The Pharoah Sanders Floating Points Collaboration: Is It Any Good?

Whenever I have listened to the extremely minimalist music of composers such as Nils Frahm, Max Richter, or Olafur Arnolds I have often longed for a saxophone to come in to solo in a kind of call and response to the writing. In many ways, the collaboration between the DJ and sound sculptor Floating Points and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders realises that wish of mine. The piece titled Promises features Sanders playing over an electronic score by Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) and a contribution by the London Symphony Orchestra on two tracks. Overall there are nine movements with music running through without a break for 47 minutes.

The piece begins with a short motif which is repeated throughout the piece, either in its original form or modified in subtle ways by the electronics of Floating Point. Then Sanders enters on the tenor saxophone interacting with the ambient sounds in a gentle and contemplative style. This is the spiritual side of Sanders’ playing rather than the style based on extended techniques we hear in his recordings with John Coltrane. Sanders’ playing is beautiful throughout , but I feel that it could have communicated more strongly had Sanders been interacting with a rhythm section or just a drummer. He does interact with the electronics and in Movement 7 he builds up to a climax with something like the Pharoah Sanders cry that has always been a feature of his playing. He also goes into a gentle wordless vocal in Movement 4 which also fits well with the overall atmosphere of the piece. But overall I wanted more from him.

I agree with Richard Williams who in his review of the album, which you can read here, suggests that it is an album for Sunday morning listening. It is a pleasant listen that requires less concentration than the more ‘maximalist’ music that I prefer to listen to.

Two Live Streams from Wigmore Hall: Trish Clowes and Elaine Mitchener

Wigmore Hall, London’s specialist chamber music venue, has recently announced the appointment of nine Associate Artists, and the list includes four artists known to the jazz and improvised music community: saxophonist Trish Clowes, vocalist Elaine Mitchener, American bass player Christian McBride and performer/composer Nitin Sawhney. Trish, Elaine and Christian are also composers, as is usual with musicians from jazz and creative music communities. Each artist will be guaranteed at least one concert a year in the hall over the five year period of association. The full list of the associate artists can be seen here.

Interestingly, both Elaine and Trish presented live streamed concerts on Monday of this week, Elaine at lunchtime and Trish in the evening; both concerts will be available online for a month from the day of the stream. It is strange that very few of the multitude of live streams and recordings appearing online get reviewed, so here goes with my own small contribution!

I watched Trish’s stream first, so I will start with her. She played an impressive duo set with her regular pianist Ross Stanley. I particularly liked the way Trish and Ross made no compromises in the jazz numbers they played, interacting brilliantly with both energy and delicacy on nicely intricate compositions from the two of them. They began with Trish’s Free to Fall and included two of Ross’ compositions early in the set, Avoidance and Ashford Days, the latter inspired by fellow pianist John Taylor and his Ambleside Days composition. Two more of Trish’s compositions came towards the end of the set with the intriguingly titled Decently Ripped, a tribute to Wayne Shorter, and A Room With A View.

Trish and Ross know each other’s playing well from years of working together in Trish’s My Iris quartet (with guitarist Chris Montague and drummer James Maddren) and they interacted so well on these jazz numbers. This was particularly the case with a sensitive rendering of Duke Ellington’s Prelude To A Kiss.

Equally impressive were the forays into classical music. Trish has always engaged with contemporary classical music as well as jazz, particularly in the cross-genre Emulsion festivals. As part of this programme, she included a number of arrangements for the duo of classical pieces, so we had a movement from Joe Cutler’s Hawaii Hawaii Hawaii piece written specifically for Trish, the 3rd Prelude from Dupré’s Three Preludes and Fugues, the Sleep movement from Autumn in Vivaldi’s The Seasons. Finally, we had a lively version of Tres Palabras, a song by a popular Cuban composer, Farrés, and, for me the highlight of the set, a beautifully sensitive version of a traditional folk song, The Month of January, usually performed by June Tabor.

The set with its genre fluidity struck me as entirely appropriate for the Wigmore Hall, and also for the way in which both Trish and Ross revelled in, and took advantage of the excellence of the acoustic and the quality of the piano.

Elaine Mitchener also moves between the jazz/improvised music and contemporary classical worlds. In recent years she has developed a number of projects related to the American black avant garde, notably Vocal Classics of the Black Avant Garde and The Jeanne Lee Project. The set began with Charles Mingus’ String Quartet No. 1, a wonderful piece written by Mingus for a string quartet and a vocalist. The piece was premiered at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1972 as part of an evening dedicated to the memory of the poet Frank O’Hara, and seems not to have been performed again until it was discovered by Anton Lukoszevieze, leader of the Apartment House ensemble. The piece is built around the words of O’Hara’s The Clown, the words of which clearly had a resonance for Mingus with lines such as:

‘What have you done?’ he screamed. ‘I was

not like this when you came’ ‘Alas’

they sighed ‘you were not like us’.

The piece is intense, full of exciting gestures, and was brilliantly performed by the string quartet and Elaine, the latter declaiming the words of the poem with great expression and drama. It is a great discovery that I hope might enter the string quartet repertoire.

In similar vein from the avant garde of the 1960s and 1970s were Jeanne Lee’s Mingus Meditations, Archie Shepp’s Blé and Christian Wolff’s later piece I Like To Think Of Harriet Tubman, which sets to music the text about Harriet Tubman by Susan Griffin. Then there were pieces by Benjamin Patterson, Duet for Voice and String Instruments, Louise Bourgeois, Insomnia Drawings, Elaine herself, Thought Word, and Katalin Ladik Genesis. In these pieces Elaine’s brilliant, dramatic and occasionally alarming vocals, either wordless or improvising round individual words, integrated well with either Neil Charles’ solo double bass, or the string quartet.

This was an outstanding start to the Associate Artists programme with Trish and Elaine, and encouraging evidence of an openness on the part of the Wigmore Hall, and also of the broader issue of the genre fluidity of so much contemporary music. You can access the streams here.

Three Albums from New York: Is This Now The Mainstream?

Garden Of Jewels Ivo Perelman Trio with Matthew Shipp and Whit Dickey

TaoForms 004

 The latest recording of the innovative TaoForms label established by Whit Dickey features Ivo Perelman, the Brazilian saxophonist based in New York, with pianist  Matthew Shipp and Dickey himself on drums.  The album was recorded in New York in early lockdown last year and it seems that during this period Perelman had spent time on two of his passions, Italian bel canto of the late 18th century and early 19th century, and jewellery making.  The latter comes across in the titles of the eight tracks which range from Tourmaline and Amethyst to the final track Diamond.  The album sleeve has detailed descriptions of how the named stone and the music relate to each other. 

Perhaps more relevant is the influence of bel canto on Perelman’s tone and style.  He favours the altissimo register, and his playing and specifically his tone on the tenor saxophone use that register to create a passionate sound in his playing.  It is tempting to add that there is something of a cry in the playing that might reflect the situation of the pandemic.

Perelman and Shipp clearly enjoy playing together, and the music proceeds through the totally improvised interaction between them.  Dickey seems to play a lesser role, always supportive in interesting ways, and at other times very much an equal partner.  However, the way that Perelman and Shipp build improvisations together is quite unique with each providing a series of dramatic phrases that build on each other’s ideas.  Perelman has the ability to develop the improvisation through a series well-formed phrases, while Shipp complements him, either through his own gestures, or through adding textures that bring out the drama in Perelman’s playing. 

It’s a great listen.

This Land: Theo Bleckmann & The Westerlies

Westerlies Records

This is a beautiful collaboration between vocalist Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies, a brass quartet with Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands on trumpet,  and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone.  There are 15 tracks, all quite short; they bring together anti-war and protest songs by Joni Mitchell, Bertolt Brecht, Joe Hill and Phil Kline, plus others written or arranged by members of the group.  There are also four instrumental tracks which present arrangements of Woodie Guthrie songs. 

The tone is set by the opening two tracks, Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and The Drum and Andy’s Clausen arrangement of Land, a poem by Agha Shahid Ali about the difficulties of an immigrant in the US.  On both these tracks Bleckmann’s stunning voice combines very successfully with the wonderful sound of the brass quartet.

Another great listen!

Ocelot: Ocelot Trio with Cat Toren piano, Yuma Uesaka, reeds and Colin Hinton drums and percussion   

577 Records 5859

This recording on the brilliant 577 Records label presents the Ocelot trio in an attractively varied set.  It’s a trio whose music is based on compositions written by members of the trio, and which are developed through collective improvisation.  The trio played and toured extensively in late 2019 prior to recording the album and have clearly developed a deep understanding and a strong group cohesion.  They compare themselves to other wide-ranging trios such as Fieldwork, The Bell and Paradoxical Frog in the way they draw on other genres of music, notably minimalism,  indie rock as well as both straightahead and free jazz.  In this, their approach strikes me as characteristic of the genre fluidity of so much contemporary jazz and improvised music.  What’s special about Ocelot is that they create a special atmosphere through their use of space and melody.  In their notes they state that they play with the ‘deep listener’ in mind.  The album begins with Daimon II, a track that begins in gentle meditative fashion and gradually builds.  This slow build up to a climax followed a short wind down is characteristic of several tracks, while others are more forceful, e.g. track 2 Factum.  The final track Crocus varies the pattern, starting with an initial focus on the piano followed by a more forceful passage dominated by the tenor saxophone and then winding down with a neatly constructed drum solo.

These three albums seem to be so characteristic of so much that is happening in jazz and improvised music today in both the USA and Europe.  It is music that has broken away from the conventions of straightahead jazz with its theme + solos approach.  We have a totally improvised set from the Ivo Perelman Trio, a largely composed set from Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies, and a genre fluid set from Ocelot with movement in and out of composition.    

Cheltenham Online Jazz Festival: Hot Tips

I should begin with a disclaimer, acknowledging that I am part of the programming team for Cheltenham Jazz Festival under the leadership of Programme Manager David Gaydon. I am proud of this year’s online line up, so read on!

The Cheltenham Online Jazz, which runs on the weekend of 1st and 2nd May, presents a snapshot of all that is fresh and original on the British jazz scene with a few leaps into current European and American jazz, plus Argentinian song.


The thing about jazz today is that it is vibrant and eclectic in the way it integrates other styles of music without losing its own character.  This means that it always has a lively groove and lots of energy.

So to give examples, we have Cleveland Watkiss, a founder member of The Jazz Warriors as well as the young players of Tomorrow’s Warriors out of which so many excellent musicians have emerged (Nubya Garcia, Shirley Tetteh and many others)Cleveland will be working with DJ SK Shlomo and saxophonist Lara Jones to create an original piece  for the Festival.  Idris Rahman will play with his Ill Considered group.  Two saxophonists, Faye MacCalman and Rachael Cohen, will perform short sets, Faye in a solo sax set and Rachael with her trio.  Similarly, London-based Cuban trumpeter Yelfris Valdes will play a solo trumpet set. We also get a glimpse of the Rise-Up group that is being developed by Jazzlines at Symphony and tutor led student groups from the prestigious jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire.

Jazz is very strong in different European countries, so we have The Rite of Trio, a guitar bass drums trio from Portugal, performing a new piece for the festival, and a beautiful set recorded in a church by the amazing French singer, Leila Martial with her Baa Box trio.  I always think that British jazz is very much part of the European scene and we see this with the Warmer Than Blood group led by guitarist Chris Montague and which features Kit Downes on piano and Ruth Goller on electric bass.  Kit works regularly in different European countries and Ruth is originally from the Bolzano area of Italy.

There is also plenty of vocal jazz in the programme. We have already mentioned Cleveland Watkiss and Leila Martial; we also have Broadway singer and actor Marisha Wallace, and the beautiful Argentinian songs of Cande y Paulo.

Other names appearing are saxophonist Yolanda Brown, drummer Jas Kayser and cellist/vocalist Ayanna Witter-Johnson.

One source of pride is that the programme is quite diverse from the point of gender balance and representation of the different communities of the UK.


Finally, the weekend is hosted by Gregory Porter and Cerys Matthews.  Gregory has a great affection for Cheltenham, and is sad not to be returning this year, but both he and Cerys will be in Cheltenham virtually.

Check out the full programme and the schedule at http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz. Note that the schedule may change in the lead up to the May weekend


Further Thoughts on Identity in Jazz

The two pieces about national and regional identities recently posted on this site have generated a fascinating discussion on Facebook with contibutors addressing issues of nationalism, multiculturalism and even the definition of jazz. I think I’ll leave the question of what is jazz until another time (!), but will consider various other points raised in the lively discussion.

A number of people have expressed their opposition to nationalism. I couldn’t agree more. My point about national identities in jazz is that certain jazz musicians in a given country or region are bound to be influenced by the musical and social environment in which they exist, and this may result in a style of jazz that integrates aspects of other musics. Take my example of Norway again; the folk music of the country has had a strong influence on the musicians who are happy to consider themselves to be members of the jazz community. But Norway has many other scenes; there is a strong free scene and I’m sure there are bands playing in the bop and hard bop styles; no question of national identity there. Nonetheless I believe it is valid to talk of an aspect of that scene as being typically Norwegian. Another example is Scotland; it also has a lively scene and certain bands incorporate influences from Scottish traditional music, but, of course, many do not. Those who do develop an unique aspect to their playing and seem to gain recognition for it.

I am not suggesting that bands incorporate these influences for nationalistic reasons. Indeed the bands in English cities that draw on multicultural influences do so in a way that is inconsistent with the present British government’s attitude to culture. They are not doing this for political reasons (some may be) , but as a natural process of reflecting the music they grew up with and are surrounded by.

The question of whether the free scene which emerged in the 1960s with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, AMM and the Joe Harriot Quintet is essential British is a tricky one. There was always interaction between the British improvisers and similar scenes in Europe, and free jazz and improvised music emerged at more or less the same time in other European countries such as Germany and Belgium. Today the free and improvised music scenes are homogeneous across Europe and elsewhere, and do not have particular national or regional identities. However, it is undoubtedly the case that there is huge respect for British improvisers across Europe and indeed in the USA, and that festivals in these countries often feature improvisers such as Evan Parker, John Edwards, Mark Sanders, Elaine Mitchener.

However, perhaps the most telling point was made by Ollie Weindling when he commented that musicians ‘mix a whole range of things to create their own individual identity’. Part of this is developing a confidence in their playing and identity. Back in the 1960s when I was first exploring jazz in Birmingham and then London, players always measured themselves against the Americans. We talked of players such as Tubby Hayes and Pete King as being ‘as good as the Americans’, and I remember many discussions about the problems of British rhythm sections being much less swinging than their American counterparts. I find it refreshing that these erroneous ideas no longer dominate discussions of British jazz.