The Olly Chalk Olivia Murphy Duo

I had a very interesting conversation with pianist composer Olly Chalk this morning about the gig on Sunday where his duo with Olivia Murphy will be one half of the Fizzle gig on Sunday afternoon (2pm) at Centrala. The other half of the bill will be another duo, that between two very experienced and highly skilled improvisers, bass player Dominic Lash and Alex Ward, who moves between the clarinet and the guitar.

Olly is very much looking forward to playing with Olivia as both have been focussed on composition in the recent past, so a change by playing together in a freely improvised context really appeals. Olly and Olivia performed a duo together for Jazzlines filmed on the Symphony Hall stage during lockdown; you can watch that here. They found that for the first part of the improvisation they were improvising in parallel but separate ways, but by the end of the session the playing became much more integrated with each one playing off the other’s ideas. I find that in free improvisation in small groups, duos or trios, the music can either develop independently in a way that I have heard described as akin to two skiers coming down a slope in parallel, or it can follow a path in which each player picks up phrases from the others and ideas are thrown back and forth. Olly is looking forward to a more integrated improvisation with his musical partner Olivia.

Both have been heavily involved with composition or arrangement in recent months; Olivia has arranged tunes associated with Amy Winehouse for a tour with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), and also premieres this week a set of compositions for the University of Birmingham Jazz Orchestra. Olly has been writing for his Houndsbleat group with Dan Kemshell, Tom Challenger and Will Glaser; for this he has written a very rich set of tunes which move between written material and free improvisation rather in the manner of various groups of Tim Berne’s. He has also been writing for a new as yet unnamed group that features flautist Ruta Sipola, electric bass guitarist Hugo Piper and drummer Corrie Dick; Olly suggested that the music for this group is less dense and in a sense more accessible.

Olly is a player who moves with ease between more structured contexts and free-er situations, and in this way follows a pattern that is very common amongst younger musicians. Interestingly, many of the graduates of the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire have followed this path, possibly as a result of the freedom to develop their own interests that the course offers in the third and fourth years. One of the many positives of this versatility is that players can bring an element of structure to their free playing and an openness to freedom in situations that focus on composition.

I look forward to seeing and hearing all this emerge in Sunday’s gig, which should be fascinating. There should also be an interesting contrast between the two duos. As I say, it’s on Sunday 5th December at 2pm in the Centrala venue, which now has a piano. Book ahead here, but there will probably be tickets available on the door.

Six Points To Emerge From This Year’s London Jazz Festival

I attended events over the two weekends of this year’s London Jazz Festival taking in a range of music from orchestral events through to small group improvisation. It was clear that the festival maintained the high standards of previous events, even took the festival forward in a number of interesting ways.

There are six observations I would like to make based on my attendance – admittedly relatively limited – at the festival.

The collaboration between jazz groups and players and orchestras is likely to play an ongoing and important role in contemporary music. Soweto Kinch and his quartet worked together with conductor Lee Reynolds and the London Symphony Orchestra to create a unique concert that brought together jazz, hip hop vocals and orchestral writing very successfully. Yazz Ahmed and her quintet worked together with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Bramwell Tovey and various arrangers to adapt various compositions of Yazz’s for a very enjoyable blending of contemporary jazz and classical music. These collaborations took us beyond a ‘jazz meets classical’ approach and created very special works in their own right.

The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) is developing some very interesting contemporary projects. The gig at Cafe Oto with NYJO performing Sam Eastmonds’ arrangements of material from John Zorn’s Masada Songbook showed that they are well capable of performing challenging material, and the performance of the NYJO Jazz Exchange group mentored by Orphy Robinson revealed a willingness to engage with a cross genre approach.

Next a trivial point perhaps, but it was interesting to compare the conducting methods of the two classical conductors, Simon Reynolds and Bramwell Tovery with that of Sam Eastmond with NYJO. Eastmond emphasised the beat with strong punching movements with his right hand and no baton, while the two classical conductors used much more flowing movements with a baton to show the beat.

The Chicago contemporary jazz scene is on a roll at the moment. I caught Moor Mother doing a voice + electronics set accompanied by saxophonist Keir Neuringer, and then Irreversible Entanglements at Kings Place. I would have liked to have heard Jamie Branch and Damon Lock‘s Black Monument Ensemble. It’s clear that the tradition of Great Black Music from Chicago continues.

The integration of Arab music and jazz seems to work well; Yazz Ahmed’s music draws very successfully on her Bahraini heritage, and Shirley Smart’s Sextet‘s music similarly draws effectively on her stay in East Jerusalem.

Olie Brice

The late night session downstairs at The Vortex with a mix of composition and free improvisation from Olie Brice, Tom Challenger and Will Glaser showed that the improvised music/free jazz scene continues to thrive and develop. This session and the Cafe Oto session with NYJO showed the importance of the the contribution of small venues such as these to the festival programme.

December Jazz in Birmingham

The jazz scene often slows down as Christmas approaches, but there is nonetheless plenty of interest in the Fizzle, TDE Promotions and Jazzlines December programmes.

I’m going to cheat a little by starting with the TDE Promotions gig in the intimate Hexagon Theatre on Thursday 25th December (8pm) with a very special double bill with Trish Clowes and Louise McMonagle performing the compositions originally written for the Punkt Birmingham Festival cancelled due to Covid, and Adam Fairhall and Johnny Hunter performing their reinterpretation of the music of boogie woogie pianist Winifred Atwell. There seem to be certain affinities between the original styles of jazz and ragtime, and contemporary jazz, and Fairhall and Hunter will be exploring these in their set. You can buy tickets here.

Nikki Iles Norma Winstone Mark Lockheart

Jazzlines has an unmissable concert on Wednesday 1st December. It will be the first visit to Birmingham for many years of Norma Winstone, one of the world’s finest jazz singers and one who keeps alive the music of the generation we associate with Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and Norma. She will be performing in a trio with Nikki Iles, a regular partner of Norma’s on piano, and saxophonist Mark Lockheart. This will be on the ‘flipped stage’ in Symphony Hall, which involves both the band and the audience situated on the actual stage, the band with its back to the main auditorium and the audience on raked seating facing the band. It’s a wonderful experience with good sound and sightlines which is perfect for this particular trio. Book at www.bmusic.co.uk

Olly Chalk

On Sunday 5th December Fizzle presents a double bill, also of two duos: Dominic Lash (bass) and Alex Ward (clarinet) and Olivia Murphy (saxophones) and Olly Chalk (piano). Lash and Ward are two improvisers who always come up with something special, and in this duo interact in ways that constantly change and surprise. I am also looking forward to hearing Olly Chalk work with Olivia Murphy as both graduated from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire and are beginning to develop interesting approaches to free improvisation. Olly Chalk is one of the most interesting young pianists to have emerged from that course, and is definitely one to watch. The gig is one of Fizzle’s Sunday afternoon sessions at Centrala, and Sunday afternoon seems to be a popular time for listening to adventurous music. You can book here.

The December Paul Dunmall Invites session features a quartet that has recently made what is probably the best of the Fizzle/TDE Promotions videos. It features guitarist Steve Saunders, (another recent graduate), bass player Dave Kane and drummer Miles Levin. Their session at Sansom Studios took off immediately and the whole session was exciting, dramatic and full of great music; have a listen to a short extract here. The gig is at The Eastside Jazz Club at the Birmingham Conservatoire, on Thursday 9th December starting at 6.30 with a very interesting support band Dreamscapes led by guitarist Julien Durand and featuring a great line up including the new singing star Lucy-Anne Daniels. You can book here.

Finally TDE Promotions present on Wednesday 15th December a very stimulating trio from The Netherlands, Under The Surface, featuring the very attractive vocals of Sanne Rambegs accompanied by guitarist Bram Stadhouders and drummer and leader of the trio Joost Lijbaart. There will be a support set by violinist Sarah Farmer and sound manipulator Annie Mahtani (laptop). This will be a gently contemplative concert. Book here.

The Final Weekend of the London Jazz Festival: A Round Up

Three of the concerts I attended in the London Jazz Festival (LJF) received standing ovations: Irreversible Entanglements, which I reviewed on London Jazz News, Soweto Kinch’s White Juju and The National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) playing material from John Zorn’s Masada Songbook arranged and conducted by Sam Eastmond. I think this tells us something about the quality of this year’s festival, or perhaps my luck in choosing the right concerts to attend!

Soweto Kinch’s ovation was from a large crowd, possibly a sellout, in the Barbican Hall. White Juju is a major work for the full London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) plus Soweto’s quartet with Rick Simpson on piano, Nick Jurd on double and electric bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. In it Soweto reflects on events of the last twenty months with ten pieces for the orchestra and quartet with hip hop vocals and accompanying visuals and soundtrack. The topics covered include the Covid pandemic, the lockdown, the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue of statues of slave traders and even the recent shortages arising from the pandemic and Brexit. The visuals were presented in short film sequences of, for example, the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the recordings included one of Johnson announcing the first lockdown and another of Priti Patel condemning the Black Lives Matter movement as Marxist. There were also visuals of major buildings associated with Britain’s imperial past which implied that these brought out a feeling of not belonging amongst minority groups.

The music opened with a totally improvised passage from the quartet , and proceeded through movements with the full orchestra driven by Gregory Hutchinson’s powerful drumming, hip hop vocals accompanied by the orchestra and interludes for the jazz quartet. The writing for the orchestra was punchy and rhythmic with the sound of the quartet integrated into the overall mix; I particularly enjoyed a short section for the clarinets that had a touch of New Orleans. The hip hop vocals were backed by some very attractive writing for the orchestra. In this there was a contrast between the force of the vocals and the melodic writing for orchestra. This movement between unity and division was a key aspect of the overall approach with a further contrast between the mostly free playing of the quartet and the classical sounds of the orchestra. Even within the free playing of the quartet there was a contrast between the forceful and intense statements of the quartet and the collaborative interactions that created that sound world. All this seemed appropriate for the critique of the political and social situations in the UK and the USA.

This was a very successful collaboration between the classical and jazz approaches which produced a unique set of music, and one which the audience clearly found absorbing and intriguing so much so that they applauded at the end of each movement. This certainly generated a warm and receptive atmosphere, but at times it interrupted the flow of the music. I have, however, two related criticisms; one is that in a large hall and with issues of aged-related hearing loss, I struggled to catch the words of Soweto’s vocals, and therefore lost most of their impact. Catching the words of hip hop vocals is often an issue, and I remember Dizzee Rascal’s suggestion that we need to ‘listen faster’, but in a piece of political and social criticism, I wanted to catch all the words. Likewise the words of the recorded excerpts of politicians’ words were difficult to catch.

Overall, it was good to see the ambition of Soweto’s earlier Black Peril work has been developed and extended into this major work. Mention should also be made of the conductor Lee Reynolds who worked closely with Soweto on the orchestration and conducted the orchestra.

Yazz Ahmed also worked very successfully with an orchestra, in her case with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Yazz’s approach was very different from Soweto’s; in the latter’s concert the piece developed a whole new work that successfully blended aspects of free jazz, hip hop and orchestral writing, whereas in the former concert Yazz had worked with various arrangers to adapt small group pieces of hers from her La Saboteuse album, her Polyhymnia album and her Alhaan al-Siduri suite. Noel Langley arranged La Saboteuse, Earth’s Reflection, A Shoal of Souls and Dawn Patrol, Tim Garland arranged A Paradise in the Hold, Ed Puddick arranged Barbara, Yazz’s tribute to Barbara Thompson, Callum Au arranged 2857, Yazz’s tribute to Rosa Parks, and Guy Barker arranged El-Emadi, Yazz’s tribute to her Bahraini tribe. All these pieces worked wonderfully well with Yazz’s beautiful trumpet and flugelhorn sound rising gloriously above the sound of the orchestra and the excellent contributions from Ralph Wyld on vibes and Dave Mannington on electric bass.

It’s interesting that these two jazz and classical collaborations worked so well in their different ways; it used to be the case that such attempts seemed to fall between two stools and ended up satisfying neither. That has changed and it is likely that such work will be a feature of ambitious jazz festivals.

Arrangements of a very different kind were the feature of the NYJO concert at Cafe Oto where they had a short two-day residency playing music from John Zorn’s Masada Songbook. Arranger/composer Sam Eastmond has collaborated closely with John Zorn who has encouraged and supported Sam in his arrangements of material from the Masada Songbook, and on this project he has worked with a large group of current members and alumni of NYJO to present a number of these arrangements. It’s powerful stuff; NYJO played with great enthusiasm and skill, and this plus Sam’s highly energetic conducting resulted in an evening of exciting and dramatic music. The arrangments left plenty of space for soloists and James Romaine, Emma Rawicz, Dan Kemshell, Asha Parkinson, Dan Coulthust and Joel Knee in particular impressed. It’s great to see NYJO tackling contemporary repertoire of this kind. I also caught and was impressed by the NYJO Jazz Exchange group on the freestage at the Clore Ballroom

I’d also like to mention: a late night set downstairs at The Vortex with Olie Brice presenting new pieces for Tom Challenger and Will Glaser following on from a set upstairs with the Shirley Smart Sextet playing music with a strong Arabic influence, and the set on the freestage at the Barbican with the project I heard in Lithuania with the Nojo Airlines led by drummer Dalius Naujokaitis-Naujo. Nojo is an abbreviation of Dalius’ name and the Airlines title refers to an ensemble with a lot of freedom to fly. The group at 25 was much smaller than the 60+ group I heard in Vilnius, but the energy and fun was still very much a feature of the performance. I did feel, however, that the set lost momentum towards the end.

I heard some great music over the weekend, and there were many more events I would have liked to catch. I believe The London Jazz Festival took a step forward this year.

Trish Clowes and Louise McMonagle Present Their Punkt Project

Punkt is a Norwegian festival in which the concerts are remixed so that the audience hears immediately after the concert a remixed version of that concert. Sometimes the remix picks up and builds on some of the key elements of the original, on other occasions the remix is a totally new piece drawn from the sounds of the original.

I mention all this because there was to be a Birmingham version of Punkt in March 2020, but, sadly, the pandemic put paid to that. One of the main concerts that was to feature in the Birmingham Punkt was a duo between saxophonist Trish Clowes and cellist Louise McMonagle. We were really looking forward to that event, so it is now to appear as part of the TDE Promotions series in the intimate Hexagon Theatre at mac Birmingham. This will be on Thursday 25th November at 8pm. It will be a double bill with Adam Fairhall and Johnny Hunter’s Winifred Atwell Revisited, see my blog about that project on this site.

Trish Clowes moves very easily between jazz and contemporary classical music. She leads the My Iris band, but also the Emulsion ensemble that brings together jazz and contemporary classical music, and which has been at the centre of a series of innovative festivals that Trish has curated. She is now an Associate Artist at Wigmore Hall, the haven of small scale contemporary music, but also plays Ronnie Scott’s with her My Iris band. In a recent streamed session from Ronnies Louise sat in with the group and Trish spoke about her disappointment at the cancellation of their duo performance. That was the impetus for setting up this gig.

Louise is mostly active as a performer and composer in contemporary music contexts; she is a key member of the Riot Ensemble and has been described as ‘vocanically creative’ (The New Yorker), but has also played in improvised music settings with Evan Parker and Kit Downes as well as Trish Clowes.

For the Birmingham concert they will be presenting new pieces by both Trish and Louise, arrangements of other pieces such as Song for Saariaho and Dance With Me, plus some free improvisations. The focus will be on texture and minimalism.

Tickets are available via the mac Box Office and online here.