The Press, Blogs and Social Media

In an interesting Vortex discussion with Ollie Weindling and Steve Beresford this week, it was agreed that the focus of jazz journalism has switched from the national press and monthly jazz magazines to blogs and social media. In a recent interview Ethan Iverson even suggested that social media such as Twitter, TikTok and others now have greater impact than blogs. You can read the interview here; it’s mostly previewing his recent gig at The Vortex, but he touches on blogs towards the end.

Certainly in promoting a particular gig Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as targeted email messages have become the main means of attracting an audience, and one remembers fondly the days of the Guardian Guide. It was our experience at Birmingham Jazz and later with Jazzlines that, if one was successful in getting a gig into the Guide, this would increase ticket sales significantly. In those days a leaflet and a possible entry in the listings of national or local newspapers seemed to work in attracting an audience, and required rather less work than persistent social media activity.

So social media can be very useful in promoting a gig, or drawing attention to a new album release, but blogs do play an important role in publishing thought pieces about developments in the music, also previews and reviews. For me, checking the London Jazz News website is one of the first tasks of the day, and I always keep up with Ethan Iverson’s Do The Math, Stephen Graham’s Marlbank site, the Jazzwise website and Richard Williams’ The Blue Moment when he is active on the site. I would argue that blogs such as these are now equally important, if not more important, as monthly magazines such as Jazzwise and The Wire.

One issue arising from the increased prominence of blogs about jazz and improvised music is the role of reviews on those blogs. Reviews of jazz albums or gigs are almost invariably positive, partly because reviewers only seem to review albums or gigs by musicians that they like or are interested in, and the reviews therefore become more of a means of drawing attention to a given release or gig than an objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the music. This is in marked contrast with film or theatre reviews that can be very critical. I believe that there are a number of reasons for this: one is that reviewers see themselves as part of the jazz community and are therefore keen to promote the music, both in general and for specific groups. The fact that many reviewers are enthusiasts of the music rather than professional journalists reinforces this point. Another reason is undoubtedly that the standard of the music is today at a very high level, and there is a huge amount of variety in both the live scene and in the music that is being recorded. Perhaps this is an over-optimistic view of an enthusiast, but I believe that it is a valid point.

B:Music JazzFest at Symphony Hall: 22nd to 26th August

B: Music Jazz is presenting a week of top class jazz in the week beginning 22nd August. It will run in parallel with the Jazzlines Summer School, a week of learning about improvisation and jazz for over 60 young musicians, and which is the second festival that B:Music Jazz has run. There is a logic and an attraction about running the two events in parallel. The festival can take advantage of the presence of the leading musicians who are tutors on the summer school, and the participants get to hear their tutors perform live. But the players in the festival are not just the tutors. There is a nicely diverse set of bands and the whole range of what we understand by jazz is covered in the programme, which has expertly curated by the Head of Jazz, Alexandria Carr.

What I particularly like about the programme is that it touches many of the bases of the current jazz scene in the UK, the so-called new wave, rising stars and well established musicians and band leaders bringing their latest projects. All but one gig take place in Symphony Hall, either as a free entry gig in the Jennifer Blackwell Space at 5pm each evening, or on the flipped stage in the Main Hall, where both the band and the audience are on the stage. The one gig not at Symphony Hall is at The Spotted Dog on Tuesday 23rd when the tutors on the Summer School form a group to show off their talents.

You can access the full programme at https://bmusic.co.uk/whats-on/category/jazz. Tickets are available there.

Here I will focus on the first three days. I will return to the final two in a future post.

On the Monday the Neighbourhd WLVS crew from Wolverhampton presents one of their jam sessions. The Neighbourhd sessions have been running for five years, mostly at the Night Owl venue in Birmingham, and feature a cross section of the West Midlands scene with hip hop, soul, jazz and r&b. There is always a great house band, and performers either play with the house band or with their own group. The emphasis is on informality and spontaneity, and there is usually a great jam at the end. The featured artists on this occasion will be rapper NEOne The Wonderer and jazz singer Hali Ray.

Then on the Tuesday, 23rd August, Bex Burch and Leafcutter John bring their new Boing! duo to the 5pm session on the Jennifer Blackwell Space. This should be one of the highlights of the festival with Bex’s African percussion combining with Leafcutter John’s playful use of electronics. This will be as much a visual event as a music event as Leafcutter John’s set includes creating sound through hand movements and the use of unusual instruments.

Then everybody moves to The Spotted Dog at 8pm for the Tutor Ensemble session. It’s difficult to say exactly what will happen, but it is bound to be nicely spontaneous and fun!

Wednesday has a particularly strong programme. On the foyer there is a new trio featuring the very fine vocals of Lucy-Anne Daniels who has become a firm favourite of Birmingham audiences with her appearances, either singing the songs of Amy Winehouse with NYJO, or in the smaller group led by Tom Harris. She will be playing with Blue Ruth, who is a real wizard on the laptop creating interesting sounds and vocals. The third member of the trio is Andy Woodhead, who is a similarly creative musician, and who has previously worked with Blue Ruth.

Then in the evening at 7.30 on the main stage there is a superb double bill with Trish Clowes performing with Ross Stanley, and Byron Wallen performing the Black Flag suite with Nick Ramm.

Trish Clowes is a saxophonist and composer whose My Iris is a band that has really grown as a result of regular touring and recording, and is undoubtedly a leading UK group. Ross Stanley is the pianist in that group, and in this duo Trish and Ross create a more informal setting for her music with plenty of opportunities for improvisation. They play arrangements of music from jazz, the church organ tradition as well as dipping into free improvisation.

Byron Wallen’s Black Flag music presents a photographic meditation on his bond with his mother, a relationship separated by the Atlantic Ocean. The music is also a response to the photography of Annabel Elgar, and her photos will be displayed during the performance. The resulting music was performed recently at Byron’s Coronet Theatre Festival and proved to be a beautiful, thoughtful suite of music featuring Byron trumpet and Nick Ramm on piano.

British Artists in the Annual Downbeat Poll

I am always interested in the annual Downbeat poll in which artists are voted for by 114 critics from across the world. There are two categories, the Main Poll and the Rising Stars category, which used to be called Talent Deserving Wider Recognition.

Downbeat is an American magaazine, so it is unsurprising that American musicians are strongly represented in all categories. This year, for example, Jon Batiste won the most votes in both the Jazz Artist of the Year and the Beyond Artist of The Year categories, and James Brandon Lewis’ album Jesup Wagon with the Red Lily Quintet won the best Jazz Album category.

I am particularly interested in which British artists get recognised in the poll. Here the overwhelming winner is Shabaka Hutchings who is recognised in many of the categories in the Main Poll. He is in 14th position in the main Jazz Artist category with 36 votes, one more than Wayne Shorter, and the Sons of Kemet album Black To The Future is in 11th position with 24 votes in the Jazz Album category. Sons of Kemet are also represented in the Jazz Group category, and Shabaka appears in the Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet and Flute categories. Then Shabaka’s electronic group The Comet Is Coming appears in the Rising Stars Jazz Group category.

It is clear that the American scene has taken to the so-called new wave of British jazz. In the Rising Stars poll Kokoroko and Binker and Moses appear in the Jazz Group category, Yazz Ahmed is in the Trumpet category, Binker Golding is in the Tenor Saxophone category, and Moses Boyd is in the Drum category. There are two new wave British artists in the Keyboard category: Joe Armon-Jones and Alfa Mist. Interestingly, Cory Henry makes the Organ list in the Main Poll. Zara McFarlane is in the Female Vocalist category and Emma-Jean Thackray is in the Producer category.

However, the British artists recognised in the poll are not just from the new wave. Well established artists feature in the Main Poll, notably John Butcher and Evan Parker in the Soprano Saxophone category, John Surman in the Baritone Saxophone category, Django Bates and Gary Husband in the Keyboard category, and Phil Minton in the Male Vocalist category. Django Bates also appears in the Arranger category.

Then a number of younger British artists not associated with the new wave appear, mainly in the Rising Stars categories. Kit Downes, however, does make it into both the Keyboard and Organ categories in the Main Poll.

In the Rising Stars poll we find the following artists:

Laura Jurd: Rising Star Trumpet

Rosie Turton: Rising Star Trombone

Rachel Cohen: Rising Star Alto Saxophone

Gareth Lockrane: Rising Star Flute

Elliot Galvin and Matt Bourne: Rising Star Keyboard

Alex Hawkins: Rising Star Organ

Johanna Burnheart and Chris Garrick: Rising Star Violin

Lewis Wright and Corey Mwamba: Rising Star Vibes

Finally, it is good to see that the British label Edition Records has made it into the Record label category.

Reflections on the Fizzle/TDE Promotions Season 2021/2022

Fizzle and TDE Promotions are taking a short break over the summer, so it is interesting to look back on the season which ran from September 2021 through to July 2022. In this period the two collaborating organisations ran 35 gigs in 9 venues. The main three venues are the Hexagon Theatre at mac, Centrala in Digbeth and the Eastside Jazz Club (EJC) in Birmingham Conservatoire; there were 11 gigs in both the Hexagon and Centrala, and 6 in EJC. The other venues were the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath, St. Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter, the main theatre at mac, Pizza Express in Brindley Place, The Edge in Digbeth and Symphony Hall flipped stage; there was one gig in each of these venues.

When we look back at the bands appearing in the programme, it is clear that the nature and composition of the programme has changed significantly from its pre-pandemic days. The focus has become much more on the local scene, and much less on national and international touring groups. A quick analysis shows that of the 42 bands booked (some in double bills) 24.5 can be considered to be bands based in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and 14 from outside the West Midlands, e.g. mostly London, but also Leeds and elsewhere. The 0.5 accounts for groups with members from both the West Midlands and elsewhere. Only two were bands from abroad; of these one group, Under The Surface, was from The Netherlands, one a duo from Slovenia and Poland, Czajka & Puchacz. Then there were three groups that included an international artist playing with a group of British players from Birmingham or further afield: Eddie Henderson (USA) with a group led by Arnie Somogyi, Michael Moore (USA, but based in Amsterdam) playing with John Pope and Johnny Hunter, and Marek Pospieszalski (Poland) with a group led by Birmingham based Tymoteusz Jozwiak.

The striking thing about this list is the absence of American musicians; this partly because the focus of the programme is on free jazz and improvised music, genres that are strong in the UK and in Europe more generally. Moreover American players in creative genres are not touring as much as they used to. This was brought home to me when reading the biography of Bill Frisell (Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer by Philip Watson). The biography mentions as colleagues of Frisell’s many players who came to play for Birmingham Jazz regularly over the years, players such as Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Dan Weiss, Marty Ehrlich, but have not done so for some time.

It is clear that the focus of the programme has been on the local and on championing the very strong Birmingham and West Midlands scene. This has not ruled out a readiness to present groups and artists from around the UK and Europe, and certainly does not imply a rejection of American bands and players.

Attendances have generally been good. When we were first able to return to live gigs, back in May 2021, the response was tremendous with large numbers booking in advance. Gradually this has eased off, but attendances are on the whole very encouraging. Audiences for free music seem to be growing, and have a nice balance between younger and older people.

Pic Tim Dickeson: Paul Dunmall

Overall, the standard of the music has been extremely high and the numbers of young players taking the opportunity to create more adventurous music without turning their back on mainstream jazz is very encouraging. Paul Dunmall, in particular, has helped a number of younger players to gain skills in this area of the music through the Paul Dunmall Invites sessions in the Eastside Jazz Club.

A particular favourite gig was the recent gig with Black Top and Xhosa Cole. As with all Black Top projects, Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas built a creative setting for the soloist to react to, and Xhosa rose splendidly to the challenge. What was also very encouraging was that the concert sold out with an audience many of whom may not have been familiar with free improvisation. Nothing specific was announced about the nature of the music, and the audience just responded to the energy and drive of the interactions between the the musicians.

The autumn season will begin on Thursday 8th September with a double bill with the The Extended Family Band and James Allsopp in duo with Mark Sanders. That will be in the Hexagon Theatre at mac.

Five Reviews Of New Albums

Tyshawn Sorey Trio: Mesmerism Available from http://www.tyshawnsorey.com

A stunning piano bass drums album led by drummer Tyshawn Sorey with pianist Aaron Diehl and bass player Matt Brewer. It presents their version of six tunes, the standard Autumn Leaves, and compositions by Horace Silver, Herb Ellis/Johnny Frigo/Lou Carter, Paul Motian, Muhal Richard Abrams and Duke Ellington. Each one receives a very particular interpretation; on Autumn Leaves there is only a hint of the melody at the beginning of the track, but it appears towards the end as the trio builds to a sudden climax. Paul Motian’s From Time To Time receives a minimalist treatment with the trio engaging engaging in short interactive phrases. Duke Ellington’s REM Blues receives a more expansive treatment that has a strong blues element. I don’t think the trio is a regularly working group, but the cohesion and interaction on the album is impressive. In fact, Sorey wanted to record the project with musicians who have not performed on stage together, and with just a hour or so of rehearsal. In it, Sorey also shows that he has a commitment to straightahead jazz as well as to more experimental jazz.

Randall Despommier with Ben Monder A Midsummer Odyssey: The Music of Lars Gullin SunnySide Communications SSC 1668

Randall Despommier is an American alto saxophonist, originally from New Orleans, now based in New York. He is an enthusiast for the music of Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, and on this album Despommier, in duo with guitarist Ben Monder, presents nine of Gullin’s compositions. Gullin’s approach, both as a soloist and a composer, was to integrate elements of Swedish folk music into his jazz playing. Despommier’s sleeve notes note that in early days Gullin’s music was criticised for being too Swedish, and not sufficiently American. Since then it has become recognised as having a distinctive voice different from that of American jazz as is the case with so many European jazz musicians. This is a charming set of music that captures something of Gullin’s rather melancholy sound with versions of film and TV music as well as the compositions that integrate elements of folk music. The interaction between Despommier and Monder is excellent throughout.

JoVia Armstrong The Antidote Suite Black Earth Music/Eunoia Society Music

JoVia Armstrong is a new name for me; she is a self-taught percussionist and composer from Detroit and a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago. The Antodote Suite was commissioned by curator Bridget Cooks for the Black Index Art exhibition which has toured galleries in the USA. The exhibition and Armstrong’s music is influenced by the ideas of Afrofuturism; Armstrong also acknowledges an influence from the composer Pauline Oliveros. On the CD there are five tracks with a core group of Armstrong on hybrid cajon kit, Leslie Deshazor on violin, Jeff Parker on guitar and Isaiah Sharkey on bass; they are joined by guest on individual tracks. Overall the music combines elements of minimalism and atmospheric drones with jazz textures; it does this very effectively. Breathe features the core group with both Parker and Deshazor soloing over a gentle electronic backing; Meditations on Oya has a stronger jazz feel and features a solo from flautist Nicole Mitchell followed by Armstrong on the cajon. Beautifully Black creates a mellow soundscape over which Deshazor soloes. Zebra features rapper Teh’Ray Hale who raps within an attractive ambient soundscape. Shades and Shapes is another track that has a minimalist approach, but with special effects; again Parker and Deshazor solo very effectively, underpinned by the playing of Amr Fahmy on piano and Rhodes. There is a lot to take in on this album, and it deserves repeated listening.

Sam Reider Petrichor Slow & Steady Records

Petrichor is a solo piano album played by Sam Reider. It is his first solo piano recording and marks his return to San Francisco, his hometown, after many years on the East coast of the USA. Of the album Reider says ‘ I felt rejuvenated to be back home…I sought to capture the grandeur, intimacy and the nostalgia of the landscape I grew up with’. The music draws on various traditions of solo piano performances, notably Keith Jarrett, but also the New Orleans pianist James Booker, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the Ethiopian nun known for her piano playing, and Claude Debussy. Two adjectives come to mind to describe the music: melodic and playful; it could fit equally well into a classical context as a jazz context.

Ok:Ko Liesu We Jazz Records

Ok:Ko is a Finnish quartet led by drummer Okko Saastamoinen and featuring tenor saxophonist Jarno Tikka, pianist Toomas Keski-Säntti and bass player Mikael Saastamoinen. It’s a lively set with plenty of good melodic material and strong solos. This material varies between up tempo tracks based on a head plus solos format, and darker tracks with a touch of Nordic noir. There is plenty of variety and the music holds one’s attention throughout.