What links Dhafer Youssef, the Tunisian vocalist and oud virtuoso with Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, aside from the fact that Akinmusire features on Diwan Of Beauty And Odd, Youssef's latest album?
If you saw their double bill at the Barbican on the final weekend of the London Jazz Festival then you already know the answer. It's range, control and a painterly approach to sound.
Youssef is the showman, the crowd-pleaser. He elicits whoops of delight as he sings, graining laments with guttural inflections before soaring into his upper register, borne by reverb. He goes so high it's uncanny – a weird but wonderful sound, like he's broadcasting a signal from the outreaches of the solar system. It earns him standing ovations, but to my ear Akinmusire's palette is broader and more intriguing. He's the old master in disguise.
When he joined the muezzin for a handful of numbers in the second half he glided effortlessly alongside him. With his own quartet, playing music from The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint, he shredded notes, sawed at intervals and carved out lacerating solos full of shakes, leaps and sudden stops, retreating to the back of the stage then striding up to the mic to renew the attack. We heard velvety phrases, burnished tones, grunts, strangled half-notes and bestial snuffles. His trumpet sounded like shakuhachi and then a viola. Canvas after canvas was daubed with sound.
But that's where the comparison ends. Diwan Of Beauty And Odd was all about wiry oud melodies, dancing riffs and irregular signatures, enhanced by the sunlit piano lines of Aaron Parks, the jostling muscularity of Ben Williams' bass and the punishing fills of the brilliant Justin Faulkner on drums. The Imagined Savior was (is) much less accessible, a psychologically complex, emotionally exhausting set, tormented by the throbbing of Harish Raghavan's bass and the discordant churn of Sam Harris' piano and Justin Brown's flailing cymbals. The melodies are abstract, the time even more so. It's an exercise in tone colour, mood, gesture, impression and implication. There's precious little for you to hold on to, you just have to grit your teeth and slide into it, like black bath water.
If I'm totally honest, it frightened me a little. It made me worry about Akinmusire's emotional state and about my own and I've never felt that at a jazz gig before. Perhaps that's why I loved it.
– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Roger Thomas
Back in April this year internationally acclaimed British saxophonist Tim Garland returned to the UK jazz scene in emphatic style (following his Grammy Award-winning arranging work and world tours with legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea), releasing his stunning jazz-rock and folk influenced album, One. Hailed at the time by leading Jazzwise writer Stuart Nicholson as "a truly memorable album that's head and shoulders above any other British jazz recording of the last couple of decades" – the album has just been confirmed as the winner of Jazzwise's prestigious Albums of the Year Critics Poll, racking up more points than any other release of the past 12 months.
Other notable releases from 2016 also receiving critical acclaim from Jazzwise's team of award-winning writers include the sumptuously swinging set, Upward Spiral, from saxophonist Branford Marsalis and singer Kurt Elling; the barnstorming trumpet-fuelled Together, As One from Laura Jurd's Dinosaur; former Bowie sax man Donny McCaslin's superb Beyond Now and much-feted pianist Brad Mehldau's Ballads and Blues.
Mention must also be made of the winner of the Reissues/Archive category, Bill Evans' Some Other Time: Lost Session From The Black Forest, an astonishing set of previously unissued studio sessions released through the painstakingly diligent work of Resonance Records' Zev Feldman, who rightly won a Grammy for his efforts with the label.
The full Top 20 New and Reissue/Archive charts and all of the individual Jazzwise writers' charts are published in the Dec/Jan double issue which goes on sale on Thursday 24 November - subscribe now to save money and receive a fantastic FREE CDbe now to save money and receive a fantastic FREE CD
– Mike Flynn and Jon Newey
The much-quoted legend of Miles Davis responding to John Coltrane's perplexing problem of not being able to play a short solo, simply saying "try taking the saxophone out of your mouth", sprang to mind this evening. Not because Wayne Shorter plays excessive quantities of notes, on the contrary, at 83, he places the force of his 50-something years' experience behind each phrase he plays, often jerking the saxophone away from his lips with a quizzical look on his still-youthful features, as if saying 'what was that?!'.
Closing this year's EFG London Jazz Festival, which has emphatically proved the music is in rude health, Shorter is among an ever decreasing number of jazz giants, not only alive but playing gigs, so by this virtue alone the sense of expectation could not be higher. Yet Shorter is well versed in not resting on his laurels, especially in the company of his superlative quartet of pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. Ensconced within the semi-circle of piano, bass and drums Shorter's mischievous grin constantly played across his lips, whistling an abstract three-note phrase as diaphanous as the smog of dry ice that bathed the stage.
With no announcements, the band played an extended episodic piece that slowly built momentum, Shorter very much part of a collective conversation that he passed to Pérez and then Patitucci, with Blade the first to draw blood – a surge of rolling tom-toms, and a trademark smack from his snare announcing the band's shift into the higher gears. Patitucci too soon joined the rhythmic riot, his bass given a volume boost in the mix for a slyly funky solo intro that set up a deceptively simple groove. Shorter, now on soprano, produced some of his most telling solos of the night – the slim cylindrical silver sax cutting sharply through the melee to both head and heart. With two subsequent pieces mining more of this groove-orientated material Blade was relishing every chance to slap and cajole things with several depth-charge snare hits – Pérez and Patitucci bobbing and weaving every which way while Shorter lit the melodic path ahead. It was stirring stuff, with the saxophonist seeming to shed at least four of his eight decades to play with a vigour and precision I've not heard since they first played the London Jazz Festival 10 years ago.
If the first 90 minutes showed Shorter's improvisational powers are still strong, then the appearance of the 10-piece wind LutosAir Quintet + ensemble (comprised of musicians from the National Forum of Music Wrocław Philharmonic) revealed his compositional ideas are equally fertile. Entitiled "The Unfolding" it premiered at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, and was then performed earlier this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, before having its European premiere in Wroclaw – the work revealed Shorter's attention to detail and distinct harmonic palette are also in fine fettle. So too were Pérez, Patitucci and Blade at dealing with the score, all hugely experienced at working within larger ensembles, bass and piano added finesse to the written notes, with Blade creating a hybrid of symphonic timpani and spiked improvisational daring. Shorter has often said of late, 'how do you rehearse the unknown?', and, if nothing else tonight was a lesson in being in the moment, embracing it and making it as bright as possible.
– Mike Flynn
– Photos by Tim Dickeson
Jason Moran knows how to create a spectacle. He likes film and contemporary art and it shows. The most remarkable thing about All Rise, his recent tribute to Fats Waller, was the audacity of the arrangements, which captured Waller's essence while radically reinventing his music and illuminating the darker corners of his psyche. But the visuals were a close second. At the Montreux Jazz Festival last year there were riotous fabrics draped across the stage and Moran sat down at the piano wearing a Haitian carnival mask – a giant Waller head complete with ribald, raised eyebrows and a smoldering cigarette. Along with Esperanza Spalding, whose Emily's D+Evolution live set borders on surrealist theatre, he's one of the few jazz musicians to go in for stage shows.
'Wind', a new commission from Jazztopad Festival in Wrocław recognising the city's status as one of this year's European Capitals of Culture, might be his most outlandish show yet. For the UK premiere at Milton Court, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, the stage was dominated by a giant marquee made from white lace curtains, embroidered with birds and flowers. Behind that was a white lace train the height of the room, illuminated by squares of light. When Moran's Bandwagon trio took their places in the tent, at the heart of a Polish chamber ensemble, the walls became a shadow theatre dominated by the looming figure of drummer Nasheet Waits.
By comparison, the music was a little underwhelming – meandering at times and seemingly under-rehearsed with some slightly suspect brass playing. But there were affecting moments all the same: squally improv from the Bandwagon trio, underscored by organ drones or spotlit by Marvin Sewell's gleaming guitar lines; and passages of piano and fractured, reedy, half-bowed cello and violin – the sound of early morning sunlight and folkloric romance, a sound that tugs at the heartstrings.
Elsewhere there were street beats, R&B jams, stirring melodies and sombre themes. The transitions between improvisation and through-composition worked well. The emotional range was satisfying and broad. There were times when the piece felt like a film score. The tent and the curtains were inspired by a visit to Wrocław's famous Świebodzki Flea Market. The score described a city with catholic taste.
– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Tim Dickeson
Electronica and jazz haven't exactly been easy bedfellows over the years, but the EFG London Jazz Festival has surfaced with a few gigs over the last few days that have laid to rest any doubts about the hybrid's major expressive qualities.
There was still lessons to be learned earlier this week from old school approaches at the Rich Mix with veteran James 'Blood' Ulmer and trio offering up his own wonderfully blistering take on Hendrix-charged electric psych-blues and jazz rock. Two nights on, same venue and saxophonist Donny McCaslin's exhilarating Blackstar quartet played a blinder with Mark Guiliana's breathtaking real-time organic amalgam of programmed beats and Jason Lindner's sinisterly futuristic synth power on originals and majestic Bowie-song interpretations. Belgian drummer Teun Verbruggen's transatlantic The Bureau of Atomic Tourism were also a force to be reckoned with over at Dalston's Vortex, with the feral Norwegian electric bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten's growling grooves underlining a cohesive, ferocious yet atmospheric free jazz-metal racket.
But the best was still to come at Kings Place with an inspired meeting of the supreme Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, pianist Giovanni Guidi and the innovative Brit electronica artist Matthew Herbert. They quickly set up a transcendental symphony of Herbert's treated industrial 'found sound' with ghostly nostalgic echoes of film soundtracks (from Lalo Schifrin to Nino Rota), jazz age swing, contemporary classical music and Miles-like flugelhorn sketches. It was out of this world and the one to beat going into the final weekend of the festival.
– Selwyn Harris
– Photo by Tim Dickeson