Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack De Johnette wowed a packed Royal Festival Hall, where punters had paid around £75/head for the privilege. But a privilege it certainly was, with the trio in relaxed but expansive mood. Any hangovers of Jarrett's debilitating viral illness seem long gone, the trio storming through two sets and four encores. Artistry of the very highest level, it was one of those rare experiences (just like Stanko's Glasgow show) which seem almost perfect.

Last night we were back to the rather less glamorous provincial scene, travelling through the cold and the rain to Gateshead Old Town Hall to hear Arun Ghosh's quintet. A very different line-up to the one billed - no Idris Rahman or Shabaka Hutchings, but Corey Mwamba popped up on vibes to temper the slight disappointment. Ghosh's energy was infectious, but only a disappointingly small crowd turned out to see one of the most refreshing voices on the UK scene (making this a highly subsidised event, to return to this by now rather obvious thread). Playing material from his soon to be released second album, it was evident just how naturally Ghosh fuses collective improvisation with the Eastern influences of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, the energy of rock, and the formal disciplines of European music.

I couldn't help but notice that an upcoming performance by Julian Siegel for Jazz North East clashes with Christian Wallumrød's show at The Sage. With such a small local audience for promoters to scrapple over, this dilution of impact and lack of local co-ordination doesn't really make a lot of sense. I'm sure that many would potentially go to both gigs, but I know from my time at Jazz North East that these things do happen from time to time, and that once the bookings are made there's very little that can be done but to hope that your event is the more attractive of the two. Faced with this choice it'll be the Norwegian visitor who'll be getting our dollar, but how about a joining of forces to present the two groups as a double bill?

London Jazz Festival is not far away, and for the second year running we'll be combining some Christmas shopping with my birthday. I'm already excited about seeing Joachim Kühn (with Archie Shepp), Marcin Wasilewski with Stefano Bollani and Martial Solal, Bill Frisell, and Roy Haynes. We may even check out Henry Threadgill, although the inclination to wade in his rather strange but fascinating musical treacle isn't really there at the moment. So good to have the option, though...

Fred Grand

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Glaswegian Kisses...

Over the years I've been to Glasgow International Jazz Festival many times, though I haven't paid it a visit now for at least a decade. A few fallow years with little of interest, coupled with the constant stream of quality music presented locally at The Sage, has made the festival somewhat superfluous in the overall scheme of things. Happily that has now changed, as memories of all those previous trips north came flooding back during our visit to the 25th anniversary edition of the festival.

Looking through the festival brochure, I must have driven Louise crazy as I recalled evenings spent listening to the likes of Max Roach, Bill Frisell, Tony Williams, Paul Motian, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, Nils Petter Molvaer, Chico Freeman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the Mingus Big Band. Did you know that I once saw Idrees Muhammad playing with John Hicks and Steve Grossman in Glasgow? Back in the 90's it was almost an annual pilgrimage, and I was often accompanied by the late Chris Yates and son Stephen. We 'discovered' rising stars like Joshua Redman, Robert Mazurek and Jacky Terasson before they were famous, and the unique ambience of the Old Fruitmarket always seemed to offer up something to savour. Significant and formative experiences in my jazz education, to others I guess my memories will be little more than a gratuitous list of names, but Louise certainly approved of our favourite watering hole, the Babbity Bowster, which was just as I remember it.

The last time I was up there was to hear a scintillating Pharoah Sanders in the Old Fruitmarket, which I don't think was even part of the festival. Since then, this most unusual and character-full venue has had a massive overhaul, and if I'm not mistaken the main stage has moved to the opposite end of the hall. There's now a whole complex of music stages in the City Halls, and the Merchant City is really thriving. Tinderbox, home of some of the best fresh coffee either of us have ever tasted and fresh continental cakes including divine friandes, was just around the corner. Even before hearing a single note of music had been heard, it was great to be back!

The lure of Tomasz Stanko was the irresistible force that had initially drawn me back to Clydeside, and with several other events taking place over the same weekend a plan quickly came together. It was a shame that we'd missed Mulatu Aststake, Tommy Smith's Karma and Kit Downes's trio earlier in the week, but taking in the entire event would have been too much of a stretch. Stanko was originally billed in an intriguing double header with Lee Konitz, though serious ill health prevented the venerable saxophonist from appearing. Left fronting Florian Weber's trio 'Minsarah' alone, out of Konitz's adversity Stanko produced an almighty triumph! This was undoubtedly one of the greatest gigs I've ever seen, the great trumpeter in complete command of his unique voice as he floated through through many of his best known pieces. Minsarah were new to me, though I've been aware of Weber for a couple of years. This free-wheeling trio enveloped the music as if it were their own, and in many respects Stanko's great legacy does indeed belong to every contemporary European artist. Stanko's status as one of the greatest living jazz improvisers was emphatically underlined in this near perfect performance.

Following hot on the heels of Stanko, in the rather more intimate surroundings of the Tron Theatre, was another top drawer European dish. Edition Records certainly have a class act on their hands with 'Meadow'. John Taylor, Tore Brunborg and Thomas Strønen collectively and individually held the audience rapt with their delicate improvisations. Playing entirely acoustically, their close listening and sensitivities to nuance were impeccable. Brunborg, surely the most considered and calculating improviser I've seen for a long time, stuck entirely to tenor. It was good to hear his more extrovert side emerge from time to time, and although very much under the spell of Garbarek I can think of musical touchstones that are far, far worse. 

Speaking of Garbarek, he was in fine voice with the Hilliard Ensemble at Durham Cathedral last week. With licence to improvise, he literally walked-the-talk up and down the central knave. His well-established connection to Eastern musical influences made him very much at home with the Armenian liturgical roots of much of the material. Like Stanko or Frisell his biggest asset is that unique musical voice, and no matter what musical company he may keep that voice always stays true. Cynical doubters of this project, perhaps unimpressed by its crossover appeal, need to re-examine their position quickly!

The other Glasgow gigs were in many respects there to pad out the main events of the weekend, though there was something good to take from each. Leon Russell's deep south boogie was fine in small doses, whilst Ramsey Lewis's run through the bulk of his Earth Wind & Fire produced gem 'Sun Goddess' (1974) was an unqualified success. Courtney Pine's 'Europa' was a great show, combining crowd pleasing entertainment with a strong cast of gifted artists including Zoe Rahman and Omar Puente. Ridiculously young guitarist Andreas Varady showed that he'll have a great future ahead of him if he survives puberty, and during his relaxed afternoon set his regular quartet was joined by Ryan Quigley on a slowed down 'Giant Steps'. 

I've got a neat pile of CDs to review at the moment, including the latest Gary Burton ('Common Ground') which marks a stunning return to form,. The new Tonbruket disc consolidates Dan Berglund's post E.S.T. direction of travel away from the jazz mainstream, whilst Laszlo Gardony's latest shows what an under-rated player he continues to be. I can't quite make my mind up about John Escreet's densely formed fusion, though with Wayne Krantz in the group it can't be too bad. As far as live music goes, we'll pass on tonight's Newcastle gig by Paul Dunmall, so next up for us will be a London break taking in Soweto Kinch's Joe Harriott tribute and Keith Jarrett's 'Standards' trio...

Fred Grand

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Stern Words...

The latest Jazz Journal is out now, and my interview with Mike Stern has made it as a cover feature. Looks superb, and top marks to editor Mark Gilbert for taking a chance with a feature on a musician who most would agree doesn't really fit with the tastes of the normal JJ constituency!!

Needless to say I'm delighted, and the fact that Stern waxes lyrical about bop should surprise and wrong foot a few people. 

Off to Glasgow soon to catch a few gigs at the International Jazz Festival - Tomasz Stanko followed by Meadow (Tore Brunborg, John Taylor and Thomas Strønen) look like the stand outs - and hope to blog again after the festival...

Monday, 16 May 2011

Fast taste, slow read...

One of the features I used to love in Jazz Review was the Fast Taste column. I don't think I did it more than three times, but receiving a box full of 30-40 CDs and choosing about 15 to encapsulate in just a few words was a very different type of challenge. How often do you see Cecil Taylor and Paul Whiteman reviewed in the same column? Sadly the column is no more now that the magazine has morphed identities, although we do still do brief reviews of single discs in Jazz Journal.

Back to the present, and my new release of the moment, even displacing Matthias Eick from his lofty pedestal, is the Nils Økland's latest disc on ECM. Just over an hour of concentrated beauty, and the perfect marriage of Scandinavian folk music and contemporary classical composition. The label is in fact having a great 2011, and I'd also highly recommend recent releases by Julia Hülsmann, Marcin Wasilewski, Iro Haarla and Colin Vallon.

On that positive note, here's my last ever Fast Taste from August 2008. The Michael Adkins disc wasn't actually in the box, but Michael contacted me diredtly after stumbling across this page and after hearing the disc and loving it I was happy to slip it in anyway.

Apologies to those who have contacted me recently offering CDs to review - I've just been so busy that I couldn't possibly have taken on any more work. Things are starting to quieten down again now, and perhaps I'll get round to exploring some new sounds soon.

JULIAN “CANNONBALL” ADDERLEY Live In Italy 1969 (Gambit Records 69289)
Numerous releases culled from radio footage and concert archives of the Adderley brothers’ quintet with Joe Zawinul are available, and often there’s little to choose between them. Most offer at least one version of ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ and ‘Walk Tall’, capture the leader’s loquacious banter between tracks, and balance acoustic and electric instrumentation. This disc actually presents two concerts just days apart, but despite the title only one was actually recorded in Italy. Standout track is ‘The Scavenger’, which flirts with modal chaos, and whilst the remainder is firmly in line with expectations, it’s a nice document of the group in a period of musical transition.
Prior to having my interest piqued by Rotator, I knew nothing of Canadian tenor saxophonist Michael Adkins. With a full-bodied sound, thoughtful oblique phrasing and an intelligent use of micro-tonalities, Adkins’ voice lies somewhere beyond Joe Lovano. The thrill of hearing Paul Motian at his most expansive is to a large extent Adkins’ achievement, the drummer seemingly spurred on by the inherent drama of the music. Motian adopts its confident swagger through many points of disintegration, and no storm is too turbulent, yet the patterns are never predictable and an underlying calm enigmatically remains. Pianist Russ Lossing and bassist John Hébert complete a highly responsive quartet, and if you like melodies with your freedom, you’ll need to hear this.

CHET BAKER with DICK TWARDZIK The Complete 1955 Holland Concerts (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10334)
A very young Chet Baker obligingly corrects the program notes to announce that Dick Twardzik will be playing the piano this evening, not Russ Freeman. Given the short career of the almost mythical pianist, the discovery of these tapes comes as welcome news even 53 years on. Drawn from performances in The Netherlands on consecutive days, it hardly matters that some of the material overlaps. Baker’s sound is as fragile and bell-like on the ballads as the pianist’s is heavy-handed and blocky, but together they made a great pairing. Twardzik died in Paris of a drugs overdose barely a month later, and Baker’s announcement that “…we hope to be back in a year or two...” was, with hindsight, wildly optimistic. Variable sound quality, but an invaluable document.

CLIFFORD BROWN Four Classic Albums (Avid Jazz 2CD AMSC950)
The stream of un-copyrighted material currently being re-issued is something of a mini-thread in this column. Challenging times undoubtedly lie ahead for the major record labels, which stand to see former Crown Jewels disappearing unless they can compete on quality and price. Here is a case in point – four great Clifford Brown albums from the mid ‘50s, collected, crisply re-mastered and sold perfectly legally. For the record we get Brown & Roach Inc., Study In Brown, Jam Session and odd man out New Star on The Horizon (a 1953 date with Art Blakey on drums). Original artwork is a little small, but the liner notes survive intact. Such historic music should need little comment or introduction to such a discriminating readership, and suffice to say that if you don’t yet own all of the material, this release deserves serious consideration.

A laminal and very organic post-AMM soundworld, this is not the kind of release you immediately associate with latter day ECM. Extended techniques include piano preparations, scraping percussion, flutter-tongued clarinet and even some ‘just’ intonation banjo. There is a hypnotic, almost ritualistic quality to the way in which tension builds and releases. My over riding impression is of an unsettling journey through one of Caspar David Friedrich’s dense, dark forests. Dans les Arbres is both an album and a group title, so I suspect the effect is wholly intentional. Intriguing and unsettling in equal measure, this should satisfy fans of ‘new’ music and ‘improv’ alike.

KENNY CLARKE Telefunken Blues (Jazz Track Records 940)
A mix & match package offering two complete albums with original covers and liner notes. Telefunken Blues comprises two sessions. The first prominently features the vibes of Milt Jackson, and with Percy Heath’s bass we almost have the MJQ. Frank Morgan’s searing alto and Walter Benton’s fruity tenor alter the dynamics however, with outstanding results. Basie-ites Frank Wess, Henry Coker and Charlie Fowlkes bring a lighter swing to the album’s B Side, whilst the remaining music was originally released as The Kenny Clarke-Ernie Wilkins Septet (1955). More of an arranger’s date really, but Klook’s unaccompanied ‘Now’s The Time’ still sounds right out there.

GRAHAM COLLIER Down Another Road/Songs For My Father/Mosaics (BGO Records CD767)
Independent label BGO has virtually cornered the market for quality re-issues of material from what I regard as the ‘golden era’ of British modern jazz. Here we have three complete albums spanning the years 1968-70, and a subtle shift can be traced in Collier’s music over the course of the two CDs. Post-bop explorations of freedom and structure are the starting point, dallying occasionally with rock before finally acquiring a greater open-endedness of form on Mosaics. Harry Beckett, Stan Sulzmann, Alan Wakeman and John Taylor are all generously featured, yet even with their considerable talents it is the music’s Euro-centric re-examination of sounds from across the Atlantic that leaves the deepest impression. So many options exist for the musicians, and Collier’s urgent musical structures make the perfect frame. Delicious.

WAYNE HORVITZ GRAVITAS QUARTET One Dance Alone (Songlines 1571-2)
Along with Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz is one of the great exponents of ‘Americana’ in contemporary jazz. In this, the second Songlines album from his Gravitas Quartet, his fascination with melding improvisation and through composition is further explored. Peggy Lee’s cello and Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon add both texture and counterpoint, whilst Ron Miles’ plaintive trumpet states folksy themes and splutters into abstraction with equal alacrity. More spiky than its predecessor and with fewer typically Horvitz-ian pieces, this is nevertheless a quietly impressive addition to an uncommonly individual body of work.

CAROLYN HUME Gravity and Grace (LEO RECORDS LR515)
This is British pianist/composer Carolyn Hume’s fifth outing for Leo, and to my ears her most satisfying yet. A haunting series of meditations, the pairing of Hume’s rich, brooding piano with the classically trained voice of Sonja Galsworthy and the cello of Oliver Coates creates what could easily be a suitably elegiac soundtrack for a classy Claude Chabrol mystery. Minor key and spacious, there’s an economy and grace recalling the best ECM New Series crossovers. This is contemporary chamber-jazz with a magnetically irresistible luxuriance.

JOE McPHEE with Paul Plimley & Lisle Ellis Sweet Freedom – Now What? (hatOLOGY 602)
Discerning readers will probably own this1994 landmark already, but its re-issue is nevertheless worth bringing to wider attention. A beautifully crafted and highly personal take on Max Roach’s Freedom Suite (1960), three under-sung talents operating on the cusp of free-jazz and improvised music create something truly heartfelt and poignant. There’s a far greater connection to the tradition here than in much of McPhee’s work, and the questions he poses, both musical and metaphorical, are clearly as relevant as they were for Roach. ‘Triptych’ makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and the faster of the two takes of ‘Mendacity’ should meet anybody’s definition of swing. If you only ever buy McPhee disc, make this the one.

ZOE & IDRIS RAHMAN Where Rivers Meet (Manushi Records CD004)
An exploration of colliding cultures, Where Rivers Meet may come as something of a surprise to listeners only familiar hitherto with Rahman’s trio. In essence it’s simply a more explicit statement of her dual heritage, expanding the instrumental palette and making viable jazz vehicles from Bengali source material. Idris Rahman, her brother, gets equal billing, and his pithy clarinets are at various times augmented by the voices of other Rahman siblings. The modal stasis and the influence of traditional Raga forms bring echoes of the more transcendental moments from Alice Coltrane’s Impulse! works of the early ‘70s. Where Rivers Meet is an impressive statement from one of Europe’s rising stars.

FRANK ROSOLINO Let’s Make It (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10331)
Trombonist Frank Rosolino is legendary for all of the wrong reasons, his tragic personal life overshadowing considerable prowess as a musician. A leading light of the late ‘50s West Coast jazz scene, these two albums from 1957 and 1958 capture him at his peak. The Frank Rosolino Quintet sees him fronting a group with Richie Kamuca and Vince Guaraldi. The pianist adds a marvellous piquancy to the date, and Kamuca’s soloing and counterpoint is the essence of ‘cool’. Harold Land and Victor Feldman come in for the 1958 session, and the more varied selections and arrangements make it slightly the more interesting date. An original in every way, full justice is done to Rosolino’s much feted ability to get around the horn using wild intervallic leaps and astonishing agility. Impressive.

CECIL TAYLOR Jazz Advance (Fresh Sounds FSR-CD 485)
One consequence of the march of time is the advancing frontier of non-copyrighted material ripe for re-issue. Here we have a seminal classic that should need no introduction, lavishly re-issued under the nose of Blue Note with reproductions of the original artwork and liner notes. Such audacity can’t ever be as shocking as the impact this music still holds, straddling traditional jazz and the as yet uncharted territories ahead. Fresh Sounds add three live tracks from Newport 1957 (originally issued on Verve), making it pretty much a definitive edition. Even if you never travel any further down this progressively difficult road, no serious collection should be without such a bona fide milestone as Jazz Advance.

HIROMI UEHARA Hiromi’s Sonicbloom – Beyond Standard (TELARC CD83666)
Post-fusion reconstructions of jazz standards are a dime-a-dozen, usually needing a high degree of artistic judgement to avoid collapsing under their own portentous weight. Few such worries for young Japanese pianist Hiromi, who brings largely fresh approaches to such evergreens as ‘Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise’, ‘Caravan’, and even ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’. Not unlike latter day Chick Corea, she abounds colour and energy and avoids sounding musically moribund. David Fiuczynski shares the solos, and although he’s the kind of testosterone oozing axe-man I normally avoid, his vulgarity is a strangely pleasant foil for Hiromi. Sonicbloom – how apt!

PAUL WHITEMAN King of Jazz 1920-27 (Timeless Historical CBC 1-093)
It’s sadly ironic that one of the earliest popularisers of ‘jazz’ in the United States should be a white man called Whiteman, who rarely played with anything more than a jazz veneer. The ‘King of Jazz’ certainly embodied the complex racial politics of the ‘Jazz Age’, and this selection offers a useful taster of his work. Musically credible enough for ‘long-hair’ collaborations with George Gershwin (Whiteman actually played at the premiere of Rhapsody In Blue in 1924), it’s also true that numerous famous employees, from Bix Beiderbecke to Jack Teagarden, were stifled by the syrupy dance-band-cum-tea-room arrangements heard here. Bouquets to Timeless though for such a well presented survey of music with massive historical significance.

LESTER YOUNG Jazz Giants ’56 (Lonehill Jazz 10330)
I already own a Verve release of this late Prez monument, but now courtesy of controversial label Lonehill Jazz it resurfaces with similar artwork and extra material. The label may at other times have taken advantage of Andorra’s relatively lax 25-year copyright protection loophole, but this music falls outside of the more general 50-year period in any event. Coming from Young’s last great flush of creativity, there is something especially moving about the brittleness of his sound on the ballads. Although much of the emphatic authority is gone, it’s great to hear him front a hard blowing septet that includes Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson and Jo Jones. The extra material is the sprawling 27 minute ‘Funky Blues No. 2’ from a 1954 Norman Granz Jam Session. The group features Eldridge alongside precocious young admirer Dizzy Gillespie, but strangely not Prez.

Fred Grand

Monday, 2 May 2011

Up In NEON...

It was good to get out for some more top quality live jazz last Thursday night. This time it was Stan Sulzmann's NEON, a truly co-operative quartet (sans contrebasse) with acres of space for these supremely gifted players to weave their own webs. Almost co-led by vibes-man Jim Hart, at least in terms of its public face, the presence of Tim Giles and Kit Downes is also crucial in shaping the music's sometimes crab-like motions. Internal duos and trios hung mobile-like within tight, overarching structures. The group's improvisations were never predictable and always supportive of the overall objectives of each piece. Never cliched or trite, new life was even breathed into Monk's 'Bye-Ya', a piece which has be played so many times over the years (in a generally linear way).

Pity my short interview/profile of Stan & NEON didn't make it in time for the latest Jazz Journal, but if it's in the next edition then the chances are they'll still be on their protracted and episodic mini tour. Like many others, I'm enjoying the continuing rise of EDITION RECORDS, and readers of Jazz Journal will know that the latest Phronesis disc was my pick of the year. I've also recently given good write-ups to Neon's Catch Me and the new Marius Neset, and I'd love to do something more on Dave Stapelton's outfit in the near future.

An unfortunate quirk of timing - read on - means that a London trip clashes with the Edition Records showcase at this year's Manchester Jazz Festival. Buoyed by the highly enjoyable back-to-back gigs of last week, I rashly took the plunge and spent a small fortune on a couple of tickets for Keith Jarrett's London show in July. It's still a massive wrong/regret that to this point I've never seen Jarrett perform live, and I'm really quite glad to be putting that little niggle to bed. With Peacock and De Johnette the improvisations should reach rarefied levels, and there's always the potential for an artistic tantrum if anybody dares to cough, or even breathe. Hopefully Louise's sore throat will have cleared by then.

I'll sign off with another review from the archives...

The Moutin Reunion Quartet
Sharp Turns
Nocturne/Blujazz (NTCD 4501)

The Speech; Kuki’s Dance; Trane’s Medley; A Good Move; Time Apart; Two Hits on the N.J.T.P.; A Blue Dream; Sharp Turns.

Bonus DVD: Take It Easy; Echoing; Bird’s Medley; Surrendering; Something Like Now.

Rick Margitza (ts); Pierre de Bethmann (p, elp); Francois Moutin (b); Louis Moutin (d).
Recorded March 2007 NYC and DVD shot live in Chicago, January 2007.

Despite their relatively tender years, Parisian twins Francois and Louis Moutin have both done the rounds in jazz, playing with an illustrious roll-call of regional and international figures, from John Abercrombie to Albert Mangelsdorff. Because they’ve been in such heavy demand their paths haven’t always crossed, and this quartet, founded in 1998, was their very own musical ‘re-union’.

The group’s aim is to unite many aspects of jazz’s past with the present, and both ex-Miles Davis sideman Rick Margitza and pianist Pierrre de Bethmann have been present from the start. Although playing mainly original compositions, the tunes nevertheless fall into a fairly generic space somewhere between Atlantic and Impulse! period Coltrane. Everybody from Branford Marsalis to Tommy Smith has explored this sound over the years, and the best exponents always bring personal touches and embellishments to stand them apart from the crowd. The Moutins choose tightly-drilled fusion unisons and locked-groove vamps as their signature, and Margitza’s affinity for Coltrane via Brecker is perfect here, heard to great effect on standout tracks ‘Kuki’s Dance’ or ‘A Good Move’.

Unadulterated acoustic jazz predominates, and sometimes only the subtlest of tweaks, such as the wordless vocals in the fadeout of ‘The Speech’, offer clues to the brothers’ back-to-the-future intent. Pieces such as ‘Trane’s Medley’, a meticulously arranged walk through a selection of the master’s better-known pieces featuring just Francois and Louis, offer not a trace of ‘cross-over’. ‘Time Apart’ is a ballad framing a beautifully virtuosic bass solo from Francois, and Margitza plays an unaccompanied coda that is either breathtaking or a student’s étude, depending on your standpoint. The electric piano on ‘Two Hits’ is a less subtle gesture towards a younger jazz constituency, but unlike Sleepwalker, a Japanese group who strip down and reformat the same era with more heart-on-the-sleeves, the Moutins occupy a curious limbo. Great virtuosity abounds, but sometimes the music sounds so airbrushed that barely a figurative hair is allowed to fall out of place.

Ultimately Sharp Turns has the potential to unite several generations of listener. My copy was a special limited edition dual format CD/DVD. Concert footage shot in Chicago prior to the recording of the album shows that in a live context this band really do let their hair down. Although the main album is solid enough and won’t disappoint, it adds little to the previous three. Ultimately I found the concert footage far more engaging, and fans should act quickly and get it while they can.

Fred Grand

Thursday, 28 April 2011


Far longer between posts than even I'd have liked, but this blog isn't about to be declared dead. Far from it, recent projects have confirmed just how much I enjoy writing about jazz. If time permitted there'd be far more, but with a hectic day job and an onerous college course (work-related) my free time ain't what it used to be.

So, what are those recent projects which have re-kindled my enthusiasm for writing? It's simply a case of stepping up to do more features and interviews on top of my allocation of review discs, and no more than that.

The next edition should have a short interview/feature that I recently completed with Stan Sulzmann on the subject of his new 'Neon Quartet' (with rising star Kit Downes). Then there was this year's Gateshead International Jazz Festival, which I covered once again - Louise loved Debbie Harry, but it was Stian Westerhus, Eivind Aarset (with Food) and Mike Stern who really grabbed me. Joe Lovano with his new 'Us 5' group was fine, but I missed half of his show as I had to nip backstage to interview a hyper-animated Mike Stern. In a little over 10 minutes he fired me up with his infectious appetite for music, and surprised me with his genuine love of be-bop. The interview is now written up as a 2000 word feature and should hopefully make it into Jazz Journal in the coming months.

All in all it has been a good 2011 for jazz so far. The new Matthias Eick disc on ECM is easily the best thing I've heard, but Brad Mehldau's new 'Marciac' set is also quite stunning. Vijay Iyer's latest Indo-Jazz fusion, Marius Neset's wonderful 'Golden Xplosion' and Erik Truffaz's 'Istanbul Sessions' all stand out from the crowd too. In terms of live music, other than the festival there has only really been Larry Coryell (with his Mumbai Jazz project) and Kyle Eastwood at the Sage a couple of nights ago that we've turned out for so far this year.

Good to see Paul Bream surviving the national austerity by securing more Arts Council grant  for his 'On The Outside' series. Apart from Michael Wollny later this year, and possibly Charles Gayle/Han Bennink and Mats Gustaffson's 'The Thing', there's not really a lot there to get my pulse racing though. In fact, seeing the Glasgow Improviser's Orchestra with guests Lol Coxhill and Evan Parker at this year's Gateshead Festival was probably the low point of the year. Even with elements of conducted improvisation, the language was as tired and predictable as ever. Evan Parker will always be an honourable exception, a link to the music's early '70s Golden Age, but for the majority of performers in this increasingly stilted idiom there's little excuse. Those who still consider this music to be avant-garde really need to reset their antennae, but I suspect that for many the music's process has its-self become a sacrosanct article of faith.

On that note, I'll leave you with a review of an old CD by Ted Nash, in which I suffer the ultimate public humiliation of praising Wynton Marsalis...

Still Evolved

The Shooting Star; Jump Start; Still Evolved; The Competitor; Bells of Brescia; Point of Arrival; Ida’s Spoons; Rubber Soul.

Wynton Marsalis (t); Marcus Printup (t); Ted Nash (ts); Frank Kimbrough (p); Ben Allison (b); Matt Wilson (d). Recorded 8/02.

Known principally for work with both Ben Allison’s Herbie Nichols Project and Jazz Composer’s Collective, and no stranger to reed section duties with the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, saxophonist and composer Ted Nash now steps out as leader of his own post-bop quintet. There are many remarkable things about this record. but for Nash to have coaxed the unfeasibly pious Wynton Marsalis down from his ivory tower to play as a sideman with such fire and creativity is little short of sensational. In an attractive, varied and frequently infectious set of compositions that linger in the mind, this is contemporary jazz of rare and genuine distinction. 

Marsalis shares the trumpet chair with the equally impressive Marcus Printup, and the contrast between the two is interesting to observe. Printup plays more comfortably in the blues idiom and the material he’s given seems to acknowledge that. Nash’s own style is relatively unflamboyant, a dark sinewy improviser who prefers to stay inside the changes. It is actually Marsalis who takes most of the risks - his growls and upper register exclamations on ‘The Shooting Star’ sounding almost avant-garde (albeit if only in the same manner as Freddie Hubbard’s most outward bound moments from the ‘60s). The title track is the type of relaxed retro-swinger that could just as easily have been performed by The Vandermark 5 as a dedication to Shelly Manne. ‘The Bells of Brescia’ gives Marsalis a chance to re-examine Miles’ way with a ballad, and he plays beautifully. Matt Wilson consolidates his burgeoning reputation with a probing presence throughout, whilst both Allison and Kimbrough demonstrate the virtue of familiarity gained as regular working partners. 

Nowhere is the band’s togetherness better felt than on ‘Rubber Soul’, where the collective delight at an in-the-pocket performance is preserved for posterity as the tapes are allowed to roll. Still Evolved looks both backwards and forwards equally convincingly and is unreservedly recommended.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, July 2003)

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Winter Wonderment-land...

A belated Happy New Year to friends and readers, and at last time for me to catch up with Afric Pepperbird once again.

A bit too late to review of our trip to the London Jazz Festival in November, but just to say it was great - so much music packed into barely three days. Manu Katché, Stefano Di Battista, Eric Legnini (twice), Denis Colin's Societé Des Arpenteurs, Hadouk Trio, Brad Mehldau's 'Highway Rider' (with Joshua Redman and the Britten Sinfonia), and even Robert Glasper playing with a local youth band in the Barbican foyer as we sat around waiting for a tube to Kings Cross.

Katché played such a brilliantly relaxed set that it was an object lesson in how it should be done, whilst the Mehldau performance was very special (not least because of the vast scale of the work). Really enjoyed the French showcase at the Barbican on the Saturday afternoon. After being sent into the best possible kind of trance by Didier Malherbe's Hadouk Trio, a really tight visceral set by Denis Colin's band (pronounced Den-nee Co-lan, though not by the English M.C.) offered proof that there're more first-rank bass clarinet players in France than just Michel Portal and Louis Sclavis.

Having now finished the latest batch of reviews for the magazine, including a couple of ECMs (Giya Kancheli and Stephan Micus), the new Eric Harland and Stan Sulzmann's latest edition of the Neon Quartet, I'm sitting back listening to Mosaic's Larry Young set (wow). Hoping to do a small feature on Neon for the magazine soon, and it has to be said that Kit Downes and Jim Hart deserve their equal billing. They elevate the disc from what may have been just another Sulzmann set into something fresh and vital. My next batch includes Erik Truffaz's Istanbul excursion, a new disc by Danish saxophonist Marius Neset (with Jasper Høiby on bass), and two more that I've already managed to forget.

For now I'll simply leave you with a link to a few snaps taken on my new iPhone 4, which I finally succumbed to buying. Bought principally for its camera, I haven't been disappointed and it's great to have it in the pocket to capture those unexpected sights whenever I'm out and about. Not exactly the 'Leica' that Steve Jobs claimed it to be, but I've already got a Leica and it does a decent job nevertheless.

Good news that Mike Stern has replaced Kurt Elling in the double bill with Joe Lovano at this year's Gateshead International Jazz Festival. Louise is excited about Debbie Harry, of course, but I must say that Stern has started off a train of feverish anticipation in me...

Fred Grand