Whitney Houston and Archie Shepp

I was in Chicago in February 2012 on the day that Whitney Houston died.  I was struck and fascinated by the wall to wall coverage of this sudden death and must have heard her version of I Will Always Love You, one of the songs that made her famous, between fifteen and twenty times that night.  So I went earlier this week to see the documentary about her life entitled simply Whitney that is being shown in

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Whitney Houston

cinemas round the country at the moment.  It’s a two hour documentary by Kevin Macdonald that traces her development from childhood through stardom to the decline resulting from drugs and perhaps other factors.  About three quarters of the way through the film comes the allegation of sexual abuse in her childhood from a woman relative and, as a number of critics have suggested, this makes one understand more fully the problems that ruined her career and led to her death.

I found the documentary very moving, particularly the transformation of the young and charming young woman with a beautiful voice into the thin anxious woman who had lost that stunning voice.

On my return from Chicago in 2012, I read around about Whitney and was amazed to find out that she had recorded a track with Archie Shepp and Bill Laswell in the group Material, a jazz funk group that had recorded with Sonny Sharrock, Henry Threadgill and Billy Bang.  The track was Memories, originally written by Hugh Hopper of Soft Machine and sung by Robert Wyatt.  The recording was made in 1982 when Houston was just 19 and  before her singing career really took off.  It’s a wonderful track lasting just over four minutes.  In it the vocals alternate with saxophone solos from Shepp and the movement between Houston’s beautiful rendition of the song and Shepp’s gruff tone and soulful statements on the tenor sax is very impressive.  Houston’s singing is relatively restrained, but the beauty of the voice is there and the song builds up to a strong climax.  Robert Christgau in the Village Voice described the track as ‘one of the most beautiful ballads you’ve ever heard’ (Village Voice, 1982).

You can listen to the track at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xj4xGiXfW0.

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Further Thoughts on the Ljubljana Jazz Festival

I have written a fairly full review of the Ljubljana Jazz Festival on the London Jazz News website, which you can access here.  In this short blog I would like to add a few points.

Ljubljana is a beautiful city full of wonderful Art Nouveau buildings as well as an Old Medieval Town.  A day exploring the city followed by an evening of great music is a perfect way of getting to know that city.

I was very interested in and impressed by the use of the garden outside the main Cankarjev Dom venue with two stages, the main stage and the smaller ‘stage by the old tree’.  There is a tendency in many festivals to concentrate in the outdoor programme on crowd pleasing bands that are not going to scare anyone off.  In Ljubljana the outdoor stages were used to present a whole range of music from free music, e.g. the band Lore with Slovenian, Italian and French members through piano trios, e.g. December Soul, Rok Zalokar’s Port Songs and Bowrain, to the jazz soul of the Norwegian group Rohey.  Also impressive were the short sets by young

small stage Ljubljana
the small stage by the old tree

players as part of the Abeceda (ABCD) project on the so-called ‘stage by the old tree’ culminating in a spirited performance by all 25+ players on the closing day of the festival.

The festival is a showcase for a number of excellent Slovenian artists: for example, Bowrain played a haunting set with gentle electronics creating a lovely atmosphere as the sun was setting; pianist Rebeka Zajc played some fine solos in the set by the Ales Rendla Sextet, and drummer Zlatko Kaucic provided very creative backing for the

Zlatko Kaucic
Zlatko Kaucic

December Soul trio.  I was also fascinated by the focus on Balkan melodies by Vasco Atanasovski’s Melem with guest pianist Bojan Z in the final set of the festival.

The festival is, however, also a showcase for some of the most exciting bands in Europe.  The French/Belgian Hermia/Ceccaldi/Darrifourcq Trio, Austria’s Shake Stew, Finland’s Elifantree, Portugal’s L.U.M.E (Lisbon’s Underground Music Ensemble) and the Norwegian group Rohey all played strong and innovative sets.  It was good that there was one British band, Portico Quartet, who, as mentioned in my London Jazz News review, have moved back towards their original style.

Finally, as Lee Paterson has commented on Facebook, Dr. Francesco Martinelli’s lectures are a MUST!  In Ljubljana he talked of the influence of Islam and the Arabic language on jazz, talking of how the Saeta track on the Gil Evans/Miles Davis Sketches of Spain album is derived from the music of Holy Week in Andalucia and the influences of that music from Arab traditions.  He also went on to argue persuasively that certain vocabulary items key to jazz may well be derived from the Arabic or Arabic-influenced West African languages . Jam as in ‘to jam’ or ‘jam session’ may well be derived from the Arabic trilateral root J-M-ain which has the general meaning of ‘meeting’ or ‘coming together’.  Similarly, rag as in ‘ragtime’ may well be derived from the Arabic for dance ‘raqs’.  In Sarajevo last year I hear Dr. Martinelli talk about the influence on opera on early jazz, specifically Sidney Bechet’s version of Summertime and on Jelly Roll Morton’s piano playing.     

Photos presented with the permission of the photographer Nada Zgank.

Reflections on Evan Parker and Friends, Tony Dudu and Gumbe Jazz and the Supersonic Festival

I was amused and intrigued by a description of a band playing at Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival which described its music thus: ‘their music unfolds like spells, each evoking chimes of hope, despair, freedom and oblivion’  (Capsule programme: Mesange).

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Evan Parker

This set me thinking about the different experiences of listening to live music and how it differs from one kind of concert to another.  Last week I attended Evan Parker with Friends at The Vortex (see an excellent review of this by Patrick Hatfield on the London Jazz News site).  Here, as is normal with a free jazz improvisation, the band played each of the two sets straight through without a break.  As Hatfield describes in his review, the music was full of energy and drama with Evan reacting strongly to what Hatfield characterises as Nikki Yeoh’s ‘roar and thunder’, and also to the strong rhythmic drive of John Edwards and Mark Sanders.  Listening to this style of music is a very intense and rewarding experience and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the experience is almost like going into a trance.  It is a very different experience from that of listening to more mainstream jazz with the themes leading into solos and back to the theme and plenty of opportunities to applaud at the end of solos etc.

The following day I had the pleasure of listening to a West African band led by Tony Dudu at the Jazzlines Friday foyer session.  Tony Dudu’s music has that beautiful, gentle swing that characterises so much of African music and listening to it is a very relaxing and joyful experience.  Perhaps their music does ‘unfold like spells’; certainly the listening experience is very different from that of listening to either improv or mainstream jazz.

Then over the weekend I attended the Supersonic Festival.  The festival is now extremely varied and it was good to catch Shirley Collins and Yunohana Variations as well as the avant metal bands.  The Guardian has a very appropriate review, which you can read here.  But there are still a lot of very loud bands and it is interesting to note that these seem to focus on creating an impressive sound that, once established, continues throughout the set.  There is none of the development of an arc in the way that free jazz and improv moves throughout an improvised set.  Needless to say, I find this to be another very different listening experience.  It requires less concentration as the music does not change that much, and there is more of a physical reaction to the loudness of the music.

Dunmall O’Gallagher Edwards Sanders: Freedom Music

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Paul Dunmall

This Cd was recorded in a live session in the lovely Hexagon Theatre at mac Birmingham early this year.  It was part of a tour that built on the success of the initial coming together of Paul Dunmall and John O’Gallagher in the 2017 Surge in Spring Festival, also at mac. The idea of bringing the two saxophonists together was an idea that came up in conversation with a student on the Birmingham Conservatoire jazz course, Robbie Fearon.  I immediately thought ‘what a great idea’ and set about making it happen.  The initial gig was a great success and a three date tour going to the Fringe Café Bristol and The Vortex London as well as Birmingham followed, with a quartet with John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums

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John O’Gallagher

Dunmall is one of the finest improvising saxophonists in Europe.  There are strong influences from the later work of John Coltrane in his playing and he often plays and records tributes to Coltrane, but he is at his best when he goes beyond that influence and lets his imagination and creativity take over.  Some may regard O’Gallagher as more of a straightahead player, but in his work in his own groups and with Jeff Williams’ quintet, he develops an approach that integrates elements of free playing; he certainly fitted into this group extremely well.  The rhythm team of Edwards and Sanders is a well-established partnership in which both make their own contributions to the interactions as well as providing a swirling rhythmic basis for the group.

There are three extended improvisations on the CD, the third being rather shorter than the first two.  The music is totally improvised and has the qualities of intensity, invention and energy that characterise the best of improvised music and free jazz.  The third improvisation rounds the recording off nicely with a rather more emotional series of exchanges.

The three improvisations, entitled simply Freedom Music One, Two and Three, move seamlessly between a series of interactions between the four players, each passage moving naturally into the next.  There are group improvisations with all four players, trio sections with either Dunmall or O’Gallagher dominant, duo improvisations with Edwards and Sanders and drum solos.  Each passage has a very engaging flow and develops in a kind of arc before moving into the next passage.  I particularly enjoy the conversations between the two saxophonists in which one may be dominant at a particular point with other providing a kind of commentary on the other’s playing.  O’Gallagher does this extremely well.  At other times there is a more equal conversation with each player making their contribution.  I also love the interactions between Edwards and Sanders which are totally absorbing and bring a pleasant variety to the improvisation.

Overall this is a most enjoyable CD; it’s on the FMR label FMRCD476 0318.  It was recorded, mixed and mastered by Chris Trent.

Forj at The Spotted Dog Birmingham

Forj is the name of a new quartet led by drummer/composer Jonathan Silk and this name somehow mysteriously reflects the names of the members of the group, the two saxophonists, Joe Wright and Josh Arcaleo and the bass player Nick Jurd.  They played their debut gig at a packed Spotted Dog on Tuesday.

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Jonathan Silk

The quartet and the double tenor saxophone front line worked really well and it was a joy to hear the interaction between Wright and Arcaleo.  This was not the macho cutting session of a double saxophone group such as that led by the Americans Johnny Griffin and Eddie Lockjaw Davis, but a lively conversation between two fine players.  There is quite a bit of similarity between the playing of the two, but Arcaleo was perhaps the more forceful and Wright was rather more abstract.  I particularly liked the way they interacted in short solo bursts on the second tune of the first set, Jurd’s Sweet Hesitant Alabama, and the gruff tone that Wright adopted on Silk’s Mirrors.

I have focussed on the two saxophones, but rhythms created by Jurd and Silk generated real momentum.  They also provided most of the material with the sets built around five of Silk’s originals and three of Jurd’s.   There was also one tune by Eddie Harris. The music was thus based on compositions, but was in that area of the music between the mainstream and free jazz.

Silk was originally from Scotland, but studied on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire; he is now a key figure on the burgeoning Birmingham scene.  He has led a quintet that played the Cheltenham Jazz Festival a few years ago, and runs an occasional Jazz Orchestra which recorded an album with strings on Stoney Lane Records entitled Fragment.  He also runs the University of Birmingham Big Band.

So this group is an excellent addition to the Birmingham scene, on which so many fine bands and players have emerged in recent years.  There is a tendency for journalists when discussing jazz scenes outside London to concentrate on the scenes in the north of England and neglect the Birmingham scene.  This is partly due to Birmingham’s tendency to be modest about its achievements, but there is little doubt that the scene here is one of the most thriving in UK.  Check out the Live at the Spotted Dog album, also on Stoney Lane Records.

Two Improvising Trios at Cafe Oto

A double bill curated by Phil Durrant brought together two improvising trios last night at Café Oto.  On first were a saxophone, electronics and drums trio with Rick Jensen, Phil Durrant and Steve Noble followed in the second set by Shifa with Rachel Musson on tenor and soprano saxophones, Pat Thomas on piano and Mark Sanders on drums.  Each played a set of about 45 mins.

phil durrant
Phil Durrant

The evening worked really well with music of the very highest quality which provided interesting contrasts between the two approaches to improvisation.  The Jensen Durrant Noble trio was a high energy set, and quite loud, but never overpoweringly so.  It started with a series of powerful statements from Jensen on tenor sax supported by the amazing drumming of Noble.  Durrant underpinned it all with ambient sounds and gradually found his way into the improvisations.  The overriding impression was of full-on improvisation, but there was a pleasing arc to it all with the energy levels dipping and then rising again throughout the set.  Perhaps at the beginning of the set the degree of integration between the three players was low, but gradually through the set this improved markedly.

The Shifa set was much more subtle.  The name Shifa is derived from shifaya, the Arabic for ‘healing’ and there is an element of healing in the flow and interplay of the group’s improvisations.  The set started very strongly with Thomas setting the pace on the piano and he seemed to be leading the way for the rest of the set.

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Rachel Musson

Musson’s ability to react to Thomas’s playing was most impressive and she developed some fascinating and absorbing lines throughout.  Sanders provided a subtle percussive commentary on it all.  Rather than the series of arcs that characterised the Jensen Durrant Noble set, the music moved in different directions, constantly surprising us with a change in direction, but always following a logical path.    The first long improvisation reached its natural end, but the trio immediately followed up with a shorter, but satisfying conclusion to the evening.

It was interesting to note the contrast between the two groups; Jensen Durrant Noble’s set was loud, exciting and absolutely full-on improvisation.  Shifa’s set was, although also quite loud and high energy, was more subtle and abstract.  It was also noticeable how different Shifa’s set at Oto was compared to its first outing in Birmingham back in March, the difference coming from Thomas’ use of the acoustic piano at Oto rather than electronics as at Birmingham.  I’d say it works much better with the piano.

There was plenty of drama in both sets!

Anthony Braxton’s Zim Music at Cafe Oto

I attended the final night of Anthony Braxton’s residency with his Zim Septet at Café Oto in Dalston London.  I am not going to attempt a full review, others have done that, notably Thomas Rees on the Jazzwise site, see here, Richard Williams on The Blue Moment site, see here, and Geoff Winston on London Jazz News, see here.  I will restrict myself to presenting some of my reactions.

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Anthony Braxton

It appears the each night of the residency sold out, and the audience on the night I attended was an interestingly diverse crowd, typical of the Dalston area and of the regular Café Oto audience.  It had a good age range and gender balance, though it was not particularly ethnically diverse.  The reaction was extremely positive; the set lasted for 75 minutes without a break for applause creating that intense and focussed experience characteristic of improvised music.  At the end the audience exploded and gave the ensemble a standing ovation.

The music was fascinating.  It began with a cascading solo from Braxton on alto saxophone and then moved into sequences of structured passages involving the whole ensemble cued either by Braxton himself or Taylor Ho Bynum which then led into solo passages involving Braxton or Ho Bynum with the rest of the ensemble – two harps, tuba, violin and accordion – providing underlying textures.  There was a strong sense of momentum in the whole piece with the movement in and out of structured passages and the solo sections.  75 minutes of music requires a lot of concentration on the part of the listener, but there was so much variety that my own concentration did not lapse.

I was particularly impressed by Ho Bynum’s solos; he moved between cornet, flugelhorn and trombone, and always made a significant statement.  He also seemed to play an equal role in cueing the ensemble passages and also generated some of the most interesting duo or trio interactions.

I have one reservation about the evening’s music.  I have mentioned the momentum of the piece and how it flowed seamlessly between the different sections.  However, I felt that overall there was an absence of drama, and I think this comes from fact of there being no drums in the ensemble.    Without percussion there were not those peaks of excitement that I love in the best of improvised music and contemporary jazz.   But I am probably missing the point!