Captivating, insightful, lyrical, Gwilym Simcock's 'Jaco Pastorius Project’, featuring the exceptional pianist alongside bass guitar virtuoso Laurence Cottle and much in-demand drummer James Maddren, artfully explored the inner workings of Pastorius’ music in a performance of quite breathtaking beauty and, at times, startling power.
It’s remarkable to think that Pastorius' prime recording years lasted just over a decade, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, during which time he forged a signature sound which completely opened up both the role and the timbral possibilities of the instrument: intricate runs and lead melodic lines, an array of open and false harmonics, muting techniques, double stops, and fluid, sax-like solos. To this day, he’s the only electric bassist to have been inducted into the Downbeat Hall of Fame.
Aside from his piano heroes, Pastorius happens to be Simcock’s favourite jazz instrumentalist. Cottle, of course, has an intimate knowledge of this music, fronting his own Portrait Of Jaco big band which conjures up stunning recreations of the bassist’s ensemble pieces. Taken from his classic 1981 album Word of Mouth, the evening started with ‘Liberty City’ and two contrasting yet equally arresting solos from Simcock and Cottle, the trio channelling that ecstatic quality, a kind of unalloyed joyousness, which Pastorius seemed to be able to tap into at will.
Wayne Shorter’s ‘Elegant People’, from the 1976 Weather Report album Black Market, elicited a towering solo from Cottle and one of quite astonishing potency and harmonic daring from Simcock.
The pianist also took on the special challenge of arranging a Joni Mitchell song, succeeding brilliantly in capturing that typical Mitchell trait of taking a melodic line for a walk on ‘Jericho’, from her 1977 double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter on which Pastorius played bass. The song, which almost sounded as if it was being improvised on the spot, was especially noteworthy for the trio's dynamic control, achieving an incredible triple pianissimo at the end. ‘Kuru/Speak Like A Child’ was a showcase for Cottle’s dancing, grooving pocket, while another track from Word of Mouth, ‘Three Views of a Secret’, flaunted Cottle's Jaco-like compendium of tricks, including double stops and harmonics.
Other highlights included a coruscating ‘Young and Fine’ from Weather Report’s Mr Gone, namechecked by Simcock as his favourite Weather Report album, a brace of tracks from Pat Metheny’s remarkable debut album Bright Size Life which featured Pastorius on bass and Bob Moses on drums (the title track plus Ornette Coleman's ‘Road Trip/Broadway Blues’) and a barnstorming ‘(Used To Be A) Cha-Cha’.
As a testament to Pastorius' consummate artistry, both as a composer and performer, this was world class.
– Peter Quinn
– Photo by Lieve Boussaw
It’s a well known fact that guitarists go to hear other guitarists, and this concert in support of International Jazz Day was no exception at the Restaurant in the Park, Leamington Spa– several locally respected contemporary and blues axemen in the capacity audience showed their approval. Proceedings started with Coventry-based guitar virtuoso Si Hayden who played original compositions using a variety of techniques – fast fingered arpeggios, percussive slaps, flamenco strums, and with repeated use of the neck/fretboard showed he wasn’t afraid to take risks. Occasionally the sound was overly electronic, but a dazzlingly up-tempo version of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ was particularly impressive.
His set was followed by John Etheridge with Adrian Litvinoff’s band Interplay, a highly successful collaboration, mixing jazz standards with ethnic and Latin-tinged numbers and inspiring strong solos, whilst pianist Neil Hunter, drummer Dave Balen and bassist Litvinoff laid down a solid rhythmic bedrock.
Pat Metheny’s ‘Hermitage’ showed the delicacy and subtlety of Hunter’s piano as well as the rich textures he can produce. Several of Litvinoff’s attractive compositions (from their CDs Introducing Interplay and Global – both well worth a listen) featured the horns of Alan Wakeman (tenor & soprano sax, flute) and Richard Baker (trombone), both interacting well with Etheridge. Understandably possibly in the case of Wakeman, although it was some years ago that he and Etheridge played together in Soft Machine. Appropriately, they played two of that group’s numbers, ‘Gesolreut’ (from Sixth) and ‘Kings and Queens’ (from Fourth). A walk down Memory Lane for many of us, especially hearing Wakeman play with such authority throughout the evening, showing strength and power as if in response to the direction given by the guitarist.
The appreciative audience showed particular enthusiasm for Etheridge’s solo version of Charles Mingus’ dedication to Lester Young, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, and Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Msunduza’ which featured Etheridge duetting with Balen on tabla. A roaring version of Mingus’ ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ had the place moving, with Baker’s trombone having the fast articulation of a Willie Dennis or Jimmy Knepper - a clear tone, with full use of slurs and smears and an attractive straight-ahead approach.
The finale saw Hayden joining the others in the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ classic ‘Amor Verdadero’, trading licks with Etheridge and giving everyone a chance to solo, bringing to mind Ry Cooder’s description of pianist Ruben Gonzalez, ‘a Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat.’ The mix of music throughout the evening was just as varied and just as joyful.
– Matthew Wright
With a population of 1.3 million Estonia is one of Europe’s bantam states but it punches well above its weight culturally. Indeed, the Jazzkaar Festival in the capital Tallinn has a rich 27-year history and sufficient credentials to attract international headliners alongside seriously good local talent. In real terms that mean’s the 2016 edition features the likes of Al Di Meola, Chris Potter and José James as well as the well-established Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär. Although Sooäär does not appear at the opening weekend of the festival, the upcoming generation of local talent does, much of which has passed through his capable hands as a teacher.
As with most territories around the world where improvised music is practiced to a high standard, Estonian jazz is nothing if not stylistically varied, but what stands out is the very high technical level reached by many of its young players. Holger Marjamaa leads a piano trio whose vigour is offset by a poise that sees it negotiate demanding standards such as ‘Giant Steps’ alongside blistering originals that showcase the leader’s chops in no uncertain terms. This gig takes place in Tallinn’s Telliskivi area, a complex of derelict warehouses that has been transformed into a Boho-ish creative hub that loosely resembles Copenhagen’s Christiania or London’s Shoreditch, but with fewer hipster beards per square metre.
Although there are two well-appointed main concert halls, Vaba Lava and Punane Maja, the programmers have also turned anything from churches to restaurants to buses into performance spaces and it is a bike shop that is the scene for another notable gig of the weekend, a double bass duet from father and son Taavo and Heikko Remmel. Displaying great sensitivity and listening skills the pair excel on folk material as well as a variety of anthems from Onettte to Jobim. Another excellent Estonian duo is pianist-keyboardist Kirke Karja (pictured top) and drummer Ott Adamson who in a swish city centre apartment delight a handful of people with neatly twisted leftfield arrangements that are by turns dubbed-up and funked-out. Karja’s pithy, economic improvisations and smart, carefully dissonant electronics are refreshing but she really shows her artistic depth when fronting the nonet Pae Kollektiiv later in the day, revealing a substantial gift as a composer and arranger. With a six-piece brass section dominated by some beautifully played reeds – particularly Keio Vutt’s baritone – the ensemble has good chemistry and balance and broaches vaguely similar territory to Claudia Quintet and John Hollenbeck’s work with ONJ. In other words the orchestrations are layered without being top-heavy or ponderous.
Among the international headliners Charnett Moffett’s Nettwork draws a huge audience in line with the stellar reputation of the bassist-vocalist and bandmembers, guitarist Stanley Jordan and drummer Jonathan Barber. The concert has moments of brilliance, particularly Jordan’s still startling ‘tap’ technique, which makes a keyboard of his fretboard. However, the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, as the trio gets bogged down with fusion-based tunes that are a bit too perfunctory for their own good, while Moffett’s attempted sing-along doesn’t stoke the necessary warmth to fully engage. Norwegian singer Bernhoft has no such problems but his whiny pop-soul lacks the emotional charge of young Estonian Marten Kuningas, who admirably rises to the challenge of paying tribute to David Bowie. An excellent band bolstered by bassist Peedu Kass and guitarist Raul Ojamaa does full justice to the expected – ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ – and the unexpected – ‘Stay’. The Thin White Duke might well have said ‘tanan’.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photos by Kaisa Kezars
Guitarist Ant Law has made two very well received albums and toured with quintets, so it’s a new departure for him being out on the road with only drummer Asaf Sirkis and double bassist Conner Chaplin, the latter recently heard in Oxford as part of Laura Jurd’s Dinosaur. But rather than detracting from the complexity and catchiness which is becoming the trademark of Law’s compositions, the relative sparseness of the trio format seems to enhance his music by revealing the structures and rhythmic twists in a more intimate crystalline form.
The intimate vibe is augmented by the beautiful venue, the recently renamed chapel of the Warneford Hospital, where the audience almost sits in Chaplin’s hip pocket. Such closeness makes it easy to observe the fascinating dynamic between Law and Sirkis in particular. Not only is their playing responsive to each other, but their eye-contact, glances and smiles are too. It’s also noticeable that the volume of Law’s gorgeous guitar is less than that of Sirkis’s drums, even when the percussionist, who hit the skins hard, plays comparatively quietly. The result is a series of unusual tones and colours.
The set starts with a gently propulsive version of ‘Entanglement’, a number inspired by the orbital dance of Janus and Epimetheus, two moons of Saturn, which is punctuated by a fierier passage, before subsiding into a meditative mood. It finishes with ‘Trivophobia’ with its teasingly jokey riffs. Inbetween we get ambient, a dose of jazz rock and a couple of spectacularly fast solo’s from Sirkis, his sticks a blur.
In a fresh move for Law we also get some South Indian voice percussion – Konnakol – a mutant form of beat box heavily-influenced by the rhythms of that region. Sirkis starts it off, Law joins in and then the instruments take up the pulse. The second of these cuts, ’Kanda Jhati’, is the highlight of the set, with the impressive Chaplin also getting his fingers around some fiendishly difficult off-the-beat double bass lines.
While the trio’s music is complex – living up to the Art Of Rhythm title of the tour – each piece has an appealing hook that draws the listener in. This is an exciting venture from Ant Law, and should his Arts Council supported tour be in your vicinity don’t miss the opportunity to go hear it.
– Colin May
– Photo by Sylwia Bialas
With Motown The Musical at the Shaftesbury and Soul: The Untold Story Of Marvin Gaye at the Hackney Empire the capital’s theatres are vibrating to the sound of black music. This production can justifiably be called the mother of the aforementioned, a mesmerising work by August Wilson that celebrates the blues, the fertile precursor to the sophisticated sound of Detroit’s blessed assembly line hit makers and, more importantly, the form of expression that enables the wretched of the earth to grab their own metaphorical piece of land by way of song.
August Wilson’s groundbreaking 1984 text has lost none of its verve or indeed pertinence to the digital age, first and foremost because the issues of race and music industry exploitation reboot on a regular basis, whether it’s miserly Spotify revenue streams, Apple’s acidic control of artist catalogues, or scant recognition of people of colour at those glitzy ceremonies that are often conspicuously un-diverse.
Wilson centres his story on power dynamics in the incipient recording industry of the 1920s, the time of ‘black music, white business’, with the historic figure of Ma Rainey, mother of the blues, as the pivot. Majestically played by Sharon D. Clarke, who strikes exactly the right balance of sassy attitude, steely resolve and deeply impressive vocal chops, Rainey has agreed to a session in order to cut the iconic song ‘Black Bottom’. But she has not given her seal of approval on the arrangement, namely how much showboating jazz will be allowed into her blues, how many notes a horn can add to her own choruses.
The cynical agenda of producer Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) clashes with Ma’s, and the presence of arrogant hotshot trumpeter Levee (O.T Fagbenle), naïve enough to think that his youthful talent is respected by exploitative company kingmakers, pushes the temperature to an inevitably tragic boiling point. Frustration begets delusion. And murder.
Briskly paced with just the right blend of humour and pathos, the piece really excels through its characterization and existential depth. Wilson is able to put the meaning and feeling of the blues into the mouths of Rainey and bandmembers without their pronouncements ever sounding sententious or didactic. The dialogue is compellingly natural, buzzing with witticism and bustling with rhythm in keeping with the music at the core of the drama. The collective energy generated by the exchanges between the journeyman musicians – Cutler (Clint Dyer), Slow Drag (Giles Terera) and Toledo (an outstanding Lucian Msamati) – in the rehearsal room, where they essentially open wounds on what it means to be a “nigger both with and without a god”, is gripping.
'Black Bottom' is a dance as well as a song, but while the creativity of its just-out-of-slavery progenitors is never in doubt, so is the identity of them that call the tune and the cruelty with which the ‘boys’ are told how high they have to jump.
A piece that sets the bar very high indeed.
– Kevin Le Gendre