Perhaps it's a canny coincidence that's there's a tune on Julian Lage's new album called 'Roger the Dodger', as this modern master is a dab hand at usurping preconceived notions of what a Telecaster guitar can do. Some of it is barely legal for sure, such is Lage's ability to splice country-rock and classical, free jazz and high rolling rock'n'roll, which he does with abandon during the first of two sold-out sets at Soho's Pizza Express Jazz Club.

He cuts a lean figure on stage and the triple whammy of high-energy opening tracks, all taken from his forthcoming Modern Lore (Mack Avenue), occasionally finds him bouncing on the spot, grinning at the possibilities that lie before him and his trio of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Eric Doob. The latter pair blend seamlessly into Lage's improvisational slipstream, following with the kind of empathetic support every top flight soloist needs. They also shadow his mood - dropping to a lazy lope on the becalming 'Atlantic Limited', which also gives the audience a breather from the guitarist's gleefully intense solos.

Julian-Lage-

To his great credit Lage is exploring the deep roots of the guitar - linking the likes of Chet Atkins, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell with wit and wonder – revelling in the sparseness a single note from his battle-scarred instrument can sustain. And in a world of gear-headed guitarists, it's a rare delight to hear the instrument's distinctive twang unadorned by reverb, delay or distortion – Lage possessing such a huge lexicon of sounds simply through his fingers he doesn't need to hide behind effects.

Julian-Lage-3

The audience was no doubt packed with guitar players, who must have been in seventh heaven as Lage dazzled with mind-boggling counterpoint lines that were part Bach part blues, simultaneously ascending and descending with their own strange gravitational push and pull. Indeed, the gig orbited around Lage's audacious solos, the trio's dynamic control and simpatico grooves, resulting in an utterly mesmerising sight and sound. Only just 30-years-old, Lage has a long way to go on his deep explorations. It's going be fascinating to see where he takes his extraordinarily imaginative playing next.

Mike Flynn

– Photos by Monika S. Jakubowska

 marlene-by-Bob-Meyrick

On stage, Marlene Verplanck stood quite still, diminutive and always graceful, just letting the lyrics of the songs she sang breathe and speak for themselves. It was her perfect intonation and vocal clarity that always impressed, every performance like a masterclass, her accompanists hand-picked for their taste and swing. In Britain, it was usually John Pearce on piano, earlier it had been Geoff Eales and it was nearly always Bobby Worth at the drums. Marlene built up a network of club venues and concert locations here in Britain and her annual jaunts which had started in 1989 became a regular feature of her schedule. Her British fans were constant, happy to see her again and again.

A new UK tour was due to start in March and was again to include a Sunday set at Ronnie Scott's. But then came the news of her death on 14 January from pancreatic cancer. She was 84. Although it was first diagnosed last November, she had kept quiet about her illness, fulfilling her gigs in New York and New Jersey until a short while ago.

Marlene was from Italian-American stock, born in in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, where her family ran an Italian restaurant. She first sang briefly with Charlie Spivak's band where she met her future husband, the trombonist and arranger Billy VerPlanck, and both were then with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Marlene and Billy married in 1955 and stayed together in both a personal and musical partnership until he died in 2009.

With the band business on its knees, Marlene moved seamlessly onto the New York studio scene in the 1960s, recording literally hundreds of jingles and commercials over the next 30 years, every word clearly enunciated, every high note cleanly hit. She later embarked on a solo vocal career, masterminded at first by Billy, who was always at her side on her early visits to the UK. She recorded more than 20 albums, mostly with all-star jazz groups including one led by Pearce, others with big bands and memorably, another with the French all-saxophone group Saxomania. Any notion that she might retreat into anonymity once Billy had died was soon dispelled as Marlene flourished, playing the best New York venues and touring internationally, always upbeat and apparently tireless.

The US writer Doug Ramsey said she "was a delight to be with, gracious and funny", and so she was. RIP Marlene.

– Peter Vacher
– Photo by Bob Meyrick 

Winter Jazzfest is a big deal in New York City. The festival offers fans the chance to hear hundreds of long-established and emerging artists over six nights and 14 stages. Among predominantly US-based performers, this 14th edition opened with a sold-out showcase of British Jazz, with Gilles Peterson hosting The Comet is Coming, Nubya Garcia, Yazz Ahmed and Oscar Jerome.

Fellow Brits Sons of Kemet (pictured) also performed as part of the festival's signature 'Marathon' event: two nights of over 100 groups in venues across Lower Manhattan. The quartet drew a hefty crowd to the 700-capacity Le Poisson Rouge. From the outset, their trademark driving rhythms filled the space in a way that only their sax, tuba and two drum sets can. There was no clue of the shift in band-members since the ensemble's first album, Burn (2013): with tuba player Theon Cross (below) and drummer Eddie Hick taking over from Oren Marshall and Seb Rochford respectively. While Hick and The Comet is Coming's Max Hallett (filling in for an absent Tom Skinner) played with distinct personalities, their masterful drumming worked seamlessly together, along with Cross's never-tiring tuba grooves, and Shabaka Hutchings' enchanting tenor sax riffs. Theon captivated the audience. His incredible chops, stamina and skill over the range and technique of his instrument blurred boundaries between relentless, percussive basslines and melodic, energetic solos; the crowd adored it.

sok-nyc2

The tuba rested only as Cross took up cowbells for the ensemble's hypnotic instrumental rendition of 'Rastaman Chant', echoing Bob Marley's "Babylon throne gone down / I say fly away home to Zion". Concepts of home and confronting oppressive, institutionalised systems were emphasised as Shabaka introduced a piece from the band's forthcoming album, Your Queen is a Reptile, which is due for release on Impulse! in March. The group's third album questions the myths of hereditary privilege and 'validity', criticising the British empire, reclaiming a world where "people can accept their feminine leaders" and immigrants can question "obsolete systems". These are hot topics in the UK and US, and Shabaka's discourse fits well into Winter Jazzfest, which, according to the programme notes, "supports social and racial justice, gender equality and immigrant rights". From Marc Ribot's punk-jazz Songs of Resistance, to Alexis Cuadrado's politically-driven live soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant, these themes reemerge.

Musically, Sons of Kemet also embodied this anti-hierarchical, borderless ethos, their new work retaining characteristic qualities: driving musical eclecticism, mixing dub and Caribbean sounds with Afrobeat, electronica-like rhythms, and New Orleans grooves. This reflects the diversity of Winter Jazzfest – from the sensory electronic experimentalism of Susie Ibarra's Dreamtime Ensemble, via Matt Wilson's poetry-driven Honey & Salt Band, to Jazzmeia Horn's R&B-influenced scatting. These showcases, then, were not about being British, American or other, but about discovery, compassion, energy, jazz. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to witness a UK band enthral a captivated New York audience.

- Celeste Cantor-Stephens
– Photos by Josh Cheuse

MSJ 9106-2

The conventions of a jazz performance are so well established they are easily overlooked. Audiences applaud after solos because they catch the ear and usually mark a clear departure from a stated theme. However, at no point during two absorbing sets from this tightly cohesive ensemble are hands put together in the house when a single player is heard for any length of time. Improvs are not telegraphed.

The quartet jointly led by pianist Alexander Hawkins and vocalist Elaine Mitchener presents a suite of music in the true sense of the term, meaning that single pieces and moments within them, be it a solo, duo, impromptu exchange or burst of unison playing, form an overarching narrative. As with many an interesting group the large unit sub-divides into smaller cells without breaking the flow of ideas.

Launching Uproot, its debut album on Intakt, a label of optimum quality control, the quartet makes that sense of purpose clear from its arrival by again bucking a trend. Rather than take a few moments to settle and slowly count off the downbeat Hawkins, Mitchener, double bassist Neil Charles and drummer Stephen Davis attack their respective instruments as soon as they take to the stage, producing a notable jolt in the audience who are frankly caught off guard.

That could have been empty gesture politics if not edginess for edginess' sake but the creative richness of the performance, above all the tension between prepared and spontaneous materials, precludes that. Echoes of Hawkins' role models, AACM iconoclasts Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell [and occasionally Jaki Byard], come to the fore, as does Mitchener's immersion in theatre as well as in music. It is precisely the elision of performance art and sound exploration that makes the gig fascinating. Rhythmic turbulence, focussed harmonic distortion and dynamic interplay all bear down on Uproot but Hawkins and Mitchener also understand that the so-called avant-garde is nothing if not melodic and that beauty can occur when serenity dovetails ferocity.

MSJ 86681

While Abrams worked brilliantly with the unheralded Ella Jackson, Hawkins has found an equally poised, often operatic partner in Mitchener whose finesse of tone lights up the room on wry originals such as 'Love Is A Funny Thing' and Archie Shepp's 'Blasé'.

Her wide range of experimentalism – polyrhythmic clickings; throaty overtones; meshings of song and spoken word – are met by some very potent responses, above all Davis' jagged thumb piano and Charles' swaying arco. On just a few occasions the group's attack is overwhelming, and some balance is lost as an idea is explored beyond its natural life cycle, an occupational hazard with any ex-tempo creativity and a defiantly no-compromise spirit.

However, the seamless shifts into tough if not torrid vamps, especially one string of languorous descending chords from Hawkins, imbue the gig with direct currents of energy that are irresistible. Mitchener both reinforces and subverts that strategy, using her voice as an abstract sound source as well as vehicle for storytelling that is by turns full of sharp irony, deep pathos and stark, confrontational resolve. Right down to the recitation of a list of things she no longer needs, on which there might be consensus – the numbers of people to whom she no longer wants to speak – and dissent – her old discs from a mini-disc player. Some might argue it is worth reactivating that time machine.

– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Monika S. Jakubowska

Denys-Baptiste-Credit--Dave-Stapleton-5471

Award-winning saxophonist and Jazzwise 2017 end-of-year-chart podium-maker Denys Baptiste curates a special one-day fest dedicated to the life and music of John Coltrane.

Some of the UK’s finest artists, including Evan Parker, Alina Bzhezhinska, Tomorrow’s Warriors, Gary Crosby Quartet, as well as Baptiste himself, are all set to appear at the Mirth, Marvel & Maud space in Walthamstow, London on Saturday 17 February. The event will also host a screening of the critically acclaimed documentary Chasing The Trane, plus a plethora of DJ sets, jazz-inspired yoga/meditation sessions and other Coltrane-centred activity

– Spencer Grady

For more details and ticket info at www.coltraneculture.co.uk

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