The stars, planets and weather lined up for the 2ndBristol Jazz and Blues Festival this weekend. As the sun came out the crowds flocked in to hang out in the foyer of the city’s Colston Hall, lining the soaring staircase, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying some of the 70 events featuring over 400 artists whether it was the free foyer programme or the diverse series of ticketed gigs.
They ranged from funk legends Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley (pictured above), through a fizzing set of standards from an Alan Barnes/Howard Alden led band, a double bill of the contrasting lyricism of Dan Messore's Indigo Kid, the bluesy soul-jazz of New Orleans star Lillian Boutté (pictured top), and Get the Blessing in riotous form and a wind it down, improvised set from Andy Sheppard (below) and Italian percussionist Michele Rabbia that closed the festival in the smaller of the two concert halls, The Lantern. On the way there was the mass particpation of a Gershwin Spectacular with a colorful choir of 200 and the more intense meeting of classical and jazz with the premiere of Kate Williams and Will Goodchild's Interplay project.
There was a tremendous buzz and frequent outbreaks of dancing all weekend. The jam sessions on the foyer stage ensured that the night-owls were able to keep going until the early hours. Diaries are already being marked in hopeful anticipation of another festival next year.
If ‘too many piano trios’ is a bellyache that has rumbled around the jazz body politic for some time, this was a dose of strong medicine against it. Hailed for its performance at last year’s Vision Festival, Kris Davis’ outfit provided a quite gripping example of how fresh the format can be, presenting a sound that, while marked by the sensibilities of New York’s improvised music scene, had an individuality and sense of purpose germane to the Brooklyn-based, Canadian pianist.
The bulk of the music was drawn from the current album Waiting For You To Grow, which was inspired by her experience of pregnancy, and the expectations, projections, imaginings and above all physical realities of new life. On many occasions the compositions vividly conveyed all of the above, none more so than the quite startling ‘Hiccups’, a piece in which Davis’ responsive and dynamic partners, double bassist John Hébert and drummer Tom Rainey, came into their own. As the title suggests, this was an evocation of bumps, jolts and little kicks inside, but Davis did not reduce the form to anything as transparent as a succession of broken grooves or melodic tease and tickle. The hyper-rockabye derived more from a sharp tension between different implications of tempo and meter by each player, as if they were in a post-Ornette/Blackwell marching band where the idea is to move in spirals and circles rather than straight lines. The rub being that the points of overlap were dramatically precise, and that the second half of the piece, where the trio settled into a more regular beat, didn’t forego the playful internal jockeying that had marked the first.
If that composition showcased the band’s quality in expansive mood, then there were moments where the onus was on spare phrases. But they often grew. At one point Davis played a skewed, walking line in the low register, and then turned each note into a deliciously dense chord to create a sensation of weight gain amid forward motion. Elsewhere her right hand work was slightly glacial but not bloodless. While the oblique character of some of her songs may prompt the tag of avant-garde, Davis’ idiomatic range is too wide for that, and in this respect she joins a group of stellar pianists – Taborn, Lossing, Delbecq – for whom the key creative ethos is ‘traditions’, not tradition.
Much is made of Chris Barber’s longevity; after all, he’s in his eighties now and he and his band seem to have been on the road since the dawn of time. Surely, ennui must set in at some point. Try telling that to the expectant crowd that thronged this imposing hall, part of the rather splendid array of buildings that make up the St Paul’s school campus in Barnes.
The enthusiasm of those packed in to Wathen Hall knew few bounds and Barber responded – after all, he is one of their own, having attended the school himself, albeit a lifetime ago – with a cleverly constructed set of small group numbers and expanded pieces, all moving along at a fair old pace.
Choreographed and pre-defined (the sequence of songs exactly matched those observed at an earlier concert) it all may be but that was no matter for an audience so suffused by the rosy glow of nostalgia. While it remains pleasurable to hear clarinettist Richard Exall recreate ‘Petite Fleur’ so exultantly, there were perhaps greater rewards in observing the big CB band as they got their teeth into their chosen Ellington compositions, paced by the expert wa-wa trombone of Bob Hunt.
With a wide stage, the bandsmen (and one woman, saxophonist Amy Roberts) lined up abreast, stepping forward to solo as each piece followed upon another. Given this predictability, it’s easy to locate Barber and his cohort of brilliant musicians among the various show bands that throng the variety circuit. Maybe so, but that is to downplay the verve and the sheer musical class of these performers, typified by new-ish recruit Bert Brandsma, soaring on clarinet on ‘Wild Cat Blues’ or the zesty precision of trumpeters Peter Rudeforth and Mike Henry on ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ and the startlingly effective flute playing of Roberts on the penultimate ‘Saints’. What is clear is that Barber’s desire to perform this crowd-pleasing combination of New Orleans staples and Ellington originals is apparently unquenchable, the concern for ensemble dynamics, and for order and structure, coupled with the joyful professionalism on view still noteworthy after all these years.
Given this invitation to an ‘old boy’ to fly the flag for jazz, it’s pleasing to report that alto-saxophonist Tom Smith, a present-day pupil at St Paul's, is listed as a finalist in the BBC’s inaugural Young Jazz Musician of the Year. Call it continuity or coincidence, either way it’s a feather in the cap for Tom and his instructors. He joins the Royal Academy of Music course in September.
After a sparkling performance at the London Jazz Festival, the Trinity Laban Contemporary Jazz Ensemble was back in action at Ronnie’s on Monday, with two imaginative sets of arrangements. The first, directed by Malcolm Earle-Smith, was a compilation of standards; the second, for which the band was bolstered with serious professional assistance in the shape of drummer Nic France and bassist Laurence Cottle (pictured), directed by Julian Siegel, was a sensational set of Jaco Pastorius arrangements.
Ronnie’s was full, and the atmosphere at its most carnivalesque, but the players were admirably unfazed. The first set pieces were taken straightahead, but were lovingly phrased, with a craftsmanlike appreciation of the music’s dynamic requirements. It must be most students’ dream to play a Ronnie’s solo, and the arrangements were well adapted to enable many of them to have their moment. Given the numbers, there isn’t space to name every one, but standouts included Rachel Bennet’s sweet, yearning vocals, Rosie Turton’s smooth, muscular trombone, and Milo McKinnon’s athletic trumpet. Earle-Smith was a beacon of enthusiasm, giving his young band just the right amount of space to flourish. Occasionally a little more elasticity in the tempo would have kick-started the swing, but otherwise these were extremely vivid and enjoyable renditions of a well-chosen range of standards.
Pastorius is now universally admired for his revolutionary work on the fretless electric bass, massively expanding its repertoire and range, making it an vivid solo instrument and not just a plunking part of the rhythm section. Too many big bands, especially amateur ones (though these fine young players are all on the cusp of professional careers, of course) offer gale-force unison playing, as stiff and flat as a starched shirt. They make audiences think dark thoughts, about trombones and tubas in particular. The big band, like the bass of 40 years ago, needs more variety and complexity in its melodic lines. Which is why it was such a brainwave to arrange Pastorius for this band – his genius was to bring variety and imagination to what was once plodding and dreary.
British bass legend Cottle has picked up Jaco’s gauntlet and revived his music for a new generation – he’s one of the few contemporary players who can both play Pastorius’ lines with their original flare and daring, while also creating searing new arrangements of the material. Thus the second set was a riot of outrageous, thrusting energy, with fluidity to both the melodic lines and the tempo that made every phrase a surprise and a pleasure to hear. The rhythms were also more layered, with sharper elbows and more elastic responses. The whole sax section was made to work hard, with particular brilliance from Theo Erskine’s tenor and Mike Underwood’s alto, while Dan Marks played some sparky bop piano, and Jessica Dowdeswell sang with melting elegance.
The repertoire was varied, within Pastorius’ output, including his arrangement of Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’, and a final amendment to the Pastorius rule with Pee Wee Ellis’ ‘The Chicken’, which became Pastorius’ theme song, although not his own composition. Many of the players were the same as the first set, though a combination of superb material and the gentle encouragement of Laurence Cottle, whose solos were, as expected, wonderfully powerful yet sensitive, and Nic France, spinning tropical vibes on the steel pans, raised the performance to masterful. There’s no better tribute to Trinity Laban’s students and teachers than this sublime performance.
The acclaimed Neil Cowley Trio are set to make a dramatic return in June this year with a radically different sounding new album and a return headline gig at London’s Barbican on 3 October. Their new album, Touch and Flee, will be released on the Naim Jazz label on 9 June, with the band of pianist/composer Cowley, bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins traversing more-open sonic terrain after they reappraised their often riff-led music and set about making some radical changes which now sees them heading into expansive cinematic textures, darker material and epic melodies.
Cowley has said of the new musical approach: “Compositionally, I felt like I was going through the motions rather than feeling a genuine path. At that time, we had been reading a book by David Byrne who commented that recorded music reflects the environment in which it is most enjoyed live. We stopped, reappraised where we are as a band, and began our voyage of discovery.” The band also plans an autumn tour with dates to be announced soon.
– Mike Flynn
See the June issue of Jazzwise for an in-depth interview with the band and watch a taster video of some of the new music below:
The full programme for this year’s Brecon Jazz Festival, running from 8-10 August, with headliners Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter (pictured), songwriting legend Burt Bacharach and Mobo-award winning singer Laura Mvula topping the bill. There’s a heavy dose of synchronicity at play too as this year’s event also includes an appearance by acclaimed maverick Brit-jazz big band, Loose Tubes, appearing in what is both theirs and the festival’s 30th anniversary year.
Other names announced as part of this year’s programme, which takes place in the picturesque surroundings of the Brecon beacons in South Wales, are Beats & Pieces big band, Dennis Rollins’ Velocity Trio, Jean Toussaint, a special tribute to the late Stan Tracey, gypsy jazz guitar star Fapy Lafertin, Chris Barber, Don Weller and David Newton plus leading contemporary UK jazz bands Polar Bear, Kairos 4Tet, and Troyka.
Acclaimed US trumpeter Warren Vache returns to the event for the first time since his first appearance in 1984, this time with a group featuring top UK multi-reedist Alan Barnes and Welsh jazz veteran Mike Harries also appears with his popular Root Doctors band. The festival made something of a return to form last year after organisers Orchard made the event more inclusive to venues around the town and reinstated the popular street parade. They also tried to broaden the appeal of the festival and reported a 20 percent growth in ticket sales.
Pioneering Spanish guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucia has died aged 66, reportedly of a heart attack while playing with his children on a beach in the holiday resort of Cancun, Mexico. His death was announced by the mayor's office in Algeciras in southern Spain, where he was born on 21 December 1947. While he was one of the leading lights of his native Flamenco scene his limitless technique and ability to improvise enabled him to effortlessly straddle classical and jazz idioms as well.
The son of flamenco guitarist Antonio Sanchez and the brother of a flamenco guitarist, Ramon, and flamenco singer, Pepe de Lucia, he famously also worked with contemporary jazz giants such as Chick Corea and recorded the best-selling live recording Friday Night In San Francisco with fellow guitar legends John McLaughlin and Al Di Meloa. He also collaborated with McLaughlin and guitarist Larry Coryell in 1979 and 1980 on the equally fiery Meeting of the Spirits concerts (see video below). His long-running flamenco sextet recorded several classic albums including La Fabulosa Guitarra de Paco de Lucia, Fantasia Flamenca, Fuente y Caudal, Almoraima, and Zyryab. He also paid homage to classical composer Manuel de Falla, on his celebrated 1980 album Interpreta a Manuel de Falla.
Lucia was also a regular visitor to Britain performing several sold-out concerts in recent years including a sensational Flamenco show the Royal Festival Hall – bringing London’s Spanish community out in force, he was greeted as a national hero by the 3,000-strong crowd. One of the most distinctive and richly expressive virtuoso guitarists of all time Paco de Lucia will be sorely missed by his legions of fans – Jazzwise sends our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.
Of all the illustrious guests SNJO has welcomed to Scotland, Kurt Elling seems to be the one who has made himself most at home. This might be because the Chicagoan singer spent a year in Edinburgh as a student and used to catch the then regular Friday jazz concerts, including some by SNJO director Tommy Smith, in this very venue. Whatever the reason, however, there’s certainly a very strong rapport between singer and orchestra who have worked together at London Jazz Festival and Jazz sous les Pommier in Normandy and on SNJO’s latest album, American Adventure, as well as on a previous Scottish liaison.
This latest project premiered a new set of arrangements under the title 'Syntopicon' and if the idea – mostly familiar pieces reimagined to represent themes such as knowledge, wisdom, language and joy – had a certain chewy intellectual conceit, the result was simple: a set of world class performances. Elling handled the explanations and introductions like a matey, very musical professor to the extent that the between-song monologues became as much a part of the performance as his stunning, perfectly enunciated, richly toned singing.
The arrangements were superb, with Christian Elsassier’s setting of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ and Geoffrey Keezer’s orchestration of ‘Somewhere’ proving particular highlights, and Elling’s voice and rhythm section revisiting of ‘A New Body & Soul’, with its startling vocalese, was an added bonus when set alongside a variety of approaches that included a heavyweight holocaust victim’s story stitched into Wayne Shorter’s ‘Go’, a hep cat jive talking take on John Scofield’s gospel-groovy ‘Jeep on 35’, and the transformation of a traditional Scots song learned from the Corries into a bona fide jazz ballad.
Leading UK jazz indie label EditionRecords has signed Finnish rising star trumpeter Verneri Pohjola for an exclusive three-album contract. Previously signed to prestigious German label ACT on which he released two albums, Aurora (2011) and Ancient History (2012), to which TheGuardian gave a five-star review, his move to Edition follows the label’s other recent high-profile signing of UK sax star Tim Garland.
Already making waves in the German jazz press, the 36-year old trumpeter has also received praise from US star Trombone Shorty, who on hearing Pohjola play for the first time commented: “He has a wonderful tone. It has a wide arc to it, and he knows that space is precious – he lets the music speak for itself. Really fantastic!”
With musical parentage including his highly regarded virtuoso bass guitarist father Pekka Pohjola, the trumpeter first emerged as a significant young talent as a member of the Ilmiliekki Quartet. The group won first prize in the Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition in July 2002, the same year they formed, and they soon became one of the most popular jazz groups in Finland. The band were also collectively named Young Artist of the Year 2004 by Finland Festivals while in 2004, Verneri Pohjola was named the Musician of the Year by the Pori Jazz Festival.
Pohjola’s unique tone blends a Milesian sensitivity with an abrasive power matched to a broadly progressive musical outlook. His debut album for Edition will feature pianist Aki Rissanen, bassist Antti Lötjönen and drummer Teppo Mäkynen and is slated for release in early 2015.
Polar Bear, the iconoclastic British post-jazz five-piece, return with their fifth album In Each And Every One on 24 March 2014, which is released on The Leaf Label on CD and double-vinyl LP. The band will be featured in the April issue of Jazzwise – which hits the streets on 20 March – and ahead of this, and their extensive UK tour (dates below) we’re pleased to premiere the new video for their track ‘Be Free’ that’s also available to download here.
Eschewing the indie-guitar tinged sound of their previous album, Peepers, the far more experimental new set finds the band of drummer/leader Seb Rochford, saxophonists Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, bassist Tom Herbert and laptopist Leafcutter John expanding their core twin-horns meets beats-and-bass attack with ambient soundscapes, bursts of white noise, pulsating grooves and stuttering electronic outbursts. The track-listing runs as follows: ‘Open See’, ‘Be Free’, ‘Chotpot’, ‘They're All Ks and Qs Lucien’, ‘WW’, ‘Lost in Death Part 2’, ‘Maliana’, ‘Lost in Death Part 1’, ‘Life and Life’, ‘Two Storms’ and ‘Sometimes’.
The band play the following venues: Band On The Wall, Manchester (20 March); Wardrobe, Leeds (21 March); Thekla, Bristol (22 March); Komedia, Brighton (26 March); Hare & Hounds, Birmingham (27 March); The Space, Nottingham (28 March); XOYO, London (2 Apr); SJE Arts, Oxford (3 April), Sage, Gateshead JazzFestival (6 Apr) and Love Supreme Jazz Festival, Glynde Place (6 July).
As most professional musicians know – the restaurant gig can be one of the most challenging playing environments out there – no matter who you are or what the restaurant. Thus this second in a monthly series of gigs running through until August was a case in point, hosted at the highly regarded London eaterie Le Caprice who have partnered up with Jazz FM and Martell cognac to present a high-calibre selection of jazz artists. Tonight it’s British-born, New York-based singer songwriter and jazz keyboardist Oli Rockberger who has made a special trip to both London, and then on to Germany where he’s set to launch his latest song-laden LP Old Habits, here joined by hugely experienced guitarist (and solo artist in his own right) Femi Temowo.
Rockberger’s burgeoning reputation as both a skilled sideman to the likes of trumpeter Randy Brecker and drummer Steve Gadd, as well as one third of ultra-hip electro jazz trio Mister Barrington and a solo singer songwriter (who’s also composing for an increasingly starry number of artists) all came to bear here in what was a spirited performance, in spite of having an uphill battle to persuade the packed restaurant that if they were to lower their conversations a little they’d actually hear some great music. Although the duo received plenty of hearty applause at the end of each tune.
Once Temowo joined him the pair’s effortless rapport soon paid dividends as the guitarist slipped between slinky blues, gospel and twisting jazz solos – while also emphasising Rockberger’s innate funky grooves that bubble below his most infectious melodies. Indeed while the keyboardist’s music can at first seem squarely aimed at the more accessible end of jazz-influenced soul and rock, many of his tunes are peppered with sly harmonic twists and don’t want for intelligent lyrical content either.
Highlights included the chugging reggae groove of ‘Queen Of Evasion’ with Temowo’s easy going grin perfectly matching his intuitive guitar lines, while a new tune, ‘Ridiculous’, saw Oli grabbing a melodica to really show off his jazz chops. This energised display began to also grab the attention of the room, not least due to the instrument’s wobbling flexible tube down which he was blowing, and at one point he even began to double his right hand lines on the red plastic instrument with his left on the keyboard for a precariously impressive solo. Bringing the set to a close with another rousing new tune, ‘Let’s Stay Home’, it’s clear that beneath the accessibly honed exterior of many of his songs lurks a hugely versatile musician capable of both delivering melodically savvy jazz improv and killer hook-laden tunes, with longstanding colleague Temowo a deftly dynamic foil. Le Caprice has a well deserved reputation as one of London’s finest restaurants yet if they want to present music that matches the quality and class of their menu, without selling the music or themselves short, a small bit of musical house-keeping would elevate the whole dining-while-listening experience for all concerned.
– Mike Flynn
Forthcoming gigs at le Carpice are: Anoushka Lucas (30 Mar); Claudia Morris (27 Apr); Julia Biel (25 May); Angharad Sanders Trio (29 Jun); Artist TBC (27 Jul) and Georgia Mancio (31 Aug).