Jason Rebello with Empirical bring fireworks to the Wiltshire Music Centre

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There were a few sharp suits on stage at the Wiltshire Music Centre on Saturday. If anyone thought that meant it was going to be a solemn evening, the look on pianist Jason Rebello’s face was more ‘kid let loose in a sweet shop’ after the first scorching solo from Empirical’s alto man Nathaniel Facey. Rebello’s career went into orbit 25 years ago touring with Wayne Shorter, then saw him replace Kenny Kirkland in Sting’s band and subsequently tour relentlessly with Jeff Beck. Empirical have maintained their status as one of the hottest, most adventurous young jazz groups in the UK and Europe for nearly a decade now. The pianist’s decision to make the one off collaboration his inaugural gig of a year long artist-in-residence stint at the newly re-furbished Centre in Bradford-on-Avon, brought a near capacity crowd out and they were thrilled by the fireworks it produced.

It was a varied programme starting with that blistering take on ‘Whole in One’ from Rebello’s 1999 release Next Time Around. There was a sharing of back catalogues as Empirical dusted off tunes from their last album to feature a piano, Elements of Truth. ‘Ying and Yang’andCosmos (for Carl Sagan)’ evoked different moods, making the most of the moody wow of the vibes combining with chiming chords from the piano. There was more from Next Time Around including another burner to finish, ‘Justin Time’.

In between there were some delightful duos. Piano and alto on ‘Soul Eyes’hadNathaniel Facey evoking the spirit of Coltrane at his most tender. Vibes and piano on Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ raised the roof, Rebello laying down a viscerally exciting funky gospel tinged groove driving Lewis Wright onto another dazzling solo. Despite a streaming cold, he nearly stole the show a few times.

It was the evident delight of Rebello and Empirical in each other’s company that lifted this beyond what was always a sure fire jazz feast. Empirical found themselves grooving deliciously on Herbie Hancock’s Chan’ Song and etching out a lyrical flowing melody on Rebello’s own Closeness. Jason found himself in the middle of a dense tumult on Empirical’s ‘In the Grill’ and pulling out a wildly inventive solo on bass man Tom Farmer’s zany piece ‘Card Clash’. The grin on drummer Shaney Forbes’ face barely dimmed all evening. He had one of the moments of the evening with a ghostly drum solo using hot rods on ‘Ying and Yang’.

 This was a reminder, if we needed it, of the world beating quality of the UK scene and a mouth watering start to the programme at the Wiltshire Music Centre. The next in the series is a duo with Ola Onabule in November.

– Mike Collins

Talo’s Festival 2014 – A People’s Music Celebration

Devoid of McDonalds, billboards, militarized police and security cameras, the social tranquility that breezes through the ancient town of Ruvo di Puglia in southern Italy proved an idyllic setting to present a mostly free festival celebrating both the regions boisterous Banda brass & wind orchestras, and a bounty of beautiful jazz and improvised music making. It’s thanks to the vision and energy of artistic director Pino Minafra (think Instabile Orkestra) that nary a single event fell short of the highest standard for concert presentation and performance. Britain was represented by Keith & Julie Tippetts, alongside Louis Moholo-Moholo in their deeply moving tribute concert ‘For Mandela’.

Augmented in simpatico with a bevy of Italian players the Minafric Orchestra brought to life the magnificent compositions of Keith Tippett, the legendary South Africans, and their glorious national anthem. Keith also gave a solo piano concert that organically unfolded a highly impressionistic musical journey. Old lion Louis Moholo-Moholo met the extraordinarily talented young tiger, pianist Livio Minafra for an improvisation on built on a foundation of intimacy. Individually their creativity and technical wells were deeply resourceful, and the results of their meeting proved resplendent with dynamical drama and emotional joy. And Britain’s Ogun Records was the subject of a small conference celebrating the label’s 40th anniversary. Otherwise the trio of saxophonist Roberto Ottaviano presented the compositions of Steve Lacy, with all their Monkish wit, to the delight of enthusiastic audience. The soprano, bass and drum sounds hung with bold purity unamplified within the acoustics of the town’s wine refinery.

Under the night sky Holland’s ICP Orchestra won over the local audience from an outdoor stage, set up in the center of Ruvo’s breathtaking beautiful old town. They also generously developed and delivered a workshop concert with local young musicians. Theirs is the spirit that informs Talos Festival, rooted in the people, their music, with cooperation trumping commercial concession. It’s a deep breath of fresh air from the dominant culture that remains either indifferent or hostile to higher socialist ideals. Bravo Talos!

– Michael King

Gregory Porter raises spirits at iTunes Festival

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For all the hype surrounding Gregory Porter, there’s a lot that's concerning about his band. Don’t get me wrong, the man in the hat is flawless, as good as all the Grammy plaudits make him out to be, and if you haven’t seen him live you really ought to. On stage, he’s every bit as charming and charismatic as his lyrics suggest and his voice is like nothing else. It’s a voice of warmth and mellow fruitfulness that crackles like a log fire and sounds even better up close than it does on record.

Appearing as part of the month-long iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse in Camden, the singer was on typically magisterial form, launching straight into a rendition of Donny Hathaway classic ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ with the crowd already in the palm of his hand. From there, he strolled through ‘On My Way To Harlem’, exploring gentle dissonances and freeing up the melody, and followed it with the heartache of ‘No Love Dying’. One of the highlights of the set, it finished with a bittersweet cadenza on which Porter’s vocal was as dark and rich as mahogany.

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Tracks from all three of his albums showcased the full extent of his musical and emotional range. A duet with Laura Mvula on ‘Water Under Bridges’ was a nice touch and ended with both singers riffing on the words “London Bridge is falling down”. A fiery rendition of ‘Musical Genocide’, the smouldering ‘1960 What?’, prefaced by falsetto improv, and the dirty blues of ‘Work Song’ whipped up the crowd, with the sonorous bass-notes and wistful melody of ‘Wolfcry’ and the melancholy charm of ‘Be Good’ rounding out the set. But, while Porter could do no wrong, when he stepped back from the mic it was sometimes, depressingly average.

The singer has been with his group since the beginning. They met during jam sessions at St Nick’s Pub in Harlem, they’re his musical comfort blanket and his loyalty to them is commendable. But at times it feels like he’s outgrown them, with the mismatch in quality plainly apparent in a live setting. Though alto sax player Yosuke Sato, pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold never quite ruined things, they came dangerously close. Outside of the groove, all four men have shaky time and seemed intent on playing showboaty lines that weren’t fully under their fingers. The result was a gratuitous blur of haphazard noodling, a splurge of high-energy licks and tasteless patterns.

Though it’s encouraging to see improvisation being brought to a mainstream audience, it could be so much better. As it is, the group are at risk of alienating their more discerning listeners and, for the sake of the music, it may be time for Porter to move on. Just imagine how good he could sound if he did.

– Thomas Rees

@ThomasNRees

 

Joshua Redman, Gwilym Simcock and Wolfgang Muthspiel: Three giants of contemporary jazz join forces at Wigmore Hall

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When American saxophonist Joshua Redman, British pianist Gwilym Simcock and Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel took the stage in front of a packed Wigmore Hall on Thursday night, they had never played together as a trio, save at a rehearsal the day before the concert. According to an excitable Redman, even that was brief. “I knew it was going to be cool,” he said, describing his delight at being able to work with two musicians he had long admired, “but, after about 10 minutes we didn’t need to rehearse any more. It was more than cool!” As was their set, the final part in the saxophonist’s three concert jazz series at the hall, which had all the freshness and excitement you’d hope for from a first encounter.

Simcock’s ‘Shanty’ provided a gentle start to the proceedings, opening with an icey wash of piano and guitar that made way for Redman’s soprano. The tune’s simple melody launched solos of increasing intensity, with Redman scanning the changes and nodding approvingly, his bottom lip thrust out, as Simcock moved things up a gear. ‘Double Blues’, a Muthspiel composition with a cat-and-mouse unison head, came next, featuring a blistering solo from the guitarist that juxtaposed choppy chordal work with fluid bop lines and thrillingly long holds that floated above Simcock’s walking bass notes, resolving in the nick of time.

A smoky tenor sax introduction became Redman’s ‘High Court Jig’, its reel-like groove drifting towards dissonance before shying away, as Simcock turned the time signature inside out and Muthspiel contributed percussive backings on the muted strings of his guitar. Two standards followed: ‘’Round Midnight’ was brought to life by electronic swells from the guitarist and Redman’s reworking of the melody, which curled upwards towards pitch-perfect altissimo before finishing in the mud of his lower register; while Brubeck’s ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ was prefaced by a piano segue of exquisite beauty – a filigree of intricate lines and glistening harmonies.

The remainder of the set brought further displays of frightening virtuosity, spontaneous risk-taking and masterful control, as the musicians continued to sound one another out, with Redman unleashing funk-tinged riffs and treacherous screes of notes. And in the end it took two encores, a break neck rendition of ‘The Eternal Triangle’, which pushed all three men to the edge, and the tenderness of ‘I Hear a Rhapsody’, to silence the crowd. Were this one-off collaboration to lead to something more regular (it should), it would be fascinating to watch it develop. But if it does, let’s hope it can retain some of the thrilling uncertainty and sense of adventure that made this first outing such a pleasure to watch.

– Thomas Rees
@ThomasNRees

The Grip grab The Vortex with free funk and spiritual jazz

There is no definitive jazz line up. Piano trios or tenor-led quartets may be among the most common ensembles, but they are not mandatory options for musicians with imagination. This fine set made the point in no uncertain terms, as The Grip – Finn Peters [alto sax/flute], Tom Skinner [drums] and Oren Marshall [tuba] – reprised and decisively energised a choice of instrumentation largely pioneered by the great Arthur Blythe, Steve Reid and Bob Stewart. Indeed the name of this new ensemble is taken from the title of Blythe’s landmark 1977 album, arguably one of the best live sessions of the decade.

Launching its debut album Celebrate, The Grip displays a very firm handle on the original template, effectively showing why it is so appealing – Blythe’s bag was a conjunction of New Orleans marching band culture, with its spiky, tight-on-the-beat street resonance, and the kind of structural ambition that spans bebop and the avant-garde.

Tonight the net result is a mutant acoustic free funk, simultaneously traditional and modern, symbolized by the music’s strong underlying pulse that easily suggests gospel hand clapping, regardless of all of the spicy harmonic stew that may be bubbling atop the throaty bass and drums. ‘Celebrate’ is not a throwaway title in that respect, and the other wry, pithy tunes that stand out on the night, the rhythmically teasing ‘Compost Fly’, playing incessantly with offbeat, backbeat and swing, the haunting Arabic-flavoured ‘Saladin’ and the sexy slow grind of ‘The 199 Blues’, are testimony to the skill with which The Grip retains a sense of hearty processional joy all the while pushing to abstraction. Furthermore, the latter piece unveils another key reference, Julius Hemphill, on whose timeless ‘The Hard Blues’ the song is based.

Yet if there is one other sacred spirit in the room it is that of Sam Rivers, who Peters channels to devastating effect when he switches to flute, achieving the same kind of tonal flutter and quicksilver momentum as that of the late master. Intricate yet engaging, cerebral yet physical, thematic yet episodic, The Grip presents a new black music that looks as far forward as it does back.  

– Kevin Le Gendre

 

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