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

Carroll and Martin in Perfect Harmony at The Pheasantry

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Bold reworkings of cherished classics, daring flights of freewheeling improv, singing that melted the heart underpinned by gloriously rich piano voicings, plus a sold-out audience that was receptive to every note. Whether dipping into their respective back catalogues, paying tribute to musical heroes, or dusting down favourite show tunes, Liane Carroll and Claire Martin's blues, jazz and soul revue coaxed the audience into a state of joy thanks to the warmth of their music-making, their easy rapport and, not least, their outstanding musicianship.

Presented as a single continuous set, the evening commenced with a mash-up of two standards, one of the greatest 'list' songs, Cole Porter's 'It's All Right With Me', which featured bracing gear changes aplenty, plus a deeply swinging 'I Thought About You' from the pens of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer. Recorded by Della Reese, Peggy Lee, Anita O'Day and more, Martin's performance of 'You Came A Long Way (from St Louis)' – which she herself recorded on her 2016 album We've Got a World That Swings – was one of especial eloquence and narrative drive. Sticking with the St Louis theme, Carroll then presented a barnstorming tribute to Bessie Smith, 'St Louis Blues', in which the timbral richness of her voice was perfectly matched by her pleasingly fulsome pianism.

The duo's poignant Aretha tribute '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman', penned specifically for the singer over 50 years ago by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, lit up the venue with its intense communicative power, while Martin's utterly gorgeous take on 'Too Late Now', the closing song on her 2012 album Too Much in Love to Care, was marked by a tender lyricism and depth of feeling.
Performed as a duet, the Arlen/Mercer classic 'That Old Black Magic' (the lead-off song on Carroll's 2005 album Standard Issue) was another tour de force, followed by Martin's similarly blistering version of Wes Montgomery's trailblazing 'West Coast Blues', learnt from the singing of the great Nancy Wilson.

"She's just got to put a little bit more heart and soul into it", Martin joked after Carroll completely floored everyone with a stunning interpretation of 'Ol' Man River' (from Show Boat). The first of a brace of show tunes, Martin then delivered a luxuriant, pitch perfect 'People Will Say We're In Love' (from Oklahoma!), with its affectionate nod to Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins at the end. There was also a rollicking, aphrodisiacal 'Love Potion No.9', complete with shaky egg solo by Martin, another standards mash-up of 'Time After Time' and 'I Didn't Know What Time It Was', a final nod to St Louis with a sparkling 'Come Rain Or Come Shine' (from Arlen and Mercer's 1940s musical St. Louis Woman), and the duo's perfect harmonies in an adrenalised account of 'I Got Rhythm'.

The Bacharach/David classic 'I Say A Little Prayer' provided a final salute to the Queen of Soul and brought this intimate night of song to a moving close. There really can't be many more delightful ways of spending an hour and a half than in the company of these two award-winning artists.

– Peter Quinn

Quintet-a-Tete and Buck Clayton Legacy Band get Mainstream At The Mill moving

The team at Watermill Jazz in Dorking seem to like mixing the up-and-coming with the well-established when picking bands and performers for their weekly concerts. And that's not to reflect any very particular stance on style – if bands have something to say, then let them be heard seems to be the philosophy. At least, that's the impression conveyed by two recent bookings.

Which brings us, first, to Quintet-a-Tete, trumpeter James Davison (above) and trombonist Callum Au's brand-new group, coupling these resourceful front-liners to a world-class rhythm section with Gabriel Latchin, piano, Misha Mullov-Abbado, bass, and that most impactive of drummers, Matt Skelton. The declared aim of this bright and shiny line-up is to remind audiences of the joyous music recorded by the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer Quintet back in the 1960s. So illustrious shoes to fill but on this evidence, Quintet-a-Tete have made a highly encouraging start on their new pathway, happily culling material from the CT-BB albums while penning nifty new pieces themselves.

Even more important perhaps, this personable young band has the kind of collective joie-de-vivre that relates well to that of their exemplars, communicating disarmingly, with Davison skittish in attack, the arc of his notes sometimes recalling Terry, as he moved from plungered trumpet to flugelhorn and back again. Au, alongside on the valved instrument, gathered strength as the night wore on, his explorations increasingly complex with Latchin impeccable in all his solo opportunities, the clarity of his lines evoking something of Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan. Clearly a talent to watch as is bassist MM-A, already a forceful presence on the edgier contemporary scene and here combining with the helter-skelter drive of Skelton to often thrilling effect.

Q-a-T opened, reasonably enough, with Terry's 'Tete-a-Tete', before tackling Au's 'Me Time', a contrafact for 'All of Me' with a perky theme, pleasing voicings for the horns and an altogether satisfying resolution. Moving on from these lively riff themes, they calmed down with 'Polka Dots', this revealing Davison's relaxed ballad manner before two rousers in Roger Kellaway's 'Step Right Up and 'The King, hard-swinging, expressive, the rhythm section on heat. More originals, ballad re-workings and peppy re-runs of the Terry-Brookmeyer repertoire signalled a band with purpose who seek to please, this smallish crowd clamouring for [and getting] more. A recording is in the offing; meanwhile, badger your local club to hire them.

Alyn Shipton's Buck Clayton Legacy Band has been around for a while now and attracted a full house a week earlier, opening with their instigator's 'Outer Drive' at full pelt, drummer Bobby Worth, as ever, excelling in achieving swing, the ensemble momentum quite exhilarating. All the band's soloists took their turns, co-leader Mathias Seuffert's early Hawkins tenor style assertive and full-toned, pianist Martin Litton neat and assured. Thereafter, they moved off the expected script and morphed into a Ellington/Hodges tribute band, tackling a number of familiar Ducal specialties with genuine aplomb, Alan Barnes' clarinet on 'Creole Love Call' as intense and yes, as soulful as I can ever remember hearing from him. He was back on alto for his arrangement of 'Three and Six', soaring in ballad mode. Other high notes came with 'C Jam Blues' in the Mel Lewis arrangement and 'Shady Side', also a contrafact, this time by Hodges, which was a slow groover, Barnes again to the fore. The brass team did their stuff well, cornetist Menno Daams always looking for lines that eschewed the obvious in his solo passages. Likeable music, highly accomplished, always creative too. Even so, I could have done with more from their stock-pile of well-made Clayton originals: aren't they what this band is set up to play?

– Peter Vacher (story and photos)

Brown and Flanagan mind their language with buoyant bout of Hastings beat-descendancy

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That so many came out to The Stade on a hot and airless night was a tribute to Jazz Hastings and their programme planning, on this occasion presenting an evening of jazz and poetry which appealed to those who recall New Departures of the 1960s and indeed the work of Kenneths Patchen and Rexroth earlier. The John Donaldson Trio – Donaldson (piano), Simon Thorpe (bass) and Winston Clifford (drums) – was fronted first by saxophonist Kevin Flanagan. The purely instrumental numbers, with the exclusion of a fine rendition of Joe Calderazzo's 'Midnight Voyage' which opened the set, seemed slightly lacklustre, as if they were fillers between the pieces with words. Coming from Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac's birthplace, is perhaps the reason for Flanagan's interest in the Beat Poets and he conjured up an impression of those with an array of evocative works, well constructed both verbally and musically, with his composition 'Riprap', inspired by the writing of Gary Snydor. The trio's work was sympathetic, with bubbling, mesmeric piano and suitably understated, laidback drumming during Flanagan's recitations, and when the horn joined them, some fine modal playing.

For the second half, Flanagan stood down and poet Pete Brown took frontstage. For those of a certain age, no introduction is necessary. For the uninitiated, a treat is in store by delving into his history. Pinning his colours to the mast from the start, he began with a paean to early jazz artists, notably Clarence Williams, in 'Dreaming the Hours Away'. Making a distinction between poems and lyrics, he read his 'Ballad for the Queen of Outer Space', which he wrote after seeing Zsa Zsa Gabor as an unlikely scientist in the film of that name. (Variety called it "a good-natured attempt to put some honest sex into science-fiction"!) It included many of the characteristics of his art, mixing surreal imagery with sensuality, continually stretching the boundaries of reality, but keeping a rhythmic drive which supports the words and often helps give then greater impact. 'Poem For Bill Evans' followed, with his hat tipped to Mingus' album East Coasting, which was accompanied by Donaldson's appropriate Evans-style piano. Then an excerpt from the darkly pessimistic 'Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead', from the New Departures era, poignantly relevant to current events. Gearbox Records have recently issued the live recording from 1962 with Brown, Michael Horovitz, Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins, and Brown paid tribute to his friends with 'You And The Night And The Music', making a dedication to Wellins, Flanagan joining for this section.

Inevitably, he mentioned his collaboration with Jack Bruce, as he moved onto what he referred to as his "songs", starting with 'Theme From An Imaginary Western' and including 'The Ballad of Psycho and Delia', a macabre murder ballad from his time with Phil Ryan. These songs were performed with great feeling and intensity, and though his voice strained at times in the upper register, his words seem carved and honed for greatest effect. The performance closed with two songs closely associated with Cream, for which, as he pointed out, he had a good deal of gratitude, as they were possibly the reason why he was living in a house. 'White Room' worked just as well with piano lead rather than guitar, and 'Sunshine of your Love' met with rapturous applause, the strength of the lyrics a reminder of the rich poetic vein they came from.

Matthew Wright

Elling elegantly elliptical at Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Fest

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This year's 40th anniversary Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival (EJBF) was a far cry from the inaugural Edinburgh jazz fest back in 1978, a one day, mostly un-ticketed event, which showcased largely UK traditional jazz bands. Shows took place in pubs and at the popular Edinburgh Astoria Ballroom, best known back then for its association with punk and new wave gigs.

It was appropriate that this anniversary year's ambitious 10-day long event looked back to these trad origins, with the likes of the exuberant New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jass Band and Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton's cheeky blues lyrics and strings skills which wowed the audience. The irrepressible Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Scotland's own horn-heavy Swampfrog both attracted a youthful audience with their exuberant latter-day take on the New Orleans sound.

Likewise, it was fitting that this year a number of Scottish jazz veterans appeared at EJBF. At the opening gala concert at The Assembly Hall, among a host of big names, the redoubtable Carol Kidd demonstrated that she remains UK's foremost balladeer, her passionate rendition of Billy Joel's 'And So It Goes' particularly impressing. Guitar maestro Martin Taylor gave a masterclass in lucid understatement, while his deep swinging duet with the multi-talented MC for the evening, Seonaid Aitken on violin, transported this reviewer back many decades to Taylor's early days when he toured with Stephane Grappelli. Ever-evolving Scottish saxman Tommy Smith meanwhile offered spacious and technically flawless dreamscapes.

Nevertheless, the main focus of the festival was squarely towards the future, with a somewhat safe but satisfying range of bands from across the globe, together with and a crop of Scottish rising stars. Though there were many highlights, especial mention should be made of Keyon Harrold's intense and almost belligerently socially aware set at the Speigeltent, while the aptly-named Cross Currents Trio offered a set of breathtaking beauty from Dave Holland's double-bass and Zakir Hussain's percussion, as Chris Potter's sax at times evoked shades of Bulgarian clarinet maestro Ivo Papasov. The Zoe Rahman Trio charmed with her lush, classically-informed lyricism, with clear nods to Rahman's dual Bengali/Irish heritage. Meanwhile, Steve Lehman's fluidity on alto-sax within The Vijay Iyer Sextet's east coast complexity and pugilism, was mesmerising. Even the Kurt Elling Quintet strayed far from its origins, baritone Elling even dipping his toe pleasingly close to Phil Minton territory. And for the late-night party-goers, the likes of Italian Rumba de Bodas, cosmopolitan supergroup Bokante, the Ghanaian K.O.G. and Zongo Brigade all gave ample satisfaction.

A swathe of homegrown bands similarly gave hope for the future. Versatile guitarist Graeme Stephen's trio left the packed audience almost sucker-punched from his concentrated, high-energy set at The Jazz Bar. Another Jazz Bar regular, spirited drummer Alyn Cosker and his band, with a more generous time slot, were happily able to dip extensively into Cosker's latest fusion release, KPF. At the late-night Teviot Row Festival Club, vibrant bands Fat-Suit and Werkha gave the audience something to dance about, while distinguished Scottish jazzers, pianist Brian Kellock and saxophonists Laura Macdonald, Martin Kershaw and Phil Bancroft, each delivered their customary first-rate sets. Meanwhile, pianist Fergus McCreadie, bassist Mark Hendry and 2018 Scottish Jazz Awards 'Rising Star' award-winner vocalist Lucca Manning, and their bands, all demonstrated an ability belying their tender years. All deserve close watch and lend confidence that Scottish jazz is in good hands over the next 40 years of the EJBF.

Fiona Mactaggart 
Photo by Sandy Blair 

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