Music In Morocco: Andalusi Classical Music And Gnawa Music

A recent trip to Morocco provided the opportunity to check out some of the varied music of that country, not in live situations as it was not that kind of holiday, but through television and a visit to the Museum of Music in Meknes. Music plays a vital role in Moroccan society with groups performing various traditional styles at weddings, religious ceremonies and other public events.

I was particularly taken with Andalusi Classical music, also known as Arab-Andalusian music. It is a style of music originally developed in the Emirate of Cordoba when it was part of the Arab Empire in 9th century, but spread to the whole of North Africa, particularly after the Arabs were expelled from Spain during the reconquista. The music may be instrumental or vocal, and is built around the oud, the rabab, a rectangular guitar like instrument, the darbouka, a percussion instrument and the kamanja, a violin like instrument. The music is quite sedate with gentle rhythms and passages of solos from the oud. The combination in contemporary ensembles of traditional instruments with some European instruments such as the cello, double bass or even the saxophone leads to the creation of some attractive textures. The vocals clearly come from the Andalucian tradition, and have something in common with flamenco singing. You can listen to an example here.

The other style I encountered was the perhaps better known gnawa music, the music that originated with people brought into Morocco from West Africa as slave guards for the Sultan. The music is performed as part of religious ceremonies, particularly in Sufi rituals. The instruments are the gimbri, a plucked lute with three strings and rectangular in shape, the qaraqueb or castanets and the tbel, a large drum. The music is extremely rhythmic and builds up in intensity through repetition. You can listen to an example here.

Although the original role of gnawa music was in religious ceremonies, it has attracted the interest of musicians from many other genres. The American jazz pianist Randy Weston spent several years in the 1960s in Tangiers and discovered the music. It was a revelation to him and he said of the players that ‘they had that true African sound; it was like hearing blues, jazz, bossa nova, samba and the black church all at the same time’. I said to myself, ‘This is where we came from’.

Randy went on to work regularly with gnawa musicians integrating elements of jazz with the gnawa music, and memorably toured the UK with an ensemble of jazz and gnawa musicians with the title African Rhythms. They played the Adrian Boult Hall for Birmingham Jazz in February 1993 as part of a Contemporary Music Network tour.

Ornette Coleman also spent time in Morocco and recorded with the Master Musicians of Jojouka, another ensemble playing trance music. They recorded Midnight Sunrise in which Ornette gradually finds his niche within the percussive rhythms of the Master Musicians. You can listen to it here.

I have just heard that harpist Rhodri Davies is currently in Morocco with a group of Welsh musicians exploring Moroccan music. I look forward to hearing the results.

Memories Of Neil Ardley

Vivien Ardley has written a very comprehensive and beautifully presented biography of Neil Ardley, the brilliant composer/arranger who wrote for the New Jazz Orchestra in the 1970s and 1980s, and continued thereafter to write for jazz orchestras, the Zyklus electronic group and choirs. He also wrote literally hundreds of books about science, engineering and music.

I have written a review of the biography for London Jazz News, which you can read here. In this blog, I want to add a few personal memories that would not be appropriate to include with the LJN review.

Neil lived for much of his life in Derbyshire, and was in the 1990s a regular attender at the Birmingham Jazz concerts which were then taking place in the Adrian Boult Hall in the former Birmingham Conservatoire building in the city centre. Neil was very complimentary about the programme we were running there, and we became friends. He kept changing his address on the BJ mailing list, which I now understand having read the biography!

Out of this contact came the idea to present his major work, Kaleidoscope Of Rainbows, as part of the Birmingham Jazz programme in the Adrian Boult Hall. This took place on 9th April 1998 and was a double bill with Ian Carr’s Nucleus. There are some excellent photographs of the rehearsal/soundcheck in the biography. It was a memorable concert, but I have two other memories of the occasion; it was the day before Easter, Maundy Thursday; it poured with rain in the early evening and traffic on the motorways was heavy. So several members of the band were delayed, and had to leave their cars in a place where they got fined. I think Birmingham Jazz covered their fines! Secondly, it was the day that the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated in N. Ireland, and, as we left the concert, we heard the news that the agreement had been signed.

Three New Cds: Phil Donkin Solo, Steve Swell’s Fire Into Music and Kit Downes and Hayden Chisholm with PJEV Choir

Phil Donkin Walk Alone Klaeng Records

Phil Donkin is one of the leading European bass players who tours the continent with various contemporary jazz ensembles. He initially made his mark in the UK, but is now based in Berlin. He had always considered making a solo bass album, but his touring schedule prevented this until the pandemic came along, and gave him the opportunity and the time to record. As he himself admits in the liner notes on the Bandcamp site, there is always the danger that a solo bass album will be dismissed as lacking in dynamic range, or just plain boring; Donkin overcomes this with a set of nine pieces that present a range of music that use all the possibilities of the double bass, both plucked and bowed. Track 1, There Are Rumblings, starts the album off well by presenting an excellent solo that strikes me as being the kind of playing that might occur in a small group context; by contrast Track 2, Numb Worm, is a very thoughtful and striking individual piece played initially with the bow, but goes into a plucked bass passage which is eventually accompanied by a kind of drone played by the bowed bass, presumably pre-recorded. Tracks 3 and 4, Blues Correlation and No Holes Barre-ed alternate between plucked and bowed bass, the former developing strong melodic lines while the latter creates a sombre mood. Track 5 presents an attractive version of Samuel Barber’s The Crucifixion which begins and ends with the sound of the Freedom Bells at the Rathaus Schöneberg in Berlin. There is a contrast between Barber’s melody and various experimental sounds on the bass, but gradually the melody dominates before the distant bells come back in briefly at the end. The final four tracks are perhaps less ambitious, but nonetheless they present interesting melodic ideas.

Steve Swell’s Fire Into Music: For Jemeel Fire From The Road RogueArt Records

This triple Cd album presents a tribute to alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, the talented but underrated player who died in 2021. Moondoc’s playing was influenced by that of Ornette Coleman and other alto players such as Marion Brown and Jimmy Lyons, but had an originality arising from a strong blues feeling within the context of his fiery contemporary playing. The CDs present two concerts recorded live in 2004 in Texas, and one in 2005 recorded at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada. The group is led by Steve Swell, a trombonist who was a member of Tim Berne’s Caos Totale some years ago, and has recorded more recently with Paul Dunmall in the UK, and the dream rhythm team of William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. CD 1 presents a totally improvised set, Cd 2 has two compositions and a freely improvised piece, while Cd 3 is based on three compositions. In practice, there is not very much difference between two approaches with the compositions leading into extensive solos by the four players. There is rather more interaction between members of the group in the improvised tracks than on the tracks based on a head, including some stunning duets between Parker and Drake, but essentially each Cd captures live sets that feature four fine improvisers developing well structured and engaging solos. The recording is mostly very clear, but on CD 2 the balance between the frontline and the drums occasionally goes astray.

Pjev Kit Downes Hayden Chisholm Medna Roso A Red Hook Production

This is a unique and stunning album featuring Pjev, a 5-member choir from Zagreb, Kit Downes on church organ, and Hayden Chisholm on alto sax, shruti box, synth and throat singing. It was recorded live at St Agnes Church in Cologne as part of the 2021 Cologne JazzWeek. The choir sings songs from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia in the characteristically striking sound of Eastern European choirs, and this is complemented by the very rich sounds of the organ and Chisholm’s various instruments. The Cd has a very useful booklet that has translations into English of all the songs. What more can I say about this album? It’s beautiful!

Some Reflections On This Year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival And Other Gigs

The last few weeks have been very busy, but also very fruitful and enjoyable. This year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival went off well, and I was very happy with the programme that I curated in the Parabola Arts Centre. This very attractive venue with excellent acoustics and a magnificent Fazioli piano is just the right size for the more experimental programme presented there. The overall jazz content of the festival improved this year with gigs by Stanley Clarke, the Fergus Macreadie Trio, Julian Lage and Binker Golding playing on the main festival site, and this was supported by the more ‘out there’ nature of the gigs in the Parabola.

Every band worked well in the Parabola programme, and there were brilliant gigs by Skylla, Stian Westerhus solo, the Birmingham Conservatoire students with special guests, CollapseUncollapse with guest Stian Westerhus, Black Top with guest Xhosa Cole, Espen Eriksen Trio with guest Andy Sheppard, the Norwegian Slovakian jazz folk collaboration Angrusori, Deadeye, but the two top gigs for me were Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus and Laura Jurd’s Brass and Improvising Ensemble.

Paal Nilssen-Love’s Circus is a ‘grand Nordic powerhouse group’ to quote Corey Mwamba describing the group on the BBC Radio 3 Freeness programme he presents. The band is a 7-piece group with five instrumentalists, all young players from Norway, the amazing vocals of Juliana Venter and the powerful drumming of Paal Nilssen-Love. Paal is at the centre of the band at the front of the stage, and the music is built around his drumming, beginning with a gradual build up on three gongs and a series of rapid changes of mood signalled by the drums. The write up of the band mentions both Brazilian and Ethio-Jazz influences; this was not immediately apparent, at least to me, but it became clear that the strong fanfare-like ensemble passages that rounded off the passages of free improvisation were inspired by those influences. One pleasing point was the presence of alto saxophonist Signe Emmeluth who was on her second visit to the festival, having previously played as part of the Birmingham Trondheim Student Exchange.

Almost by accident the festival has in recent years featured a number of very lively and fun European larger ensembles; the French Surnatural Orchestra was one, and last year Lukas Kranzelbinder’s Shake Stew was another excellent example. It’s becomg a tradition!

Laura Jurd presented a new work specially commisioned by the festival, and her brief was to bring together a brass ensemble and an improvising quartet, and to write a piece that integrated the two, in a sense integrating structure and freedom. The brass ensemble consisted of Laura and Chris Batchelor on trumpet, Raph Clarkson and Daniel Higham on trombone, and Oren Marshall on tuba, while the improvising quartet was led by saxophonist Paul Dunmall with Liam Noble on piano, Dave Kane on double bass and Miles Levin on drums. The piece began with separate passages for the two ensembles, but gradually the piece brought the two sides together. Liam Noble was the key to this, playing a key role in the improvising quartet, but also interacting with the brass players. As the piece developed further, Paul Dunmall duetted with Oren Marshall and Raph Clarkson and there were fine solos from Chris Batchelor and Laura playing trumpet over Dave Kane’s bass. It was an ambitious project, but one that successfully showed the possibilities of integrating free improvisation and writing for a brass ensemble. As Jon Turney’s said in his review on London Jazz News ‘the freer episodes for the quartet really felt as if they grew out of the written passages, and magically found their way to prepared endings’. (London Jazz News, 2nd May, 2023)

Photo by Peter Freeman

Following the festival, focus has switched to celebrating Paul Dunmall’s 70th Birthday with two concerts, one in Birmingham on Sunday May 7th on the Jennifer Blackwell Space at Symphony Hall, and the second on Saturday May 13th at the Vortex Jazz Club in London. In Birmingham Paul had invited a number of young Birmingham and Midlands-based players; they played three sets the first featuring Paul with Richard Foote on trombone, Tom Pountney Barnes on guitar, Sarah Farmer on violin, James Owston on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums. The second was with saxophonist Bruce Coates, a player who has been mentored by Paul and become a close friend; he played with Steve Saunders on guitar, Trevor Lines on double bass and Ed Gauden on drums. Paul sat in the audience and enjoyed what was a very fine set that showed the strong influence of Paul’s tutoring. Then Paul played with two players with whom he has had a longstanding relationship, guitarist Phil Gibbs and drummer Miles Levin. This showed how a group of improvisers who play together fairly regularly, and know each other’s playing can really create something very special.

In London there were two sets, each one divided into two sections, the first with what is Paul’s current favourite group, the quartet with Liam Noble, John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums to which was added for the second section two more saxophonists, Evan Parker and Simon Picard both on tenor saxophone, Neil Metcalfe on flute and Steve Saunders on guitar. The basic quartet was magnificent in both sets, going in quite different directions in each one with each member of the quartet making excellent contributions. There were some magical passages in the octet: both Evan and Simon making major contributions, a wonderful opening to the second set by Neil Metcalfe on the flute with Steve Saunders coming in to complement what Neil was playing, some duets between John and Mark. Paul quite often stood back and enjoyed what was going on around, but, as ever, chose the right mopment to come back in.

Throughout both the Birmingham and London gigs Paul was on top form, creating wonderful and original melodic lines. He’s back in action this Wednesday 17th May in the Hexagon Theatre at mac where he will be a special guest with the Somersaults trio which has a another fine saxophonist in Tobias Delius plus Olie Brice, bass and Mark Sanders, drums. You can find out more and book here.

Paul Dunmall’s 70th Birthday Celebration

Pic Tim Dickeson 01-05-2022

This Sunday, 7th May at 2pm, Paul Dunmall celebrates his 70th Birthday with a special concert on the Jennifer Blackwell Space at Symphony Hall hosted by BMusic and TDE Promotions/Fizzle. Paul has put together a very interesting programme that brings together both some of the players he has worked with over the years, and some of the young graduates in Birmingham that he has championed in recent years.

There will be three short sets with the following line ups:

Set 1: Paul with Sarah Farmer, violin, Tom Pountney-Barnes, guitar, Richard Foote, trombone, James Owston, bass and Jim Bashford, drums.

Set 2: Bruce Coates, saxophones, Steve Saunders, guitar, Trevor Lines, bass and Ed Gauden, drums

Set 3: Paul with Phil Gibbs, guitar and Miles Levin, drums.

The concert promises to be a very rich and appropriate celebration of Paul’s career as a saxophonist. As a young man, he joined the Divine Light Mission ensemble and that took him to an ashram in California where he played literally every day, including with Alice Coltrane who developed some of her compositions through rehearsing with the band. After leaving the ashram, he toured the USA and Europe with the Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s blues band and you can hear Paul playing in a forceful blues style on an album recorded live at Onkel Po’s, Carnegie Hall, Hamburg.

After leaving Johnny Watson’s band, he returned to the UK, eventually settling in rural Worcestershire. There he started playing regularly with the Birmingham-based, but internationally recognised drummer Tony Levin. I first heard of Paul at that time when Tony spoke to me enthusiastically about how he had been jamming with Paul, and and of how he thought he was a great improvising saxophonist.

In that period Paul would play in both free improvising contexts and more straightahead groups. A particular highlight was the Mujician quartet with Keith Tippett, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin that kept going for 22 years, and was undoubtedly one of the most innovative improvising groups anywhere. He also played for many years with Danny Thompson’s Whatever, a group that mixed jazz and folk music. More recently, he has focussed entirely on free jazz, playing with established players such as Mark Sanders, Liam Noble, John Edwards, but also with young players emerging from the jazz course at the Birmingham Conservatoire. In this, he has acted as a mentor to many young players keen to gain experience in free playing; players such as Steve Saunders, Richard Foote, James Owston., Jim Bashford.

It is interesting to compare two recently issued recordings, That’s My Life recorded in 1989 with Paul Rogers and Tony Orrell with a recent recording It’s Matter Of Fact (2022) with Julie Tippetts and several of the young players mentioned above. On the former Cd Paul is dominant playing in a style influenced by John Coltrane, whereas on the latter he allows much more space to the other musicians. He listens carefully to what the others are doing, pauses and steps back to allow them space, but comes back in at just the right moment. This aspect of his playing has been to the fore in the Paul Dunmall Invites sessions run by TDE Promotions at the Eastside Jazz Club. I am sure that we will hear this approach at the 70th Birthday Celebration.

The link for tickets for the Birmingham concert is here.

Paul will also be celebrating his birthday at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston London on Saturday 13th May with another great line up, including Mark Sanders, Evan Parker and Liam Noble. Details and tickets here.

Finally, Paul will be joining fellow saxophonist Tobias Delius at mac on Wednesday 17th May in the Somersaults group put together by Olie Brice with Mark Sanders on drums. Tobias Delius is an amazing saxophonist, now based in Berlin, and the partnership with Paul creates some very exciting music with each playing off the other with the strong rhythmic support from Brice and Sanders.

You can find out more and book here.