Another Week in Birmingham

Another week in Birmingham and another week of really varied and stimulating gigs.  A few thoughts follow, mostly on the range of experiences that music can generate.

hannah marshallThe gig at Fizzle on Tuesday featured a double bill of two trios with saxophonist Rachel Musson in both of them.  The first featured Rachel on tenor saxophone, Julie Kjaer on alto saxophone, and Hannah Marshall on cello.  They played a beautiful set, based around the interaction between the two saxophonists.  This created a gentle, warm set of improvisations all glued together by Hannah Marshall’s contributions on the cello.  The second set in which Rachel played with Chris Mapp on electric bass and Mark Sanders on drums was much more upbeat with Rachel weaving long flowing melodic lines over the always varied contributions of Chris and Mark.

It was interesting to compare the music of this Fizzle gig with that heard in the first of the Paul Dunmall Invites series in the previous week and described in the previous posting on this site.  The music there created an extremely exciting and dramatic series of improvisations.  The two sets at the Fizzle gig were much gentler, full of thoughtful interaction, but nonetheless requiring a concentration and commitment on the part of the audience to get that intense experience that comes from listening to improvised music.

nifeco costaAnother fascinating contrast came at the Jazzlines Friday session with the music of Nifeco Costa who leads Babock Djazz, a band of players from Guinea Bissau, a small country in West Africa which has Portuguese as its official language.  They have all settled in UK coming originally as refugees.  Their music has the gentle flowing rhythm of so much African music, whether it is from West Africa or southern African countries.  The music is built around Nifeco’s songs and features the high sound of the guitar so typical of African music.  The experience of listening to this music is quite different to that with the improvised music described above.  The music is gently rhythmic, but does not vary that much.  One sits back and lets it flow over one.

liran doninI suppose Liran Donin’s 1000 Boats project heard at Birmingham Jazz on Friday night brings an experience that lies somewhere between that of listening to improvised music and that experienced when listening to Nifeco Costa’s African rhythms.  The two sets from the 1000 Boats band presented a number of beautiful melodies strongly influenced by Liran Donin’s Middle Eastern and North African background and were interpreted by a two saxophone front line, Chris Williams  on alto sax and Josh Arcaleo on tenor sax, plus some striking contributions from Italian pianist Maria Chiara Argiro and wonderfully lyrical solos from Donin on bass.

Finally, it was a joy to witness on Saturday Mark Sanders’ session with a senior group from the Jazzlines Ensembles.  Mark was introducing them to ‘conduction’, an approach originally devised by Butch Morris in which free improvisation is guided by a conductor using a series of hand signals to vary the playing.  The students, all teenagers, are proficient on their instruments, but are unlikely to have played in a free jazz style before.  Under the guidance of Mark they created some really stimulating and original music.  It was then really interesting to observe members of the group undertake their own conductions; again some fascinating music was created

I should declare an interest: I am involved with both the Jazzlines and Fizzle programmes.  The opinions expressed here are of course mine.

Two Days In Birmingham: Three Gigs

paul dunmall again

These gigs took place on 9th and 10th January.  First up was the first of the Paul Dunmall Invites series at the Eastside Jazz Club at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, a series in which Paul plays the club on the first Thursday of the month and invites fellow improvisers to join him for a session.  The players on this occasion were Percy Pursglove, John O’Gallagher, Chris Mapp and Miles Levin.  Paul Dunmall is an excellent example of an improvising musician who has always created brilliant music, but has perhaps not had the recognition he deserves.  This session worked really well and the range of the music and the variety in the textures produced by the three horn frontline was very satisfying.  At times the three of them interacted together to produce very powerful, constantly changing statements, at others two of them stood back to cede the floor to the soloist.   The rhythm players, Chris Mapp on electric bass and Miles Levin on drums, provided a really strong basis for the improvisations of the frontline, occasionally also stepping back to allow full freedom to the soloist.  It was fascinating to observe how each member of the quintet was constantly assessing what was happening in the music and deciding when to come in, or what to add to the mix.  I was taken by a short passage about free music written by Richard Williams in his tribute to photographer Jak Kilby (Williams, 2020):

The idiom may be half a century old, but it will never be an easy-listening experience; it demands attention and commitment from the listener as well as from the player. What Jak Kilby and other lovers of free improvisation recognised early on is how risk is answered by reward to a degree unavailable in any other kind of music. In those moments it can reach the sublime, touch the infinite.

This first session of Paul Dunmall Invites had all these qualities.

The Friday 5pm Jazzlines session at Symphony Hall takes place in Halls of the International Convention Centre (ICC) while the Symphony Hall foyer is being refurbished.  Friday’s session was led by bass player James Owston, a young bass james owstonplayer who has recently graduated from the jazz course at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  James was been working with Paul Dunmall recently and recorded on the album Paul made with Steve Swell and Mark Sanders (So Perhaps: FMR Records FMR CD545-0719), but on this occasion was playing in a more mainstream style.  The first set featured a piano bass drums trio with Dave Ferris on piano and Kai Chaurensy on drums.  The repertoire was based around pianists and bass players of whom James is particularly fond: Fred Hersch, Bill Evans, Drew Gress and Charles Mingus.  The trio brought lots of energy to this material and there was a freshness in the way they interpreted the material that was very welcome.  All three players excelled, but I was really impressed by the fluency and imagination of Dave Ferris’ playing.  For the second set they were joined by saxophonist Vittorio Mura, back on a break from his studies in New York; it was clear that his stay there has resulted in a greater edge in his soloing.

sam jessonThen it was straight off to 1000 Trades pub where Birmingham Jazz were presenting the Magpie Trio led by drummer Sam Jesson with Tom Farmer on bass and James Allsopp on saxophone.  Sam Jesson is another graduate from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire.  Interestingly, while at the Conservatoire Sam was mostly interested in the more ‘out’ styles of jazz, but here in the Magpie Trio he is focussing on a more mainstream repertoire with a focus on this occasion on material associated with the pianist Ahmad Jamal.  I really enjoyed their two sets, particularly the inventiveness that went into their interpretations of that material.  James Allsopp is a player that one also associates with more contemporary forms of the music, (Golden Age of Steam, Snack Family) but he is also an excellent interpreter of more standard forms, occasionally taking his solos out, but always coming back into the mainstream.  There was throughout a freshness in the trio’s music that was very impressive.

Two days of excellent music in Birmingham!  I should point out that I was the co-promoter of the Paul Dunmall Invites concert and am Programme Adviser to Jazzlines at Town Hall Symphony Hall.


Richard Williams Visions of The Abstract  The Blue Moment blog January 9th 2020.

Fizzle/TDE Promotions in January

A new decade sees the genre of music that Fizzle/TDE Promotions promote in good health and growing its audience.  It’s difficult to define exactly what the actual genre is.  It brings together free jazz, improvised music, electronica and a lot of music that straddles these three categories involving composition as well as improvisation.  It is all on a spectrum from improvised music to composed music and any one concert may bring in different aspects of the music, in other words move along the spectrum.

03But enough of philosophy, what gigs are coming up?    The season starts with a new venture that we are very proud of: Paul Dunmall Invites.   This will involve a monthly gig at the Eastside Jazz Club at Birmingham Conservatoire during term time at which Paul Dunmall invites fellow improvisers to join him for a session.

The first session is on Thursday 9th December and Paul has invited trumpeter Percy Pursglove, alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, bass player Chris Mapp and drummer Miles Levin.  It’s a great line up that should bring out the best in everyone’s playing; Percy Pursglove, John O’Gallagher and Chris Mapp have been playing with Paul for a number of years now, and it is very special that this first session features Miles Levin, son of Tony Levin, as the partnership between Paul and Tony, especially in the Mujician quartet, remains one of the highlights of the UK improv scene.

Coming up in this series are: February 6th   Liam Noble, John Edwards, Mark Sanders;  March 5th  The Sunship Quartet   Howard Cottle (sax),Olie Brice, Tony Bianco: the music of  Coltrane’s Sunship album

Rachel 1The week after the first Paul Dunmall Invites session sees another excellent improv session, this time at the Lamp Tavern as part of the Fizzle season.  This is on Tuesday 14th January and features saxophonist Rachel Musson in two different contexts, the first with Chris Mapp on bass and Mark Sanders on drums and secondly with Julie Kjaer on flute and Hannah Marshall on cello.

Finally for January TDE Promotions has a brilliant concert in the lovely Hexagon Theatre at mac on Thursday 23rd January as the opening concert in the Ideas of Noise Festival.  It features a top New York trio led by drummer Tom Rainey and with the amazing guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock.  This is one of the most creative groups anywhere in the world and will certainly set the scene for the Ideas of Noise Festival.  This festival has a brilliant programme with Kit Downes playing the organ partnered by saxophonist Tom Challenger at St. Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quartet, a session with free trumpeter Nate Wooley and many others.  See the full programme at

A Review of the Fizzle/TDE Promotions Year

Here I intend to look back at the Fizzle/TDE Promotions year.  I could look at Cheltenham Jazz Festival which had one of its best ever years, or at Jazzlines whose education programme reached new heights, but I’ll leave those to others.

andrew2Fizzle/TDE Promotions is a coalition of events at The Lamp Tavern, curated by Andy Woodhead, and events curated by myself at various venues, notably the Hexagon Theatre at mac, the Eastside Jazz Club at the Birmingham Conservatoire.  There were also collaborations with the Flatpack Festival for silent film + improv events and with BEAST at the University of Birmingham for an electro-acoustic event.  TDE Promotions set up a short tour for the double bill for the Jacob Garchik UK Gospel Trombone Choir and the Jacob Garchik Richard Foote Quintet that went to the CBSO Centre Birmingham, the Yellow Arch Sheffield and The Vortex London.

The focus of the Fizzle/TDE Promotions programme is on the more experimental side of the music encompassing fee jazz, improvised music and electro-acoustic music.  The range of music presented this year attests to both the size and the strength of this area of the music; it is also encouraging that attendances for the events have shown a healthy increase this year.  There is no doubt that the audience, although still not exactly massive, is growing and that there is a regular audience that is knowledgeable about the music and attends regularly.

My top ten gigs for 2019 are in no particular order:

  1. The two residencies (two days of rehearsal + gig) at The Lamp Tavern: Not On The Guest List (Natalie Sandtorv + Ole Mofjell) with Andy Woodhead and Lee Griffiths in January and then the Archipelago trio with Andy Woodhead and Alicia Gardener-Trejo in November
  2. Flatpack Fizzle Silent Film + Improv: Stella Roberts, Alicia Gardener-Trejo + Jason Singh, Bruce Coates at Artefact Cafe (February)
  3. Jacob Garchik and the UK Gospel Trombone Choir Tour (March)
  4. The Riot Ensemble with Alex Hawkins and Evan Parker and Kit Downes’ ENEMY (March) Hexagon
  5. Punk Vrt Plastik (October) Hexagon
  6. Tim Berne at Birmingham Conservatoire working with a student ensemble and in duo with Liam Noble (October) Eastside Jazz Club
  7. Paul Dunmall Quintet + Conservatoire Big Band conducted by Ed Puddick (November) Eastside Jazz Club
  8. Fizzle/BEAST collaboration with the Swedish SEAMS group plus a return event in Stockholm (November/December) The Dome at Bramall Hall, University of Birmingham
  9. Steve Saunders’ GLITCH + Kit Downes Dreamlife of Debris (December) Hexagon
  10. Toshimara Nakamura + Sam Andreae + Dave Birchall + Otto Willborg (December) Lamp Tavern

My focus is always on live music, and I do not have enough time to keep up with new releases.  I have, however, enjoyed listening to the following albums:

  1. Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis Constellations Records
  1. Kit Downes Dreamlife of Debris   ECM Records
  1. Lumen Drones   Umbra   Hubro Records
  1. Gerd Nilssen Acoustic Unity   To Whom Buys This Record ODN Records
  1. Yazz Ahmed Polyhymnia  Ropeadope Records
  1. Christian Lillinger Open Form for Society Plaist Records
  1. Julie Campiche Quartet  Onkalo Meta Records
  1. Dunmall Swell Owston Sanders  So Perhaps FMR Records
  1. Sun of Goldfinger: Before It Hit + Soften The Blow ECM Records
  1. Petter Eldh Petter Eldh Presents Koma Sax We Jazz Records


I have really welcomed the new Freeness programme at midnight on Saturdays on BBC Radio 3 introduced by Corey Mwamba; it features a lot of the music that Fizzle/TDE Promotions is interested in.

Evan Parker Invites: Tom Challenger, John Edwards and Mark Sanders

Riot009_3105SMEvan Parker Invites is a monthly event at the Vortex Jazz Club in which Evan Parker invites guests for an improvised session.   It is a gig I like to catch whenever I can as I find that the different guests bring out something special and unique in Evan’s playing and I enjoy the mix of friendly competitiveness and collaboration between them.  This month the guests were saxophonist Tomas Challenger, bass player John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders.  John and Mark are almost certainly the most exciting bass and drum partnership in improv anywhere in the world; they work together regularly and with great empathy and provide a really strong swinging basis for the improvisations of the front line players.  They swing like the clappers, a phrase not always associated with free playing, but it should be said that increasingly free playing does involve a strong but flexible groove that drives the soloists into different places.  This was very apparent at certain points when Mark really raised the temperature and brought out something special in Evan’s playing.

One aspect of improv today is that it can have a visual impact as well as a musical impact.  This is very much case with John Edwards’ playing on the bass. His body movements while soloing add to the drama of his solos.

Tom Challenger at VortexIt was, however, the prospect of hearing Tom Challenger with Evan that really drew me to the gig.  I have enjoyed Tom’s playing in various contexts in the last year or so.  I have heard him in a project with Mike Fletcher, then with the Uncanny Valley trio with Phil Donkin and Oliver Steidle and, most recently, with Kit Downes in the Dreamlife of Debris group.

In the first set at The Vortex the music evolved from a whole group improvisation with Evan and Tom playing off each other into a series of solos from the two saxophonists, some duo passages between John and Mark, solos from John and back into an ensemble improvisation.  Tom’s playing involved long flowing lines that were similar to Evan’s and the interplay between the two as well as the individual solos created a strong collaborative feel.   The second set was equally good, but was rather more of an ensemble performance with fewer individual solos.  It was notable at certain points during the set that Tom provided a kind of harmonic backing for Evan that brought out aspects of Evan’s playing I hadn’t heard before.

Throughout the gig the music developed seamlessly with total understanding between the four players; there were no moments of hesitation or searching for the next idea.  A great gig at The Vortex!

The gig was at The Vortex on Thursday 19th December 2019.

PS  Tom Challenger’s solo saxophone Cd launched yesterday is excellent

Gunter ‘Baby’ Sommer: German Free Drummer

gunter baby sommerGunter ‘Baby’ Sommer is one of those almost legendary names in European jazz.  He was born in Dresden, Germany in 1943 and still active in music and teaching today.  He was a pioneer of European free jazz and played a major role in the development of the role of drums in that style of music in the 1960s and onwards.  He was based in the former East Germany and was part of an active and distinctive scene of free improvisers in that country.  He worked in a trio with Conny Bauer and Peter Kowald and in special projects with leading figures of free jazz, notably Wadada Leo Smith and Peter Brotzmann.   He also is known for really inventive solo drum performances.

He continues to live in Dresden and is Professor of Drums and Percussion at the Academy of Music Carl Maria von Weber, where he originally studied the drums in the 1960s.  One of his most famous pupils is drummer and composer Christian Lillinger, who was recently in Birmingham with the Punkt Vrt Plastik trio.

Gunter Sommer is one of those players of whom one has heard a lot, but never seen play live.  So it is exciting that he is undertaking a short tour of UK with a fellow improviser, saxophonist Raymond Macdonald.  Raymond is a founding member of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and also Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at the University of Edinburgh.

gunterray(1)In Birmingham on December 10th Raymond and Gunter will play a duo concert in the Hexagon Theatre at mac (8pm) and also feature in seminar run by the Jazz Research Group at Birmingham City University focussing on the development of free jazz in Europe, from 4pm to 6pm. Speakers in addition to Raymond and Gunter are Petter Frost Fadnes and Sarah Gail Brand.  Petter Frost Fadnes will talk about his work with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, Raymond Macdonald and Gunter Sommer will interview each other about their influences and Sarah Gail Brand will talk about her experience as an improvising trombonist in UK.

Further details and tickets are available here. Please note entry to the seminar is free.  In addition to the Birmingham gig, the tour goes to:

6th December Edinburgh Reid Concert Hall

7th December Easterhouse Glasgow Platform

8th December Bradford Fuse Art Space

9th December Sheffield Over The Top

10th December mac Birmingham

11th December Cafe Oto, London

12th December Truro LSG WITHIEL Sculpture Garden

Jazz in Birmingham Last Week and Coming This Week

There were some amazing gigs in Birmingham last week and plenty of evidence that the scene in Birmingham is one of the strongest city scenes in Europe.  In some ways, certainly in quality, it is the equal of London.

stellaThere were three key gigs: Tuesday 26th saw a double bill at the Hare & Hounds with two new commissions from Aaron Diaz and Stella Roberts, the former playing with Anton Hunter from Manchester and Euan Palmer from Birmingham, while the latter played in duo format with drummer Will Glaser.  Both sets were brilliant.  Wednesday 27th saw the return of the Paul Dunmall Quintet with Chicago drummer Hamid Drake to the Eastside Jazz Club at The Conservatoire, this time performing with a big band made up of students from the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.  Ed Puddick had arranged Dunmall’s material from the Dreamtime and Soultime suites and the combination of these punchy arrangements with the passion of the quintet was full of drama and excitement.  Finally on Thursday 28th David Austin Grey premiered on the stage at Symphony Hall his very attractive suite In Search Of A Common Paradise  based on the theme of migration of birds

This was a great week of music and it was good to see Steve Lawson’s comment on Facebook: This city has SO much incredible music going on, so many people pushing boundaries, taking risks, pursuing excellence and mining their own unique creative seams.                            

This week sees a very special gig this week on Thursday 5th December in the Hexagon Theatre at mac.  It’s a double bill with one Birmingham band and one London band.  From Birmingham comes GLITCH, a trio led by guitarist Steve Saunders and featuring Chris Mapp on bass and Euan Palmer on drums.  Steve describes the music as follows;  expect to hear sonic influences ranging from Anton Webern to Aphex Twin, all held together by the improvisational talents of the trio, of whom all are prominent improvising musicians in both the jazz idiom and across a large variety of genres’.     

kitThe main set will feature Kit Downes and the music from his brilliant new album for ECM Dreamtime of Debris.  The band includes Kit on piano and harmonium, Tom Challenger on saxophones, Lucy Railton on cello and Phelan Burgoyne on drums (replacing Seb Rochford).   The review on AllAboutJazz describes it thus:  The album is full of nuance. In its dark and claustrophobic setting, it nevertheless creates illuminated open spaces. The music is introspective and spiritual and can waver between lullaby and nightmare. After being largely absent from Downes’ ECM debut, Dreamlife of Debris reminds us he and Challenger are an extraordinarily creative team.     

Ticket are available here.