If black jazz critics are mostly conspicuous by their absence today then the importance of pioneers in the field cannot be overstated. When LeRoi Jones made his debut as a reviewer, liner note writer and essayist in the early 1960s he challenged the standard image of the ‘serious’ music scribe as a member of the white middle class. Jones was born to bourgeois African-Americans in Newark, New Jersey and saw the likes of the Shorter brothers, Wayne and Alan, around his neighbourhood as a boy. Although a lover of hard-bop and soul-jazz who wrote eloquently about players like Gene Ammons, Jones emerged as a champion of the ‘New Music’ or avant-garde, making a substantial case for the innovations of Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler, Taylor and Shepp at a time when their work alienated much of the critical establishment.
Of no less importance was the 1963 book Blues People, in which Jones gave an illuminating account of the multi-faceted, complex nature of African-American music, and how the closely entwined strands of blues, gospel and jazz reflected the broad sweep of Negro socio-cultural history that covered slavery and the post-Emancipation period. Criticism was merely one strand of Jones’s output. He was as versatile as he was prolific, and the plethora of dramatic literature, poetry and fiction that he produced singled him out as a complete man of letters. Different as they are in form, the play Dutchman and the poem 'It’s Nation Time' are uncompromising reflections on black mental repression and the need for self-empowerment.
Although his adoption of the Muslim name Amiri Baraka in1967 may have been perceived as a sign of the writer’s growth as a black cultural nationalist, he had been going down that road several years prior.
Baraka was indefatigable in his efforts to enshrine the principle of ‘Black Art’ as a means of defence against a dehumanising white power structure. Some of his views drew accusations of homophobia and misogyny, charges to which he responded by pointing out the tide of violence that had been unleashed upon African-Americans, white liberals and progressive African politicians alike: draw the line from Emmett Till to Patrice Lumumba via King, Kennedy and Malcolm X. While it is a shock to read some of the early extreme positions that Baraka took it should be noted that he was a frontline activist who lived through extreme times and confronted inequities head on.
Radical and rabble-rouser in equal measure, Baraka was also an important educator, and he held teaching posts at several universities during his life. Yet he was never an armchair academic content to sit in a book-filled study and mark papers. An integral part of Baraka’s whole being was performance. The stage was his real home. He could not conceive of the written word without the spoken word.
Arguably, the highlights of his creative life are the collaborations with jazz and hip-hop musicians, from New York Art Quartet and Sun-Ra Myth Science Orchestra in the 1960s to The Roots and Vijay Iyer at the turn of the second millennium via David Murray in the 1980s.
Baraka’s substantial body of work makes him a seminal figure in contemporary black culture. His talent was matched by a determination to tell stories from a community that he’d seen struggle up close and personal. That stance paved the way for subsequent writers, notably Greg Tate, to deliver the word of their own generation.
– Kevin Le Gendre
Trombonist Tom Green’s Septet came to the Forge on Tuesday on the back of a winter tour, the leader garlanded by the award of the 2013 Dankworth Prize for Jazz Composition, this complemented by praise from none other than Dame Cleo Laine herself. With a packed venue and a young, enthusiastic crowd, expectations were running high and rightly so as Green’s men, mostly current or past Royal Academy students and supplemented by guest tenorist Iain Ballamy, delivered a programme largely based on the leader’s own compositions. In effect, writing was king, Green’s liking for densely-plotted outcomes calling for concentration and the kind of dynamic interplay that might mark out a contemporary concert group. Indeed, there was a sense here at times of a graduate recital, brows furrowed in concentration.
Green likes his pieces to open quietly, one instrument with another, as on his ‘Peace of Mind’ before allowing the ensemble to plunge in, using complex voicings amid dense musical foliage, the solos quite contained and often solemn. On this basis, it was hard at first to evaluate his players’ solo capabilities, Green’s own trombone supple and rich-toned but never quite breaking free from the bonds of these pieces. Trumpeter James Davison was note-perfect and spot-on throughout the compositional ebb-and flow, drummer Scott Chapman keeping the ship on course whatever the musical weather. Reasonably enough, Ballamy was seldom at a loss, his characteristic push-and-pull tenor style well in evidence, even if his through-composed original ‘Floaters’ seemed dirge-like and portentous.
As so often happens, Green and company appeared more relaxed post-interval, smiles replacing frowns, these later pieces opening up more, with Ballamy’s ‘Veg Gary’ (his tribute to a market-trader friend), prompting pianist Sam James (definitely a player to watch) to unleash some darkly funky harmonies ahead of Ballamy’s own vibrant solo, the band clearly relishing the zigzag lines of the piece. Green’s ‘Equilibrium’ followed, complete with its Iberian allusions and the band began to fly, paced by Chapman’s fine drumming. The final ‘D.I.Y.’ was altogether more cheerful, hinting at the Dirty Dozen’s collective style, hosted by Chapman’s second-line drum moves and great walking bass from Misha Mullov-Abbado. So a game of two halves perhaps: more light and less reverence in the second half making for a rewarding evening’s music. There’s promise aplenty here.
– Peter Vacher
Celebrated experimental contemporary music group, Icebreaker – the 12-piece ensemble formed in 1989 by James Poke and John Godfrey – are set to explore the avant garde roots of pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk on a four-date UK tour from 24 January to 12 February. The cult German band were given a feverish reception for their gigs in the UK last year, which included a 3D film shown behind them while they played live. Icebreaker – who play guitars, keys, pan-pipes, saxes, flutes, drums and percussion – also aim to create an outlandish, experimental audiovisual live experience and have teamed up with German composer, producer, and soundscape artist J. Peter Schwalm and visual artists Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish.
Schwalm explained the approach for the project: “Our focus is on Kraftwerk’s early, semi-improvised music that combined acoustic and electronic instruments. Where Kraftwerk’s aesthetic moved ever closer to the ‘man machine’ we aim to adopt a more ‘retro-futurist’ approach to find the ‘human’ inside the machine, beginning with [Kraftwerk’s] Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider’s own early albums.” The tour dates are: IMAX Cinema at the Science Museum, London (24 Jan); Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (5 Feb); Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (6 Feb), Town Hall, Birmingham (8 Feb) and Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham (12 Feb), and Corn Exchange, Cambridge (2 May).
– Mike Flynn
For more info go to www.icebreaker.org.uk
Following original outline plans for this year's Jazz FM Awards, Jazz FM has announced that the next awards, which were launched to considerable acclaim in 2013, are now being planned to take place in 2015.
Richard Wheatly, the CEO of Jazz FM, says: "It's great that there is such a strong appetite for recognition of jazz music in the UK. Having considered all the aspects of such an event, particularly the significant financial commitment, we're now planning for the next Jazz FM Awards to take place in 2015, making it a bi-annual event."
This year’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards will take place on 13 May at the House of Commons and voting is now open online for the public to cast their choices across the designated categories. Voting forms can be completed on the Jazz Services website at www.jazzservices.org.uk and the final deadline is 12-noon on Monday 3 February 2014. The awards are firmly established as one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the jazz calendar and are held by the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Group in association with PPL.
This year the awards ring the changes with a streamlining of some categories and new ones added. These now include: Jazz Album of the Year (released in 2013 by UK band or musician); Jazz Vocalist of the Year; Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year; Jazz Ensemble of the Year; Jazz Venue of the Year (including jazz clubs, venues, festivals and promoters); Jazz Media Award (including magazines, journalists, radio broadcasters, books and websites); Jazz Education Award (to an educator or project for raising the standard of jazz education in the UK); Jazz Newcomer of the Year (UK based artist, musician or group who has released a debut album in 2013) and Services to Jazz Award (to a living person for their outstanding contribution to Jazz in the UK).
Jazzwise encourages readers to participate in the online voting to widen the diversity of nominations and spread the jazz message.
To vote go to www.jazzservices.org.uk