Thursday and Friday Night Gigs in Birmingham

Once again I am inspired to write about two excellent gigs I have attended in Birmingham: Xhosa Cole’s Album Launch and an evening of BEAST improvisations and compositions. Since the easing of the Covid regulations there has been a very welcome burst of activity on the jazz and related musics scene in Birmingham, at both established venues, such as The Spotted Dog, Centrala and the Hare & Hounds, and new venues such as The Legacy Centre of Excellence in the former Drum building.

Thursday was Xhosa’s night launching his first album on the Stoney Lane label at the Legacy Centre. The album itself is in my opinion an excellent debut; some fine playing from the group, and a good selection of tunes, with jazz standards and a couple of show tunes, but standards that are less often heard including Ornette Coleman’s Blues Connotation and Monk’s Played Twice. The music at the launch followed a similar pattern to that of the Cd with the main focus on the quartet of Xhosa with Jay Phelps on trumpet, James Owston on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums, but with the addition of other players on certain tunes, pianist Deschanel Gordon on the gig rather than Reuben James as on the Cd,, alto saxophonist Soweto Kinch and a fine singer Lucy-Anne Daniels.

I particularly enjoyed the quartet numbers. Bashford and Owston are a great rhythm team and both also take fine solos, and the front line partnership betweeh Phelps and Cole works really well with a nice contrast in their styles, Cole forceful and fluent, Phelps bright and varied. On both the Cd and on the gig there were a number of passages with a kind of call and response between the two that added a lot of variety to the music. The quartet have played together regularly and undertaken an extensive UK tour, and this shows in the cohesion of the group.

The gig attracted a good and enthusiastic crowd to the Legacy Centre and I understand that sales of the Cd and the T-shirt were very good; interestingly, I’m told that sales of the T-shirt were more than those of the Cd.

Friday night with BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre) at Centrala was quite a contrast, but equally enjoyable. I have attended a number of BEAST concerts in the past, and they have always concentrated on compositions which have been extended electronic soundscapes focussing on sounds and texture. So it was both interesting and pleasing that the Centrala programme included improvised pieces as well as composed pieces. The first piece was a group improvisation with Zach Dawson, Milad Mardakheh and Pongtorn Techaboonakho with all three interacting in the creation of a whole range of sounds. Mardakheh also performed a solo improvisation, and the evening concluded with a second group improvisation. There were composed pieces by Chris Haworth, and a duo piece by Nikki Seth and Emma Margetson, the latter being a nicely reflective piece. But the most impressive performance for me was that by Simon Smith who created an amazing range of sounds in a system using laptop and some kind of electronic bracelets, which were controlled by Smith’s arm movements and gestures. The system seemed to be a more sophisticated version of the theremin in that the sounds were controlled by the arm movements . It was fascinating to observe how each movement or gesture was immediately translated into sounds, and to take in the flow of ideas that created a fine and coherent musical statement.

British Artists In the Annual Downbeat Critics Poll

I’m not a great fan of polls of musicians, but I am nonetheless always fascinated to see which British jazz musicians get recognition in the annual Downbeat poll, published in the August issue. There are two categories, the main poll and the Rising Stars poll, which used to be called Talent Worthy of Wider Recognition, a name that seems more appropriate given that many recognised in the category are relatively old, and have been rising for some time.

In the main category Shabaka Hutchings gets the widest recognition coming 13th in Jazz Artist category, and his group Shabaka and the Ancestors comes 6th in the Jazz Group category. It’s pleasing to see that Evan Parker coming 7th in the Soprano Saxophone category, and Kit Downes coming 14th in the Organ category. It is also good that Edition Records are placed 16th in the Record Label category.

There is a much greater British representation in the Rising Stars category, and here we see the extent to which the British scene is associated with the so-called New London Wave, though not every one is from that scene. Nubya Garcia is at No 3 in the Jazz Artist category and at No 1 in the Tenor Saxophone category. Binker Golding also comes in the Tenor Sax category at 10. It is, however, in the Keyboard and Organ categories that British players are most prominent; here Jacob Collier is at No 1 in Keyboards, Cory Henry at 3, Joe Armon-Jones at 6, Elliot Galvin at 8 and Kamaal Williams at 10. In the Organ category Cory Henry is at 1, and Alex Hawkins is at 2. British artists also do well in the Vibes category: Corey Mwamba is, despite his retirement from live performance, is at 4, Jim Hart at 8 and Lewis Wright at 11.

Jacob Collier appears in other categories, at 1 in Male Vocalist, and at 10 in the Arranger category. Shabaka is the only artist to feature in both the main list and the Rising Star list; he is at 1 in Rising Star Flute, and is joined in that category by Gareth Lockrane at 8. Two welcome surprises: Chris Garrick is at 6 in the Rising Star Violin category, and Karen Sharp is at 9 in the Rising Star Baritone saxophone category. On the overall results, naturally dominated by Americans given that Downbeat is an American magazine, I was pleased to see Carla Bley, Yusef Lateef and Booker Little enter the Hall of Fame, and Maria Schneider come second in the main Jazz Artist category, and first in the main Composer and Arranger categories. Her band also came first in the main Big Band category, and its album Data Lords came first in the main Jazz Album of the Year category.

Of the large number of jazz critics who voted three were from the UK: Sebastian Scotney, Tina Edwards and Jon Newey.

Two New Releases By William Parker

William Parker has remained extremely active during the last year or so; earlier this year the monumental 10 Cd box set Migration of Silence Into And Out Of The Tone World came out on the AUM Fidelity label; this featured Parker’s compositions for various singers and ensembles recorded in late 2018 and throughout 2019 . Now two new albums have come out, also on the AUM Fidelity label: Mayan Space Station featuring Parker with Ava Mendoza on guitar and Gerald Cleaver on drums, and Painters Winter with Daniel Carter on reeds, trumpet and flute and Hamid Drake on drums.

The partnerships between Parker and these two drummers, Cleaver and Drake, are among the most exciting features of contemporary jazz in New York. I remembering hearing Parker and Drake accompany saxophonist Peter Brotzmann at Cafe Oto a number of years ago; much as I enjoy Brotzmann’s playing, I found myself concentrating much more on the intricate patterns that the bass and drums were creating. This partnership of Parker and Drake is the dominant force on the album with Daniel Carter. I have not heard Parker and Cleaver together in a live situation, but their backing of Ava Mendoza on the Mayan Space Station album is equally strong.

These three players, Parker, Drake and Cleaver, are key figures in that part of the New York contemporary scene that keeps alive and extends the tradition of Ornette Coleman’s music, that is free jazz that is steeped in the history of the music, and has room for composition. Parker with his partner Patricia Nicholson runs The Vision Festival in July every year, and is active throughout the year in groups that feature other players such as Matthew Shipp, Rob Brown and Whit Dickey as well as Drake and Cleaver.

The album with Ava Mendoza is really interesting; Mendoza draws on various aspects of guitar playing; experimental rock, free jazz and improvised music, and it is fascinating to hear her play over the cross rhythms created by Parker and Cleaver. The influence in Mendoza’s playing from rock guitar is immediately clear, but, as she weaves her lines over the rhythms, it is also clear that there is a lot of subtlety in her playing. It is also great to hear Parker and Cleaver interacting with a rock influenced guitar player, a context I have not heard them in before. In fact, the whole album is a revelation.

The pattern on this album is similar throughout with passages where the guitar dominates, and others where the the music is much more interactive. By contrast, Painters Winter has a lot of variety arising from Carter’s playing trumpet, clarinet, flute as well as the alto and tenor saxophones, and on certain tracks Parker’s playing of the shakukachi and the trombonium, a rare instrument with the shape of a tenor but the sound of the trombone. These three players have been working together for many years, and know each other’s playing so well that the result is an album of great charm and full of interesting conversation between the three players.

These are two fine albums that bring home the strength of the New York contemporary scene and also the ongoing creativity of the community that William Parker leads.

Summer of Soul Documentary

It seemed a strange thing to be doing on a beautifully sunny summer afternoon, but yesterday I caught the Summer of Soul documentary at 14.45 at The Odeon Broadway, Birmingham, the only daily filming. But it was definitely worth it; it was cool inside, but, much more importantly, it is a brilliant film that features many of the stars of gospel, blues, soul and jazz playing in front of huge audiences of almost exclusively African American people in Harlem, in the Mount Morris Park, since renamed as the Marcus Garvey Park.

The festival took place over six consecutive weekends in 1969, and was given the title The Harlem Cultural Festival, but has since then has usually been referred to as The Black Woodstock given that it that took place a few months after that festival, and not many miles away. However, the festival has never had the attention and iconic status of the original Woodstock Festival, and the film is being shown for the first time over 50 years since the festival.

The film is directed by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson of The Roots, and he has done a wonderful job of interweaving short extracts of the music with interviews with audience members and performers. With most groups we get two or three numbers, and the filming concentrates on a straightforward presentation of the music and the very enthusiastic reaction from the audience. We also get a number of short features on relevant events of the time, for example the experience of Charlayne Hunter-Gault as the first African American student to study at the University of Georgia.

The music captured on the film moves between different genres. There is a section devoted to gospel music which begins with the Edwin Hawkins Singers fronted by Dorothy Morrison, moves into The Staples Singers, a family group led by the father on guitar and featuring a relatively young Mavis Staples. Mahalia Jackson is also featured, both on her own and also in a wonderful duet with Mavis Staples. Apparently Mahalia was not feeling too well, and asked Mavis to take over, only to return, seemingly inspired by Mavis’ performance. There is a blues slot with B.B. King and his band, and a Motown slot with David Ruffin singing My Girl.

There is some good exposure for some of the jazz of that period; initially we hear Latin jazz with groups led by Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto, somewhere within that section of the film we hear a short fiery improvisation from guitarist Sonny Sharrock. And we get a lengthy passage with Max Roach, intially playing a drum solo, and then backing Abbey Lincoln. There is also a pleasingly long section with Hugh Masakela.

However, two sets that don’t quite fit into genre categories really impressed. The first was with Sly and the Family Stone with Sly going completely mad and leaping round the stage. I have always remembered Miles Davis’ championing of the band, and it was good to hear the band – without Sly of course – at the Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival a few years ago. But it was really only till I saw Sly and the band perform in the film in front of that huge audience, and with the energy they displayed that I fully understood their attraction. Interestingly, there were quite a few comments from audience members about the inclusion in the band of a number of white players, not really expressing hostility, just surprise.

The other set was the final set from Nina Simone at her most powerful, clearly revelling in the opportunity to play to large black audence.

Summer of Soul has been around for a little time now, and I fear it may not be shown for much longer. It can of course be streamed, but it is definitely worth making the effort to see it on a full screen in a cinema.

A Round Up Of Gigs Attended In The Last Week

The enthusiasm of audiences for live music now that venues have re-opened is impressive and very encouraging. Let’s hope it lasts!

The Jazz at The Spotted Dog sessions have been going every week since May, and are regularly packed with a young and enthusiastic audience. Last Tuesday trombonist David Sear presented a very good straightahead set with a quintet featuring Percy Pursglove on trumpet and flugelhorn, Elliot Sansom on piano, James Owston on double bass and Jim Bashford on drums. This was a gig in preparation for Sear’s first recording session which is taking place this week at Sansom Studios, I believe. Sear has written a number a good originals which served well as starting points for a series of excellent solos from Pursglove and Sear himself. Sansom was struggling a bit with the tuning of the piano, but nonetheless made an impact. As ever, Owston and Bashford made for a strong and supportive rhythm section.

The Fizzle session on Sunday was something of a revelation. This was at Centrala, which is proving to be a really good venue for improvised music, and one that is attracting much larger audiences than the gigs presented at the Lamp Tavern. Sunday’s gig with Bobhowler and a trio with Mick Beck on bassoon, flute and tenor saxophone, Seth Bennett on double bass and Paul Hession on drums showed how wide the genre of improvised music is today. Bobhowler is on the electronics end of the improvised music spectrum with Alicia Gardener-Trejo improvising on flute and baritone saxophone over a very nice mix of textures coming from Tom Mills’ theremin and Andy Woodhead’s electronics.

The trio of Beck, Bennett and Hession provided a contrast in that its music is at the free jazz end of the improvised music spectrum. Beck is an inventive improviser, and the way he interacted with the brilliant swirling rhythms created by the bass and drums was very exciting. Beck began on bassoon, which he has chosen as a distinctive second instrument to the tenor sax, played a short passage on a wooden flute, and finally switched to tenor sax. Throughout a 50 min set the flow of ideas from Beck and the interaction within the trio was impressive.

I say the gig was a revelation; this came from realising just how well the contrast between the more atmospheric first set and the more free jazz focussed second set worked, and also from really getting to know how good the Beck Bennett Hession trio is.

Finally, last night I was off to the Kitchen Garden in Kings Heath to hear The Bonfire Radicals. I had not caught a gig at The Kitchen Garden before, and was impressed with it as venue. Again, it was great to be in a very busy venue with a very enthusiastic audience. I loved the energy and the variety of Bonfire Radicals’ music with its mix of different folk music from both the UK and round the world. I think the tune that included a drum battle between Ilias Lintzos on drum kit and Emma Reading on caixa drum producing the sound of timbales accompanied by a Scottish strathsprey melody, Bog an Lochan, played by Sarah Farmer on violin and Michelle Holloway on flute, captured the band’s approach and philosophy well. I also enjoyed the tune played on the Bulgarian kaval instrument, an end-blown flute instrument of Middle Eastern origin. As I say, there is a tremendous energy and variety about Bonfire Radicals’ music; I heard traces of Arab music and Frank Zappa music as well as the other influences I have mentioned, and many in the audience were up and dancing by the end of the second set.