Life-changing albums: Von Freeman's 'Doin' It Right Now'

Saxophonist Steve Coleman talks about the album that changed his life, 'Doin’ It Right Now', by Von Freeman. Interview by Brian Glasser

For me, it’s not really about records so much as live gigs. There was a guy called Von Freeman – not everyone’s heard of him! – in Chicago where I grew up. He didn’t formally give me lessons, but he was kind of like a mentor. Watching him year after year definitely changed my life. I would make private recordings and listen to them. I started off with stereo reel-to-reel, later on cassettes. I’d be in the audience, these were nightclubs so it wasn’t so much of a stage. I’d just be there recording, because I was trying to learn the music. I was 18, 19 – that’s when I started learning what the music was about.

When I played them back later, there was so much to get: the rhythm, the way it flowed, melody, harmony, saxophone stuff like fingering and breathing – there’s so much that you’re getting all at once when you see somebody live. The earliest album I heard of his was Doin’ It Right Now, but it’s different on record. I listened to records of course, but for me the much more important thing was seeing people live.

With the tapes, I had to work it all out myself – I didn’t understand anything at the beginning. These guys were older professionals in my father’s generation and they wouldn’t tell you anything – it wasn’t like a school situation where they’re telling you what the chords are and so on. They learned the same way – so I figured if they could do it, so could I. For me, it’s way better than going to jazz school – it’s not even close. Actually, it’s not even a matter of ‘better’ – it’s not the same thing. It’s a whole different kind of learning.

I’ve never taken one improvisation lesson in my life. I won’t say that I didn’t try to study with Von – but he said, ‘No – I don’t teach’. I asked another guy in Chicago for lessons – Bunky Green. And he told me ‘No’ too! They were my two favourite saxophone players in Chicago at the time; so, I thought, if these guys aren’t going to teach me, then forget it – I’ll just get it like they got it.

Primarily, what I did was this: there were people like Charlie Parker who I’d found out about; and I wanted to know how they learned how to play; and I wanted to copy it. Not mimicking what they were playing but how they learned how to play – their process. I knew that that process produced great musicians, so I wanted to know what it was. That’s what they’d done in their time – they didn’t go to schools like Berklee. I thought: ‘These guys didn’t learn to play in school – so I’m not going to learn how to play in school’. To me, that was kind of obvious.

Initially, I went to a particular concert to see Sonny Stitt, because he sounded like Bird to me, so I had that sound in my head. Von Freeman, who I didn’t know at the time, was the other saxophonist on the concert. But Sonny Stitt didn’t live in Chicago; whereas Von did. When I talked to Von afterwards he said, ‘I have these sessions that happen every week on the South Side’; and gave me the address. It wasn’t far from where I lived, so I started going. That’s how I hooked up with him. It wasn’t because I thought he was amazing – I couldn’t hear that in the beginning. I only heard that later, after I started hanging around. Even that took a while, because my ears weren’t developed.

I was always aware of death – I knew everyone wasn’t going to be around for ever; so I tried to get as much as I could from people while they were still around. Whether it was Thad Jones, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson – I tried to see them as much as I could. If you want to be a master shoemaker, you hang around master shoemakers! It’s osmosis.

Having said that, when I listened back to the tapes of Von when I was young, I did try and emulate him – I tried to play the notes and transcribe them. You have to do that to know what they’re doing – you have to get into the detail. I listened to Von from 1975 – when I was 18 – till when he died. I only played professionally on a gig with him two or three times, and I made a couple of recordings with him. Usually he was playing with his group and I was playing with mine.

The learning part never stops – I’m still trying to figure out what people are doing! For me, ‘doing my own thing’ and ‘learning’ is the same thing, it’s not separate – learning is my own thing …

Life-changing albums: Stevie Wonder's 'Hotter Than July'

Bassist Avishai Cohen talks about the album that changed his life, Hotter Than July, by Stevie Wonder. Interview by Brian Glasser

When I was 10 or 11, we got a tape cassette player in the car. That was where I heard my brother’s tape copy of Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July. The groove, the infectiousness, totally consumed my emotional state and being. My memory is that I’m sitting in the car alone while the car is parked at our house, checkin’ it out myself. That’s my memory – of being alone. We had a cassette player in the house, so I guess I was in the car so that I could be on my own – I don’t totally remember.

I was playing piano already, having my go at music in whatever way; and this record was a revelation – I was washed with information that was vital. I took a liking to the whole thing as one big chunk of happiness. Later on, when I was further down the road as a musician, I picked certain tracks that I thought were funkier or that blew my mind, wondering how he came up with them. Funnily enough, the cassette tape, when I was in New York in my early twenties, was the best place to go back and forth and really research something on the album – more than the CD and the vinyl.

Since I was young, I’d loved music – but this album changed me and shaped me. I can hear my passion for music lying in there – not all of it, but a big chunk of it. It’s how I like music to be! Really, it’s been my biggest inspiration. Stevie possesses it all. He is my ultimate type of musician to try to be like. As much as I love Coltrane or Miles, or whoever – and they are the highest order of musicianship – this is nothing less than that and even more in some ways: the way he sings and arranges, the way he writes music that is so particular to him, that is what washed over me most. A genius doesn’t need to prove himself – he just needs to be himself, or herself. That’s what it is in this case: it just oozes out of the recording. Stevie is way beyond – it’s as if he sees or hears more than everyone else. It’s like a natural thing – a fountain.

“Stevie has a hybrid kind of homegrown, self-taught thing that is very particular to himself; and that has always been my goal”

As a result of that, I think, it sounds like it’s all Stevie – even the parts he doesn’t play. That’s very inspirational for me. I’m going in that direction myself, now more than ever. I’m doing lots of stuff at home – recording, collaborating, or brewing stuff. To me, he’s a very ‘home’ kind of person – there’s one source for everything. I feel close to that concept right now.

In my own career, it’s not that I’ve tried to access him – there’s never much consciousness in my process of writing, for instance. It’s the opposite: I forget any facts, facts are no longer interesting. It is the flow – based on your experience in life and emotional experiences that are burned into you. They are your source, where you operate from, not knowing specifically what it is. You’re just responding to an energy inside. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Stevie has a hybrid kind of homegrown, self-taught thing that is very particular to himself; and that has always been my goal.

The cool thing is that, with the years as I develop and change and mature, this record still goes with me and it’s one of my favourite records to listen to – and to learn from still. I use YouTube or Spotify or anything that gives me fast access to it. It’s so familiar that it doesn’t matter what kind of system or source brings it to me – when I hear it, the information is right there immediately, doing the same thing it always has done. This is the great thing about recorded music!

So I check it out often, as an old friend and a future inspiration. Of course, I know every bassline – put that record on now and I could play through the whole thing! Not because I’ve practiced it, but because I’ve heard it so many times…

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.magsubscriptions.com/music-jazzwise

The Shape Of Jazz To Come: Who To Look Out For In 2019

It's time to divine the divine, as we ask our crack unit of writers and assorted taste-formers to gaze into their crystal balls and reveal the intel on those artists they think are set to sizzle in 2019... 

Rob Adams (Glasgow Herald, Jazzwise)

Two names, among many, stand out on the vibrant Scottish scene. Drummer Graham Costello’s STRATA combines drama, intelligent, incisive improvisation and Reichian minimalism, while saxophonist Matt Carmichael plays with imagination and great solo-building nous.

Jane Cornwell (Evening Standard, Jazzwise)

I’ve been following the wonderful UK instrumentalist and bandleader Bex Burch for a while, and am so impressed with her use of the gyil, the Ghanian xylophone, which she studied intensively at the source. The first album with her trio Vula Viel showcased the instrument’s sound, placing it in a jazzy context with Ruth Goller on bass and Jim Hart on drums, and the forthcoming Do not be afraid[sic] (Jus Like Music) goes even deeper into the fundamentals of Dagaare systems, exploring groove, space and chaos. Post-punk jazz from London via the West African heartlands. Even Iggy Pop is a fan.

John Cumming (Serious)

Ife Ogunjobi, Joe Bristow, Hanna Mubya, Mebrakh Johnson, Kaidi Akinnibi and Alam Nathoo made the jump from Tomorrow’s Warriors to become Harlem Hellfighters  – Jason Moran’s meditation on the legacy of James Reese Europe – and proved that there’s yet another generation of terrific British players on the way up.

Tony Dudley-Evans (Jazzlines, Cheltenham Jazz Festival)

I was immensely impressed by the four bands which toured as part of the JPN Emerging Talent package – Joshua Schofield Quartet, Morpher, Samantha Wright Quintet and the Bela Horvath Trio. We’ll be hearing a lot from them in the future.

Mike Flynn (Jazzwise)

The future of the rhythm section looks bright indeed with extrovert LA drummer/keyboardist Louis Cole dazzling audiences online and live with his musicianship, deadpan gags and showmanship, while phenomenal UK drummer Jamie Murray’s Beat Replacement (pictured) are putting the fun back into fusion. Fast rising electric/acoustic bassist Seth Tackaberry is an astonishing young player still studying at the Royal Academy and keyboardists Charlie Stacey and Tomasz Bura are combining chops and imagination beyond their years.

John Fordham (The Guardian, Jazzwise)

Pianist, composer and producer Joe Armon-Jones has certainly scattered clues to his promise in 2018, but his alchemies of jazz, and London’s multiple musical vocabularies – without betraying improv – can only deepen next year.

Brian Glasser (Jazzwise)

Trio HLK: Forceful and far-reaching bassless trio whose debut album Standard Time, pulls off the neat trick of combining jazz with modern classical. No harm done in getting Evelyn Glennie and Steve Lehman in to help.

Spencer Grady (Jazzwise)

Keep an eye on a cell of London-based itinerants mangling the old extemporising templates, among them Joe Wright with his abstract sax-electronics interplay, Luigi Marino and his mutant cymbal clarion, plus drummer Andrew Lisle, who throws stuttering blast beats and eternal snare rolls into his flexible free-music lexicon.

Jan Granlie (editor Salt Peanuts – salt-peanuts.eu)

Danish, Norway-based saxophonist, Signe Emmeluth, is following what Mette Rasmussen did a few years back. Hers is always energetic playing, bolstering several projects such as Konge (with Mats Gustafsson, Ole Morten Vågan, Kresten Osgood) and her own quartet Emmeluth's Amoeba (see below).

Nick Hasted (The Independent, Jazzwise, Record Collector, Uncut)

Like Nubya Garcia, alto-saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi’s talent has been incubated in the band Nérija. Gorgeous gigs this year suggest her Seed Ensemble will mark out their own terrain with an album of commanding, dynamic jazz suites.

Mike Hobart (Jazzwise, Financial Times)

Pianist Sarah Tandy has a superb touch, voices beautifully and plays with a great sense of time. Her confidence has grown and she’s found her own voice. Watch out for her upcoming debut album on Jazz re:freshed.

Emily Jones (Cheltenham Jazz Festival)

London vocalist Cherise Adams-Burnett played a brilliant gig with Kansas Smitty’s House Band in Cheltenham this year, and is also known as the vocalist for Trope. She’s currently developing her own material and plans to record her debut album in 2019, following the first headline show with her new band in the Elgar Room at London Jazz Festival 2018.

Kevin Le Gendre (Jazzwise, Echoes, BBC Radio 3)

I’ve been really impressed by young American pianist James Francies. His album Flight was an excellent debut in 2018. He’s had high profile gigs as a sideman (with Jeff Tain Watts, Pat Metheny, Chris Potter) and if he keeps developing could well prove a major new artist.

Eddie Meyer (The Verdict, Jazzwise)

Jonny Mansfield’s Elftet turned heads at this year’s Love Supreme with their set of intricate but groove-laden originals that appealed across the generations; tenor saxophonist Tom Barford is set to make waves with his debut album of virtuosic contemporary jazz, while Binker Golding’s new project teams him with the prodigious Sarah Tandy in a thrilling acoustic quartet. Jazz re:freshed and Jazz In The Round are moving out of the capital to spread the word across the nation. Watch out, too, for moves from musician’s favourite Riley Stone Lonergan, while on the trio front, Vels Trio and Zeñel go from strength to strength!

Jez Nelson (Jazz FM)

Young bass player as much in debt to Thundercat as he is Stanley Clarke, Arthur O’Hara’s funky power-trio is a modern fusion group with a punch. Great licks, catchy tunes and just enough retro edge to make the older crew happy!

Jon Newey (Jazzwise)

As the dust starts to settle after the initial blast of the UK’s New Generation of Jazz, whose message has spread well beyond these increasingly insular shores, saxophonist and flautist Nubya Garcia looks set to take her music to another level in the coming year, both with her solo projects and with Maisha, whose debut album, There Is A Place, is one of the stronger statements to come out of this still evolving scene.

Stuart Nicholson (Jazzwise)

In a year when women’s issues have been at the forefront of the headlines, it seems right that alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier’s time should come and that she becomes far better known beyond her native Germany. She’s the real deal, plays rings around her male counterparts, scaring many of them into a new line of work.

Paul Pace (The Spice of Life, Ronnie Scott’s)

Pianist David Swan has impressed with his buoyant touch at the keyboard, wealth of ideas and uplifting solos. I first noticed him as a side musician in various outfits, most memorably as part of the hard-driving quartet led by saxophonist Alex Western-King, another young musician well worth checking. With a poise beyond his 22 years, Swan’s trio played an exquisite set at the 2018 Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival.

Amy Pearce (Jazz Consultant)

I’m expecting to see the new wave of dynamic female instrumentalists having an even greater impact on shaping the scene. As well as international talent, such as saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Tia Fuller, I’m looking forward to seeing the evolution of the next UK generation, with artists such as drummer Romarna Campbell.

Chris Philips (Jazz FM)

My look ahead is a nod to Polish keyboard player Tomasz Bura and his band The Scientists. This is hard hitting fusion á la Chick Corea or Ursula Dudziak, with vocal improv from the enchanting Rouhangeze Baichoo, reframed for today. These guys are going to be the revelation of 2019.

Peter Quinn (Jazzwise, The Arts Desk)

A modern-day freedom song project celebrating the resilience of African-American culture, Bay Area artist Tiffany Austin’s newly-released Unbroken is one of this year’s most compelling vocal albums. From civil rights anthems (‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’) and gospel (‘Ain’t No Grave’) to majestic standards (‘You Must Believe in Spring’) and blistering originals (‘Greenwood’), Austin’s singing is as emotionally engaging as it is timbrally beautiful.

Thomas Rees (Jazzwise, BBC Radio 3)

Pianist Sarah Tandy is one of London’s most exciting young talents. She has formidable chops and can shred with the best of them, but her playing has real poise too. She’s already been turning heads, playing with Camilla George and supporting Roy Hargrove (RIP), and she’s due to release her debut album this winter.

Andy Robson (Jazzwise)

Alex Munk. Most notably with Flying Machines. A sheer relish for all things guitar, but also a tight, tight band that’s fresh, but with plenty of bite

Steve Rubie (606 Club)

Saxophonist Alex Hitchcock is a strong favourite for me to make a lasting impression on the UK scene. Though only relatively recently graduated, he already has an impressive grasp of the instrument, a mature approach and wide reaching creativity. Well worth keeping an eye out for the various projects he has coming up in 2019. My other tip is Scottish singer Georgia Cecile. Despite working as a professional singer and teacher for a little while, most of her work has been focused north of the border. She’s only recently started venturing further south and I would expect the clarity of her tone, her creativity and ability to sing with genuine emotional depth to take her a long way.

Alyn Shipton (Jazzwise, BBC Radio 3)

My one to watch for 2019 is Rosie Frater-Taylor, who is a singer/songwriter of great originality (following on from the likes of Lauren Kinsella and Emilia Mårtensson). She plays ukulele, guitar and a sort of Hawaiian guitar-ukulele crossbreed, as well as various other instruments. Don’t judge what she can do from the rather old material currently on YouTube. She’s come through the NYJO Academy, and is now at the RAM, but her work in and around the current London scene is interesting and she has the right combination of ambition and ability to go far.

Robert Shore (Jazzwise)

Lorraine Baker’s debut album, Eden, has just laid down an inspiring challenge to fellow drum disciplines – how to get their work, usually delivered from the back of the stage, further forward in the mix. Great joyful, dancing rhythms too. Expect more of the same from her next year.

Daniel Spicer (Jazzwise, The Wire, The Mystery Lesson)

Irreversible Entanglements’ debut album last year was a blast of righteous fury, but their live shows are another order of energy entirely. Without doubt one of the best working bands in the world right now.

Oliver Weindling  (The Vortex, Babel Label)

Calum Gourlay is proving himself the consummate musician, way beyond just great bass-playing. His compositions, arranging and pizazz are clear in the monthly big-band gigs at the Vortex. The band itself has many exciting players, such as Helena Kay, who focuses her imagination through her tenor sax, especially in her KIM Trio.

Top 20 Jazz Albums of 2018

Best of 2018

The democratisation of jazz and its presence in the mainstream has been the talking point of the year in music, with a new generation of musicians kicking out the jams in fiercely life-affirming ways. The rise of grass-roots nights like Steam Down are now being talked about in the New York Times as UK artists lead the way towards a new, far more open, future for jazz. But it’s perhaps telling that this new generation have yet to build a significant recorded legacy, as this year’s Albums of the Year Critics Polls sees elder giants of the music top this chart. Two living legends, Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter, both produced new albums of great depth and passion; Lloyd in his latterday lyrical prime on Vanished Gardens, his panoramic Americana odyssey; Shorter dazzling with his immense Emanon triple-album and graphic novel, with only one point between them. Meanwhile, Afro-futurist firebrands Sons of Kemet, take No.3 for their electrifyingly provocative Your Queen Is A Reptile, planting the flag for the forward-looking current generation. Mike Flynn

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Charles Lloyd1 Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams

Vanished Gardens

Blue Note

This is an album that is probably closer to Americana since it draws on, and is informed by, a host of vernacular American musical genres – jazz, blues, gospel, country, folk, and rock – without pledging sole allegiance to any. What emerges is a glorious musical hybrid that owes its authenticity and integrity to Lloyd’s saxophone improvisations. The introduction of vocalist Lucinda Williams only adds to the stylistic ambiguity – a poet, she has sung in jazz, blues, country, folk and rock settings – and lends a tough, keening edge to this music, which includes versions of her own ‘Dust’, ‘Ventura’, and ‘Unsuffer Me’. In addition, there are five instrumentals that include three new Lloyd originals plus ‘Monk’s Mood’, and Fran Landesman’s ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’. This is music that creates its own space, is in no hurry to make its point and is what it is – music of great integrity. Frisell and Leisz are central to its meaning, neither seeking to impose a stylistic point of view, but content to be a part of an overall whole that is gently shaped and given direction by Lloyd’s saxophone. Stuart Nicholson

 

wayne shorter2 Wayne Shorter

Emanon

Blue Note

On 25 August, Wayne Shorter celebrated his 85th birthday making Emanon an impressive birthday present from his record company, Blue Note – a 3CD (and 3LP) set, plus graphic novel. So impressive, in fact, that a little voice from within wonders if it is a valedictory statement. Hopefully not, since he continues to compose and arrange, albeit telling Billboard magazine in 2015 that he was “operating on 50 per cent lung capacity” and that he had to walk carefully “and make everything count”. Shorter has long harboured a love for strings and has occasionally performed with them, such as at the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival with the Belgian Prima La Musica, a chamber orchestra comprising 45 musicians that played orchestral versions of ‘Orbits’ and ‘Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair’ that appeared on his North Sea Legendary Concerts. Even so, Emanon represents the culmination of a lifetime ambition and the first time a strings project of his has been released by a major recording company.

His four orchestral compositions – ‘Prometheus Unbound’, ‘Pegasus’, ‘Lotus’ and ‘The Three Marias’ – fill the first CD and were recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, plus his quartet. The graphic novel that accompanies these pieces is a nice touch, but an after the fact rationalisation devised by Shorter and Monica Sly, since the music was originally written without programmatic intent and stands on its own as a fine series of contemporary compositions that do justice to his enormous talent. The second and third CDs comprise some compelling live quartet performances recorded, according to Shorter, at the Barbican at the end of 2016. It is here that the main interest centres – it is, after all, the finest ensemble in jazz today – and the heights they attain with their time-no changes forays into the outer limits of improvisational imagination are nothing short of compelling. Stuart Nicholson

 

Sons of Kemet3 Sons of Kemet

Your Queen Is A Reptile

Impulse!

An increasingly visible representative of British jazz for international audiences, Shabaka Hutchings has never been afraid to voice his opinion on matters social and political. Signed to iconic US label Impulse! the saxophonist-clarinetist and leader of Sons Of Kemet delivers his most thought-provoking statement to date with Your Queen Is A Reptile. To call it an anti-monarchy polemic would be to slightly miss the point though, for Hutchings’ mission statement is to reflect on who, and for what reason, an individual may qualify for such a reverential status as queen, other than by accident of birth. The compositions are thus in honour of African, Caribbean, African-American and black British women who have distinguished themselves primarily as freedom fighters and campaigners for justice – Harriet Tubman, Nanny Of The Maroons and Doreen Lawrence, to name but some. That conceptual premise is matched by a musical creativity that builds on previous releases Burn and Lest We Forget, with the presence of new band members Theon Cross and Eddie Hick leading to pleasing shifts in the ensemble sound. Rhythmically SOK draws on a wide range of sources that reflect Hutchings’ deep interest in West Indian and African music as well as jazz, and it is precisely when the band hits upon a sound that falls somewhere in between recognised idioms that they excel. Hick’s intricate cowbell patterns, a strident soca mutation, are notable in this respect but the appearance of poet Josh Idehen on the Lawrence track also deserves a mention for the way his illuminating text places her struggle within a wider framework of social injustice. SOK may well go on to record albums with the same sense of musical and political purpose, but this feels like a highpoint of their output to date. Kevin Le Gendre

 

Brad Mehldau Trio4 Brad Mehldau Trio

Seymour Reads The Constitution!

Nonesuch

Brad Mehldau’s teasing talent for setting a mood of fascinating expectation and then unhurriedly revealing its multiple implications has been a marvel of contemporary jazz since the 1990s, and rarely more so than on this riveting seventh album featuring his longterm trio with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. Mehldau plays that game from the first moments of the standout opener, ‘Spiral’ – at first alone and almost absent-mindedly spinning a descending eight-note ostinato, then floating a spacious treble melody over it, quickly joined by a bass pulse and discreet latin snare-tick to unwrap a long piano improv of asymmetrical lines, playful delays, and fresh melodies as that hypnotic left-hand mantra murmurs on. The title-track, a deceptively languid waltz with a central role for the imaginative Grenadier, similarly kindles a stream of intensifying variations in which Mehldau never raises his pianistic voice. ‘Almost Like Being In Love’ (one of five covers) is playful and springy, Elmo Hope’s ‘De-Dah’ is rhythmically jagged and then euphorically-swinging bebop, Brian Wilson’s ‘Friends’ is massaged by slinky long lines and hints of blues, Sam Rivers’ ‘Beatrice’ is a tender melody soon stirred into a Bill Evans-reminiscent trio sprint that propels the leader into some of his most freewheeling doubletime flights. The ever-empathic Mehldau trio might offer a familiar brew, but it never stops fizzing with life. John Fordham

 

Jpshua Redman5 = Joshua Redman/Ron Miles/Scott Colley/Brian Blade

Still Dreaming

Nonesuch

To my great chagrin I missed the band’s much-lauded performance at Gateshead last year, but this is one of Joshua Redman’s most interesting projects thus far in his career. He was actually in his father Dewey’s group for a while when he was younger and his affinity to the music of Old and New Dreams, the beloved band Redman senior co-led with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, is clear throughout this tribute (and extension thereof). Perhaps the most difficult thing to capture in any interpretation of somebody else’s music is the spirit, and in this case that translates as a melodic zest, a rhythmic bounce and singing character in warm, visceral themes that then fan out into more complex, extremely conversational narratives. Of the six originals on offer ‘Unanimity’ is a fine example of agitated, nervy yet controlled playing that retains an ageless funkiness and populist immediacy amid its contemporary sophistry. Indeed, the whole album is the ‘old bottle, new wine’ theory put into good practice. Kevin Le Gendre

 

The Window5 = Cécile McLorin Salvant

The Window

Mack Avenue

A mix of studio and live tracks, the latter recorded at the Village Vanguard, the 17 songs of The Window, an album of duets with the brilliant Sullivan Fortner, offer yet more astonishing examples of McLorin Salvant’s captivating art. She possesses not only one of the most original imaginations in modern jazz, but also succeeds in reaching emotional depths that few other vocalists reach, whether breathing new life into Buddy Johnson’s ‘Ever Since the One I Love’s Been Gone’, delivering an enchanting original (‘À Clef’), or dusting down a hidden gem (Cole Porter’s ‘Were Thine That Special Face’). Running through the album like an idée fixe is a lyrical undercurrent of wishing to be someplace else, from the singer’s striking re-imaginings of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Visions’ and Dori Caymmi’s ‘Obsession’ to the Bernstein/Sondheim classic ‘Somewhere’. Bolstered throughout by Fortner’s bold, exciting pianism, few recordings this year have been as unfailingly engaging, uplifting and accomplished as The Window. Peter Quinn

 

After Bach7 = Brad Mehldau

After Bach

Nonesuch

“As a professional organist, much of Bach’s work took the form of improvisation, and during his lifetime it was the virtuosity and complexity of these improvisations for which he was most admired,” writes Timo Andres in his liner note. “Some three centuries after the fact, Brad Mehldau takes up this tradition and applies it to a frustratingly unknowable aspect of Bach’s art.” As we all know, however, J.S. Bach invented modern jazz – where would Bird have been without him? – and the likes of Jacques Loussier have regularly jazzed up the great German keyboard improviser’s back catalogue, to stirring and popular effect. Mehldau doesn’t take the easy route, you wouldn’t expect him to – and though some passages of ‘Before Bach: Benediction’ may have you squeezing your eyes as you try to follow his musical thoughts, you wouldn’t want him to either. Here he pairs straight recitals of four preludes and one fugue from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier with compositions and improvisations inspired by them: ‘After Bachs’. Is the result jazz? The densely – and, given its title, appropriately – dreamy ‘After Bach: Dream’ probably owes more to Debussy than any later jazzy interpreter of Herr B. But who cares? After Bach probably won’t become your favourite Mehldau release, but you’ll find it hard to resist all the same. Robert Shore

 

Kurt Elling7 = Kurt Elling

The Questions

OKeh

With an eclectic song-list that ranges from Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to standards and originals, The Questions presents Kurt Elling’s musical response to our troubled times. His take on Dylan’s end of days epic, album opener ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, is a coup de theatre, the singer declaiming the apocalyptic verses with the potency of an Old Testament prophet. Previously recorded on 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project, Elling revisits Simon’s ‘American Tune’ as a sorrowing chorale, with lines such as “Still when I think of the road we’re travelling on, I wonder what’s gone wrong?” reverberating especially strongly. In beautiful arrangements of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Washing of the Water’, Carla Bley’s ‘Lawns’ (which here becomes ‘Endless Lawns’), ‘Lonely Town’ and ‘Skylark’, the sense of zoning in on the emotional essence of the song is paramount, with Elling’s immaculate legato squeezing the emotion out of every note. There are some familiar touchstones – Elling’s lyrics to the Jaco Pastorius tune ‘Three Views of a Secret’ are inspired by the 13th century mystic, Rumi – and some new inspirations such as the singer’s lyrics to pianist Joey Calderazzo’s ‘The Enchantress’, which adapt parts of a Wallace Stevens poem (‘The Idea of Order at Key West’). Whether reinventing classic protest songs or appending new lyrical flights of fancy to existing compositions, this is a collection that resonates powerfully in the memory. Peter Quinn

 

Nicole Mitchell7 = Nicole Mitchell

Maroon Cloud

FPE Records

Flautist-composer Mitchell’s substantial quantity of releases has been matched by quality, and this is no exception to the rule. Again in a drummer-less setting she proves that her breadth of artistic vision, as well as command of her instrument and ability to harness strong personalities without constraining them, can produce outstanding results. With its dual reference to a meditative state that can be achieved by extreme focus as well as runaway slaves who fought colonial masters in the Caribbean [Jamaican maroons] the music is marked by a tender contemplativeness as well as muscular momentum which makes the absence of a percussion instrument anything but a problem. One of Mitchell’s great sources of inspiration, James Newton, made excellent recordings with cellist Abdul Wadud and pianist Anthony Davis, and there are passing echoes of that vocabulary, yet the additional element that Mitchell has in her line-up, New York-based Trinidad-descended vocalist Fay Victor, is decisive, to say the least. Her distinctive, commanding tone, stealthy phrasing and seamless transitions from singing to spoken word contribute to the overall sense of fluidity in the music, where strong melody can open out into thrilling collective improvisation. The solos that come in and out of the spotlight, none more so than Mitchell’s flute on the epic ‘A Sound’, are integral to the character and conviction of the work, which is a quite compelling statement, culturally, politically and musically. Kevin Le Gendre

 

Liran Donin10 = Liran Donin’s 1000 Boats

8 Songs

Cavalo

Led Bib’s lyricism can be lost in their reputation for attack. Their bassist Liran Donin, though, is all melody and emotion on this debut for his own music. Steeped in his complex Israeli background, it’s a cultural and musical statement of fierce beauty. Words were written then removed for what are very much songs, addressing the personal and political in a world in which the band’s strong name, 1000 Boats, brings to mind drowned refugees. There’s no despair, though, as the sustained poignancy of Donin’s duet with pianist Maria Chiara Argirò on ‘The Story of Annette and Morris’ gains a surge of new life from the quintet. The pair’s bright intuition is reinforced by drummer Ben Brown in a supple rhythm section which goes far beyond that role. The saxes lay in wait as reinforcements, as when they add a whirlwind, driving swirl to ‘Noam, Sand and Sea’. ‘Tel Aviv to Ramallah’ introduces more shadowy hustle and flow to a journey down that troubled road, Donin’s bass sticking and sinking as cymbals softly hiss, and the saxes sustain hope on what the fadeout suggests is an ongoing journey. There’s a fragment of Afro-Cuban drums during the loving intensity of ‘Alma Sophia’, and a bent Donin note at the start of the most joyously Jewish tune, ‘Gal and Osh’, marked by his melodic statement, the alto’s scream, and burning energy. The brittle, anxious bass of ‘New Beginnings’ becomes a Radiohead-recalling epic, and a bonus ninth song, the feminist-minded ‘Free’, finishes in harmonious, chanted prayer. The virtues of melody and direct emotion are their own rewards on a purging, uplifting record. Nick Hasted

 

Nat Birchall10 = Nat Birchall

Cosmic Language

Jazzman

The eloquent and dedicated Manchester saxophonist Nat Birchall’s music has long focused on the textures and nuances of John Coltrane’s saxophone sound rather than its famously torrential virtuosity. He’s joined here by familiar partners on the latest leg of that journey, including Adam Fairhall whose exploration of the resonating hum of the harmonium throughout this session signals Birchall’s intention to visit the crossing-points of jazz and India’s raga traditions. Andy Hay’s rustling shakers and Michael Bardon’s slow-bowed bass open the tranquil ‘Man From Varanasi’ (a tribute to Indian shehnai master Bismillah Khan), and Birchall’s tenor solo builds from shapely lyricism to dramatic multiphonics over Hay’s brushes groove. ‘Humility’ is a poignantly prayer-like tenor elegy with a percussion-centred core, much of ‘A Prayer For’ is a gentle ascent of crisscrossing harmonium lines underpinned by a quiet bass vamp into which Birchall sonorously drifts, and ‘Dervish’ is an exultant high tenor motif that climactically spurs the saxophonist to his most impassioned flights. Cosmic Language is another haunting corner of the big picture that the unique Nat Birchall is devoting his life to painting. John Fordham

 

Origami Harvest10 = Ambrose Akinmusire

Origami Harvest

Blue Note

‘My Name Is Oscar’, Akinmusire’s lament for the tragically slain Oscar Grant (a watershed moment for Black Lives Matter) on his 2014 album When The Heart Emerges Glistening was his most powerful musical and political statement to date. This album offers further investigation of the subject of the perilous nature of life for young African-Americans on the other side of the Atlantic, cast against the wider backdrop of social divides. In keeping with that premise the trumpeter-composer also pits contrasting vocabularies against one another, so that scored arrangement, free improvisation, contemporary classical, funk and hip-hop are woven into the canvas of the music. Drawing a coherent line through such disparate elements is Akinmusire’s greatest challenge, and there are moments when the songs become overly protracted. Furthermore, rapper Kool AD is inconsistent, veering from moments of great lyrical inspiration to stagnation. In a nutshell this is a work whose duration could have been cut to some advantage. Yet the overriding impression created by Origami Harvest remains a compelling one insofar as the music has a sharp urgency that stands in opposition to the ‘illusory democracy’, one of the pithiest and potent of the rhymes on offer, that is a notable summary of America’s current administration. Sam Harris and Marcus Gilmore, who brilliantly combines hip-hop’s metronomic austerity with astute flights of metric fancy, ensure that the core of the music is in safe hands. But the star turn of the entire set is taken by the little known vocal talent LmbrJck_T, whose absolutely memorable performance on ‘Particle. Spectra’ has a shimmering Bilal-esque beauty to it. Akinmusire’s accompanying statements, executed with a lustrous tone and melodic concision, are excellent, and the soulful vision of ‘baby steps with love for everyone’ becomes a strong emblem for a work that, flaws or not, has a degree of both creative ambition and socio-political depth that demands attention. Kevin Le Gendre

 

Mark Turner13 = Mark Turner/Ethan Iverson

Temporary Kings

ECM

Both are members of the splendid Billy Hart Quartet; Mark Turner, an influential contemporary jazz saxophonist originally from LA, has his roots in the much maligned cool-school, while duo partner Ethan Iverson, formerly the pianist from The Bad Plus, is someone who has a passion for the marginal, more underappreciated elements of the post-bop lineage and new music repertoire. Temporary Kings partly pays tribute to the seriously underrated Lenny Tristano-school saxophonist Warne Marsh (Turner is one of his few prominent disciples on the horn) but crosses over into the chamber-improv modern classical music field – note, the two are in no way mutually exclusive. Aside from originals, the pair explore the Marsh legacy with his 1956 ‘Dixie’s Dilemma’ (based on ‘All the Things You Are’), with Iverson ‘Thingin’’ on a walking bass, and Turner taking a zigzagging bopfired route into remote tonalities before finally establishing the tune’s theme. The saxophonist’s ‘Chamber of Unlikely Delights’ is an airy pastoral jazz duet with Turner closer to early Lee Konitz, his lithe, bittersweet tenor peppered with enigmatic twists and turns. As is Iverson’s piano on his stealthily Monk-ish piece ‘Unclaimed Freight’, contrasting with the piano’s sparse hypnotic chime on ‘Seven Points’. ‘Myron’s World’, from Turner’s influential 2001 recording Dharma Days, might be warm, even lush in comparison, but is no less intriguing. Selwyn Harris

 

Jean Toussaint13 = Jean Toussaint

Brother Raymond

Lyte

The three generations of pianists featured on this album are a useful symbol of the longevity of leader-saxophonist’s Jean Toussaint’s career, not to mention the great influence he has exerted as an educator since arriving in Britain in the early 1980s. Forever vocal about his own priceless apprenticeship as a Jazz Messenger, Toussaint assumes the senior Blakey-esque mantle well, and the prevalence of smartly constructed pieces for a well-drilled ensemble which celebrates the classic three-pronged reed and brass frontline is very appealing. Toussaint draws on blues and African-Caribbean vocabularies to inject vigour into the tunes, as can be heard on the ricochet percussion on the opener ‘Amabo’, and infuses further modernity into tradition by way of some inventive changes and multiple breakdowns. As much as the uptempo pieces, with their bustling dance implications, are impressive, the more reflective ballads, of which ‘Interlude For Idris’ is the pick, also show how well Toussaint creates strong moods in a more stealthy fashion. Writing aside, the quality of the improvising is consistently high, with the horns and rhythm section, particularly Rebello, on cracking form. Toussaint, whose solos are very astutely paced, has never made a secret of his West Indian roots and his debt to Blakey. This is the moment those two strands of his identity entwine to create something quite special. Kevin Le Gendre

 

Michael Wollny15 Michael Wollny Trio

Wartburg

ACT

The Leipzig-based pianist Michael Wollny has been the main attraction of the ACT label’s stable of emerging German jazz musicians for over a decade now. His superb contemporary piano trio [em]’s releases since 2005 are of particular relevance, as are his duets with veteran saxophonist Heinz Sauer. Here are two simultaneously released albums by his current trio, featuring drummer Eric Schaefer from [em] and the bassist Christian Weber. Recorded within just a week of each other, Oslo and Wartburg are nevertheless not-so-close musically speaking. Oslo is a studio album and features the Norwegian Wind Ensemble led by Geir Lysne, who’s also released some very notable ACT recordings of his own with his Listening Ensemble. Wollny’s compositions and arrangements range from contemporary chamber classical to Jarrett-like grooving and Schaefer and Lysne pitch in among the rearrangements of classical pieces by Debussy and Hindemith. But it’s a more controlled context than Wartburg which is a ‘live’ recording, celebrating ACT’s 25th anniversary last year, in which the trio really stretch out. Recorded in the eponymous church of the title, Wartburg focuses on the organic collective interaction and close chemistry of Wollny’s trio on tracks that shift from a classical-percussive way out-ness on ‘Antonym’ through to Schaefer’s low-slung hip hop beats on the trio’s rearrangement of Paul Hindemith’s ‘Interludium’. The enigmatic art-pop artist Scott Walker is underrepresented in the jazz canon, so it’s good to hear Wollny tackle the ballad ‘Big Louise’ with his own impressionistic take on Walker’s resigned introspection. The guest French saxophonist Emile Parisien, who Wollny partnered in ACT’s young wacky Euro-jazz supergroup Out of Land, climaxes with a Coltrane-ish soprano on Schaefer’s ‘Tektonik’. Wartburg is definitely the pick of the two, but this is a release bundle that convincingly contrasts Wollny’s diverse talents. Selwyn Harris

 

Julian Siegel16 = Julian Siegel Quartet

Vista

Whirlwind Recordings

Vista is the much anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Urban Theme Park. It might be said that it is the culmination of six years shared band-stand experiences, where according to Siegel: “After playing together as a band for such a long time, you really start to get into something.” That something, according to music psychologists, derives mainly from a mix of anticipation and intuitive and learned responses to each others playing – the more you play together the more attenuated the sense of anticipation becomes, which in turn governs both intuitive and learned responses. It all sounds quite simple in theory, but in practise it’s another story. How attenuated is attenuated, for example? Well quite a bit in the case of Siegel’s quartet. Their reinterpretation of Bud Powell’s ‘Un Poco Loco’, for example, an album highlight, effortlessly unfurls despite the unexpected twists and turns in the arrangement. From track one, ‘The Opener’, Siegel’s playing, a mixture of aphoristic asides that almost function as an oblique counterpoint to the internal logic of his lines, and the shrewd development of the ideas and motifs that seem to flow through lines, is sharply defined and commands attention. He has the ability to play with and against the rhythm to create tension, in addition to using a rising line that gives his solos a sense of structural coherence that knits well with Liam Noble’s accompaniment. In solo, Noble can be inspiring – indeed there are moments on ‘The Claw’ and ‘Billion Years’ where he and Siegel work off one another to create something special. Stuart Nicholson

 

Roller Trio16 = Roller Trio

New Devices

Edition

With the current buzz around a new Brit-jazz generation, it’s easy to forget there was similar headlines being made only a decade ago about an irreverent bunch of young jazzers whacking out contemporary beats, skronky horns and punk attitude. Chief among the second wave was Leeds’ Roller Trio. They won a coveted Mercury Prize nomination for their eponymous debut in 2012, prematurely as it was practically a demo recording. After a period of bedding in they produced a follow-up in 2016, the razor-sharp riffing Fracture. The new release, New Devices, sees the arrival of a new member, the inimitable Geordie guitar innovator Chris Sharkey, and it proves to be a game changer. Sharkey is from the much-missed Zorn-ish, spiky metal-free improv speed merchants TrioVD, also from Leeds and more recently Shiver, and the sonic sauce has been thickened up with otherworldly tonalities and spacey freak-out atmospherics. Sharkey’s bass/ guitar multi-effects and hooky loops alongside widescreen synths run the show, yet Luke Reddin-Williams’ thundering beats, veering from drum’n’bass, dub to backbeats, and James Mainwaring’s stabbing horn riffs are still present. With the feral saxophonist upping the ante and at times echoing Pharoah Sanders, the out-there sonic experiments on the new recording suits Roller trio. Doesn’t New Devices sound much more like the future of so-called ‘Cosmic Jazz’ than the trendier, audience-accommodating retro bands currently making waves? Selwyn Harris

 

Elliott Galvin16 = Elliot Galvin

The Influencing Machine

Edition

Elliot Galvin is the most conceptual and intellectual of the Chaos Collective, the former student friends whose most public platform is Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur (their drummer Corrie Dick joins Galvin here). This third solo album was inspired by 18th century double-agent and paranoid schizophrenic James Tilly-Matthews, and his intricate, prescient delusions. ‘Monster Mind’, with its smashed hi-hat, and piano which alternates between nervous investigatory creeps and confident sallying forth, most obviously describes a divided soul, falling at last into a misty dreamtime. The pensive, mostly solo piano of ‘Society’ seems a pre-emptive elegy before some looming apocalypse, its American classical and blues touches suggesting the American Civil War. ‘Bees Dogs and Flies’ then borrows a Renaissance folk tune which is the album’s best, rooting it in common soil absent elsewhere, and ending in another inconsolable refrain. This is jazz in its open mind, and post-modern in mode of thought. Knottier and cooler than its predecessor, Punch, its labyrinth repays repeated exploration, revealing heartfelt sadness amidst the twisting ideas. Nick Hasted

 

Bobo Stenson19 = Bobo Stenson

Contra La Indecision

ECM

The partnership between Stenson and Jormin goes back to the 1980s, in both the trio format and also in rhythm sections with Charles Lloyd and Tomasz Stańko. The younger Swedish drummer Jon Fält is a more recent addition to the line-up, but as a trio they’ve had a decade or so working together on and off, and it shows in the cohesion and flair included here. Stenson has an extraordinary stylistic range from the free jazz anger of his early 1970s Garbarek sides to the almost baroque control of his work with Stańko, and much of that range is included in this set that stretches from the Cuban title-track to neo-classical forays into interpretations of Bartók, Mompou and Satie via originals by himself and Jormin. The bassist is almost two musical personalities, both on show in his own ‘Doubt Thou The Stars’, which has lyrical arco passages and the kind of free-flowing melodic pizzicato improvisation that only the finest Scandinavian bassists seem to be able to create. Satie’s ‘Élégie’ has the leisurely pace of the average Tord Gustavsen track, but it builds with a depth and intensity the Norwegian seldom manages. The crystal clear right-hand piano lines cunningly suggest choices not taken as well as the course that is finally charted, as Stenson somehow hints at what he might have played as well as what he does. This is a recording that demands serious listening and attention, not least because that is what we can hear happening in the studio as the tracks are being put down. The interplay is complex, yet relaxed. The collectively improvised ‘Kalimba Impressions’ built out of a simple ostinato pattern is proof of this – not least when Stenson takes a sudden harmonic turn away from the prevailing single mode, and is adeptly followed by Jormin and nudged back into line. Fält plays a lamellophone-like set of tones mirroring the pattern, but then picks this up rhythmically on the kit, before returning to the woody, clicking patterns of the opening. The whole piece is magical, and original, and that applies to the bulk of the album. Alyn Shipton

 

EST19 = Esbjörn Svensson Trio

e.s.t. live in London

ACT

It is now 10 years since the tragic and untimely death of Esbjörn Svensson: a decade in which a new generation of fans and students will have engaged with his music, yet to whom Svensson’s significance will have been diminished by the passage of time. So this excellent album is a timely reminder of the emotional and aesthetic appeal of a group whose music crossed barriers of age, ethnicity and genre to reach beyond jazz, not just in Europe, but the US itself. The complete Barbican concert is included in this 2CD set, but one small cavil – the opportunity to use cover art to provide an aesthetic entry point into the music has been missed, along with liner notes to fulfil a similar function. Maybe a contemporaneous press review of the concert could have been used to set the scene? Stuart Nicholson

Q&A with Trio HLK

Trio HLK are one of the most distinctive voices to appear on the Scottish jazz scene in recent times. Their debut album, Standard Time was released in May, since when the trio have been touring widely. Fiona Mactaggart met with Trio HLK’s Rich Harrold and Rich Kass, to discuss the emergence of the HLK sound.

Fiona Mactaggart: Thanks very much for coming along. Can we talk about how the three of you first met, how the trio took shape?

Rich Kass: Rich (H) and I met through a mutual friend. Rich had just moved to Edinburgh and we just got together to play Rich’s music. It contained a lot of ideas which I’d been looking into at that point.

F: When was this?

K: 2014. A lot of rhythmic information and things, I started getting into, it kind of evolved from us playing Rich’s music in his flat. Then we went through a few different line-ups, and eventually needed a full-time member. I knew Ant (Law) from when he lived in Edinburgh. By then he was living in London. He’d already released his first album which had a lot of Indian rhythms and influences. So I thought he’d be a great fit for the music; it’s quite specific, demanding certain things. Rich got in touch with him, Ant checked out the music and like it. Then on New Year’s Day 2015, those two (Rich H and Ant Law) got together for a play, as we’d been booked for a gig with Troyka that February. We needed a guitarist.

Rich Harrold: It was part of the tour they were doing: each city gave different support and we gave the support here (Edinburgh). That was cool! We needed someone suitably ‘psychotic’. There were particular demands of the music. First of all, you’d need to commit a lot of time to it, and second, obviously, it requires an interest in a rhythmic way of playing and other things that the music explores. It’s not to everybody’s taste. Ant was perfect for that. He’s from a Physics background as well!

F: So quite complementary, there are different things you each bring to the group.

H: Yes, there are similar things we love about music: we like a certain level of complexity, and experimentation. But at the same time we all come from different musical backgrounds. So I think we share certain things, but also bring a lot of differences to the table.

F: Which segues into the next question: Ant’s obviously not here, but can each of you say a bit about your own musical backgrounds?

H: My parents weren’t particularly musical. My Grandma on my Dad’s side was an organist, not professionally. She plays the church organ now, as a retired lady in the village. I started lessons when I was just nearly six, mainly because my older brother had just started and I wanted to compete! Then I stuck at it and got really into it. I had classical piano lessons, with a private teacher in Manchester who teaches at Chets (Chethams School of Music, Manchester) and also at the Royal Northern (Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester). She lived just around the corner, it was really lucky, she was amazing. She got me into lots of really cool stuff and I stayed with her all the way until I went to music college. I got into jazz separately, and was doing composition stuff as well, then went on to study composition at the Royal Academy (Royal Academy of Music, London) and had jazz lessons while I was there. So I was doing a lot of stuff on the side, some piano lessons with (pianist and composer) Tom Cawley and was always interested in that stuff. But mainly I come from a classical background.

K: I think it’s quite interesting that you had the choice to study composition or piano, and your piano teacher was encouraging you to do performance and go down the concert pianist route.

H: Yeh, she was a bit miffed, she’d coached me all these years! I applied for Composition at the Academy and Piano at the Royal College. I knew that I wanted to be a composer, but I wasn’t really sure that I’d get in.

F: I understand you did a year’s study in New York?

H: I did two years there doing a Masters. It wasn’t New York, it was Yale (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut), studying Composition.

F: So now you do composition and performance: do you see yourself nowadays as mainly a composer or a performer?

H: It’s an interesting question. I feel like I’m more of a composer and I believe I have more weaknesses in my playing than a lot of people who are full-time performers. But I definitely do more performing work than composing work. I see myself as a mixture, but am more confident as a composer. I love doing both, and the great thing about this band is being able to do both. One of the things as a composer in classical music, where the rehearsal time is so limited: I would quite often be pleased with performances, but (at other times) quite fretful as I didn’t fully realise what I was trying to do. Whereas with this group, we just rehearse and rehearse, until it’s right!

(Trio HLK rehearsing with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)

K: In the classical world obviously there are people who are specifically composers, whereas in jazz, most people compose to some extent. Especially if they’ve gone through some kind of education system, they are encouraged to write and try to be a band leader even if they don’t go on to be band leaders. Obviously it varies, but in my opinion there can be a massive difference between composing a melody on a short ABA form, and composing an extended classical piece. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are very different. My perception is that everyone in a lot of music is part performer, part composer. The line is slightly blurred. Rich is a great musician, a great player, who writes really interesting, very thought-out and very musical music.

F: (to Rich K) What is your background? Are there musicians in your family?

K: My Dad plays guitar and sings in the house, but other than that, not really. My Grandma on that side of the family is a published poet (who) did some stuff with Ivor Cutler. It went out under the name Patricia Doubell. A book (was) written about her called “At The Dog In Dulwich”.

F: A Creative!

K: Yeh, totally. I started playing drums in high school, though not actually in school, but in punk groups. Then I had a scholarship to go to LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science), but at the last minute decided to go to music college for a year, for what I thought would be a gap year. After that I auditioned for the Napier (Edinburgh Napier University) course, because my brother did it, and I got in. That was an undergraduate degree. The college course was at Stevenson College (now Edinburgh College). I hadn’t done any music at school, so I was doing the foundation course there. I don’t think I completed the course there as I got an Unconditional for Napier Uni. A friend was at The New School in New York, so I went over and hung out for a bit and we did some concerts, just small gigs, and went to see good gigs and met musicians. I think that was quite an eye-opener. Then I came home. I actually auditioned for a pop gig and got it, then ended up doing quite a lot of pop gigs for a while.

F: Were you still doing punk at that stage?

K: When I got to uni I got into Fusion and a little bit of jazz, and was doing as much music as possible. I did some musical theatre gigs. A friend was guitarist for someone who was signed to a label, so I got that gig, then got some auditions for some well-known boy and girl bands [laughs]. And then, funnily enough, got quite dejected with music.

H: You had quite a funny path. I’ve never heard it all linearly like this.

K: The whole time I’ve been playing some kind of jazz and I had a group, we played at festivals. But I was at a point when I thought I was going to sack off music. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but to be honest, after working in the pop industry for bands on amazing labels, where everyone was just an a------. Some of the people there were not massively into the detail of the music. For someone playing in a band, you’re there to serve a purpose and there’s not a lot of conceptual thinking going on. It’s like: “play the drums, don’t play it, disappear”. Wait three months to get paid.

F: So there were negatives as well as positives.

K: I think the positives were that I was doing things on tv and playing to large crowds, and I’d only just been out of school. I thought that was great. But actually I realised it wasn’t that great. What I thought was success was not, not really.

F: What was between then and joining HLK?

K: I was doing all kinds of different things, gigs around town, a musical theatre gig for quite a while, quite a lot of recording work. Then Rich and I started playing music.

F: So very different backgrounds, a real mix of experience coming into the trio.

K: We do all have quite different backgrounds, and the music has evolved with that in mind, but we all definitely share a love of rhythm and things to do with rhythmic allusions, or placing things in unusual places, or unusual metres. Hanging out both musically and socially when we’re in the van or travelling to gigs, we regularly listen to music: everything from the Goldberg Variations to rock to swing music, to...

H: It can be like a little whistling party because we bring something maybe the others haven’t listened to. It’s quite good because you’re doing nothing but staring at the road, so you get to discuss things in quite good depth.

(Trio HLK rehearsing with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)

F: Do you use YouTube at all, to seek out different music, or historical stuff?

H: I know it’s really good for that, but not personally.

K: I probably use people more, and I find podcasts helpful. When my favourite musicians mention records, I check them out. I’ve probably come onto most of the things that have influenced me most strongly in the last few years, through friends and records, or listening to stuff together.

H: Ant’s a real source of obscure music, he’s got so much. He actually never switches off from music. Straight after a gig he’ll be listening to something else: it’s amazing actually.

K: I’ve got a very vivid memory of a gig in Birmingham where we listened to (dance/electronic artist) Noer on the drive back to Manchester. I was quite tired, it was at about 110dB, a tune called “In It For The Pizza”.

F: A snapshot! Your music’s obviously very rich. From both your social media sites, I see you both have an interest in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Can you each say a bit about whether his music has influenced you and what other musical influences you are aware of, including any which specifically bring Western classical and jazz together, as yours does?

K: I got into Ligeti primarily through Rich (H). Lemon’s a shared one, which again I think you (Rich H) introduced me to. Also Squarepusher’s a shared one we’d both checked out before we knew each other.

H: Massively, yeah.

K: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a prolific Cuban pianist. His drummer is Horacio Hernandez.

H: Yeh, he’s unbelievable. I got into Ligeti since undergrad, via his etudes. I think the stuff that we write doesn’t necessarily sound much like him, but there’s things in there.. I think he was probably interested in similar things. There’s a lot of rhythmic stuff, polyrhythms, a rhythmic pattern with another one over the top, that then starts to shift. You’re constantly aware of these two things and they’re constantly shifting. That’s somethings that really interests me. Similarly harmonically there’s layers to the adjusting harmonies, and he often pairs those things up with other rhythms. So you get this ambiguity going on. He definitely seems to me like someone who is fascinated by rhythm. But there’s also a real playfulness in his writing, it can be really jocular. But when you go into the nitty gritty, it’s really well worked out as well. I like that balance of well conceived, tight nuts and bolts, but also humorous. I think Bach does that as well actually, to an even higher level, I don’t know how he does it.

F: So Bach would be an influence as well?

H: Massively, yes. Millions of influences really. I listened to a lot of Berlioz at uni; I prefer the later stuff. I’ve analysed the pitches of a lot of the earlier pieces, that were serial composed. But I feel the later music brings in more the French Impressionists’ harmonic language. There’s a lot of Debussy in there, Ravel. Sounds to me like Debussy with extended harmony [laughs].

F: So most of your influences would be from classical music?

H: A lot of them are, but in terms of compositional structure and pre-compositional process. But so much of the jazz I’ve studied and listened to, involves a rhythmic language of the writing. And the desire to have that mix of improvisation in there, I’m massively interested in this. The unpredictability of it. So yeah: maybe an equal mix of jazz and classical music.

F: In a way it can be a bit spurious to have strict definitions: the area can be very blurred between music genres, especially nowadays.

H: Yes. Look at a composer like Debussy. He was into jazz and he also spent a lot of time in the Far East, transcribing music. There’s a lot of influences in there and that’s what it (Debussy’s music) sounds like in the end.

F: Regarding Trio HLK’s composition, I understand you (Rich H) were the main composer and then you (Rich K) developed the percussion and drumming parts. Can you both say a bit about how that worked in practice?

H: Originally I wrote some charts, and gave them to Kass. For one or two of the early tunes I’d actually written out a drum part. It quickly became apparent that there were so many more things Kass could imagine and develop on the kit, that it was almost pointless me doing that any more.

F: So you would write something fairly simple..?

H: Yeh. I wrote a part I heard in my head, as a non-drummer. I just started giving Kass piano parts, and he would reproduce the piano parts in a certain way. Often he would spot some kind of rhythmic relationship or numeric pattern, build an additional layer on top that wasn’t even there. There’s a certain amount of analysis and development that comes from him doing this. It’s quite nice to just hand that over [laughs]. So there’s usually a first draft of the composition, which is from start to finish, and usually by the time we’re performing it, it’s quite different from that. Maybe structurally it’s basically the same, but it definitely evolves, some pieces more than others. Sometimes things can be completely taken out, or completely re-written, or we might stumble across something by accident in a rehearsal and decide that that’s a cool idea. And we’ll go away and work on it. So there’s a first draft that I’m responsible for, but after that it turns into something that’s a three-way process.

(Trio HLK with Dame Evelyn Glennie – photo Rob Blackham)

F: I see you don’t use Sibelius or any other notation software, but write the scores by hand.

H: I sometimes use it for some of the guitar parts, which otherwise are too small to read. I prefer to do it by hand. I don’t like how things sound on Sibelius: I push ‘play’ and I lose confidence in what I’ve written! [laughs].

K: There’s also a compositional reason for it.

H: I felt that it you write on Sibelius, the interface, the actual way of writing that you are forced to use, in my experience, affects what you can write. If you’ve got a piece of paper and pencil, then anything you can imagine, you can get on page. Even if it means writing some sort of vague instruction or drawing a symbol. It’s about being able to directly transcribe an idea onto the paper.

K: And less ‘cut and paste’.

H: Yeah.

F: And how long would you say ‘Standard Time’ took to compose?

H: It’s hard to say. Many of the first pieces have evolved constantly. ‘ESP,’ one of the first pieces, now has this extended vibraphone and piano introduction. Some of the middle pieces such as ‘Smalls’, has a free extended introduction with Evelyn on it. Probably several years.

F: So, a labour of love then?

H: Yes, absolutely.

F: And how did you (Rich K), develop the drum parts?

K: I think, much like the tunes, every one is different. Generally Rich (H) and I get together and we’ll play through it. I have some thoughts and Rich will say “that’s cool”. So I’ll go away and work on that, inhabit the idea for a while. I don’t see anything I’m doing as necessarily composition as opposed to working out how to make the instrument work best within the music, in the context of there being a lot of composed material. I do need to make some decisions about what I’m going to play and the approach, but in jazz most of what’s played by the drummer is not written, but is mostly interpreting the form, melody and rhythm. Whereas a drummer in a pit would play every note in front of them. In HLK it’s kind of a combo of both. How do I interpret those rhythms? I would improvise around those rhythms and have a loose approach. A dynamic, a feel. At other times it needs a part to unify two rhythms, or maybe it’s just too hard for me to begin with, to improvise on and make the music as good as possible. When I have written stuff out I don’t see it as a cop-out, because I’m just trying to unify the music and have a part which makes everything sound as good as possible. Whereas at other times, if I was to write out everything I played, it might be a bit contrived.

H: One of the things about Kass is, he has an amazing ear for orchestration on the kit, for example the bells on ‘ESP’. That was him saying “I imagine this could really work”. Basically he’s a very colourful drummer.

F: When you’re playing at gigs, how much freedom do you allow yourself to improvise? Rich Kass, you have said you have quite a lot of freedom to improvise as a drummer. Is this the same for the rest of the trio?

H: Some sections are very strictly prescribed and are more or less the same every time. Others are forms that are slightly different rhythmically and harmonically, but are essentially cyclical forms that you’d maybe have in a traditional jazz piece. So there are set rhythmic and harmonic structures and everyone’s improvising, but sticking to the form. And then there are some other sections that are somewhere in between. For example there might be a written rhythm structure that is underpinning everything, whereas the harmonic structure is a lot more free, textures can be experimented with, three-way.

F: Do you find that as time goes by you are all improvising more?

K: That’s an interesting question. There’s a certain amount of artistic licence whenever you’re playing, but I wouldn’t call it improv. At gigs in terms of time spent, it’s probably written: improv, 60/40 or 50/50. Over time the improv has become longer.

H: And more adventurous probably.

K: Yeh, it has the opportunity to go in more directions. It could stretch out, then on other nights it might be quite short if someone’s not feeling it. On the last gig for example, Ant played a line and Evelyn immediately played the line back conversationally. This was quite a new thing, them trading some ideas. That section became a sort of tracking improv section.

F: That’s very clear, thank you. Choosing Evelyn Glennie and Steve Lehman to play on the album makes very good sense, as you are referencing Western Classical and Jazz, and you are appealing to both audiences. Were there other reasons for choosing those two particular musicians?

H: Steve for me inhabits both worlds. He studied Contemporary Classical with Tristan Murail, the famous French Spectral composer, in Paris. I think he was studying orchestral classical music and jazz at the same time. So he brought that language to this stuff. You can hear it’s in there harmonically, the sound is innovative, absolutely mind-blowing. Listening to his first album ‘Travail, Transformation And Flow’ is one of the most inspiring musical experiences I’ve ever had.

K: What’s funny as well is: I had a conversation with him (Steve Lehman) about Boulez, and he told me he’d met Boulez when he was in Paris. It’s a funny link. There are shared things that he’s checked out, that you (Rich H) like. He knows so much music.

H: And because of what he’s doing, he’s so important in contemporary jazz. It was more like awe for these two figures, as far as we’re concerned. They are the leading lights of those worlds: the jazz or whatever you want to call that music as it’s definitely not just jazz, and one of the leading classical percussionists in the world.

F: They certainly both bring important elements to the (‘Standard Time’) album.

K: I think something that links some of the things you’ve asked about together: the one thing we share is the idea that the music should be as good as it can be. So from my point of view, all the decisions I made about how the tunes end up sounding, how much the drum parts are written or improvised, how much of a say I have with them, who guests on the album. I think we’re all just thinking: “How’s it going to sound? What’s the best outcome?” So at any point, anything that anyone says or has an idea about, could be respectfully shot down or respectfully encouraged. We don’t just let people be happy if the music’s not right. That’s not to say we’re not very supportive of each other; we are. But there’s a thought: “it’s OK to say what you think”. This approach doesn’t come from “this is the approach that works”; it comes from “this is the context of the piece or the album – what is the thing we all think is best?”

F: So you’re aiming for high standards, and you have the trust to challenge each other in order to achieve this.

K: We all agree 95% of the time. We want to make the sounds be as killing as possible; also being in an atmosphere where we’re supportive whilst being honest.

F: I’ve got your ‘Standard Time’ CD here. Will you explain the graphics on the cover?

K: It’s an exploded clock diagram. The artist is Craig McFadden, a graphic designer. We knew the title was going to be ‘Standard Time’ and we suggested stuff to do with time would be good, the idea of impossible objects which deal with symmetry and asymmetry, and distortion. Which is very related to the music. Craig had a pal who did jewellery design and she used watch parts to create jewellery. The CD cover started life as one of these exploded (watch) diagrams. Also there are references to the tunes, so a dagger for ‘Stabvest’. Spanish hat for ‘Pains’.

H: A guy doing a jig, for ‘The Jig’. There’s Ant’s guitar. Tarot cards. He hasn’t explained it all to us. I like it being his artistic creation. It’s a beautiful thing.

F: It’s certainly very well thought-through, the whole project. Thinking towards the future, are you able to say what direction the trio’s music might be moving in, compositionally and performance-wise?

H: We are assembling the music for the second album, some of which is written, some of which is in progress. We’re in discussion about collaborators. We would like to collaborate again, but maybe we shouldn’t say who with as it’s still early on in discussions. I personally, definitely like the idea of collaborating with people whose music and musicianship we admire and who we’d really like to work with. That for us is an exciting thing to do.

F: When do you think this next release will be out?

K: When we can play it!

H: [laughs] Yeah. Not immediately.

K: You will have heard one of the pieces from the new album at The Queen’s Hall (Edinburgh) concert: ‘Anthropometrics,’ which is a take on ‘Anthropology’. I think the music’s getting better and we’re getting better at understanding how to play together, and how to bring the right things to the right tunes. We’re really looking forward to making the second album. Hopefully I can play the music more expressively and communicate the ideas therein.

H: When I was writing the first draft of tunes for the first album, I tried to work on something new for each composition. Obviously there are things that are similar between the tunes, certain kinds of musical or rhythmic interest and certain harmonic devices, but often it’s about focussing on particular things. The same is true for compositions for the second album: I’m trying to work on a particular idea that I find interesting and trying to find a way of making that particular idea work. For example there’s a new piece based on old blues which has this speeding up and slowing down effect, all quite precisely annotated. The whole piece is a concertina effect. Also layering some more consistent rhythms over the top of that. It’s a constant battle of trying to make it interesting but not too complicated. But there has to be a certain level of complexity, as there’s a lot of stuff going on, but making it as clear as possible what’s going on. Every piece is a bit of a battle with how to most clearly realise this idea. So in terms of where it’s going, hopefully the tunes are getting more interesting!

K: Directions for the future? Being booked, and continuing to collaborate into next year. We always reflect, dissect, it’s constant. The thing about compositions, they’re never finished. We did that gig at Ronnies (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London): we check the gig out every night, talk about it at rehearsal next day, say we should try doing this, and then that night, things come out. The whole thing is a constant battle to fully realise the music and make it as good as possible.

F: It sounds a big effort. ‘Standard Time’ was a fascinating debut, so we can only await the follow-up album with great anticipation.

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