Frank Zappa's jazz legacy

Frank Zappa left a huge legacy of pioneering music and outspoken opinions that has proved obliquely influential in shaping the style and attitudes of generations of rock and jazz musicians, while often upsetting their elders and certain establishment figures. Stuart Nicholson re-evaluates Zappa’s jazz-oriented work and looks at the ways inwhich he made his mark on improvised music

It’s easy to believe Frank Zappa hated jazz. If royalties were paid on quotes, then he would have been a rich man on the strength of his once witty, but now oh-so-overused jibe, ‘Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny’. Yet in his world of scatological humour, outspoken political criticism, crass satire, send ups, put downs and insider jokes, jazz was something for which he reserved considerable respect. Yet one thing he recognised, right from the beginning, was that jazz was seen by rock audiences as distinctly unhip and could be an impediment to album sales. Jazz was, he once joked, ‘the music of unemployment.'

Consequently he was always careful to position himself firmly in the rock camp, whatever stylistic bridge he had decided to cross, be it to the blues, jazz or classical music. Generic categories tend to be an after the fact rationalisation to define music in its market used by the music industry to organise the sales process and thus target potential consumers. Zappa knew musical genres were not determined by musical style but by the audience’s perception of that style. ‘It’s foolish,’ he once said, ‘every time you hear someone improvise [in my music] to assume it's jazz.’

He knew the music business was as much about organising audiences’ expectations as selling albums. So if you were a rock fan and heard improvisation and didn't immediately associate it with jazz, it brought more people into his music – a music where the listener could be confronted with a wide range of musical challenges under the generic safety net of ‘rock’.

Zappa Absolutely FreeCertainly a large chunk of Zappa's music contains plenty of improvisation, but it’s not all jazz improvisation by a long shot. Yet his music is amazingly rich for broad minded jazz fans, whether it’s jazz or non-jazz improvisation. Zappa admitted in an interview that even when dealing with parody he worked on harmony and melody in a manner which years later he considered musically valid. Thus one of his cleverest songs, ‘America Drinks and Goes Home’ turns out to be his protest at the banalisation of jazz. A parody of a lounge band playing watered down jazz. 'It was based on the same subconscious formula that all those pukers of Tin Pan Alley used: you know ii-V-l progressions modulating all the way round,' he said. It was used in the album Absolutely Free as a parody of a cocktail lounge love song with ringing tills, brawls and drunken revelry. Yet when pianist Alan Broadbent arranged the piece in 1974 for the Woody Herman Orchestra on the Grammy-winning album Thundering Herd, with Frank Tiberi on bassoon, it became an affecting, memorable ballad.

Jazz slotted into Zappa's musical vision, often in subtle ways. ‘Twenty Small Cigars' is a composition considered by many to be his jazz masterpiece, but his first official recording of it was on harpsichord on Chunga’s Revenge (it had made an earlier appearance in the late 60s with Bunk Gardner on flute as ‘Interlude’). And while the album Overnite Sensation might have been insolent and provocative, it was also a synthesis of lyrics and complex arrangements with jazz solos and accompaniment amid the dizzying rush of Zappa's ideas.

‘As a West Coast band the need for his music to be accessible to hippy audiences was a source of frustration to Zappa’

Zappa arrived at jazz through the blues, his first love. The kind of jazz he liked was made clear as early as 1966 on the inside cover of his debut album Freak Out with the Mothers of Invention, one of the first rock double albums, and one of the first concept albums that was an acknowledged influence on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Included in a very long list of influences cited were Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk. Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans.

It’s hardly surprising in the light of his own highly distinctive music that the kind of jazz musician that appealed to him shied away from the cliches of conventional jazz. 'People like Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp are very important in the history of music, and not just jazz,’ he once asserted. And when asked by aspiring guitar players who to listen to, he would advise Wes Montgomery or tell up and coming keyboard players to check out Cecil Taylor. Both were musicians who had highly individual approaches to their instruments.

Certainly he was critical of jazz – what wasn’t he critical about? – but his criticisms were usually directed to the unthinking fan who adheres to the style without understanding its profound values or the sectarian attitude of those who thought themselves to be members of an exclusive musical elite. Yet he was inspired by jazz. As Ted Gioia notes in The History of Jazz: ‘Zappa’s groups, perhaps alone among the rock bands of the day, could match many major jazz combos in terms of breadth and depth of musicianship.'

Born in 1940, Zappa's peripatetic childhood followed his father’s search for employment, and his early interest in music came through playing his father’s acoustic guitar. When he heard Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s ‘Three Hours Past Midnight’ his interest in R&B was born. Zappa would blossom into an accomplished, gutsy, blues-based player, and Watson would graduate from early influence to occasional recording companion and life long friend. Zappa’s musical curiosity led him to Edgard Varese and classical studies, and he took to writing for the high school band, including one piece called ‘Visual Music for Jazz Ensemble and 16mm Projector' when he was 17.

Zappa's working musical career began as a rock ’n’ roll band guitarist, forming the Mothers of Invention in 1964, when he met a group of musicians who were willing to experiment with his original compositions. Fired from countless venues because of their refusal to perform cover versions of the then hits, Tom Wilson from MGM happened into the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles at the moment the band was playing a blues and, according to Zappa, signed them on the surmise he had discovered a white blues group.

Zappa Freak OutIn 1966 came Zappa's dazzling debut Freak Out. It made Billboard's Top 200 album chart, establishing the Mothers as an 'underground' rock act and setting the tone for Zappa's early musical direction – musically eclectic and weighted towards political debate and satire with songs such as ‘Who Are the Brain Police?' A mixture of good melodies, blasted satire, political contempt, parody and experimentation with black and sometimes immature humour it established a somewhat confusing reputation for the band, who were sometimes reviewed as a comedy act rather than a musical one.

As a West Coast band the need for his music to be accessible to hippy audiences was a source of frustration to Zappa. Nevertheless, while maintaining high musical standards, he set about adding to the vocabulary of rock and contemporary music. In 1967, Zappa and the Mothers decamped to New York City to play a six month residency in the Garrick Theatre, above the Cafe Au Go Go. Performances would vary nightly. ‘I was playing with Jeremy and the Satyrs downstairs at the time,' said jazz vibist Mike Mainieri.

‘We were there on and off for almost a year. Zappa was upstairs with his band. A lot of people are not familiar with Zappa's classical work. He would have workshops and whoever showed up, showed up. He was exploring the more classical approach to composition, written structures. Zappa, myself, Don Preston who played piano for Zappa, and Joe Beck and a few others organised some small chamber ensembles and we would write some weird shit to perform for our own entertainment. That’s why there's a string group on my album Journey Thru an Electric Tube, which was recorded around then.' Mainieri says Zappa often sat-in with the jazz musicians and the Satyrs, sowing the seeds of what would subsequently produce a new colour in his music that would surface in termittently through his career. With his own band Zappa was developing a reputation as a hard musical task master, rehearsing his band during their New York stop-over for long periods as a way of achieving the more complex results he was after.

Two years later, Zappa had Roland Kirk come onstage to jam with the Mothers at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, and again at the Newport Jazz Festival when the Mothers played between the Newport All Stars and Dave Brubeck. The result was ‘quite literally indescribable,' said Downbeat. As a result the Mothers were invited to tour as a George Wein package, an experience which influenced Zappa's view of jazz profoundly.

‘George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz festival put us in a package tour with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Duke Ellington and Gary Burton,' he said. ‘Before I went on I saw Duke Ellington begging – pleading – for a 10 dollar advance. It was really depressing. I told the guys: “That's it we're breaking the band up".' Zappa would later, not without irony, dub an Aynsley Dunbar drum solo the ‘George Wein Variations', which included a manic version of ‘Ain’t She Sweet.'

Zappa Hot RatsIn September 1969, Zappa was to be found sitting-in with Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke trio at The Experience in San Francisco, a rock club. Duke and Ponty were playing an early version of jazz-rock, straightahead jazz improvisation over a rock beat. In the same year Zappa produced Burnt Weeny Sandwich, a proto-jazz-rock album and Uncle Meat which anticipated progressive rock. He also recorded Hot Rats, a mainly instrumental jazz-rock album of original compositions and arrangements that showcased his guitar playing. Hot Rats was accessible, sophisticated and unencumbered with disruptive parody, satire, and Zappa’s apparently insatiable need to sneer at and ridicule the establishment. Even the lyrics of ‘Willie the Pimp’, sung by Captain Beefheart, are in context with the gutsy low-down drive of the arrangement. On ‘The Gumbo Variations’ Ian Underwood manages to pay decent homage to Albert Ayler, although he was by no means a great saxophonist. The album highlights are 'Peaches en Regalia' and 'Son of Mr Green Genes’; 'Peaches' contains no soloing or improvisation as such, but related orchestrated variations of the theme. Such was the affection among jazz musicians for this track, it later inspired ‘A New Regalia', composed by Vince Mendoza, on Peter Erskine's 1988 album Motion Poet.

'Mr Green Genes' is a 16-bar tune consisting of two eight-bar melodies, and is shorn of the inane lyrics of the original version that had previously appeared on Uncle Meat. It gave full reign to Zappa's imagination, allowing him to score for highly unusual combinations of instruments. On the track 'It Must Be a Camel’, the jazz violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty guested and would become a member of Zappa’s revolving cast of musicians.

In October 1969, Zappa collaborated with Ponty on King Kong, an album under the violinist's name subtitled ‘Jean-Luc Ponty plays the music of Frank Zappa'. A mixture of absorbing and not-so-absorbing fusion compositions, the title track in the Dorian mode was for years a Mothers jam session favourite. The 19-minute 'Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra' sustained interest and momentum through imaginative and resourceful writing from the opening bassoon passage to the demonic closing violin passages in 7/8 while 'Twenty Small Cigars' received its first recognition from a jazz musician. Also that year, Zappa was invited to MC the Actuel Festival in Amougles, and jammed with saxophonist Archie Shepp's group. Fifteen years later, he returned the honour, taking part in one of Zappa's concerts (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4).

Although Weasels Ripped My Flesh was released in 1970, it was essentially out-takes from the previous three years, albeit containing 'Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue’, the only tribute from the rock world to the gifted jazz saxophonist and the free-blowing 'Toads of the Short Forest’, complete with a spoken commentary on the jazz time signatures from the leader.

Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, both from 1972, together with Hot Rats, completed Zappa's famous ‘jazz-rock trilogy' (now a three album set). The line-up for both included George Duke on keyboards, Sal Marquez on trumpet, Mike Altschul on saxophones, Bill Byers on trombone and Aynsley Dunbar on both albums, who were augmented to big band proportions on The Grand Wazoo by an array of Hollywood studio musicians. The first track of Waka/Jawaka is the extended 'Big Swifty’. The emphasis is rhythmic, with the original, complex theme – incorporating several metre changes – fading into a modal, bluesy blowing section in 4/4 with solo space for George Duke, Sal Marquez and Tony Duran. Zappa sounds as if he’d been listening to John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu’s Inner Mounting Flame had just been released). Waka/Jawaka avoids repeating the original theme, the arrangement building through complex waves of overdubs and, during the final five minutes, introduces elaborate arranged variations of the main theme complete with tubular bells on the last chorus, displaying unique voicings paralleling the richness associated with Gil Evans. Indeed, Robert Christgau has suggested Zappa had been listening to a lot of Miles Davis, based on the presence of trumpeter Marquez.

Grand Wazoo had a distinctly jazzy feel throughout. The form is intro, theme, solos and theme. However, the theme is 87 bars in length with key, rhythm and theme shifts with a blowing section that has carefully marshalled background figures ebbing and flowing throughout against an intriguing rock-swing feel generated by the rhythm section, the sleeve notes credit the terse sax solo to Funky Emperor: it is, in fact, Ernie Watts. ‘Cleetus Awreetus’ starts with a jaunty light classical feel to it, moving into parody, while ‘Eat that Question’ is in a minor key, with a strident eight bar riff. The soloists build to a dramatic entry by Zappa and a beefed-up recapitulation of the theme to close and fade. How Blessed Relief has not become a jazz standard is a mystery. Performed here as a wistful ballad, Zappa gave full rein to the jazzy direction in which these sessions had been leaning, although Zappa’s music as a whole was too broad and diverse to be limited by conventional categorisation.

Zappa RoxyIn 1973, Zappa reformed the Mothers with a strong line-up that included Tom and Bruce Fowler, Ian and Ruth Underwood, George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty and Overnight Sensation, a synthesis of unusual lyrics and highly articulate, complex arrangements contributed several future concert favourites to his repertoire. Roxy & Elsewhere, a live set from 1974, captured the impressive elan of the group with strong jazz solos and 'little-big band’ attack including the track ‘Be-Bop Tango’ satirically represented as the anthem of the chimerical ‘Old Jazzmen’s Church’. The tricky 'Echidna’s Arf' would be recorded by George Duke at an even more frantic tempo the following year on his album The Aura Will Prevail. The following year Zappa again sounded decidedly jazz-rock-ish on One Size Fits All amid vocals that ‘gave up on mere scatology and extended Zappa's private mythology to new extremes of obscurity.'

Zappa always employed a number of jazz musicians. His explanation was: 'For me it was always more interesting to encounter a musician who had a unique ability. Find a way to showcase that, and build that unusual skill into the composition... so [it] would be stamped with the personality of the person who was there when the composition was created,' a Duke Ellington-like remark if ever there was one.

His later bands always employed excellent drummers and percussionists who possessed an admirable ability to play and read in a wide breadth of styles. Chad Wackerman later spoke of the challenges of working with Zappa. ‘He pushed everyone who worked for him. He'd ask me to play something incredibly complex. When I couldn't do it, he'd get more specific and ask me to play something even more difficult. I couldn't do that either, but as I would try, then I'd realise I was playing what he had originally asked me to play'. Saxophonist Mike Brecker, who played on 1978's Zappa In New York, then playing highly complex ‘electric bebop' arrangements as a co-leader of the Brecker Brothers, has said he was amazed at the detail and rehearsal that went into a Zappa performance. His performances with the guitarist soared.

In the 1970s Zappa-as-composer started to broaden the musical contexts in which he worked, and the true extent of his imagination started to unfold. As well as the live band, and his more popular rock albums, he recorded in a diverse range of contexts. The orchestral Zappa – inspired greatly by Edgard Varese, Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter – emerged in 1971 with 200 Motels, the atonal soundtrack music for film of the same name, and continued up to The Yellow Shark, the release of which preceded his death by just a short while. Later in life he was delighted to be asked by orchestras and chamber groups to perform his many orchestral works.

Zappa Jazz From HellThe jazz connection continued, however, the Grammy winning Jazz From Hell (1988), was an album of original compositions for the synclavier, the computer-to-digital interface used among others by Miles Davis on Tutu. On release it contained a warning against offensive lyrics even though it was an instrumental album.

Zappa gave up running road bands in 1988 after recording Make A Jazz Noise Here, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Broadway The Hard Way. His band, augmented by an agile horn section, acquitted themselves with precision, and showed what a fertile musical imagination could achieve using the 'horns plus rock' formula that was quickly exhausted by bands operating in the Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago nexus. While not jazz-rock, these albums frequently darted in and out of its shadows and were impressive documents of his final performing band. After sinking a good deal of money into the group, Zappa finally called it quits in the middle of his final tour.

His ability to claim both the musical low ground as well as scaling the heights meant that he was easy meat for critics, who were unable to pigeonhole his music. Hereby lies the conundrum, and the need to dig into his recorded repertoire to discover the gems, aided by the judicious use of the fast forward button. As one reviewer noted: 'The constant temptation is to say that Zappa is a genius (which he is) and consequently to rank highly all his offerings.'

An ideal guide to some of Zappa's finest compositions appeared in 1997 from the New Jersey-based band leader Ed Palermo. Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa includes pieces such as 'Twenty Small Cigars', 'Peaches En Regalia’, ‘King Kong’ and 'Waka/Jawaka' that successfully realised the potential of these compositions from a purely jazz perspective. Palermo first appeared with his big band at New York's Bitter End playing Zappa arrangements, but the audience reaction was such that he moved to the larger Bottom Line club. 'It took several months of staying up to five in the morning transcribing and arranging this gorgeous music,' he said, ‘and the audience reaction was incredibly enthusiastic.’

The only real constant in Zappa's diverse musical output was his guitar playing, and all his work is littered with good examples of this. From early solos such as 'The Duke of Prunes' (on Absolutely Free), ‘Willie The Pimp' (on Hot Rats) to later examples such as ‘Fire and Chain’ (on Make a Jazz Noise Here) and the sensuous 'Watermelon In Easter Hay’ (on Guitar), Zappa showed a preference for minor moods, spinning sensuously intense lines within his own unique context and musical vocabulary. Shut Up ’n ' Play Yer Guitar (recorded from 1977-80) was a collection of guitar solos while another collection, Guitar (1978-84) contained powerful playing with Chad Wackerman on drums and Scott Thunes on bass. Zappa was not the only guitarist to be heard on his sessions, guitar monster Steve Vai was on his later work, such as his mind-boggling vocalised-melodic guitar solo on 'The Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ from The Man From Utopia.

Zappa continued composing and conducting up to his death from cancer in December 1993. Nominated for at least seven Grammy awards, he became only the second rock musician (Jimi Hendrix was the first) to enter the Downbeat Critics’ Hall of Fame in September 1994 and was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in January 1995. But he disdained success, opting instead for 'bad taste' and its attendant lack of air play, although Apostrophe (') was eventually certified gold, reaching number 10 on the Billboard chart and the single from it, ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ was Zappa's first in Billboard's Hot 100.

Zappa matched the criteria for a genuinely creative artist concerned with exploring and extending the boundaries of rock, which inevitably brought him into contact with jazz as a means to this end since both have common roots in the blues. Yet while he combined jazz and rock in a particularly individual way producing a classic jazz-rock trilogy and several albums of great interest in the genre, jazz-rock per se was never central to Zappa's musical thinking, more a musical challenge to be confronted and surmounted among many – another musical flavour in a miscellany of musical genres that comprised his remarkable music.

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Across the tracks: Ella Fitzgerald's recording of Duke Ellington's ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’

Brian Priestley takes the opportunity to put Ella Fitzgerald’s soulful 1957 version of Ellington’s ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’ under the microscope

It’s well known that Ella Fitzgerald had the most virtuosic vocal instrument in jazz, at least until Sarah Vaughan, and she’s almost universally revered. In the early part of her career with Chick Webb’s band, and then continuing with the Decca label, she recorded her share of undistinguished material. But, by the mid-1950s when she moved to her manager Norman Granz’s label Verve, she tackled ‘songbooks’ of the previous three decades by Porter, Rodgers, Gershwin etc. The chosen song from her June 1957 set of Ellington numbers is not one of their best known, but it is full of interest.

Despite its conventional AABA design, there’s a rather unusual aspect to the tune, related to the placing of the vocal phrases over their backing. Pop-music history is full of melodies with two or three introductory notes to be sung before the downbeat – and Fats Domino fans will recall the 1920s standard ‘My Blue Heaven’, which has four. But until Duke’s 1935 ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, there was never one with a whole six syllables preceding the first bar (though the same opening phrase occurs in ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’, in those cases it falls after the start of the first bar, which has a rather different effect).

This became more common in later decades but, when ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’ appeared, Ellington had considerable recent success with two such songs that were also originally instrumentals, namely ‘Don’t Get Around Much Any More’ (its newly added lyrics inspiring several cover versions in 1943) and ‘Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me’ (ditto in 1944). It seems that ‘I Ain’t Got…’, first recorded late 1944, was a deliberate follow-up with lyrics already attached but, in popularity and longevity, it was overshadowed by the same session’s ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’.

Concerning this initial collaboration with Ellington, Ella’s and Granz’s biographers have reiterated the latter’s rather damning comment of 20 years later: “Duke failed to do a single arrangement, Ella had to use the band’s regular arrangements.” Since many tracks are in different keys to the originals, it doesn’t take a genius to realise Granz was exaggerating. Ella said something more revealing: “It was a panic scene, with Duke almost making up the arrangements as we went along”, which clearly relates to Ellington’s rather unorthodox way of rehearsing new scores in the studio. Indeed, the 1998 3CD reissue included half-an-hour of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ella and the band working together on their new version of Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’.

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington‘I Ain’t Got…’, on the other hand, is a more straightforward example of a new chart (by Ellington rather than Strayhorn). The original 1944 recording is fairly laidback, with Al Hibbler intoning the ironic words: “Ain’t got the change of a nickel/Ain’t got no bounce in my shoes” and, most interestingly, with vocalist Kay Davis singing wordless responses in the style associated with Johnny Hodges. The 1957 treatment, despite an identical tempo, is more soulful, thanks to Ellington’s triplet-based intro and Sam Woodyard’s insistent off-beat, while the theme-statements by Harry Carney (0’08”) and Hodges (0’31”) evoke responses from a funky trio of muted trumpets.

When Ella finally appears (0’55”), hanging superbly behind the beat, she sings the written melody quite straight, while backed by a quiet but angular bluesy unison line for the trombones. Even in the B-section of the opening chorus (1’45”) with the lyrics “When trumpets flare up…”, Ellington’s trumpets are not in evidence but just harmonised trombones and bluesy unison saxophones, all at moderate volume. The anticipated high-spot comes at the start of the second chorus (2’31”) with the brass suddenly shouting out the rhythm of the tune in Duke’s patented polytonal chords, and Ella doing responses that retain the words but dramatically open up the melody. The piano also becomes more active in a backing role, right up to Ella’s verbal coda (4’11”), which is then inevitably capped by the polytonal brass one more time.

The saying “simple ain’t easy”, sometimes attributed to Monk, comes to mind when surveying a performance such as this. It might seem unsuitable to focus on Fitzgerald in an ostensibly blues context – in the same way, people claim that sad ballads were not her forte since she always sounded too happy. Her great predecessor Louis Armstrong, however, demonstrated for all time that the genius of jazz was to make blues themes and blue notes into a vehicle for psychological release. Whether putting her energy into scatting like there’s no tomorrow, or bringing out the poignancy of a well-written tear-jerker, Ella was inimitable. This track, like so many others, shows her at her best.

Photo of Ella Fitzgerald, courtesy Herman Leonard

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

Life-changing jazz albums: 'My Song' by Keith Jarrett

Pianist Gwilym Simcock talks about the album that changed his life, 'My Song' by Keith Jarrett. Interview by Brian Glasser

The biggest turning point I’ve ever had, it was a life-changing thing that nothing else has come close to, was a cassette that was made for me by Steve Berry. He was the bass player in Loose Tubes, of course, but he was also a tutor at Chetham’s School in Manchester, which I attended from the age of nine till 18. It’s had a lot of terrible press recently, but I can only say that I had a very good time there.

Steve was teaching improvisation classes for classical musicians, and he’s an amazing educator. The first class was brilliant: at one point he set up a chord and got everyone to play over it. That immediately connected for me, because my dad was a church organist and he’d always sit down at the piano and play without any music. Not jazz improvisation of course – I didn’t know what jazz was until this cassette – but I was familiar with the concept that you didn’t need music. So realising, thanks to Steve, that there was a whole genre of music where that’s what it was all about was extraordinary.

I’d been in this hothouse atmosphere of music school, doing competitions and so on. I loved it there; but I already suspected at that point – I must have been 15 – that being a concert pianist wasn’t something I’d like. You’d get a piece of music, and learn it, and then play it, and the most important thing was to get it right. That’s not really a good reason to be playing music. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of that was also the performance anxiety; but I’ve always loved composing and doing my own thing rather than playing music that’s been played a million times before, and by amazing interpretive musicians like Brendel or Schiff, who really have a huge skill for that.

I’ve listened to the whole record millions of times now, but this is still my favourite track – maybe nothing’s quite like your first kiss!

Steve brought this cassette in for me after the second class, which was amazingly generous of him. The first track was ‘Questar’, off My Song. There was such a strong bridge between the classical world and the ECM approach to the music, the beautiful harmony and melody. But I think one of the main things as a young classical musician at the time was the rhythmic element: the rhythmic thing in jazz is so different. In fact, for me as a player it’s been the hardest thing to get together – the time feel is so different to the more rubato, breathing approach of classical music. On ‘Questar’, the propulsion, the momentum, is continuous but it’s so gentle. The drumming is so tender; and there’s a lot of air in the bass line, which the ECM sound accentuates. I’ve listened to the whole record millions of times now, but this is still my favourite track – maybe nothing’s quite like your first kiss!

I can’t remember whether ‘Questar’ was the first piece of jazz I heard. It might sound a crazy thing to say, but I find it quite difficult to listen to music, because it’s an analytical process for me. I’ve got perfect pitch, which is incredibly useful because jazz is such an aural artform; but the only downside is that you know what’s going on the whole time, which makes it difficult to get recreational enjoyment from it. So if I want that, I find myself gravitating to things like Stevie Wonder, or Earth Wind and Fire, or Tower of Power, or Steely Dan – things which just feel good. (Of course, it’s very clever music too.) When I was at classical music school I found it a challenge to listen to classical music – whereas now I like to! It’s far enough removed from what I do. But for me to listen to jazz is quite hard, because I can’t help analysing while it’s happening.

The first four tracks on the cassette were the ones that did it for me: after the Jarrett, the next two were off the Metheny album Travels – ‘Phase dance’ and ‘Straight on Red’; the last was ‘Lôro’, by Egberto Gismonti. The melodies are so beautiful on all of them – they instantly sit in your head and then you hear the improvisation on top. I didn’t understand how it worked when I was 15, it was just musical expression, which I guess is how most people hear music. It’s always struck me: what we the musicians are thinking about when we’re improvising, the technical things, just doesn’t matter to 99% of the audience. For them, it’s the communication. There’s a definite soaring quality to all those tunes that’s very uplifting. I’ve always wanted my music to be positive and optimistic – and I think part of that comes from that cassette.

The album

Jarrett My SongKeith Jarrett

My Song

ECM (1978)

PERSONNEL: Keith Jarrett (p), Jan Garbarek (ts, ss), Palle Danielsson (b) and Jon Christensen (d).

TRACKS :: ‘Questar’, ‘My Song’, ‘Tabraka’, ‘Country’, ‘Mandala’ and ‘The Journey Home’

 

 

 

 

This interview originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

The shape of jazz to come: who to look out for in 2018

Rohey

Photo: Rohey

It’s time to divine the divine, as we ask our crack unit of writers and assorted other taste-formers to gaze into their crystal balls and reveal the intel on those artists they think are set to sizzle in 2018

Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise, Echoes, BBC Radio 3 Jazz Line-Up

The young Guadeloupian drummer Arnauld Dolmen is a very exciting prospect. He’s just made an impressive debut album, Tonbe Leve, that showcases his skills as a composer, as well as improviser, who brings a fresh contemporary jazz sensibility to the rhythmic riches of his heartland.

 

Alyn Shipton, BBC Jazz Now, Jazzwise

Drummer and vibes player Jonny Mansfield not only plays in the up-and-coming Jam Experiment, but his own Elftet will release an album this year of strikingly original music, mixing whimsy with rhythmic grooves.

 

Andy Robson, Jazzwise

Look no further than Mary Halvorson, whose unique guitar voice has burned bright for some years and now deserves a wider audience.

 

Daniel Spicer, Jazzwise, The Wire

For old-fashioned funk-fusion with, ahem, plenty of chops, check out quintet Butcher Brown from Richmond, Virginia.

 

Brian Glasser, Jazzwise

Colin Steele: technically, a re-entry. Not one, but two, albums have announced the second coming, after a long layoff, of the brilliant but tender Scottish trumpeter this year.

 

Chris Philips, Jazz FM

Pianist and keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, already making a name for himself in the highly energetic Ezra Collective, is pianist of choice for China Moses. He is currently working on a raft of different collaborative cross-genre projects, while launching a new solo venture in 2018. Look out for his electronic work with producer and DJ Maxwell Owin called Idiom, set to play at Love Supreme’s all-day event at the London Roundhouse in May and, with a solo album now complete, 2018 could be quite a year for this in-demand musician.

 

Eddie Myer, The Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton

Zenel Trio, Cesca, Shabaka, Triforce, Maisha, James Beckwith, Yussef Dayes, Binker and Moses, Alex Hitchcock – hanging at the Bandstand at Love Supreme we heard a new generation of UK artists breaking through with a fresh sound – looking forward to New Generation Jazz in 2018!

 

Helen Mayhew, Jazz FM

Vibes player, composer and bandleader Jonny Mansfield, still at college, much in demand and his 11-piece band Elftet is an exciting prospect. Also, saxophonist Tom Barford, winner of this year’s Kenny Wheeler Prize from the Royal Academy of Music, is about to release his debut album on the Edition Label.

 

Jan Granlie, editor salt-peanuts.eu

Jeppe Zeeberg is a great Danish piano-player whose distinct musical dialect you can hear in his solo work or with his Horse Orchestra. Modern and free, but still in the rich piano tradition. Another Dane, Lasse Mørch, has his own piano-less quartet whose fantastic Imagining Places I Have Never Been was released early in 2017. A great composer and bassist who has been listening to plenty of Charles Mingus.

 

Jane Cornwell, Evening Standard, Jazzwise

Yelfris Valdés is one of the brightest stars on London’s already vibrant Cuban and latin jazz scenes, having made his name with son kings Sierra Maestra and the pianist Roberto Fonseca. The classically-trained trumpeter landed in the British capital three years ago and swiftly stuck his fingers in a veritable smorgasbord of musical pies. There’ve been sessions for the likes of Quantic, Dayme Arocena, Gilles Peterson, Yussef Kamaal, Cuban/Iranian outfit Ariwo and Henry Wu, with whom he interpreted the music of Freddie Hubbard. 2018 brings a solo project, The World of Eschu Dina. Get ready.

 

Jez Nelson, Jazz FM

Sam Barnett – 16-year-old saxophonist who’s been playing jazz since he was eight. His compositions are ridiculously advanced for someone so bloody young!

 

John Fordham, The Guardian

A former BBC Young Musician of the Year as a classical pianist, Sarah Tandy has been making waves on the London club scene this year – notably with young saxophonist Camilla George – as an incisive, exciting and original new post-bop presence on the keys.

 

Jon Newey, Jazzwise

With their compelling mash-up of spiritual jazz, Afrobeat, drum’n’ bass rhythms and vintage keyboard textures, Maisha hit the head, heart and feet in equal measure. Led by drummer Jake Long and featuring saxophonist Nubya Garcia and guitarist Shirley Teteh their sessions at east London’s Church of Sound have been a revelation and are now set to take their raw, uplifting spirit to a temple near you. Meanwhile, when can we expect astonishing drummer Yussef Dayes’ next venture?

 

Michael Jackson, Jazzwise, DownBeat

Chicago-based Jason Stein has been flying around on a private jet of late, opening stadium gigs for his sister, comedian Amy Schumer, but it hasn’t changed this bass clarinet specialist’s attitude to making uncompromising music. Check his latest, Lucille, on Delmark Records. Elsewhere, alto-saxophonist Nick Mazzarella’s first crush is clearly Ornette Coleman, but he’s quickly become his own brand of virtuoso and a fine composer who can match lyrical ‘in’ playing with wide-ranging free improv.

 

Mike Flynn, Jazzwise

The rebith of fusion sees imaginative guitar/bass/drums crew SEN3 emerging among a new armada of drum’n’bass inspired trios with their sumptuous hybrid of lush melodies, kicking grooves and dime-stop dynamics. Also making waves are the frenetic James Beckwith Trio (powered-up by Harry Pope’s fearsome drumming), impressive London foursome Triforce, with their raw and soulful take on the Mahavishnu Orchestra, while US world-fusion threesome House of Waters which sees Max ZT taking the hammered dulcimer to infinity and beyond, as Moto Fukishima’s bass-playing leaves many slack-jawed in awe.

 

Mike Hobart, Jazzwise, Financial Times

David Virelles is a pianist with serious chops. His latest album, Gnosis, confirms him as an equally serious composer blending classical, jazz and Afro-Cuban traditions. Trumpeter Alexandra Ridout was an outstanding winner of the BBC young musician jazz award of 2016 and just keeps on growing as an artist.

 

Nick Hasted, Jazzwise, The Independent, Uncut

Istanbul’s Korhan Fatuci & Kara Orkestra show the ritualistic communal power still latent in psychedelic, Near Eastern-rooted jazz-rock. Belgian trio Hermia/Ceccaldi/Darrifourcq are also adding immersive, mysterious atmosphere to their playing’s lucid, high-wire intricacy.

 

Paul Pace, Ronnie Scott’s, Spice Of Life

Trombonist Rory Ingham is a young man on the way up – excellent musicianship, swagger and a winning ‘can-do’ attitude – his main project Jam Experiment also contain a coterie of other superb young players.

 

Peter Bacon, Jazzwise

David Austin Grey, Birmingham-based pianist/composer. His energy and creativity mean laurels will not be rested upon. Charlie Haden’s rightful heir, bassist Thomas Morgan, has an impressive CV, but might still be in the foothills of his potential.

 

Peter Quinn, Jazzwise, The Arts Desk

One of five finalists in this year’s Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, vocalist, musician, songwriter and educator Tatiana ‘LadyMay’ Mayfield possesses an unfailingly beautiful timbre and a real jazz feel. Her third album, The Next Chapter, is hotly anticipated.

 

Rob Adams, Glasgow Herald, Jazzwise

Drummer Stephen Henderson has already made an impression with Peter Whittingham Award winners Square One, but has reinforced his credentials this year with superbly buoyant playing in Spark Trio and by adding great shape and assurance to bassist David Bowden and fiddler Charlie Stewart’s new jazz-folk band.

 

Robert Shore, Jazzwise

Sam Barnett’s New York-London Suite was the very definition of musical precocity. Sixteen-years-old when the album was released, the saxophonist/composer/bandleader was just 14 when he penned it.

 

Selwyn Harris, Jazzwise

Keep an eagle eye out for a young Norwegian singer-songwriter with a star quality, Rohey – sort of a cross between Eska, Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse. In the UK, check enterprising London-based LUME saxophonists Dee Byrne (Entropi) and Cath Roberts (Sloth Racket).

 

Spencer Grady, Jazzwise

After a recent series of psychotropic lathes, tapes and other sonic ephemera New York noiseniks Grasshopper (aka Josh Millrod and Jesse DeRosa) will emerge all-conquering from the entrails of 2018 clutching a talismanic third full-length. Quakes from the under-crust ought to be seismic, followers of outlier orbits already thirsty for more of the duo’s blissed-out post-Dark Magus deviancy.

 

Steve Mead, Manchester Jazz Festival

Hold on tight for the short, sharp shocks of Skeltr – the new Manchester duo of Sam Healey’s alto (Beats & Pieces) and drummer Craig Hanson (Toolshed) – it’s high-energy, compact and immediate. Emerging singer-songwriter Mali Hayes also wowed the crowds at MJF this year, with her neo-soulful vocals and her quirkily funky nine-piece.

 

Stuart Nicholson, Jazzwise

Keep an eye out for Cologne-based Pablo Held and his Trio. They have been quietly labouring at the coal face of the German jazz scene to much acclaim and a breakthrough must surely be imminent.

 

Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Birmingham Jazzlines

Chris Mapp continues to work with Gonimoblast and that group’s live album on Stoney Lane Records with special guests Maja Ratkje and Arve Henriksen is wonderful. In 2018, Chris will launch his ‹quiet› band Stillefelt with Percy Pursglove on trumpet/flugelhorn and Thomas Seminar Ford on guitar.

Top 20 Jazz Albums of 2017

Albums of the Year 2017

In another turbulent year of head-spinning change, much of it unwelcome, jazz has once again proved itself as resilient and inspirational as ever. Jazzwise’s prestigious Albums of the Year New Releases Top 20 poll represents the vibrant stylistic diversity running through the contemporary scene. Cécile McLorin Salvant, one of the most exciting jazz singers to emerge in years, has stormed to the top of the chart with her exceptional and adventurous double-album, Dreams and Daggers. Recorded for the most part live at New York’s hallowed Village Vanguard jazz club, Salvant delivers an electrifying performance that’s a perfect blend of old-time authenticity, innate virtuosity and heat of the moment invention. It’s also pertinent to see old masters honoured at positions two and three, with leading UK saxophonist Denys Baptiste’s thrilling and original tribute, The Late Trane, marking 50 years since Coltrane’s death with a forward-looking take on his music; while 87-year-old master pianist Ahmad Jamal returned with an impassioned and richly resonant homage to his home in France, simply and aptly titled, Marseille. Mike Flynn

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Cecile McLorin SalvantCécile McLorin Salvant

Dreams and Daggers

Mack Avenue

As she showed on her auspicious 2010 release WomanChild, the singer is really not one to shirk a challenge. In what is the defining moment of this impressive live performance spread over two discs she looks up at two of the towers of the Great American Songbook – Gershwin's 'My Man's Gone Now' and Berlin's 'Let's Face The Music And Dance' – and scales the heights set by some of her predecessors with a poise and self-possession beyond her 27 summers. Indeed, the impression of a wizened old soul in a young body is greatly reinforced by the wide range of emotional nuance, from desolation to resignation via irony and devil-may-care abandon, that Salvant conveys in her modulations of phrase, some of which are sober and some bold, like an arched eyebrow by way of her voice. That the recording took place at no less historic a venue than the Village Vanguard lends a certain gravitas to the occasion, and the inclusion of a string section on several complementary studio tracks simply dignifies proceedings further. Retaining the able acoustic trio led by pianist Aaron Diehl that graced her previous releases, Salvant negotiates a largely standards-based repertoire with none of the trying-too-hard emphasis that can blight young pretenders. She sometimes, slightly à la Billie, skims the slow pace of introspective spoken word, as if she understands the homoerotic sub-text of Noel Coward's 'Mad About The Boy' and its tragedy in an era of criminalised homosexuality, just as much as she sees the relevance of 'Si J'etais Blanche' ('If I Were White'), a song made famous in France by Josephine Baker in the 1930s, to a modern America bitterly divided along racial fault-lines. Salvant's ability to find such strong echoes of the present in the music of the past and invest each lyric with immense strength of character mark her out as an artist who has a grip on cultural history to match a talent rooted in the now. Kevin Le Gendre

 

BaptisteDenys Baptiste

The Late Trane 

Edition

I was fortunate enough to see the saxophonist perform this tribute to Coltrane at last year’s London Jazz Festival, and it was a five star night. The studio recording more than consolidates what was presented on stage, crucially retaining the spontaneity as well as the precision of the playing, and, courtesy of producer Jason Yarde’s careful mix, a sense of the ‘heaviness’ Baptiste is shooting for with an expanded ensemble. That was very necessary given the subject matter, which is an interpretation of the final phase of Ohnedaruth’s career, when his pursuit of music that evoked the infinite as well as the primeval took him to the outer fringes of sonic convention. Baptiste manages to create similar density with the doubling of instruments such as bass and tenor sax – from stellar guest Steve Williamson, who sounds quite glorious, his broad roar marking a fine contrast with Baptiste’s piercing cry – while retaining an accessible touch that reflects his own Caribbean and black British heritage. The slides into rumba and drum’n’bass don’t so much lighten a bulky sound as nudge it in a more danceable direction that in turn reminds us that the putative divide between avant-garde and pop culture was never unbridgeable for Trane. Baptiste leads this ensemble with great maturity, giving a sense of measure and focus to his improvisations, really capturing the lyricism of the source material all the while bringing his personality to bear on it. 2005’s Let Freedom Ring, his tribute to Martin Luther King, served notice of Baptiste’s imagination, and this laterally courageous take on Coltrane also underlines ambition to match a substantial talent. Kevin Le Gendre

 

JamalAhmad Jamal

Marseille

Jazz Village

A new album from Ahmad Jamal is always an event, as he has seldom stood still in his career, always looking for new settings, new ideas and new material. Although (between periods of semi-retirement) he has preferred a quartet format in recent years, there’s nothing settled about it. The rhythmic variety created by Herlin Riley’s drumming – showing an encyclopedic grasp of rhythm section playing – and Manolo Badrena’s percussion varies the texture beguilingly, while the interplay between Jamal and James Cammack’s bass is apparently casual, but actually deeply nuanced. For example, in the vamp out of which ‘Autumn Leaves’ gradually appears, disappears and returns again, a left hand piano figure becomes a bass ostinato, as Jamal superimposes a second repetitive figure over the bassline. He has always been a past master of building and releasing tension, of dynamic contrasts, and of juxtaposing alarmingly forceful piano figures with playing of such exquisite delicacy that the listener is seduced by the sheer beauty of his touch. On this album we also share the degree to which France, and its southern seaport of the title in particular, has seduced Jamal himself. The dreamy opening title track, where Jamal cunningly superimposes a lazy modal texture over the paradiddles and ratamacues of Riley’s snare drumming, brilliantly creates two moods at once, and this sense of dreaming while time passes relentlessly is recaptured in Al Malik’s declamatory reading of the lyrics, and Agossi’s sensuous singing of them. By weaving the other tracks, mainly new, but also containing two standards, into the spaces between the three versions of ‘Marseille’, means that the album is also conceived as an entity. Individual tracks, including a muscular version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ repay separate listening, but the record rewards listening right through as a whole, in just the way a Jamal concert set unfolds, with a mixture of being self-referential and bravely exploring the new. Alyn Shipton

 

PhronesisPhronesis

The Behemoth

Edition

After a decade faithful to their beloved and classic trio format, Phronesis find themselves borne aloft upon the giant sound of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Given wings by the arrangements of Julian Argüelles, who knows the FRBB and Phronesis with some intimacy, the band’s back catalogue comes alive with a revisioning that yet remains true to the originals. It would have been ‘easy’ for Argüelles to reimagine the songs in his own image, reshaping them through the lens of his own experience of Loose Tubes and the European big band scene. There’s an element of that in the fresh chordings of ‘Untitled #1’. But in general Argüelles remains true to the band’s own arrangements, adding instead colourations, dynamic build and tectonic structures for the likes of Stefan Weber’s tenor to erupt on the urgent propulsion of ‘Stillness’ or for Christian Jaksjø’s unlikely bass trumpet to sing on ‘Charm Defensive’. By not attempting to get a big band to replicate the details and intricacies of the trio’s fleet-footed interplay, Argüelles has liberated both Phronesis and the orchestra to do what they each do best. You’ll gaze amazed as this dragon dances. Andy Robson

 

Charles LloydCharles Lloyd New Quartet

Passin’ Thru

Blue Note

Charles Lloyd formed his New Quartet in April 2007, and has toured and recorded with it whenever he has returned to the quartet format over the last decade. Surrounded by musicians half his age, he seems rejuvenated in their presence – certainly his playing does not betray the passing of years (he was born in 1938) but instead displays a rich, ripe maturity – while the younger men, aware they are under the wing of a master, willingly surrender individual ambition to collective endeavour. Certainly, there is a focus and intensity to Moran’s playing when with Lloyd that’s not so apparent on his own recordings. Lloyd reaches back into his distinguished past with a performance of ‘Dream Weaver’, the title track of his debut album on the Atlantic label that introduced his then new quartet with Keith Jarrett, Cecil McBee and Jack DeJohnette. Recorded at the Montreux Jazz festival on 30 June 2016, it’s a memorable performance, Lloyd commenting, “I bring many more years of experience that I did not have as an idealistic young man.” The remaining performances are drawn from a concert at The Lensic in Santa Fé, New Mexico on 29 July 2016, and include standout performances from both Lloyd and Moran on ‘Nu Blues’, ‘How Can I Tell You’ and ‘Passin’ Thru’. Stuart Nicholson

 

McLaughlinJohn McLaughlin & The Fourth Dimension

Live @ Ronnie Scott’s

Abstract Logix

Not that we’d ever unnecessarily blow our own trumpet, so to speak, but it’s worth mentioning that the CD sleeve text of this ‘live’ highlights compilation from the legendary jazz axe’s memorable two-nighter at Ronnie’s in March forgets to mention that these were also the opening gigs of Jazzwise’s 20th anniversary festival. More significantly, though, this is a recording that could be one of the 75-year-old guitarist’s last UK date, as he comes to the end of a farewell US tour in December with his 4th Dimension band. With this in mind, and the fact that Ronnie’s was such a special venue during his formative years, were probably significant factors in the incisive and soulfully intimate performances heard by sell-out audiences on both nights, a selection of which has transferred well onto CD. Thankfully eschewing a boring muscle-flexing, ego-led fusion workout, McLaughlin and company instead set about freshening up the original jazz-rock ensemble/ composition-focused template. It’s all about the tunes and this is a well-balanced and pretty diverse selection of Mahavishnu Orchestra classics and tracks mostly from 4th Dimension’s most recent 2015 CD Black Light. They announce themselves with a Mahavishnu epic ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’, that kicks in abruptly with crashing chords and percussion before McLaughlin’s lightning Indo-psych fretwork hooks up with Gary Husband’s intensely edge-of-the-seat Fender Rhodes, more of which occurs on ‘El Hombre Que Sabia’, McLaughlin’s otherworldly flamenco-infused tribute to old sparring partner Paco De Lucia. Other big moments include the ominous Led Zep-like chime on ‘Sanctuary’ lifted from Birds of Fire, McLaughlin’s tastefully understated blues references on ‘New Blues Old Bruise’ and bassist Etienne M’Bappe ability to turn jawdropping virtuosity into something shapely and eloquent on ‘Here Comes the Jiis’. Selwyn Harris

 

Jazzmeia HornJazzmeia Horn

A Social Call

Prestige

The Dallas-born, New York City-based vocalist Jazzmeia Horn was my one to watch for in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Jazzwise. At the time, she was a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocals Competition. She went on to win the competition, one of the results of which is this outstanding debut on the historic Prestige label. The traits which first impressed me about the singer – her incredible time feel, impressive range and consistently beautiful timbre – are everywhere in evidence here. One of her touchstones, Horn’s take on Betty Carter’s ‘Tight’ strikes freewheeling scat gold from the get-go, while the constant gear shifts of the Gigi Gryce-Jon Hendricks title track shows the tight rapport between Horn and her musicians. Whether breathing fresh new life into standards such as ‘East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)’, soaring spectacularly on a joyous ‘I’m Going Down’, phrasing ‘The Peacocks’ with an immaculate legato, or charting the narrative ebb and flow of ‘Medley’, A Social Call is one of the singularly most powerful debuts of recent times. Peter Quinn

 

DjangoDjango Bates with The Frankfurt Radio Big Band

Saluting Sgt. Pepper

Edition

A heady brew of Beatles, Bates and beefy big band, Saluting Sgt. Pepper could easily have been one seriously over-egged concoction. But though we are whisked away on a Wurlitzer of multi-tracked voices and instrumentation, Bates and the assembled masses have pulled off a master stroke of wit and imagination delivered with discipline. What holds it together is that Bates has remained loyal to the original album’s concept: the arrangements are essentially the same, as is the running order, preserving the flow of one song into another. Bates has also retained familiar musical coat hooks from the original that orient us throughout the project, like Ringo’s fills, that meat and potatoes piano, all the vocals (a heroic performance from Dahl). But around those loved elements, Bates interleaves colours and rhythmic reinventions that complement the songs while maintaining a deep respect, and, crucially, an even deeper affection for the music and the emotions it evokes. Somehow Bates finds musical equivalents for the studio effects (most obviously on that iconic close to ‘A Day In The Life’), sometimes he joyously builds on what’s already there (a choir of clarinets on ‘When I’m 64’), or he cheekily inserts, as with the extra beat in ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Because it’s so tightly visioned, there’s little room for the band to stretch out, except on the reprise of ‘Lonely Hearts Club Band’, which kicks in funky and dirty. But all that does is make you want to hear how special this could be live. Andy Robson

 

WollnyParisien / Peirani / Schaerer / Wollny

Out of Land

ACT

Though this was the first performance by this intriguing line-up in Bern in 2016, it is already being hailed a supergroup. And with good reason. Between them, this hugely talented group of thirty-somethings have won 12 German ECHO awards – and let’s not kid ourselves here, the ECHO award given by the Deutsche Phono-Akademie, an association of recording companies, is to recognise outstanding achievement on record and is a big deal in Europe – placing them among the crème de la crème of European jazz musicians. Parisien and Peirani are leading exhibits on the Paris jazz scene, Schaerer from Switzerland is one of the great singing improvisers of our time while Michael Wollny’s shooting star career into the top ranks of European jazz has been a thing to behold. What is remarkable in the light of these performances is that neither Wollny or Schaerer had previously played together before three days of rehearsal prior to the concert. Yet what emerges is a series of five highly interactive, in-the-blink-of-an-eye give-and-take creations where each individual performer is charged with sustaining the creative moment in solo without upsetting the symmetry of the collective whole. In other words, they don’t go off in pursuit of their own creative muse that may or may not fit the context of what has been created collectively, but work within its parameters. During the course of these remarkable performances each musician seems intent in raising the bar of collective interaction so that what emerges is something that exceeds the sum of its component parts. Climaxed by ‘Ukuhamba’, an audacious 14-minute epic, it demands recognition for the triumph of spontaneously conceived jazz improvisation it is. Stuart Nicholson

 

DiasporaChristian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Diaspora

Ropeadope

Review of the first part of the trilogy, Ruler Rebel: Is this the future sound of black American jazz – an inclusive yet rhythmically complex groove based music that owes as a much to black urban culture – predominantly hip hop and trap music rhythms – as it does to jazz improv techniques and rhythms? It’s certainly interesting that similar elements swim through the music of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, who along with Scott are currently big box office, pulling-in substantial new audiences for their music. Ruler Rebel is the first album of a trilogy celebrating 100 years of recorded jazz, and will be followed by Diaspora and Emancipation Procrastination later in the year. At the heart of this music are polyrhythmic grooves that might come from jazz, New Orleans black Indian music, trap, Malian rhythm Kassa Soro and the interplay between an SPD drum machine and live drumming. Largely featuring Scott’s trumpet, the record introduces his articulate and frequently eloquent voice as the narrator of Ruler Rebel, much like the Persian Princess Scheherazade narrating her tales of the mysterious east to Sultan Shahriar over one thousand and one nights. A key track is ‘Encryption’, a summation of Scott’s direction of travel on the album. Here the running rhythm is derived from the New Orleansian Afro-Indian culture married with Malian Kassa Soro. This is in turn is layered with SPD-SX electronic drum machine and sampling machine played by Joe Dyson and Cory Fonsville that introduce rhythmic elements from trap and hip hop. Sounds complex? Well it is, but it works. Other highlights include ‘New Orleansian Love Song’ and ‘New Orleansian Love Song II’ and a celebration of Afro-Indian culture on ‘The Coronation of K. Atunde Adjuah’. Stuart Nicholson

 

Anouar BrahemAnouar Brahem

Blue Maqams

ECM

Those who took Tunisian oudist Brahem’s beautiful 1998 album Thimar to their hearts might show some love for this release that reunites him with that session’s featured bassist Dave Holland. While there is no sign of saxophonist John Surman, drummer Jack DeJohnette steps in to the breach alongside pianist Django Bates. All of which makes for an interesting blend of both sounds and CVs. Over the years Brahem’s musical world has been intimate, if not hushed, and largely devoid of the presence of snare and cymbal. So DeJohnette’s appearance is noteworthy, as is the decisive but unforced authority he brings to proceedings. Making very focused use of the kit, his astute prodding of the bass drum and skipping tom patterns create a groove that is airy rather than weighty. That said, the whole session has a tremulous, simmering intensity. The title refers to Arabic modes, the richness of which is grist to the mill of an imaginative composer-improviser such as Brahem, and he draws on them extensively, presenting compositions in which curled, careening melody enhances the strong ensemble voice. However, in the moments when the group breaks down to leave him unaccompanied he excels by way of phrasing that is majestically doleful, conveying moods that are then heightened by the gently brushed, mandolin-like yearnings of Bates’ right hand. For both the poise and restraint of the band as well as the beauty of the tonal palette and material this is a strong entry in Brahem’s discography. Kevin Le Gendre

 

TabornCraig Taborn

Daylight Ghosts

ECM

Daylight Ghosts is one of the most evocative and tantalising titles in recent memory, but, more to the point, it stands as a meaningful cousin to Taborn’s release Avenging Angel. Whether a comment on an increasingly dehumanised world or a cryptic claim that spirits, perhaps both good and evil, move among us when the sun is up rather than down, there is an intellectual and emotional substance in the pianist’s use of language that matches the creative core of his music. As has been the case since his emergence in the early 1990s, Taborn has a strong interest in group chemistry and Daylight Ghosts is an ensemble offering in the true sense of the term. In most songs it is the overlap and entwining of parts, the polymelodies as much as polyrhythms, that hold the attention, with head-solo-head strategies largely eschewed. Furthermore, Taborn excels at conjuring ambiences where chords don’t so much shift as melt in and out of focus, and the vapor trails of electronics and icy slivers of acoustic piano of ‘The Great Silence’ make for one of the finest soundscape pieces in his songbook to date. However, the carefully considered breathing space afforded these disparate elements and Taborn’s ability to blur the line between organic and synthetic timbres so that contemporary technology does not feel at all like a bolted-on element in the arrangements is no less impressive. Sprightly non-western rhythms, fluid time and bluesy backbeats simply enhance this beguiling hypnosis. Taborn’s compositional voice is one of distinction, capturing the chill winds that blow over the world today in shadowy laments and juddering grooves, anthems for the anxiety felt by those who see (more) trouble ahead. Or maybe he has written great songs of solace for people in sorrow. Kevin Le Gendre

 

StankoTomasz Stańko New York Quartet

December Avenue

ECM

Listening to the enigmatic Polish trumpet legend Tomasz Stańko is not something to be taken lightly. His mesmerising new album December Avenue by his so-called New York quartet, the follow up to 2013’s Wisława, illustrates this point perfectly. On the surface the darkly reflective character of the music is one that marks out all his recordings, though this particular group creates perhaps more of a balance than previously with the injection of more playful, urban jazz grooves. Underneath though lie deeper layers of meaning that require more focused listening. Moving between apartments in Warsaw and New York, Stańko has no doubt been reinvigorated of late by having a regular east coast line-up, the only new member since Wisława being Reuben Rogers, a compelling bass sideman for both Charles Lloyd and Joshua Redman among others. The contribution from both drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianist David Virelles is nothing less than sublime, the latter delicately drawing from classical music and jazz as well as his Cuban roots, but always organically and entirely at the service of the trumpeter’s compositions. Throughout the recording they manage to say more with less and, following Stańko’s example, attach as much symbolic significance to space as they do sound. From the wearily atmospheric vignette ‘Cloud’ through to the Miles’ free bop-intofusion era references on ‘Burning Hot’ and the title track, Stańko’s compositions are at a high standard with no shortage of ear-catching melodies. The band make a very welcome return to the London Jazz Festival in November. Selwyn Harris

 

HawkinsAlexander Hawkins

Unit[e]

Alexander Hawkins Music

His collaborations and sideman gigs, above all with the legendary Louis Moholo-Moholo, are notable, but Hawkins’ recordings under his own name have also been worthy of attention. This 2CD release is an impressive overview of the British pianist’s strength in both small group and orchestral formats, though there is some overlap in personnel between the sextet on the first disc and the 13-piece ensemble on the second. The tremendous vigour and momentum of the first band is writ large on the opening track, a reprise of Jerome Cooper’s ‘For The People’, in which the joyous hop-skip-jump theme is embellished with a series of taut, concise but memorable variations. Elsewhere there is a strong resonance of Prime Time’s low slung off-centre funk while the orchestral material has an architectural complexity that reflects Hawkins’ avowed interest in AACM aesthetics. While the quality of the collaborators across the two discs is consistently high the fine details really make a difference, be it the bittersweet sway of Otto Fischer’s voice, which is well juxtaposed with the croak of Shabaka Hutchings’ bass clarinet, or the way Matthew Wright’s electronics provide sly embers to the dusk fire of the horns. As absorbing a soloist as he is, with his slanted, elliptical lines, Hawkins is really a vital link in a long historical chain, and his ability to sculpt his own language from a deeply rooted creative bedrock is compelling. Kevin Le Gendre

 

MitchellNicole Mitchell

Mandoria Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

FPE

Mitchell’s work over the past decade has been of a consistently high standard, but she excels herself on this new offering. An improviser with both attention to detail and flourish, Mitchell also has an ear for astute combinations of instruments and an understanding of myriad cultural traditions that allow her to fashion vocabulary well beyond genre confines. Halfway in to the set there is a startling passage of solo vocal testifying by Avery R. Young and it stands as a fine centrepiece, shoring up the essential gospel foundation of the album. Yet the route taken to this epiphany is utterly unforeseen, for the preceding arrangements are an intriguing composite of spectral Japanese and European classical music, industrial guitar rock and back-o-yard blues. Mitchell’s scores are like shapeshifters that bring these disparate elements in and out of focus, but the backbone of the music has the requisite flexibility and clarity to make this possible. Wisely, there is percussion where one might expect a kit drum, and the additional space enables the many timbres to coalesce without any real clutter, much as they do in Afro-latin or indeed Middle Eastern music. Taut, often spare basslines only serve to centre the choral ornamentation. The net result is a real ensemble voice in which solos are contained rather than extended and the interplay of various woodwinds or strings – the overlapping of flute and shakuhachi or the weaving of guitar and cello – is very effective. Mitchell has crafted a structural canvas that is not top-heavy but has great depth, both sonically and emotionally. Mandorla, inspired by ‘the Great Mother’, is confirmation of a brilliant storyteller as well as composer-player in contemporary creative music. Kevin Le Gendre

 

Courtney PineCourtney Pine

Black Notes From The Deep

Freestyle

The headlines may be about the eye-catching collaboration with Omar, but more significantly Black Notes From The Deep finds Pine turning to the tenor for the first time in a decade, wrestling with his horn and the challenge that is about being black and British in our interesting times. As if given confidence by the no frills vibe of The Ballad Book, Pine has taken the intimacy of the classic quartet structure and assembled an album of ballads and blues pierced through with soul and sharp intelligence. The tone is set by the assertive but never aggressive ‘Rules’, with Omar declaiming, “Let’s state our rules… be in control of the main thing”. And control is the key to Black Notes: the tenor of course can be tough and terrifying, yet Pine keeps it proud and purposeful, never being seduced by anger, even on the chillingly titled ‘Rivers of Blood’. His achievement is to reflect on the current spirit of our age, filter it through references to past experience (check his ‘A Change Is Sure To Come’ or the noirish blues of ‘You Know Who You Are’) and then re-present it to us dark, blue and occasionally bible black, but always clear-eyed and courageous. Of his own admission, Pine sometimes writes essays to ‘explain’ his works, especially the epic scaled messages of House of Legends or Europa: but with Black Notes from The Deep, the jazz warrior has stiffened his tenor sinews and summoned the blood to let the music do the talking, and Omar do the singing. Andy Robson

 

AkinmusireAmbrose Akinmusire

A Rift In Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard

Blue Note

Trumpeter Akinmusire’s studio output has been steady since his 2008 album Prelude To Cora, and this double album recorded in performance at the storied New York venue is an assured milestone in his career to date. There are patented Ambrosisms both in terms of playing and writing – that almost flute-like swoon and smear of tone; brooding minor themes full of nonlinearity and melodic asides arriving unforeseen. When the trumpeter says that, although he and his ensemble play ‘a lot’, there is also a spare Chopin quality to what they do, he tells no lie. The shadowy, crepuscular character of much of the material is well to the fore, the result of which can be an intimacy that honours the memory of Booker Little and the living legacy of the great Ron Miles. The richness of Akinmusire’s timbre and phrasing is such that the absence of a reed is not really felt, and his quartet, in any case, is a highly accomplished small group in contemporary jazz. The players are capable of covering the excitingly wide spectrum of the elegiac and the energetic, and the various points of intersection between the two, facilitated in no small measure by drummer Justin Brown’s superlative variations of hard swing, percolating funk and cleverly stuttered march beats. A notable coming of age. Kevin Le Gendre

 

PeltJeremy Pelt

Make Noise

HighNote

With every new Jeremy Pelt album, there’s always something different to look forward to. This is the follow-up to the recently reviewed Jiveculture which featured Ron Carter. This time around he uses Victor Gould on piano, whose leader debut CD on FSNT made this writer’s ‘Best of…’ list for 2016; Vincente Archer, one of New York’s major bassists; Jonathan Barber, a highly rhythmic drummer, whom Pelt used for European dates (very loud in person!), whose feature number is ‘Evolution’, probably the most adventurous of the originals; and, as an additional stimulant, his young percussionist discovery Jacquelene Acevado, who kicks off the record with a prologue for the melodically exciting title tune. Another big difference to Jiveculture is that Jeremy wrote all the tunes, with the exception of ‘Digression’ (Archer’s feature), which is by a Pelt associate, pianist Simona Premazzi, and one of the album’s high-spots. But it’s Jeremy’s record, with arguably his best trumpet playing to date. For once, no fluegelhorn. His sound is robustly flawless – very pure and, of course, there’s a lovely ballad ‘Your First Touch…’, which has some equally tender Gould piano. Two of the most satisfying tracks are saved until the end – the ultramellow, conga-backed ‘Chateau d’Eau’ and the closing hard-hitting belter, ‘Bodega Social’. There are some really terrific trumpet records around at the moment, like the Roney, Weiss and Harrell/ Akinmusire. Here’s another corker! If you can, try and buy them all! Tony Hall

 

VijayVijay Iyer Sextet

Far From Over

ECM

Far From Over arrests on so many levels that at times the energy and varying emotional pulses seem nearly uncontainable. As the pianist fronts this formidable sextet on such compositions as the volatile ‘Down to the Wire’, the whiplashing ‘Good on the Ground’ and the charging title-track, he impels shifting rhythmic beds with serrated melodies and improvisations, while the dynamic frontline horns concoct writhing parallel lines that often bloom into intense strains of laser-sharp passages. In turn, the disc offers moments of glowing introspection – the best of which are the elegiac, piano-bass-drums treatment of ‘For Amiri Baraka’, the spectral ‘End of the Tunnel’, which finds Iyer’s Fender Rhodes chords glimmering alongside Graham Haynes’ lamenting wails, and the pensive ‘Threnody’. Here Iyer slowly unravels a suspenseful melody underneath Stephan Crump’s economical bass counterpoint and Tyshawn Sorey’s delicate cymbal and tom rhythms before the song’s balladry gives way to more foreboding intensity once Haynes, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and tenor saxophonist Mark Shim enter the fray.

 

BinkerBinker & Moses

Journey To The Mountain of Forever

Gearbox

Following the critical acclaim lavished on their 2015 debut Dem Ones, Binker and Moses consolidate and expand, both in ideas and personnel. This ambitious double album comprises one session in which the drummer and saxophonist deliver another potent duologue and a second in which they are joined by stellar guests drawn from different generations and backgrounds. Needless to say the format highlights a strong contrast, and not just between music made from small and large resources. B&M’s strength as composers and improvisers, or co-composers in a setting of considerable spontaneity, comes well to the fore. While a piece such as the ‘Fete By The River’ is a compelling example of how a timeless West Indian rhythm such as calypso provides much stimulus for players who can tune into its essence while avoiding soft-option clichés, the more introspective investigations of the ensemble work are no less gripping, primarily because of the careful balance that is struck between the numerous voices at play. They nestle into an open assembly that shifts beguilingly through all manner of tone poetry with a spiky sub-text. A bold statement of intent from two artists who have stayed focused while taking risks. Kevin Le Gendre

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