Gunter ‘Baby’ Sommer: German Free Drummer

gunter baby sommerGunter ‘Baby’ Sommer is one of those almost legendary names in European jazz.  He was born in Dresden, Germany in 1943 and still active in music and teaching today.  He was a pioneer of European free jazz and played a major role in the development of the role of drums in that style of music in the 1960s and onwards.  He was based in the former East Germany and was part of an active and distinctive scene of free improvisers in that country.  He worked in a trio with Conny Bauer and Peter Kowald and in special projects with leading figures of free jazz, notably Wadada Leo Smith and Peter Brotzmann.   He also is known for really inventive solo drum performances.

He continues to live in Dresden and is Professor of Drums and Percussion at the Academy of Music Carl Maria von Weber, where he originally studied the drums in the 1960s.  One of his most famous pupils is drummer and composer Christian Lillinger, who was recently in Birmingham with the Punkt Vrt Plastik trio.

Gunter Sommer is one of those players of whom one has heard a lot, but never seen play live.  So it is exciting that he is undertaking a short tour of UK with a fellow improviser, saxophonist Raymond Macdonald.  Raymond is a founding member of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and also Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at the University of Edinburgh.

gunterray(1)In Birmingham on December 10th Raymond and Gunter will play a duo concert in the Hexagon Theatre at mac (8pm) and also feature in seminar run by the Jazz Research Group at Birmingham City University focussing on the development of free jazz in Europe, from 4pm to 6pm. Speakers in addition to Raymond and Gunter are Petter Frost Fadnes and Sarah Gail Brand.  Petter Frost Fadnes will talk about his work with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, Raymond Macdonald and Gunter Sommer will interview each other about their influences and Sarah Gail Brand will talk about her experience as an improvising trombonist in UK.

Further details and tickets are available here. Please note entry to the seminar is free.  In addition to the Birmingham gig, the tour goes to:

6th December Edinburgh Reid Concert Hall

7th December Easterhouse Glasgow Platform

8th December Bradford Fuse Art Space

9th December Sheffield Over The Top

10th December mac Birmingham

11th December Cafe Oto, London

12th December Truro LSG WITHIEL Sculpture Garden

Jazz in Birmingham Last Week and Coming This Week

There were some amazing gigs in Birmingham last week and plenty of evidence that the scene in Birmingham is one of the strongest city scenes in Europe.  In some ways, certainly in quality, it is the equal of London.

stellaThere were three key gigs: Tuesday 26th saw a double bill at the Hare & Hounds with two new commissions from Aaron Diaz and Stella Roberts, the former playing with Anton Hunter from Manchester and Euan Palmer from Birmingham, while the latter played in duo format with drummer Will Glaser.  Both sets were brilliant.  Wednesday 27th saw the return of the Paul Dunmall Quintet with Chicago drummer Hamid Drake to the Eastside Jazz Club at The Conservatoire, this time performing with a big band made up of students from the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.  Ed Puddick had arranged Dunmall’s material from the Dreamtime and Soultime suites and the combination of these punchy arrangements with the passion of the quintet was full of drama and excitement.  Finally on Thursday 28th David Austin Grey premiered on the stage at Symphony Hall his very attractive suite In Search Of A Common Paradise  based on the theme of migration of birds

This was a great week of music and it was good to see Steve Lawson’s comment on Facebook: This city has SO much incredible music going on, so many people pushing boundaries, taking risks, pursuing excellence and mining their own unique creative seams.                            

This week sees a very special gig this week on Thursday 5th December in the Hexagon Theatre at mac.  It’s a double bill with one Birmingham band and one London band.  From Birmingham comes GLITCH, a trio led by guitarist Steve Saunders and featuring Chris Mapp on bass and Euan Palmer on drums.  Steve describes the music as follows;  expect to hear sonic influences ranging from Anton Webern to Aphex Twin, all held together by the improvisational talents of the trio, of whom all are prominent improvising musicians in both the jazz idiom and across a large variety of genres’.     

kitThe main set will feature Kit Downes and the music from his brilliant new album for ECM Dreamtime of Debris.  The band includes Kit on piano and harmonium, Tom Challenger on saxophones, Lucy Railton on cello and Phelan Burgoyne on drums (replacing Seb Rochford).   The review on AllAboutJazz describes it thus:  The album is full of nuance. In its dark and claustrophobic setting, it nevertheless creates illuminated open spaces. The music is introspective and spiritual and can waver between lullaby and nightmare. After being largely absent from Downes’ ECM debut, Dreamlife of Debris reminds us he and Challenger are an extraordinarily creative team.     

Ticket are available here.                                                                                                                                                                                                    


A Short Report on the Jazz Forum Conference in Vienne France

forum jazzThe Jazz Forum is an event that takes place every other year and is a show case for artists in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France.  This year it took place in Vienne, a small city about 22 miles south of Lyon. It has a very large and amazing Roman theatre which is the main venue for the Jazz à Vienne festival that takes place every summer.  It’s an attractive city that has a number of other Roman remains as well as the theatre, and an interesting old quarter with churches, markets and an attractive old municipal theatre. The Forum Jazz event is a showcase for musicians in the region so there were no big international names nor musicians from Paris or other French cities.  The result was that in a large programme there were no more than two musicians I had heard before, and it was really interesting to hear a number of excellent bands and projects that were completely new to me.

Forum Jazz also hosts a conference with panels and presentations on key topics for jazz today, e.g. Gender Balance and Attracting New Audiences.

varijashreeThere were three bands that really stood out.  One was a collaboration between an Indian vocalist, Varijashree Venugopal  – probably the only international guest musician – and the Eym Trio (Elie Dufour, piano, Yann Phayphet, double bass and Marc Michel, drums.  Varijashree comes from the Carnatic music tradition of southern India, but has been working on John Coltrane’s music, especially Giant Steps, and adapting it to the Carnatic tradition.  I found her performance fascinating as the sound world of her vocals is definitely that of Indian music and the Carnatic tradition, but the lines she sings are quite different and close to contemporary jazz.  She was given strong support by the Eym Trio and overall this set was a triumph.

A video of Varijashree scatting to Giant Steps can be found here.  In the concert I heard she created something rather different that was more in keeping with the music of the Eym Trio, but equally fascinating.

Quite different was the set in small Municipal Theatre with The Very Big Experimental Toubifri Orchestra, an 18-piece band that creates a great atmosphere with its focus on humour and a number of extremely funny routines carefully choreographed with the participation of the whole band.  They started by stating their philosophy: musique d’excellence et pas de reggae.  In between these routines they also played, as promised, some excellent music.  Interestingly, this was the only band I heard that had a significant number of women players.

lois le VanThe other set that impressed was that by the vocalist Lois Le Van playing with the Vind group: pianist Sandrine Marchetti and guitarist Paul Jarret.  Lois Le Van has an interesting approach to songs with a delivery that is very rhythmic but with a spoken word feel.  All the songs are in English, but the actual words seem insignificant as focus is on a group sound with excellent contributions from Marchetti and Jarret.  Le Van’s voice reminded me of the German singer Theo Bleckmann.

There were several other sets that I really enjoyed: Jean-Paul Hervé’s Ligne B, the full-on music of Polymorphie and Kolm, both of which have a kind of ‘punk jazz’ approach that seems characteristic of many French bands that I have heard in recent years.  I also enjoyed the more straightahead Gaspard Baradel Quartet.  I  came away from the festival with the impression that there is a huge amount of talent in the region and was delighted to have caught a small cross-section of that scene.  I was also impressed with the range and variety of the music being presented.

The Jazzlines Residencies: Stella Roberts and Aaron Diaz

One of the most innovative projects taking place in Birmingham this autumn has been set up by Jazzlines with support from a grant from the Performing Rights Society Foundation (PRSF).  It’s called The Jazzlines Residencies and the brief for the selected artists is for each one to devise a new project with an artist who they have not worked with before as a leader, and who is from outside Birmingham.  The two artists selected by Jazzlines are pianist Stella Roberts and trumpeter Aaron Diaz.  Both have a track record of playing in and writing for different ensembles which are very open in their approach and which defy genre categories.  Stella, for example, works with Dorcha, and Aaron has long been a member of The Destroyers and is a key musician in the relatively new Propellor band.

1 newStella’s project is called Joy Bang and is a duo with drummer Will Glaser.  Stella heard Will in October 2018 in the Snack Family band, a very dark but very enjoyable band led by Andrew Plummer that played the Hare & Hounds Birmingham; she immediately wanted to collaborate with him.  They have been working together on the material that Stella has written and have come up with a set of tunes with a strong groove that lead into passages of improvisation, and some tunes that Stella describes as ‘fragile ballads’, which I understand to be gentle but edgy pieces (see forthcoming podcast).  Stella will be playing synths and has really enjoyed developing bass lines for the rhythmic aspects of the material.

This project is the first time that Stella has, as a leader, collaborated with another musician in developing the music.  She has found Will be to be an excellent collaborator; he was immediately into Stella’s writing and very encouraging about it, but, as the collaboration has developed, he has not been afraid to be a critical friend and say what he likes and does not like about the material.  Stella describes Will as the perfect collaborator.

Aaron’s project is called In The Field Remains and the group is a trio with guitarist Anton Hunter and drummer Euan Palmer.  Aaron and Anton have worked together in the Beats ‘N Pieces big band and Aaron really enjoys the way Anton uses electronics to add to his guitar sound.  The collaboration has gone well as the three members of the group have similar aims in terms of the type of sound they wish to create.  The main feature of the new music is that it uses electronics to form the structure of the music and draws on Aaron’s experiences in various genres, notably folk, jazz and the unclassifiable music coming out of Scandinavia. There is also a clear influence from the creative scene in New York, the music of John Zorn, Tim Berne and others, a scene that Aaron loves.

Both Stella and Aaron studied on the jazz course at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and have continued to be based in Birmingham.  After graduation Aaron went off to Gothenburg in Sweden to take a Masters in Improvisation, but returned to Birmingham at the end of that course.  Both Stella and Aaron were brought up in rural settings; Stella in an isolated spot in Derbyshire and Aaron in Devon, but enjoy the musical community that a large city like Birmingham has.  Stella describes the Birmingham musical community as ‘the perfect hub of creative people’ (see forthcoming podcast).  Aaron similarly enjoys the energy of the Birmingham scene and the opportunities to collaborate with musicians with different backgrounds and approaches.

It is interesting to hear both composers debate whether they consider the music they have created comes under the category of ‘jazz’.  Both have good class degrees in jazz from the Conservatoire, but play in many different contexts as well as jazz.     They have a great respect for the jazz tradition, but somehow feel that the music they have written and created in rehearsal lies outside that tradition.  Both agree that the music draws on jazz, but, as with so much music in this century, it also draws on other genres.  It is difficult to define it, but they see it as creative improvised music.

The Jazz Residencies sessions take place at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath Birmingham on Tuesday 26th November, 8pm.  There will be two sets, one from each band.  Tickets can be bought at


Laura Jurd and Mark Lockheart Receive Paul Hamlyn Compser Awards

laura jurd I was privileged to be present at the Paul Hamlyn Awards Ceremony for Artists last week and was delighted to learn that this year two of the Composer Awards have gone to jazz composers, Laura Jurd and Mark Lockheart.  I was a judge for the first of revived Composer Awards in 2007 when three composer awards were introduced and Iain Ballamy received one of these.  In that year there were five awards for visual artists and three for composers. In 2017 the number of composer awards was increased to five.

The recipients receive a guaranteed income for three years with no strings.  As the composers are acknowledged leaders in their field, there is the expectation that the grant will help them their activity throughout and beyond the three years.  John Butcher (composer award 2011), for example, said ‘numerous, previously precarious ideas and projects now become possible’.

mark lockheartIt is interesting to look at the list of those composer awardees who come from the jazz and improvised music world.  There are 14 of them.   Iain Ballamy was the first; he gained his reputation in the very influential Loose Tubes big band in the 1980s and continues to be active today writing for small groups, large ensembles, film music.   Two other graduates from the Loose Tubes band have received the award: trumpeter Chris Batchelor received the award in 2009 and, as mentioned above, Mark Lockheart (photographed above) received an award this year.

Five of the awardees are known for their activity in improvised music and free jazz:  Evan Parker in 2008, John Butcher in 2011, Steve Beresford in 2012, Pat Thomas in 2014 and Paul Dunmall in 2018.  It is great that the judges for the Composer Awards have recognised that improvisation can be seen as instant composition and also that these five musicians are important figures in the British music scene.

The remaining six awardees, Jason Yarde in 2010, Shabaka Hutchings in 2014, Pete Wareham in 2015, Byron Wallen in 2017, Leafcutter John also in 2017, and Laura Jurd this year, are more difficult to classify.  The one feature they certainly all share is an openness, a willingness to think beyond jazz and an ability to draw on different genres of music.

The Paul Hamlyn Composer Awards provide a hugely important boost to the creative music scene.  It puts no particular pressure on the awardees, but rather enables them to develop and expand their activity in their own time and without deadlines.

The CBSO Centre: Past and Future

Jazzlines has had a long association with the CBSO Centre, the rehearsal space for the orchestra and a 310 capacity venue that works really well for contemporary jazz as well as other genres.  It was designed by the same architects as Symphony Hall and has an almost perfect acoustic for both small groups and big band jazz.

uri caineThe Centre opened in 1997 and Jazzlines (in its previous incarnation as Birmingham Jazz) presented the first ever ticketed concert in the hall.  This was with the Uri Caine Band playing Uri’s arrangements of Mahler’s music as on the Primal Light albumThis was a brilliant concert memorable for the radical interpretations of Mahler’s music and for the fact it seemed nicely appropriate that we were presenting  that music  in the home of the orchestra that has championed Mahler’s music so extensively.

Since then Birmingham Jazz and Jazzlines has presented on average eight or nine concerts a year in the CBSO Centre.   It was absolutely the right venue for the tours that the much missed Contemporary Music Network (CMN) were running.  I particularly remember concerts with Myra Bobby Previte (23 Constellations of Joan Miro), Myra Melford,  Tim Berne, Sam Rivers.  Interestingly, these are all American names, but we were also able to present in the Centre the best of British jazz talent: Django Bates, Evan Parker, Andy Sheppard, Iain Ballamy and Birmingham based musicians such as Bryan Corbett, Steve Tromans and Sara Colman.

andrew hillWhat was the most memorable gig in the CBSO Centre?  Without any doubt, it was with the American pianist/composer Andrew Hill who was touring UK with an Anglo American band on a CMN tour.  The concert started a little slowly, but suddenly burst into life  with a series of duets between American saxophonist Greg Tardy and British saxophonist Denys Baptiste which created an electric atmosphere.  I also remember great solos from trumpeter Byron Wallen and I often reminisce with Byron about that amazing night.

We have also presented a number of great big bands in the Centre.  Mike Gibbs brought his big band several times, and we had great concerts with Django Bates’ big band from the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, stoRMChaser,  and the Walsall Jazz Orchestra led by John Hughes.

CHRISTINE_INGRID_JENSEN_8x10-BW-by-randy-Cole_154414faaf6ce775cad6c8d8cb7a97c5Our next gig at the Centre features another great big band: the Whirlwind Recordings Jazz Orchestra led by Michael Janisch and featuring the Jensen Sisters: Ingrid on trumpet and Christine on saxophones.  This is on Saturday 16th November, 8pm, tickets at

A Round Up Of Jazz in Birmingham Last Week

As ever, Birmingham hosted a number of excellent gigs last week.  Here I post a few reflections on those I attended, but I should begin by declaring an interest:  these were concerts I was involved with in my roles at Jazzlines and TDEPromotions/Fizzle.

Mark Lockheart and Days On Earth

mark lockheartMark Lockheart brought his Days On Earth project to the flipped stage at Symphony Hall  (band and audience on the actual stage with band facing the choir seats) for the Jazzlines programme on Wednesday.  The recording of the project on Edition Records featured a jazz sextet plus a 30-piece orchestra, but for the touring version Mark led a slightly larger jazz ensemble of eight musicians.  Mark is, along with Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Chris Batchelor, John Parricelli and others, one of those whose membership of the Loose Tubes Big Band back in 1980s launched their career and established them as a key member of that jazz generation.  In many ways Mark has been, of all the Loose Tubes diaspora, the one whose music has stayed closest to the original approach of the band; his first large ensemble The Scratch Band had many echoes of the Loose Tubes sound.  His Days On Earth project, however, has largely moved on from that influence, though pleasingly not entirely.  The touring version struck me as punchier and livelier than the recorded version with the orchestra while retaining the wonderful textures of the original recording.  The ensemble was an excellent mix of jazz generations with strong solos from John Parricelli (always one of my favourites with Loose Tubes), Laura Jurd on trumpet, Rowland Sutherland on flute, Alice Legget on alto sax and Liam Noble on piano and strong rhythmic support and solos from Tom Herbert on bass and Dave Smith on drums.

Tim Berne Residency at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Tim Berne spent three days with jazz students at the Conservatoire working together on a number of his compositions of his, plus one by Julius Hemphill.  The student group was a 12-piece ensemble with two trumpets, three saxophones, guitar, piano, two double basses and three percussionists. Tim was supported by Liam Noble in the rehearsals and the final concert in the Eastside Jazz Club concluded with a stunning duo performance by Tim and Liam.  Tim writes very detailed and dense compositions so this was music of a type that probably none of the students had encountered before, especially as a number of the players had only just started the jazz course.    The group, were, however, worked really hard by Tim and, after some difficulties, really rose to the occasion at the concert last Thursday.  It was interesting to hear the music the night after the Mark Lockheart concert and to hear the contrasts.  There was a wide range of moods in the compositions Tim brought for the residency.  There were the up tempo passages with strong dramatic statements leading into collective improvisation by the whole ensemble – there is something very exciting about the sound of a fairly large ensemble collectively improvising and this performance was an excellent example of that excitement.  But equally impressive were the gentler passages that established a calmer but also nicely edgy mood.

tim berne residencyThis was the second residency for Tim Berne at the Conservatoire, the first having taken place last year with Matt Mitchell.  Over the years Tim’s music has had a huge influence on the British jazz generation of the 2000s and players such as Dan Nicholls and Tom Challenger; he is now having an influence on those beginning their studies in jazz.  It was a co-promotion between TDE Promotions/Fizzle and the Jazz Department at the Conservatoire. 

The Archipelago Residency

archipelagoArchipelago is a saxophone, electric bass and drums trio based in Newcastle whose music is based on improvisation, but draws on experimental rock and alt-folk as well as jazz.  They spent a day on Saturday on instant composition and collaboration with two Birmingham based players, Alicia Gardiner-Trejo on baritone sax and flute, and Andy Woodhead on electronics leading up to a performance at the now monthly Sunday afternoon Fizzle session at the Lamp Tavern.   Alicia and Archipelago’s Faye MacCalman on tenor sax and clarinet clearly hit it off extremely well and their improvised lines dovetailed beautifully.  Andy Woodhead added beautiful rippling effects on electronics.  Two of the best pieces came in the second set, one involving reaction on the part of the players to randomly selected Tarot cards (one of bass player John Pope’s contributions) and the other involving spoken word with a short story from James Robertson’s 365 collection declaimed very effectively by drummer Christian Alderson. 

Clearly there were many other gigs last week, at, for example, The Spotted Dog, Corks Eastside Jazz Club.  I was very sorry to miss Rebecca Nash’s gig at the Hare & Hounds as it clashed with the Tim Berne gig.

Look out for the visit of the Jensen Sisters, trumpeter Ingrid and saxophonist Christine who will be appearing with the Whirlwind Recordings Jazz Orchestra at the CBSO Centre with the on Saturday 16th November, see