Four Albums That Show The Continuing Strength of the US Scene

In lockdown I have been listening to four excellent new releases that I have really enjoyed and which lead to some reflections on the state of the US scene.

William Parker Quartets:  Meditation/Resurrection   AUMFidelity 104/105AUM104

This double album features two quartets led by bass player William Parker, both of which feature Rob Brown on alto saxophone and Hamid Drake on drums.  The quartet on Album 1 has Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson on trumpet while Album 2 has Cooper-Moore on piano.   I see the music as continuing and extending the legacy of the music of Ornette Coleman, late Coltrane, Miles Davis’ brilliant second quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and the more experimental albums that the Blue Note label put out in the second half of the 1960s, that is albums by Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Jackie Maclean, Don Cherry and many others.  I see this as a brilliant period in American jazz and one worth drawing on and extending.  William Parker certainly does that and this double album is an excellent example of one very active strand of the American scene.   On the albums Parker is working with regular partners in saxophonist Rob Brown and drummer Hamid Drake and both make really significant contributions.  Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson is a new name for me; he is a fine trumpeter with his own voice.  Cooper-Moore is a name I had heard much about without actually catching up with his music; it’s great to hear his truly original style on Album 2.

Ambrose Akinmusire: On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment Blue Note Records


This is a brilliant album full of original music and one that is highly relevant in this time of Black Lives Matter.  As jazz has spread across the world and different national or regional styles have developed, the great tradition that goes back to the early days of jazz in New Orleans and Chicago can sometimes get forgotten.  Ambrose Akinmusire is highly aware of and respectful of that tradition, but is concerned to create original music that really takes the music forward rather than just recreating that tradition.  He leads a quartet with Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums and it is a quartet that has stayed together for a number of years.  This comes across very strongly in this album, particularly in the interaction between Akinmusire and Harris.  Most of the album focusses on this interaction with strong support from Raghavan and Brown, but there are two surprise tracks, Track 1 moves suddenly from the sounds of the quartet to a new voice, that of Jesus Diaz, a vocalist and percussionist who chants a song in Yoruba.  Then on Track 3 Cynical Sideliners we have a slightly mysterious and gentle vocal from Genevieve Artadi with just Akinmusire accompanying on Fender Rhodes.   Mention should also be made of the brilliant titles that Akinmusire gives his tunes, e.g. Mr. Roscoe (Consider The Simutaneous) or Reset (Quiet Victories & Celebrated Defeats).

Earth SeedNicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris: Earth Seed  FPE Records 027

This is a totally unique set of music recorded live at its premiere in Chicago.  It draws its inspiration from the work of African American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, and also from the ideas of Afro-Futurism.  The music is difficult to define; it brings together the exquisite sound of Mitchell’s flute with the contemporary classical vocals of Harris and the electroacoustic sounds of a group that also features a second vocalist, Julian Otis, plus Zara Zaharieva on violin, Ben LaMar Gay on trumpet and electronics, Tomeka Reid on cello, and Avreeayl Ra on drums and percussion.  I see and hear this as ‘creative music’ that draws on jazz, contemporary classical music and opera and which has a spirituality and spontaneity that make it a model for cross-genre work of this kind.    Nicole Mitchell has undertaken a number of projects that take inspiration from the work of Octavia Butler and Afro-Futurism (e.g. Mandorla Awakening II and Maroon Cloud) and I believe that that is a fascinating strand of music that brings together different genres in a refreshing and successful way.

karunaThe Karuna Trio: Imaginary Archipelago  Metarecords 024

The Karuna Trio is Ralph M. Jones, Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake all playing various types of woodwind and/or percussion, and using electronic processing.  The music also draws on a set of ideas about an imaginary archipelago with eleven islands all connected to each other through their philosophy and sonic language; another example of music influenced by the Afro-Futurist philosophy.  It also draws on other genres of music with a strong influence from African music.  I reviewed the album for London Jazz News and you can read that here.  I make the point that, while the music draws on various genres, it has its own distinctive character and it is not just African influenced jazz or jazz-tinged African music.

Each of these four albums is different, but they are united in presenting original music that explores the black experience and traditions in the United States.  The William Parker albums explore a very fruitful but perhaps a little neglected part of the tradition, whereas the other three albums draw on other genres of music, but incorporate aspects of those genres into a contemporary reading of jazz. I still prefer to think of them as examples of jazz however far they may move away from jazz traditions, but would be equally happy to see them classified as examples of ‘creative music’.

Thursday Night: Jazz Online

Last night I enjoyed three online sessions, two of them duos which I found very interesting in view of the previous piece on this website.

reubenThe night began at Ronnie Scotts’ London with an excellent quartet led by pianist and vocalist Reuben James with a differently spelt Ruben, Ruben Fox, on tenor sax,  Ferg Ireland on double bass and Troy Miller adding something very special on drums.  There was no audience and this was an intimate performance with Reuben chatting to the camera in a nicely informal way, and a huge number of comments coming in from all over the world.  I have known Reuben since his days as part of the Birmingham Jazz Ensemble and then the Jazzlines Ensemble, and well remember Abram Wilson’s enthusiasm for his playing and the way he took Reuben under his wing.  It was reported that over a thousand people tuned into this session, and Reuben’s growing popularity places him among the ‘new wave’ of young players attracting a new large audience, e.g Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia et al.  Clearly his touring with Sam Smith has played a part, but Reuben is a great performer and a fine pianist.  Interestingly, in contrast to those who draw on urban music and electronics, Reuben quotes Nat King Cole and Ahmad Jamal as influences and names Errol Garner’s Concert By The Sea as his favourite album.  I hear quite a bit of influence from Errol Garner in his playing.

josephine daviesThen it was off from the West End to Dalston and The Vortex to hear a duo with saxophonist Josephine Davies and double bass player Ben Somers.  Actually it was recorded in their home in Hastings, I believe.   This had all the qualities of a good duo; there is a clear rapport, both personally and musically, between the two, and they played a very relaxed, nicely melodic set of their own material.

into the shedI then moved rapidly on to the Mitte district of Berlin and the Club der Polnische Versage, which translates as The Polish Losers Club.  This is where guitarist Ronny Graupe (the one in the middle in the photo) has been running regular duo improv sessions with the name Into The Shed during lockdown, and this session with guitarist and dobro player Christian Kögel  and drummer Hans Otto was the 46th session Ronny has run since just before and during lockdown.  The lockdown seems to easing much more quickly in Germany and these sessions can now have a small audience, 8 in total, I believe.   They are, however, a very enthusiastic group who applaud loudly.

The attraction of these sessions for me is that they introduce a large of number of players in Berlin most of whom I have not heard before.  This one with Kögel and Otto is a case in point, both are new to me,  and I enjoyed getting to know in Kögel an established player on the Berlin scene, and in Otto a young up-and-coming drummer.  They played a very interactive set with Otto responding very effectively to what Kögel was doing.

A final point.  I was interested to hear Reuben James use the metaphor of ‘getting roasted’ when he talked of having enjoyed in early days coming to London and ‘getting roasted by the cats’.  This is a very common metaphor expressing a feeling of having been challenged by the standard of fellow musicians in a given context.  In my experience both students and young players talk all the time of ‘getting roasted’.  This is one of a set of metaphors used in jazz description related to heat, e.g.  ‘hot’ jazz, and descriptions of performances as ‘burning’, steaming’, ‘on fire’   I also enjoy the use of ‘cats’ to describe jazz musicians.  Google tells me that this is because they are ‘out at night, always land on their feet, are resourceful, rely on themselves and are slightly aloof from society’!

The Duo in Jazz and Improvised Music

sara coleman steve banksOne feature of the lockdown period is the way that duo performances have become a significant part of the online virtual offer.  I’m thinking of the excellent duets between Rob Luft and Eleni Duni and also with Alice Zawadzki, then Sara Coleman with Steve Banks, Liam Noble with Fred Thomas, Sarah Farmer with Nick Jurd and Alicia Gardener-Trejo with Andy Woodhead.

There are obvious reasons for the number of duo performances during the lockdown period, but the duo has always played a role in contemporary jazz.  Here I’m taking the term ‘contemporary jazz’ to cover all the related forms of modal jazz, free jazz and improvised music.

There is something special about the duo; it has an intimacy and intensity coming from the need for both players to listen very carefully to what the other player is doing.  In a good duo performance the interaction becomes a musical conversation in which the individual performer listens to the duo partner and reacts to what s/he is doing.  Each member of the duo has the right to take the conversation in a different direction, but it is important that neither performer dominates the interaction.

Below is a list of duo performances that I have really enjoyed; some are historic, others are more recent, but pre-lockdown, and some have appeared recently during the lockdown period and are available on Bandcamp.



This is a very late recording of Coltrane’s not issued until sometime after his death.  I love the way that Ali’s polyrhythmic approach on the drums fits perfectly with Coltrane’s improvisations.  Many people did not get used to Coltrane playing with a drummer other than Elvin Jones.  While I clearly love Jones’ playing with Coltrane and the way on certain tracks they would launch into a sax drum duet, I can also really enjoy Ali’s very different approach.  I always feel that Coltrane in his last years had really absorbed Ali’s rhythmic approach and that on Interstellar Space they kind of do their own thing, knowing that it all fitted together so well.  Have a listen to one of the tracks Jupiter here (with apologies for the adverts!)

DUO EXCHANGE: RASHIED ALI and FRANK LOWE  (Survival Records reissued in 2019)

After Coltranes’ death in 1967 Rashied Ali became a key figure in the New York loft scene.  He and Frank Lowe started their Survival record label with this very impressive duo double album.   Interstellar Space had not actually been released when they recorded these duets, but I suspect that Ali was wanting to capture some of the excitement of that performance with Coltrane to launch their own record label.  Frank Lowe is a member of the group of saxophonists strongly influenced by Coltrane, but has his own voice.


There is a link between and the two previous albums in that when I originally booked Lee Konitz for this concert for Birmingham Jazz at the CBSO Centre in 2009, it was to be a duo with Lee Konitz and Rashied Ali.  Sadly Ali died before the tour could take place and Lee came with Dan Tepfer, a pianist he had been working with on a regular basis in New York.  I found this a memorable duo, again because of the interaction between the two players and also because of the way that Konitz clearly had not given Tepfer a set list, and just went from one tune to another with Tepfer having to pick up where Konitz was going.  I have always preferred to retain the memory of that live concert, rather than buy their album, but they did record Decade on the Verve label in 2018.

Some recent duo performances:


This was a live performance between two players (Berne on alto sax and Waits on drums) who I was surprised but delighted to hear together.  There is a great fluency to Berne’s playing and Waits is with him the whole way.


I like the description of Sharkey’s approach to music as ‘smashing the genre’ rather than playing free jazz (Petter Frost Fadnes: Jazz On The Line).  This is a powerful and exciting duet between Sharkey on guitar and electronics and Hession on drums


Another great duet between guitar/electronics and drums.  It’s an example of Sharkey defying expectations in that one might expect another full-on session with Sanders on drums, but in fact it starts with a gentler and rather contemplative set of improvisations and then goes through a series of arcs building up to a series of mini-climaxes.  It remains totally absorbing throughout.

OLIE BRICE TOM CHALLENGER DUO                      

This was a single track of about 15 mins recorded in support of The Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston London.  It was to be part of a whole album the recording of which has been postponed.  Brice and Challenger have an excellent rapport, both on a personal and on a music level and the interaction between is excellent here.  I love Challenger’s forceful tone and Brice’s reaction to the ways in which Challenger occasionally takes the music in a new direction


This is an online recording with 7 relatively short improvised tracks with Paul Dunmall on various saxophones, clarinet and flute playing with bass player Ashley John Long.  It is a beautiful album, also quite contemplative with Dunmall listening intently to what Long is doing and reacting immediately in brilliant ways.


This recording is very much the product of the lockdown period in that the two parts – by Kit Downes on keys and Dave Smith on drums – were recorded separately and then added to and manipulated afterwards.  The result is a series of three quirky if occasionally over-produced tracks.  Definitely worth hearing though.



I found this having subscribed to Corey Mwamba’s Bandcamp collection; it was recorded in 2013, seemingly at The Vortex.  It was recorded live and there are some beautiful sounds and textures in the interaction between Musson’s tenor saxophone and Mwamba’s vibes.  Also good to hear David Mossman’s voice introducing the duo.


Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Kris Davis have a very similar approach to music and their rapport is very clear on this excellent album.


Another saxophone drums duo with excellent interaction from these two relatively young members of the UK scene.

A final point:  I regard Interstellar Space as the finest duo recording in jazz and have wondered whether it has had a direct or indirect influence on contemporary duos, especially where that duo has saxophone and drums.  A few queries to musicians suggest that it does not have any direct influence, only a possible subliminal influence.

I am grateful to Paul Dunmall, Olie Brice, Tom Challenger and Mark Sanders for conversations that have informed this piece.

Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society Live

IMG_20190429_172705_resized_20190429_052834150Last year I reviewed the studio version of Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society Cd, an extended work for a 9-piece ensemble.  I described the work as ‘truly original and important’.  You can read the review here.

That recording was recorded over a 5-day period and makes extensive use of post-recording techniques that manipulated the sound in certain passages and added electronic effects.  I therefore wondered whether it would be possible to perform the music in a live situation.   I was then interested to learn that it was to be performed in Germany at two festivals, the Donaueschinger Musiktage and the Berlin Jazz Festival.  Again I was intrigued to know how this was to be done, especially as I had the privilege of hearing three of the key players, Christian himself, pianist Kaja Draksler and bass player Petter Eldh discuss plans when they were in Birmingham with their Punkt Vrt Plastik trio.

The answer comes in a new album just released on Christian’s Plaist label.   This is the live version taken mostly from the performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November 2019.  The word ‘mostly’ on the album notes shows that some of it was taken from the earlier performance at Donaueschinger Musiktage.

Although the music on the live Cd is recognisably that of the studio CD, there are a number of radical changes.  There is much less manipulation of sound and the overall effect is of a greater flow and cohesion, and there is more room for improvisation.  The order of the tunes is different so that, for example, the track Aorta which comes second on the studio album and which in my review I describe as having ‘punchy, jerky and constantly shifting rhythms’ which set the mood for the rest of the album is, by contrast, the last track on the live album, and provides a fitting climax to the whole piece.  Interestingly, that track was taken from the Donaueschinger performance.

I find that each album has its own validity.  The live album is probably richer in the way it flows seamlessly from track to track, but the studio album is innovative and intriguing in its use of post-recording production.

It is also interesting to note that the live performances were at Donaueschinger Musiktage and the Berlin Jazz Festival.  These were the locations of a number of performances by Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, the ensemble that was in the forefront of European free jazz in the 1960s and 1970s.   I would suggest that Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society is as important for today’s contemporary music and jazz as the Globe Unity Orchestra was in that earlier period.  Let’s hope that it can continue to perform for as long as Globe Unity has.

Some Reasons For Optimism!

lee-konitz-1548-1587014555-1600x1061There are many reasons for pessimism!  In last month or so I have written five tributes for major figures in jazz who are no longer with us:  Lee Konitz, Henry Grimes, Don Weller, John Cumming, all on this site and one for Keith Tippett, on London Jazz News, see here.   Furthermore, it is clear that UK is some way behind the rest of Europe in dealing with the virus and, while venues in many other European countries are beginning to open up, albeit with restrictions, UK venues are unlikely to be able to open to audiences before 2021.

There are some grounds for optimism.  A number of great albums have come out and on this site I have written about Dinosaur’s latest album to the earth, and the Vicente Brice Sanders album Unnavigable Tributaries.  I have enjoyed the duo album Blood Moon by Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis, which I reviewed for London Jazz News (see here).  I have also really enjoyed Ambrose Akinmusire’s latest On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment and Veryan Weston’s album Crossings with Hannah Marshall and Mark Sanders, the latter reviewed on this site.  I should also mention Misha Mullov-Abbado’s excellent Dream Circus album.

It is, however, the range and the quality of recent online streams that fill me with the most optimism.  I think that many are learning the lessons of early streaming and coming up with streams that combine high musical quality with high production values, that is, good sound and visuals.

zawadzki luftLast Friday Jazz at The Lescar hosted an excellent stream with vocalist Alice Zawadzki and guitarist Rob Luft.  This was in Rob’s flat with just the two of them, but it had the charm that the best of these intimate at home streams can create.  The songs were a mix of international folk songs and jazz, beautifully performed with excellent introductions and great warmth.  This was an event for which you had to pay a virtual entrance fee and it was great to see good numbers of people pay, tune in and, seemingly, stay throughout the event.

Then over the weekend I have been immensely impressed by the virtual festival that Ljubljana Jazz Festival has presented.  The programme curated by Bogdan Benigar and Edin Zubcevic included a number of international artists from Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, USA and Canada as well as a number of Slovenian groups.  All the streams were recorded in advance, the international artists in their own settings, mostly in their music rooms but also in empty venues.  The Slovenian groups recorded on the stage of the Cankarjev Dom venue without an audience.

Kim_Myhr_03_1050x700The duo between guitarist and sound artist Kim Myhr from Norway and Tony Buck, the drummer from The Necks who is based in Berlin, was the stream that impressed me most.  Kim Myhr recorded his part in advance, and sent it to Tony who recorded his drum parts and made sure that the sound and visuals were of a high standard.  And, most importantly, the musical interaction between the two was excellent.  You can access this here.

There were also wonderful solo sets with good musical quality, good sound and visuals, from pianist Brian Marsella, from experimental rock guitarist Ava Mendoza and from Gordon Grdina, the Canadian guitarist and oud player.  There were two sets that featured vocalist and poet Moor Mother, one with the Irreversible Entanglements band she performs, and one solo.  Both these featured footage of urban environments accompanied by a soundtrack.  There was also an enjoyable, if slightly anarchic, stream from the Swiss trio Trio Heinz Hebert from what looked like a rehearsal studio. A set from bass player Caterina Palazzi and visual artist Kanaka, both from Italy, combined sound and visuals very effectively.

I also caught sets by Slovenian groups, Teo Collori in Momento Cigano, Big Band GveriLLaz, Etceteral and Generator. I particularly enjoyed Teo Collori’s group that essentially played music in the style of gypsy jazz, but with a freshness and variety that made it much more than just a repertory band.

The aspect of this online festival that became most apparent is that the informal live streams recorded in artists’ homes, music rooms or rehearsal studios have, provided the sound and visual qualities are good, an intimacy and warmth that really communicate to the audience in a way that concerts streamed from a formal concert hall without an audience somehow cannot.  I do believe that these informal streams will become part of the scene offering something special alongside live concerts with an audience.