A Case Study of English and French Jazz Collectives

I have felt for some time that the system of musician collectives has provided an important step forward for musicians and for the development of the jazz scene.  At their best musician collectives have given musicians the opportunity to develop their own projects, find and run their own venues and, more generally, take control of their own careers.

In Britain I have had some involvement with various collectives that were formed in the early years of the 21st century, notably the Cobweb Collective in Birmingham (see Wall and Barber, 2015, for a description of the formation of the collective, now rather out of date) and the F-Ire Collective in London.  This led to a connection to French collectives through the Jazz Shuttle programme that involved the creation of joint UK French bands that toured to both countries, a project funded by the SACEM, the French equivalent of PRS.  I became increasingly impressed by the activities of French collectives such as the COAX Collective and the Onze Heures Collective in the greater Paris region and the Grolektif in Lyon.  I was impressed by the way they had been able to create activity for young musicians which they ran themselves, but for which they were able to obtain funding that facilitated both the projects themselves and administrative support for the activity.

The key to success for these French collectives seemed to be that they were formed of a relatively small number of musicians, between 12 and 15, who were all committed to working together in various groups.  The fact that they were able to obtain funding for administrative support was also a major factor.  This approach contrasted with that of the collectives I was familiar with in Britain, The Cobweb Collective and the F-Ire Collective; these had a large number of members so that the creation of new projects from within the membership seemed less of a priority than the running of gigs for existing bands.  Also, these collectives largely failed to raise funds for administrative support.

 

romain dugelayWith these interests in mind, it was fascinating to hear Romain Dugelay at the recent Jazz Connective meeting in Łodz describe the history of the Grolektif collective of which he was a co-founder and the reasons why it had ceased to exist.   The collective was set up in 2004 by a group of musicians recently graduated from the jazz course at the Lyon Conservatoire.  The first year was devoted to developing repertoire for the bands that members of the collective formed, the second year was devoted to developing original material for the bands.  After three years the collective had sufficient funding to support 10 bands and a label, but urgently needed their own venue to provide regular playing opportunities.  Thus in 2007 the Grolektif Collectif along with a second collective, the Polycarpe Collectif, helped establish Le Périscope venue in Lyon, actively participating in building and creating a space suitable for creative music.  This is now a thriving venue that promotes up to 130 concerts a year in the area of creative music, i.e. jazz, improvised music, hip hop, rock.

After a few years Le Periscope and Grolektif became independent organisations with their own boards and administration, but the links between the two organisations continued to be strong; members of the collective continued to be on the Board of Le Periscope and to use the rehearsal facilities at the club.   The activities of the collective continued, but five years later in 2017 it was decided to discontinue the collective.  There were two main reasons for this, one was that the members began to differ over what was the right approach to the collective’s activity and a series of disputes weakened the organisation.  The other was that the members of the collective had begun to be more established on the French scene and gradually moved off in different directions.  In other words, they no longer needed the collective in order to support their careers.  The collective had clearly helped to establish the careers of its members, but had served its purpose.

It should be noted here that Lyon has another well-established collective Arfi formed in 1977 and still active.  Its website lists 11 groups that are part of the collective.

seb rochford
Seb Rochford

The parallels with the English collectives I was familiar with are striking.  The F-Ire Collective was established in 1998 by Barak Schmool and in its heyday had members such as Seb Rochford, Pete Wareham, David Okumu, Ingrid Laubrock, Julia Biel and supported the early days of bands such as Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear and the Ingrid Laubrock Quintet.  These players have become major figures on the contemporary British scene, or on the New York scene in the case of Ingrid Laubrock.  All these players moved on after a successful national tour in 2005 for the F-Ire Collective Large Ensemble.  The collective did recruit new members such as Fred Thomas, Zac Gvi, but has been inactive for a number of years; its last Facebook entry was in 2015.

The Cobweb Collective always focussed on creating spaces for its members to play.  It was set up by students on the jazz course at Birmingham Conservatoire (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) who were keen to find a space for student groups to play.  It ran a very successful Thursday night session at the Yardbird pub in Paradise Circus for many years, but that became increasingly separate from the collective.  Although many excellent groups have formed from the graduates of the jazz course, the collective never really played a role in their establishment and development.  The focus was on the venue and this gradually became run by individuals not directly associated with the collective.  The successor venue to the Yardbird is the Spotted Dog that runs a very popular Tuesday night session run by graduates of the jazz course and which features mostly young bands from Birmingham or bands from outside the city that are on tour.  The two main sets are followed by a jam session.  The Cobweb Collective relaunched as the BLAM Collective, but that second formation never really took off, and there has been no active collective in Birmingham for many years.  Its main legacy has been the Spotted Dog programme.

In England other collectives such as The Loop Collective, The Lume Collective, the Chaos Collective, all in London, and LIMA (Leeds Improvised Music Association) have played similar roles in establishing the careers of young musicians and in setting up nights in venues that continue to operate after the collective’s activity has ceased.

A number of conclusions arise from these descriptions and observations.  Collectives have a key role in providing a stepping stone for young musicians either in their final year on a jazz course or in the years immediately after graduation.  These musicians may form new groups and set up innovative projects under the auspices of the collective, but after a number of years will move on and concentrate on their own careers.  This phenomenon seems to apply as much in France as in Britain.  Collectives thus have a relatively short but active life span.   Their main legacy is the creation of venues or nights in venues that have a much longer life.

This is very much a prelinimary set of thoughts and I hope to develop the points made in a future blog that goes into the issues in greater depth.

Reference

Wall, T. and Barber, S (2015) Collective Cultures and Live Jazz in Birmingham in Gebhardt, N. and Whyton, T The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives London: Routledge

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A Change In Audience Reaction?

nikki yeohA visit to Ronnie Scott’s this week to hear a new project of Nikki Yeoh’s based on the music of the French Algerian composer Maurice El-Medioni and featuring a trio with Shirley Smart on cello and Demi Garcia Sabat on drums has led to a reflection on my part on the nature of audience reaction.  The trio was appearing as part of Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival and an added bonus was the appearance of the Bokani Dyer Trio in the opening set.

All three sets, one by Bokani and two from Nikki, were excellent and both followed similar musical principles, that of integrating jazz with Arab and Sephardic music in the case of Nikki Yeoh’s reinterpretation of El-Medioni’s music, and jazz with South African music in the case of the Bokani Trio.

bill evansThis very satisfying experience  and the visit to Ronnie Scott’s led me to spend the following evening listening to the recently issued double Cd (Bill Evans: Evans in England on the Resonance label) of Bill Evans playing live with his trio with Eddie Gomez on double bass and Marty Morell on drums at Ronnie Scott’s in December 1969.  The music on the CD is very different from that which I heard live at Ronnies; it focusses on Bill Evans’ reworking of show tunes such as Stella By Starlight, Our Love Is Here to Stay etc, though the interaction between the members of the trio and the freedom of the bass and drums was the forerunner of the integration at the heart of both trios I heard at Ronnies.

I will leave a full review of the night to others, see Mike Hobart’s review in the Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/a47faeb8-ba88-11e9-8a88-aa6628ac896c, but subject to a Paywall).  But one, perhaps rather trivial, aspect of the audience reaction to the music struck me.   The audience for the Bill Evans Trio – at Ronnie Scott’s in 1969 – applauds by clapping at the end of each tune and in the traditional jazz way at the end of most solos.  The applause is warm and enthusiastic, but rarely goes beyond that.  I did detect a gentle bit of cheering at the end of the set, but this was muted.  By contrast, at Ronnie Scott’s this week each tune, particularly in the Nikki Yeoh set, was greeted with an outburst of cheering, whooping and shouts as well as clapping.  Some of the solos, especially some excellent drum solos from Demi Garcia Sabat, were applauded, but not all.

Others, notably Richard Williams on The Blue Moment site, have noted that audiences for the new wave of young jazz groups such as Sons of Kemet or Ezra Collective similarly show their appreciation by cheering and whooping, even during solos as well as at their end.

POSTSCRIPT:

I had to leave just before the end of Nikki Yeoh’s second set so missed her finish with a participatory event that got the Ronnie Scott’s audience up on its feet.  I am gratreful to Brian Homer for this information.

A Snapshot of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival

This year the Copenhagen Jazz Festival has celebrated its 40th anniversary.  It’s an amazing festival, surely the biggest in the world.  I couldn’t find a figure for the total number of gigs and I suspect nobody has had the courage to attempt to count them all.  I arrived on the Wednesday around the middle of the 10-day festival, and I counted 161 gigs on that day with an amazing 27 gigs starting at 8pm.

The festival takes place all around Copenhagen in concert halls, clubs, cafes, restaurants, bookshops, museums, chapels, media centres, the open air etc. etc.   Getting to gigs needs to be planned carefully, but it is a wonderful way to get to know the city, including many areas outside the city centre that are off the tourist track.

I was there for just two days, so this is very much a quick impression of the festival with a few comments on the bands I heard.  My main conclusion is that it is vital to plan one’s day, especially as the smaller venues fill up very early.  I was the guest of Jazz Denmark and they had worked out a tight programme focussing on interesting Danish bands, so the planning had already been done for me.

First up was Jeppe Zeeberg with his modestly named band The Absolute Pinnacle of Human Achievement playing at 4pm in BLOX, a large arts and media centre near the waterfront that houses the Danish Architecture Centre.  The band played a kind of free funk, but with excellent compositions from Zeeberg.  The room was large but a good sized standing audience was in attendance.

Then off to the Design Museum to see Sissel Vera Pettersen, a solo artist focussing on vocals and electronics with just the one short outing on saxophone.  This was a beautiful ambient set that I found totally absorbing.  The concert was part of the mini-festival within the overall festival named the Spacehouse Series.  Apparently all participants in that series had been asked to include in their set a version of either What A Wonderful World or Blowing In The Wind.  Sissel chose the latter and gave a beautiful version of it that brought out the full meaning of the words and which I found captivating.

The next gig was some way out of the city centre in the Østre Chapel in the main cemetery.  This was an attractive chapel, but one which has not been used for 70 years; apparently bodies used to be piled up in it before burial!  This was the venue peter bruunfor Peter Bruun’s All Too Human, a quartet with Bruun on drums, Marc Ducret on guitar, Kasper Tranberg on trumpet and Simon Toldam on keys.  This was a fantastic concert with a strong focus on Bruun’s compositions.  The language was essentially that of free jazz, but within the context of a structured approach involving rather more composition than improvised solos.  Bruun gave a fascinating insight into his writing process when he introduced one tune by telling the audience that the composition came directly from his transcription of a solo by Ducret that Bruun had heard at a concert given by Big Satan, the band that Tim Berne leads with Ducret and Tom Rainey.  There had been a certain amount of banter about the tune with Tim Berne claiming – I assume in good humour – that the tune should really be his, and Ducret being unhappy at playing a tune based on a solo of his that he felt had several mistakes.

The final gig of the night took place in a former train or tram station, Lygten Station, now a nicely informal club just right for the heavy jazz rock approach of SVIN.

Day 2 started early with a showcase for the Kutimangoes band at a small venue in the former Meat Packing District, an area which is now dominated by arts venues.  I had heard the band in Poland at the JazzArt Festival in Katowice; I much preferred the Copehagen set in which the band were clearly going deeper into West African music and producing a more unusual and more attractive blend of jazz and African music than many of the jazz + Afrobeat bands.

Back at BLOX Selhventer, a four piece group with two drummers, trombone and saxophone plus electronics really impressed with a groove based improv.  Then The Horse Orchestra in the small and intimate Mellemrummet venue were good fun.

The final gig of my short visit was very much a theatrical performance under the direction of a theatre director, a designer and a stage designer with the aim of breaking away from traditional forms of presentation in jazz.  The project Hess Is More: Apollonian Circles 7 was part of a 10-day series of concerts in the festival involving the musicians, the directors and the designers.  The event took place in a hesssmall room with a large dining table in the middle with places set, candles on the table and everything seemingly ready for a banquet.  The musicians were all dressed in white robes with a black sash; they entered the room one by one and invited several members of the audience to join them at the table and have a glass of wine.   There then followed a series of musical events around the table and then on the table carefully avoiding any contact between the robes and the candles.  The music moved from vocals to passages led by percussion to some free playing.  I loved the approach of creating a situation for music very different from that of the concert hall, but I remained uncertain about the actual music.  Much of it was excellent, but I still felt something was lacking.

This short visit was overall a very rich experience even though I only had two days at the festival.

15 Years of Jazz on the Foyer at Symphony Hall

This Friday, 12th July at 5pm, Jazzlines celebrates 15 years of the Foyer Jazzlines Programme at Symphony Hall.  As it is a special occasion, the session will feature steve ajaoSteve Ajao and the Blues Giants, one of the favourite bands with the audience, and it will take place in the Main Hall rather than on the foyer.  Symphony Hall’s Chief Executive, Nick Reed, will be there to outline the plans for the development of the foyer, which will be closing this month as part of the Making An Entrance project.  The entrance and the foyers will be refurbished so that there will be a new foyer space specially designed for live music.

The new foyers are due to open in September 2020 and in the meantime the Friday evening jazz sessions and other events such as The Notebenders Saturday afternoon session will take place in other halls in the ICC (International Convention Centre).

The Friday early evening sessions, which run from 5pm to 6.30 every Friday apart from mid July to early September, have become a major part of the Birmingham scene and very popular with audiences with up 350 people attending each week.  They are well known on the jazz circuit and, while the priority is given to Birmingham and West Midlands musicians, many national and even international musicians contact Jazzlines because they have heard that it is such a fantastic session.

bryan corbettIt all began 15 years ago when Birmingham Jazz of which I was then Chair  agreed with Symphony Hall to run a series on  the foyer. The first gig featured the  Bryan Corbett Quartet and we were delighted that a large crowd turned up for this first gig and even more delighted that they have continued to come regularly over the 15 years.  I well remember that first gig: Bryan Corbett is a brilliant player and his group got us off to a tremendous start playing top class jazz that was accessible to an audience many of whom were just tipping their toes in the water with jazz.  That night, A R Rahman, the well-known composer of music for Indian films, was in town conducting the CBSO, and it was very pleasing that many South Asians came early to that concert, either deliberately to hear the jazz, or catching it just by chance, but seemingly enjoying it.

We initially called the session Commuter Jazz as we assumed that most people attending would be calling in after work for a listen and a drink.  However, we soon realised that a lot of people were coming especially for the session, and arriving early to grab a seat.  So we renamed it Rush Hour Blues and that name stuck for some time and is still often used, though not officially.  These days the name has become just Jazz in The Foyer, or Jazz in the Café Bar.

The sessions have always been very popular and it is fascinating to observe how the audience has become more open to different styles of jazz.  It is a listening audience that really concentrates on the music, has its favourites, but is always prepared to check out new bands.  It is a very good example of the phenomenon that the more one listens to different types of music, the more open one becomes.  Moreover it is free entry gig and this has the advantage that many people who want to give jazz a try and find out whether they like it can come and, if it is not to their taste, leave.  The sessions also attract many who somehow do not see themselves going to what they see as a more formal concert starting at 8 or 8.30pm and finishing after 10pm.  They enjoy the hassle free aspect of the foyer events.

In this way the Friday foyer sessions have built up a significant knowledgeable audience who would probably not otherwise be attending jazz or indeed any music events.  Of course, Jazzlines would love some at least to be moving on to its ticketed events at the CBSO Centre, or in the main Symphony or Town Hall; we do encourage the audience to try other events, and there have been notable successes there.

In the meantime, we celebrate the success of the last 15 years, and look forward to the future this Friday (12th July) with Steve Ajao and the Blues Giants in the main Symphony Hall.  It’s completely free and there will be a photographic exhibition with photos taken over the 15 years by Russ Escritt, Garry Corbett and Bill Shakespeare.   And a raffle with excellent prizes.

Liam Noble’s The Long Game: A Review

The Long Game

I have been enjoying Liam Noble’s new album The Long Game immensely.  It is on Edition Records (EDN 1129) and features a new trio for Liam with Tom Herbert on bass guitar and processing and Seb Rochford on drums.  Liam has always been one of the most interesting pianists and composers on the UK scene, perhaps under-recognised, but certainly a strong influence on certain young pianists, notably Alcyona Mick.  This new trio is perfect for Liam’s playing and the album is an important step forward for him, both in terms of the writing and the playing .  There are nine tracks, all between 5 and just over 7 minutes long with a total length of 58 minutes.

What distinguishes the album is the way that Liam switches between acoustic piano and keyboards on nearly all the tracks; this provides a very special variety which is added to by the use of electronics by Tom Herbert and Seb Rochford’s ever inventive drumming.  There are also some great compositions.

liam nobleEach track is different, but Track 1 Rain On My Birthday sets the scene and mood for the whole album;  it opens with a funky bass guitar beat supported by the bass drum which then leads into a series of short phrases on the keyboard that develop into an attractive groove-based statement.  This is further developed by similar lines on the acoustic piano supported by the bass guitar and bass drum patterns, with the piano lines gradually becoming more complex.  It winds down with a return to the short phrases on the keys and a conclusion that brings in electronic processing.  It is an absorbing track.

Track 2 Between You and Me creates a very different mood; it begins with a thoughtful acoustic piano solo and then the eerie electronic processing and the brilliant drum accompaniment add to the mysterious atmosphere of the piece.  Track 3 Unmemoried Man is much more electronic, but Liam uses the acoustic piano in parallel with the keys.  It has an interesting slightly jerky theme that works particularly well in the conclusion where Seb’s drums enter. The mood of Track 4 Head of Marketing is set by the appropriately ponderous bass line that is repeated throughout; Liam mostly plays keys. In Track 5 Head First Liam again moves between the acoustic piano and keys in an upbeat track in which Tom and Seb really come to the fore and show that they are perfect for this new direction of Liam’s.  Track 6 Head Over Heels is gentler track with Liam on keys that seem to be processed.  Track 7 Pink Mice shows Liam at his most inventive on acoustic piano, while Track 8 Flesh and Blood has a very successful mix of acoustic and electronic playing.  The final track Matcha Mind makes the greatest use on the album of electronic processing to create an atmosphere of mystery.

An interesting question arises.  For which kind of venue is suitable for this new direction of Liam’s music?  A concert hall?  A stand up venue?  A jazz club?  Given the way in which the new wave of London bands and their equivalents in other cities are packing stand up venues, it would be great to hear this music in that kind of venue, perhaps in a double bill with one of these new bands.  But it could work equally well in an intimate room in an arts centre or concert hall, or in a jazz club.

Dates with the Riverloam Trio: Trzaska Brice Sanders

Mikolai Trzaska(1)The Polish saxophonist Mikołaj Trzaska will be playing two dates in England in July with the Riverloam Trio in which he joins bass player Olie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders.  These are at London’s Café Oto on Tuesday 16th July (8.30) and Birmingham’s Polish Club on Wednesday 17th July (8pm).  This is the second time they have toured England, the first time being five years ago.  They have also played together in Poland a number of times, and will be playing four dates there before the UK dates.

A recording of the trio at the Jazz Od Nowa Festival in Poland can be watched here.  It gives a very good idea of what to expect from the two UK gigs.   The music is free jazz at its very best with a totally integrated group.  Trzaska is an extremely fluent and original improviser whose solos move constantly and seamlessly from one idea to another in ways that strike me as being different from other improvisers.  Some have compared his playing to that of the doyen of European improvisers, Peter Brotzmann; I hear no real evidence of that in this recording.  He has his own distinctive style and, although he will at times play overtones on the alto saxophone, he mostly develops long lines without distorting his tone.  His solos are fierce, but have an underlying logical and melodic pattern.

Olie Brice and Mark Sanders contribute very strongly to the intensity of the performance; each makes his own contribution and the performance is definitely one of three equals rather than a saxophonist playing with a rhythm section.   The gigs in London and Birmingham will be gigs of high quality in which the trio plays without gaps and provides the listeners with the intense experience that the very best free jazz can provide.

Trzaska is also a composer of film music, and something of a super star in Poland having written the music for films such as Wolyn, The Mighty Angel and Hatred.  By placing the gig in the Polish Club in Birmingham we are hoping to attract some of the Polish community in the city.

Addresses:

Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL

Polish Millennium House (Polish Club) Bordesley Street, Birmingham B5 5PH For advance tickets go to Eventbrite and click here

Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra at Hermon Chapel Arts Centre Oswestry

Jazz is mostly a city based music with lively scenes in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Southampton and Sheffield.  So it came as a wonderful surprise to be involved in a contemporary jazz event at a small arts centre in a small town in England, just a few miles from the Welsh border.  This was a concert with the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra at the Hermon Chapel Arts Centre in Oswestry.

hermon chapel arts centreThe Hermon Chapel is a beautiful building that has been lovingly recreated as a small arts centre with a stage, comfortable padded pews and a bar serving a range of beers and wines.  It is privately owned, but run by two local organisers, Barry Edwards and Claudia Lis.  They have created a very warm and friendly atmosphere and, on the evidence of last night, have built up a loyal and curious audience that is ready to try something different in the area of contemporary jazz/music.  They have created a niche for this area of music within a programme that also takes in folk music, comedy and opportunities to join various musical activities, including the Oswestry Jazz Orchestra, and ukulele and percussion workshops.

The Hermon Chapel itself was a nonconformist church built in 1862 and its architect was the Rev. Thomas Thomas, a leading Welsh architect and carpenter.  Apparently, Oswestry had in the Victorian period a large Welsh speaking nonconformist community and the chapel was built to serve that community.  It became an arts centre in 2009 when it was bought by Duncan Kerr, a councillor in Oswestry.

mike fletcher 2The concert with the Mike Fletcher Jazz Orchestra went down well with the audience.  They played one straight-through set with Mike’s reworking of his solo saxophone piece Picasso(s) for a 12-piece ensemble.  The work arises from Mike’s PhD work in which he developed an approach to improvisation based initially on his fascination with Picasso’s series of 58 variations on Velazquez’s iconic Las Meninas painting.  This led him to devise a similar approach in which he improvised a series of variations on Coleman Hawkins’ solo saxophone piece that fits very well into the project as it has the name Picasso.  Mike’s solo improvisation transformed the original piece which was just 3 mins in length into an extended improvisation of about 45 mins.

With the large ensemble Mike has developed a four movement piece based on the original Hawkins’ recording and on Mike’s original solo set.  The result is a fascinating and challenging set of music based on a relatively straightforward number of structures that create the framework for collective improvisation.  The concert also included two pieces from Mike’s Different Trane commission in which he created a series of pieces inspired by Steve Reich’s minimalism and John Coltrane’s Africa Brass recording.

The concert was introduced by Mike in an interview with myself in which he explained the concept of the music, how the approach was developed from his fascination with Picasso’s Las Meninas and his transcription of Coleman Hawkins’ Picasso, and how he is attempting to create a balance between composition and improvisation for the large ensemble.  The interview included an explanation and demonstration of the conduction method in which the band leader guides the improvisation through a set of gestures.

Both Mike and I believe strongly in the importance of talking about the music in ways that demystify it for the audience.  I think (and hope) that this initial discussion did prepare the audience for what they were about to hear.  Certainly the response to the music was very positive at the end.

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