How lucky to be in Montpellier at the same time as the Michael Wollny Trio and catch them live for the first time. German pianist Wollny and his brilliant colleagues Christian Weber, double bass, and Eric Schaefer, drums, produced nearly an hour-and-a-half of delicious suspense and excitement under the night sky in the open air amphitheatre, perhaps a perfect setting for an artist whose last album was called Nachtfahrten.
Tonight’s journey was one of contrasting dynamics. There were long crescendos played at breakneck speed, bursting with ideas and risk-taking. There were also totally absorbing meditative passages with Wollny’s superb articulation dropping individual notes which momentarily hung in the night air.
Woolny’s physicality was a magnet too, knees jerking, feet twitching and, by the end, drenched in perspiration. Both Wollny and Weber had sheet music, and the set included pieces by Alban Berg, Guillaume de Machault and Paul Hindemith, but the exchange of glances and interplay between the trio members suggested much was being created in the moment.
This was one of a series of jazz concerts in the annual Montpellier/Radio France music festival. In introducing the live broadcast, Radio France’s Pascal Rozat suggested that there’s a wall between the German and French jazz scenes, with musicians from the former country rarely playing in France and vice versa. If so, Wollny didn’t so much take a brick out of it as make a massive breech before striding through. The French audience responded with cheers and a standing ovation.
– Colin May
There are empty rows in the riverside Dokkhuset during native sax king Marius Neset’s exhilarating finale. Because in a more intimate corner space, Ole Mathisen and the Espen Berg Trio are turning it into the downtown club of your dreams. Mathisen, 51, has been a New York fixture since 1993, and on a rare home gig is hitting escape velocity with countrymen 20 years his junior. With Saturday night lights glowing through the glass behind them, listeners packed tight into every cranny and the bar hubbub rising, it’s a pleasurable pressure cooker, stoked by the pace of intergenerational exchange as Mathisen’s quick, cleanly inevitable lines are met by Berg’s piano cascades. Bassist Bárður Reinert Poulsen blissfully shuts his eyes, and drummer Simon Alderskog Albertsen punches the glass, letting out surplus steaming energy in a moment’s pause. All push each other exhaustedly past their limits, then hang on. It’s the kind of unrepeatable night jazz exists for.
Afterwards, I’m told Trondheim’s two 2014 Nobel prize-winning scientists spurn all offers to move to grander cities because of its jazz, even incorporating it into their acceptance speech. Where many festival bills are part of a movable feast of stars summering in Europe, Trondheim offers music you won’t hear elsewhere. On my recent visit, I felt very much abroad, as Norwegian artists spoke and often played in local dialect to local audiences.
Memorabilia, bassist Mats Eilertsen’s collaboration with female vocalists Trio Mediaeval on Norwegian liturgical music, is at its best an exchange of ritual, ambient beauty. Eilertsen’s amplified boom during the ‘Kyrie Eleison’ is among abrasive, treated sections. His drummer Thomas Strønen (an ECM artist in his own right) clamps a drumstick between his teeth like a cutlass as the singers, though their parts are choppily intercut, maintain ethereal grace. Harmen Franje’s piano reverie of gentle acceptance precedes a steady climb in communal power, before sinking back to a softly thoughtful ‘Agnus Dei’. As so often, it’s the thoughtful beauty, not the diligent harshness, that sticks.
Guitarist Ralph Towner – ECM veteran, leader of the band Oregon and sideman on Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric – pairs with Sardinian trumpeter and flugelhornist Paolo Fresu. The latter’s piercing, lonesome romance on ‘Blue In Green’ emphasises a debt to Miles of distracting size. Towner’s pilgrim’s ascent on baritone guitar during ‘A Sacred Place’, met at the pinnacle by a hushed Freso, is, though, worthwhile.
Crossing a bridge into the atmospheric, sparsely populated old town, the Gothic Nidaros cathedral lends its giant Steinmeyer organ to Jan Magne Førde’s composition ‘Mezzing’. Platoons of brass appear in a pincer movement, bracketing us in our crepuscular pews, and the Steinmeyer’s stalactite-like pipes offer Close Encounters-style sonority. Førde’s over-amped jumble of orchestral rock, African beats and gypsy fiddle doesn’t, though, live up to the setting. The current NTNU Jazzensemble – students at the college which makes Trondheim western Norway’s jazz hotbed – also crash bewilderingly from Albert Ayler punk-shanty cacophony to Marvin Gaye balladry.
Finland’s Katu Kaiku, in an afternoon slot in the Dokkhuset cranny where Mathisen and company later shine, prove worthy winners of 2015’s Young Nordic Jazz Comets prize. Starting slowly, and so quietly birdsong can be heard outside the bar, apparent reticence builds into funk flurries and fiery, post-Coltrane blasts from saxophonist Adele Sauros. She goes dirtily low and siren-high on soprano during ‘Supernova’; bassist Mikael Saastamoinen and drummer Erik Fräki’s quirky, searching rhythm section add to the dreamy melodies, introspection and soaring excitement.
Mambo Companeros, local salsa veterans with Cuban percussionist-singers, here backed by strings, draw a broad crowd with the kitsch-latin repertoires of Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney et al. Lead singer Alexander Fernandez’s louche touch of Antonio Banderas lights the touch-paper for spinning dancers and romantic rivalries at their hotel basement gig. A packed mid-afternoon bar in another hotel hears bluegrass played as if it’s jazz by Open String Department (genres which also recently met through Béla Fleck’s banjo duels with Chick Corea). Though sometimes soporifically introverted, glistening dobros, banjos and bass also achieve urgent, inventive speed.
Doffs Poi’s singer Mia Marien Berg screeches then coquettishly smiles at an upstairs club early Saturday night, giving another taste of newish blood (though they’ve been around town for a while). She drinks water slowly between songs like a fire-eater. Capable of massive volume, discordant collapse and slurring tempi, her band’s jaggedly unpredictable art-pop has jazz attitude.
Marius Neset’s quintet, with guest cellist Svante Henryson, are on fine form. Ivo Neame’s classical piano motifs back Neset as he finds an aching arc of resolution on a ballad’s final note. Henryson’s bow later leaves his strings with a whisper matching Neset’s breathy sax, the band’s heartbeat fading to silence. Soon afterwards, there’s Yiddish melancholy in the cello and Neset’s sinuously lovely soprano. It’s a palate-cleanser for the full band’s storming return, Jim Hart’s four mallets flying over the vibes, and drummer Anton Eger unleashed for headbanging flurries cued by brief Neset phrases. Neset’s solo encore finds his own fullest, high-velocity expression.
The never quite full crowd, though, suggest he’s a prophet not wholly honoured at home. In this festival of fascinatingly local focus, jazz and folk accordionist Asmund Bjørken, a genial, 82-year-old Trondheim mainstay, draws more the following afternoon. Cole Porter is sung in Norwegian and, on Liberation Day from the Nazis, the jazz fraternity toast a career begun in 1946’s glow of freedom.
– Nick Hasted
– Photo by Thor Egil Leirtrø - www.thoregilphoto.com
A queue stretching down the street outside Brighton’s Komedia showed that Stanley Clarke’s recent appearance at Love Supreme Festival had whetted rather than blunted local appetites for fusion bass wizardry. Victor Wooten got straight down to business, taking to the stage to roars of acclaim to treat the faithful to an extended solo bass guitar improvisation that took in all his trademark slaps and taps, double-thumbing, harmonics, improbable pitch bends and slurs, alongside a torrent of soul-to-bebop licks and quotes from The Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper’. The band members joined him, one by one, and together they set off on a high-energy jazz-rock exploration. Fat basslines from Anthony Wellington on five-string underpinned Wooten’s muscular solos, as frantic semiquaver passages came to a sudden dead stop and reemerged as jaunty reggae, heavy guitar breaks alternated with some surprisingly restrained dynamics – and all in the first number.
The band champion the good, old-fashioned fusion verities that were well in place by the mid-1990s – thunderous funk rhythms, chiming altered guitar chords over heavy bass ostinatos, fleet unison runs, lots of bravura solos. Derico Watson’s impressive feature on drums, starting with choked-sounding, fractured beat displacements, illustrated how the biggest advances in the genre’s vocabulary have of late mostly been made in his department. Wooten obligingly faced into different sections of the crowd so everyone got a chance to check his skills. The first part of the set was a ferocious, intimidatingly super-tight exhibition, but when he took to the mic he revealed himself as a warm, quirkily humourous host, and ‘I Saw God The Other Day’ revealed the band’s vocal abilities in an engaging Zappa-style soul pastiche with a serious message, before turning into a marathon of slapping, tapping and whacking, much to the crowd’s delight. ‘Ari's Eyes’, written for his daughter, provided an interlude of melodicism, whereas second bassist Wellington’s solo spot was another extended dose of funky paradiddles against the fretboard.
Then things took a sudden, unexpected shift in direction as Wooten’s brother guitarist Reggie took centre-stage. Whatever his undoubted skills and originality as a guitarist, and his pivotal role as a mentor to the entire musical Wooten clan, it’s debatable whether his skills as a singer warranted the presentation of an extended medley of such hits from yesteryear as ‘I Want You Back’, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ and Prince’s ‘Kiss’ all delivered in enthusiastic but approximate renditions, like a wedding band on their final set of the evening. It took a riveting, deeply sincere solo exploration of ‘Amazing Grace’ from Victor to put the evening back on track again.
In other hands, Wooten’s chosen brand of high-octane fusion can tend towards the offputtingly clinical, substituting technique for emotion. Wooten’s own relaxed, soulful sincerity shone through the whole performance, reflected back in the absolute devotion of the generations of fans who packed the house. The chops are amazing as well.
– Eddie Myer
– Photo by Tristan Banks
Revisiting old haunts can be a let-down. Not so for us this time, for the 32nd Jazz Ascona festival, subtitled ‘The New Orleans Experience’ and running over 11 days, came up trumps yet again for location, atmosphere, weather and, yes, the range of music on offer. If some of the great names of the past were missing, well, that’s life, and the broadening of styles into soul and jazzy pop left me slightly underwhelmed at times, but the crowds were good, and more to the point, the festival ended up in the black. No small achievement these days.
Returning after a nine-year absence, we could only again marvel at Ascona’s sumptuous lake-front location, fringed by mountains, restaurants in back, pleasure boats docking and setting out across Lago Maggiore, outdoor sound stages set up for daily action. Publicity and promotion were similarly stunning, posters and placards evident as far away as Bellinzona and Locarno, pulling the people in, some 45,000 of them, all reinforced by strong branding everywhere. Add free programmes widely distributed, daily radio streaming, and music of both supreme quality and down-home folksiness and you have quite a festival.
Our first sighting may have been small in scale but the duo of soprano-saxophonist Aurora Nealand and pianist Tom McDermott, both based in New Orleans, played brightly, McDermott unfurling a bluesy strut that felt good, while Ms Nealand dug in strongly, also singing in a quietly wistful way on a Tom Waits song. Hard to imagine a greater contrast than that offered by powerhouse organist Barbara Dennerlein in the Jazz Club Casino, a barn-like structure, with drummer Pius Baschnagel in tow. This was my first-ever sighting of this superb German musician, seated like a flight-deck commander at her console, twisting and turning, the basslines moving all the time, the sheer drive and swing of her opening blues like a glimpse of mainstream heaven.
A day later, it was ‘2 Pianos and 6 Pianists’ at nearby Teatro del Gatto, this launched by award-winning gospel star Davell Crawford, a man whose splashy piano and personal style manages to synthesise Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, and who then persuaded a medley of other blues and boogie pianists to come and go, two-up or solo, the greatest moments of clarity again coming from McDermott, the greatest joy from drummer Herlin Riley, at his creative and responsive best, supported by an outstanding newcomer also from New Orleans, bassist Barry Stephenson. Just time after this to catch the imposing SMUM big band as a one-off in their stirring tribute to Jay McShann, their encore, surprisingly perhaps, Buddy Rich’s ‘Big Swing Face’. Brilliant.
Ascona has a settled roster of bands who take turn and turnabout, notably the Tremé Brass Band from the Crescent City who paraded daily, with Trixie, their alluring dancer clearing the way, and benefited enormously from the presence of pocket-trumpeter Shamarr Allen. This young virtuoso popped up here, there and everywhere during our sojourn. A man with boppish tendencies, for sure, he commanded the stratosphere in a Lillian Boutté tribute to Louis Armstrong, while digging the Tremé beat and appearing alongside trombonist-vocalist Glen David Andrews, a one-time NO naughty boy, who fronted a fervent (if over-amplified) gospel concert in the town’s ancient church. Allen, who told me he played country rock and hip hop too, was one of three star New Orleans trumpeters who had license to roam, playing by day in the town’s restaurants and then doubling up for the night-time sets. Leon Brown, known as Kid Chocolate, was less frenetic than Allen, more measured and delightfully fluent, while John Michael Bradford, presently studying at Berklee, had a go at just about everything, whether playing funk with Andrews, evoking Louis for Lillian Boutté or grand-standing with the big band.
Looking for the British contingent took no time at all, Boutte’s fine guitarist, Denny Ilett Jr representing 50 per cent of the British contingent, the other half belonging to the veteran Sammy Rimington who appeared with the rather tame Palm Court All-Stars, drummer Jason Marsalis their standout-player, logical and tidy but always determined on swing.
Another Boutté, Teedy this time, vocalised lustily with look-at-me pianist Paul Longstreth’s quartet, their sets suffused with a Bourbon Street flavour, while the even younger Tanya Boutté helped to pace Lillian’s concerts, this great lady now evidently quite frail but honoured as the Queen of Ascona for her long-time role as NO’s musical ambassador. Her Jazz Friends played their hearts out for her, none more so that drummer Shannon Powell, exhorting and constantly inventive, with clarinettist Thomas Étienne as their cordial ringmaster.
Among the continentals, I especially liked Patrick Bianco’s Cannonsoul quintet, deserved winners of the 2016 Swiss Jazz Award, their tight, hard-bop sets crisp and invigorating, never more so than when they played Duke Pearson’s immortal ‘Jeannine’. Flying altoist Bianco could be someone whom Alan Barnes might like to know, here backed by a superb drummer Bernd Reiter and a fine veteran trumpeter, Peter Tuscher. The New Orleans Jazz Vipers also excelled, trombonist Craig Klein and trumpeter Kevin Louis fronting a six-piece, sans drums or piano, guitarist Molly Reeves vocalising in likeably period style. Good band, though, playing tunes like ‘Pagin’ The Devil’ and ‘Swing That Music’ with a kind of intimate grace. And there you have it, one man’s views based on six days from 11. The 33rd Jazz Ascona is set to run from 22 June to 1 July, 2017.
– Peter Vacher
If the much maligned technocrats of the Brexit-bashed EU wanted to have a coherent Union in Europe then this adventurously programmed festival would be music to their ears, jazz being the universal language rather than the common market. Although set in the charming Slovenian capital the event is under the joint artistic direction of Bogdan Benigar, for the home side, so to speak, and Pedro Costa, head of the Portuguese label Clean Feed. There is thus strong representation of many of the artists who have recorded for said imprint, which means a blend of the ‘Old World’ – France’s Eve Risser; Norway’s Gard Nilssen; Germany’s Gunter ‘Baby’ Sommer; Slovenia’s Kaja Draksler (pictured below) and ‘the New’ – the powerhouse American drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake.
Arguably the highpoint of the four days of concerts at the highly impressive Cankarjev Dom Culture and Congress Centre is the transatlantic meeting of Drake, his fellow American, the multi-reed virtuoso Ned Rothenberg and pianist Draksler. Theirs is a trio of advanced interplay and imagination, with myriad rhythmic and sonic twists and turns from one of the players being picked up by the others, while the collective push forward, particularly when Drake and Draksler roll their basslines into a single flywheel, is quite outstanding. The latter’s range of timbres far exceeds generic ‘prepared piano’ expectations and the gravelly crunch of her middle-register chords electrifies the sound palette without the hiss and buzz of an amplifier or distortion pedal. The sense of explosion created by the players, their underlying momentum loosely African, grips the audience before they loosen into more reflective passages in which the vapour trail of Rothenberg’s shakuhachi flute drifts sensually around the room. It is a performance marked by an individuality that unites rather than unties.
Of no less potency is the piano duet of Draksler and Risser, which makes much capital of both chemistry and contrast between the two artists. Entwined rhythms; pinball exchanges of chords; eerie sounds by way of string manipulation: the performance is sweepingly orchestral and starkly intimate. Which could also be said of Pedro Lopes’ strikingly original display of turntablism, in which two decks are supplemented by an array of percussion, effects and samples to produce a sound collage that is simultaneously raw and refined, a pulsating mosaic that signals electronica rather than being shackled by its conventions. A last minute replacement for the group Velkro, Lopes is an engaging embodiment of the way the improvisatory spirit in jazz, particularly the drummers who inspired him (such as Drake), can be transposed to ‘the wrong instrument’.
Subversion on a much larger scale comes by way of the spellbinding union of France’s 18-piece Surnatural Orchestra and Cirque Inextremiste, a group of three circus performers who blend acrobatics and, most importantly humour, to dazzling effect. The players enter the stage rocking back and forth on gas canisters before mounting planks of wood that are then used to spin around like helicopter rotor blades before being hoisted, with the aid of audience members, to support a tight rope for the balletic grace of Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga. The hijinks spectacle is in a state of tantalising perpetual motion, the key theme being balance, as much visually as sonically. Funky, rocky, gypsyish and, at times, unsettling, the music is a nod to the mutual attraction of big tops and big bands, as exemplified by anybody from Hermeto Pascoal to Loose Tubes.
Talking of stage-filling ensembles, Paal Nilssen-Love’s 12-piece Large Unit is nothing if not volcanic in power, but amid all of the fiery outpourings of the brass there is an inconsistency in the compositions, with too many of the arrangements lacking the nuance to really make the most of the considerable resources. More enjoyable is the string of smaller groups of differing configurations. Two drummer-led quartets, sporting names with laudable values, are superb: Equality, helmed by America’s Nasheet Waits and Acoustic Unity, by Norway’s Gard NIlssen, have a wide span of references, from Andrew Hill to Ornette, and, crucially, draw coherent lines through the many vocabularies used by those icons, notably the blues, whose essentially human ‘cry’ is loud and clear amid the sophisticated speech of soloists such as alto saxophonist Darius Jones (from Waits’ group).
Another enjoyable session comes from Swedish alto saxophonist Anna Högberg’s sextet Attack. Its three-reed frontline is as lyrical as it is incendiary, reminding us that the likes of Mingus and Kirk were invaluable for the way they transitioned from ‘folk form’ to ‘freeform’ with tireless dynamism. By contrast the static nature of Hiromi’s gig, with too little variety in her power trio, maddeningly short-circuited by a mix that buries bassist Anthony Jackson, is a major disappointment. A local hero, the agile Slovenian guitarist Samo Salomon, is a fitting antidote, eliciting a rainbow of sounds from fine players (Italian bass clarinettist Achille Succi, German drummer Christian Lillinger and English saxophonist Julian Argüelles among others). As for Salomon, he is something of a unique proposition these days: a bandleader who doesn’t really solo, but sets great store by the wiry beauty of his chords, the poetry of his themes and the sensitivity of his scores. He is a captain who is a total team player. Maybe both Brussels and Westminster should lend an ear.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Domen Pal