Nik Bartsch & Ronin Rhythm Clan – Kings Place, London

Nik Bartsch

Opening Night of the London Jazz Festival brought us Nik Bartsch's Rhythm Clan, an expanded version of the Swiss pianist/composer's long-standing Ronin group, adding electric guitar and horn section to the ascetic mix. Dressed down in black, the band exudes a masculine, vaguely menacing air as it gathers under purple stage-lighting – though when Bartsch speaks, he's warm and welcoming, inviting us to come and see the band any Monday in Zurich. Bartsch himself wears black kimono – there's definitely drama at work here, though as the music unfolds the attire seems less for our benefit, more a way of honing in on a place of heightened discipline and awareness. From the first note, it's clear this is a band rigorous in every way. Incredible precision marks entries and time-shifts. The mostly modular compositions bring razor-sharp transformations: new sections arrive already locked into the groove, timepiece drumming wonderfully crisp against chords warmed with the colours of flute and flugelhorn. Bass clarinet features strongly, sometimes snapping like percussion, and there's an extended sound-palette at the keyboard, with prepared piano – Bartsch occasionally striking the instrument with drumsticks for a sound like the crack of Japanese temple blocks – and the judicious use of Rhodes. Soloing isn't a priority – groove, dynamics and collective focus give the music its intensity and sense of purpose. Often the only way to stop the relentless drive is with a sharp cut – dead-stop and blackout come together several times with dramatic effect. Billed as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped series as well as the Jazz Festival, the cumulative power of repetition and rhythmic shift did bring to mind the world of Reich, as well as that of Bartsch's compatriot Le Corbusier and his concept of the house as a 'machine for living in' – maybe this is music as a machine for human experience.

– Philip Hogg

Hiromi - The Trio Project

Hiromi

First time at the Royal Festival Hall for Hiromi with what's become less of a trio 'project', more like her regular band of Anthony Jackson (contrabass guitar) and Simon Phillips (drums). In fact each musician has a strong following, and amongst the audience there are those who've come especially to see Jackson (for his work with Steely Dan, Chick Corea) or Phillips (The Who, Jack Bruce) as well as the powerhouse pianist herself. A moment of stillness as she lays her fingers on the keys and then they're off – this is a trio who love driving fast and pulling up sharp: it's never less than thrilling. Hands a-blur, feet off the ground (she's wearing her trademark trainers), powering through passagework at supersonic speeds, maintaining complex patterns seemingly indefinitely – Hiromi has the stamina of an athlete. She certainly gives her all and seems bursting with the sheer joy of performing. At the end of a particularly energetic passage she leaps from the piano as if it's scalding hot – which it probably is. There's obvious warmth and empathy between the members of the trio, and their listening is super-sharp – Hiromi has the look of a hunter as she leans forward over the keys to catch the essence of Phillips' drumming or trade eights with Jackson. If there's a criticism, it's that the full-steam intensity doesn't always give much chance for the personal – generic titles like 'Spark' and 'Alive' mark pieces that dazzle but don't always move. The most personal statement comes at the opening of the second set, when Hiromi, solo, gives a rendition of her signature piece 'Place To Be', and reminds us of that meltingly expressive touch. There's no doubt she's a generous soul who loves to make her audience happy, but perhaps with her trio there's still room to tell us more about how they really feel.

– Philip Hogg

Christophe Fellay with Notes Inegales

Club Inégales, London

A warm and switched-on audience gathered for this edition of Peter Wiegold's category-defying, gently idealistic club-night, featuring Swiss drummer Fellay in a solo set and later in collaboration with the eclectic Notes Inégales band. But first the house ensemble, directed from the keyboard by Wiegold and revelling in the line-up of cello, tuba, piano, guitar and Korean flute, gave us a group improvisation that began sharp-edged and stormy and somehow ended in the serene soundworld of Mahler's 'Das Lied von Der Erde'. Fellay's solo improvisation was a lesson in feel and close listening as he shared with us the secret life of the drums. Using a tiny hand-held microphone to track his own playing, he was able to pick up the hidden frequencies and subtle resonances of his kit and develop these uncovered sounds into something like a new drum vocabulary – the revelation being that even one small cymbal contains a world of sound. With this extended language at his fingertips, Fellay produced a beautifully shaped and eloquent piece that was richly atmospheric, bringing to mind rain and skudding clouds – weather and nature. It wasn't a literal depiction, the music was too free-flowing and in-the-moment – even so, an artist's surroundings can't help but seep into their consciousness, and Fellay does come from the Alps.

The final part of the evening saw Notes Inégales back on stage with Fellay for another two adventurous pieces that blurred the boundaries between written and improvised music. The first was a set of four movements devised by Wiegold based on Korean rhythm-patterns; the second a wide-ranging suite by Fellay that mixed mellifluous textures with an edgy energy. The musicians had spent the afternoon shaping these pieces, which will evolve further: after this gig everyone was heading to Switzerland where the mountains will probably have their own effect.

– Philip Hogg

Adriano Adewale - Within the Waves

Adriano Adewale

Pre-show, in the main hall at Cecil Sharp House, there's a palpable buzz – something special is coming. The plethora of mics, stands, chairs, a table with bottles on it – not to mention the forest of percussion instruments – all suggest something big. Adriano Adewale's concert-piece (cantata almost) for percussion, soloists and choirs draws on British and Brazilian sea-faring traditions to weave a tapestry of human experiences and emotions, delving beneath the surface to look for our common threads.

Opening with the great shanty 'Rio Grande', it's spine-tingling to hear the massed voices and see the light in the faces of the singers, beautifully brought out of themselves by conductor Pete Churchill. Adewale and co-percussionist Andreas Ticino charge the atmosphere with evocative sounds from a range of sources, from berimbau to water in a stone pot; and we're introduced to the two soloists, symbolic of their respective homelands – Sarah Jane Morris and Rebeca Vallim (both stunning). Brazilian and British material alternates until the central section 'Storm and Poem' – this extraordinary movement features fantastic work by the choirs (Cecil Sharp House Choir under Sally Davies and, from Northumberland, Werca's Folk under Sandra Kerr), who use vocal effects to summon the sound of the sea after a great storm; the thought occurs that perhaps the sea is the greatest percussion instrument of all. 'The Jovial Broom Man' is a different kind of sea-song, a tall tale, suggestive of drinking but also the fraternity of the sea and the way that it has always brought people together. Just when we think things can't get any better, Afro-Brazilian praise song 'Canto de Iemanja' has the most gorgeous stirring harmonies! We finish with a return to 'Rio Grande' and some hearty audience participation. This was indeed something big, a rich, truthful and compelling evening of musical excellence and shared experience.

– Philip Hogg

INTERVIEW: JAMES BROWN IS ANNIE

james-brown-annie-1

Sarah Chaplin spoke to Barry Gordon and Aki Remally, the guitarist and lead vocalist from Scottish funk band James Brown is Annie, who will be performing their first London gig at Pizza Express Jazz Club on Dean Street on Saturday 20 June with none other than Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan, founder member of the Average White Band, who also just so happened to produce JBiA’s first album.

SC: How did the band form originally?

Barry: We started out as an instrumental funk outfit, gigging in a piano bar. I was also working as a music journalist at the time and got sent along to interview Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band. During the interview I mentioned I was also part of a funk band and offered to be their support band next time they played in Scotland. To our amazement, Alan later contacted us and asked us to do just that, and now we always have played as their warm up act twice now, and are scheduled to do so again in November.

JBiA has been kind of like military service for people - in the early days it seemed as though everyone came into band, stayed for a bit and then moved on to other things, so for a while the band membership was quite fluid. We are quite influenced by Frank Zappa and how he changed his band around every few years, so it seemed like a good thing at the time. Once we decided to do an album, however, the line-up became much more settled and we’ve found we’re able to maintain a much higher quality of sound and musicianship.

SC: Tell me a bit about how the album came about.

Barry: I was living in a cold, very isolated castle in far north of Scotland at the time I started thinking it would be good to record some stuff. I felt that in order to work, we would need to work with a well-known producer, so I found Molly Duncan’s website and sent him an email with links to our demo tape and hoped for the best. To my amazement he came back and said we had a really original sound and he’d like to work with us. By then we’d built up a good CV in terms of our playing and writing experience, so we applied to Creative Scotlandfor funding for the album. They fund about 20 albums a year across a wide range of genres. Luckily, we got the money and had plenty of material to choose from. We played it all to Molly and his main thing was to take each tune and really establish where the groove was, simplifying the tunes to make sure the hooks were strong and they got to the chorus quickly - his genius is to really make our music groove and tidy things up in terms of production.

Aki: Molly described himself as a ‘funky referee’ and although he made changes to our material we felt we could really trust his musical sense, so it was a great collaboration, and in terms of funk he really knew where we were coming from. We recorded it in July last year at the Chambers Studios in Edinburgh, had it mixed in Majorca, mastered in New Jersey and then printed in London.

james-brown-annie-2

SC: What can we expect at this London gig?

Barry: We are really looking forward to the gig - it’s a hell of a venue to play there as our first gig in town. We’re quite choosy about when and where we play, so this will be our London launch really, and our aim is to knock people out of their seats as soon as possible. London is where it’s at musically, and we are keen to reach a wider audience, so on many levels it’s a big step forward for us.

Aki: The cool thing is Molly Duncan is going to be playing saxophone with us, so hopefully that will immediately raise people’s expectations.

SC: What’s with the name? Can we expect some Annie tunes in your set?

Barry: Haha, one of our ideas is to do a medley of Annie songs in a hard-rocking funk style! When I was 14 I was bunking off school and we’d go round to a pal’s house and drink Scrumpy Jack cider and watch tapes of Saturday Night Live and I remember there being this one show where they were playing songs from the musical Annie in a James Brown style and we all thought it was hilarious. It might be too much of a gimmick now, but the name has stuck, so you never know! What it really captures though is how we like to take two totally unconnected things and put them together - we’ve always liked weird combinations. I suppose now we’re just a bit more conscious that we need to make it accessible for people too!

Aki: I should also add that our bass player looks great with a ginger afro, but I think he’d draw the line at dressing up as Annie!

SC: Funk seems to be in the ascendency again now, what new ingredients is JBiA throwing into the mix?

Barry: I think funk is all about the riff. I often develop these using a polyphonic octaver, then we put some guitar over the top, let the drummer work something into the mix, and individual band members all add their own take, so as a creative process it’s quite organic. We’ve learned a lot from Molly about making songs appealing and commercial without losing an opportunity to show some flamboyant jazz chops too. Our band is quite technical but we see ourselves operating a bit like Steely Dan in terms of being a jazz-pop outfit. I think we differ from the new ‘uptown funk’ genre; we’re more meat-and-potatoes.

Aki: It’s less about making music for the brain and more about being vibey and visceral. A lot of funk bands are more jazz-oriented; we want to reach both young kids as well as the older guys who grew up listening to the AWB.

SC: How did the song ‘Ask Your Doctor’ come about?

Barry: ‘Ask Your Doctor’ was written for us by Alan Gorrie, who found out our band was working with Molly and emailed us to ask if we wanted him to write a song for us! So it’s built around Aki’s voice.

Aki: Yeah it was quite eerie singing it the first time, as well as being an honour, but it needed no adjustments, and immediately felt very hooky. It’s up on Youtube now.

SC: What do you plan to do next as a band?

Barry: Since recording the album we’ve played on STV, done some interviews with the BBC, gigged at a few major festivals and so on in the UK. So our next step is to build up more of an international following. We have fans now in Europe and North America so it would be great to tour and play live for them. It’s all about keeping up the momentum, but we think that anyone who loves jazz and funk will like our band. We just want people to have to good time.

- Sarah Chaplin

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