Composer, keyboardist and bandleader Colin Towns – best known for his wide raging TV scores (Doc Martin, Ghostboat, Cold Blood, Half Broken Things, Our Friends in the North, The Crow Road) and high-level big band jazz work (NDR Bigband; Frankfurt’s HR Bigband and The Bohuslän Bigband) – returns with his all star band Blue Touch Paper (pictured) for a highly anticipated UK tour, which kicks off at The Vortex, Dalston on 24 February.
Performing hard-grooving melodically-charged material from their recently released second album, Drawing Breath, the stellar band features Loose Tubes/Polar Bear saxophonist Mark Lockheart, Troyka guitarist Chris Montague, and a trio of top German rhythm section players including drummer Benny Greb, percussionist Stephan Maass and versatile bassist Edward Maclean.
The play the following venues: Vortex, London (24 Feb); Turner Sims, Southampton (25 Feb); Artrix, Bromsgrove (26 Feb); Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal (27 Feb); Band on the Wall, Manchester (28 Feb); Capstone Theatre, Liverpool (1 Mar).
– Mike Flynn
For more info go to www.bluetouchpaper.com/tour-dates
Gondwana Records, the Manchester-based indie label, is set to take over Hall Two at London’s Kings Place, Saturday 15 February for a special mini-festival featuring performances from its boss Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra (7pm) followed by GoGo Penguin (pictured) and Mammal Hands (9:15pm). Founded by trumpeter, composer and bandleader Halsall the label has steadily gained a substantial reputation for producing some of the UK’s hippest music with albums from Halsall, GoGo Penguin and saxophonist Nat Birchall.
The trumpeter kicks off the night with the debut of his most recent project, The Gondwana Orchestra, featuring saxophonist Birchall, flautist Lisa Mallett, harpist Rachel Gladwin, pianist Taz Modi, double bassist Phil France, Cinematic Orchestra’s Luke Flowers on drums and Keiko Kitamura on the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument. The exciting spiritual jazz ensemble will be playing music from their forthcoming album When The World Was One, that’s scheduled for release in May this year.
Beat-fuelled rising stars GoGo Penguin, featuring pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner headline as they launch their highly anticipated second album v2.0, release on 17 March. Support comes from the up and coming trio Mammal Hands that feature pianist Nick Smart, drummer Jesse Barrett and saxophonist Jordan Smart. The trio will be releasing their debut album later this year; expect hypnotic grooves, explosive solos and genre bending music, characteristics that have become associated with Gondwana’s distinctive output.
– Daniel Taylor
Check out the February issue of Jazzwise for an exclusive in-depth interview with GoGo Penguin.
For more info go to www.kingsplace.co.uk
“If anyone had told me five years ago that in 1968 British jazz would be in its healthiest ever state, with more good players than ever before, more activity in all fields, more maturity and individuality, and more bands worth listening to, I’d have regarded this prophet as a madman,” declared Ian Carr in the Melody Maker, in May 1968.
Carr reflected on how dire things had seemed in the early ‘60s, with the trad boom petering out, pop in the ascendant, modern jazz players appearing “as suicidal as lemmings drowning in staleness” and their audiences becoming “bored out of existence”.
“We may not have realised it at the time, but there had to be a complete break, and a series of nasty shocks to the system, so that the whole idea of jazz could get revitalised… Around 1964, jazz hit an all time low, and though this was a hard blow to everyone, it had one invaluable side effect. Because there was so little financial reward, only musicians who felt that they really had something to say continued to be at all deeply involved in jazz… The Rhythm and Blues Boom infused new life into the jazz scene. Many jazz musicians worked with the blues groups and their exposure to this hard-hitting music revitalised their conception… The British jazz scene is healthy and exciting [today], but it isn’t perfect by any means, and we’ve all had to fight every inch of the way to get it to its present state.” As well as acknowledging the huge importance of Ronnie Scott in bringing top class American players to his club and with his gift of the Old Place (“an absolutely vital centre for the majority of the new young musicians”), Ian Carr paid tribute to the early ‘60s innovations of Joe Harriott (“a prophet not being recognised in his own country”) and surveyed the best of the writers, instrumentalists and small groups currently active. Among the latter he included the Gordon Beck Trio ‘which often borders on genius’ and the Danny Thompson Trio with ‘John McLaughlan’ [sic]. Among those highlighted were several with whom John would work in the coming months: composer/arranger Mike Gibbs; big band leader/composer Johnny Dankworth; trumpeter Kenny Wheeler; composer/pianist Howard Riley; and baritone saxophonist John Surman.
Arriving in London from Devon in 1962, Surman spent three years at London College of Music studying clarinet but his first instrument was baritone sax – at a time when the saxophone, like the guitar in Julian Bream’s day, was simply not taught at reputable institutions. John Surman was featuring his own quartet on the London pub scene by 1966 (while studying for a teaching diploma by day) and was a regular member of young composer Mike Westbrook’s band. Perhaps like the late Glenn Hughes, John Surman could be said to be revolutionising his own instrument in a manner comparable to John McLaughlin on his.
“Nobody told me you were supposed to play slow, bottom-of-the-register lines on it,” he explained, in 1966. “So I didn’t.”
Surman was voted World No.1 on baritone in the 1968 Melody Maker Critics’ Poll, published in February ‘68. A year later the public had caught up and Surman was voted British No.1 baritone in the Readers’ Poll – but by then the Critics had elevated the man to worldwide ‘Top Musician’. This was rare for any British musician, let alone one who was so slightly represented on record.
Reviewing a Mike Westbrook LP in May ‘68, Charles Fox noted that Surman was “perhaps the most brilliant jazz soloist to emerge in Britain since [pianist] Victor Feldman… whose neglect by the record companies is going to puzzle the jazz historians of the future.”
After all these accolades, the record companies soon woke up. Surman’s debut solo album appeared later that year, with further releases under his own name or in collaboration (including one, in 1971, co-credited with John McLaughlin) following at the rate of one or two a year thereafter.
Interviewed 40 years later, John Surman looked back in some wonder at a time in British jazz ‘when the avant-garde was the most popular form of the music, a very rare thing to happen in any art form’: “It was one of those interesting times,’ he went on, ‘when several different people, all strong musicians, all emerged at the same time. We’re talking about Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Mike Gibbs, as well as… Chris McGregor… There was also a load of other guys around, like [pianist] John Taylor, [drummer] John Marshall and composers like Mike Westbrook. They were all around at the same point in time, and I think that was a key factor. There was also an active free movement with people like [saxophonist] Evan Parker and John Stevens… It’s a cliché that the ‘60s were ‘the swinging ‘60s’, but if there are a lot of people out there doing things, it really helps to create a vibrant scene.”
This really was a time when the avant-garde looked to be capable of opening up whole new worlds of possibility for music. Later in 1968, the second Spontaneous Music Ensemble album Karyobin would appear via Island records, the most exciting of the new progressive labels, more associated with ‘underground’ blues, rock and folk music than jazz. Once again, John Stevens had his finger on the pulse, even if there didn’t always seem to be one in his band: “The strongest impression left by the SME at the Old Place on Nov 29 ,’ wrote one reviewer, of a live performance, ‘was that the musicians were involved in an inner world of their own only palely reflected in the sounds produced… The eight players assembled by John Stevens seemed to be participating in a philosophical get together rather than a musical evening… If I find it cold and impenetrable someone else may well have found it riveting and we would both be right.”
Free improvisation lent itself to analogies about temperature. “There is a certain chilliness about these performances,” the man at The Gramophone would observe, about a Tony Oxley album a couple of years later. “[It] might well be a consequence of trying to freeze this kind of music on an LP. But no doubt something very similar was said about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band back in 1917.”
The same writer, Charles Fox, was – like many of his peers – an admirer of Stevens, almost palpably willing him to make some kind of Holy Grail breakthrough in ‘free’ music which would suddenly make sense to the masses. He felt that, on Karyobin, “the other musicians are inclined to sound restricted in their invention [by comparison], even Kenny Wheeler, certainly one of the finest ‘straight’ jazz musicians in the country’. Hearing free improvisation on record could be, he mused, ‘a bit like watching the flurrying surface of the sea; pleasant for a time but inclined to get boring unless something out of the ordinary happens.”
Yet the full title of the LP, Karyobin are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise, reflected the magical possibilities that were surely there, awaiting discovery, just around the next bend.
“SME is a way of life,” John Stevens explained, in 1975. ‘It is serious, but there’s fun in it… Trevor [Watts] is always quoting me on one thing, which is a laugh… We started in January 1966, and our album Challenge was [recorded] in February – we’d come that far in finding ourselves. I said to Trevor, ‘Jesus, I hope we don’t get too much work and success…’ See, what I was scared of was, there was something very precious happening, and if you started getting gigs then all sorts of outside things come into it. We were playing the music for its own sake. Well, it’s been going on for nine years [now] and we still ain’t got no gigs.’
‘Whatever they may have achieved in terms of music,’ observed Howard Riley, that same year, ‘the knot of determined gents making up the new avant garde establishment has reaped little in the way of tangible reward. The names may be better known and their influence among younger musicians in jazz and on the rock fringes may be surprisingly potent, but when it comes to work opportunities, it is the same old sorry story of a hustle here, a hustle there, and nothing more than the odd one night stand.”
By 1975, free playing had become essentially a sub-genre within jazz; in 1968 it was still an enticing, limitless vista of possibilities. This would be the year in which John McLaughlin would explore free improvisation for himself to its furthest, ice-bound reaches. It would also be a year in which he made a series of recordings closer to the roaring log fire at the very heart of jazz. Experiments With Pops had been the first, and would be released in April ‘68, with John joining the Gordon Beck Trio for a handful of gigs as the Gordon Beck Quartet in London jazz pubs to mark the occasion. The next in the series would come to be celebrated as one of the great British jazz releases of the decade: Windmill Tilter, a meditation on Cervantes’ story of Don Quixote, by Kenny Wheeler with the John Dankworth Orchestra.
Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond by Colin Harper, published by Jawbone Press, 1 March 2014 for more info go to www.bathedinlightning.com
Bristol-based post-jazz buccaneers Get The Blessing, hot Blue Note-signed trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured), and Grammy-winning jazz singer Kurt Elling are the latest names to be added to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, along with big vocal attractions Gregory Porter, Jamie Cullum, Curtis Stigers, MOBO-winning Laura Mvula, Frank Sinatra Jnr and Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra featuring special guests.
The festival, which is held in association with BBC Radio Two and sponsored by Jazzwise, runs from 30 April to 5 May and sees Jamie Cullum play the opening night concert that coincides with International Jazz Day, 30 April, in the Big Top venue, which will also host the Mvula, Stigers, and Jools Holland concerts. Alongside the Big Top, situated in the festival’s tented village in Montpellier Gardens, the Jazz Arena will host Get The Blessing (5 May) and Ambrose Akinmusire (4 May), while the Town Hall returns as a key venue hosting Denys Baptiste’s Now’s the Time, vocalist Elling’s debut Cheltenham concert and the late night Snarky Puppy/Gilles Peterson double bill (3 May).
These headliners join an already exciting line-up, including the Loose Tubes 30th anniversary reunion, Billy Cobham, Robert Cray, and the new Michael Wollny Trio, while additions to the cutting-edge series at the Parabola Arts Centre and the Playhouse Theatre include the Trondheim Jazz Exchange and Dan Nicholls Strobes with visuals by New York artist Stephen Byram. Check Jazzwise’s April issue for the full concert programme.
– Jon Newey
See www.cheltenhamfestivals.com for all ticket details