Bass player James Banner returns to his home region, the West Midlands, this Friday 22nd February to play the Friday Jazzlines session on the Symphony Hall foyer with his group USINE. James was brought up in Dudley and was a key member of the Birmingham Jazz, then Jazzlines Ensembles, initially tutored by Sid Peacock and then by Percy Pursglove. James then went on to study jazz at Birmingham Conservatoire before moving to Berlin to study for a Masters in jazz.
James has settled down well in Berlin and is very much part of the jazz and improv scenes in that city, but is now also beginning to divide his time between Berlin and Leeds College of Music where he is teaching jazz and improvisation.
Berlin has become a key hub in European jazz and many players from different countries have made the city their base. This is partly because rents in Berlin, especially in the old East Berlin, have been quite cheap – though I understand this is changing – and partly because Berlin has a good number of music venues, many of them very small and intimate, but which are perfect places for more experimental music. In 2017 I was in Berlin and was able to catch James playing with his teacher Greg Cohen in the Donau 115 club, a small but very atmospheric club in the Neukölln area of Berlin.
One of the features of the European jazz and improv scenes is that cities such as Berlin or Amsterdam or Copenhagen have become centres where players from different countries gather and form groups that bring together different traditions from their own countries. There is still such a thing as, say, Norwegian jazz, or Dutch jazz, but increasingly I observe that there is a European sound, different from that in the USA, but not linked to a particular national scene. This sound draws its energy from the coming together of players originally from different scenes.
James’ group is an excellent example of this tendency. The core group is a quartet with James on double bass, pianist Declan Forde from Scotland, vocalist Cansu Tanrıkulu from Turkey and drummer Max Andrzewski from Germany. All now live in Berlin.
They have brought out an album on the Jazz Haus label with the title USINE. The music is based on James’ compositions, but there is constant movement between the compositions and improvisation and plenty of freedom for the members of the group to go their own way. There are 13 tracks in all, some of them quite short, others rather longer. It is noticeable that the shorter tracks, for example the opening track Waltz or Track 5 05 12345, are intense and dramatic with Cansu Tanrıkulu’s vocals often leading the way, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken and occasionally screamed. On other tracks, for example Track 6 Meow Meow Meow, Declan Forde’s excellent piano solos dominate. On the slightly longer tracks the music is mostly more mellow so that, for example, the vocals on the final track Vigil are gentle and beautiful. Overall, it is an album characteristic of today’s contemporary jazz with the mixture of structure and freedom, full of drama and strong soloing, but occasionally quite challenging to listen to.
There are contributions on the album from violinist Fabiana Striffler and guitarist Arne Braun, but the group appearing on Friday will be the core quartet. The session runs from 5pm to 6.30pm and entry is free.