Black Art Jazz Collective bring the heat to Dizzy’s in sub-zero NYC

“You just came here to keep warm, right?” quipped tenorist Wayne Escoffery well into the second set at NYC’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, on a blustery winter night in late February. Levity, coupled with a serious pedigree and chops, were in ample supply for the Black Art Jazz Collective, an arsenal of five players dedicated to furthering black identity, thought and culture in music – much needed especially in our politically divisive times.

Formed in the early 2010s, the Black Art Jazz Collective made its debut performance as a group at Dizzy’s back in 2013. Nearly six years later, the need for them is now stronger than ever. Co-founded by Escoffery, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and the noticeably absent drummer Johnathan Blake, another aim for the Collective is to honor the many progenitors of modern jazz who inspired them – Jackie McLean, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard – these venerable greats who hired them to join their bands and, in some cases, taught them their craft firsthand. Now as celebrated bandleaders in their own right, the Collective ensures that the legacy of these exceptional black men and women will continue to inspire more audiences.

Supported by a steady rhythm section of bassist Vicente Archer and Rodney Green, sitting in for Blake on drums, the horns picked up more steam on their opening tune ‘Devil Eyes’. Recorded by the late Roy Hargrove on the 2006 album Nothing Serious (Verve Records), the tune was composed by Dwayne Burno, a founding member of the Collective who died of kidney failure at 43 in 2013, just months following the group’s debut at Dizzy’s. Subtly different from Hargrove’s take, Pelt’s horn blazes in razor sharp and strong, decimating all in its line of fire, while James Burton III brings roundness and depth to the tune on trombone – a fitting tribute for one of this music’s most sought after bassists.

There are many tunes that can only be conceived and inspired by the times in which they’re created. ‘The Waiting Change’ is such an example. Recorded on their 2016 self-titled debut on Sunnyside Records, Escoffery composed the tune following the election of Barack Obama, whose Administration (unlike the current one) was full of diplomacy, inspiring the ample room created for each player to shine, notably pianist Xavier Davis, Archer and Green on backing rhythms.

‘Pretty’ was, by far, the highlight of the evening. A number pinned by Pelt, off their 2018 sophomore release Armor of Pride (Highnote Records), the trumpeter joked that the tune was originally titled something – one can only speculate. The composition is a sumptuous feast from the very first ‘bite’, conjoining every single player to explore untapped possibilities, as both a duo between Escoffery’s tenor sax and the walking bass line of Archer, and a trio of supporting rhythms from Archer, Green and Davis, who steadfastly held down the fort throughout.

Disappointed to be part of such a sparsely attended crowd midweek, it felt reassuring to see (and hear) the Black Art Jazz Collective draw its sustainable energy from their camaraderie and years of collaboration on other projects, and ultimately flourish after a slow start during their hour-long set. Perhaps the low turnout was attributed to several factors, either the abrupt dip in weather or the stiff competition of other artists playing throughout NYC. One could also ascribe this to the growing homogenisation of jazz itself, as players become globalised and less distinctive, further removed from its humble black origins birthed by gospel and the blues of the Delta. In spite of the turnout, the warmth of the room that overlooks Central Park, coupled with Dizzy’s friendly staff, made the evening a memorable one.

Shannon J Effinger

– Photo by Leo Oliveira

Steely Dan wow Wembley with songbook wizardry

There are few gig-goers who would describe the SSE Arena as their favourite venue but despite the lengthy queues, security checks by brusque staff and questionable acoustics, Donald Fagen’s legendary outfit – many of whom have been doing Steely Dan gigs for more than 10 years – quickly had the ageing über-shed rocking. They were set up nicely by a high-energy opening performance by Stevie Winwood’s latest band. This was a stadium gig played as if in a small theatre.

Winwood’s set featured thrilling UK saxophonist Paul Booth, Brazilian guitarist José Neto (remember his playing with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim at Ronnie’s in the 90s?) and brilliant, fiery Incognito drummer Richard Bailey. Later, Winwood joined Steely Dan to sing lead vocals on the shuffle ‘classic’ ‘Pretzel Logic’ (“a classic – if you believe in such a thing” quipped Fagen); how fantastic to hear his thick golden voice telling us how he’d “love to meet Napoleon” but “hadn’t found the time” (the lyrics are about time travel it is said).

Fagen complimented Winwood, telling us he was a tough act to follow but, as ever, whatever the Dan co-founder member lacks in range and volume he makes up for with character and inflection, helped by the supreme vocals of the Danettes: session singing royalty – Carolyn Leonhart, sister of trumpeter Michael – Jamie Leonhart and La Tanya Hall).

Much of Steely Dan’s repertoire features lush arrangements, with every instrument in a special place in the harmony. With so many voices – Jim Pugh (once star trombonist with Woody Herman’s Herd), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax) and Walt Weiskopf (tenor) and the BVs – you’d be concerned that detail would be lost at such a hall but only Freddie Washington’s bass suffered significantly, as you’d expect in this cavernous space.

The set list covered the 1972-1980 range from Can’t Buy a Thrill to Gaucho; Fagen seemed happy to use the two hours to give the audience what they craved most, which meant strictly golden era material, nothing from the more recent, under-appreciated, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go.

The Danettes, led by Hall, took on ‘Dirty Work’, setting spines a-tingling. On drums, Keith Carlock (recently reviewed here with Mike Stern’s band at Ronnie's) drove proceedings with enormous momentum, taking mesmeric solos on 'Aja' and 'My Old School'. A poignant moment came on crowd favourite Josie with guitarist Jon Herrington playing the deceased Walter Becker’s solo note for note – after a wonderful solo piano intro from the jazz maestro Jim Beard.

Earlier, Herrington quoted elements of Larry Carlton’s solo on ‘Kid Charlemagne’; Jay Graydon’s famous take on ‘Peg’ and both sides of the Denny Dias/Jeff Skunk Baxter exchanges on ‘Bodhisattva’. His own sinewy, dextrous playing shone through all night. Encore 'Reeling in the Years' saw Herrington joined by Elliot Randall, who played the original solo in 1972 – said to be Jimmy Page’s favourite guitar break.

There was no mention of Becker from Donald two years after his death, but the co-founder's mic and guitar stand were still set up on stage as always – that said enough. Fagen’s gigs always contain nods to other great composers and musicians; the set opener was Ray Bryant’s ‘Cubano Chant’; the band introductions were made to a supremely funky ‘Keep that Same Old Feeling’ by the Crusaders, and Donald left the stage to Joe Williams’ ‘A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry’.

Stadium gigs aren’t usually like this; they’re about costume changes, video screens, choreography, pyrotechnics and giant props. Here, it was purely about the songs, the arrangements and the performers. As Fagen said: “Not bad for a Monday night.”

Adam McCulloch

 

Aka Moon energise Edinburgh’s Thrill: Jazz From Brussels

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There’s a new relationship in town, or rather, spanning two towns. Last month, a trio of Edinburgh jazz players visited Brussels to form a collaborative combo with three Belgians, penning fresh music and performing at prime art deco-styled arts centre Flagey, located in the city’s Ixelles suburb. The return response has been somewhat more ambitious, involving a full-scale invasion of Brussels-based bands for a three-day festival in Edinburgh, with a clutch of local Scottish acts representing the indigenous talent. The Thrill weekender was presented by the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival team, and on the Belgian front, represented by virtually every jazz-connected organisation in Brussels.

Three venues were used: Queen’s Hall, The Jazz Bar and Saint Bride’s Community Centre (a deconsecrated church), which made its full debut as a music joint during the festival. It was a successful transformation, with fine sound quality and a pleasing atmosphere. The weekend’s most arresting set came courtesy of veteran trio Aka Moon (pictured top) who are fast approaching their 30th anniversary. It had been almost a decade since many of the Belgian visitors had seen them play. This was a vital return, with electric bassist Michel Hatzigeorgiou being notably athletic with his resonant harmonics alternating with dub basslines. Alto-saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol spouted with fleet liquidity, while drummer Stéphane Galland emphasised the dub feel with his splashing rim-shots. Eastern modes prevailed, and the trio hurtled into a pacey funkster, with cycling alto and pneumatic drums, Hatzigeorgiou frequently intent on chording karate chops and nimble fingertip lines. Power entrails were ripped out of these convoluted compositions at hyperactive speeds.

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At the same venue on the previous day, a well paired double-bill of like-minded Scottish and Belgian bands also happened to be led by drummers. The young Strata sextet (led by tunesmith Graham Costello, pictured above), boasted a strong connection between the heavy piano repeats of Fergus McCreadie and the searing, escalating tenor saxophone soloing of Harry Weir. The latter wandered off for a rest, a quiet trio section following, with the guitar eventually returning for increased atmospherics. McCreadie was ceaseless throughout the set, diligently exploring variations on a riff. He gave a dramatic solo, its giant gestures hiking into a guitar focus, Strata being influenced by a post-rock palette, but still keeping it calmed down into a jazz range, incarnated in a gentler mode.

Urbex followed, led by lively sticksman Antoine Pierre, but having trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart as a major voice, whether muted tight or openly fiery. There was a strange similarity between the two bands, due to their shared interest in linear accumulations and increasing drive, along rhythmic paths. The Dutch guitarist Reinier Baas was outstanding, his sound toned down with an acoustic snap to his electrified strings, soloing and riffing with light cascades that held a subtle, contained and organic excitement. The jagged and twitching 'Consequences' was a fitting platform for the soloing skills of Baas.

The Django Reinhardt roots of Belgium were expressed by Les Violons de Bruxelles at Queen’s Hall on the opening night, with three fiddles and only one guitar. Their repertoire wasn’t dominated by gypsy jazz chestnuts, taking turns towards Jack Teagarden and W. C. Handy, or being influenced by Argentinian and Venezuelan traditions, but then alighting on Fapy Lafertin. This was a more refined acoustic affair when compared to the Mâäk Quintet down at The Jazz Bar, their four horns mostly working in entwined tandem, a riffing unit out of which individual solos rose up, then subsided, sousaphone continually belching, alto aerated, and metal percussion whipped out during the skeletal sections.

Multi-instrumentalist Esinam and the Ethio-psychedelic Echoes Of Zoo consolidated their successes at last month’s Brussels jazzfest, with the latter inviting Soweto Kinch up to guest on a number.

The somehow lower profile saxophonist Toine Thys was one of Thrill’s discoveries, even though he apparently has an established reputation in Belgium. It seems that Thys tours a lot around African parts, and his orientation towards the sounds of that continent made the guesting appearance of Salif Keita’s guitarist Hervé Samb an ideal choice. Toine doubled on low tenor and writhing soprano, aided by clipped or waltzing Hammond organ.

Regardless of future questions over whether Edinburgh has sufficient suitable acts for a comparable invasion of Brussels, on its own terms, this Thrill weekender managed to entice strong crowds for every set, as the Edinburgh audience were bountifully repaid for their curiosity about the Belgian scene.

Martin Longley
– Photos by Marcin Pulawski

 

 

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

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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

 

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