Young Guns Fire At Jammin' Juan Jamboree

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The Jammin' Juan marketplace is a three-day off-shoot of the long-running prestigious Jazz á Juan festival. Seven groups daily have just 35 minutes to impress an audience of industry professionals, including directors of some of France's many jazz festivals. Each afternoon there's a buzzy atmosphere and every evening two more bands play full sets in concert. Of these, the Philippe Villa Trio creates a warm Mediterranean glow playing some of the bandleader's piano-led compositions. The next night festival patron, English jazz singer Hugh Coltman, who's made a career in France with his original songs, has the audience on its feet. Soul and hip hop artist Sly Johnson's equally dynamic performance also gets the the closing-night crowd dancing.

The showcases, though, are the heart of the event. Binker and Moses impressed last year. This year French bands are joined by groups from Sweden, Luxembourg and Canada performing a wide range of jazz. On day one Paris-based Ryoko Nuruki & Afro Nippon's combination of the former's Japanese heritage with African rhythms sometimes echoes early Abdullah Ibrahim. The almost all brass SuPerDoG play nearly all King Crimson numbers. Starting with a New Orleans marching-band version of '21st Century Schizoid man' they show just how can these labrythine pieces can be twisted into a jazz style.

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Marthe are a fiery and soulful quartet merging traditional Greek music with contemporary jazz. The outstanding band of day one, though, is the Grégory Ott Trio. Their superb ensemble playing, with its fine interplay between piano and double-bass, is highly reminiscent of Phronesis.

Day two's showcase highlight comes at its begining, with ex-saxophonist, now bittersweet singer, Kevin Norwood's Quartet. Rather than performing as a singer and his side-men, this is a unit which pushes all in the same propulsive direction. They also take some risks. The young LynX Trio are a promising jazz guitar-led band who go from dreamy to power playing. Bakos, are a strange inclusion: a heavy metal duo who turn out to be a breath of fresh air, storming through seven songs in furious style and charming the audience.

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The final day is also the richest. Youpi 4tet, a beguiling flute and harmonica-led troupe, are buoyed by a driving rhythm-section which gives them a muscular grove. Sweden's Corpo, with six albums under their belt, have a warm edge to their Nordic cool and a sophistication that on the day is matched only by the punchy performance of the also very experienced Canadian Jean-Pierre Zanella and his quartet. The guitar and trumpet championing Anthony Jambon Group, and the lively Parisian funk band Ishkero definitely show some promise, but it's the thrilling, spine-tingling trumpet and flugelhorn playing of Montreal's Rachel Therrien Quartet that suggests Jammin' Juan might have uncovered a big jazz star of the future.

Colin May
– Photos by OTC Antibes Juan-les-Pins (Philippe Villa Trio; Grégory Ott Trio) and Colin May (Youpi 4tet) 

René Marie and John Clayton crown Vail Jazz Party

This year's Vail Jazz Party offered a much-needed escape, especially after a sudden late summer heatwave that hovered over the entire East Coast. Despite its high-altitude levels, (which, frankly, took some getting used to), with Colorado's mountainous backdrop and idyllic charm, one was simply transported as they relished in the weekend-long festival.

Founder and lifelong jazz fan Howard Stone said that concept for the Vail Jazz Series came to him in 1995, during a "snowy night [with] too much wine." Stone also added that one of the main goals of the series is to "find young musicians, inspire them, and teach them to carry on the music that we love so much." The annual Labor Day weekend festival has since grown into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organisation, dedicated to increasing audiences and creating educational opportunities for young people.

Some of its offerings include a jazz workshop series, comprising some of the country's top high school students, a music program called 'Vail Jazz Goes to School' for students based in Eagle County, and a free concert series offered several times throughout the year. This 24th edition of the Vail Jazz Party was a rousing culmination to over 12 weeks of live music through its summer Jazz Series, one that was needed (now more than ever), given the country's current political climate.

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The growth of the Vail Jazz Series is attributed to several factors, one of them being John Clayton (above). A student of Ray Brown, Grammy award-winner Clayton is not only one of the music's most sought-after double bassists, but also one of the country's leading jazz educators. For more than 20 years, Clayton has served as Director of the Vail Jazz Workshop. At the festival's kickoff on Thursday evening, Clayton sat alongside me in the front row and watched his students and alumni, like a proud father, share some of the lessons gained from his constant tutelage.

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Following an opening set from the Vail Jazz All-Stars, this year's Jazz Workshop students, the Vail Jazz Alumni Quintet (above) took to the Jazz Tent at Vail Square, the festival's main stage. For over two decades, the alumni band has been a great indicator of who will become the next crop of jazz voices. This latest installment of the alumni band, which featured bassist Zach Brown, saxophonist Hailey Niswanger and trombonist Jeffery Miller, did not break tradition. Notable past alumni who have since gone on to make their own mark in jazz include trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian Scott [aTunde Adjuah], saxophonist Grace Kelly, and keyboardist James Francies. As Vail Jazz Party House Band closed out the first night, they not only set the overall tone for the festival, but more importantly, offered audiences a shining example of what decades of hard work and dedication to one's craft looked like, in the form of brothers John and saxophonist Jeff Clayton, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Terell Stafford, drummer Lewis Nash and pianist Bill Cunliffe.

Another one of Ray Brown's prize pupils is none other than pianist Benny Green. As Green made frequent appearances throughout the weekend, his adeptness on the instrument was almost overshadowed by his modesty as he paid homage to an endless list of former teachers, band leaders and influences, including Brown, Art Blakey, and the underrated genius of pianist Walter Davis, Jr.

On Sunday evening, Byron Stripling's live set at the nearby Vail Marriott combined an interactive lesson plan with live performance, providing audiences with added insight into the genius that was trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison. A former lead trumpeter and soloist in the Count Basie Orchestra, Stripling learned firsthand from not only one of the orchestra's founding members, but also the go-to trumpeter for Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

Another crucial element to any jazz festival are the late night jam sessions. Held from Friday through Sunday night at the Vail Marriott, the jam sessions offered much of the lineup, including Clayton, Green and vocalist René Marie (picture top) an opportunity to not only expound on ideas merely introduced during their live sets, but to also create a platform that encourages both aspiring and seasoned musicians, alike, to perform alongside one another and allow nothing but their inspiration to guide them. With fewer performance venues and more chances to catch this year's lineup, the Vail Jazz Party was truly designed with the jazz aficionado in mind.

– Shannon J Effinger

– Photos by Jack Affleck

Partisans Peddle History Of Jazz (R)evolution At Brighton's Verdict

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The night outside may be wet and windswept, but here in the Verdict's cosy basement a crowd of appreciative connoisseurs are all attentiveness as Partisans take to the stage. The band have two live dates at the Vortex coming up, to be captured for an upcoming release, and their music stands (and drummer Gene Calderazzo's floor tom) are laden with a sheaf of new music, some of it barely played before – as guitarist Phil Robson says, tonight's audience are "not quite guinea pigs" for the new jams.

They pitch straight in, Robson and reedsman Julian Siegel blowing slices of syncopated unison over Calderazzo's bustling backbeat groove – but it's quickly apparent that this is anything but your standard jazz-funk, as the beat disappears into spacious free-form breakdowns, then bursts back into life under Robson's furious overdriven solo. 'That's Not His Bag' (titled for an airport luggage incident, apparently) develops around Thad Kelly's slinky, loping ostinato, like something from Extrapolation-era McLaughlin, onto which Robson, Siegal and Calderazzo hang all kinds of explosive licks and trades – 'Nit de Nit' from the second album features some multi-textured free improv that shows how thoroughly attuned all the bandmembers are to each other's personal voices – Bowie's 'John I'm Only Dancing" is pulled apart and re-assembled ("Years before Donny McCaslin", says Robson, mock-ruefully) in an organised chaos of skilfully interlocked sounds and silences – 'Egg' is a tribute to Egberto Gismonti over a pulsing pedal groove and 'Pork Scratchings' has a contemporary-sounding lazy hip-hop inflected beat overlaid with all manner of cacophanous effects.

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Elsewhere there are high-energy, densely harmonic swing sections for the soloists to stretch out over, Mahavishnu-style guitar freakouts, quirky melodic exchanges and the occasional missed ending on the new stuff that only accentuates how effortlessly tight and disciplined the band are. Robson and Siegel are well-matched, both of them combining a sure rhythmic accuracy and a clean and precise articulation with boundless melodic and harmonic imaginations – Kelly works within the limits of an unusual left-hand technique to produce an utterly solid foundation devoid of clichéd licks – and Calderazzo is a creative firework display, throwing forth showers of bright-coloured ideas that burst in the air. For all the intensity of the music this is a relaxed affair, and the band demonstrate a level of mutual understanding and good humour that testify to a 22-year back history of playing together.

The music is a patchwork of influences – the towering jazz-rock of the 1970s, the language of the post-bop revolution and its free-improv twin, the quizzical eccentricity of Anglo art-rockers like Soft Machine and Henry Cow, the uncompromising angularity of M-base, and much else harder to classify. This is a band that will never be content to do the obvious; as we see many of the tropes of 1970s groove jazz currently being embraced by a younger generation of musicians, Partisans provide a salutary reminder of how diverse the evolution of the music has been over the last 20 years; time has only sharpened their creativity and in no way dimmed their relevance.

Eddie Myer
Photos by Lisa Wormsley 

Sam Knight Quintet and Elephant Talk sound off at Spice of Life

Sam Knight humorously identifies himself as the "designated email sender" for these two bands – presumably a vital role for any group trying to build a reputation and following. Knight's lively young quintet plays original compositions, drawing strongly from the jazz giants that have most influenced him during his time at the Guildhall School of Music – Seamus Blakey, Wycliffe Gordon, Miles Davis. The confidence of youth is on full display, both in the solos taken by each member of the group and in the patter between songs, as one of the compositions reputedly aims to take Miles Davis's 'Nardis' "to the next level". The group have a nice range of feeling, from the lamenting 'Goodbye Tomorrow' to the clattering pace of the conceptually unusual 'Musk of the Underground'. It's straight-ahead jazz, performed with flair and passion.

The arrival of Elephant Talk marks a change in tack. The tried-and-tested jazz structures of the Sam Knight Quintet give way to a more multi-faceted sound that mixes jazz harmonies with more of a rock feel. Elephant Talk excel at shifting gears and moving from tension to release. They build with staccato stabs from the three-piece brass section, release as they round the musical corner, suddenly firing on all cylinders with a volume and intensity that draws cheers from the crowd.

Again, we're mainly listening to original compositions, this time drawn from guitarist James Maltby's wellspring of musical influences and invention. Fresh from playing with Knight's Quintet, Maltby shows his breadth, as capable of a delicate chord solo as he is a spiky riff, bristling with dissonance.

All these musicians played together during their studies at Guildhall. A few – Knight, Maltby and drummer Floyd St Barbe – feature in both bands, in some cases because they always do, in another because of a last-minute personnel shortage which also necessitated the introduction of an unrehearsed yet still excellent pianist.

With music of this quality to show off, someone's got to send those emails.

Story and photo – James Rybacki @james_rybacki

Hersch Gets His Hooks Out As All Jazz Bases Covered At Alsace

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Set in a small quiet village (boasting one shop and a bakery) not far from Strasbourg, the Au Grès du Jazz organisers have made a very successful festival situated in the Northern Vosges National Park. Usually a magnet for walkers and cyclists, during the 13 days of the festival it is packed with jazz fans from all over Europe. This was the 16th edition of the event and it featured a great mix of world class acts, homegrown talent and some very interesting artists on the fringes of jazz.

The big names included Earth, Wind & Fire on a double-bill with the Brooklyn Funk Essential and Abdullah Ibrahim with his Mukashi Trio, who built a beautiful set around his composition 'The Wedding'. Blues maestro Lucky Peterson brought his tribute to Jimmy Smith, which was somewhat underwhelming until he picked up his guitar for some hot slide licks. Just spine-tingling and easily the best part of his show.

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French flautist Melanie De Biasio (above) is an acquired taste. She invites the audience to an 'experience' rather than a concert. She floats around the stage on a cloud of dry ice; singing and playing melancholic songs that rely on hypnotic rhythms to lull the listener into her world. She is very good at what she does – engaging and at times even mesmerising, but five minutes after the concert I couldn't remember any of the tunes. Maybe that's not the point. 

The most entertaining and 'in your face' show was without doubt BCUC (Les Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) from Soweto. Based around mantric tribal drums, chants and thumping basslines, their set got the crowd on its feet and this heart pumping. The addition of alto saxophonist Jowee Omicil to the band gave a welcome break from the beat. He's a great soloist who made the most of his slots.

Grammy-winner Dobet Gnahoré also laced her great set with African overtones. Mixing the pop sounds of that continent with creole and jazz, her band (including father Boni on percussion) gave a bravura performance, with guitarist Julian Pestre particularly impressive.

On the more purist jazz tip, US pianist Fred Hersch (pictured top) – mentor of many younger pianists including Brad Meldau and Ethan Iverson – played with his trio of John Herbert (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums). Paying tribute to those who have influenced him (including Monk, Jobim and Hoagy Carmichael), his wonderful touch around the keys unfurled with each tune. His rendition of John Taylor's 'Bristol Fog' was sublime, as was the encore, his own tune 'Valentine'. Hersch is a great lyrical pianist and well worth looking out for during one of his rare trips to the UK.

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Canadian saxophonist Seamus Blake is another musician who is talked about in glowing terms, largely for his gigs with the Mingus Big Band. He was invited to this festival as a special guest of the Christophe Imbs Trio (above). Imbs has been a long-time fan of Blake's style and so wrote a suite of music especially for the concert. Blake has an accessible approach and his tone is superb, while Imbs' writing brings out the best from his soloing. The compositions were loose and fluid, perfect for an improviser as inventive as Blake.

– Story and photos by Tim Dickeson

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