Great Saxophonists and Big Bands Play Birmingham

The jazz month in February starts with a very busy week starting on Wednesday 1st February when the American saxophonist John Dikeman plays the Hexagon Theatre at mac in a quartet with Pat Thomas on piano, John Edwards on double bass and Steve Noble on drums. Dikeman is based in Amsterdam, and is very much part of the lively contemporary Dutch scene. The quartet is a really strong group with three of the top improvising musicians in the UK. This is certain to be a high energy gig with free improvisation at its absolute best. It’s a 8pm start.

The same is certainly true of the Paul Dunmall Invites session in the Eastside Jazz Club at Birmingham Conservatoire on Thursday 2nd February. For me, Paul Dunmall is the most exciting improvising saxophonist anywhere in the world, and it is wonderful to be able to hear him play with different musicians at these Invites sessions. Paul has been championing some of the young players on the Birmingham and UK scene introducing them to free improvisation; on this occasion he has invited Glen Leach, a young pianist from Leeds and Tymek Jozwiak, the drummer from Poland who has made Birmingham his home after graduating from the jazz course. The quartet for this session is completed by the more experienced Dave Kane on double bass. As always with these sessions, there will be two sets, the first featuring a student led group. This first set will feature a group led by a very promising young saxophonist Rebecca Wing. Her set will start at 6.30 and is definitely worth catching before the Dunmall set. The latter will start at 7.45 and will be just the one set.

On Friday 3rd February Fizzle/TDE Promotions will be supporting a night of experimental electronic music at the Pan-Pan club in the Digbeth area with the title ALL MY CIRCUITS: Pretty Untangled. This will be the first of a regular series on every two months at the venue, and this one will feature sets by Limpid (Anna Palmer), Blue Ruth and Nature Boi (Meesha Fones). Pan-Pan is at 25D Floodgate Street in the Digbeth area of Birmingham, and doors will open at 7.30.

For more on these three gigs, go to the Fizzle website: http://www.fizzlebirmingham.com.

In the second week of February BMusic:Jazz is running a Big Band Week in Symphony Hall. It is always difficult to keep big bands going in the UK; there are up to 18 musicians all needing to be paid, and, sadly, there is not regular financial support for them in the UK, as in Germany with the Radio Big Bands, and Norway with regularly funded big bands such as the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. But, to be fair, the Arts Council in England is supporting the tours by two great bands: Julian Siegel’s Jazz Orchestra: Tales From The Jacquard and Beats & Pieces Big Band. Julian Siegel plays the flipped stage at Symphony on Tuesday 7th February revisiting his composition based on the rhythms of the jacquards, the weaving loom in the East Midlands where Julian grew up. It played Birmingham Town Hall on its previous tour, and it’s an amazing piece played by top UK jazz musicians. Beats & Pieces is big band from Manchester led by Ben Cottrell; they have just brought out their third album a review of which you can read here. The review notes how the recording has captured the spontaneity of the band and, as they will be playing Birmingham after two nights at Ronnie Scott’s in London, I am sure the concert will feature that same spontaneity. This will be a ticketed gig on the new space, the Jennifer Blackwell Space. The Free Jazz Friday on 10th February rounds off the Big Band Week with MYJO (Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra), 5pm on the Jennifer Blackwell Space. For more details and to book go to https://bmusic.co.uk/whats-on/category/jazz.

Where Are All The International Bands?

In my review of the year in 2022 I noted that of the 40 bands presented in the respective Fizzle and TDE Promotions programmes all but 5 were based in the UK. 23 were bands predominantly based in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and 12 were from elsewhere in the UK, mostly London. It is interesting to compare this statistic with, say, ten years ago when the programme would have included many more bands from either the USA, or continental Europe.

There are many reasons for this change of emphasis towards local and British bands. and also many positives. One is that after the pandemic American bands are touring in the UK much less. This is partly due to the drop in value of the pound in relation to the dollar which makes American bands much more expensive, but another factor is that a number of more established American players have reached the stage in life at which they find the rigours of international touring and travel much less attractive, so do much less of it. Some of this applies to bands from continental Europe, though rather less so.

The positives of this are considerable: the programme in Birmingham increasingly focusses on the very creative scene in the city. In the area of free jazz and improvised we have two giants of the international scene, Paul Dunmall and Mark Sanders, both based here in the West Midlands. We also have a group of young players who move effortlessly between more straightahead jazz and free improvisation; here I am thinking of Xhosa Cole, Steve Saunders, James Owston and young bands such as Abyssal Trio and Julien Durand’s Dreamscapes.

Focussing on the local and national scenes also greatly reduces the carbon footprint of the programme, and thus makes a small contribution to the mitigation of climate change. Fewer international bands means fewer international flights.

However, I miss seeing touring American and European bands. I have strong memories of presenting bands led by Andrew Hill, Elvin Jones, Sam Rivers, Jan Garbarek, Christian Lillinger, Kaja Draksler and many more; also of developing strong relationships with musicians such as Tim Berne and Bobby Previte, which led to a number of special projects and residencies. I remember the role of the Contemporary Music Network (CMN), the department within the Arts Council that ran ten or more major national and international tours every year, but was closed down some 15 years ago. Those tours set up some brilliant innovative tours which as a result of excellent marketing attracted very good audiences. It was through the CMN that UK audiences round the country were able to hear bands at their peak of creativity; here I am thinking of bands such as Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus or Meredith Monk’s Ensemble.

The strength of the CMN programme was that it was a curated programme that sought out the most interesting projects, both from the UK and internationally, and toured them to venues around the country. At the moment bands can apply to the Arts Council for touring support, but the selection is entirely random. There are, of course, many good projects that get support, but there is no coherent policy of selecting the most interesting work and helping it develop through touring. I think it is time for a rethink and to develop a curated touring programme for jazz and improvised music.

As an aside, I should note that Fizzle and TDE Promotions is presenting in the near future a couple of international musicians or bands, The Belgian group Ocean Eddie plays the Fizzle session at Centrala on Sunday 29th January (2pm), and John Dikeman, the American saxophonist based in Amsterdam, plays the TDE Promotions session at mac on Wednesday 1st February in a group with UK musicans Pat Thomas, John Edwards and Steve Noble. And earlier this month we presented the Portuguese trumpet player Luis Vicente as part of a short tour he was doing with Olie Brice and Mark Sanders, and in Birmingham Paul Dunmall.

Dr Steve’s Jazz Surgery: Jazz Standards

Steve Tromans‘ monthly Dr Steve’s Jazz Surgery at the Silvershine Jazz session always has a theme illustrated by musicans of Steve’s choice. Last night at Corks Club the theme was Jazz Standards, and the trio that Steve had chosen to illustrate it, Mike Green on double bass, Miles Levin on drums and Steve himself on piano, gave a masterful display of how a standard can be developed and deconstructed to create an original piece of work.

Steve began the evening by asking the audience to shout out three jazz standards that immediately came to their minds. The first was Autumn Leaves, and it so happened that this was to be the first standard that the trio was to tackle. The second shouted out was Stella By Starlight which the trio played in the second half. The third was Green Dolphin Street, which Steve explained would not be played for the reason he had in the past arranged the tune as Green Stromans Street, but it hadn’t worked too well.

Steve then talked about the use of standards in jazz mentioning how musicans in the 1930s and 1940s would use the popular tunes of the day for their repertoire, and how the playing of standards has often become a kind of rite of passage for musicians to show their skills. He also spoke of how John Coltrane’s playing of the perhaps surprising song My Favourite Things developed in later years into a free improvisation that only referred to the melody in passing. This was more or less the approach adopted by the trio; they played just four standards over two sets: Autumn Leaves and Black Orpheus in the first, Stella By Starlight and Watermelon Man in the second, coming in and out of the melodies and developing stunningly interactive improvisations. Nothing was pre-planned and Mike Green and Miles Levin reacted quickly and innovatively to everything that Steve produced.

The music often broke down into duo passages, Steve with Mike, Mike with Miles, and this added a variety to the flow of ideas. Steve often developed his ideas through short punchy phrases reminiscent of the minimalism of Steve Reich and others. In fact, Steve mentioned that he had quoted from Reich’s Two Pianos piece in the trio’s interpretation of Autumn Leaves, and from the opening of Stravinky’s The Rite Of Spring in the trio’s version of Black Orpheus.

In the second set the trio tackled Stella By Starlight with Mike leading off playing the melody on the bass; Steve tackled the tune by playing the melody backwards, and then followed up by playing the chords of the tune in reverse order. The final standard was Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man. Steve explained that it is a blues, but a blues with 16 bars rather than the usual 12 bars. The trio’s interpretation was strongly rhythmic with Steve delving into the inside of the passage, and developing repeated percussive patterns matched by Mike on the bass and Miles on the drums.

This was an exciting concert in which the trio integrated brilliantly in the ways they deconstructed the standards. It was enjoyed by a good crowd, including one person who had come down from Edinburgh, especially for the event. These sessions seem to attract an audience of both regular jazz and improv attenders, and others who come specially to hear Steve and the Jazz Surgery. People with open ears and curious minds will always enjoy challenging and innovative music played by a top group. This is certainly what happened last night.

The next Dr. Steve’s Jazz Surgery will be on Thursday 9th February. The photograph of Steve above is by Garry Corbett.

Two New Albums From Paul Dunmall

Two new albums featuring Paul Dunmall arrived in the post yesterday. One is a live recording from a 1989 gig in Bristol featuring a trio of Paul Dunmall, just on soprano saxophone, Paul Rogers on double bass and Tony Orrell on drums. This is on the very enterprising 577 Records label based in Brooklyn, New York. The second is a 2022 studio recorded at the equally enterprising Sansom Studios, based just outside Birmingham; this features an octet invited by Paul featuring Julie Tippetts on vocals and a number of young Birmingham based players with whom Paul has been working regularly in the last few years. This album will not be released until March 2023 on the Discus label.

Paul Dunmall has been assiduous in recording and documenting all the many projects he has set up, and my pile of his Cds is now twice the size of the Coltrane pile! These recordings have been on Paul’s own Label, Duns Limited Edition, then on FMR Records and, more recently, on various labels, 577 Records and Martin Archer’s Discus label.

The 1989 trio album has the title That’s My Life, perhaps reflecting the different lives of the three musicians, Paul Dunmall having lived on an ashraf spiritual centre in California before returning to the UK, and eventually living in the Worcestershire countryside, Paul Rogers who had just returned from a period living in New York, and Tony Orrell, a key figure in the Bristol music scene. All three had worked together regularly in the past, Dunmall and Orrell in Spirit Level, and Dunmall and Rogers in various improvising and jazz folk contexts.

The album presents a very exciting set of music and I’m not surprised that 577 Records have put it out with great enthusiasm for the music. Dunmall plays the whole set on soprano saxophone, and is on absolutely top form and ‘on fire’ as the notes on the Bandcamp issue state. The first track, the title track, is an improvisation of just over 24 minutes dominated initially by Dunmall’s soprano, and his ideas that flow freely, but move logically from one passage to the next. Orrell gradually enters more strongly into the mix as the improvisation develops, while Rogers holds it all together on the double bass. Then, about half way through the track, Rogers takes over in a bass solo that matches Dunmall’s playing in its energy. Orrell then joins Rogers in a duo passage before Dunmall re-enters and gradually builds up the intensity again before concluding the track with a short theme.

Track 2, Marriage in India, is based on a straightforward Indian tinged theme which leads into a passage of collective improvisation, and a long, very inventive bass solo which in turn leads into bass drum duet. Dunmall comes back in at the end with short interaction with bass and drums before the theme is re-stated.

It is interesting to compare this trio album from 1989 with the 2022 album on the Discus label, which has the title It’s A Matter Of Fact. Here, Dunmall has put together an octet of mostly young players who move in other contexts between more straightahead jazz and improvised music, and this mentoring of and creating opportunities for young musicians interested in free playing is now an important part of Paul’s activity. Of course, he still plays regularly in small groups with established improvisers, e.g. in the quartet with Liam Noble, John Edwards and Mark Sanders. The octet features two established improvisers in addition to Dunmall, Julie Tippetts on vocals and Martin Archer, saxophonist and label owner, then five young players four of whom are graduates of the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, trombonist Richard Foote, guitarist Steve Saunders, bass player James Owston and drummer Jim Bashford. The fifth is trumpeter Charlotte Keeffe.

It is an album full of variety and great music. It has wonderful ensemble passages featuring Paul’s compositions, some led magnificently by Julie Tippetts on wordless vocals, others purely instrumental, it has nicely interactive collective improvisation; it has individual solos over the rhythm section and a number of arrangements by Paul that seem to enter the collectively improvised passages spontaneously. Julie Tippetts is wonderful throughout leading many of the ensemble passages, and mostly performing wordlessly, but singing the words for the Golden Boat track. Dunmall is content to let the other players take a lot of the solo space, but comes in with a really strong tenor saxophone solo on the final track, he also duets with Julie on several tracks. The five young players all play really well with great individual solos from Steve Saunders, and Richard Foote, great rolling drums from Jim Bashford and rumbling bass from James Owston behind Paul Dunmall’s solo on the final track, great interaction between Charlotte Keeffe and Julie throughout. There is an added bonus from the beautifully designed CD sleeve which has four images of wood engravings created by Paul and Pete Lawrence.

Paul will be active in early 2023. He joins Portuguese trumpeter Luis Vicente, Olie Brice and Mark Sanders in a TDE Promotion in the Hexagon Theatre at mac on Saturday 14th January, and has two Paul Dunmall Invites sessions in the Eastside Jazz Club on February 2nd and March 2nd. On February 2nd he will be playing with pianist Glen Leach, bass player Dave Kane and drummer Tymek Jozwiak, and on March 2nd he will be playing with Faith Brackenbury on violin, John Pope on double bass and Tony Bianco on drums. He will also be featured in the Bath Jazz Weekend on Saturday 7th January playing with Percy Pursglove (trumpet) Steve Saunders, Richard Foote, James Owston and Jim Bashford.

Fizzle and TDE Promotions in January

2022 was a good year for contemporary jazz and improvised music, and hopes are high that this will continue in 2023.

The TDE Promotions programme in the Hexagon Theatre at mac begins fairly promptly with a gig on Saturday 14th January with an improvised gig featuring four top improvisers: Portuguese trumpeter Luis Vicente, saxophonist Paul Dunmall, bass player Olie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders. Vicente is making his second appearance in the TDE programme; he is a fiery and original improviser on the trumpet, and the interaction between him and Paul Dunmall should be something special, particularly as they will be supported by the brilliant rhythm team of Olie Brice and Mark Sanders. This will be a double bill with a young Birmingham trio going under the name of the Abyssal Trio in support. The trio is James Gardener on trumpet, Tom Pountney on guitar and electronics and Jonno Gaze on drums; they are a young group of graduates from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire developing an identity as an improvising group. You can book for this concert here.

The Fizzle programme for 2023 begins on Sunday 29th January, 2pm at Centrala, and will also feature a very strong double bill of the Belgian trio Ocean Eddie and the Shirley Smart/James Arben Duo. Ocean Eddie take their name from the ocean eddies that are circular currents within larger oceanic flows competing for a limited amount of space and impact. The interaction between the members of the trio and the timbres they create have a similar relationship. Ocean Eddie are Stan Maris, accordion, Viktor Perdieus, saxophones, and Andreas Bral, piano and harmonium. The Smart/Arben Duo has Shirley Smart on cello and James Arben on saxophone and clarinet; both draw on their international musical links to create their own approach to improvisation. Tickets will be on sale in the New Year.

TDE Promotions and Fizzle are also supporting Steve Tromans’ monthly series in the Silvershine Club based at Corks Club on Bearwood High Street. This month on Thursday 12th January (8.30pm) Steve will be working with a great trio, Steve on piano, Mike Green on double bass and Miles Levin on drums, and exploring the philosophy of the jazz standard. For many years jazz players took took the show tunes and popular songs of their day and created something original from them through their interpretations and improvisations. Tunes such as All The Things You Are and Autumn Leaves became standards interpreted by jazz players. Then, as jazz developed its own compositions, certain tunes became very popular and were played frequently by different bands; these became ‘jazz standards’. Tunes such as Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight or Wayne Shorter’s Footprints are examples. Steve will be discussing all this, as well as playing his own versions of certain standards. You pay on the door for this, just £6.

It is often said that January is a difficult month for jazz promotion, indeed for any kind of promotion. In my experience, however, audiences are often keen to come out once Christmas and New Year are over. So it is not too surprising that Nod Knowles is running a Bath Jazz Weekend over the weekend of 6th to 8th January in the Widcombe Social Club, Bath. Highlights include Karen Street’s L’Esprit du Jazz on the Friday, Rebecca Nash’s Redefining Element 78 on the Saturday and a Paul Dunmall Quintet on the Sunday. The full programme can be accessed here.

I should also mention two gigs in the first days of Februry: Wednesday 1st February in the Hexagonb at mac American saxophonist based in Amsterdam John Dikeman appears with pianist Pat Thomas, bass player John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble. This is followed on Thursday 2nd February at the Eastside Jazz Club with the first Paul Dunmall Invites session. For thisd date Paul has booked pianist Glen Leach, bass player Dave Kane and drummer Tymoteusz Jozwiak.