I will be on a short post-Cheltenham break from 10th to 27th May, so there will be a period of silence on this site.
There are, however, two excellent gigs in early June, both over the the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee holiday.
Friday 3rd June 8pm Michael Moore John Pope Johnny Hunter Hexagon Theatre at mac
Michael Moore is an American saxophonist who has lived and played in Amsterdam for most of his career. He is a member of the ICP (Instant Composers Pool) originally established by the great pianist Misha Mengelberg, as well as leading his own groups, notably a group with the splendid name of Available Jelly. His playing brings together the jazz tradition with the more experimental European approach. The tour has been put together by bass player John Pope from the very exciting Archipelago trio; John and Michael have met and enjoyed playing together, and they are now embarking on a six date tour which comes to Birmingham on the fourth date. They are joined by the equally brilliant drummer Johnny Hunter. Book at https://macbirmingham.co.uk/event/tde-john-pope-trio-featuring-michael-moore
Tom Challenger Trio + Canyon Sunday 5th June 2pm Centrala Space, Minerva Works, Fazeley Street, Birmingham
In my opinion Tom Challenger is one of the most interesting young saxophonists playing in the UK today. I have heard him play in many different contexts, with Evan Parker at The Vortex, with Kit Downes Vyamanikal project (church organ + sax) and with his own Uncanny Valley group. Here he will be playing with two top improvisers in bass player Olie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders. In support will be Canyon, a duo of pianist Tom Harris and drummer Kai Chareunsy. These two played a wonderful set at Symphony Hall’s Friday Housewarming session recently. Expect exciting interactive improvisation from the Tom Challenger Trio and warm and witty exchanges from Tom and Kai in Canyon. You can book at https://centrala-shop.co.uk/products/fizzle-presents-tom-challenger-trio-canyon-06-06-2022
Both gigs are over the Platinum Jubilee weekend; hopefully people will celebrate by coming to these excellent gigs!
I should like to put down a few reflections on the programme at the Parabola Arts Centre (PAC) which forms a kind of mini-festival within the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I programme this of course, so this is self-indulgent, but I do want to put down some thoughts. I am writing in a personal capacity.
In many ways I think this was the most successful programme I have curated at PAC. As ever, there was a lot of variety which included a number of larger ensembles as well the more usual quartets and quintets, and there was a range of styles that reflected the huge variety of today’s contemporary jazz. Audiences were good and responsive.
One theme of the programme was the range and variety of the music that is being played by larger ensembles. Shake Stew on their first ever appearance in the UK played a wonderfully entertaining and absorbing set that received a massive standing ovation at the end. So much happened musically in the set from rousing and joyful ensemble passages backed by a very strong pulse from the two drummers and the two bass players alternating between upright and electric, to passages of more avant-garde jazz and African influenced episodes. It all fitted together brilliantly and provided a great example of how flexible and exciting a larger ensemble can be. The group is a septet with trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones, guitar, two bass players and two drummers.
Laura Jurd’s Stepping back Jumping In ensemble played a equally exciting set that brought together compositions by Laura, Elliot Galvin and Norwegian pianist/composer Anja Lauvdal. This was a brilliant example of how elements of jazz and classical music can be brought together to create a coherent and cohesive set of music. There was some fine writing for the Ligeti String Quartet and for the brass section with Laura on cornet, Raph Clarkson on trombone and Martin Lee Thomson on euphonium. Mention must also be made of the way Laura was able to combine presenting this ambitious work with three late night sessions playing original New Orleans jazz with the Kansas Smittys group at the Daffodil Restaurant.
Mike Westbrook was making his first ever appearance at the festival; his Uncommon Orchestra performed Mike’s major work, On Dukes’ Birthday. Mike dominated the stage with his presence, but only played piano on one short piece. The piece is Mike’s hommage to Duke Ellington, and, as with the other two larger ensembles, so much happened in the music, from Mike’s great writing to fiery solos from a mostly very young trombone section and a great wordless vocal from Phil Minton on Mike’s version of It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Aint Got That Swing. Matt Bourne played the piano and conducted the orchestra on a couple of pieces. It didn’t seem to matter that Mike only played piano on one piece; the concert was all about Mike’s music, and the way he uses the various voices in the band to create a unique sound, exactly in the same way as Duke Ellington did with his big band
Another theme of the programme was free improvisation and the ways groups are introducing an element of composition into totally improvised music. Paul Dunmall’s quartet with Liam Noble, John Edwards and Mark Sanders, by contrast, played a totally improvised set in which the interaction and variety of the music created displayed all the best attributes of this genre. They really are amongst the best improvisng musicians anywhere. Neil Charles Dark Days commission for a quartet with vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, pianist Pat Thomas, drummer Mark Sanders as well as Neil on bass combined free improvisation with Neil’s writing based on excerpts from James Baldwin’s book about the situation for the black American community in the USA. This was an extremely powerful and inventive set.
Iain Ballamy’s Fascinada set also combined free improvisation with composition; each piece started with a fairly gentle free improvisation which led into compositions from Iain, guitarist Rob Luft and pianist Huw Warren inspired by the giants of Brazilian music, Hermeto Pascoal, Milton Nascimento, Sergio Mendes et al. This was another great group which also had Conor Chaplin on bass and Will Glaser on drums. This was an interesting approach that reversed the usual order by starting with the improvisation which led into the playing of the tune.
Myra Melford’s set with Ingrid Laubrock on tenor and soprano saxophones, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Tomeka Reid on cello, and Susie Ibarra on drums was in a sense the opposite of the Fascinada set in that it was based on Myra’s intricate compositions, but these led into excellent improvisation and interaction between the members of the group.
Composition was also at the heart of Zoe Rahman’s set. She had written eight pieces for a new quintet with Byron Wallen on trumpet, Rowland Sutherland on flutes, Flo Moore on bass, and Cheryl Alleyne on drums; Zoe on piano of course. Zoe was determined to play all eight new compositions which meant that there was relatively little time for solos. Zoe would have liked to have more time to enable the soloists to stretch out more, but, as Jon Turney says in his excellent review of the concert, the restriction on the number of solos and their length enabled the audience to focus on the excellence of the writing. And the solos from all concerned were nicely compact and seemed right for the occasion.
Vocalist Lucia Cadotsch appeared with a new group named Aki with Kit Downes on piano, Phil Donkin on bass, and James Maddren on drums: beautiful, laid back vocals from Lucia contrasting with the high energy solos from the trio. Graham Costello’s Strata, a sextet from the burgeoning Glasgow scene, presented a very strong set combining the minimalism of Steve Reich with the language of jazz; the work of Nik Bartsch in the same musical territory is a strong influence. I found this to be a fascinating set with the saxophone of Harry Weir and the trombone of Liam Shortall adding real energy to the gradual development of the extended piece, and with pianist Fergus McCreadie and drummer Graham Costello interacting in exciting ways.
Finally, it was good to be able to continue the tradition of bringing to the PAC programme groups of students from Birmingham Conservatoire, Siena Jazz-Accademia Nazionale and the Hamburg jazz course. As ever, the students were very impressive and it is praiseworthy that they are able to have a day of rehearsal, a warm up gig in Birmingham at Symphony Hall and then play at Cheltenham. There were three quintets of mixed groups which played both originals by the students and jazz standards.
The programme takes place in the very attractive Parabola Arts Centre which is part of Cheltenham Ladies College; it has an excellent acoustic and is completely suitable for the music presented there. The venue is a short distance away from the main festival site, and there is a danger that becomes a rather separate mini-festival. However, Cheltenham Jazz Festival prides itself on covering the whole range of contemporary jazz and a bit beyond. The music extends from the New Orleans Hot Five style and the blues right through to free improvisation, and the Parabola programme has a key role to play in the overall programme.
The latest album from Paul Dunmall, Yes Tomorrow, is on the Discus Music label run by Martin Archer and will be launched in Birmingham on Thursday 5th May. See below for details
There are two particular features of the album that make it very special. The first is that six of the seven tracks are based on compositions by Paul which lead into either solo or collective improvisations. Paul is known as an extremely inventive improviser, arguably the most exciting improvising saxophonist in Europe and one who also enjoys a strong reputation in the USA, but he has always written compositions for certain of his groups. In improvising groups where an element of structure or composition is introduced, the themes are often quite abstract and are similar to the actual improvisations that they generate. In Paul’s case, however, the compositions draw on his previous experience with other styles, for example, his work with blues guitarist Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, or with the Divine Light Mission band in California which Paul joined in his youth and which rehearsed every day, often with Alice Coltrane. So his compositions on this CD are quite funky or soulful with a strong element of spirituality. They certainly lead brilliantly into the improvised passages on each track.
The second feature is that the quintet Paul formed for the recording session are all young players active on the Birmingham scene, both in free improvisation and in more straightahead jazz. In recent years Paul has been very keen to play with many young players who have graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course. In this sense he is something of an Art Blakey of free improvisation. The players all rise the the challenge of working with Paul, and have all really taken to this form of freely improvised music with an element of composition. They are Steve Saunders, guitar, Richard Foote, trombone, James Owston, double bass, and Jim Bashford, drums.
I’ll try to capture the essence of three of the tracks in order to describe the music. Track 1 Micromys Minutus, is intially led by Steve Saunders on guitar backed by a haunting theme from the horns; there is a nicely effective contrast between the busy guitar and the atmospheric nature of the line from the horns backing the guitar. Steve then then solos accompanied by bass and drums. About a third of the way through the track Paul enters on tenor sax, and plays a great solo over guitar, bass and drums; this leads into a collective improvisation between trombone, sax, guitar, bass and drums. The final section is again led by the guitar and features a variation on the earlier theme with a strong groove. The piece winds down with the bass accompanied by the drums.
Track 2, Medgar Evers, has a number of different features; the composition is quite soulful and joyful; it has features of an anthem. The focus on this track is more on individual solos or duos rather than collective improvisation; Richard Foote takes a fine solo on trombone followed by an equally fine solo by Paul on tenor sax. Steve on guitar then enters, interacts with the alto and then solos over the ensemble. The track concludes with a funky theme reminiscent of certain compositions of Charles Mingus.
Track 7, the title track Yes Tomorrow, has an upbeat funky theme out of which comes a wonderful interaction between Paul on alto sax and Richard on trombone over a very strong pulse from James on bass and Jim on drums – I always think that a trombone saxophone frontline works really well. Then the track proceeds through a number of very effective interactive improvisations; there is a wonderful passage with bass and guitar with a rumbling trombone in the background, a duet between bass and drums, then a short duet between Jim on drums and Paul on alto sax before a full on passage of collective improvisation by the whole ensemble.
The final track, Every Soul, is a solo improvisation by Paul on alto saxophone which draws on the bluesy and soulful aspects of the compositions on the album in a totally improvised piece that develops in a completely logical manner.
The very full and informative album notes by Bruce Coates quote Paul’s comment that ‘this is a guitarist album’ and Steve Saunders’ playing is excellent throughout. But so is the playing of the rest of the band with Richard Foote showing how strong an improviser he is, and James Owston and Jim Bashford providing exactly the rhythmic pulse that Paul’s music requires. Paul is, in fact, often content to step back, and allow the rest of the band develop the material.
I should also like to echo Bruce Coates’ comment that Yes Tomorrow is a particularly apt title for the album as the music both celebrates the past while suggesting new exciting ways forward.
The album will be launched at the next Paul Dunmall Invites session at The Eastside Jazz Club in Birmingham Conservatoire on Thursday 5th May as part of the TDE Promotions/Fizzle programme. The full quintet will be playing, and CDs will be available for sale. For more more details and to book click here. Paul Dunmall will also be appearing at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Sunday 1st May at 3pm in the Parabola Arts Centre with Liam Noble piano, John Edwards, bass and Mark Sanders, drums. This will be a totally improvised set. See details and book here.
Day & Taxi is a trio from Switzerland featuring Christoph Gallio on various saxophones, Silvan Jeger on double bass, vocals and shrutibox (whatever that is!), and Gerry Hemingway on drums and percussion. Their latest album has the title Run, The Darkness Will Come!, and is on the Percaso label.
It was the presence of Gerry Hemingway in the group that first attracted me; I had heard him play many years ago with Anthony Braxton and have followed his career since then. He plays a key role in the Day & Taxi trio.
The trio’s music moves between composition and free playing; the compositions are by Christoph Gallio and they often come in at different points in a particular track. For example, the title track, Run, The Dartkness Will Come!, begins with Hemingway’s drums and proceeds through a bass solo before it moves into the theme followed by a longer passage with a bass solo and then an interactive trio improvisation that concludes with a statement of the theme. Similarly, Abstract Love or Different Tomorrows, begins with a passage that alternates between gentle lines and more upbeat, slightly aggressive lines; it is difficult to discern whether these lines are composed or improvised. It then moves into an improvisation led by Gallio on the C-Melody saxophone, initially just with the drums and then as a trio. A theme comes in at the end, but again it is not immediately apparent whether this is composed or improvised.
This is the pattern of the longer tracks throughout the album; the improvisations are towards the free-er end of the spectrum, and the compositions may enter at different times. The liner notes suggest that the group is ‘unimpressed by trends’, but I would see their music with its movement between composition and free improvisation and the blurring of the two as being very much at the cutting edge of contemporary music. I am not suggesting that they are just following trends in this, it is clearly a well established and successful way of working for the group.
There is, however, another very distinctive feature of the music on this album: the vocals from Silvan Jeger and the way that Gallio and Hemingway interact with them. Seven of the nineteen tracks on the CD are vocal tracks, all quite short at about one minute or slightly less in length. Five are in German and two in English, and the words are included on the CD sleeve. I find these tracks to be unique; the presentation of the vocals is somewhere between spoken word and song and, to me, they have the sound of a kind of alternative cabaret. It is, however, the reaction of the two instrumentalists that really make these tracks so compelling; in Am Angelhaken and Dieses Gedicht Erinnert they play in unison with the voice, while on the others they interact in interesting ways with the voice.
I am attracted by the way spoken word is becoming a feature of contemporary jazz and improvised music. I am thinking of Rachel Musson’s I Went This Way album on 577 Records which features a spoken word text written by Rachel and spoken by Debbie Sanders, also Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements and Elaine Mitchener’s work with various ensembles.
The inclusion of the seven vocal/spoken word tracks on the Day & Taxi CD makes this album a nicely varied, and, indeed, an important release.
I have always been fascinated by the reviews of contemporary rock, hip hop and related popular genres in The Guardian. I often wonder who reads these reviews, and I also sometimes speculate about how we can attract some of those readers to contemporary jazz concerts. So it was really interesting to read an article in this month’s Jazzwise by The Guardian’s chief pop/rock critic Alexis Petridis about how he used the lockdown period to take ‘a deep dive’ into jazz.
I well remember a feature that The Guardian set up in 2008 about jazz to coincide with that year’s London Jazz Festival (LJF). There was a very good article by Tom Cawley about how he combined life as a jazz musician with his family commitments. The main feature, however, reported on an attempt by John Cumming, the Director of the Festival, to convert Alexis Petridis to jazz. It seems that the attempt was a partial failure; Petridis enjoyed Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and attended a few gigs, but did not follow through.
In this month’s Jazzwise article, however, Petridis reports on how he spent lockdown exploring jazz, and really began to get into it. He watched Ken Burns’ documentary series Jazz, read Ted Goia’s How To Listen To Jazz and The History of Jazz, but, perhaps most significantly, began to listen to jazz chronologically, seeing how certain movements evolved from earlier styles, e.g. how bebop developed from small group swing. He now estimates that something like 80% of his listening outside his work as a pop/rock critic is in the area of jazz.
What I find very interesting is that he mentions that he is particularly enjoying the music of the 1920s and 1930s, e.g. Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and that he initially struggled with bop before hearing Charlie Parker’s Chasing The Bird. This resonated with me as my own path was similar; I started with New Orleans jazz, moved on into the music of Duke Ellington, both the big band recordings, but also the small groups led by the likes of Johnny Hodges that came out of the Ellington band. It also took me time to get into bop, but I had a similar epiphany when discovering Donna Lee by Charlie Parker.
I have found that this route into jazz, starting with early jazz through to contemporary jazz, is a good route as it enables the listener to understand the gradual evolvement of the music over the period of a hundred plus years. But it is not the only route; many enthusiasts seem to have started with Ornette Coleman, while others began with fusion, the music of Weather Report or late Miles Davis.
There was one other aspect of the article that resonated with me; it reminded one of the enthusiasm that John Cumming always retained for the music, and how he would be constantly introducing fellow promoters to new bands, new projects and great players.