Beyond hip hop: Glasper stays true to his improvising roots at the Gateshead International Jazz Festival

RobertGlaspergatesheadMuch has been made of Robert Glasper's R&B and hip hop leanings and of his gradual drift away from jazz and the acoustic setting of the piano trio towards the heavy, electronic grooves of the Robert Glasper Experiment. The texan pianist makes no secret of his love of hip hop producer J Dilla, Black Radio (his first record with the Experiment) scooped 'Best R&B Album' in the 2013 Grammy Awards, and the recently released follow up, Black Radio 2, features the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott.

It comes as no surprise then to find that it's standing only in the Sage Gateshead's Hall Two, that the stage is wreathed in smoke and that the music blaring out of the speakers as the audience pours in isn't jazz, but classic hiphop and neo-soul.

Nor is it odd when a cheer goes up and the quartet take their places, dressed in hoodies and sneakers and led by Glasper who wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the word 'Donuts', the name of J Dilla's final release.

CaseyBenjaminGatesheadSo far, so hip hop, and when the band kick into a heavy, bass-drum led groove, that settles beneath the distorted vocals of Casey Benjamin (pictured left) on vocoder and electronics, flawless funk and hiphop is what we get. From there, a wash of keyboard from Glasper takes the group into Daft Punk hit “Get Lucky”, the visceral bass of Burniss Earl Travis slamming in like a freight train on the chorus and shuddering beneath the rimshot and heavy backbeats of Mark Colenburg on drums.

Tracks from Black Radio 2 stand shoulder to shoulder with impossibly tight renditions of earlier originals, while more covers, including 'Lovely Day' and 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', also get the Glasper treatment.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that the Experiment are out of place here or that Glasper has left the jazz behind entirely. Midway through the immaculately paced set, when the pianist finally let rip, his surging lines, sidestepping away from the tonal centre and tumbling in again, were steeped in jazz language. So too were those of Benjamin whose soprano sax feature brought the house down. Scything into his hi-hat, Colenburg spat cross rhythms of astonishing complexity, while Travis showed he had improvising chops to burn in a chordal bass segue.

Embracing minimalism and poise, and distilling virtuosity into the tightest of grooves, the Experiment have taken the best bits of hiphop and fused them with soloistic virtuosity, challenging arrangements and captivating rhythmic variety within the groove. The result is a genre apart, an imaginative blend that is nothing short of brilliant.

– Thomas Rees (@ThomasNRees)
– Photos © Tim Dickeson


Jean Toussaint and Gareth Williams bring the house down at Jazz Direct

JeanToussaint250Jack Pine has been running his in-house concerts under the banner of Jazz Direct for some years now. When we say in-house we mean in his house, as his period home, The White Cottage, in leafy Harrow Weald has been enlarged sufficiently to permit seating for 40+ interested parties, with a performance niche that easily accommodates a quartet. Would that we could all fulfil such an aim – happily for us, the Pines had invited this all-star foursome to drop by and we were rewarded with a two-set concert that surpassed everyone’s expectations. A good piano helps, and the Pine’s Steinway Grand had Gareth Williams enthusing but above all it was the quality of the interplay that riveted everyone’s attention.

The opening ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ set out their collective stall pretty well, each man poised to pounce on the appropriate creative responses. Toussaint (pictured above) has something of Coltrane’s cry in his tenor tone, the attack more akin to the rough and tumble of present-day Rollins, each theme subjected to skittish, high-register runs, the imperatives from Tracey’s drums almost relentless in their intensity. Williams, for his part, made every solo excursion a journey of discovery, chording heavily before unfolding an array of apparently casual runs, from end to end of the keyboard, with Burgess taking the baton and running hard for the line in his solos. ‘Body and Soul’ always a test-piece for tenors, seemed almost skeletal, the beauty in the quartet’s treatment primed by Toussaint’s restraint.

Wayne Shorter’s ‘Mahjong’ came like a bolt from the blue, its zig-zag shape waking everybody up, with Toussaint at his most alert, Williams finding harmonic options that seemed wholly fresh and new and Clark Tracey swinging hard, his every accent injecting pace and propulsion. More good things followed on ‘Softly As In A Morning Sunrise’ before bassist Sam Burgess’s solo on Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ very nearly brought the house down. Thankfully not literally, for the final ‘Resolution’ was a triumph too; so much so that Pine couldn’t let his guests go without calling for some decent, down-home blues to cheer us on our way. A great night’s music-making.

– Peter Vacher


James Taylor Quartet Big Band cool as cats at QEH

There cannot be many musicians who live within a stone’s throw of a great cathedral, where not only can they partake of worship, but also have the opportunity to sing with its choir. One such lucky person is James Taylor, Hammond organist of the James Taylor Quartet, aka JTQ. If having Rochester Cathedral on his doorstep is not enough to inspire grand musings then imagine being on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 24 March, flanked by the cathedral choir led by Scott Farrell and a 14 strong horn section from the Royal Academy of Music, is surely a blessing.


JTQ – consisting of Taylor on organ, Pat Illingworth on drums, Andrew McKinney on bass and Mark Cox on guitar – have been proponents of the jazz-funk and Acid Jazz scenes since the mid-1980s. Billed as 'From the Cat to the Moon' the concert featured material mainly from JTQ's latest album Closer To The Moon and songs from the Jimmy Smith album, The Cat. The Jimmy Smith influence is obvious but it's also clear that the lush Lalo Schifrin big band arrangements from The Cat are the main inspiration behind the large line-up.

The quartet got cooking from the get-go, churning out a funky stew of solid bass from McKinney and the tight punctuated drums of Illingworth, with added spice from Cox's guitar. Taylor's organ bubbled and brewed leaving no doubt to the excited audience that the evening would see them well served and that the JTQ have lost none of their original steam or flavour.

Further into the set, each section of this extended ensemble are put through their paces on ‘Spencer Takes a Trip’.  Each show their credentials as a tightly woven interplay between choir and horn section unfurl. The Quartet also shows their metal in keeping the whole thing together, and as if to check the pulse of this behemoth, percussionist Ralph Wyld wields his mallet on the tubular bells sounding like a grandfather clock chiming out the hour which elicits some screeching high motifs from Taylor's Hammond adding to the drama. The choir definitely deserved their chance to sit and rest after that number.

Songs such as ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and ‘Theme from the Carpetbaggers’ also benefitted from the extended ensemble. Adding to the tonal palette and change of mood Yvonne Yanney took the stage and deliver a rendition of ‘Love TKO’, made famous by Teddy Pendergrass in the 1980's. Yanney’s velvet tone showed how the arrangement of swirling vibrato-rich Hammond and subtle horns with harmon muted trumpet could draw out depth and emotion equal to the countless versions of this classic song. Her performance on other songs also brought a little razzmatazz at the right moment, but as if to regain some limelight Taylor, at one point and with grand gesture, unveils the QEH pipe organ then sits at the controls like a helmsman, steering the choir through a song with great epic style.

– Roger Thomas (Story and Photos)


The Necks bring interstellar improv to Bishopsgate

Part of the ‘City Sessions’ programmed by the Vortex that bring creative music to the heart of London’s financial district, this gig comes with layers of irony. The venue is a stone’s throw from where international traders turn over monopoly money on a daily basis. They might not see The Necks as a safe commercial investment. Yet the room was packed solid.

Put simply, the Australians have a following, and it has been built over some three decades of recording, touring and developing a musical vocabulary that consolidates a substantial fan base, even though their long-form pieces would not suit daytime radio play lists that merchant bankers presumably tune into when they need a quick adrenalin rush.

Speed is not the key variable here, though. The whole point is time and space, or rather the ability of pianist Chris Abrahams, double bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck to alter perceptions thereof. Each set of roughly 45 minutes appears to go by with relative briskness, although tempos steer clear of frantic allegro. Control and precision define each tangential ‘chapter’ of the extended improvisation, which is anchored in a kind of gradual, incremental development whereby phrases re-harmonise or acquire a new rhythmic direction without clearly telegraphed intentions. Repetition conceals transition.

Gently rolling figures from Abrahams’ keyboard bathe in the swirl of Buck’s cymbals while Swanton often slides between Spanish flamenco strum and Indian tanpura drone to boldly emphasise the raga implications of much of the performance, though just occasionally his fretted notes are swallowed up by the sparkly dulcimer-like reverberations of Abrahams’ left hand. Maybe the point is that the low end is to be felt, not always heard. There is more than one moment when the players reach an impasse and the building dynamism halts, but the nudge forward arrives with admirable subtlety. Buck might do nothing more than alternate four and five phrases on the tom, and the judder reinforces the shifting weight of Swanton’s bulky open notes. Sound quality, sharp and substantial, counts as much as ‘chops’.

If the first set grooves the second is more ambient-like, the bass assuming a greater melodic role among washes of percussion and piano, making the point that the group has scope within its distinctive modus operandi. Drawing the line from Asian music to serial composers, The Necks purvey a stealthy trance that feels as electric as it does acoustic, with an underlying aesthetic that is jazz rather than jazzy. They are more a one-off band than another piano trio.

– Kevin Le Gendre


Marlene Verplanck charms at The Crazy Coqs

Way back, Pizza on the Park was the go-to place for sophisticated jazz and cabaret. Not anymore. It’s long gone. Now, Crazy Coqs, set deep below Piccadilly and furnished in the kind of Art Deco style that makes you think the Great Gatsby (or possibly Leonardo Di Caprio himself) could walk in any minute, has become the new haven for classy performers who relish its close-to ambience. And for punters who think the same.

The diminutive songstress Marlene Verplanck was always at home in Pizza on the Park and has built a UK fan-base through her continuing visits here; this week she’s making her debut at Crazy Coqs (she's there through to Saturday 22 March). Happily for those who know her work, her mix of Great American Songbook swingers and plaintive paeans to unrequited love remains both beguiling and yes, life-enhancing. She stands still, is never histrionic, and picks unhackneyed songs by great composers, concentrating on letting the lyrics do their work, telling stories, and allowing us to relish their value. And all with a smile on her face.

Marlene has always been noted for her clarity, her vocal warmth and her ability to top and tail a song with a telling burst of scat or a sustained high note. These abilities continue as do her unerring taste and innate sense of dynamics and pacing. For all this to happen as cleverly as it did on this, her opening night, her accompanists needed to be alert and suitably adroit. She has charts for everything and John Pearce at the piano read them brilliantly, soloing with panache as Paul Morgan, increasingly Churchillian in aspect and steadfast in support, laid down a firm bass line. Just to hear Marlene sing a song like ‘The Party Upstairs’ with its sense of momentary exclusion or ‘I Keep Going Back to Joes’, a forlorn yearning for a lost love is an experience to be savoured. She may be the last of her kind, a veteran now with a pedigree that goes back to the days of touring big bands, but she loves these songs, sings them with pin-sharp intonation and above all with feeling. Get down to the Crazy Coqs while you can.

– Peter Vacher


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