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

Saxophonist Xhosa Cole has been announced as the winner of BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018, following the final held on Saturday night as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. The grand final featured a sixteen-minute set from each of the five finalists, which included 18-year-old pianist Reuben Goldmark, 21-year-old Fergus McCreadie, 22-year-old bassist James Oston, 20-year-old bassist Seth Tackaberry and 22-year-old saxophonist  Xhosa Cole, with each finalist playing standards and at least one piece they had written or arranged themselves.

Xhosa played his original piece ‘Moving Ladywood’ as well as ‘I Cover The Waterfront’ (Johnny Green) and ‘Moment’s Notice’ (John Coltrane). All contestants were backed by a top-notch jazz trio led by Gwilym Simcock (piano) alongside Paula Gardiner (bass) and Asaf Sirkis (drums).

Following his victory, Xhosa said: “It’s been amazing to represent and have been represented at this prestigious celebration of jazz music in the UK. The calibre of musicianship and passion for jazz music displayed on the stage today has been incredibly inspiring to be a part of.”

Xhosa1

Handsworth-born Xhosa has played saxophone in the Jazzlines Ensemble, Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra and Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra among others. While studying in sixth form, Xhosa attended courses with the National Youth Jazz Collective and National Youth Wind Orchestra. He performs and teaches regularly around Birmingham.

The judging panel consisting of leading jazz musicians Monty Alexander, Zoe Rahman, Gary Crosby, Zara McFarlane and Iain Ballamy. Of the winner, judge Iain Ballamy said: “Xhosa’s performance was so heartfelt, sincere and communicative. It’s easy to see he has such a deep and genuine love of the tradition that gave us such a convincing performance on the night. All five finalists were brilliant – I’d be happy to share the stage with any one of them – and hope to do so!”

Watch the ebtire final on the BBC website here www.bbc.co.uk

 

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