Bonsai Get Out Of A Jam With Groove-Laden Re-Boot At The Vortex


While a name change can spark an invigorating re-boot for many groups, the brand U-turn does pose a distinct set of industry challenges which only those with the proper stuff can weather. Tonight marks the unveiling of Bonsai (formerly known as Jam Experiment), a London-based five-piece who have steadily been working the UK jazz circuit since their formation five years ago.

Ready to tackle the inevitable social media/bookings confusion are brothers Rory (trombone) and Dominic Ingham (violin/voice), Toby Comeau (piano), Joe Lee (bass) and Jonny Mansfield (drums), and this evening sees them preview new material from their forthcoming album on Ubuntu, set for release at the start of the summer. Having since met at celebrated Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, the five have gone on to tour extensively across the UK and Europe, as well as release a previously self-titled debut album, which featured rising saxophonist and former group member, Alexander Bone.

The first of two 45-minute sets kicks off with ‘BMJC’, written by drummer Mansfield, that sees the group blow off pre-show cobwebs and tune into tonight’s room at Dalston’s Vortex. The ability of newest member Dominic Ingham becomes immediately apparent as his effects-enthused violin skilfully soars above a slow-burning groover, followed by the gentle and atmospheric sounds of the gifted Lee’s own ‘Quay’. ‘Ritchie Scalp’, the first of tonight’s at times amusing, yet seemingly random, track titles, has a really nice pace to it and the impressive, brotherly synchronicity between trombonist Rory and Dominic is particularly present.

Bonsai are focused and purposeful throughout and Rory’s song intros are refreshingly light-hearted. Pianist Comeau’s meticulously crafted, nine-month composition quest, ‘Appledore’, and Rory’s footballing lament ‘Get It On Target’ close the first set strongly. The band’s penchant for journeying composition, reminiscent of early Dinosaur, conjures up moods of English countryside ambles and rural reflection, on tracks such as ‘Hop The Hip Replacement’ and ‘Itchy Knee’, the night’s standout tune. While the beginning of the second set is largely unmoving and could have benefitted from the band exploring a more varied palette, the group finish in commanding fashion. Dominic’s well-placed voice on ‘Bonsai Club’ is stirring, and the group demonstrate flare and execution on an arresting final piece. Bonsai have what it takes to see the name-change through.

Fabrice Robinson

François Bourassa Quartet shoot Number 9 narratives at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow

This intimate space in Glasgow’s recently opened hub of jazz activity in the city’s Sauchiehall Street boasts a sound system of which the owners are rightfully proud. Québécois pianist François Bourassa’s group exploited the speakers’ fullest potential, making an almost physical connection between their highly characterful music and the audience.

Opening with the lead-off track from their latest album, Number 9, ‘Carla and Karlheinz’ carried the Monk tradition of angularity and twisted melodicism forward in a bold powerful package, the quartet immediately registered a close-knit understanding, with Guillaume Pilot (here on drums instead of Greg Ritchie who plays on the album), creating a feel of perpetual motion that acknowledged all the composition’s accents, while driving the music forward with purpose.

A significant part of Number 9’s appeal is the clarinet playing of André Leroux. He was restricted here to flute and tenor sax, yet the inherently dark, brooding atmosphere of pieces such as ‘Frozen’ remained intact, while the suspense introduced by Bourassa and bassist Guy Boisvert’s simple descending motif on ‘Past Ich’, made for compelling listening as Pilot changed from sticks to brushes to fingertips in pursuit of the ideal accompaniment to the changing mood of Leroux’s extemporising.

All four musicians improvise strongly, but the music is presented in such a way that any solos are part of a piece’s overall narrative. Written for an artistic retreat Bourassa went on, ‘18, Rue de L’Hôtel de Ville’ conveyed the group’s gift for creating tension and release, before bringing the music to a satisfying conclusion, the final notes fading into the night. 

Rob Adams


Stuff chop-up Cronenberg, Downes and Challenger get organic and Esinam goes Afro-futurist at Flagey

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As the 10-day Brussels Jazz Festival progressed into its second phase, there were sets to excite devotees of both Heavenly and Hellish imagery. One of the hottest Belgian combos in recent years is Stuff (above), but your reviewer was not grabbed by his first encounter with the band in 2015. It seems that this five-piece can manifest in various shapes, so their ‘festival special’ involved the music of mega-prolific movie soundtracker Howard Shore. Excitingly, Stuff homed in solely on his prodigious output for body transformation fetishist David Cronenberg, immediately coercing the players into an atmospheric mode, yanked away from their customary power-funk. The keyboards of Joris Caluwaerts were prominent in the soundscaping, even though the other Stuffers were constantly beavering away: saxophonist Andrew Claes finding his space during The Naked Lunch section, this score a Shore collaboration with Ornette Coleman.

It was an orgy of extreme imagery, as the video-slashing duo of Bart Moens and Frederik Jassogne distributed their splices across four vertical screens, observing a grisly fascination with Cronenberg’s money shots, striking fresh relationships by cutting two or more scenes together, thereby intensifying the hardcore flesh-reddening content. The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and, most teeth-gritting-ly, Eastern Promises flashed by their most heightened imagery. Stuff melded all, turning the contents into a new work, an absolute homage to the mighty Cronenberg. The music often sounded surprisingly tranquil and/or romantic, cultivating an uneasy contrast with the churning imagery. At times, the sonics became a background, but that’s the functional expectation of an expert journey into soundtracking oblivion. Called back for an encore, the band refused, leaving us with a head-expanding multi-screen clip from Scanners, the perfect end to a concert. This was the hard Stuff!

Across the Heaven side of the twinned Flagey lakes, the only gig taking place away from that central location was the English duo of Kit Downes and Tom Challenger, at the nearby Abbaye Church of La Cambre. Downes sat at its high organ, but a distinct disadvantage was that we couldn’t see him in action, apart from his nodding head-shadow. Also, the organ pipes didn’t seem as powerful as those heard during his church gig at Jazzfest Berlin in 2017. In spite of this, he still pushed them to the limit, issuing sounds that you’d never usually hear in a church. Challenger was left to play saxophone on the balcony, seeming lonesome, even though we knew Downes was close by, as Challenger’s horn cried out to the rafters, finding a strangely vocal reverberance, turning tonal tricks in marriage with the organ. This was an impressive event, but the music eventually drifted off, perhaps because it wasn’t anchored by any visual changes.

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Back at the late night Flagey foyer stage, the local Brussels multi-instrumentalist Esinam (above) demonstrated why she’s been travelling up a fast curve of recognition in recent times. She plays solo, but speedily crafts dense layers of looped percussion, keyboard figures and her own backing vocals, laying down flute parts, then soloing across this foundation. Esinam uses Brazilian pandeiro drum, tama talking drum and mbira thumb piano, as well as the occasional vocal, notably on the numbers from her eponymously titled debut EP. The zone is Afro-electro, and adventurous-with-tunes, the entire show dependent on her lightning triggering of stacked parts, a loop juggler, confidently grooved while being quirkily futuristic.

– Martin Longley

 – Photos by Olivier Lestoquoit

Tony Kofi Quintet Hop On A Cannonball Run At Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre

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It was Alan Barnes who once said, "Dead names sell seats", but it would be quite wrong to ascribe such base motives to 'A Portrait Of Cannonball'. Pianist Alex Webb is its instigator and the success of this fusion of narrative and performance owes much to his selection of pieces to play and milestones to mention, but most of all to Tony Kofi and his group who approached the material here with the kind of full-on gusto that Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley himself would have loved.

Kofi’s presentation has already garnered all sorts of appreciation on its various nationwide appearances and looks set to continue, and why not for the set-up is great and the music quite splendid. Sticking to alto throughout, Kofi doesn’t seek to replicate the late Cannonball’s exact sound or style, but instead brings his own searing intensity and positive complexity to every solo he plays. He speaks too, alternating snatches of Adderley’s life story with Webb, each song properly placed in Cannon’s canon, so to speak, thus the gutsy ‘Bohemia After Dark’ referencing Adderley’s chance visit to Café Bohemia in New York, this the springboard for his adoption by the New York jazz cognoscenti. Kofi led this off with a passionate, fast-moving exploration, urged by Andy Cleyndert’s vibrant basslines and the cleverly intricate drumming of Alfonso Vitale and Webb’s piano prompting. Good, too, to cite trumpeter Andy Davies’s participation here, for this young player is keen to impress and brings a thoughtful consideration to his solos, hot and centred, the ideas on the boil, his ensemble linkages with Kofi quite perfect.

The Riverhouse Barn in Walton-on-Thames is just that, a converted half-timbered period building by the Thames, spacious, the bandstand at its centre, contemporary jazz a monthly feature, Kofi having attracted a decent, near-capacity audience who warmed to his personable manner immediately, while reserving the louder part of their applause for singer Deelee Dubé’s recall of Nancy Wilson’s collaboration with Adderley. In truth, her voice is lustier than the late Ms Wilson’s with rather more of a gospel feel, but she’s a crowd-pleaser with serious vocal capabilities, stretching the lyrics on ‘Never Will I Marry’, ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’, ‘Happy Talk’ and the rest in invigorating fashion. Victor Feldman’s ‘Azule Serape’ was a highlight, its theme enabling Kofi to insert a quote or two while bearing down strongly on the beat, with Davies pulling out all the stops; Duke Pearson’s ‘Jeannine’ and ‘Unit Seven’ by Sam Jones later eliciting the kind of ensemble groove that seems like hard-bop heaven. Take that as a capsule description for the entire concert. 

Story and photo by Peter Vacher 

Mo Foster & Friends make moves at Half Moon, Putney

A Wednesday in early January is never likely to entice the largest audience to an evening of live jazz, but there was a good turnout on the 9th at the Half Moon in Putney to be treated to the classiest playing from six of the UK's top musicians in the shape of Mo Foster & Friends. After a long career being a trusted "hired hand" providing solid, sophisticated bass on-stage and instudio for artists such as Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Sting, Van Morrison and Joan Armatrading, Foster has achieved a long-lasting ambition of putting together his "dream team" of players performing music of his choice, and it's a perfect combination.

The inspiration comes from Foster's experiences with Gil Evans in the 1980s, and the new project aims to resurrect that sound with a smaller footprint. It works beautifully. The improvisational skills of Ray Russell on guitar, Chris Biscoe on reeds and Jim Watson on keyboards lead the way. These dazzling performers move the music through exhilarating textures and dynamics, pulling the sound in fresh directions while maintaining a masterly coherence. It's rare when enjoying a live solo improv to be caught suddenly by a "what on Earth was that!" uplift as the other player produces something so rhythmically or harmonically unexpected and complimentary that it raises the experience to another level entirely. Far from being distractions from the soloist’s spot, these delicious combinations amplify and enrich the result. Chris Biscoe’s playing produced a number of these extraordinary moments. What he can do with an alto clarinet or a soprano sax simply amazes.

Overall, the way the members of this group take their cues from each other and adapt the collective sound to the moment, while keeping it structured and highly melodic, is probably beyond all but the most adept musical brains to fully appreciate, but we lesser mortals can enjoy being warmed by the glow. One of the finest parts of this music is Foster's own bass playing. The feel and quality he can put into timing, pressure and timbre of a single note, an arpeggio or bass chord, can take your breath away. Nic France's tasteful energy on drums and Corrina Silvester's sensitive, precise percussion on a fascinating array of instruments comprise a perfect framework for the improvisational front trio to do their thing.

The balanced set includes works by Gil Evans from his collaborations with Miles Davis, Mike Gibbs, John Lewis, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. "Gone" by Gershwin and Heyward was a favourite of mine, with a concerto-like structure, beautiful melody and broad spaces for improvisation. An encore of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” with solos from Russell and Biscoe was a gem of an ending to the evening.

There are no egos in this ensemble. Individually they have nothing more to prove as players. As a result the playing is relaxed and focussed, six masters having fun creating ephemeral magic. Whatever day of the week, whatever the weather, however far away the gig is, I urge all to go and see this band. I'll see you there.

– Story and photo Ken Appleby

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