The Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker

In my Semi-Isolation listening I have this week turned to the music of the American saxophonist and composer and founder member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell. and through his music to that of the Transatlantic Art Ensemble led by Roscoe and Evan Parker.

I have heard Roscoe play on a number of occasions, always in London and sadly never in Birmingham.  The first time was with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but more recently I have heard him in small groups he has led under his own name at Café Oto. In the performances at Oto I have been impressed by both his playing and his stage presence.  On his saxophones, mostly alto and soprano, he weaves long flowing lines that have a complexity that can be quite challenging to absorb, but ultimately the experience of engaging with them is extremely rewarding.  And somehow his rather austere stage presence matches the music; he has always been dressed very smartly in a suit and tie and his demeanour is committed and serious. He hardly ever addresses the audience.

Roscoe has a huge legacy in terms of recordings; there are all the Art Ensemble of Chicago albums and then the albums with the Note Factory Ensemble and recently the excellent Bells for the South Side which presents a number of different trio configurations.  But it to his 2004 album Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 that I often return.  It is a fascinating album that came about as a result of a symposium about improvised music in Munich.  For this Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker were commissioned to set up the Transatlantic Art Ensemble, an ensemble of 14 improvisers for which they would both write music.  The 14 players were divided equally between players from UK and from USA and were carefully selected by Roscoe and Evan.  A list of the personnel is at the end of this piece.

Two Cds on the ECM label emerged; Roscoe Mitchell’s Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 and Evan Parker’s Boustrophedon.  The recordings were taken from the live performances and the personnel is therefore the same on both Cds.

composition 123The music on Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3, moves between notated passages and freely improvised sections which may be with one soloist, or a section within the ensemble such as the string section or the two percussionists, or the whole ensemble.  The improvisations with the whole ensemble have a particular energy and excitement and create a wonderful blast of a sound.  The music also moves fairly seamlessly between a classical feel and a jazz feel, but throughout there is a unity to the writing that comes from the mix of unique ensemble sounds and textures; these arise from the varied instrumentation of the ensemble and the individual character of the musicians.

On the Cd there are 9 pieces listed with Roman numerals; the connection of these to the title, Nos 1, 2 & 3 is not explained in the Cd notes.  Track III is perhaps characteristic of the CD; it features Evan Parker on tenor sax and he begins playing solo.  He is then joined by the strings, i.e. violin and viola, followed by a series of interactions with pianist Craig Taborn which are gradually enhanced by the backing from the ensemble.  This leads into a long wild improvisation from the whole ensemble; Evan stands out at first, but gradually it becomes a group improvisation; the track concludes with a short composed line for trumpet and strings.  Track IV is characteristic of another aspect of the Cd; it’s much gentler piece with a beautiful solo from John Rangecroft on clarinet which is intensified by some subtle textures from the bass and the ensemble.  Overall I believe that the performance brings together very successfully composition and improvisation and the feel of both classical and jazz music.

Evan Parker also has a huge legacy of recorded material, but this is much more in the area of totally improvised music. However, he has been involved with larger ensembles such as the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and the flexibly sized Trance Map.  In these ensembles the writing provides a structure around which the improvisations are built.

boustrophedonFor the Boustrophedon Cd the format focusses in each track on duets between one of the UK players and one of the US players, thus  we have in Furrow 1 (after an overture each track is called a Furrow) a duet between US pianist Craig Taborn and UK flautist Neil Metcalfe, Furrow 2 has the two string players,  Phil Wachsmann  (UK) on violin and Nils Bultman (USA) on viola, Furrow 3 is between cellist Marcio Mattos (based in UK, but from Brazil) and saxophonist Anders Svanoe (USA), but they do not interact very much with Mattos’ cello going first and then leading into a forceful solo from Svanoe with energetic ensemble backing, Furrow 4 is between UK clarinettist John Rangecroft who has a very enjoyable musical conversation with US trumpeter Corey Wilkes before the latter takes the track out with some brilliant playing,  Furrow 5 is between the two double bass players Barry Guy (UK) and Jaribu Shahid (USA) who join in a lively conversation that also brings in Craig Taborn who supports with a repeated rhythmic motif.   The final two tracks, Furrow 6 and the Finale, present some of the most exciting and impressive music of the two Cds; Furrow 6 features the two leaders, first Evan Parker whose solo is supported by some remarkable sounds from the ensemble, and then Roscoe Mitchell whose solo is supported initially by piano and drums and then equally amazing sounds from the ensemble.  The Finale has short solos from various members of the ensemble punctuated by short blasts from the ensemble and the whole things climaxes with some stunning textures from the whole ensemble.

The two Cds provide some wonderful listening and are a perfect example of how composition can be integrated with free playing.

Both Cds are on ECM: https://www.ecmrecords.com/catalogue/143038751721/composition-improvisation-nos-1-2-3-roscoe-mitchell-the-transatlantic-art-ensemble and https://www.ecmrecords.com/catalogue/143038751723/boustrophedon-evan-parker-the-transatlantic-art-ensemble

The personnel is as follows:

‘The Best Saxophonist You Have Never Heard Of’

gerd dudekThe quote in the heading is from Downbeat journalist Bill Shoemaker and refers to the German tenor and soprano saxophonist Gerd Dudek.  Dudek is now in his 80s and I’m not sure whether he is still playing.  He is well known in Germany, but very little known outside.  He was born in Breslau, the German city that became part of Poland as Wrocław in 1945, but has lived in Germany for the whole of his adult life.  He was a key figure in the early free jazz movement in Germany, playing in the band led by Manfred Schoof and occupying a key position in the Globe Unity Orchestra established in 1966.

The impetus for writing about Dudek comes from finding, as I tidied up my Cd collection, a recording made in Birmingham (Birmingham and Midland Institute, March 1996) of the European Jazz Quartet, a group put together by German bass player Ali Haurand featuring Dudek and also the Dutch pianist Rob Van Den Broek and drummer Tony Levin.

It is a fine recording made by Andy Isham featuring four tracks that have something of the atmosphere of the John Coltrane Quartet of the early 1960s.  Dudek is in excellent form and his solos are given extra weight by the drive of Tony Levin’s drums as well as the bass playing of Ali Haurand.  What is striking about Dudek’s solos is that they have a very satisfying cohesion and logic; each idea is developed to its logical conclusion and every solo builds through the development of these ideas.

Interestingly, although a key figure on the German scene from the 1960s, Dudek did not record under his own name until 2002 when he recorded an album entitled ‘smatter on Evan Parker’s psi records label.  Evan clearly has a high regard for Dudek with whom he played in the Globe Unity Orchestra and describes him as ‘a holy one. Music incarnate, an Adolphian centaur’.

The music on this Cd is in a number of ways quite different from that on the Birmingham recording.  Dudek is with another quartet with John Parricelli on guitar, Chris Laurence on double bass and Tony Levin again on drums.  Here Dudek’s playing much gentler but with the same logic and precision as on the Birmingham recording.  The first three tracks are tunes written by Kenny Wheeler and Dudek interprets them with an impressive economy in his solos.  He is ably supported in this by the playing of John Parricelli, and that of the two rhythm players.  Tony Levin in particular provides exactly the right backing, much gentler than on the Birmingham recording.  However, the stand out track is a version of the standard Body and Soul in which Dudek provides a much more forceful reading than the usual versions of that standard.  He eventually goes into an extensive solo saxophone section in which he really builds up the tension; this leads into a duet with Levin on drums that lead up to a final powerful climax.

Evan Parker kept faith with Dudek and invited him back for the final night of his Might I Suggest series at The Vortex in London in January 2012.  There he played with a trio put together by pianist Hans Koller with Oli Hayhurst on double bass and Gene Calderazzo on drums.  There is a comprehensive review of that gig by Geoff Winston which you can access here.  They went the very next day to Curtis Schwarz’s studio in West Sussex to record the same material.  This material was rooted in the rich tradition of the music created in the transition from hard bop to modal and free jazz, and included tunes by Herbie Nichols, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.  There was also one tune by Kenny Wheeler and an arrangement of a Bach tune: Der Tag mit seinem Lichte.  The mood on the Cd is similar to that on ‘smatter, mellow and relaxed without being revolutionary.  Winston in his review of the gig at The Vortex suggests that ‘there is a gravity and serenity in his (Dudek’s) playing’, and an aspect of this is Dudek’s tone on both the tenor and the soprano saxophone; it has a strength that is rooted in Coltrane’s sound, but a mellowness that comes from saxophonists from other jazz traditions; moreover the tone is beautifully consistent throughout the set.  

You can access ‘smatter here.  You can access Day and Night here.

Three More Artists Who Were Due To Play Cheltenham Jazz Festival

This is the final piece I shall write about some of the artists that were booked for the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in the hope that people will want to find out more about them, access their music and possibly download some of it.

myraPianist Myra Melford is a particular favourite of mine and she was due to play with a stunning band with Ron Miles on cornet – he has always favoured the cornet over the trumpet – Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on bass and Rudy Royston on drums.  I particularly remember an Arts Council tour a few years ago with Chris Batchelor’s Big Air that played in Birmingham’s CBSO Centre.  Melford was a key member of that band playing beautiful flowing mesmeric solos and with a particularly intense stage presence.  She is also a fine composer as is apparent from her highly regarded Snowy Egret album.  You can access a track from the the album here.

I shall miss the student exchange programme that takes place every year with the students on the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.  This year the collaboration was to be with students from Siena in Italy, and would have involved the formation of joint groups between Birmingham and Siena students.  In the past the project ran for nine years with the renowned jazz course in Trondheim Norway, but last year it was run with the jazz students at the Paris Conservatoire; it has always generated interesting music with fresh ideas and has proved very popular with audiences.

keyonI was very much looking forward to hearing Keyon Harrold, a young trumpeter whose group is unfamiliar to me.  I have, however, heard his own trumpet playing in that he provided the trumpet playing for the rather odd biopic film about Miles Davis Miles Ahead.  Harrold is clearly very versatile and plays with leading artists in the hip hop and soul genres such as Common, Lauren Hill, Jay-Z and Erikah Badu as well as with his own jazz groups. Wynton Marsalis has described him as ‘the future of the trumpet’.   You can hear some of his own music here.

More Sadness: Acts That Were Booked For Cheltenham Jazz Festival

In my previous piece I expressed my sadness at the inevitable cancellation of the 2020 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, but wrote about three of the acts booked for the programme in the Parabola Arts Centre (PAC) in the hope that this would interest readers and encourage them to check out their music online.  Here I look at more of the acts booked, including two that were due to appear in other of the festival’s venues.

normaThis year we were particularly proud to be presenting Norma Winstone for the first time under her own name.  Norma is a legend and I’m not sure why we have not featured her before.  Discussion with Norma led to the suggestion of her appearing with the German pianist Pablo Held; they have been working together recently and both were enthusiastic about doing so at Cheltenham.  There are no examples online of them performing together, but there is a fascinating interview with Norma as part of Pablo’s Pablo Held Investigates series.  Just Google that title to access it.  Norma is of course a key player in the late 1960s/early 1970s generation of musicians along with Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor who began to develop a distinctive voice for British jazz.

Let’s hope we can bring this duo to Cheltenham in 2021.

metteAnother duo that was due to play the PAC is that of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen playing with drum legend Chris Corsano.  They form a powerful partnership and they would have been playing a totally improvised set with all the drama and excitement that style of music can generate.  There are YouTube videos of the duo, but I haven’t found anything on Bandcamp of this particular duo, but check out her duo with French guitarist Julian Desprez here.

I was also looking forward to hearing Laura Jurd’s large ensemble project Stepping Back, Jumping In, which features great compositions by Laura and Elliott Galvin.  I love the ambition of this ensemble and it’s great to hear how Laura Jurd is expanding her music with her writing for a larger group.  You can check the music out here.

gary bartzOne collaboration that intrigues me is that between the London band Maisha with American saxophone legend Gary Bartz.  I find Maisha, led by drummer Jake Long, to be one of the most interesting of the young London based bands associated with Gilles Peterson and the Brownswood label, and the prospect of the collaboration with Gary Bartz was enticing.  Bartz’s playing on the alto saxophone is a key link between the hard bop days of the 1960s and the fusion movement that followed, and he is also a forerunner of the movement built around Kamasi Washington that is so influential today.  Check out their music here.

Two final tips: the group YDivide led by Swiss drummer Clemens Kuratle, seen last year in the Julie Campiche Group, and featuring players from Switzerland, Clemens and bass player Luka Traxel, Ireland, guitarist Chris Guilfoyle, and Britain, pianist Elliot Galvin and saxophonist Dee Byrne.  You can access their music in a short video here.

liebmanAnd finally a truly jazz super group the Liebman/Brecker/Copland Quintet with Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker,  Marc Copland plus a fantastic rhythm pairing of bass player Drew Gress and one of my favourite drummers Joey Baron.  Check them out on YouTube.  Will they be touring again next year?  I hope so!

The Cancellation of the 2020 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

People will have heard by now that the decision to cancel the Cheltenham Jazz Festival was taken with a heavy heart last week.  It is a cancellation rather than a postponement as touring schedules and availabilities will be different next year, but of course we hope to reschedule many of the bands booked for this year, certainly in the programme at the Parabola Arts Centre (PAC) which is my main concern.

I feel sad to lose this year’s PAC programme which we, the programming team, feel had a good balance in styles of music and a good range of music from UK, continental Europe and the USA.  Some will be back next year while others may not be able to make it.

One of the aims of the PAC is to introduce to curious listeners bands that they may not have heard of or certainly not heard in a live situation.  So here and in a future piece I shall write about some of the bands that fit into this category.  We are always proud of the ‘PAC surprises’ which often turn out to be highlights of the festival; in the past I’m thinking of the French Surnatural Orchestra, the Swiss vocalist Andreas Schaerer and the Swiss Schnellertollermeier trio.

In a previous piece I wrote about Neil Charles’ Dark Days, Seb Rochford’s Pulled By Magnets and Chris Mapp’s Stillefelt; you can access that article here.

However, the real surprises, i.e. bands probably unknown to most UK audiences. include Shake Stew from Austria, Leila Martial & Baa Box from France and Rite of Trio from Portugal.

Shake Stew

shake stewI originally heard this band at its first ever performance at the Saalfelden Jazz Festival in the Austrian Alps.  I was impressed and was delighted, finally, to get them onto the Cheltenham programme.  The band is led by bass player and mad Manchester United fan Lukas Kranzelbinder and has an attractively different line up with two bass players, two drummers and three horns, which gives the music a very strong rhythmic drive.  Since that premiere the band has recorded three albums and the latest, Gris Gris, has been described as ‘sitting between the realms of spiritual jazz, Afrobeat and just utter madness.  Shake Stew have forged a herculean record which is utterly scintillating’  (Jazz Revelations).  You can access this album here.

Leila Martial & Baa Box

leila martialI first heard Leila Martial at the Südtirol Jazz Festival in Bolzano, Italy, and was totally carried away by her vocals and stage presence.  Since I have heard her in duo with cellist Valentin Ceccaldi and, more recently, with the Baa Box Trio.  Leila is a totally charismatic live performer; she has an amazing vocal range and her wordless solos are stunning.  Leila originally trained as an actor and as part of that studied the work of clowns; she retains a strong element of theatricality in her live performances.  See her website here.  Their latest album Warm Canto is on Laborie Jazz CD LJ48.

Rite of Trio 

rite of trioI heard this guitar bass drums trio at the 12 Points Festival in Dublin last year.  That festival presents 12 young bands from 12 different countries chosen from a huge list of applicants.  For me, Rite of Trio was one of the outstanding groups presented by 12 Points and one I was immediately keen to book.  It’s a power trio with elements of punk jazz and rock, but still always closer to the jazz end of contemporary music spectrum.  It’s a band that that will nonetheless appeal to metal and prog rock fans as well as jazz fans.  Have a listen or buy here.

All these musicians will no doubt be suffering from the closing down of all festivals and venues in Europe.  They all have music to buy online and for this bandcamp is always the best bet if you want to support the musicians.

New Releases From The Norwegian Label Hubro

Hubro_logo_light-greenI have on a couple of occasions written about the Hubro label in Norway and how much I enjoy their output.  It is all beautifully presented with very helpful notes about the music, and the label has a clear focus on what are for me the most interesting parts of the burgeoning Norwegian scene.

Last week another package arrived and I have been listening to five CDs.

fragErlend Apneseth: Fragmentarium

One of the aspects of the Norwegian music scene that the Hubro label has introduced to me is the way that the folk scene, particularly that built around players of the Hardanger fiddle, interacts with musicians from the jazz and improv scenes to create a unique and very exciting blend of the genres.    This album is an excellent example of this phenomenon.  The group was formed for a commission for the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in 2019 and has, as well as its leader Erlend Apneseth on fiddle, Stein Urheim on guitar and electronics, Anja Lauvdal on piano, keys and electronics, Hans Hulbaekmo on drums, flute and jews harp , Fredrik Luhr Dietrichson on double bass and Ida Løvli Hidle on accordion.  Each track moves seamlessly from one style of music to another, from powerful unison ensemble themes through to individual improvisation, or from traditional folk to collective jams.  The recording captures the atmosphere of the original concert.

steinStein Urheim: Downhill Uplift 

This album features a group led by guitarist Stein Urheim, clearly a well-known and popular guitarist in Norway, but rather less well known outside.  It is, similarly to Fragmentarium above, very eclectic; the group is a quartet and the music is built around a feel of country slide guitar from the leader and his vocals that have the atmosphere of West Coast USA and a touch of the Byrds, and then a very strong percussive drive from two drummer/percussionists, Hans Hulbaekmo and Kåre Opheim.  The group is completed by Ole Morten Vågan on bass.  Track 2, Brave New World Visited Again is perhaps the most representative track of the album; it combines a rhythmic drive that is reminiscent of Coltrane’s Giant Steps with the sounds of the slide guitar.  Interestingly, drummer Hans Hulbaekmo played the Cheltenham Jazz Festival about ten years ago as a student in the exchange between Birmingham Conservatoire and Trondheim Conservatory.

gard nilssenGard Nilssen Supersonic Orchestra:  If You Listen Carefully The Music Is Yours 

As well as the Hubro label, director Andreas Meland has also revived a specifically jazz label with the name Odin.  The latest album on this label features a recording by the Gard Nilssen Supersonic Band made at the Molde Jazz Festival last year where the band had a residency.  It is an amazing band with three drummers, Gard himself plus Hans Hulbaekmo and Håkon Mjåset Johansen, and also three bass players, Petter Eldh, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Ole Morten Vagan.  This plus the fact that the horn section has seven saxophones, two trumpets and one trombone make this into a very powerful ensemble.  The music moves between very strong ensemble passages and small group sections, also between full on power and gentler interludes.  But it is always full of drama with excellent solos and brilliant writing for the ensemble.  Live it must have been extremely exciting and the recording captures most of that.  For the full line up see the album notes here.

wallChristian Wallamrød Ensemble: Many 

I have to admit to having been disappointed by previous recordings by this ensemble.  I have enjoyed Christian Wallamrød’s solo piano work, but his ensembles have seemed to tread a path between minimalist classical music and contemporary jazz that lacks intensity and drama.  However, this latest album has added a more upbeat feel and an interesting use of electronics, and I find it much more enjoyable.  For example, the longest track at 14.23 minutes moves seamlessly between a beautiful melody and some innovative electronics.

kim myhrKim Myhr and the Australian Art Orchestra: Vesper 

Vesper is a nearly hour long piece in three movements commissioned by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in 2018 and recorded live at the festival.  It features the writing and playing of Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr working with a 7-piece ensemble drawn from the  Australian Art Orchestra.  The writing is built around the theme of night music, hence Vesper, and creates a meditative atmosphere which I suggest can either be listened to as a very warm and embracing surround sound, or more intently to discover the detail of the writing.  There is an overall arc to the piece which starts gently in Part One, builds up in intensity in Part Two and winds down to a very minimalist conclusion at the end of Part Three.  Furthermore there is an arc in the writing within each part, Part Two, for example, gradually builds up to a climax and then gently comes down.  Overall, Kim Myhr has created a very rich sound combining the unusual tunings of his guitar with the textures of the ensemble.  Throughout, the writing reminds me of the minimalist composers, but the textures created from the combination of the guitar and the instrumentation of the ensemble are unique.

Three Short Memories of McCoy Tyner

I feel sad at the thought that McCoy Tyner is no longer with us.

mccoyMy first memory of McCoy is of hearing him with the great John Coltrane Quartet at Birmingham Hippodrome in November 1961.  I was in my teens and still discovering jazz.  To be honest, I was not yet ready for the impact and intensity of the great Coltrane Quartet at its peak.  I had been listening to Giant Steps and his solos on Kind of Blue, but the quartet had moved on into the more integrated power of the mid-period Coltrane Quartet.  I was puzzled and at the same time intrigued by it so much so that over the years I have retained a strong memory of it,  and also completely forgotten that Dizzy Gillespie was playing in the double bill with Coltrane that toured UK that year.  McCoy’s solos were the part of the concert that I was most able to relate to and I retain in my mind’s eye an image of him sitting at the piano and creating those dense solos and those left hand chords that I have come to love so much.

My second memory is hearing McCoy with a trio at the Bracknell Jazz Festival on a beautiful summer afternoon.  I can’t remember which year, but do remember that I had just bought a beer and the trio was swinging so strongly that I kept spilling my beer as I tapped my foot.

Final memory is of the McCoy Tyner Big Band playing the Town Hall in 1994.  It was a wonderful band full of great soloists, but was particularly impressive in the ensemble passages where they played the arrangements with a looseness that had that same driving swing that I had heard in the trio set at Bracknell.  I must dig out the Cd of that band.

On that occasion I had the pleasure of meeting McCoy and telling him that I had been at that Coltrane concert at the Birmingham Hippodrome in 1961.  He assured me that he remembered it well!

There is an excellent tribute to McCoy at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/06/arts/music/mccoy-tyner-dead.html