Birmingham has seen some great improvised music gigs in the last few months and I think it can be said without hesitation that the improv scene with regular events run by Fizzle at The Lamp Tavern and with TDE Promotions at The Hexagon Theatre at mac is thriving.  There is a good, loyal and supportive audience for this end of the music.   And the events take place in two intimate venues, The Lamp Tavern and the Hexagon Theatre at mac, that work extremely well.

The recent visit by Peter Evans and Sam Pluta working with BEAST sound diffusion system as part of the University of Birmingham Crosscurrents Festival and with a number of students from the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire was a particular highlight, as was the concert with Chris Mapp’s expanded Gonimoblast and Stillefelt in The Lab at the Conservatoire, a concert presented by Jazzlines.  Chris had added a brass quintet of three trumpets and two trombones to Gonimoblast’s basic quartet (plus Annie Mahtani on sound diffusion), and had written music for the quintet that was to be played in unison as if the quintet was just one extra member of the band.  These short written pieces were brought in by the quintet as and when felt appropriate for the music of the basic Gonimoblast group rather than at fixed moments.

The main effect and success of Mapp’s approach was that there was a strong element of surprise throughout the Gonimoblast + set.   Moreover, Mapp was so keen to retain that element of surprise that he rehearsed the brass quintet parts with other players taking the part of the regular Gonimoblast players so that the actual members of Gonimoblast came to the concert unaware of what the brass quintet would be playing.  The results were very exciting with the music achieving a rare variety and originality.

Rachel 1
Rachel Musson

The next month sees two new bands play the mac:  SHIFA a trio with saxophonist Rachel Musson, Pat Thomas on electronics and Mark Sanders on drums (Tuesday 27th March in the Hexagon Theatre) and the Rachel Musson Mark Sanders Ensemble, a new octet plus voice, that will be making its debut at the Surge in Spring 11 on April 21st in the mac Theatre.

mark sanders
Mark Sanders

SHIFA will play a totally improvised set and I look forward to hearing Musson interacting with Sanders and Thomas.  Her sound on the saxophone is, as noted by the Guardian’s John Fordham, in the territory of players such as Evan Parker, Paul Dunmall, Ingrid Laubrock and Pharoah Sanders, and in the company of two great improvisers, the element of surprise and variety will surely come to the fore in ways not that different in essence from Chris Mapp’s approach.   Musson and Sanders have worked together regularly, especially in the Tatterdemalion trio recorded on the Babel label; they have a natural  synergy.  Thomas on electronics will almost certainly add the surprise element

There will be an support set by a trio led by Xhosa Cole with Harry Weir on saxophone and Rob Harper-Charles on drums.

The Musson Sanders Ensemble will be more structured, but will still allow plenty of time for improvisation.  More details in a future blog.

Details of the gigs can be found here and here.  Details of the Fizzle programme can be found here and details of the Jazzlines programme at Town Hall Symphony Hall are here.   



One of the joys of being able to play vinyl again on my restored turntable is that I have finally been able to listen to Hans Koller’s marvellous 3-LP collection Retrospection on the Stoney Lane label.

hans koller
Hans Koller

It’s a wonderful presentation of the range of Koller’s music.  It shows how his writing for large ensembles and the full blown big band has really blossomed in the 2010s and how he taken the tradition of large ensemble writing of Gil Evans and Mike Gibbs and given us his own interpretation of that tradition.  Koller has worked closely with Gibbs, both as a tutee and as the one who has instigated the various tours of UK that Gibbs has taken in recent years.  Koller’s writing shows a strong influence from Gibbs, but is gentler, making less use of the brass section and providing really appropriate contexts for the various soloists featured on the albums.  Koller also likes to return to tunes from the 40s and 50s era; Lennie Tristano’s East 32nd Street and Charlie Parker’s Ah-leu-cha are on Retrospection1 and Herbie Nichol’s The Gig is on Retrospection 2.  On these tunes the ensemble writing reminds me of the sound of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool album on which Gil Evans presence and influence was dominant.  Koller also acknowledges a strong influence from composer George Russell though that seems less immediately apparent on these albums.

Retrospection 1 features a 13-piece band with Steve Swallow featured on electric bass who adds an elegant solo on one track and some lovely interactions with the brass soloists on others.  The band is largely UK-based apart from Swallow and the Paris based French-Canadian Francois Theberge on tenor saxophone, and it is notable that Koller provides brilliant settings for largely mid-generation musicians.  Trumpeters Percy Pursglove, Chris Batchelor and Robbie Robson, trombonist Mark Nightingale, French horn player Jim Rattigan, saxophonists Julian Siegel, Francois Theberge and Finn Peters all excel when featured, and it is good to hear them in such a rich setting.  It is especially pleasing to hear Peters’ extended feature on Automat as we do not hear so much of his playing these days.  Drummer Jeff Williams drives it all along with great strength showing how good a large ensemble drummer he is.  He also provides one of the tunes: Fun House Living.

Retrospection 2 shows in Koller’s writing a stronger influence from Gil Evans’ writing, in both the early writing for the Birth of the Cool session, but also Evans’ later more orchestral sessions with soloists such as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley et al.   Four of the tunes are settings for translations of poems by the German Friedrich Holderlin beautifully interpreted by Christine Tobin.  The album is also

jakob bro
Jakob Bro

a feature for the two nicely contrasting guitars of Jakob Bro from Denmark and Phil Robson from UK.  Again the band is mostly from that excellent British mid-generation of players who came between the Loose Tubes Jazz Warriors generation and the younger generation that emerged in the 2000s, but John O’Gallagher from the US makes some lovely contributions on alto-saxophone.Retrospection 3 is with the NDR Radio Big Band from Germany.    It features 6 tunes all written by Koller for the full big band with London-based American Gene Calderazzo taking over the drums.  The NDR Big band has a large brass section with four trumpets and four trombones and there is a strong brass feel to much of Koller’s writing for this session.  But there is also some beautiful writing for the saxophone section that at times reminds me of Duke Ellington’s writing for his saxophone section and some lovely call and response passages between the brass and reeds.  There is also rather more space for certain soloists with excellent improvisations from trumpeter Claus Stotter, tenor saxophonist Christof Lauer and Koller himself on piano

Koller gave an interview about the music at the time of the launch of the albums; you can access it here.

Please note that John O’Gallagher is now based in Birmingham with a full-time post teaching on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire. He is also completing a PhD on late Coltrane at the Birmingham City University.


On Friday 9th March (8pm) Chris Mapp will be presenting a double bill with his ongoing Gonimoblast band plus the launch of a new ‘quieter’ band with the name Stillefelt that complements the high-energy music of Gonimoblast.  This will take place in The Lab, the experimental space in the new Conservatoire building that has the facilities to create a very special sound and visual experience.  Chris will be taking full advantage of these possibilities


Gonimoblast’s music is documented on the Stoney Lane label in a double CD that came out of the project with Maja Ratkje and Arve Henriksen that was supported by Chris’ Jazzlines Jerwood Fellowship.  John Fordham in his Guardian review described the music as ‘electronica, but plenty of mood-swinging clout; A J Dehany in his London Jazz News review described it as ‘an impressive and satisfying integration of supposed opposites: tonal and textural, sonic and musical, electronic and acoustic, composition and improvisation’.   Listen here.

Chris is keen to take the music into different directions, so, for this event, Annie Mahtani will be using the surround sound system to diffuse the music to all corners of the room and the Chromasound system will be used to generate a visual reaction to the music.  But, for me, the most interesting innovation is that Chris has been working with a brass quintet of three trumpets and two trombones, to introduce an element of composition and also variety into the music.  Various themes have been worked out that will be played in unison by all five as if they were one instrument.   These themes will be introduced at times to be decided spontaneously by Chris and the quintet.  As Chris says, they all know each other and their playing well as well as the music of the Gonimoblast, so he is confident that the addition of the brass will add a successful extra dimension.

I certainly look forward to seeing how it all works.  Also to hearing the music Chris has written for the Stillefelt trio that features Percy Pursglove on trumpet and Thomas ‘Seminar’ Ford on guitar.  A Bandcamp release shows the music moving between composition and improvisation and creating a relaxed ambient mood.  You can access it here.

chris mapp stillefelt

Gonimoblast has Leafcutter John  on electronics, Dan Nicholls on keys, Annie Mahtani on laptop and electronics and Mark Sanders on drums as well as Chris on bass and electronics (see photo). The brass quintet has Mike Adlington, Aaron Diaz and Sam Wooster on trumpets plus Richard Foote and Kieran McLeod on trombones.  

This should be a fascinating concert displaying both Chris Mapp’s continuing development as an innovative musician and also the strength of the experimental music scene in Birmingham.  The concert is part of the Jazzlines programme at Town Hall Symphony Hall and is supported by Arts Council grants.  Tickets are available here and on the door.


On Tuesday 27th February (this coming Tuesday!) TDE promotions and Fizzle will be presenting From Dust We Came … To Dust We Return, a concert put together by  sound artist Justin Wiggan with a group of Chris Mapp on bass and Mark Sanders on drums.

The concert is based on recordings by the late Noah Howard on solo alto saxophone around which Justin Wiggan builds an extremely beautiful and atmospheric piece of music which integrates his own sounds on electronics and those of Chris Mapp and Mark Sanders with the recordings of Noah Howard.

NOAH HOWARD QUARTETNoah Howard was an American saxophonist who was an important player in the free jazz movement of the 1960s onwards.  His was a distinctive voice that combined a gentle spirituality and a strong feeling of the blues with the sounds of the avant-garde.  His album The Black Ark was one of the key albums of free jazz of the late 1960s.  You can listen to Domiabra from the album here.  Howard later settled in Brussels after periods living in Paris and Nairobi.

Justin has always been a keen fan of Howard’s music and this led him to contact Howard’s widow, Lieve Fransen. She mentioned that Howard had left a number of private recordings of himself on solo saxophone, and gave Justin permission to use these and develop an album based around them.  It came out last year on the Static Caravan label with the title From Dust We Came .. To Dust We Return (Static Caravan, Van 294).

The album features the recordings, Justin’s soundscapes and Chris Mapp’s bass.  It is an extremely moving album which captures the sounds and spirit of Howard’s music.  As Lieve Fransen says in the sleeve notes, ‘Noah would have loved the results of this posthumous cooperation’.

For the concert Justin has delved back into the recordings and added more soundscapes.  He has also added drummer Mark Sanders to the line up along with Chris Mapp on bass.




There will be a support set from the Birmingham based Event Horizon Quartet featuring Lee Griffiths on alto sax, David Sear on trombone and Filippo Radicchi on drums.  They will be playing one Noah Howard tune.

More details and booking on the mac website.




Chris Mapp, photo by John Watson


I was at the Fire! gig at Cafe Oto on Wednesday.  I had reviewed their latest Cd Hands for London Jazz News (see the review here) and was keen to hear them live.  I do not intend to write at any length here, as A J Dehany has written an excellent review on London Jazz News, which you can read here.  Needless to say I found the gig very exciting and feel that A J Dehany’s review captures the atmosphere of the evening very effectively.


I was really fascinated  by the sellout audience.  Usually when I go to a gig at Oto, I know a few people and recognise quite a few more.  The only person I recognised was Steve Beresford sitting near the back; this was a very different audience drawn I assume from rock and noise audiences rather than from a jazz audience.  6Music listeners rather than Radio 3 listeners?

There is increasing evidence that the various styles of free improvisation are attracting different, new and younger audiences.



Walter Smith 111, Peter Evans/Sam Pluta Duo in Birmingham

It was a privilege to hear completely different sets of music by Walter Smith 111 and the Peter Evans/Sam Pluta Duo in Birmingham this last week, a testament to the richness of the scene in the city.  Walter Smith was at the Eastside Jazz Club in the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on Thursday, while Peter Evans and Sam Pluta played in the BEAST pantry at the top of the Bramall Hall at the University of Birmingham on Friday.

Having listened to and really enjoyed a lot of improv and the wonderful ‘structure into freedom’ of Big Satan so far this year, I found it a very different, but equally enjoyable experience to listen to Walter Smith’s beautifully controlled music.  It is always healthy to be reminded of how good that approach to jazz is.   Walter Smith was playing in a trio setting with Michael Janisch on double bass and Andrew Bain on drums; alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher joined the trio for one number in the first set and two in the second.

walter smith 111
Walter Smith 111

Walter Smith played two sets of mostly standard material and mentioned in his first announcement that he is doing this on his European tour, of which this was part, in order to be able to work easily with players in the different countries taking the tour.   This approach seemed to work particularly well with Janisch and Bain who provided really strong and inventive support. But clearly Smith was in charge developing beautifully crafted solos on the tenor saxophone with long flowing lines and a gentle            swing that really held my attention throughout two 45min sets.   Perhaps a little more passion was needed, but this was provided by John O’Gallagher’s excellent contributions at the end of both sets.

The music created by the Peter Evans/Sam Pluta Duo with the BEAST diffusion system could not have been more different.  The duo works through the interaction between what Peter Evans is playing on the trumpet and the reaction from Sam Pluta on electronics.  Pluta takes the trumpet feed and plays with it electronically creating fascinating contrasts with the trumpet lines. The approach is all about sounds rather than the lines and harmonic/rhythmic variations that Walter Smith plays.

On this occasion the duo was working with the BEAST sound diffusion system run on this occasion by Annie Mahtani; this creates an all-round sound through the use of speakers round the room and high in the ceiling, which is totally unique.

In the first set students from the jazz course at the Conservatoire and the Music Department at the University of Birmingham played very short impressive improvisations that had emerged from two days of workshops with Evans and Pluta.

Peter Evans with Black Top

Yesterday I caught Black Top with special guest Peter Evans at Café Oto.  I have written a review for London Jazz News and my review is here.

Two observations here about the gig: one is that the Black Top model – Pat Thomas on piano and electronics and Orphy Robinson on electronic percussion including the xylosynth –  works really well as a distinctive approach to free improvisation involving the use of electronics and grooves.  They always work with a guest which also ensures that each gig is different.

Peter Evans fitted in comfortably to the model.  He is an amazing trumpeter and I particularly liked his use of piccolo trumpet as well as the regular horn.  The piccolo has a lovely sound and this was very effective over the textures created by the electronics and percussion.

peter evans

Peter along with sound artist Sam Pluta will be in Birmingham this Thursday and Friday, 15th and 16th February, giving workshops for jazz and technology students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and music students at the University of Birmingham.  Then they will be joining the BEAST sound diffusion system for a concert on Friday at 7.30 in the BEAST studio as part of the university’s Crosscurrents Festival.  This is in the Bramall Hall by Big Joe, the university clock tower.

The BEAST studio has speakers all round the room and the sounds made by Peter and Sam interacting with the BEAST system will be diffused through the speakers.  Will be stunning!

It is also planned that some students attending the workshops will play an opening set.

This is a BEAST, Jazzlines at Town Hall Symphony Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire and TDE Promotions project.  Full details can be found here.