Nov 15 Dave Douglas UPLIFT 11

Guimarães is Portugal’s birthplace. Surrounded by verdant hills, this quiet, small city where independence was forged feels separate even by the standards of what the Guimarães Jazz programme calls “semi-peripheral” Portugal. The festival is bracketed by big international guns, opening with Dave Holland’s Aziza, and closing with trumpeter Avishai Cohen and the Mingus Big Band. But at its heart, it nurtures local musicians and listeners.

It mostly takes place in the Vila Flor cultural centre, where audiences materialise shortly before each show to smoke outside, then vanish to leave the square empty, each night ritualistic and discrete. My stint begins with the Pablo Held Trio’s prismatic European bebop. Their roots in Minton’s lie in a knotty mix of abrupt rhythms and stately prettiness, reconfigured by German classical explorations. Drummer Jonas Burgwinkel shows remarkable textural variety, especially in his sometimes glassy, shivering touch on the cymbals. Later on this Saturday night, Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra play hot New Orleans sounds with New York punk dishevelment, a hybrid he’s explored for decades. The easy, sweet sinuousness of white-haired clarinettist Doug Wieselman feels like the real Crescent City thing, and singer Catherine Russell’s debut with the band helps them slip into Bessie Smith’s sultry sling-your-hook blues, ‘You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon’. A middle-aged woman’s exultant grin as she abandons her partner to dance down the aisle confirms the good times.

Nov 11 Guimares Jazz Porta Jazz 2

The annual Guimarães Jazz/Porta-Jazz collaboration between musicians and a visual artist involves entering the Black Box venue’s intimate, inky dark, symbolic of a descent into the Portuguese underground worth the trip on its own. For a dislocating hour, video artist Miguel C. Tavares improvises with footage from his globally shot films, in response to the music of pianist João Grilo’s newly created quartet, glimpsed aglow in the gloom. An initial surge of urban imagery shifts to tree-lined snowfields, where snowdrops meet petal-falls of piano. Hushed beauty in turn shatters into astringent introspection soundtracking Hong Kong streets, where Tavares loops and lingers on commuters staring at phone screens. Restless music falls silent, the projection itself audible, John Cage-like, forcing uncomfortable contemplation. It’s a mesmerising trip, wholly jazz in its high-wire conception: Norwegian bassist Christian Meaas Svendsen and Danish drummer Simon Albertsen only met local talent including atmospheric saxophonist José Soares days before. Chicagoan bassist Matt Ulery’s band Delicate Charms, including Snarky Puppy violinist Zach Brock, are meanwhile in residence for a week of masterclasses and barroom jams, with Ulery also leading an orchestra of students from Porto’s leading jazz college, ESMAE, in a concert of his cinematic compositions. With such committed collaborations, Guimarães makes its own music.

Austrian David Helbock’s Random/Control are a trio of one-man bands (Johannes Bär ranging from tuba to busker-friendly knee-percussion), playing heavily treated versions of favourite pianists’ compositions, from a lovely modal meditation on Keith Jarrett’s ‘My Song’ to, appropriately, Brazilian omni-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal. Portuguese accordionist João Barradas pulls similar, keyboard-like versatility from his instrument, leading his band in a spare sort of fusion. With M-Base veteran Greg Osby guesting on alto they are a beautifully balanced quartet, driven hard by drummer Naima Acuña. Brazilian Letters, Felipe Senna’s symphonic treatment of Lèa Freire’s songs for the Guimarães Orchestra, is enlivened by the hearty charisma of flautist Freire herself, who leads her jazz quartet into sunken caverns of heartache made lush by strings. This is restorative music, borne on the orchestra’s swell and sway.

Dave Douglas brings up the American heavy ammunition on my last night, but precedes his Uplift band’s debut with this disclaimer: “We want to assure you that we’re not the Americans who vote for that President...” In a star-heavy line-up, Bill Laswell’s bass Buddha presence, and ectoplasmic aural tendrils emanating from newer downtown luminary Mary Halvorson and Rafiq Bhatia’s guitars, both intrigue. And if only a sudden soul-jazz blast easily meets this project’s inspirational intent in devolving times, that suits 10 days of cerebral and diverse jazz, which could only happen in exactly this way in this modestly magical place.

Nick Hasted
– Photos © Paulo Pacheco, Guimarães Jazz 2018 

 TD Bill Laurence NDR 02

At certain moments during this concert, Bill Laurance looks like the cat who got the cream. As the pianist puts it in his own words: “It’s Christmas Day for me today” – a reference to his delight at hearing his compositions reproduced onstage by a band of this size and quality. Cologne’s WDR Big Band turns out to be an excellent fit for Laurance’s compositions, naturally drawing out the sense of scale and adventure that many of them possess.  

This is evident in pieces like ‘Aftersun’, in which all the drama and lurking menace of outer space is conveyed brilliantly through the music, complete with a soaring guitar solo. The closer-to-home ‘Denmark Hill’ and ‘Swag Times’ are other highlights of the night, as is a rousing, set-closing rendition of ‘Red Sand’, with its irresistibly catchy opening hook. But in truth, every single arrangement takes you on a journey – invariably one from which you emerge grinning and hoping for more.  

TD Bill Laurence NDR 14

The WDR big band produce a bold, bright sound, and each accomplished member is brimming with individual flair. One slightly unusual aspect of the night is the way in which the soloists prepare for their moment in the limelight by stepping out from the band and approaching the front of the stage in the manner of gameshow contestants. Still, it’s always nice to get a better view of the action. 

A decision to open the second half of the night on his own gives Laurance the opportunity to really showcase his chops, both as a pianist and an improvisor. “I have no idea what I’m about to play,” he confesses, semi-comically discarding some sheet music before producing an improvisation of breath-taking range, a meandering paean to his desire to live life in the moment.   

Laurance is seated at a grand piano for most of the night, occasionally making a rapid switch to an electric keyboard which faces away from the band. When this happens, he spends most of the time looking back over his shoulder, nodding along with band leader and arranger Bob Mintzer, as if needing to remind himself that it’s not all some fantastic dream. All in all, a night of palpable joy, yes for Bill Laurance, but also for the room as a whole.

James Rybacki
Photos by Tim Dickeson
 

ChicagoXLondon3

Much has been written about the jazz scene that has emerged in London of late – its host of young talents who are collectively pushing the music in fresh directions, drawing from the old masters while breaking new ground. While London in 2018 is certainly a true hub for jazz innovation, this Chicago X London show in Hackney’s EartH arts centre provided a neat reminder that musical innovation still exists, and indeed thrives, elsewhere. 

Hopping across the Atlantic for a run of shows in Europe: Makaya McCraven and his band. McCraven refers to himself as a “beat scientist”. It’s a moniker that does justice to the clinical accuracy of his playing and the forensic fashion in which his Universal Beings album was produced. However, it fails to do justice to the artistic fluidity with which McCraven produces beats in a live setting. He shifts from intricate hi-hat play to powerful cymbal crashes with ease, pulling off complex grooves with a seemingly neverending wellspring of creativity.

The rest of his band isn’t half bad either, each member an evidently accomplished and inventive player. Together, they excel at pieces which build up intense moods, often then breaking down into a more straightahead, funky feel. Junius Paul on bass also proves more than capable as an occasional vocalist.

ChicagoXLondon1

But as a joint-headliner show, this was all about celebrating musical creativity on both sides of the pond, and some of the brightest lights of the London scene were also present and on form. There was Nubya Garcia, playing with her usual intensity and feeling, backed by Daniel Casimir on bass, Benji Appiah on drums and Charlie Stacey on a keys set-up that sounded positively haunted in all the best ways.

An extended jam session brought all the artists back out, playing together into the early hours. As if to spoil the already sated crowd, some special guests emerged, including Jaimie Branch (Chicago) on trumpet and Shirley Tetteh (London) on guitar. The only small blight on the night was an issue with sound levels early on which rendered the notes of one bass solo effectively indistinguishable. Otherwise, this was a triumphant night that bore testimony to the strength and depth of jazz-based music being produced in varied music scenes in 2018. The future looks bright.

James Rybacki
Photos by Jim Aindow

 

Jaimie Branch OTO18

The Vortex and Cafe OTO are separated by a few hundred yards in Dalston, but they felt very connected by way of two outstanding gigs at the EFG London Jazz Festival. Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis appeared at the former on the penultimate night of the 10-day event, while trumpeter Jaimie Branch was at the latter just a few days before him, and it was interesting to see a crossover between the two audiences, as several listeners had clearly identified both artists, who have been steadily building impressive discographies, as real must-sees. They are deservedly hot tickets.

Last year Branch (pictured) released Fly Or Die to critical acclaim, and the buzz around that album crackles into excited expectation during her two nights at OTO, the first of which is sold out. Her quartet, with cello occupying the space other bands usually fill with piano, guitar or second horn, is superbly anchored by drummer Chad Taylor, one of the defining figures on Chicago’s creative music scene for the past few decades. The band proves an inspiring example of how skilled improvisers can work on a refreshingly broad stylistic palette, all the while retaining a strong sense of individuality. The seamless shifts from ricocheting dub to hearty Afro-Brazilian-New Orleans stomps to abstract electronica in which the lower range of the brass is manipulated to send tremors right across the floor, essentially serves the irreverent as well as focused nature of Branch’s character. That becomes explicit when she sings ‘Love Songs For Assholes And Clowns’, a staggering, almost punch-drunk blues-rocker that offers caustic comment on the powers that be the world over, and proves a suitably provocative prelude to the unsettling but rousing riffs of Monk’s ‘Brilliant Corners’, which is reprised in style.

A comparably inventive nod to traditions in black music is made by Brandon Lewis (whose trio released the superb No Filter last year) in the middle of an explosive set that raises the temperature of the room by way of the notable reaction of the audience. During a torrid alternation of free playing and slash'n’burn hip-hop-rock grooves, his quartet, featuring guitarist Anthoy Pirog, launches into the timeless gospel staples ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’ and ‘Wade In The Water’. The narrative logic is cast-iron given that the hard edge of the band stands on a historical foundation of which the black church is an integral part. To hear drummer Warren G. Crudup III and bass guitarist Luke Stewart stoke the kinetic fire of the music with such intensity, with their flurry of sub-divisions of the beat, gravelly chords, and stark leaps between low and higher range, is to hear musicians plug into numerous additional vocabularies, which often suggest metal and punk, without ever quite weakening such a building block. It is when Lewis pushes the tonal envelope of the horn to evoke the staccato backward scratch of a turntable that the cultural border crossing and, above all synthesis of acoustic and electric music, hits a head-turning creative peak. One surmises that the great Eddie Harris may well have approved.

Lewis clearly knows how to do tenderness as well as aggression, and the haunting ballad ‘Bittersweet’ brings a deeply meditative mood to the fore as a contrast to the adrenalin shot of many of the other songs. Next year the band will release Unruly Manifesto, which could well be an exquisite musical riot.

Kevin Le Gendre
Photo by Jim Aindow

 

What an unexpected pleasure to see Mike Stern exchanging guitar riffs with his wife Leni. This was just one surprise from a gig that also saw Stern share the stage with fellow Miles Davis bass alumni Darryl Jones.

Back in 1982 the BBC televised a live Miles gig from Hammersmith Odeon, a truly exciting event for any jazz fan – a chance to witness a real-life legend. We knew we were not going to be hearing ‘If I Were a Bell’ or ‘Freedie Freeloader’ – but the playing and sight of long-haired guitarist Mike Stern, alongside Marcus Miller and saxophonist Bill Evans, was still a surprise. He had a formidable technique but with more overt hard-rock references than many anticipated. Once again Miles had got ahead of the game.

Since those heady days, Stern has written so many exciting hard-bopping heads that it can be quite challenging to distinguish them all. Through his solos he delivers long skittering lines at an impossible speed, but also with surprising delicacy. At times on this gig it was like following the POV footage of a champion skier accelerating away down a vertiginous slope, flying over every bump and hollow, getting airborne, but then landing back with perfect grace. Bassist Jones, who played with Miles in the early 1980s (before joining Sting’s band), the man behind the deep grooves on albums like Decoy, gave brilliant, bouncy support with flamboyant flourishes. For quite a while Jones has been the Rolling Stones’ bassist, but he wasn’t alone in the super-group stakes. Drummer Keith Carlock is Steely Dan’s pick behind the kit, and his incredibly powerful yet precise playing brought to mind Steve Gadd’s killer solo on Aja.

Mike Stern CH2

Bob Malach on tenor sax, complemented Stern’s exuberance by playing with space, digging into the rhythm section. He has an eloquent darker sound with sudden growls and screams of pure old time R&B amid more Brecker-esque modern influences. He again has a star-studded CV: Horace Silver, Stanley Clarke, Joe Zawinul, Stevie Wonder… He joined Stern in jazz-nerd solo-quote trading: ingenious insertions of fragments of ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ (Feldman/Davis), ‘Witch Hunt’ (Shorter) and a few show standards brought smiles of recognition from band members and audience.

There were plenty of other smiles too: this was a group that clearly gets on and overcomes a gruelling tour schedule with humour and camaraderie. And despite having to get an 8am flight to Paris, they were happy to talk to well-wishers long after the set was over.

Leni Stern, a superb guitarist and fine singer whose voice has been described as somehow “blending Marlene Dietrich and Billie Holiday” (!), was not billed to appear but made telling contributions. Her interest in the music of Mali was in evidence on the set’s opener; a simple, emotive tune featuring her on Ngoni, a Malian string-instrument, and lit up by a warm, unfussy vocal. She was to return later for a supremely funky guitar solo on Miles’s ‘Jean-Pierre’ (over a deliciously dirty Jones/Carlock groove) and a rocking rendition of Hendrix’s ‘Red House’, sung by Mike between blistering solo breaks.

Standout tracks from the rest of the set included a burning ‘Out of the Blue’ from 2012’s All Over the Place; and the darker, mid-tempo ‘You Never Know’ from 1996’s Between the Lines. There were also tunes from Stern’s most recent CD, Trip, recorded once he’d recovered from breaking both arms in an accident just two-and-a-half years ago. Recovery is not yet total… he has some tendon damage and still has to play with his plectrum glued to his finger. Not that you’d notice in his playing.

– Adam McCulloch

– Photos by Carl Hyde

Page 7 of 261

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