George Avakian by Ian Clifford New York City May 2003

There never was a jazz record producer more important than George Avakian – only the somewhat older John Hammond, who recommended him for his first part-time job, would come close. Just think of some of the albums Avakian initiated: Miles Ahead and 'Round About Midnight; Ellington At Newport; Benny Goodman At Carnegie Hall; Gil Evans's New Bottle Old Wine; Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes To College; Sonny Rollins's The Bridge and Our Man In Jazz; Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower; and Keith Jarrett's debut, Life Between The Exit Signs. But also Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Concert By The Sea (Erroll Garner), and The World's Greatest Gospel Singer (Mahalia Jackson), signing these artists to the labels he was working for, as he did with stand-up comic Bob Newhart.

Born in Russia of Armenian descent, George was raised in New York, learning the piano as a pre-teen and doing English literature at Yale University. During his student years, he started writing jazz reviews and took a cross-country trip with fellow student Marshall Stearns (subsequent author and founder of the Institute of Jazz Studies) in order to hear jazz in Kansas City and elsewhere. He also pitched to Decca the idea of recording an album of 78rpm discs on Chicago Jazz, one of the first non-reissue concept albums, and worked part-time for Columbia discovering a half-dozen now-hallowed but then-unissued tracks of Louis Armstrong and a couple of Bessie Smiths.

Returning to Columbia full-time after war service, in the 1950s Avakian became their head of popular music albums, using the new LP format to innovative effect and incidentally ensuring that successful popsters such as Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett sometimes recorded with jazz players. He was a pioneer of editing between different takes, even for jazz, and of discreet overdubbing (as on parts of Miles Ahead and a couple of Armstrong tracks such as 'Mack The Knife'). Leaving Columbia in 1958, he worked for Pacific Jazz, Warner Bros and RCA, with periods of freelance producing, and then moved into personal management; in this capacity, he worked with Charles Lloyd from 1964 to the end of the decade and Keith Jarrett from 1967, negotiating his initial deal with ECM. In more recent years, he remained engaged in Armstrong and Ellington studies, always available to fellow jazz enthusiasts and forever alert, even in extreme old age.

– Brian Priestley
– Photo by Ian Clifford

Keiji-Haino-and-SUMAC-by-Kazuyuki-Funaki

Japanese ultra-shaman Keiji Haino has hooked up with US sludge-metal outfit SUMAC on a series of improvised sessions to be released by Thrill Jockey under the typically extravagant title American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You're Too Hideous To Look At Face On.

Available on CD, as well as limited translucent red and standard black vinyl variants, expect this one to drop on 23 February 2018.

– Spencer Grady

For more details visit www.thrilljockey.com

Bill-Frisell

 Milan's new jazz festival is inspired by London and it's one to watch

To reach the Blue Note jazz club, you have to cross a flyover on the edge of the city centre. A motorway roars beneath you. The UniCredit building, with its twisted spire, looms out of the fog. Behind it are the shadows of more towers – banks and apartment buildings, Stefano Boeri's Bosco Verticale – their aircraft warning lights pulsing crimson through the gloom. 

Milan isn't what you imagine when you think of Italy. It's not the Italy of La Dolce Vita – a crumbling outdoor museum where the pace of life is borderline non-existent. The Lombard capital is an economic powerhouse: a centre of finance as well as fashion. Among Italians, the Milanese have a reputation for productivity and ambition. They want to get ahead.

In that respect, JAZZMI, the city's new festival, feels typically Milanese. One of its co-founders, Luciano Linzi, used to work for the Umbria Jazz Festival, but he was ready for a fresh start. Much like Milan's financial sector, he looked to London for inspiration, and it shows. JAZZMI is only in its second year, but it already feels a lot like the London Jazz Festival – everything from the slick marketing and the graphic design to the shape of the programme: 150 events spread over 11 days (exhibitions, talks, masterclasses and film screenings, as well as gigs) at venues from the centre to the suburbs. Like London, there's something for all tastes: Laura Mvula and De La Soul or Mulatu Astatke, the Arkestra and French experimentalist Eve Risser. Take your pick. And, like London, this embarrassment of riches means plenty of horror-show clashes to contend with.

On Thursday night, after a fair bit of agonising, I pitched up at the main venue, the elegant Teatro dell'Arte (which once hosted Miles Davis and John Coltrane) in the Triennale Design Museum, to see Bill Frisell's Music for Strings, just as Joe Lovano was taking the stage on the other side of town. I'm very glad I did. It was one of the highlights of the week. In fact, I can't really offer you a review so much as a list of superlatives. All four of the strings – Frisell, violinist Jenny Scheinman, viola player Eyvind Kang and cellist Hank Roberts – are musicians in the truest sense of the word. There's something innocent, almost naive, about the way they play – sat round in a semi-circle, like the members of a village hall reading group (Bill Frisell's book club), exchanging encouraging nods and sheepish smiles as they feel their way through the music. Together they gave us subtle, softly spoken accounts of tunes from the guitarist's extensive back catalogue – all fragmented melodies and lilting grooves – along with covers of 'What The World Needs Now' and an ingenious reimagining of 'For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)', which melted into a cello feature full of thrumming chords and burbling bariolage.


Bill-Frisells-Music-For-Strings

Better still was their unstated take on 'Blue In Green'. God I love that tune: the enchanting strangeness of its chord progression and the simplicity of the melody, so full of longing and of loss. Done well it's the most devastatingly beautiful composition in all of jazz, and the strings played it very well indeed. It was the kind of set that stayed with you for days. Later in the week, watching pianist Harold López-Nussa (the latest young Buena Vista acolyte to salsa out of Cuba) burn through yet another flashy, feature-length solo, I thought about it again. Frisell played one, 30-second improvisation in the whole of his set. Every note was in the service of the music and it meant so much more.

On the same stage the night before, Chicagoan trumpeter Rob Mazurek and Tortoise guitarist and ex-AACMer Jeff Parker, gave one of the more challenging performances of the festival. Their improvised soundscapes veered between dark and playful, bracing and lullabye-sweet. Parker took care of the scenery, layering drones and spinning fragile finger-picked loops, while Mazurek went exploring, manipulating the hunting horn squawk of his piccolo trumpet, triggering field recordings (bells, rattles, bird calls) from his laptop, and adding the occasional burst of shamanic vocals. I drifted in and out, but there were some genuinely compelling moments. Once Mazurek's piccolo clashed so hard with Parker's drones the sound seemed to fracture and distort in your ears. Later the guitarist responded to a crystal clear trumpet line with a burst of mad distortion and a figure that sounded like a Led Zeppelin guitar riff ravaged and degraded by the centuries.

2017 11 10 gianluca petrella cosmic reinassance ABA 4423

The most satisfying thing about JAZZMI's programme, for a visitor like me, was its coverage of the Italian scene. The usual suspects were all there – trumpeter Paolo Fresu, pianist Stefano Bollani – but there were lots of names we don't often see in the UK. Trombonist Gianluca Petrella won a stack of rising star awards in the early 2000s and has worked with both Carla Bley and Pat Metheny. I'd heard of him, but I knew nothing of his latest project, Cosmic Renaissance, a five-piece who released their self-titled debut in the summer of 2016. Their sound is a kind of gritty, alt-rock fusion, carried along by a churning undertow of bass, drumkit and percussion, but prone to sudden flare-ups – with Petrella unleashing bestial wails and storms of electronics and burning trumpeter Mirco Rubegni adding angular scribbles.

2017 11 12 tinissima quartet triennale IMG 8502

Reeds player Francesco Bearzatti's Tinissima Quartet brought more fire, rattling through the tracklist to their latest album, This Machine Kills Fascists, a tribute to Woody Guthrie. The music describes a journey from Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma to New York, opening with wispy textures and the sound of a wooden whistle, taking in locomotive grooves, bluesy refrains, bursts of gravelly overdriven guitar and fruity clarinet breakdowns full of theatrical glissandi. One of the group's trademarks is playing frantic bebop heads over rock'n'roll grooves, which sounds like the kind of madness you babble into your voice memos at 4am, but works surprisingly well. On tenor Bearzatti recalls Michael Brecker. He's a master of rhythmic invention too and pushed it right to the edge during his solos. Trumpeter Giovanni Falzone was even more varied. He can do everything from smokey and balladic to blazing and free. I can live without the bursts of throat singing and falsetto squeals though, impressive as they are.

Roots & Future, an original commission by the festival marking the centenary of the first jazz recording, was another highlight. It was led by Franco D'Andrea, widely regarded as Italy's greatest living pianist, who jelly rolled Morton up with Thelonious Monk on free interpretations of trad jazz classics, including 'Livery Stable Blues', 'Original Dixieland One Step' and 'Tiger Rag'. Daniele D'Agaro added caterwauling clarinet to the rasping, tightly muted trombone of Mauro Ottolini (a brilliant instrumentalist who appeared in several other bands during the festival). Eccentric Dutch drummer and musical absurdist Han Bennink played snare, the floorboards and his own head, signalling the end to each tune with a tourettes-ish yelp, and once by falling over – eliciting a crackly guffaw from revered American record producer Michael Cuscuna who was at the festival to give a talk and sat just to my left. "People take jazz too seriously. I like a bit of humour." For the second Encore, D'Andrea came out alone and played a masterful rendition of 'Summertime'. He used barely two octaves of the piano's range, but there was so much interest. His reharmonisations of its well worn chord sequence were bewitching. Yet again I thought about Frisell, and of the great Stan Tracey.

But enough about the old masters. Italy's new generation has promise too and I made a couple of genuine discoveries. There were some exciting moments in a set from Ghost Horse, a young six-piece who opened for Mazurek and Parker and mashed grungy riffs with washes of guitar, beatific brass chorales and trombone and tuba multiphonics. And I enjoyed Purple Whales, a sextet led by young pianist Simone Graziano, who played inventive, guitarless takes on Hendrix tunes, combining swirling textures and undulating grooves with slamming aggression, richly textured cello, and vocals. Both Graziano and the group's second keys player, Alessandro Lanzoni, sounded sparkling. Their set was made even better by the trippy setting – a wood-panelled box on the first floor of the Triennale next to a gallery full of giant toys, which you reached by a suspended walkway that doubled as the nose for a wall-sized Pinocchio's face. No word of a lie. Pursuing a cabinet of disgruntled dolls while listening to an abstract take on 'Voodoo Child' felt brilliantly weird.

Every effort has been made to work this festival into the fabric of the city and Milan has given JAZZMI has some brilliant venues to play with. Another favourite was the recently reopened Palazzo Litta – an opulent 17th century mansion that played host to Life Size Acts, an exhibition of photographs by Roberto Masotti, photographer both for ECM and Milan's Teatro alla Scala, one of the world's great opera houses.

On the final day of the festival, I tagged along as Linzi raced around town introducing some of the free gigs (there were 60 in total throughout the week). The quality of the music was variable, but there were more great venues. At the city's Museum of Science and Technology evening concerts were taking place in the ballroom of a transatlantic steamer and – when the sun began to set and flocks of screaming starlings came home to roost in the trees – we took the lift an ear-popping 31 floors up the Pirelli Tower and looked out on the city's financial district from above as a young trio hotel lobbied their way through some standards.

Linzi has big plans for the future of JAZZMI, including joint commissions and partnerships with other European festivals, and he wants to expand the lineup even further, bringing in more acts from France and Scandinavia. It's already incredibly exciting – a festival made in London's image, snapping at London's heels.

– Thomas Rees 
– Photos by Luca Vantusso (Bill Frisell) and Angela Bartolo (Gianluca Petrella and Francesco Bearzatti's Tinissima Quartet 

JAZZMI returns 2–11 November 2018. For more info visit www.jazzmi.it

The line-up for next year's Gateshead International Jazz Festival, which runs from 6 - 8 April 2018, has been announced and brings together strong mix of grand masters and rising stars performing across four stages, all under the roof of the iconic Sage venue. Things kick off with a triple bill topped by veteran space-jazz travellers Sun Ra Arkestra, who still featuring the astonishingly vital 93-year old Marshall Allen on sax. Second on the bill will be former Fela Kuti drum titan Tony Allen with his hard-swinging tribute to Art Blakey, while Zara McFarlane will get things moving with her stirring take on Jamaican jazz.

There's also a strong European strand that includes a quadruple summit of solo pianists in the form of Alexander Hawkins, Kaja Draksler, Bojan Z and Giovanni Guidi, plus tech-obsessed piano trio Tin Men and the Telephone. The Saturday line-up begins with a family show from Tin Men, and continues with food critic and jazz pianist Jay Rayner presenting an array of jazz 'chops' with his 'Afternoon of Food and Agony' show. Further European sounds come from esteemed Estonian artists Kadri Voorand Quartet, The Tormis Project and Heavy Beauty, who showcase their country's rich and varied jazz scene as part of celebrations marking 100 years of their nation.

English jazz vocal grand dame Norma Winstone also appears in a rarefied duo with acclaimed US guitarist Ralph Towner, while there are contrasting sets from two veteran horn heroes with trad trombone master Chris Barber leading his celebrated Big Band and former JBs legend Maceo Parker will be lining-up with UK soul-jazz diva Ruby Turner. There's also a key performance from highly respected US jazz singer Sheila Jordan in what will be her 90th birthday year. She'll be backed by a trio led by a trio led by pianist/composer Pete Churchill and joined by a string quartet for selected numbers.

Gateshead's reputation for tapping into cutting edge sounds continues with the ever-compelling Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen and his quartet Jan Bang, Erik Honore and Eivind Aarset, while adventurous Leeds-based guitarist Chris Sharkey premieres his new project, The Orchid and the Wasp, an incendiary duo with rapid-fire improv drummer Mark Sanders. This concert is supported by one of the winners of the 2018 'Jazz North Introduces' award, the all-female trio J Frisco. Further female artists appearing include Issie Barratt's Interchange Dectet, with the likes of Brigitte Beraha, Tori Freestone and Yazz Ahmed among those performing ten newly commissioned pieces.

Mike Flynn

For further details visit www.sagegateshead.com

 TD-Darcy-James-Argue-Solo

There are very few composers now writing world class material for big band, true innovators who are taking the music forward. One of them is Gil Evans' protege Maria Schneider, whose appearance at the London Jazz Festival in 2015 was a major highlight. Another is the Vancouver-born Brooklyn-based bandleader Darcy James Argue. On the face of it their music couldn't be more different. Schneider's Grammy-winning latest release, The Thompson Fields, was inspired by the prairies of Minnesota. Argue's music is typically gritty, urban and angular, all crunchy harmonies and thrashing alt rock grooves.

At Kings Place on Friday night, making his first appearance in the UK since 2010, Argue led his 18-piece Secret Society big band through Real Enemies, a masterpiece of contemporary repertoire, inspired by conspiracy theories and the politics of paranoia and written using an adapted version of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone technique, which was once subject to a conspiracy theory of its own. The suite opened with noirish textures, tentative stabs that rippled around the ensemble and darkly luminous harmonies. As the music seesawed between nagging unease and hysterical panic we also heard the first of many atmospheric snippets of recorded speech from the likes of Frank Church, Dick Cheney and JFK.

Across 13-chapters, Real Enemies indulges in all kinds of paranoia, including references to the Red Scare, Area 51 and the Illuminati, and there were ingenious shifts of genre and feel to match the changes of subject matter. Midway through 'Dark Alliance', with the band knee-deep in the squelchy bass of a 1980s hip hop funk groove and the voice of Nancy Reagan pontificating about the evils of drugs, there was a sudden ironic kick to Nicaraguan son. Despite waging a domestic war on narcotics, the Reagan administration famously turned a blind eye to the drug trafficking of their Contra allies, in an effort to stop Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.

TD-Darcy-James-Argue-Band

The range of different colours and textures Argue gets from the ensemble is astonishing. Throughout the performance pairs of soloists, including tenorist Lucas Pino and guitarist Sebastian Noelle, shared the melodies and drove the narrative along with visceral improvisations. 'Apocalypse In Process', an exploration of doomsday cults, brought weedling pipe organ and frail woodwinds that evoked the sound of early music. And an edgy, pecked motif (the sort of thing that puts you in mind of secret rendezvouses in rainwashed alleyways between men with briefcases and fedoras) regularly reared its head, played by muted trumpets into the open lid of the piano.

There were some huge moments, heralded by screaming alarm calls and ensemble hits that snapped your head back with all the devastating force of an assassin's bullet, but there was reams of subtle ingenuity too. 'The Hidden Hand' featured a stunning passage when syncopated stabs from the band punctuated JFK's 1961 Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, in which he talks of a "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy". It's a bravura piece of large ensemble writing that proves just how nimble a big band can be in the right hands.

Real Enemies debuted as a multimedia performance in 2015, which featured a mosaic of video screens and a giant doomsday clock. It was written when President Trump was still just a twinkle in the alt-right's eye. It's an unhappy coincidence that the themes the suite explores are so topical once again. It doesn't need the visuals, but we got a few all the same. When the finale arrived, soloist after soloist piled in until the whole band were on their feet – a ripple effect like the spread of a seductive conspiracy theory. And midway through, as a blazing Carl Maraghi baritone solo melted into spectral ambience, Argue turned to face the audience. Black suited, hair slicked back, face half illuminated and half in shadow, he looked like the leader of his own sinister cult.

The recording of Real Enemies was one of my albums of 2016. I didn't know if I'd ever get to hear it live. It's so profoundly unprofitable and logistically tortuous to run a big band these days, let alone rehearse one and take it on the road, it was a minor miracle to see the Secret Society in the UK. We have to support this music or it will simply disappear. Which is why it was so gutting to see the hall half empty and so heartwarming to see everyone on their feet at the end, applauding furiously. Though Argue is revered by musicians and those in the know, he still doesn't have the public profile he deserves, and it was a late one (10pm start). Still, that can't be the whole story, can it? Why would anyone want to miss this? It's enough to set your mind racing.

– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Tim Dickeson

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