Braxton

With the death of Cecil Taylor a few weeks ago we lost one of the great explorers of the borderland between freeform jazz and new music – an experimental "polar region", in the words of the writer Alex Ross, where distinctions blur and "works of classical, jazz, or rock descent can sound more like one another than like their parent genres." I never got to see Taylor perform live and, as the tributes flood in – from Ross, the pianist Alexander Hawkins (in the June issue of Jazzwise) and many others – I regret that more and more. So I certainly wasn't going to let this rare UK appearance from Anthony Braxton, another legendary polar explorer, slip away.

Like Taylor, Braxton is a controversial figure. His opus includes many pieces that listeners have found challenging to the point of alienating, including compositions for 100 tubas and four orchestras. Appreciating him can feel like an exclusive club and the final night of this Cafe OTO residency for Braxton and his ZIM Sextet attracted a fair few hostile, performative listeners, nodding their heads as if to say: "I understand this on a deeper level than you ever will."

There was nothing hostile about the music though. Even at its most abstract, it felt open and enquiring – as gentle-spirited as Braxton himself. Playing for just over an hour, the group juxtaposed boiling climaxes with passages of sparse instrumental muttering. Angular melodies ping-ponged around the ensemble. Jacqueline Kerrod and Miriam Overlach stirred-up shimmering clouds of notes and scraped the strings of their harps with wood blocks and table knives. Violinist Jean Cook stitched folky fragments. Adam Matlock added vocal groans and weedling accordion lines, playfully contrasted with the rumbling of Dan Peck's tuba. And Taylor Ho Bynum experimented with a collection of mutes, trading blasts with Braxton in the biggest moments and once mimicking the sound of birdsong by blowing on the bottom of his cornet valves. Switching between alto, soprano and toy-like sopranino saxophones, the composer played sweet melodic phrases that could have been clipped from songbook ballads and followed them up with deranged flurries – the flight of the bumblebee with a broken wing.

Sometimes the music resembled a seascape, with Braxton directing ensemble swells and undulating dynamics. Gesturing with his palm as the light gleamed off the surface of his spectacles, he looked like a high priest giving the group his blessing. They wound up in the middle of nowhere. Ho Bynum's trombone evoked the gentle roar of a distant motorway. Braxton directed two ensemble hits and then rummaged in a plastic wallet for a piece of paper. Another tune? It was a list of people to thank – greeted by one of the biggest receptions I've ever heard at Cafe OTO. Credit where it's due: performative listeners are good at applause.

Afterwards, I spoke to harpist Jacqueline Kerrod who showed me some of the music the group use. A lot of what they play is freely improvised, but they also follow graphic scores (works of art in themselves) covered in brightly coloured lollypop symbols and cryptic squiggles, indicating dynamics and intensity. They use some standard notation as well, Kerrod explained, pointing to a sheet covered in dense clusters of semiquavers – the sort of thing musicians refer to as "fly shit". "It's completely unplayable," she laughed, "but the point is to follow the shapes and just do your best."

Follow the shapes and do your best. That's good advice for listeners looking for a way into Braxton's music too.

Thomas Rees
– Photo by Dawid Laskowski    

In recent times this event has had a tenuous relationship with jazz, as R&B and pop headliners kept pushing the 'real' exponents of the genre lower down the bill. 2018's edition bravely redresses the balance. There are instrumentalists and vocalists of the highest order, with an emphasis on Caribbean talent that also means that the week-long festival feels like much more than a roster of international musicians in an 'exotic' location. The appearance of Luther Francois at Sandals, one of the numerous hotels close to the capital Castries, is an absolute highlight. Largely unknown in Europe the St. Lucian saxophonist is an immense talent who has developed an approach to composing fully immersed in the folk and art music of the black diaspora, and he applies it to his superbly responsive 'inter-island' quintet with no concession to cliché. There is an evanescent, highly-nuanced character to many of the pieces on the setlist which is enhanced by the soloing of Antiguan trumpeter Herbert 'Happy' Lewis and leavened by St. Lucian pianist Emerson Nurse and Martiniquan double-bassist Alex Bernard, who both play prickly, off-kilter lines that infuse a delicious tension. Francois's desire to bring tempos right down, drag behind the beat or create elliptical, tantalising passages in an arrangement, is invigorating, and the contribution of the fine drummer Ricardo Francois is crucial in this respect.

The following evening British representation – with Caribbean heritage – comes from vocalist Zara McFarlane, whose dub and reggae-inflected songbook, which plays to the subtleties of her voice as well as the haunting keys of Peter Edwards, goes down well. More problematic is Dominican guitarist Cameron Pierre. On one hand his soloing and helming of an excellent rhythm section adept at calypso, swing and funk is impressive. On the other his 'banter' is seriously off-key. When he describes saxophonist Camilla George as 'a bit of eye candy' there is a gasp of disbelief if not consternation all around, a surefire indication of how misplaced such crude sexism is in this day and age. This is something of which the culprit must be aware, given that George told me that he later apologised for his misdemeanor, a totally unnecessary, embarrassing action that should never have been taken in the first place, regardless of how much rum Pierre, by his own admission, had downed prior to taking to the stage.

Had Jazzmeia Horn (pictured) been in the audience she would surely have had words of wisdom to drop, but she arrived a few days later to perform one of the standout gigs of the festival. Radiating charisma from the get-go, the vocalist lives up to the good press generated by her 2017 debut, A Social Call, through an incendiary scat technique with a range to match one of her role models, Betty Carter, as well as mature restraint on a number of ballads. Horn's acoustic quartet features the excellent alto-saxophonist Marcus G. Miller and is a compelling example of how a very classic, swing-based ensemble can vibrate with contemporary energy, primarily because of the hard edge of the rhythms, as well as the dynamic nature of the singer's approach to melody.

The closing day of the festival at the sumptuous Pigeon Point Island, just off the mainland, is literally a breath of fresh air. With a stage set up on the grassy slope near a fort which saw many a battle between the British and French in colonial times the location is an ideal pick-nick spot, and the audience, though noticeably smaller than in previous years, is in good spirits. Indeed R&R=Now, a supergroup spearheaded by Robert Glasper that features Christian Scott, Terrace Martin, Taylor McFerrin and Justin Tyson, is given a rapturous reception, in line with the stellar reputation of each member. The gig is hit and miss, though. Although this is contemporary electric fusion of the highest order it suffers from Glasper's self-indulgence, particularly when he 'sings' tracks like 'Calls' – where is Jill Scott when we need her? – and generally the arrangements are too meandering for their own good. It is in the final part of the set that the band starts to cook and the tapestry of electronics is thrillingly woven into the pulsating rhythm section. In contrast, Avery Sunshine hits the ground running and her sheer 'lift your voice to the lord' verve as well as vocal prowess has the crowd onside from the downbeat. This is a fine display of vintage soul with jazz inflections, and a firing four-piece band – complete with churchy B3 organ – makes Sunshine's references clear. She ends with a mash-up of Al Green and James Brown, and the audience turns the island from prayer meeting to funk revue under the night sky.

Kevin Le Gendre

Bath Festival applied radical surgery to their roster of festivals in 2017, merging the literature and music events and running a single, multi-arts programme over two weeks in May. 2018 has seen the second edition of the new look festival and the music strand had a diverse and expansive take on jazz and improvised music. There was something global, something local, something old and something new.

House of Waters kicked things off, injecting an international outlook with the first of a series of gigs at Komedia. The New York-based trio's distinctive sound, with Max ZT on hammered dulcimer, Moto Fukushima on six-string bass and Ignacio Rivas Bixio on drums, blended ideas from Indian, African, Latin musics and more with pulsating grooves. It's a quirky fusion and they rock, a fact signalled by their signing to Snarky Puppy's GroundUP imprint. The NY Music Daily's description of them as the most original band on the planet may be rather over-heated, but they put on an absorbing and exciting show.

A couple of weeks later, the local rounded things off. The 'Jazz at the Vaults' session emerged from it's cellar to recreate the format of their fortnightly gig, house rhythm section plus guests, in the grandeur of the Masonic Hall. The festival billing had local forceful and virtuosic trumpeter Jonny Bruce for a set, followed by Tony Kofi. Bruce delivered a swaggering, swinging performance, dipping into classic standards including 'St James Infirmary' and 'Sunny Side of the Street'. Kofi joined him for a burn-up through 'Night in Tunisia'. Kofi made his trademark dip into the Monk oeuvre, starting off with 'Hackensack' and returning later with 'Monk's Dream'. The trio were right there with him, their bounce and verve getting the capacity crowd going. Bassist Wade Edwards is the man behind the regular session. He's been working with Vyv-Hope Scott on piano and Trevor Davies on drums for over a decade, and it shows. Another Bruce-Kofi blast on 'Scotch and Water' to end had everyone on their feet.

Between the global-local bookends, there was a taste of what's causing a buzz on the London and national scenes. Maisha (top) took to the stage in Komedia and were straight into the fusion of Afro-beat and ecstatic jazz that has had everyone talking. The axis of drummer Jake Long, bassist Twm Dylan, Shirley Tetteh's guitar and percussionist Tim Doyle time and again built-up layers of locked tight and irresistible polyrhythms. Nubya Garcia delivered chanting incantations before building into swirling, fiery solos. Sarah Tandy's keyboards provided textures, punctuation and some incendiary soloing that threatened to steal the show. This was new British jazz storming the festival and winning a lot of admirers.

KSmittyBathFest preview

Kansas Smitty's are getting to be festival favourites wherever they go. Their set at Komedia the next night was, as ever, largely original, but steeped in the jazz tradition, and often as not straight out of New Orleans. They've got pulling power as well. Jason Rebello was depping on piano and Claire Teal stepped up to guest on a couple of songs in the second set and summed them up in a neat line: "100 years of jazz, nothing clichéd and everything authentic". As if it to prove the point they brought the curtain down with a storming rendition of 'The Way You're Livin', a belting Dixie-funk style groove and Pete Horsfall's raunchy vocal setting the scene for a blistering solo from Giacomo Smith on alto. Extended pleading from a grateful crowd brought them back for one more.

Back with 'Jazz at the Vaults' at the Masonic Hall on the last night it was the same story. After all the thanks had been declared, bows taken and good nights wished, then a bout of foot stamping and cheering forced the band back on stage for a final blast as they blew 'Perdido' inside out. The festival had touched a lot of bases with a handful of performances and it went down a storm.

Mike Collins

PY

Catching bands at the beginning of their journeys is so often a joy. Compositions are fresh and authentic and genuine pleasure is taken from performances in which every player offers pretty much everything they've got. 

So it was with PYJAEN at Peckham's Ghost Notes this week. This is a quintet now edging into 'hot' territory – so soon after starting out late last year – and one that's now being picked up by festival and club bookers all over the country. Comprised of friends from Trinity Laban's jazz course, the group effortlessly meld funk, modern jazz, Afro-beat, disco and hip hop references without the listener really hearing the seams. Of course, using categories to describe contemporary music is always a bit lame – so let's just say PYJAEN have their own sound, with compositions by all of its members that seem to be of a piece.

Let's also not get stuck on the name of the band (maybe pronounced 'pie-jan'); it doesn't mean anything, it's simply the result of an in-joke after a barista at the Brainchild Festival mis-scrawled the name of trumpet player Dylan Jones on a takeaway coffee cup. But the new word expressed something that summed up where the musicians are at. From the off, PYJAEN set up a groove propelled with dynamism and formidable technique by bassist Ben Crane, guitarist Dani Diodato and drummer Charlie Hutchinson – one that rarely let up all night.

But driving rhythm and danceability did not mean tunefulness was sacrificed. Tracks like Diodato's 'Tapa' and 'SE Wave' are made up of powerful horn-lines with angular asides and the occasional unexpected departure. Lovely wide intervals on tenor and trumpet suddenly converge, creating powerful intricate unison passages in a manner that reminded a little of late 1970s Brecker Brothers. That thought returned when Jones added a very effective phasing effect, like Randy on 'Heavy Metal Be-Bop'. His soloing featured long phrases across the full range of the horn, with plenty of chromaticism, high-octave exclamations and inside out harmony. Tenor player Ben Vize was similarly exciting, with a full, well-balanced gutsy sound and soloed with plenty of clever twists and pyrotechnic sorties into the upper register.

Despite the newness of the band and material, there were no music stands or any glancing at charts; the material had been internalised to the extent that the musicians could relax into each tune and fully commit to each piece. This is not a band where one could imagine deps casually slotting in; the quality of this sort of performance hinges on hours working as a unit, a unit that breaks out into virtuosic solos. Though the mood was generally uplifting and exhilarating, there were hints of a darker sensibility and more intimacy with standout tracks such as Jones' 'Free Your Dreams' and Crane's 'Steve', the latter set up by a lilting, wistful bassline. For this piece, Vize took to his soprano, starting reflectively and establishing a pool of quiet that might have benefitted from the band taking a little longer to ratchet up the volume and intensity.

The trains on the Catford loop line passing close, but inaudibly, behind the band (the venue is on the fifth floor of Peckham Levels, in line with the elevated railway) added a curiously suitable backdrop to the gig: the sense of a band developing rapidly and going places. But wherever they eventually end up, there's probably no time like the present to catch them.

– Adam McCulloch
– Photo by Glauco Canalis

 

Since its beginnings in 2006, Brighton's festival of new music, The Great Escape has had very little jazz programming, so it was inspiring to see a selection of some of the best acts from the new wave of British jazz. Kicking off on Friday night at beachfront nightclub Shooshh with performances from Poppy Ajudha and Kamaal Williams, the main jazz highlight of the weekend was with a triple bill on Saturday night. This took place downstairs at Patterns and featured sets by pianist Ashley Henry (pictured top), drummer Yussef Dayes and group of the moment, Sons of Kemet.

Pianist Ashley Henry performed some of his latest music with double bassist Ferg Ireland and drummer Dexter Hercules, including a piece from his forthcoming album, the energetic and upbeat 'Sunrise', which demonstrated his ever-increasing maturity as a composer. The pianist followed this with his cover version of the Nas tune 'The World Is Yours', highlighting not just his skill as an interpreter and arranger but also his empathy and interplay with his trio. The formidable vocalist Cherise Adams-Burnett joined the group for the track 'Pressure', from Henry's Easter EP, and gave the group a greater sense of urgency, singing impassioned words over a steady, soulful groove. The final tune of their set, the grooving samba title track of Henry's Easter EP, featured more impressive vocal work from Adams-Burnett, some fluid and lyrical solo lines from Henry and gave Hercules the chance to show why he's one of today's most in-demand drummers.

yusef-dayes

Fellow sticksman Yussef Dayes (above) continues to develop as a bandleader since the Yussef Kamaal split of last year. Here he displayed his impressive technical mastery of the kit but was clearly happy to also sit back and play simpler, more relaxed grooves that allowed the other members of the trio to take the spotlight. With well-chosen riffs, inspired timbre selection and perfect timing, former NYJO pianist Charlie Stacey brought something different, applying his virtuosity to a set of keyboards, creating layers of futuristic sounds on top of deep, grooving bass lines. Guitarist Mansur Brown also conjured up an impressive set of different timbres to introduce tunes with gentle, acoustic lines before interweaving rocking melodic lines as the intensity increased.

sonsofkemet

One of the best albums of the year so far, Sons of Kemet's Your Queen Is A Reptile, provided all of the material for their set, beginning with the grooving 'My Queen Is Ada Eastman'. The two drummers set up the groove, then Theon Cross' tuba entered with a pumping bass line, followed by Shabaka Hutchings' (above) melodic sax on top. Although very much a collective endeavour, Cross stood out, not just for playing an instrument rarely heard in a jazz context, but also for his hypnotic grooves, which were reliably on the beat, virtuosic and mesmerising.

– Charlie Anderson
– Photos by Lisa Wormsley

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