The CBSO Centre: Past and Future

Jazzlines has had a long association with the CBSO Centre, the rehearsal space for the orchestra and a 310 capacity venue that works really well for contemporary jazz as well as other genres.  It was designed by the same architects as Symphony Hall and has an almost perfect acoustic for both small groups and big band jazz.

uri caineThe Centre opened in 1997 and Jazzlines (in its previous incarnation as Birmingham Jazz) presented the first ever ticketed concert in the hall.  This was with the Uri Caine Band playing Uri’s arrangements of Mahler’s music as on the Primal Light albumThis was a brilliant concert memorable for the radical interpretations of Mahler’s music and for the fact it seemed nicely appropriate that we were presenting  that music  in the home of the orchestra that has championed Mahler’s music so extensively.

Since then Birmingham Jazz and Jazzlines has presented on average eight or nine concerts a year in the CBSO Centre.   It was absolutely the right venue for the tours that the much missed Contemporary Music Network (CMN) were running.  I particularly remember concerts with Myra Bobby Previte (23 Constellations of Joan Miro), Myra Melford,  Tim Berne, Sam Rivers.  Interestingly, these are all American names, but we were also able to present in the Centre the best of British jazz talent: Django Bates, Evan Parker, Andy Sheppard, Iain Ballamy and Birmingham based musicians such as Bryan Corbett, Steve Tromans and Sara Colman.

andrew hillWhat was the most memorable gig in the CBSO Centre?  Without any doubt, it was with the American pianist/composer Andrew Hill who was touring UK with an Anglo American band on a CMN tour.  The concert started a little slowly, but suddenly burst into life  with a series of duets between American saxophonist Greg Tardy and British saxophonist Denys Baptiste which created an electric atmosphere.  I also remember great solos from trumpeter Byron Wallen and I often reminisce with Byron about that amazing night.

We have also presented a number of great big bands in the Centre.  Mike Gibbs brought his big band several times, and we had great concerts with Django Bates’ big band from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, stoRMChaser,  and the Walsall Jazz Orchestra led by John Hughes.

CHRISTINE_INGRID_JENSEN_8x10-BW-by-randy-Cole_154414faaf6ce775cad6c8d8cb7a97c5Our next gig at the Centre features another great big band: the Whirlwind Recordings Jazz Orchestra led by Michael Janisch and featuring the Jensen Sisters: Ingrid on trumpet and Christine on saxophones.  This is on Saturday 16th November, 8pm, tickets at  https://www.thsh.co.uk/event/ingrid-christine-jensen-with-the-whirlwind-recordings-jazz-orchestra

A Round Up Of Jazz in Birmingham Last Week

As ever, Birmingham hosted a number of excellent gigs last week.  Here I post a few reflections on those I attended, but I should begin by declaring an interest:  these were concerts I was involved with in my roles at Jazzlines and TDEPromotions/Fizzle.

Mark Lockheart and Days On Earth

mark lockheartMark Lockheart brought his Days On Earth project to the flipped stage at Symphony Hall  (band and audience on the actual stage with band facing the choir seats) for the Jazzlines programme on Wednesday.  The recording of the project on Edition Records featured a jazz sextet plus a 30-piece orchestra, but for the touring version Mark led a slightly larger jazz ensemble of eight musicians.  Mark is, along with Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Chris Batchelor, John Parricelli and others, one of those whose membership of the Loose Tubes Big Band back in 1980s launched their career and established them as a key member of that jazz generation.  In many ways Mark has been, of all the Loose Tubes diaspora, the one whose music has stayed closest to the original approach of the band; his first large ensemble The Scratch Band had many echoes of the Loose Tubes sound.  His Days On Earth project, however, has largely moved on from that influence, though pleasingly not entirely.  The touring version struck me as punchier and livelier than the recorded version with the orchestra while retaining the wonderful textures of the original recording.  The ensemble was an excellent mix of jazz generations with strong solos from John Parricelli (always one of my favourites with Loose Tubes), Laura Jurd on trumpet, Rowland Sutherland on flute, Alice Legget on alto sax and Liam Noble on piano and strong rhythmic support and solos from Tom Herbert on bass and Dave Smith on drums.

Tim Berne Residency at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Tim Berne spent three days with jazz students at the Conservatoire working together on a number of his compositions of his, plus one by Julius Hemphill.  The student group was a 12-piece ensemble with two trumpets, three saxophones, guitar, piano, two double basses and three percussionists. Tim was supported by Liam Noble in the rehearsals and the final concert in the Eastside Jazz Club concluded with a stunning duo performance by Tim and Liam.  Tim writes very detailed and dense compositions so this was music of a type that probably none of the students had encountered before, especially as a number of the players had only just started the jazz course.    The group, were, however, worked really hard by Tim and, after some difficulties, really rose to the occasion at the concert last Thursday.  It was interesting to hear the music the night after the Mark Lockheart concert and to hear the contrasts.  There was a wide range of moods in the compositions Tim brought for the residency.  There were the up tempo passages with strong dramatic statements leading into collective improvisation by the whole ensemble – there is something very exciting about the sound of a fairly large ensemble collectively improvising and this performance was an excellent example of that excitement.  But equally impressive were the gentler passages that established a calmer but also nicely edgy mood.

tim berne residencyThis was the second residency for Tim Berne at the Conservatoire, the first having taken place last year with Matt Mitchell.  Over the years Tim’s music has had a huge influence on the British jazz generation of the 2000s and players such as Dan Nicholls and Tom Challenger; he is now having an influence on those beginning their studies in jazz.  It was a co-promotion between TDE Promotions/Fizzle and the Jazz Department at the Conservatoire. 

The Archipelago Residency

archipelagoArchipelago is a saxophone, electric bass and drums trio based in Newcastle whose music is based on improvisation, but draws on experimental rock and alt-folk as well as jazz.  They spent a day on Saturday on instant composition and collaboration with two Birmingham based players, Alicia Gardiner-Trejo on baritone sax and flute, and Andy Woodhead on electronics leading up to a performance at the now monthly Sunday afternoon Fizzle session at the Lamp Tavern.   Alicia and Archipelago’s Faye MacCalman on tenor sax and clarinet clearly hit it off extremely well and their improvised lines dovetailed beautifully.  Andy Woodhead added beautiful rippling effects on electronics.  Two of the best pieces came in the second set, one involving reaction on the part of the players to randomly selected Tarot cards (one of bass player John Pope’s contributions) and the other involving spoken word with a short story from James Robertson’s 365 collection declaimed very effectively by drummer Christian Alderson. 

Clearly there were many other gigs last week, at, for example, The Spotted Dog, Corks Eastside Jazz Club.  I was very sorry to miss Rebecca Nash’s gig at the Hare & Hounds as it clashed with the Tim Berne gig.

Look out for the visit of the Jensen Sisters, trumpeter Ingrid and saxophonist Christine who will be appearing with the Whirlwind Recordings Jazz Orchestra at the CBSO Centre with the on Saturday 16th November, see https://www.thsh.co.uk/event/ingrid-christine-jensen-with-the-whirlwind-recordings-jazz-orchestra.

Memories of Ronnie Scott’s Club on Gerrard Street

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club - English Heritage Blue, London, 24th October 2019I was delighted to read and see that a plaque has been placed on the site of the original Ronnie Scott’s Club in Gerrard Street in Soho, the Old Place as it became known when the club moved to Frith Street.  The original club played a huge role in my developing love of jazz in the 1960s and I often take the opportunity to walk down Gerrard Street and conjure up memories.  But I have always been uncertain about which exact metal staircase was the one that led down into the club as there are two close together.  With the plaque in place all uncertainty will be removed.

The early 60s was the period when the club first started to be able to book American artists and the first one I heard was Al Cohn playing I suspect with Stan Tracey.  Not long after that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn formed a double saxophone front line, again playing with a British rhythm section.  The club was packed and pints of beer for Zoot were passed over the heads of the audience.

roland kirkI have a particular memory of Roland Kirk who played the club several times in that period.  He was hugely impressive with his three saxophones, flute and the whistle played in moments of excitementBut the first time I went with a friend we sat on the front row and found the proximity to Kirk’s swaying saxophones, particularly when he was playing three at once rather alarming.  But we enjoyed the gig so much that we went back later in the residency only to be told the only seats left were on the front row.  We explained why we were not keen to sit there and were promised that we could move if other seats became available.  We were in due course able to move, but had to do so in the middle of a set by the Ronnie Scott Quartet.  As we left our seats, Ronnie leant across and said ‘we get better later on’!

For a time the club ran a Sunday afternoon session and at one of these I caught a Sonny Stitt clearly unenthusiastic about playing in the afternoon and at another Stan Getz who responded immediately and without complaint to a request to play The Girl From Ipanema (not from me!).

tubby hayesBut very often the best nights were with the Tubby Hayes Quintet or the Ronnie Scott Quartet, the latter featuring Stan Tracey at that time.  There was one very special late night session with a Tubby Hayes group when the Ellington band was in town and some of the younger members of the band dropped into the club and sat in with Tubby’s group.  Tubby was clearly out to show these Americans what he could do and that night he played some of the most exciting solos I heard him play.

Life took me away from London so, much to my regret, I never heard Sonny Rollins in the club, nor any of the contemporary or South African exile bands that played in what became known as The Old Place when the main club moved to Frith Street.

I look forward to my next walk down Gerrard Street and being sure which staircase it was that led into the club.

Jack Gelber’s The Connection at Eastside Jazz Club

freddie reddI have always wanted to see The Connection, the innovative play written by Jack Gelber and first produced in New York’s Living Theatre in July 1959 and which includes a score written especially for the play by pianist Freddie Redd.  Redd’s quartet with Jackie Maclean on alto sax, Michael Mattos on double bass and Larry Ritchie on drums appeared in the original production and on tour.  The play appeared in London in 1961 and people were still talking about it in 1962 when I went up to university in London.

So I was excited to learn that it was being performed in the Eastside Jazz Club with acting and jazz students from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire which now houses Birmingham City University’s acting courses as well as the music courses.  There have been seven performances so far including the one I attended this afternoon (Sunday) and there are three performances this week.  It seems to be selling out for every performance, so I was glad to have booked in advance.

The connection posterThe play tells the story of four heroin addicts plus four musicians, also addicts, waiting for a fix.    There is also a play within a play as two film producers plus two cameramen are making a documentary about the addicts.  I have to admit that I found this rather confusing at first with the two producers occasionally interrupting the dialogue to admonish the addicts to put more into their performances.  Nonetheless, the play paints a convincingly harrowing picture of four addicts and their inability to escape from their habit and the tension that builds up between them as they become more desperate for their fix.  The music written for the play by Freddie Redd comes in at specific moments; it underpins the action and adds to the tension of the piece.  The final piece O.D., for example, links very effectively to Leach’s near fatal overdose.

The tension in the situation of the play builds up gradually through Act 1 and quite dramatically in Act 2 when Cowboy, the dealer, arrives with the heroin and each addict goes into the bathroom to get their fix and Leach nearly kills himself with an overdose.  They are eventually joined in getting a fix by one of the directors of the documentary and one of the cameramen.  The music complements the action brilliantly and is performed with great panache by Liam Brennan on alto sax, Cameron Sheehy on piano, Louis Stringer on bass and Andrew Duncan on drums.  The latter played in a Peaky Blinders cap!   In the original play the musicians are listed with their real names as they wanted to get attention for the music; here the four students just have the first names of the original band, so that, for example, Liam Brennan is Jackie, Cameron Sheehy Freddie, etc.

I really enjoyed the play and the performance.  I loved the way the actors were on stage and Cameron was playing the piano as we entered the club.  That immediately created an atmosphere.  I also enjoyed the way that the actors interacted with the audience at certain points.  My only concerns were that on occasion I had difficulty in following what the actors were saying; either they were talking too quietly or sometimes too fast.  I also wonder about the role in the play of Sister Salvation, the Salvation Army officer who arrives with Cowboy, the dealer, seemingly to enable Cowboy to get away from a couple of inquisitive police officers.  She seems unaware of what is going on, and eventually accuses the addicts of drunkenness on the basis of the number of empty wine bottles in the bathroom.  I am not sure what the point of her character is and what role she plays.  Her character does, however, lead into one the most attractive of Redd’s tunes, simply Sister Salvation.

I really applaud this collaboration between the acting and jazz students at the Conservatoire and the direction of Kristine Landon Smith and the musical direction of John O’Gallagher.  I look forward to future activity.

The Norwegian Hubro Label Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary

THubro_logo_light-greenhe Norwegian label Hubro celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.  It’s a small independent label that has become one of the most interesting in Europe through its championing of all the fascinating and varied music that is coming out of Norway.   The most notable characteristic of this music and particularly of that recorded on the Hubro label, is that it does not fit into one category.  It is the music of blurred genres, so that we have, for example, an artist noted for his folk music such as Nils Økland collaborating with experimental musicians, or bands such as Exoterm adding strong elements of rock and free improvisation into a jazz approach.  This is clearly a feature of the contemporary Norwegian music scene, but increasingly it is a more general feature of music making throughout creative circles in Europe.

Every so often a package arrives from Norway with a number of the latest releases.  They are beautifully packaged and accompanied by a press release outlining the key points of each release. One attractive feature, at least for me, is that the CDs are relatively short with about 35 to 40 minutes of music in each Cd, in other words about the length of a vinyl album.  I find this healthy as I still, in my perhaps old-fashioned way, like to sit down and listen to an album in one go, thinking about it as I listen.    The Cds that have up to or over 70 minutes of music make that much more difficult.

Four Cds arrived recently and I will comment on each one briefly. They are excellent examples of the variety mentioned above.  Some are rooted in jazz, but draw on rock and trash metal, while other are based in folk, but combine it with aspects of experimental rock.

LUMEN DRONES: UMBRA

umbraThis is a fascinating album combining the essentially folk sound of Nils Økland’s Hardanger fiddle and violin with that of two experimental rock musicians, Per Steinar Lie on guitars and Ørjan Haaland on drums.  It’s their second album, the first having come out on ECM five years ago.  There are nine tracks varying in length nearly 7 minutes to shorter tracks of just over 2 minutes.  Each tune has its own character from the gentle hynoptic feel of the opening track Inngang to the rock feel of the third track Droneslag that has the fiddle improvising over the driving rhythms of the guitar and drums. The notes suggest that ‘ there might be a bit of Sonic Youth in there, along with Joy Division, John Calle, Arvo Pärt, Dick Dale, Lamonte Young, Paganini …, but it doesn’t really intrude: Lumen Drones play Lumen Drones music’.  It is also intriguing to hear how the Hardanger fiddle, usually associated with folk and classical music, sounds at home with the jazz, rock and contemporary classical sounds of the trio.

EXOTERM: EXITS INTO A CORRIDOR 

Exoterm is a Norwegian American quartet led by bass player Rune Nergaard and featuring Norwegian saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, plus guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Jim Black from the USA.  The album was recorded in Brooklyn and has six tracks.  It is an extremely powerful and occasionally overwhelming album that is full of very intense improvisation, but also adds some gentler more ambient passages.   The notes quotes Nergaard talking of each member of the trio’s love of jazz, rock and improvised music, but that’ in this band every rule and musical boundary is torn down and we combine our musical influences in one big gumbo of sound’ 

JO BERGER MYHRE & ÓLAFUR BJÖRN ÓLAFSSON: LANZAROTE 

This is essentially a duo album the mood of which is one of melancholy triggered by Ólaffson’s sadness at the death of Johann Johannson just before the recording of the album.  Ólaffson had often worked with Johannson and was understandably shocked by his unexpected death.  The music is based on a process whereby the songs are initially created through improvisation and then treated sonically often with overdubs.  The sound is thus ambiently-inclined, but with layers of electronics added.  Track 2 Atomised/All We’ve Got is a good example; on this Ólaffson plays percussion and electronics gradually building up the layers of sound over Myhre’s bass.  On three tracks the duo is joined by a small section of trumpet and trombone doubling tuba adding an extra melancholy texture.

SKARBÓ SKUKEKORPS 

SkarboThis is a septet led by Óvind Skarbó on drums, percussion, vibes and banjo.  The music is the most eclectic of the four albums reviewed here.  The notes state that ‘Óvind Skarbó doesn’t just think outside the box.  With this drummer/composer there is no box.’  There are nine tracks that include vocals accompanied by banjo, a steel guitar solo and a final more in-your-face track.  It’s all very approachable and good fun.

The Hubro label is celebrating its anniversary with a number of showcases round Europe: October 31st October Lantaren Venster, Rotterdam; Spice of Life London 3rd November; La Dynamo, Pantin, France 4th November and Auster Club, Berlin 5th November.

 

 

Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich: A Tangle of Stars

tangle_digital_cover_3000px_screen+(1)At the recent excellent Jazzlines concert with Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham I was fortunate to obtain a copy of Mary’s forthcoming duo album with John Dieterich, the guitarist with the Deerhof band.  It’s essentially a set of guitar duos, but Dieterich does also play on drums and synths.  It’s a fascinating album the music of which goes in all sorts of tricky and quirky directions, and draws on many different styles.

The collaboration between these guitarists seems to be a natural outcome for two musicians whose music defies categorization.  Mary Halvorson in her Code Girl project draws on jazz, art rock and singer songwriter material; she says of her music ‘ So I think if it would have to be put in a category, I probably would consider it jazz. But at the same time that might not be true in ten years. I’m not interested in being a “jazz musician,” I’m just interested in doing whatever music I feel is relevant and exciting.’ (http://atlengthmag.com/music/electric-fruit/)   John Dietrich’s band Deerhof is also noted for a blurring of different genres, particularly post-punk, rock and improv.  One article (Portland Mercury, 2017, quoted in Wikipedia) describes their music as ‘experimental pop mired in a pure sense of adventure’  I have noticed that it is a band that many jazz followers seem to like.mary+and+john

It also helps that Mary and John know each other quite well, and have a high respect for each other’s music.

The album is entitled Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich: A Tangle of Stars and it’s on the New Amsterdam label.  There are twelve tracks, five written by Mary and five by John, one jointly created and one very short opening track from the archive of John Donald Robb.  John’s tunes are quite rocky, often quite staccato in their lines. Some of Mary’s tunes have a rolling bouncy feel with the eclecticism we associate with her compositions, while others of hers have a more atmospheric sound culminating in the very complex, slightly weird Track 9 the handsome. I suspect that Track 11, better than the most amazing game, which is attributed to both players is totally improvised.  Throughout however, whatever the vibe of a particular track, something surprising always seems to happen to subvert the mood.

It is difficult to capture in words what is going on in the various tracks, but it is definitely an album to listen to in one straight through go, enjoying the way the mood changes from track to track. Some tracks are lively and upbeat, others are dark and brooding, all of them are highly rhythmic.  It is also difficult to work out when they are playing the composition and when they are improvising, always a good sign of good challenging music.  John Dieterich captures the essence of the music when he says ‘the album is tangled, full of little strange musical nooks and crannies that may or may not lead somewhere’. (https://www.tinymixtapes.com/news/mary-halvorson-and-john-dieterich-announce-new-collaborative-guitar-album).

The album is to be released on October 25th and will be launched at Roulette in Brooklyn New York on October 28th.

Three British Albums Reviewed in Downbeat

It was extremely pleasing to see three important albums by UK bands reviewed in the October edition of the American music magazine Downbeat.  The albums are Shifa Live At Café Oto, Laura Jurd’s Stepping Back, Jumping In and Rebecca Nash’s Atlas’ Peaceful King. 

SHIFAThe Shifa album receives a 4 Star review (4 Star means Excellent), and it describes the music as ‘an uncompromising and uncharted plunge’.  It singles out particular praise for the playing of saxophonist Rachel Musson describing her playing as ‘commanding a bold, granitic timbre’. It goes on to state that Rachel is ‘better known in Europe than in the States’ and that ‘she’s a force deserving of greater recognition’.

Stepping backThe Laura Jurd and Rebecca Nash albums receive 3 Star reviews (3 Star means Good).  Laura Jurd’s playing is described as having ‘a profundity neatly paired with a keen sense of humor’ and the music is seen as having ‘an overall playfulness and a totally relaxing mood’.

 

rebecca-nash-atlasThe review of the Atlas album praises its musicality and states that ‘the eight tracks form a holistic argument that Nash and her superb band are at the vanguard of innovative and compelling new music’.

One important aspect of this feature on three British bands and their most recent albums is that it shows an appreciation of the range of the contemporary scene here and all the great music emerging from the difficult to define area around free music and post-free music.  Downbeat has quite rightly focussed on the young London scene and bands such as Sons Of Kemet, Nerijah and players such as Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross and others.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I am happy to see a recognition that there is much more to the UK scene.

I can’t resist the temptation to point out that two of the bands reviewed have strong Birmingham links.  Atlas is in fact a Birmingham band with all the members except Sara Colman based in the city, and even Sara was based here for many years.  Shifa has Mark Sanders who is based in Bearwood, in an area a few yards outside the Birmingham boundary, and the band was launched in Birmingham at mac’s Hexagon Theatre in March 2018.

The Shifa album is on the New York 577 Records, the Atlas album is on the British Whirlwind Records   and the Laura Jurd Ensemble album is on Edition Records, also British.