Three Great New Albums from Alex Hawkins, John Pope and Paul Dunmall

I have been listening to and enjoying the three albums below:

Alexander Hawkins: Togetherness Music for Sixteen Musicians featuring Evan Parker + Riot Ensemble Intakt Records

This is the recorded version of the commission for Alex Hawkins featuring Evan Parker with the Riot Ensemble.   The original piece was premiered in Birmingham at mac (a TDE Promotions gig) and Café Oto in 2019 alongside another commission for Kit Downes writing for his ENEMY trio and the Riot Ensemble.  The Birmingham concert, and I imagine the Café Oto concert too, was great fun and an excellent example of a successful collaboration between jazz players and a classical ensemble.  So I am delighted that Alex Hawkins’ pieces have now been recorded for the innovative Swiss label Intakt.  The writing provides a wonderful setting for Evan Parker’s improvisations and brings out some great interaction between Evan’s lines and the string writing, or Evan with the whole ensemble.  Interestingly, the line up differs considerably from that at the live gigs in 2019; at those two concerts Evan and Alex played with nine members of the Riot Ensemble whereas on the Cd the Rioters are down to five string players plus conductor Aaron Holloway-Nahum, and the group is made up to the full sixteen players with the addition of eight improvisers: Rachel Musson, Percy Pursglove, James Arben, Neil Charles, Hannah Marshall, Benedict Taylor, Mark Sanders and Matthew Wright.

These improvisers make a huge contribution to the music, especially Percy Pursglove on trumpet and Mark Sanders on drums who play a stunning duet on the second track Sea No Shore, and Percy returns on the final track The Optimism of the Will on which Neil Charles, Mark Sanders, Matt Wright, Percy and Alex himself combine before Evan Parker enters supported by Rachel Musson.   Neil also plays a key role in leading the string players in backing Alex’s solo on Leaving The Classroom of a Beloved Teacher, and all the string players combine to play the exquisite string passages on Ecstatic Baobabs.

This is a brilliant and important album.

John Pope Quintet: Mixed With Glass   NEWJAiM3

John Pope is the bass player with the Archipelago trio; his new group is a quintet with players from the North East and the North West:  Faye MacCalman on tenor sax and clarinet, Graham Hardy on trumpet, Jamie Stockbridge on alto sax and Johnny Hunter on drums.  Its first album Mixed With Glass will be coming out later this month on the new label newjazzandimprovisedmusicrecordings run by Wesley Stephenson of Jazz North East, and also on Bandcamp.  The music moves between freedom and structure and is in the musical territory of the Charles Mingus Sextet – clearly an influence as a bass led group – and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  The album starts really well on Plato with the three horn front line creating a rousing and joyful sound.  On this track we first hear one of the features of the whole album: the interesting backing from the other horns and/or the rhythm players for the soloist.  This occurs again on the second track, Misha, A Miner, and in fact throughout the album.  On this track there is also a nice duet between the bass and the trumpet, and this pattern is followed on Ing with a duet between bass and trumpet which in turn leads into a tenor sax bass duet.  Each track is based on a composition written, I assume, by Pope, but the development of the theme moves into quite open playing from the horns.  Johnny Hunter on drums is extremely creative throughout in supporting the soloists in exploring that freedom without losing the pulse of the music.  There is a very welcome amount of variety in the set and this is an excellent debut album.

Paul Dunmall Sextet: Cosmic Dream Projection     FMR Records

This album is the latest of the Paul Dunmall series recorded at Sansom Studios in the West Midlands, and issued on the FMR label.  It features a sextet of players from the lively Birmingham improv scene: trumpeter Percy Pursglove, trombonist Richard Foote, guitarist Steve Saunders, bass player James Owston and drummer Jim Bashford.  Paul plays tenor and alto saxophones.

Paul has been active in recent years in supporting young Birmingham-based players through booking them for gigs as part of the Fizzle series and the Paul Dunmall Invites series at the Eastside Jazz Club, and also for recording sessions such as this one.  He has the ability to bring out the very best in these players, particularly in the way he allows them plenty of space in the improvisations, but knows exactly when to enter himself.   For this session Paul had written a number of short compositions in the style of his two recent suites, the Dreamtime Suite and the Soultime Suite, and these pieces set up an infectious groove which the soloists build on.   All the horns and Steve Saunders on guitar take strong solos, and Paul is at his absolute best both in his own individual solos and in guiding the collective improvisation.     

Another brilliant recording from Paul Dunmall.

Reasons For Optimism in 2021: Part 1

There is an interesting article in today’s Guardian (6th January, 8 and 9pp. in G2) describing a musical version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream that incorporated the swing style of jazz that was still very popular at the time of the show’s opening on 29th November 1939. The band included some of the leading jazz players of the time, with the Benny Goodman Quartet playing on one side of the stage and a band led by tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman playing on the other side.  Furthermore, Louis Armstrong was cast in the role of Bottom, and there was a group of 17 dancers who tap danced and jitterbugged. 

The show with the title Swingin’ The Dream was expected to be a great hit, but flopped closing down after just 13 performances.  Apparently it lost $100,000 equivalent to $2m today.  It seems that audiences were not ready to see black performers play Shakespeare, and were disappointed that the jazz players were unable to show their full creativity.

You can read the article here.

The good news is that the reason for the article is that the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and New York’s Theatre For A New Audience are combining to record an updated ‘work in progress’ version of the show.

I am intrigued by the choice of players for the band.  The musical director is Peter Edwards, an excellent choice given his work directing the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, and collaborating with The Clod Ensemble on improvisation in dance and music.  At the recent London Jazz Festival Peter and the Clod Ensemble’s Artistic Director Suzy Willson introduced a performance by the Ensemble to Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

On bass is Neil Charles, known for his own composition work and for a fascinating solo bass album (Low and Beyond on the Otoroku label).  Then on trumpet is Chris Storr, a player I first heard with the Midlands Youth Jazz orchestra (MYJO), probably about 30 years ago.  Since then he has become a regular member of the trumpet section of Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and of the band touring with the Strictly Come Dancing show.  I remember a gig Birmingham Jazz put on long ago at Birmingham’s Jam House in which Chris led a quintet playing the complete set of Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, and have since then felt that Chris could do a great jazz project.  But unfortunately I have never got round to asking him!

The rest of the band consists of two players I do not know: saxophonist Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson and drummer Sam Barrell Jones.  They have come to this project via the Nu Civilisation Orchestra and Tomorrow’s Warriors.

Vocalist Zara McFarlane is also part of the acting cast, i.e. The Ensemble; the preview does not make her role clear, but I am sure she will play a really strong part in the production.

It is wonderful to see these musicians playing a key role in what is likely to be a great show.  It is due to be streamed this Saturday 9th August at 7pm, see here.

Review Of The Year

I always think that reviews of the year should be written between Christmas and New Year rather than before Christmas, so here goes.

This has been the year I discovered jazz online and rediscovered my CD and vinyl collection.  However, the year started well with a number of excellent live gigs: three gigs in the Paul Dunmall Invites series at the Eastside Jazz Club with the final one in March a reconfiguration of Coltrane’s Sunship album in which Paul led a quartet with Howard Cottle on saxophone, Olie Brice on bass and Tony Bianco on drums.  They were joined by John O’Gallagher on alto saxophone for the title track.  Then TDE Promotions were involved in two events in the wonderful Ideas of Noise Festival: The Tom Rainey Trio at mac with Tom on drums, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones and Mary Halvorson on guitar, and a quartet with Percy Pursglove, Paul Dunmall, Olie Brice and Jeff Williams at the Claptrap in Stourbridge.

Since March I have been to one gig!  Well, actually three on the same day in various bars in the increasingly hip Stirchley area of Birmingham presented by the new Composers Collective as part of the Ten Acres of Sound Festival run by the Artefact venue.   This was the Triptychs event.

Since March my highlights have been:

  1.  Listening to streamed concerts: the online Berlin Jazz Festival was a particular highlight with its link between the Berlin and New York scenes.
  2. Jazz Connective:  this EU project led by Le Périscope club in Lyon connected Jazzlines Birmingham and the The Vortex London with like-minded promoters in Lyon, Helsinki, Dublin, Ljubljana and Łodz to present showcases of European bands and seminars on contemporary issues in jazz.   The Birmingham and London events just before the March lockdown were great fun, and the online event from Lyon in December was a fitting end to the project. 
  3. Creating the first of a series of recordings for online viewing: the Paul Dunmall Trio with James Owston and Tymoteusz Jozwiak at Sansom Studios (available at https://youtu.be/GjbY7tTeH7k).
  4. Downloading from Bandcamp knowing that a fair share of the payment goes to the musicians.  I have particularly enjoyed discovering on Bandcamp a number of really interesting innovative big band albums led by Jacob Garchik (Clear Line), Anna Webber and Angela Morris (Both Are True) and John Hollenbeck (Songs You Like A Lot).  I should add that I have enjoyed other interesting big band or large ensemble music on CD, specifically Maria Schneider’s Data Lords on the Artists Share label, Tenacity, Django Bates’ tribute to Charlie Parker with the Belovèd Trio and the Swedish Norbotten Big Band, and Rachel Musson’s I Went This Way on the Brooklyn based 577 Records.
  5. On Cds, a very enjoyable project carried out in early lockdown was working through the numerous albums I have on the Norwegian Hubro and Odin labelsEspecially memorable are Lumen Dones: Umbra; Møster: Inner Earth; Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra: The Music Is Yours; Erlend Apneseth: Fragmentarium and Mats Eilertsen: Skydive
  6. The reminder that jazz is a warm and friendly community.  I have enjoyed my walks with Mark Sanders, and my colleagues from Jazzlines (Mary, Rohit and Richard) plus the weekly Zoom conversations hosted by Ollie Weindling.
  7. I found Duncan Heining’s biography of George Russell, Stratusphunk, fascinating and a wonderful way into rediscovering Russell’s music, much of which I have on vinyl.
  8. Two TV series that really captivated me were the adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.  I was fascinated to learn that the final episode of the latter was filmed in Bilston, Darlaston in the Black Country, and nearby to where I live in Edgbaston Birmingham.
  9. I was delighted that The Baggies got promoted to the Premiership, but sad that they are really struggling there and that Biliç has been sacked
  10. I got a lot of pleasure from watching Australian Rugby League on TV.  It’s a fast, all action sport, in my opinion much more exciting than Rugby Union.  I have always enjoyed the sport in UK, but have to admit that the Aussies are way ahead of us.

Categorisation of Jazz Styles: A Road To Madness

Listening to Peter Kronreif’s Wayfarers new album Aeronautics, due out on 5th February 2021 on the Fresh Sound New Talent label, set me thinking about the various categories we use to define and classify jazz and related musics.  Aeronautics is an enjoyable album that features a quintet led by the Austrian drummer Peter Kronkief with a double saxophone front line (alto and tenor), piano and double bass. Kronreif is now based in New York, and the album features his regular quintet there, plus guest spots for two guitarists.  All the musicians on the album are new names for me.

The album is definitely a jazz album, and in a blindfold test listeners would almost certainly classify the music as being firmly based in the traditions of modern jazz. But is it modern jazz or contemporary jazz?  I see modern jazz as referring to the developments in the music from the mid 1940s, that is bop, hard bop and to so-called cool jazz emerging largely on the West Coast of the USA whereas contemporary jazz refers more or less anything that followed from the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, that is modal jazz and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, late Coltrane and Albert Ayler plus all the various developments outside the USA. 

As free playing has developed and moved away from the harmony and rhythms of jazz, many free players have preferred to refer to their music as improvised music, emphasising that it is quite distinct from jazz.  While I accept that improvised music often inhabits a different sound world and approach from free jazz, I also notice that many players and bands move between passages that might be defined as free jazz into other passages that we would probably define as improvised music.  Another aspect of this is that many bands today also move between a structured approach and a free approach.  Tim Berne’s music for his Caos Totale and Snakeoil groups is an excellent example of music that is based on written material, but moves in and out of that material into free improvisation.  In the UK music by Kit Downes and Tom Challenger provides another example.

There is an increasing tendency to refer to all this music that moves between structure and freedom as creative music.   I like this term; it has positive connotations, captures the innovation of much of today’s music that draws on other genres of music, for example contemporary classical or various forms of black music, hip hop, grime and Afrobeat.    

Nonetheless, it strikes me that there is a problem with the use of the general term creative music for a number of specific styles of music.  This is apparent when I listen to and think about the Aeronautics album.  It is a good and listenable album, which has excellent written material and solos.  It is fresh, has a good rhythmic feel and introduces some variety in the format thereby avoiding the formulaic approach of head + solos + head out.  In all this it is creative, but it is not innovative and would probably not be classified as an example of creative music.  It is a jazz album faithful to the traditions of jazz, but creative within those traditions.

Perhaps I’ll stick to Duke Ellington’s definition: there are simply two kinds of music, the good and the other kind.  

Five Recent Albums

Here I intend to write briefly about four albums and one filmed concert that I have enjoyed listening to, but which may not have received much attention in the national or music press.  

Steve Tromans: The Way

This is a brilliant solo piano album available on Bandcamp performed by Steve Tromans or Dr. Stephen Tromans as we should call him now that he has successfully completed his PhD.  The Way refers to a walk to the station or to the recording studio which takes 40 minutes, the length of the recording.  There are five tracks, two quite long and three relatively short.  There is a wide range of moods in the music, which range from the gentle and exquisite feel of Track 1, Seeking – Finding – A Way, to the more abstract approach of Track 2, Manifest, the mysterious atmosphere of Track 3, Visitation, the initially joyful mood followed by a more determined journey of Track 4, The Way, leading up to the nicely elegant Epilogue of Track 5.  Find this on Bandcamp under Doctor Stephen Tromans

Bowrain: 2020 Seconds Alive

Bowrain’s solo piano set in the Jazzlines showcase during the Birmingham Jazz Connective event in March this year was one of the highlights of that three day event.  So I was interested to hear an extended work of his recorded in concert in his home country Slovenia; this is 2020 Seconds Alive, a piece written for a 13-piece ensemble.  The concert begins with a separate solo piano piece with the title 10 Minutes of Happiness played by Drago IvanušaThis is performed with a clock on screen counting down the 10 minutes until the ensemble enters.  Ivanuša’s set is largely improvised with a minimalist feel, but there are a number of more intense frenetic passages which remind me of the playing of Cecil Taylor.  This opening piece leads into a highly original composition which initially builds on the minimalist mood of the solo piano piece, but adds interesting textures from the brass section and the double bass.  The track Exit The Wrong Way has a kind of funky minimalism that draws on African rhythms. This minimalist mood continues until about half through and the track Back to (the) Nature where the focus moves to more of a jazz feel and improvisation, and a series of vocal numbers.  Again, the writing takes advantage of the instrumentation of the ensemble to create a range of moods and textures, and to allow room for solos on the flugelhorn, the trombone and the violin and Bowrain himself on piano and keys.  It’s a long piece at nearly two hours of music, but it is a fascinating composition well worth making the effort to listen to in its entirety.  The concert was performed without an interval, but for the TV programme it was divided into two parts; Part 1 can be accessed here and Part 2 is here.  Click bottom right to get rid off the adverts! The track I Don’t Believe is available here.

Golden Age of Steam: Tomato Brain

This is the first album since 2012 by James Allsopp’s Golden Age of Steam with the original trio of Allsopp with Kit Downes on Hammond Organ and Tim Giles on drums increased to a quintet with Ruth Goller on electric bass and Alex Bonney on electronics.  I recently reviewed the album on London Jazz News and you can read that here.  I make the point there that the group’s music has become much more focussed on electronics compared with their earlier albums, but I believe that it retains its jazz quality in its spontaneity and in the way the music develops through a series of arcs which build up in intensity.  The album is available on Bandcamp and Noise Records.

Lucia Cadotsch: Speak Low II

This second album picks up from where the first Speak Low album left off, but the original trio of Lucia Cadotsch on vocals, Petter Eldh on double bass and Otis Sandsjö is increased to a quintet with Kit Downes on Hammond Organ and Lucy Railton on cello.   The basis of the music, however, remains the same as on the first album, and comes from the interaction and contrast between Cadotsch’s beautiful renditions of well-known songs and the high energy improvisations of Eldh and Sandsjö that weave around the songs.  I find that contrast both mesmerising and totally absorbing.  On the album the group tackles songs such as I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, Wild Is The River, Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair and Speak Low.

Orchestre National de Jazz: Dancing in Your Head(s)

This album features a live recording from the 2019 Jazz D’Or Festival in Strasbourg by the French Orchestre National de Jazz (ONJ) performing a project based on the music of various musicians who brought about major changes in jazz in the late 1950s and 1960s: Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill and Eric Dolphy.  The ONJ was first formed by the French Ministry of Culture in 1986; it works on a three or four year cycle with an Artistic Director appointed for the period and who then chooses the new line up.  Composer and guitarist Frédéric Maurin was appointed as the 12th Artistic Director in January 2019, and the Coleman Hemphill Dolphy project was his first with the new line up.  The various pieces, originally written for small groups, were arranged for the band by Fred Pallem, and it is wonderful to hear tunes one is familiar with transformed into very exciting big band pieces.  For me the highlight of an excellent album comes in the three tracks that feature Tim Berne as soloist on alto saxophone; it is a revelation to hear Berne’s playing backed by a big band.  The three tracks are Hemphill’s Dogon A.D. (Hemphill was Berne’s teacher and mentor), Coleman’s Lonely Woman and Kathelin Gray.